A lifelong battle against indifference

Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel urges Queen’s students to prevent future genocides

Elie Wiesel spoke to around 60 students in the Fireside Reading Room at Stauffer Library this past Wednesday evening.
Elie Wiesel spoke to around 60 students in the Fireside Reading Room at Stauffer Library this past Wednesday evening.
Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel
Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his work as a human rights advocate.
Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his work as a human rights advocate.

At first glance, Elie Wiesel looked like a tired, wrinkled old man as he apologized for not being able to
speak any louder.

“My voice is not very strong,” he said.

He couldn’t be more wrong.

As the Nobel laureate spoke to a roomful of student leaders on Wednesday evening in the
Fireside Room of Stauffer Library, his eloquent voice transformed him into a powerful individual. He
survived the horrors of Auschwitz and a forced march to Buchenwald. He has not only lived to tell the
tale, but has lived to retell it as many times as it will take until the world learns from its mistakes.

Born in Sighet, Transylvania, Wiesel was transported to Auschwitz along with the rest of Sighet’s Jewish community in 1944, two weeks before D-Day.

Before disembarking from the cattle cars and being confronted with the now-infamous words Arbeit Macht Frei, or Work Will Make You Free, neither Wiesel nor anyone with him heard about the concentration camps. At Auschwitz, he and his father were separated from his mother and sister; they would never see them again.

Wiesel and his father remained alive, working in the camp until near the end of the war, when they were forced to march through snow to Buchenwald. There, Wiesel’s father died shortly before the camp was liberated.

Upon liberation, Wiesel and numerous other children were taken to a French orphanage where
they bonded and became known as les enfants terribles, or the Boys of Buchenwald.

Wiesel said there was no good or logical reason to explain why he survived the Holocaust.

“I didn’t do anything to survive, I swear to you,” he said. “I was always too weak, I was always
sick. I was the wrong candidate for survival.”

Wiesel said his father Shlomo is partly to thank for his survival.

“As long as my father was alive, I knew I had to live for his sake,” he said. Having survived, Wiesel added, he felt it was his duty to confer a kind of meaning upon his experience by sharing it with the world.

Ten years after liberation in 1945, he wrote Night, which told the story of his Holocaust experiences and would be his first of 47 fiction and non-fiction books. In Night, the first member of Sighet’s Jewish community to realize what’s going on is the beggar, Moishe the Beadle. He tries to tell everyone about the fate planned for them, but no one believes him until it’s too late.

“Today, am I Moishe the Beadle? Sometimes I feel like that,” he said. Wiesel said the best way to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive is to listen to first-hand accounts of its atrocities.

“Listen to survivors—there are still a few here, and we are members of an endangered species,” he said, adding that no one can bear witness to the Holocaust like a survivor. At the same time, Wiesel said, it’s impossible for anyone, even those who did experience it, to comprehend the Holocaust’s enormity.

“The unknown is larger than the known—we cannot understand how come it happened. The more I read, the less I understand,” he said. “What is knowledge, when you know that the subject matter is
one that defies knowledge?”

Every time Wiesel tells his story, he approaches it trembling with fear.

“I don’t speak about it at home—it’s simply too personal, too painful,” he said.

“I don’t teach it because I don’t want the subject, for me, to become a routine: ‘101 Holocaust.’”

Despite the horrors he experienced, Wiesel said he retains his belief in God. “I never really lost it. It’s true that in [Night] I describe moments of anger against God, but I remember afterwards I went
and prayed to him,” he said. “I didn’t divorce God.
“My faith is here, but it’s a wounded faith … Nothing is as pure as a wounded faith.”

Wiesel hasn’t forgiven the Holocaust’s perpetrators.

“Nobody asked me to forgive them,” he said. “I have no right to forgive in the name of others.

“I do not believe in collective guilt … Only the guilty are guilty, and the guilty have not asked for forgiveness.” In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as an advocate for
human rights.

But twenty years later and six decades after the Holocaust, genocide continues.

“Why hasn’t the world learned? I don’t know. I really don’t know. I am frustrated to anger, even to despair, but not to inaction,” he said. “Even though the world has not learned, we must continue to fight.
“I don’t want my past to become your future, and the only way I can do that is to try to spread the word.”

Wiesel said he isn’t willing to waste his time debating Holocaust deniers.

“I try to invest my energy and my time to educate those who want to be educated,” he said. “I really don’t have the patience or time … for those who don’t want to listen. As for deniers, I would never rant them the dignity of the debate.
“It’s impossible: this is the most documented event in recorded history … They ultimately will be shamed into silence.”

Wiesel said stories like his need to beremembered and taken to heart in order to
prevent future genocides.

“Had the world learned … from this story, there would have been no Bosnia, no Rwanda, no Darfur.”

During the Bosnian civil war in the early 1990s, Wiesel went to Bosnia to talk with people affected by the conflict.

“Not one man or one woman finished a story—they began and burst out in tears,” he said. “My duty is to collect their tears and complete the story.”

Wiesel said the biggest obstacle preventing us from ending tragedies like Darfur and Rwanda is indifference.

“Unfortunately … it’s easier to be indifferent; it’s so much easier. You sleep better at night. You can have your meal at night with a clear conscience because you’re indifferent; you don’t care.”
If there’s one word Wiesel hates in this context, it’s “relax.”

“If you relax too much, it will lead you to indifference … Not only a sin, it’s a curse,” he said. “That people are indifferent, that’s bad; when leaders of people are indifferent, it’s even worse.
“The fact is, Rwanda, Darfur, before that, Kosovo … all of these tragedies wouldn’t have happened, but the leaders of the world were indifferent.”

Wiesel told his story again on Wednesday evening to more than 1,000 members of the Queen’s and Kingston community, who crammed into the atrium of Stauffer Library.

“What is indifference? It means no difference,” he told the packed audience. “No difference between good and evil, no difference between beauty and ugliness, no difference between someone who is good
and kind and compassionate and someone who is none of these … Indifference is not what humanity is. Humanity must fight indifference in order to be what it is.”

Wiesel described prisoners in the camps known as muselmen, or individuals who had visibly lost all will to live, and who would be the next selected to go to the crematoria.

“Somebody who didn’t feel pain, who didn’t feel hunger—he was already dead and he didn’t know it. He was the epitome of indifference.”

Wiesel said it was a shock to him, after the war, to discover that virtually all the Allied governments knew about the concentration camps and Hitler’s Final Solution.

“We have not endured what we endured only because of the power of the enemy or the brutality of the killers or the cruelty of the tormentor. Not only that. We have suffered also because of the indifference of the many who knew and didn’t do enough, or sometimes didn’t do anything,” he said. “In ’42, already they knew; in the White House, they knew about Auschwitz … Never was
there an order given to the American army to go liberate the camps.”

As a Jew and a Holocaust survivor, Wiesel sees his role as working to prevent genocides and similar atrocities from recurring.

“I cannot be witness to a humiliation of a person, a group or a country and not protest, at least to say to the person, ‘You are not alone.’ I cannot suffer for another person, but I can be present for that person.

“I believe our task is to bear witness for each other, and I say that anytime anyone needs anyone else to speak for him or her, I must be there.

“I couldn’t join those who killed and say, ‘I am your ally and your spokesman’—I couldn’t.”

Rather than ushering in the peace Wiesel hoped for, the 21st century has instead introduced new and frightening forms of terrorist and nuclear warfare, he said.

“I tell you, my dear young friend, I was convinced, during the last months of the last century, this century will be better than the last. I was so wrong.

“The 20th century was a cursed century … and we thought, finished! Return to peace! And here we are, 2006, and it’s not good.”

Equally frightening, Wiesel said, are new religious extremists that have emerged.

“In every religion today, in every monotheistic religion, there is a new kind of fanaticism.”

Life and Times of Elie Wiesel

Sept. 30, 1928—Elie Wiesel is born in Sighet, Transylvania.

1933—Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany.

1942—All foreign Jews are expelled from Sighet.

Spring 1944—German soldiers enter Sighet, signalling the beginning of anti-Semitic edicts and the creation of ghettos.

Late spring 1944—Liquidation of Sighet ghetto; Jews are transported to Auschwitz;
Elie and Shlomo Wiesel are separated from mother, Sarah and sisters Hilda, Béa and Tzipora.

Winter 1945—Forced march to Buchenwald from Auschwitz.

Jan. 28, 1945—Shlomo Wiesel, Elie’s father, dies.

Apr. 10, 1945—Buchenwald is liberated by American troops; Wiesel is transferred to
French orphanage where he learns French; he’s reunited with sisters Hilda and Béa.

1948—Wiesel moves to Paris to study at the Sorbonne.

1958—Night is published.

1969—Wiesel marries Marion Rose.

1972—Their son is born.

1986—Wiesel is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Sources: Night by Elie Wiesel, http://xroads.virginia.edu/~CAP/HOLO/ELIEBIO.HTM

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