Never Again? Reflections on Interviewing Elie Wiesel in 2007Historians/History
Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall received her Ph.D. in History and Jewish Studies from Stanford University. She is Professor of History at California State University – San Marcos. Thumbnail Image - Elie Wiesel - By Вени Марковски
In 2007, I received an unexpected invitation: interviewing Elie Wiesel for a program at the Carlsbad Library (California). The city has an annual program in which residents discuss a common book; that year, it was Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night. To culminate the program, the city organized a live teleconference with Wiesel before an audience. As a professor of history with expertise in Jewish studies, I was asked to interview Wiesel, using questions submitted by residents.
Elie Wiesel’s death this month prompted me to reflect on this interview (above). The experience was one of the most intense and meaningful of my career. Though I have hosted Holocaust survivors in my classes many times, and grew up with one in my family, talking to Wiesel in 2007 was different; he was both more philosophical and sadder than I expected. The interview was to be 30 minutes, and the library had anticipated that seven questions from library patrons would be enough to fill the time. However, Wiesel was in a melancholy mood, and did not find the pre-submitted questions worthy of much comment. He answered the first two (“What is the one message you want people to take from Night?” and “What is the significance of the title of Night and why did you choose it?”) in less than two minutes.
So, before a live audience, I found myself needing to craft new questions. We ended up having an extraordinary conversation, on a wide range of topics. They included the genocides in Darfur and Rwanda; how citizens in the twenty-first century can avoid being bystanders in the face of injustice; the popularity of Night compared to Wiesel’s other works; and whether humans are intrinsically good. Wiesel also discussed changes in public interest in the Holocaust between the 1950s and the 2000s.
One of the things that struck me most is that Wiesel resisted what many seem to want from survivors: to be inspired by their resilience in the face of atrocity. When Oprah Winfrey interviewed Elie Wiesel in 1993, she seemed to look for the secret of his survival to inspire her viewers. As Wiesel spoke hauntingly about the “kingdom of death” in which he lived at Auschwitz, she shifted gears: “I guess what I really want, what I meant to ask … is: Why do you think you survived?” Later, after hearing horrible detail of his experiences in the camp, she moved again to themes of psychological resilience: “After reading Night… I wondered how could you ever have another happy day? How could you experience joy, how could you … look at the world with laughter again, after seeing babies thrown into a pit?” In 1993, Wiesel was able to give Oprah some uplifting answers. He told her that, after the horrors they had experienced, survivors experienced gratitude more deeply than others (“no one in the world has a sense of gratitude the way we [do]”). He talked about how he was able to enjoy pleasures intensely and to find happiness in simple things like a child’s smile. Wiesel also spoke of the satisfaction that he and his wife derived from helping others around the world. And he added with a smile that, no matter what he had experienced, “I must have faith in the possibility of every human being to remain human, in spite of everything.”
In April 2007, Wiesel no longer seemed as ready to offer inspirational answers. The world seemed bleaker to him then than in 1993. This reflected the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur as well as the Virginia Tech massacre (in which one of the victims was a Holocaust survivor and professor who died shielding his students), which had taken place only three days earlier.
One theme to which Wiesel returned several times was the difficulty of conveying to others what had happened at Auschwitz. Asked about the other books in the Night trilogy (both novels), Wiesel focused on Day (the third book) and its theme of suicide. Wiesel emphasized that, among survivors, writers committed suicide at a much higher rate than those from other professions. Thinking of Primo Levi, whose memoir Survival in Auschwitz always moves my students and who committed suicide in 1987, I asked Wiesel why he thought that was. He answered, “A writer uses words, and when a writer realizes that words are of no help, that somehow no one has ever really translated the experience of the Holocaust – [that] it’s impossible, there are no words – the enemy has succeeded in one area. He pushed his crimes, his atrocities, beyond the imagination and beyond language. And who would feel the tragedy of that situation more than a writer?”
Buchenwald concentration camp, photo taken April 16, 1945, five days after liberation of the camp. Wiesel is in the second row from the bottom, seventh from the left, next to the bunk post.
Later, Wiesel showed further disillusionment with the state of the world. Using one of the pre-submitted questions, I asked, “How has your perspective on your experiences changed since you wrote the book?” Wiesel at first replied, “In substance, it hasn’t changed.” He added that he would write the same book today, even recognizing the inadequacy of his words in conveying the true horror of what happened. However, after some thought, Wiesel appended a note of utter dismay: “At that time, when I wrote it, I thought that if we who went through the experience could tell the tale, it would change the world. And we told the tale - as well as we could, as poorly as we could - but we told the tale. And the world hasn’t changed.”
After he made this statement, silence followed – and a kind of shock. I had been raised on the gospel of “Never Again,” that in listening to survivors and preserving the memory of the Holocaust, we were ensuring that such a tragedy could never recur. Here, Wiesel seemed to say that “Never Again” efforts had failed. I needed to process the bleakness of this comment - and yet I stood before a live audience and had to continue the interview. My awkward response (“Well, we thank you for trying… as much as you can”) was wholly inadequate.
Still, Wiesel was not without hope. He insisted that the first lesson of the Holocaust was the need for individuals in the 21st century to “fight indifference” and avoid being bystanders. He lamented: “We were victims not only of the killers’ intent and the killers’ practice, but also … of the indifference of those who knew and didn’t stop the killers from killing.” He added that what happened in Rwanda “was a mark of shame on any conscience…. Because we could have saved from 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children, and we didn’t. And we knew everything….” He insisted that this failure made speaking up for persecuted peoples in Darfur and elsewhere even more crucial.
Wiesel also showed some unexpected flashes of humor. When asked about Night’s increasing popularity since Oprah had selected it for her Book Club, Wiesel quipped that his other books were feeling jealous of Night’s success; he added that he empathized with them. After he expressed admiration for the French priest Henri Grégoire (the eighteenth-century Catholic defender of Jews who was the subject of my first book), I told Wiesel lightheartedly that I had occasional imaginary conversations with Grégoire and would pass along his thoughts. Wiesel responded with a chuckle, “Well, wherever he is, tell him to read Night.”
Though Wiesel is no longer here to speak to audiences in person, Night – and his dozens of other works – will live on without him, eloquent vestiges of his deeply philosophical morality. I hope that the interview will help future generations understand the passion – and doubt – that consumed Wiesel, as he sought to protect those around the world from the twin scourges of brutality and indifference.
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