Despair is never an option: Elie Wiesel at Princeton University
Last nightElie Wiesel gave a lecture at Princeton University as part of the Public Lecture Series.
I arrived by 7PM and there were people already waiting in the auditorium. Two friends joined me a couple of minutes later, but by 7:20 the place was nearly full.
Mr. Wiesel arrived promptly at 8PM with Princeton University president Shirley Tilghman. She gave a rather prolonged (5 minutes) introduction, and stated that Mr. Wiesel had spoken against the introduction of intelligent design to be taught along the theory of evolution in Kansas schools, which brought applause from the audience. Finally Mr. Wiesel came to the podium.
He has a wonderful, enthralling, soft-spoken manner and I’ll try my best to do justice to his moving and compelling words by writing down as much as I could. The theme of his lecture was hope.
Mr. Wiesel started by saying that the enemy remains vigilant and sometimes imaginative, and context permits evil by reducing human beings to numbers, and asked, “What can one do when one lives at this time with memory? To forget, impossible. To remember too much, dangerous”. He doesn’t refer to the Holocaust by name, instead, as the events: “The events defy language, defy everything we know because the enemy succeeded in pushing beyond the limit of language”. At that moment he was rudely interrupted by someone in the balcony yelling “louder”, to which he politely smiled and explained he couldn’t speak louder, and that “it’s the story of my life, I speak but I’m not being heard”.
In the 1970s he taught courses at City College, and sometimes students were so stunned they couldn’t leave. Once a student went to his office after class and began sobbing. The student’s father had lost his wife and children at the camps, his mother her husband and children at the camps, and they met at a DP camp. The student explained that he was born from that marriage, and after sobbing for over 10 minutes said, “when they look at me they don’t see me”.
“What do you do with those memories?”, asked EW.
“A choice is always there. After that you can live a hedonistic life and no one would have had a right to criticize”. Instead, he chose not to, “because I suffered I don’t want anyone to suffer”, and chose to work through human rights, education, and philanthropy. There were 400 teens in Buchenwald when it was liberated by the Americans in 1945, and all of them did, too, trying to teach by example how to build on ruins.
He told us he was asked to speak about hope regarding contemporary events. “Where is hope when you see the world hasn’t learned much?” In 1945 he became very optimistic, “I said, there will never be people fighting one another”, and would not have believed that children starving, being killed, later on; he also thought anti-Semitism died in Auschwitz. “Every minute somewhere a child dies of violence, hunger, or disease. How can we accept without protest? Where is hope in all that?”
On December 31, 1999, the world-wide celebrations said good-bye to the 20th century, it was gone, “good riddance, with its two totalitarian ideologies and two world wars, gone. But after that, Bosnia and Darfur; human nature hasn’t changed. If our talks had been received as testimony, I’m convinced it would have changed humanity”.
“We have to fight again and again one fanaticism. Do I have to tell you the dangers of fanaticism? Fanaticism is the enemy of culture, education, and science.” EW used as an example Stalin’s chief scientist, Lysenko, and since Stalin said so, all communist scientists across the world repeated what Lysenko said. “How can culture live when fanaticism dominates the stage and the mind?”
“Fanaticism created the new weapon – terror”.
In his book on Palestine he explained how initially the enemy were the British. “At the end of the 19th century, the terrorism was very nice, nihilistic”. In Petersburg, before it became Leningrad, terrorists decided to kill the Tsar, but on the scheduled day he had his children along and “then the terrorists wouldn’t kill children – today’s terrorists kill children. Some refer to terrorists as Kamikaze [note: for instance, the French media], but the Kamikaze were military who chose military targets, not now. On suicide terrorism, what can you do? In order to kill more people, they die. There is no reason to have hope but I can’t do that”.
“Where is hope?”
The first part of the 20th century was awful, the second part, better; there was the end of communism and apartheid, and neocolonialism and imperialism would disappear. Despair is never an option”.
“A sense of responsibility is needed: humans treating humans as fellow creatures, responsibility with and for one another. Will it all help? I don’t know”
“Learning is important. Whatever the answer will be to the essential questions, education is a major component”. EW recalled how horrified he was to find out that the members of the commandos in the Ukraine that killed (machine gunned) 1.5 million men, women, and children had college degrees, since he always thought education is a shield and an educated person can not do certain things: “I believe in education, culture, and humanity”, and asked, “Did it mean it that it was human to be inhuman?”
“I would like you to thing of what you can do. Whatever happens to one community happens to all communities. Once you know that, possibilities open to you. The solitude of the victim is part of his or her tragedy, abandoned by God and betrayed by his (fellow) creatures of creation”.
When he came to America he was very proud, then he learned of the past, and how a ship of more than 1,000 refugees were turned back by FDR. That was his first disillusionment. “I’ve asked every president, why didn’t the allies bomb the railways (to the concentration camps)? No answer. I believe that I can only attain my humanity through my Jewishness but that should also be true for Catholics and others in their faiths”.
“On 9/11 generosity was shown by the simple inhabitants of the city; tsunamis, New Orleans, the American people have shown generosity to the world”.
EW sees his moral philosophy as a quest for ethical values: “because of this I say to you that despite all the reasons I had to give up, I don’t; to leave God, I don’t”.
He concluded by stating, “There is more to celebrate than to denigrate”.
Questions from the audience:
1. Could you give us a situation that gives you hope?
“When I see any youngster I have no right to despair.
Peace is not a good given by God to human beings, it’s a gift we give one another, same as hope. Only another human being can move you to despair, but only another human being can bring you out of despair”.
2. A student asked for a #1 concrete example n helping that a student can do.
“Organize a petition to the President of the USA to do what he can do morally to help the victims in Darfur. When a person needs, we must give that person an open hand”.
3. Should medical schools teach ethics?
“Ethics should be a part of any education because we must live in an ethical society”.
4. What would be the best way out of Iraq?
“We must bring the international community to commit, Europeans to bring democracy, and must stop that bloodshed.” EW’s glad Saddam’s gone. Now the Iraqis should be sovereign people, but we shouldn’t do things alone. Loneliness is good for poets but not for statement.”
5. What does Israel mean to you?
EW’s totally committed to Israel’s security and survival. He knew when he lived in his little hometown the geography of Jerusalem better than his own hometown’s. “There is hope now”. Three days before the Six Days’ War. Sharon wrote an article titled, I don’t want to survive Israel; after Rabin and Oslo EW felt it was possible, now Sharon recognized the necessity for two states. “It takes a person of the right to implement the policy of the left”. He also explained that while he’s committed to Israel’s survival it doesn’t mean he hates the other side.
6.How did EW keep his faith at the time he was in the [concentration] camps?
EW explained that he came from a very religious background, and chose to stay as such after the camps; a crisis of faith came later. Now it’s different because he has a son that has a son, and he doesn’t want to be the last to maintain traditions. How he managed it while in the camps? While he was inside his father [who died in a concentration camp] got up earlier than the others and would go stand outside to say the blessings. They didn’t have to, it wasn’t safe, but they did it, and if he’d say it then, how can he not say it now? And he mentioned Samuel Becket’s phrase “in desperation”.
7. What does EW think of intelligent design in education and the relationship between intelligent design and fanaticsm?
EW explained that Kansas wanted to teach only ID. EW studies the Bible every day. Fanaticsm can be dangerous, since even Descartes didn’t publish a book for fear fo the Inquisition. EW’s for the opening of the mind.
8. Asked about the importance of religion and faith, and combating anti-Semitism in universities, and intolerance.
EW says universities should not be intolerant, and he prefers respect to tolerance, always by example. Maimonides said that the teacher should respect the student as well. EW also sees respect as a code of conduct; what you must do, do it.
9. What does EW think of the terminology used in the faith based community and how it’s used in politics
EW doesn’t like to mix politics and religion.
The 10th question was asked by a very verbose man who brought up the Holocaust, the Germans, Gulf Wars One and Two, the Crusades, genocide, and massacres, finally asking, what’s to prevent this from happening if the conditions were right?
EW started by stating he doesn’t believe in collective guilt. Only the guilty are guilty.
America’s past is not very clean, with the history of the American Indians and the black community. In 1956 he traveled coast to coast by car with some friends and saw racism at work in the South, shocked to see it was the law of the land. He had never felt shame as a Jew but he felt shame as a white. “But here in America we changed; the law is no longer racist. . . It is possible to do what we do personally.
Memory will save us from repetition.
As long as we remember there can be no other catastrophe as the one we spoke about”.
11. Does he see any parallels between the Nazis and Bush?
“No, absolutely not.
It is totally dishonest to say so, not real, and not true.
EW ended by telling us about a just man who decided to do things for others, and went to the most sinful of cities. He put up posters that said, “remember you’re responsible for one another”, He started shouting. Years later he was still at it, and a child asked him if it was useless. The man explained that “at first I thought that if I shouted long enough I’d change them. Now I don’t want them to change me”.