Elie Wiesel

July 3, 2016

 

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In 1995, I went with my friend Tami to a lecture by Elie Wiesel at Fremont High School in Fremont, Nebraska, a small town about an hour north of Lincoln on Highway 77. At the time I worked for a literary magazine at the University of Nebraska, and most of my friends, like Tami, were fellow grad students in English. Young and earnest, we spent our time reading books, talking about books, and going to readings and lectures.

But Elie Wiesel was no ordinary author and scholar; he’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a decade before, and his novels, essays, and memoirs are imbued with a wisdom, strength, and generosity that transcended most of anything I’d read or heard or seen. Truthfully, why he was even in Fremont speaking to a few hundred of us that night remains a mystery to me. A year later, he spoke in Lincoln to a crowd of thousands.

His lecture that night was beyond instructive and beyond informative; it was inspiring and electric, full of energy and hope. When he finished, Tami and I just sat, as if we couldn’t leave until the last echo from his words had finally faded from the room.

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I brought my favorite book of his that night–Twilight, the first novel he wrote after being awarded the Nobel–and I used its flyleaves to feverishly recorded everything I could. I pulled the book out this morning and thought I’d transcribe some of what Wiesel said. As the world continues to fracture under fanaticism, we need to remember, to witness, to dialogue, and to do our best to live by words such as these.

 

Elie Wiesel, Fremont, Nebraska, March 30, 1995:

“In 1945 there was a great optimism that good had triumphed over evil. I believed that anti-semitism died, that racism died. . . that there would be no wars. Have we learned anything? That evil is emerging again.”

“The Holocaust is so powerful, it affects everything we do. There was so much hate then, we’re still feeling the fallout today.”

“The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. We must fight fanaticism and indifference. When you’re a fanatic, you have no more problems, no more questions. The fanatic has no patience for dialogue, and when a fanatic has power, he can be very convincing. The fanatic believes it is his right to conquer.”

“In a world that it meaningless, we must endow it with meaning.”

“Whatever the answer is, I believe that education is the component. Whatever subject you learn, it must have a moral dimension. When you read a text, you must resist it, challenge it. Never learn alone, never study alone. You don’t just need a teacher, you need a friend.”

“What is morality, but dialogue? We define morality and humanity not through our relationship with God, but our relationship with other people. So how do we define relationships? We must know what pains one another in order to relate. We can’t take their suffering on, but we can be present to witness. I don’t understand the silence of the world. Our task is to bear witness. We need to see. Whenever some force contemplates genocide, we must organize.”

“We must open our hearts to someone who is ‘not me.’ Decartes was wrong; it’s you think therefore I am.”

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