Remembering Past Honoree Elie Wiesel

Remembering Past Honoree Elie Wiesel

Voice  |  May 4, 2019
"I like to think he would have found the words to bring us unity as he and few others could, across geographies and congregations and demographics and political views. And in his absence — we must all try our best to find those words on our own.” — Elisha Weisel

When we reached out to Mr. Wiesel’s son, Elisha Wiesel, for his thoughts on what his father would think of the current state of global anti-Semitism, he said: “I think my father would have been distraught at the degree to which anti-Semitism has seen such a resurgence today, and across the political spectrum.”

“I like to think he would have turned to the divided people we have become, as we argue bitterly over who is more dangerous, white nationalists on the right or anti-Semites masquerading as anti-Zionists on the left. I like to think he would have found the words to bring us unity as he and few others could, across geographies and congregations and demographics and political views. And in his absence—we must all try our best to find those words on our own.”

In anticipation of our 1978 Gala, writer and activist Richard Yaffe sat down with Elie Wiesel for an exclusive interview for our gala edition of the Bnai Zion VOICE. Excerpts from that interview, reproduced below, are as timely now as they were when they were first printed.

On teaching:

“I saw the 100 students, chosen students, and I said to myself, ‘What do they know?’ And my assistant prepared a quiz for them — a simple one: Words, what do they mean? And I was shocked, shocked to the depth, by their ignorance. You can’t believe it. One out of twenty did not know who Eichmann was. Yad Vashem? Most of them said they didn’t know, one of them said it was an American holiday! You can’t believe it. I was so shocked that I decided on the spot to change the whole course and teach text, text, text.”

“I never teach my books. I take documents and, for instance, I take words and teach the metamorphosis of words, the destiny of words; what words do when they grow, what do they do when they die, what do they do when they kill.

“But nothing about the Holocaust. That they have to study themselves. I give them a list, a bibliography. I don’t even examine them on that. An examination, what does it mean? Suppose they know the figures, how many Jews were here, how many Jews were there; suppose they know how many Jews were killed in one day. Would it mean that they know?”

On Holocaust survivors:

“I fear [for] the survivors, because of this avalanche of Holocaust studies, speeches, has become a dehumanizing process.

“It’s too much. It has suddenly become a tool, an instrument, and there is now a rush of books denying that the Holocaust ever did take place. This, while the survivors are still here!

“The survivors; this is the most tragic minority of all. Every day, there is no day without one dying and irreplaceable, the last one of a family, or even a town. And ten years from now there will be ten a day, because of age. It’s a biological process, and so eventually there will be a last one, the very last one.”

On the youth in 1978:

“Twenty years ago, when I came here,” he said, “when you needed the Jewish community, you could not mobilize the masses. Now, we can get 100,000 people for this, 100,000 for that. Something is happening. The young people, the high school children. I remember when I began mobilizing the community about Soviet Jewry, in the beginning they didn’t want to hear about it. The high school children, the college students changed it. They changed the scenery. Now these high school, the college students became older and they themselves are taking over positions of leadership and therefore there is a different mood and a different, and better, viewpoint of Israel.”

“I am biased because I see only the good ones, and those I see are pre-selected — those who come to my lectures and those who come to my classes, those who are really interested. Therefore, I am very optimistic.”

In the face of the resurgence of anti-Semitism we are seeing today, it is natural to despair. But if we are to take any lesson from Elie Wiesel’s words, it would be to have faith in the Jewish community, and especially its young people, to rise up against intolerance and bigotry — and to join that fight with a full heart.