#45: Elie Wiesel 1998
The Ancient Masters, July 17, 2019
Elie Wiesel, the author of over 60 books, once said, “I love the prophets because of their involvement in society. Prophets never, never took the side of power, they always opposed power.” Today, Elie Wiesel reflects on the “Ancient Masters” and our responsibility to remember.
- Elie Wiesel, Night
- Samuel Beckett,
- Waiting for Godot
- Malone meurt
Scott Hoezee (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
Elie Wiesel once said, “I love the prophets because of their involvement in society. Prophets never, never took the side of power, they always opposed power.” Today, Elie Wiesel reflects on the “Ancient Masters.”
My name is Scott Hoezee, and I teach at Calvin Theological Seminary, direct the Center for Excellence in Preaching, and chair the advisory group for the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
On this episode of Rewrite Radio, we go back to the first night of Festival 1998 and Nobel-prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel, who offers powerful and prophetic words as applicable today as they were then.
The author of over 60 books, Elie Wiesel was born in what is now Romania. At 15, he was deported to Auschwitz. By the time of liberation in 1945, Wiesel had lost his mother, his father, and his younger sister. After the war, he became a journalist and out of an interview, he was persuaded to write what would become his memoir, Night—now translated into more than 30 languages. Wiesel went on to a much-lauded career as a writer, professor, and humanitarian. In 1978, President Carter named Wiesel as chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, and in 1980, Wiesel was the Founding Chairman of the US Holocaust Memorial Council. Together with his wife, he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.
His works included fiction and non-fiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem, The Testament, The Fifth Son, All Rivers Run to the Sea, and The Sea is Never Too Full. For his literary and human rights activities, he has received numerous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986, Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace. He died in 2016.
Here, from 1998, is Elie Wiesel, introduced by Gary Schmidt.
Gary Schmidt: [00:03:14] Good evening. Once upon a time, there was a king who knew that the next harvest would be cursed. Whosoever would eat from it would go mad. And so he ordered an enormous granary built and stored there all that remained from the last crop. He entrusted the key to his friend. This is what he told him, “When my subjects and their king will have been struck with madness, yo alone may enter the storehouse and eat uncontaminated food. Thus, you will escape the malediction. But in exchange, your mission will be to cover the earth, going from country to country, from town to town, from one street to another, from one man to another, telling tales. Ours. And you will shout, you will shout with all your might, for the love of God, good people, for the love of God. Do not forget: what is at stake is your life, what is at stake is your survival. Do not forget, do not forget.”
I tell you this story from the work of Elie Wiesel to suggest why it is over two thousand people have gathered here tonight. We gather to hear a man of extraordinary accomplishment. We gather to hear the author of dozens of books, books such as Night, Dawn, and Day. Books whose searing images and voice have defined for many of us the meaning of the Holocaust. We gather to hear the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Freedom Cup Award, the Profiles of Courage Award, the Human Rights Law Award, the American Liberties Medallion, and many others that could be listed. We gather to hear the chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and no one who has been to that memorial has been unaffected by this man's life. We gather to hear a witness.
The Nobel Prize Committee called him a "messenger to mankind." His is one of the prophetic voices of the century, and we have gathered here to night, above all things, to be reminded by that prophetic voice. In the midst of pain that can murder a faith, we are reminded of our own need to be human. "What is at stake is your life. What is at stake is your survival. Do not forget. Do not forget."
Ladies and gentlemen, Elie Wiesel. [applause]
Elie Wiesel: [00:06:58] Mr. President, Dr. Schmidt, fellow writers, distinguished members of the faculties, students, friends. Topic that you are dealing with, of course, is close to my heart. It deals with faith, and it deals with writing. Is there a combination between the two? Is there a conflict between the two? Does one exclude the other? Does one necessarily, inevitably, confirm the other? Of course, because we live in a certain age and because of our own experiences, there are certain problems that are uniquely our own. You were right, both of you who begin, that you will become famous, hopefully, or not, and you will face very strange situations.
And I will tell you a story, a funny story that happened to me on my way to Calvin College. [laughter] It happened actually a few weeks ago, I was walking in New York, in the street, thinking about probably the next lecture that I was supposed to give, and a very beautiful young woman, I saw her come across. She was so beautiful, and she smiled at me, I was proud. She wasn't alone, what can I do? [laughter] And then I heard her say to her boyfriend, or her friend or her husband, "I think," she says, "it's Elie Wiesel." Then I felt proud: she recognized me at least. But then, he said, "Are you sure?" So she ran back, looked at me, [laughter] went back to her boyfriend, and said, "It's not him." [laughter]
As a writer, what do you do then? [laughter] Only one thing. You make a story out of it. [laughter] This is what writers do. This is what people do. You will make stories of things that happen to you and things that don't and should. [laughter] Now, in truth, the question is a very important question: If it's not me, who is it? [laughter] Even more important, if it's not me, who am I? [laughter] But that, of course, is a subject for philosophers and theologians: who am I? Obviously, this is the question that accompanies us from birth to death. We always want to know who we are, and we hope that we are authentically who we are, which means I do not want to live someone else's life, I want to live my own life, and I would like to fulfill it simply because of what I am, of what I want to be.
So, in a few words just to preliminary remark, I hope all of you know that I am a son of the Jewish people, I consider myself therefore Jewish, just as you consider yourself whatever you are, Calvinists or Catholics or Buddhists or Muslims. From within your tradition, you would like to be a total human being, as I want to be from within my tradition. A total human being: it means I am Jewish in whatever I'm doing.
That means that I do not believe, and in my adult life I never believed, that to be Jewish is to say that the Jewish people are superior to every other people, or inferior. I do not believe that the Jewish religion is superior to other religions, or inferior. I believe, simply, that because I am Jewish, it is for me the only way to live my life, honestly, intellectually, and religiously, if I am religious, and I am. It is the only way for me to give something to those who are not.
But that statement can be made by anyone who is not Jewish: the Catholic, the Protestant, the Buddhist, the Muslim, or the Agnostic, or even the Atheist. The only prerequisite should be, therefore, what we call, for lack of a better word, tolerance. It means I am supposed to believe that you have exactly the same right to say what I am saying for yourselves. Except, I don't like the word "tolerance." I used to, because I don't like the opposite, intolerance. But nevertheless, "tolerance," as you know from your English literature studies, has a connotation of condescendence, "I tolerate pain, I tolerate fatigue, I tolerate dissent." No, I prefer the word "respect." Absolutely. I like the word "respect."
So at the basis, we must always say there should be respect. As writers we must respect other writers, which is rare. [laughter] As respect, we must surely respect our inspiration—we all need inspiration for our writing. As writers, we must respect our readers, just as we are told, the great philosopher Maimonides said that masters are duty bound to respect their disciples, just as disciples are duty bound to respect their masters.
So if the title has been given to me, what ancient masters can teach our generation is precisely that, respect. We must respect the topic, the subject matter, we must respect those who deal with the same topic and the same subject matter, and therefore for instance, I love libraries, not only because there are books in the libraries, and what would I do if there were not libraries, but in the library, opponents who during their life would fight fiercely with one another, now they live in peace on the bookshelf. [laughter] But they talk to one another, they still talk to one another, and they will talk to one another until the end of all times.
Now, I would like to tell you something which to you at Calvin College I think may be important. My inspiration in writing comes of course from many sources. The most secular sources is what I studied when I was at the Sorbonne in Paris, and which I began studying and continue to this day, from other writers, which means Socrates, Plato for me is very important. It is the literature, Dostoevsky, Kafka, the usual, Thomas Mann.
But mainly, my influence comes from origin sources, from the Bible and it's commentaries. This is what I studied when I was young, from my childhood on. And I never stopped studying: I still continue studying these texts literally every single day. And I get from them so much.
Let me give you an example: I just told you the first anecdote, which is a true anecdote, about who am I. Now, what is the first question in the Bible? All of you have studied, I am told by your president, all of you have studied the Bible. What is the first question in the Bible? Logically, it should be Adam saying many things, "God, who are you?" or "Who am I?" or at least he could say, "Why? Why did you create me?" or he could say, "This is my wife?" [laughter]
But it ain't so. The first question is God who is asking. When is he asking? Whom is he asking? Adam fled from God's sight, and in the Bible, in the first chapters of Genesis, God says to him, the Hebrew word is so beautiful, "Aiyekkah? Where are you? Where art thou?"
Now, in the nineteenth century a very great Hasidic master, the founder of the school of Lubavitch it was called, the author of the Tanya, a famous book of philosophy, and he was in jail in Petersburg. It so happens that the warden of that jail was a biblical scholar. He heard that he had the famous rabbi as a prisoner, an inmate. He came to see this this rabbi, "I would like to speak to you about the Bible." He said, "What is it?" He said, "I have a question." "Go ahead." He said, "It's written in the Bible that God asked Adam, 'Where are you?' Is it conceivable that God didn't know where Adam was?" And he said, "Oh, God knew. Adam did not." [laughter]
Isn't this something just so relevant to our generation, to all generations, especially to ours? Where are we? Do we know where we are? We go everywhere, and we don't know where we are. And wherever we go, we go really fast. We go to the moon, we go to space, we go deep in the ocean, we are everywhere except where we are not. [laughter] And we want to be everywhere, fast. We don't even know why. What are we doing in space? Believe me, I don't know. [laughter]
What is it that we know so much about outer space and we don't know what is happening in the heart of our neighbor. So where are we? Where are we not only in history, where are we in our life? Where am I now in my life? What am I doing with it?
Here I would say, of course, that I believe that I can define myself not in relation to myself, but in relation to you. Which means I need what we say the Other—Leibniz would say the Other—I need the Other to know who I am. Therefore, Descartes was wrong, but he said, "I think, therefore I am." No. You are, therefore I am. I am because you are. Which means if I can define my relationship to you, then I can somehow find a way to myself. The only way for me to redeem myself is through you.
I would even say the only way from me to God is through you. The bridge between the individual and God is through the other person, whoever that other person is, it is the Other person. Which means I am where you are.
Second, we have so many great stories in the Bible, you know, that sometimes as a writer I have written so many books, and King Solomon, who wrote the Ecclesiastes, he said at the end of the Ecclesiastes, he said that the last curse will be there will be too many books. He was so clever. [laughter] But why he was so clever, he was called the wisest of all kings and yet we know that he had a thousand wives. [laughter] Maybe it was easier to have a thousand than one, but the wisest of all kings, he had a thousand... Well.
Listen, the next story in the Bible is about what? It is about Adam and Eve are married, and the commentary is already beautiful, there is a wedding in Heaven and God performs the ceremony, then they have children, Cain and Abel. The most horrible, the most terrifying story of the Bible is that Cain and Abel—two brothers, that's all—the whole world has four human beings, Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. And what happens? Cain and Abel, because of something that they did, Cain killed Abel.
[00:20:06] Now, first of all, where were the parents? Weren't they supposed to educate their children? Why couldn't they say—I know of course Cain and Abel were quarreling because Abel brought the offerings to God which God excepted, Cain brought which wasn't accepted—okay, they're quarreling. Brothers quarrel, we know that. But they didn't. Why didn't they say the parents, “Children, I have a headache, stop it.” [laughter] They could have said that and stopped the whole business.
Cain killed Abel. Why? What is it there to teach us? And of course we know what it is teaching us because the history of humankind, the recorded history to this day is what is happening between Cain and Abel. That brothers—brothers!—can become enemies of one another and one becoming the victim and/or the assassin of the other.
But more important is the lesson that we don't remember, that whoever kills, kills his brother. And then we have all the stories that any novelist—novelists should know, those of you who are writing novels or want to write novels, there are very few topics in literature. Very few old topics. How many tragedies of Romeo and Juliet can there be? And how many tragedies written by Sophocles can be rewritten by others? There are very few. But they all are in the Bible.
Next would be for instance something which always, always troubles me, still troubles me. It's Abram and Isaac. Abram and Isaac, Abram after all our forefather, right? And Isaac his son. Abraham was never home: he was a statesman, he was God's politician, he was traveling all over the world fighting with kings, converting nations. I imagine Isaac the son feeling frustrated. He wanted some, as we call today, a bonding experience with his father. [laughter] But his father was never home. So Isaac was Sarah's son and he was waiting for the opportunity, one day he wants to be alone with his father, finally the day comes.
The day arrives and Abraham wakes him up in the morning, and it's clear, the Talmud says, that while Sarah was asleep, because Sarah would never have allowed her son to go and do what. So, Isaac is happy, he's going to be alone with his father, and for three days and three nights they are alone. They don't talk, except a few words. And all of a sudden, Isaac sees himself bound to the altar, with his father with the knife in his hand.
So I imagine Isaac must be the most tragic character in the Bible, the most tragic character. Being traumatized by what he saw, his father with the knife. And by the way Rembrandt, who is also fascinated with this scene, with this subject, I went to Amsterdam just to see Rembrandt's work on Abram and Isaac, and it's very interesting. His drawings, which are preparation for the final picture, the drawings go through a certain metamorphosis, an evolution: first you see Isaac, poor Isaac on the altar and Abram with a fierce, savage look in his eyes, with the knife in his hand. Slowly, slowly, the expression of the father becomes softer, and at the end, the last drawing, which is the picture, the knife is on the ground and father and son embrace.
Yes, but what about before? So you see, stories about this in the Bible are so many. About any other situation. Take, for instance, the story of Sodom. Take Noah, before that, Noah. Noah, Uncle Noah, Uncle Noah who is in the Bible is said to be a righteous man, a good man, everything, and then God decides to destroy the world. And he tells Noah, "Build an ark." I must tell you, I don't like Noah because he's too complacent: whatever God says, he does. [laughter] God says, "Build an ark"—he builds an ark. God says, "Bring everyone in the ark"—everybody. Forty days, afterwards God says, "Leave the ark"—he leaves the ark.
[00:25:25] Really, why didn't he argue with God? God is there to be argued with, at least in my tradition. [laughter] God says, "Go," he should say, "Why?" [laughter] In my tradition, believe me, it's perfectly valid. If he were to say, "Mr. God, what are you doing? You are angry with the world, what about the children? They are innocent." He didn't argue, so I don't like him. [laughter]
There is only one thing which goes to his defense. God, cleverly, gave him a private circus on the ark. [laughter] All the animals were there he presented. He was so busy with the animals that he goes, "A circus? What are you thinking about a circus?" [laughter] But the world was destroyed.
Then Noah leaves the ark. What does he do? He brings an offering to God, the least he can do. After all, he survives the greatest cataclysm in history, and then he plants a vineyard. Then, we are told, God shows him the rainbow. At that time it had no political connotation. [laughter] And God says to him, "I promise you I will never destroy the world with floods." When I read it, I felt happy. I can sleep quietly. God said so.
But, you know, to read an ancient text is to reread the ancient text. You must resist the text. Once you resist the text, you realize there are problems with it. God says, "I will not destroy with floods"? Why this little bit of floods? Why not, "I promise you I will not destroy the world?" Now we know, after all, that the world may be destroyed not with water, but with fire, the nuclear fire. Why didn't God say that?
But then I understood something else. God said, "I will not destroy the world." Which means if the world is to be destroyed, it's because you will destroy it. That is a warning and that is the lesson for all times, and especially for ours. In other words, we are responsible for our work, and that goes for writers even more so. Writers are teachers, writers are creators.
In the writer's creation there must be some ethical dimension saying that whoever will read this story somehow will be affected by it, and somehow the reader will become closer to another reader and to other people who have not read—after all, how many people can read the same stuff—but there must be an ethical dimension. There must be a sense of responsibility. I would go very far and I will tell you that I feel responsible, not only for what I write, but also for the way you interpret my writing. And if you interpret my writing in a way which I don't like, it's my fault, not yours. I should have done better. I feel responsible and responsibility goes very far.
Now, problems. Of course we have problems. When I say human responsibility and morality, what about those writers who are irresponsible for writing? We may say art is a way is rebellion. Henry Monroe, the great French novelist, said that art is a way of correcting injustices. Maybe that goes for painting, for sculpture, for literature, for music. We want to correct the injustice. The painter says to God, "This is the way you do it? No, I prefer like this and I show you my way." So, okay.
What about those, therefore, who believe that to be a writer means not to be responsible but to be irresponsible, which means to go against authority, always against the establishment, against certainties, against what has already been established, accepted, and received as a total commandment that cannot be changed. Why not? It's possible. Many writers are rebels and should be rebels. Now, is it always good? Of course. We can never make generalities and we can never say generalizations. But the fact is, one thing should be always a component, the ethical component. That I am doing it to improve the human condition.
[00:30:30] And in this case again we've placed ourselves in the footsteps, or in the context of prophetic writing. I'm a great reader of the prophets, I love the prophets. I love them because of their involvement in society. Prophet never, never, took the side of power. They always oppose power. Prophets never, never took the side of the wealthy. They took the side of the poor, of the dispossessed, of the sick, of the children, of the orphans, of the widows. The prophets were there to be present to people who had no one to help them when they needed help—no one—who needed a presence. The prophet was the presence.
Furthermore, their language. My god, you read Isaiah. Isaiah was called the prince of the prophets because not only was he of the royal family, but his style is a royal style, princely style. You read Jeremiah, the only prophet who had foreseen the tragedy, who lived the tragedy, and told the story of the tragedy. The greatness of Jeremiah.
Now, they were all political personalities, but what remained? Not their politics, their poetry. Poetry is stronger than politics. Their poetry is what made them immortal. And so, of course, we think of them as examples, as role models you would say today.
What about great writer who were, frankly, bad human beings, evil people? Take, for instance, in France we had a novelist Céline, Louis-Ferdinand Auguste Destouches Céline. He, in the Thirties, stunned the French literary world with a novel called, Voyage to the End of Night. It's a great novel. Horrible, but great. Great because he invented a new cadence, a new style.
And yet that man was a vicious racist, a vicious anti-Semite, so how's it possible? How can I combine the word "racist" with the word "great"? I, naively, would believe that a great writer, or a great artist, or a great human being, or a great politician, cannot be a racist. Racism is stupid. Racism makes people stupid—not only ugly, but stupid—to say that some people are superior or inferior because of the color of their skin, or their faith, or their racial origin, or their ethnic origin—it is stupid. He was a great writer and a horrible anti-Semite.
In America we had a great poet, Ezra Pound. Again, very great Cantos, I heard. You know, Pound was in Italy during the war, he made broadcasts against America, against his own country, for racism. After the war he was saved only because his friends intervened and they declared him somehow insane. But how is that possible?
Well, maybe we should say that the exception confirms the rule. As a rule, I will believe that the ethical dimension is important. We have seen it in two areas. When Communism became the state religion in Russia, great literature disappeared. The Dostoyevskys were dead, Tolstoys were dead, and those who were Communists gave very bad literature. It was political literature, it had nothing to do with greatness, just political ideas. Frankly, you read them today you realize it's unworthy of your time even, it's so bad. And that is a consolation for us, that means you cannot write great poetry, you cannot write great literature, in such a situation. When you are a Communist, which means you are actually substituting the full perception of truth to truth.
[00:35:27] And the same thing was in Germany when the great writers left Germany and exiled themselves to America or to Europe before Europe was occupied, or to Palestine, which later became Israel. In other words, literature cannot live in peace with dictatorship and with a religion of hate.
Is it true, always has been, except under regimes of dictatorship, there was great literature, but they were all clandestine. All were clandestine. Why, that's when they had to rebel against. But it meant a lot to write something true, and there you will see the real greatness of literature meant life and death, to have written a line that displeased the ruler meant not only imprisonment but death. Strangely enough, you may turn it around and say, "Look how happy those people are. Those dictators took literature seriously, to the point that they would kill the author for writing something." In America, what could happen to you, or in Norway, or anywhere? At worst, you get a bad review. [laughter] Alright, you'll survive it.
But in Russia, under Stalin, immediately to jail. And not only that: you know, Stalin would call up at night, because he always called up at night, he would call up night, once he did call up Boris Pasternak. You know the one who wrote Doctor Zhivago, got a Nobel Prize. Stalin called him up and said, "What do you think of Osip Mandelstam," who was a very great poet. Very great poet. And he was afraid, he didn't know what to say. Maybe Stalin doesn't like Mandelstam, so we would endanger himself, so he somehow said half yes, half no. No, Mandelstam never forgave him for that.
But the fact is Stalin used to call people who wrote because he read their poetry. Their poetry was so great that the Samizdat made them more famous than all the famous people in the world. There is a marvelous story about the same Pasternak. Pasternak was a great translator, that's how he made his living, but he also wrote poetry, but in Samizdat, clandestinely. And the story is a true story again, that once he had a public reading and he read from the stage his own poetry. And at one point he had to blink. He forgot a line. At which point, three thousand people whispered the line. [laughter] Now, what does it really mean? It means that whatever you do, when you are a writer, you should know that there are always three thousand people potential readers who will remember the line that you forget.
And here we touch on an important element in writing, and the element is memory. You, in order to write, must remember. Not only remember what happened to you, but what happened to others who are your contemporaries or your peers, or even those who lived centuries and centuries before you. The other word for it is simply the envelopment of memory. Memory must be inclusive rather than exclusive. But it's not easy. What about the events that you forgot? What about events that history does not record? We didn't have CNN everywhere. [laughter] There were certain events that developed, that occurred without any survivor being there to tell the tale.
You know, in the book of Job, which is I think is one of the greatest book really, book of Job, there is at the beginning, you remember, Job and Mrs. Job—after all, we forget that he had a wife—my complaint about Job is that whatever happened to him happened to her. His children were lost—they were her childrens, too. His fortune was taken away—it was hers, too. Everything, and yet the book is about him, not her. Where was she, Mrs. Job? And I wanted to write—
[00:40:24] I gave lessons on Job, a friend of mine on French television. Only in France we can do that on primetime. Sunday evening we gave, every Sunday, lectures on Job, the book of Job, and once I said that, I said, "I would like somebody to write a book on Mrs. Job." And you know, two or three years ago I got a book and a letter from a Lebanese poetess, and she sent me the book. She said, "I heard your request, and here is the book." She wrote the book about Mrs. Job.
But anyway, the book of Job at the beginning is what? They were sitting at the table, having dinner, and a messenger came and said, "I was with your oldest son and he had a party and the roof fell down. I alone escaped to come and tell the tale." Hardly had he finished, another one came. "And I was with your other son, with his shepherds. They all were killed. I alone escaped to come and tell the tale." It goes on and on. It's very beautiful because they all had the same line: "I alone escaped to come and tell the tale."
And people that think this is a tragedy. This is also comfort. There was somebody to tell the tale. What about all the events that are not told because nobody was there to tell the tale? What about books about forgotten? We know that Isaiah wrote a biography of King Ezekias—lost, we don't know where it is. I cannot tell you how sorry I am. I so want to see how he developed biography, Isaiah.
Euripides, you study Euripides. He's great, plays, but tell me, do you know how many plays of his were lost? Where are they? However, I believe that even if they are lost in history, they remain in memory. It's my mystical belief that memory is stronger than history, that somehow it's here. And who knows, maybe one day we will know even what we don't know now.
An example: In Jerusalem, The Hebrew University, years and years ago there was a professor who taught the Apocrypha, you know the books of Apocrypha. They are very beautiful, they are like the Ecclesiastes, they are like the Proverbs, they are very beautiful, and yet they were not included in the canon. Why weren't they included? The reason is, if you study them well, it's because they have no way out. It's total despair. And those sages who composed the canon, didn't want to give the reader such a despairing book. Only for that reason; otherwise they are so beautiful poetically, philosophically, that they deserve to be in the canon. Too despairing.
So this professor was teaching one of the books, I think it was Ben Sira or Baruch Four, and at one point he says to his students, you see, what he thought should be the three missing lines. Many years later, in the manuscript, that scrolls of Qumran, they discovered many, many manuscripts, including that one. And when the manuscripts were decoded, they found the three missing lines. If ever I was envious of a professor, that's when I was envious. [laughter] So who knows? Maybe those stories too, remembered in our hidden scrolls, if we want to remember.
And here of course we come to a subject which is topical and so close to us and so difficult. I have written many books, more than forty. Very few deal with what I consider to be the most tragic chapter, not only in my people's history, but in human history, because I also believe that whatever happens to one people affects all others. We cannot say that human beings now are islands: they never were. Whatever happens to one community affects all communities. If one is persecuted, all suffer. If one is humiliated, all feel the pain and the anguish. And so I feel the tragedy that stuck my people of course struck humankind.
[00:45:22] I have written little about it because I felt—I still feel—that I lack the language. There comes a moment when there is no language. And I have no language for it. Those of you who are kind enough to read my first text Night know I was waiting ten years before I thought I could find the words. And that night when I wrote the first manuscript, it had 864 pages, and I began condensing and condensing. And as you know, it came down to 120 or something. Why? I didn't want to use the wrong words. I feel that somehow in this case the enemy, who is the enemy of all our peoples, the enemy managed to push, to push. He's experienced, his evil experienced to the limit of language and beyond and therefore he deprived us of the words to describe what he has done to us, and we needed new words.
You know, I spoke to the great human poetess Nelly Sachs. She got the Nobel prize together with Agnon in 1966. She wrote in German, she escaped from Berlin to Stockholm at the beginning of the war. And she told me, she said that at one point she couldn't use her language because every word meant something else. As a result, very few people know that she needed therapy. She entered an institution where she was treated for mental disease. Everything was broken down, she had no words, and yet she wrote poems, "Eli," "O The Chimneys," great poems.
Paul Celan, another German poet. Yiddish Jewish poet from Romania who lived in France, committed suicide. Strangely enough, those of you who study or who write and who will write, you should know that, that of all the social spheres that vanished in what we called Sopulli, the Holocaust, one category suffered more than all: that was the writers. More writers committed suicide than musicians, professors of philosophy or business or economy, so anything writer. Why writers? And I have known some.
And it bothered me, it troubled me, it anguished me for so long that finally I found a student of mine and she did her doctoral dissertation under my direction about eight writers who committed suicide. Primo Levi, for instance. All of you have read Primo Levi, right? Primo Levi and I were very close friends. We were in the same camp in the same barracks, except he was older and he was a very respected chemist, and I was nothing. But when we met after the war we reconstructed everything and our conversations were always fascinating, pained, because the only disagreement we had, actually the major disagreement, we had two, the major disagreement was about God. He was an agnostic and therefore for him God was not the problem. He mentioned it a few times, but not really. He mentions only my discussions with him. For me God is a problem. I still don't understand God's place in all that. In one of my plays I have one character saying only one thing, "And God in all that, and God in all that."
Again, I repeat to you, my good friends from Calvin College, you should know that my religion allows me to say that because I only follow in the footsteps of my predecessors. Moses said it, Abraham said it, in the Talmud it's full of these things. We will say these things. We may say it if we do it on behalf of historiation. I may say to God, "God, creator of the world, on behalf of your world, I must ask you this question." It's God's prerogative not to answer me, which he doesn't answer. Or maybe he does and I don't understand his language. By the way, I mean it seriously, it's also possible. But the fact is I may ask this question.
[00:50:34] Primo Levi, he said God's not the problem and the main thing is what society he was associated with, very leftist, almost communist. The other one was he was too tough on the survivors. He said that every survivor was guilty, which I believe was wrong. Simply for surviving? No! What could I have done? There were children who didn't do anything bad. Most of the people didn't do anything bad. How many couples were there?
But otherwise, Primo and I were of course very close and one day he called me and I felt in his voice, I was in New York, I felt in his voice something. I felt it. I say, "Primo, hang up. Go to the airport. A ticket will be waiting for you. I'll wait for you at the airport in New York, and we'll spend the week together." And he said something you know which, when you study Greek tragedy, you always stumble upon these two words, and they mean that it's tragedy, he said, "It's too late." When you hear these two words, it's tragedy, and Greek tragedy's what? You know, the moment the hero met the god, it's too late. There's no way back.
I had a friend in France called Piotr Rawicz. Piotr Rawicz was a very great writer, he wrote a book called Blood From the Sky, if you find it in the library. Suicide, like Primo Levi. Bruno Bettelheim, he was one year in Buchenwald, suicide.
There was a woman in Israel, an old woman, marvelous woman. She lost her two sons in the independence war of '48, and since then she gave her life to young people and one day she came into a kibbutz and the people in that kibbutz came from my region in Transylvania. And this woman came to see me, she said, "Look, I've recorded her stories and I'd like you to write a preface," which of course I did. And for the first time she was exposed to those stories, she a seventy-year-old lady, jumping eight floors—suicide.
There was so many. Tadeusz Borowski, a non-Jew. A Christian in Poland—suicide. It was so many. Why? Why writers? And of course, at least one reason, I don't know the real reason, one never knows the real reason for suicide. I gave once a course on suicide: it was one of the most despairing course I had given at my university. The topic was suicide, either in literature or in the author: either the author committed suicide or there was somebody in the book who committed suicide. And to bring it out into the open, and show my students the way out, out, or without, that it's not the end, shouldn't be the end, nothing is the end except death itself and death therefore cannot be taken as an option.
Well, one of the reasons for writers may be simply, what does a writer have if not words. And if words do not convey what we want to say, how can I go on, what else do I have? And I see, look, in truth, and I see the world around us. I am often close to despair, I wouldn't commit suicide, don't worry, but I'm desperate, what else can we do? We wanted so much to change the world.
Strangely enough, in 1945, I want you to know, we were paradoxically very optimistic. Of course we were in mourning, but nevertheless we saw that at least one thing: the world will have learned the lesson, that what happened before cannot happen again, that racism is wrong, is evil, hatred is evil, that children cannot starve to death in a society which respects itself, that wars are grotesque, that bloodshed cannot be an acceptable means of survival, it cannot. I swear to you I felt it then. If anyone had told me that I will have to fight anti-Semitism again, I wouldn't have believed it. If anyone had told me that I would have to fight for children to live, I tell you, I wouldn't have believed it. And now, do you know that while we are talking here, every minute a child dies somewhere of hunger or disease. Every minute.
[00:55:43] And then, look, the Cain and Abel story I learned goes on. Kosovo a new threat after Bosnia. And Rwanda, and so many other places that we don't even know about. Which means our testimony has not been received. If I believe, and I do believe, that the writer is—and this is the last definition I give of the writer—the writer is a witness. That we give testimony. We are those who say, "Look, this is what happened, and we were there. We saw it, we imagined it, we remember it." And if our testimony is not received, then why give testimony?
In the beginning, the first years, the survivors who came back, they wanted to speak and tell the story. But everywhere, people said, "Please, no, don't. Don't remember these things, it's too sad. It’s too sad. Forget, turn the page." And therefore they didn't speak. Now, I have of the forty-one books, maybe three, four, maybe five deal with the subject. All the other books are about the Bible and mysticism and Talmud and Hasidism and everything but that story. Maybe I was wrong, maybe I should have done nothing else but tell that story, but I'm afraid, I still am afraid that I haven't even begun, that one day I should begin.
Now, in conclusion, what will happen to you who are here this 1,300 men and women who came from all over to study writing? You will become writers, obviously, you are here and I am sure you will. Some of you will write plays, poetry, essays, philosophical discourses. Remember one thing, remember what happened to me. When I published Night, in Paris it was impossible to get a publisher, so don't be depressed if you don't get publishers right away. François Mauriac, who was my great protector, you know the great Catholic, Nobel Prize-winning writer, he was my great protector. He personally brought my book to the publisher, they all rejected it, until he found a small publisher in Paris and that publisher was a publisher of Beckett, but very small. And he took it and published it.
And that publisher has says to me, "Sam," you know, "Samuel Beckett wants to meet you." I was so happy. I admired Beckett from Godot. Who doesn't admire Godot? And by the way, no one did at that time. [laughter] You should know, if you read the reviews that he got for Waiting for Godot, you wouldn't believe it. They all massacred the man, it was total massacre. But I admired him. And usually what I'm terribly conscious of other people's time. I prefer to wait other than that people should wait for me. So at an eleven o'clock meeting date in a cafe in Paris called Chez Francis, it's near the Eiffel Tower out by *Marcel*. I came there at ten thirty to be there, not to be late. Maybe there'll be a flood and maybe one of the strikes and I wouldn't be able to come at eleven o'clock sure, so I came there at ten thirty. Ten forty-five, ten fifty, ten fifty-five, I was sitting at the terrace outside, didn't come. Eleven fifteen, eleven thirty, didn't come. Eleven forty-five. I said, "Maybe something happened to him," and I was looking at my watch, at which point I was looking at my watch I saw in the other corner of a terrace, there was a man also looking at his watch. [laughter] He had done the same thing.
[01:00:16] So I ran to him, and we were there together for at least a half hour without saying a word. But it was the beginning of a long conversation that we had. A very good link that we created between man and man, writer and writer, with two searching spirits. And just before we said goodbye to each other, he said to me, "You know," he said, "last week I found a manuscript of my book called Malone meurt, when Malone dies, and I realized that the manuscript had the motto which was omitted for strange reasons from the printed version. And the motto is: en désespoir de cause, which means, in desperation. Which means, What else can I do?
There are so many things to do in the world, so many orphans that need consolation, so many sick that need comfort, something, what can I do but write? So I write. Now this is why you should write. And this is not of course, because only when you can do nothing else. My advice to the writer in you is, if you can live a life without writing, don't. Why write? Believe me, it's not worth it. The agony that you will go through while writing the book, and then while rewriting the book they will make you rewrite the book ten times (and in parentheses, don't accept the editor's things, it's your book, not the editor's) but they will try to make you rewrite it, and then once the book is out, they will make you go around the talk shows, which is a curse of literature, [laughter] you have never seen me on the talk shows, I wouldn't go near them. But they will try publicity, come on, it's not worth it. Do something else. Write only if you feel you can do nothing else. Only in writing will you fulfill yourselves. You can be only because of the reader that will read your book.
Now, the second advice I'm giving you is: only write books that no one else can write but you. But I am sure since you are here I am sure that one of these years there will be 1,300 more books in the market, [laughter] and for the future readers of yours, may I say, thank you. [applause]
Scott: [01:03:16] We honor the memory of Elie Wiesel and are deeply grateful for his words of challenge and encouragement. We gratefully acknowledge permission to rebroadcast this talk, copyright © 1998 by Elie Wiesel. Rebroadcast by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc., on behalf of Elie Wiesel.
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