Yesterday, the renowned author and activist Elie Wiesel graced our campus to answer questions and talk about his views on life. Avid audience-member Alexander Pines reports.
At exactly 6:06 pm on Thursday in the Diana Event Oval, and after a few introductory words by Barnard president Debora Spar, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel (pronounced El-ee Vee-sel, as he gently noted) took the stage and the room fell absolutely silent.
It’s difficult to even attempt to use any of my words in place of his, such was the power of his speaking, but I’ll do my best.
Wiesel began his comments with a musing on the question, “Where am I?” In his opinion, people are connected by the fact that we all have the same questions. Addressing the audience, made up mostly of students with a smattering of alums and people from the community, he told us that as we wonder what we’re doing and stress about classes and grades and school, he wonders, “What else can I do that I haven’t done?”
He continued by discussing the dangers of isolation, saying, “God alone is alone. Human beings are not.” This idea was the main focus of his commentary, and he repeatedly insisted that we must never forget that people are inherently all connected. Speaking of his experiences, he noted, “Even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to create light and share it with each other.”
His voice gained another degree of softness when he talked, briefly, about the progression of “what we so poorly call the Holocaust.” While many world leaders and even everyday citizens abroad seemed to have knowledge of what was happening, Wiesel insisted that when, “a few days before D-Day,” he was brought to Auschwitz, he’d never heard of it. As he said, if it was possible that everyone else knew, “How was it possible that we did not know?”
Here, he moved into another of his key points: “indifference is never an option.” Wiesel firmly believes that simply not caring is the worst that one can do – indifference leads to dehumanization, at which point the “enemy” is not only able to commit atrocities, but also “feel good about it.” Along similar lines, he believes that “the greatest sin is humiliation,” and if we can do anything in this world, we should strive to never humiliate our fellow human beings.
Moving on toward his current beliefs, Wiesel noted that for him, the fight against racism starts with the fight against anti-Semitism. “The anti-Semite is, by definition, stupid.” Talking about current questions of the relevance of anti-Semitism, he repeated something he had said at the United Nations. “If Auschwitz didn’t cure the world of anti-Semitism, what will and what can?” After his comments and during the brief interview by President Spar, he mentioned one thing he has asked every American president and general that he’s ever met: did their predecessors know what was happening during the Holocaust? And if so, why didn’t they stop it? Some couldn’t answer, and others just said, “It didn’t really matter that much, they were only Jews.” Wiesel went on to talk about the prayers his village said for important people at temple. They had a special prayer for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man they revered.
The end of his commentary was a reading from a short credo, summing up his current beliefs and describing the way he chooses to live now. “All that I acquire must be shared,” he read. “The enemy of one people is usually the enemy of all peoples.” Despite all that he’s seen words do, Wiesel also “believed in language” throughout his life, opting to think that “it is we who decide whether words are to be turned into poisonous arrows or peace offerings.” When asked how he managed not to become bitter and angry, he said, “What good would it have done if I had become a bitter, angry, hateful man? It’s not our style.” This simple elegance was permeable throughout his speaking, which could probably have gone on for hours without the audience becoming restless.
After his commentary, President Spar returned to the stage and read a handful of questions. When asked what advice he has for a second grade teacher, Wiesel stressed the importance of sensitivity, especially in children. “Insensitivity is almost as disease,” he said before positing that education was the key to a better understanding of how to live in this world. President Spar also asked Wiesel if he believed something with the magnitude of the Holocaust could happen again – especially with several of the victims being unaware for so long – in the age of social media and instant information transfer. He spoke briefly and concluded simply with, “I hope not.”
When asked first about what would happen when the survivors were gone and second about what one should ask the survivors while they’re still here, Wiesel insisted that we listen while we can. He said that in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, most survivors didn’t speak out or tell their stories. “When I began writing, I wrote for them,” he said. “All that we have are words. We must use them.”
The lecture ended at seven, the room now filled with quiet sniffling. As soon as he stood to leave the stage, he was followed by very loud applause and a standing ovation.