Accessibility links

Breaking News
What It Takes: Elie Wiesel
please wait

No media source currently available

0:00 0:29:19 0:00

00:00:11 ALICE WINKLER: There were very few Nazi concentration camp survivors who were willing to tell their stories after World War II ended. A decade passed, and then some. They had lived through something that was beyond words, but Elie Wiesel, who had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, knew the stakes were too high for silence. His parents and younger sister had been killed. Six million of his fellow Jews had been killed. He shattered the silence with a slim volume called simply Night.

00:00:48 GEORGE GUIDALL: “I pinched myself. Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this could not be real — a nightmare, perhaps. Soon, I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood with my books.”

00:01:20 “My father's voice tore me from my daydreams. ‘What a shame, a shame that you did not go with your mother. I saw many children your age go with their mothers.’ His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would do to me. He did not wish to see his only son go up in flames.”

00:01:49 “My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times. The world would never tolerate such crimes. ‘The world? The world is not interested in us. Today, everything is possible, even the crematoria.’”

00:02:16 ALICE WINKLER: That excerpt was from the audiobook version of Night, read by actor George Guidall. Here is Elie Wiesel.

00:02:25 ELIE WIESEL: I wrote it not for myself, really. I wrote it for the other survivors who found it difficult to speak, and I wanted really to tell them, "Look, you must speak. As poorly as we can express our feelings, our memories, but we must try." I wrote it for them because the survivors are a kind of most endangered species.

00:02:51 Every day, every day there are funerals, and I felt they were — for a while, they were so neglected, so abandoned, almost humiliated by society after the war.

00:03:06 ALICE WINKLER: Elie Wiesel’s own funeral was just two weeks ago, as I am recording this podcast. The most outspoken witness of the Holocaust is gone, so we knew it was time to take his interview and his speeches out of the Academy of Achievement’s archive to share them with you. This is What It Takes, and I’m Alice Winkler.

00:03:31 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.

00:03:37 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.

00:03:43 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.

00:03:48 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.

00:03:56 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”

00:04:03 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.

00:04:08 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.

00:04:22 ALICE WINKLER: When Elie Wiesel agreed to record an interview with the Academy of Achievement, in 1996, he was very concerned about editing. He asked the interviewer, Irv Drasnin, a couple of times, whether he could see the final version. He did not want the meaning of his words to be changed.

00:04:40 ELIE WIESEL: Words are so important to me, you know. Who knows what — once you take out one sentence, it can — you can distort the whole meaning.

00:04:46 ALICE WINKLER: Of course, in this podcast, I normally do a lot of editing, so I hope I do justice to his words. I will leave them as intact as possible. The excerpts you’ll hear come from several sources: his 1996 interview, a talk and Q&A session with students he gave that same year, as well as two other talks he gave at Academy events in 2003 and 2007. What you will not hear in any of this tape is Elie Wiesel talking about his experiences in a concentration camp.

00:05:21 Those stories, he explained, were literally unspeakable. He could only manage to tell them in writing, and even then, language was not up to the task.

00:05:33 ELIE WIESEL: I used the words simply, "Look, we have to tell the story as best as we can, and we know that we won't succeed." I know I won't succeed. I know I haven't succeeded.

00:05:42 ALICE WINKLER: But where Elie Wiesel did succeed was in forcing the world to confront a hideous reality, and he raised questions about God and man that will never be answered but must keep being asked. Questions, he liked to say, are always far more important than answers.

00:06:09 A few biographical details you should know about Elie Wiesel if you don’t already: He was born in Romania to a Hasidic family. Hasids belong to a particularly pious and spiritual sect of Judaism. At 15, he was taken with his family and his entire community to Auschwitz. He and his father were transferred to Buchenwald, where his father would die. He would never see his mother or his youngest sister, Tziporah, again.

00:06:38 ELIE WIESEL: Well, my childhood, really, was a childhood blessed with love and hope and fate and prayer. I come from a very religious home, and in my little town, I was not the only one who prayed and was loved. There were people who were poorer than us, and yet, in my town, we were considered to be not a wealthy family but well-to-do, which means we weren't hungry.

00:07:10 There were people who were. I spent most of my time talking to God more than to people. He was my partner, my friend, my teacher, my king, my sovereign, and I was so crazily religious that nothing else mattered. Oh, from time to time we had anti-Semitic outbursts.

00:07:41 Twice a year, Christmas and Easter, we were afraid to go out because those nights we used to be beaten up by hoodlums. It didn't matter that much. In a way, I was almost used to that. I saw it as part of nature. It's cold in the winter, it's hot in the summer, and Easter and Christmas you are being beaten up by a few anti-Semitic hoodlums.

00:08:08 And now it is still the child in me that asks the questions. It is still the child in me that I am trying to entertain or to reach with my stories, which are his stories.

00:08:24 ALICE WINKLER: After the war, Elie Wiesel became a journalist and an author, a professor and an advocate for human rights. In 1986, he won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee called him a messenger to mankind, one who had worked for peace, atonement, and human dignity, and not just on behalf of the Jews, but on behalf of all humanity. Interviewer Irv Drasnin asked Wiesel who had influenced him most before the war.

00:08:54 ELIE WIESEL: Well, naturally, my grandfather. He was a Hasid, meaning a member of the Hasidic community, and I loved him. I adored him. So thanks to him I became a Hasid, too, and my mother, who actually continued his tradition, she's the one who brought me to Hasidic masters. And all the stories I tell now — I've written so many books with Hasidic tales. These are not mine. These are theirs, my mother's and my grandfather's.

00:09:27 My father taught me how to reason, how to reach my mind. My soul belonged to my grandfather and my mother, and they enriched me, of course. They influenced me profoundly to this day. When I write, I have the feeling, literally, physically, that one of them is behind my back looking over my shoulder and reading what I'm writing, and I'm terribly afraid of their judgment.

00:09:58 ALICE WINKLER: The books he remembers best were religious: the Bible, the Talmud, Hasidic stories.

00:10:04 ELIE WIESEL: After the war, I began reading, of course. I went to the Sorbonne, and I began reading literature. It was still Dostoevsky and Thomas Mann, the usual, Kafka. I remember the awakening that occurred in me when I read for the first time, Franz Kafka. Literally, I remember it. I remember it was in the evening I began reading it and spent the entire night reading, and in the morning I heard the garbage collector around five o’clock. Usually, I was annoyed at the garbage collector.

00:10:32 It's a very ugly noise that they make, ugly sounds. That morning I was happy. I wanted to run out and embrace them, all these garbage collectors, because they taught me that there was another world than the world of Kafka, which is absurd and desperate and despairing. I read a lot. I teach my students not creative writing but creative reading, and it is still from my childhood.

00:11:01 You take a text, and you explore it. You enter it with all your heart and all your mind, and then you find clues that were left for you, really foredestined to be received by you from centuries ago. Generation after generation there were people who left clues, and you are there to collect them. And at one point, when you understand something that you hadn't understood before, that is a reward.

00:11:27 As a child, really, at age 10, 11, 12, I was writing already, and I wanted to become a writer, and I even wrote a book of commentaries on the Bible. It's so bad. I found it after the war. It's so horrible. I'm embarrassed even to admit that I had written it. My ambition really was, even as a child, to be a writer, a commentator, and a teacher, but a teacher of Talmud.

00:11:52 And here I am. I'm a writer, for want of a better word, and I'm a teacher.

00:12:06 I was 15 when I entered the camp. I was 16 when I left it, and all of a sudden you become an orphan and you have no one. I had two little sisters. I knew that with my mother the first night, they were swept away by fire.

00:12:29 My older sisters I discovered by accident after the war in Paris. I was in an orphanage. But to be an orphan — you can become an orphan at 50. You are still an orphan, and very often, very often I think of my father and my mother, really. At any important moment in my life, they are there thinking, "What an injustice now, really."

00:12:58 To date, I haven't written much about that period. I wrote 40 books. Maybe four or five deal with that period because I cannot — I know that there are no words for it, so all I can try to do is to communicate the incommunicability of the event. And furthermore, I know that even if I found the words, you wouldn't understand. It is not because I cannot explain that you won't understand. It is because you won't understand that I can't explain.

00:13:33 ALICE WINKLER: And yet, he did try to make us all understand as best we could, but even Elie Wiesel waited ten years after the war before he attempted it.

00:13:48 ELIE WIESEL: You know, you can be a silent witness, which means silence itself can become a way of communication. There is so much in silence. There is an archeology of silence. There is a geography of silence. There is a theology of silence. There is a history of silence.

00:14:05 Silence is universal. And you can work within it — and it even has its own parameter and its own context — and make that silence into a testimony. Job, after he lost his children and everything, his fortune and his health — Job, for seven days and seven nights he was silent. And his three friends who came to visit him were also silent. That must have been a powerful silence, a brilliant silence.

00:14:33 Well, you see, silence itself can be testimony. And I was waiting for ten years, really, but it wasn't the intention that — my intention simply was to be sure that the words I would use were the proper words. I was afraid of language.

00:14:48 ALICE WINKLER: It was his friend François Mauriac, a leading French Catholic author and Nobel Prize winner, who pressed him to overcome his fear and find words, even if they were inadequate. Here is another excerpt from the audiobook version of Night, read by actor George Guidall.

00:15:11 GEORGE GUIDALL: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.”

00:15:41 “Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

00:16:30 ALICE WINKLER: It seems remarkable in hindsight, but after Elie Wiesel wrote Night, he could not find a publisher willing to take it.

00:16:38 ELIE WIESEL: In spite of Mauriac, who was the most famous author in Europe — he brought it personally from publisher to publisher — they didn't want it. It was too morbid, they said. "Nobody wants to hear these stories." Finally, a small publisher, who, by the way, was also Beckett's publisher — which means he had courage — and he published it. So we brought it to an American publisher. It went from publisher to publisher to publisher. All of them refused it.

00:17:08 They gave the same reasons, until a small publisher picked it up, and from '60 to '63, three years, it didn't sell 1,500 copies. Nobody wanted to read it. It doesn't matter. I am not here to sell. I'm here to write.

00:17:31 ALICE WINKLER: Over the next 50 years, though, Night did sell, an estimated 100 million copies, and Elie Wiesel went on to become the best known and most eloquent witness to the Holocaust. There are several questions that readers tend to ask him when they get the chance, as they did at the Academy of Achievement events.

00:17:50 NEWMAN NAHAS: Newman Nahas. I’m a Ph.D. student at Oxford. I did religious studies, and now I’m doing philosophy, you’ll be pleased to hear. I was wondering: How do you reconcile for yourself the ubiquity of suffering with your faith in God?

00:18:05 ELIE WIESEL: This is a — of course, a very important question to me, and I imagine to you, too, since you asked it, but in truth, I never really left it. I never divorced God. I have problems with God. I always had, meaning always, since the war. I come from a very religious background, and immediately after the war, when I went to France, to an orphanage, I really became as religious as before.

00:18:34 It’s only after what the psychiatrists call the latency period that I began rebelling, asking questions, and the questions remained open. I did not find any answer. All that I asked then I ask now. In other words, where was He, or, "Where were You? What did You do? How is it possible?" One cannot understand that tragedy with God or without God. There is no answer to it. I can only tell you that I still have faith.

00:19:08 But my faith is wounded. But then there was a great Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman. He said that: “No heart is as whole as a broken heart.” And I paraphrase it: “No faith is as whole as a wounded faith.”

00:19:25 ALICE WINKLER: Another question Elie Wiesel regularly gets asked is how he could possibly have gone on at all after what he endured, even occasionally finding optimism.

00:19:37 ELIE WIESEL: Well, I could answer you and say, "What is the alternative?" But that's not enough. In truth, I have learned something. The enemy wanted to be the one who speaks, and I felt — I still feel — we must see to it that the victim should be the one who speaks and is heard.

00:20:02 And therefore, all my adult life, since I began my life as an author, or as a teacher, I always try to listen to the victim. In other words, if I remain silent, I may help my own soul, but because I do not help other people, I poison my soul. Silence never helps the victim. It only helps the victimizer.

00:20:33 Faith — I think of the killer and I lose all faith, but then I think of the victim, and I am inundated with compassion.

00:20:44 ALICE WINKLER: Elie Wiesel’s compassion extended to victims of war around the world, whether in Darfur or in the former Yugoslavia, and that compassion often led him to travel and bear witness in person, as he did when he went to Bosnia.

00:21:00 ELIE WIESEL: I would go literally from house to house, from tent to tent, speaking to the victims. That’s all my role, to speak to victims. And I listened, and incredibly, not one person completed the story. He or she always — in the middle of the story — burst out in tears. And then I felt maybe this is the role of the writer today, to collect their tears and turn them into a story and perhaps into prayer.

00:21:38 ALICE WINKLER: Elie Wiesel famously said once that indifference is the epitome of evil, and so he took up the cause of Soviet Jews and Miskito Indians, the “disappeared” of Argentina, and Cambodian refugees, on and on. He was really a moral compass for the second half of the 20th century and on into the 21st. The one criticism I could find of him was from people who felt that his ardent defense of Israel blinded him to the suffering of Palestinians.

00:22:12 I’m not sure “ironic” is the right word, but there is something profound about the fact that Elie Wiesel managed to find hope all the days of his adult life by running toward the fire, by opening his heart again and again and again to the victims of man’s most savage acts against man. He spoke quite a bit about hope amidst despair, during a talk he gave at the Academy of Achievement in 2003. It seems like a good place to end.

00:22:42 ELIE WIESEL: My obsession has been lately hope. Where does one find hope in this century? The century just began. What a century it is. After all, remember, all of you who are students: December 31, 1999. It was a great day and a great night. All over the world, people were celebrating — champagne, dancing, laughing. Why?

00:23:12 Because we all had a feeling: “At last, the 20th century is gone. Good-bye.”

00:23:21 That was the feeling we all had because it was a terrible century, a century that had so many maledictions and so many curses, almost unparalleled in history. Why? — Because we had two totalitarian ideologies and two world wars and so many other wars and civil wars and revolutions. Wherever you turned there was despair, at least in the first part of the century, the first half.

00:23:52 Later on, we had other problems. We discovered the deception, the betrayal of any ideal, any human ideal, in the Gulag. Even those who in the beginning had hope for humanity as an option, as the kind of laboratory for good things, for fraternity, for peace — which communism used to be, at least in the very beginning, but turned out to be a prison for all that was good, all that was noble in human aspirations.

00:24:26 So where does one turn? And then we hoped the century will be gone and now we can start all over again, and here we are, almost three years later, and we know that it’s not finished. I think there are dozens and dozens of wars and conflicts, armed conflicts, still going on. Famine has not been vanquished, although it could be. Children still suffer.

00:24:53 Every minute that we speak, literally every minute, somewhere in this world a child dies of disease, of violence, of pain, solitude, hunger. And of course, that is inexcusable, that children should die. Any time a child dies — and here we go with Dostoevsky — it calls into question even God’s existence.

00:25:22 If a child dies, that means something is wrong with creation and perhaps the Creator. And we see now that we didn’t do much. Personally, I feel let down by myself, by my generation. We — some of us at least — we tried immediately after the war to bear witness. That was our motto, that was our work, our philosophy, our moral philosophy, to bear witness. Why?

00:25:50 Because we felt if we bear witness and we tell the tale, certain things will not happen again. Impossible. If we tell the next generations, in plural, where hatred is born, why it comes into life, and where it leads, there will be no more hatred, no more racism, no more anti-Semitism, no more fanaticism.

00:26:20 We were convinced, strangely enough, in 1945 when the war ended — and my generation had all the reasons in the world to be terribly pessimistic and give up on anything and become hedonists. Why not? The hell with it; we paid our dues. Let’s live a life of pleasure and joy. We owe nothing to anyone. Just the opposite — on a very strange level we were very optimistic.

00:26:49 We said history now will go in a different direction, and since it didn’t, I think we feel let down a little bit, and we feel something is wrong. Where do we go? What does one do? What else can one do? I will say it bluntly: if Auschwitz didn’t put an end to anti-Semitism, what will?

00:27:13 If it didn’t put an end to racism, what will? If it didn’t put an end to war, what will? So what else can one do to attain hope? Here I will quote Camus, who is one of my favorite writers and philosophers. Camus, at one point, said, "Where there is no hope, one must invent it." It's almost simplistic what I'm going to tell you, but I think it can have a meaning.

00:27:48 If I think of myself alone, I have the right to despair. If I think of you, I don't.

00:28:03 ALICE WINKLER: Elie Wiesel, survivor, witness, writer, teacher, and humanitarian. He died this year in 2016 at the age of 87.

00:28:15 You heard him speaking here to students at the Academy of Achievement in 1996, 2003, and 2007. There were also excerpts from an Academy interview conducted in 1996. This is What It Takes. I’m Alice Winkler. And be sure to listen to our next episode in two weeks, featuring Sir Roger Bannister, the beloved Olympic runner and the first man to run a mile in under four minutes.

00:28:49 Support for What It Takes comes from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation.


Your opinion

Show comments

What It Takes is a podcast of conversations with well-known people in almost every field. The interviews have been recorded over the past 25 years by the American Academy of Achievement. They offer life stories of people who have had a huge impact on the world. They offer insights you can apply to your own life.