Fresh Air Remembers Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor And Nobel Peace Laureate
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and lifelong witness who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, died last weekend in Manhattan. He was 87 years old. Wiesel was born in what was then Romania and was 15 when he and his family were sent from Hungary to the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Poland in 1944.
He was later moved to another camp, Buchenwald, from which he was liberated in 1945. Among his family, only two of his sisters survived the war. Wiesel became one of the first survivors to devote his life to bearing witness to the Holocaust.
His memoir on the subject, "Night," was published in English in 1960. And he wrote and spoke about social injustice ever since. Terry spoke with him in 1988 when his novel "Twilight" was published.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Why have you made it your life work to bear witness?
ELIE WIESEL: What else could one do, having gone through certain events? I believe a human being - if he or she wants to remain human, then he or she must do something with what we have seen, endured, witnessed.
GROSS: You know, I think that it's almost a human instinct to let time dim memories of horror and tragedy. Have you fought that, in a way? Have you tried to keep those memories alive so that you can continue to communicate about them?
WIESEL: Naturally. I mean, naturally, the human being wants to forget pain. In this case, all those - or most of those - who went through the experience during the war - they want to remember more - more and more. It's never enough because we feel that we have to tell the story. And no one can tell the story fully.
GROSS: How often do you find yourself thinking about your experiences in the camps?
WIESEL: Well, I rarely speak about myself. Since you ask, of course, I think about it every day.
GROSS: Are there certain things that will bring up those memories?
WIESEL: Yes. When I see a child who is hungry, I see a person who is humiliated. When I see what is happening all over the world today - the violence - the stupid, arrogant, grotesque violence that is dominating humankind. I cannot not remember that there were other times, of course. I never compare.
GROSS: You once described Auschwitz as the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a meaning with a capital M in history. Do you feel that, nevertheless, you've been really spending your life trying to find some meaning of the Holocaust - some larger meaning that could tell us about man or about God?
WIESEL: Terry, all the questions I had remain open. I really don't believe that I found any answer to any one of the questions I had. I don't know the meaning. I don't know why it happened. I don't know how it happened. I still don't know anything, really.
I'm trying to tell a story. And even the story cannot be told. And therefore, it cannot be communicated. And therefore, people - deep down, I know - won't receive the testimony we are giving. But I know that people do not understand.
GROSS: Well, in fact, I think when you started talking about the Holocaust, you found it very difficult to find people who would listen.
WIESEL: Oh, nobody wanted to listen. My first book, "Night," which appeared in France in '58 - we couldn't find a publisher for it. Finally, we found a very small publisher, a marvelous man, Arthur Wang, who, I think, gave us $50 in advance. And maybe 3,000 copies were printed. I don't think they were sold. Nobody read. People didn't want to listen.
GROSS: I think when you were in the camps, you saw some religious people stop praying and saw people who had not been observant turn to God. You had been very observant and very immersed in the religious texts when you were young before you were deported to the concentration camps. How did your experiences in your survival in the camps change your own experience of religion?
WIESEL: Well, the change, to the extent that it occurred, did not occur there. It's afterwards that the problems became urgent. Inside that universe, we continued praying. We continued believing. We continued affirming. We needed that link with our past. It's only after the war that I began asking questions.
GROSS: Have you gone back to the religious texts that you were reading when you were young?
WIESEL: I never stopped reading or studying. Even inside that universe, I studied. I had a teacher there whose name I never knew and whose face I hardly saw. But he was a teacher, head of a Talmudic school in Galicia. And we worked together. And we studied together. I know it's incredible.
GROSS: This is in the camps?
WIESEL: Inside - in Auschwitz. So we studied. We kept on studying from morning to evening. And after the war, the first thing I wanted was a book - was a Talmudic treatise. I never stopped studying. That probably saved me.
GROSS: After the war, you were supposed to be repatriated and sent back to your home. But you didn't want to go there. Why didn't you want to return?
WIESEL: Because there was no one waiting for me there, unlike the non-Jews, maybe, who were also deported. They could go back to their families, to their home, to their peoples. We had nowhere to go. I knew that my father died. I was there.
I was convinced that my little sister, my mother also perished. I had two older sisters. I didn't know that they survived. So why go back? And therefore, I was together with 400 other young boys, waiting for any country to open its case for us.
Our ideal, really, would have been to go to Palestine. But the British didn't allow us to go to Palestine. De Gaulle heard about our plight. And he invited us to France, so we came to Paris. And therefore, really, I feel very close to French culture and to the French humanism, which occasionally one finds, even in the highest places. And therefore, all of my books have been written in French, including "Twilight."
GROSS: Did you know when you got out of the camps that you wanted to write?
WIESEL: Oh, I knew that I was going to write before I entered the camps. I come from a tradition - from the Jewish tradition, which believes in words, in language, in communication. And already at the age of 12 or 13, I was writing. Of course, it wasn't good. It meant nothing.
But I tried to write. I even found the manuscript when I went back to my hometown. It's not good, but I tried. Afterwards, I knew I would have to bear witness. Everyone who was there is a witness. And everyone who was there is a true witness.
Others who are trying to speak about the subject occasionally are false witnesses. And I felt that I had to be a true witness. And therefore, I decided to wait for 10 years - not to speak about it, not to use language related to these experiences until I knew that the words were true words.
GROSS: Why 10 years? Why not five years? Why not one year? No, seriously, what made you think that 10 years...
WIESEL: I don't know.
GROSS: ...Is what you needed to really know what it was you wanted to say and what words you wanted to say it with?
WIESEL: Well, 10 is a biblical figure, you know. And it's a good figure. Why not? I cannot tell you that I got up one morning and decided that - let's see, is it five or six or seven? It entered my mind - it has to be 10. I decided 10.
GROSS: Did you actually have an anniversary, where, like, the 10th...
GROSS: And that day, you sat down to write.
GROSS: And is that when you started to write "Night"?
WIESEL: I wrote "Night," yes. That's when I wrote "Night," on April 11, 1955, which is 10 years later.
GROSS: And looking back, do you think that this was definitely the right thing to do - to wait those 10 years? In what ways were you changed as a witness and as a writer during those 10 years?
WIESEL: Maybe I didn't change. But the words in me changed. They grew. You know, words have strange destiny, too. They grow. They get old. They die. They come back. Words can be turned into spears. They can be turned into prayers. It's a strange world that you are in. But you deal with words.
GROSS: In one of your essays, you wrote that after the war, you deliberately avoided all contact with Germans and that their presence sickened you physically. Did that change? And if so, what changed that?
WIESEL: It did. But I didn't want to go back to Germany, really. I went once - because I didn't want to judge people. I went once in the early '60s to do a piece for commentary. And I realize that every person I see in the street - I judge him or her, asking, where was he? What did he do? How old is he? Could he have been there?
And I didn't want that role. So I didn't go back. But I did go back last year in '86 - '87. And look, today, you have a young generation of Germans. And I do not believe in collective guilt.
So I have absolutely no problem with the young Germans. I even feel sorry for the young Germans because to be maybe sons or daughters of killers is different than them to be sons and daughters of the victims. And I felt sorry for them. I still do.
GROSS: You said something about bearing false witness before - that you wanted to bear witness because there were others who would bear false witness. And I wonder if you see a lot of examples of false witness around you now. And by that, I mean maybe some of the movies or novels or something that you might think don't ring true, or...
WIESEL: Well, there is too much vulgarization and commercialization and trivialization of the subject. It's much too much. It began years ago. And the wave is rather high. It goes too far. And these, I believe - although the intentions may be good - but these are statements made by false witnesses.
The Holocaust is not a cheap soap opera. The Holocaust is not a romantic novel. It is something else. Now furthermore - that there are even people who totally deny that it existed. Today, you have many, many pseudo-scholars who totally deny that Auschwitz ever existed.
So I believe that faced with the embellishment of the tragedy on one hand and the denial with the tragedy on the other, we who are still here must speak up as forcefully and gently as possible and say, look, this is not the way it was.
GROSS: The generations of survivors are getting older. The older generation of survivors is no longer with us. Are you concerned about what's going to happen after the generations of survivors pass on? Like, who will be around to actually speak the memories?
WIESEL: Oh, I'm profoundly concerned, naturally. In one of my novels, I try to describe that feeling called the last survivor - what it means to be the very last. And I would not want to be that last survivor. But on the other hand, we are leaving a legacy. We are bequeathing a certain message, a certain story.
This tragedy is the most documented tragedy in recorded history. And therefore, later on, if there will be a later on, anyone wishing to know will know where to go for knowledge.
BIANCULLI: Elie Wiesel speaking to Terry Gross in 1988. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate died last weekend at age 87. Coming up, as TV critic, I review the new HBO series "The Night Of." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.