BERKOWITZ: Elie Wiesel’s burning lucidity has had an indescribable impact on our generation – a generation that was seared by the Holocaust and yearns to discover some hope in the brutal darkness of our time. Mr. Wiesel’s profound eloquence as spokesman for the silent millions unable to give utterance to the singular tragedy of the last century has stirred the conscience of people around the world. As messenger of the mystery and majesty of the Jewish condition, his voice and vision extend far beyond the world of literature, encompassing the spectrum of the contemporary humanities. He is more than writer, speaker, and distinguished university professor and Nobel Laureate. He is one of the major figures of our time, instructing and leading humanity toward finding the lantern that will help us discover the way. It is an honor and privilege to speak with Elie Wiesel.
Mr. Wiesel, we have recently begun to notice a frightening phenomenon in the world and even here in America: the resurgence of neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism. How do you respond to this resurgence in Europe and America? Why is it happening today? And does it frighten and disturb you?
WIESEL: I am frightened, because of the indifference to the resurgence of Nazism, fascism, and anti-Semitism. Admittedly, there are cranks in our midst. But people are indifferent to these cranks, and that is disturbing.
The fact that sixty years after the Holocaust there should be people in America and France and England and Germany who are not ashamed to be called Nazi is baffling. I am appalled that there are people in Nebraska who belong to a Nazi party, that there are two Nazi parties in Chicago, that there is a Nazi propaganda movement that publishes hundreds of brochures with the most vicious lies, with the most vicious distortions of our past; that they can publish pamphlets today claiming that the Holocaust did not take place, pamphlets called “The Lie,” “The Big Lie of Auschwitz,’ “The Swindle of Six Million”; pamphlets that try to “prove” that the Jews invented Auschwitz simply to make business to make money from Germany. And there is no outcry. That is what hurts me; that is what offends me. I find this all outrageous and ugly. Nothing is more vicious than when the victim is being deprived of his memory. Many of the survivors, and some of the murderers are still alive. It is beyond me why we don’t see a million Jews on the streets on Yom Hashoah, or any other day, to say simply we believe and we suffer, and we remember.
Am I afraid for the Jewish people? I said it a couple of years ago, and I say it now. Of course I’m afraid. I’m a galut Jew. I live in fear. But beyond the fear there is a certain hope, and beyond the hope there is a certain pride in being Jewish. These three feelings are not contradictory. But I am much more afraid for the world.
BERKOWITZ: I recently gave a talk to a Zionist group in Long Island, and after I concluded my remarks a man came up to me, very excited, and said, “You know, Rabbi, you mentioned Auschwitz and the Holocaust five times in your talk.” And I said to him, “I really didn’t count.” And he said, “Yes, I sat there and counted – five times.” And then he began in a very strident tone to say, “Can’t you forget about this whole business already? Isn’t it enough?”
Have you found people saying to you, “It’s enough already. We’ve heard too much about it.?” Have you found that people want to forget about the event? And in particular, have you found Jews wanting to forget about it? If so, why?
WIESEL: Occasionally, yes. Once in Canada I was on television, and the interviewer, who was not Jewish, asked me, “Isn’t it enough?” Well, such people are sick. What can I say? Amnesia is a form of mental illness, and those who want to forget are suffering from moral amnesia. I remember a couple of years ago I read an article written by the Executive Vice President of the Jewish Telegraph Agency, an agency that we support with United Jewish Appeal money. And this man, who gave his official title in the article simply said, “Why not forget the whole thing? Isn’t it enough? And he went on to say that the tragedy was not only a Jewish tragedy; other people suffered as well. And then he added – and this proved that this man was sick – ”After all, there was even music in Auschwitz.” This man was a leading figure in American Jewish life, and the Jewish community supported him and tolerated him. I am ashamed of that.
BERKOWITZ: I have here two items: The first from a bulletin of a California synagogue announces, “Join us at our temple show of Jewish fashions through the ages modeled by our congregants. We will feature a multimedia cavalcade showing the mode of dress of Jewish men and women through out the Dispersion from biblical times through the Holocaust and up to the present time.”
Item two: At a special convocation of Johns Hopkins University, a very distinguished rabbi delivered the benediction on the occasion when an honorary degree was conferred on former chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany. Among other things he said, “It is gratifying to note that Germany has learned to stretch out the hand of brotherhood to all who are anxious to foster cooperation and friendship in a world torn by dissension and strife. What could be more welcome than to find Germans again in the vanguard of the forces of enlightenment and good will, striving for the improvement of the human lot everywhere. These noble objectives coincide with the ideals of our United States of America.” He then went on to praise the former chancellor lavishly. When you come face to face with items such as these, Mr. Wiesel, do you feel that the Holocaust is being forgotten, or being cheapened? Do you feel that one of the most tragic chapters in all of Jewish and human history has been diminished?
WIESEL: Yes, unfortunately, it has been cheapened, and I don’t know how to cope with the situation. I don’t know what to do. There was one phrase, one expression, on the lips of Jews who were there – do you remember it? “You will never understand.” And these words are still valid: You will never understand. Those who were not there will never know what really happened. And those who were there somehow don’t speak. Even those of us who try to speak do not speak. We say certain words in order not to say other words. One day we shall speak, and that day the world may tremble. But that day hasn’t arrived yet. For the moment, we are diminishing our own tragedy. We say less because we wish to be believed. If we were to tell the whole tragedy, we would all go mad – all of you and all of us.
How can I communicate so many tears, and so many flames? Therefore, we speak less, but even those few words uttered by survivors have already been misused, have already been cheapened. I’ll give you a shocking example. Some time ago I saw a movie. I don’t go to the movies very often. I prefer books. But someone said, “You must go; it’s about the Holocaust.” So I went to see The Seven Beauties. What can I tell you about it? How do you handle vulgarity? How do you cope with obscenity? I don’t know. You walk in the street and a drunkard spits on you. What can you do? What can we do? This is what we feel: We are being spat upon. Now, of course, we could keep quiet; we could just go on living. And I might go on teaching literature or philosophy or Jeremiah. But then what do you do when you feel that you survived only to communicate certain things? That, too, is part of madness.
So I confess, Rabbi Berkowitz, that I have no answer. I don’t know what to do. I feel that to speak was not good, and not to speak was not good. No matter what we did, something went wrong. I used to believe that Judaism was a protest against vulgarity. I used to believe that Abraham was the first man to protest against obscenity. I used to believe that Judaism is a set of esthetic values, that there is beauty in it, that there is beauty in Jewish history. I used to believe that a Jew cannot but cling to that concept of beauty. Unfortunately, there are some people who don’t share these views; they are vulgar. What can I do? What can we do? I don’t know.
BERKOWITZ: Mr. Wiesel, in a brilliant and striking piece on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times some years back, titled “Ominous and Unspeakable Thoughts,” you said, “I feel threatened for the first time in many years. I feel that I am in danger. For the first time in my adult life I am afraid that the nightmare may start all over again, or that it has never ended. Since 1945 we’ve lived in parentheses; now they are closed. Do you still feel the same way today? In the atmosphere that exists today, do you also feel that the Holocaust could happen again?
WIESEL: Yes, I do sense danger, more and more so. At the same time, I repeat what I said in that piece: I do not believe that there will be another Holocaust. Dangers will come, but massacres will not happen. The enemy will not slaughter Jews in the street. My fear goes beyond the Jewish condition. Whatever happens to the world happens to us first. This is true in all areas of human endeavor. The world discovered God, but we discovered it first. The world accepted, or pretended to accept, the Bible; but we accepted it first. Whatever happens in history happened to us already. Whatever they –the enemies – did to us, they – the enemies– will do to themselves. And this time they will do it to humankind. In other words, the world is in danger.
Look what is happening today – the corruption of ideas, the poisoning of anything beautiful. The United Nations has become a farce, a sad comedy – sad because the United Nations, to my generation, represented a grandiose symbol of hope and faith. We really believed that somehow out of our great suffering, out of our anguish, a message of humanity and of hope was communicated. Now it has become a joke that is not even funny. The United Nations has no power, no prestige, no moral standing. It has nothing except a huge office building. It is sad, very sad. One more ideal has failed, one more illusion has faded away. The U.N. one generation ago was an altar, an altar shrouded in saintliness. There were people who believed in the U.N. There was something inspiring about it – peace, harmony, equality, liberty, freedom, justice. The charter of the U.N. is an exciting, prophetic message of hope for humankind.
Now what has become of the U.N.? Take the U.N. resolution that equated Zionism with racism. I took it seriously. I was concerned. Why? Because we have learned something in our history. Whenever the enemy – and the enemy may be an invisible enemy in the beginning but will become visible later on – plans to do something against our people, they begin with words. They plan first. In a way, they try to legalize their subsequent acts by formulating an idea, and the idea is that it is permitted, if not commanded, to persecute the Jewish people. I say the Jewish people because I do not allow them to make a distinction between Zionists and Jews. It is not for them to give me definitions of anything that has to do with Jews. We and we alone have the right to say who is a Jew and who is our enemy. It is my philosophy, not theirs. So they proclaim that to be a Jew, to be a Zionist, is to be a racist. That’s bad enough, but it’s also stupid. If there is one culture in the world that is hospitable to the stranger, if there is one civilization that is an answer to racism, it is the Jewish tradition and the Jewish civilization. Any person, black or yellow or green, regardless of color or race, any person who accepts the law of Moses and of Israel becomes a Jew at that moment. A Jew distinguishes himself not by the color of his skin but by his memory, by his moral commitment, by his sense of history and justice, by his solidarity with his people.
For the U.N. to accuse us of racism is indecent. Why did they do it? They wanted to call into question the Holocaust. They realized that the Holocaust is our strength; it’s paradoxical but true. We have been shielded by it for a generation. For some thirty years it wasn’t fashionable to be an anti-Semite. Twenty years ago, nobody would have said, “I don’t like Jews,” because of the memory of the Holocaust. So what did they (the U.N.) try to do? They tried to turn it around, to take it away from us and to say, “You were victims of racism, but you yourselves are racist.” That’s where the danger lies. The next step? I don’t even want to say it in words.
BERKOWITZ: Mr. Wiesel, some time ago you made the following very strong statement: “Today we live no differently from the absolute point of view than we did 500 years ago. We are no safer now than we were then. There is a danger, a very acute danger, that the Jews will again be blamed for the past, for everything that is wrong in the world, for all the suffering in the world. I can easily imagine Christians saying, in a crisis, it is the fault of the Jews. On the political plane, the accusations against us are liable to be related to Israel. What if tomorrow an American president were to declare, We could bridge the gap between ourselves and Russia or China if it weren’t for Israel. Israel is the stumbling block. Then the Jews would be a menace to the peace of the world. Here and there you can hear State Department officials complaining that were it not for Israel, the U.S. would have good relations with the Arab world. The cry may yet go up, We’ve lost out because of you! More and more they may hold us responsible for all the evil in the world. That is what frightens me.” You were frightened about this some years ago. Does it still concern you?
WIESEL: I have exactly the same fears today. I have the feeling we are heading toward difficult times, a critical period in our history. Why? Never before have we been so united, which is good. And yet never before have we been so vulnerable. Something is happening to this society. It’s a criminal society in which the leaders of the world openly say that they do not believe in values, and take the typical approach to politics.
Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi is a clinical case of madness, and yet nations on two or three continents say amen to him. Do you remember when Qadaffi came to France? The late President, Georges Pompidou received him as though he were a king. And Qadaffi didn’t hesitate to say on French soil – it was reported in all the world’s papers – that the only solution for the war in Israel is to annihilate one of the belligerents, Israel. And, he added, the survivors will be welcome in Libya. You heard him say it, and nobody protested.
We know one thing: a man determines his fate in small gestures from the beginning. It’s the first step that counts, the first lie, the first crime. Then it’s too late. The very fact that today the entire world yields to Arab oil and other blackmailers is a bad omen, not only for us, but for the entire world. And, of course, at some point, I am sure everybody, or some people, will turn against us and say, it’s your fault.
Yes, I foresee dangerous times.
BERKOWITZ: Mr. Wiesel, you spoke about the relationship of the world to Jews and Judaism as well as the need for internal strengthening within the Jewish community. Let us turn to the state of Soviet Jewry. I was fascinated by something you once said about Arnold Toynbee, the noted philosopher and historian. Toynbee, you said, indicated that the only philosophy that could defeat communism is Judaism. What do you think Toynbee had in mind?
WIESEL: Toynbee hated Jews and he didn’t mean it as a compliment. I meant it as a compliment. Communism was conceived as a universal religion, as was Judaism. What was communism if not Messianism without G-d? We can understand why so many Jews were caught up by the communist idea. Parenthetically, when I was young in my hometown, I spent all my days and nights in the yeshivah. Only later did I find out about things in my town that I had not been aware of. I didn’t know, for instance, that we had yeshivah students who secretly were communists. They would meet at night with the communist agitators and read Marx, Hegel, and so on. I understand why it caught their fancy. There is something in it – to redeem the world, to change mankind, to give freedom to those who have no freedom, to give bread to those who are hungry. It appealed to Jews, to those who were persecuted for 2000 years.
Now one thing is clear: Communism failed, Judaism won. Judaism is alive despite our troubles, and we have many. But it is still alive and creative. The fact is that young students in Russia, fifty years after the Revolution, became Jewish–not only nationalistically Jewish, but religiously Jewish. I remember when I came back from my first visit to Russia, I went to Paris and met with people like Manes Sperber who were former communists and had left the Party in the late 1930's. They are as antireligious now as they were then. I told them of the thousands of young people who came to sing and dance in Moscow on Simchat Torah. In The Jews of Silence I wrote about it and I stressed the joy, the Jewish joy above all. These former communists had arguments with me, “Why do you make it a religious issue?” they asked. “These youngsters are not religious. They come here because they want to liberate themselves politically.
These old-liners were wrong. Most of the young Russian Jews who come to Israel now come with yarmulkes. For them it is an important dimension to rediscover Judaism. This, to a Nikita Khrushchev or Leonid Brezhnev, was the most painful insult one could imagine. Three generations of communism and of a communist regime. Read their manifesto, platform and constitution. They knew what they wanted to do. They wanted to create a new man, a new homo sovieticus, the Soviet man who was supposed to be different, a man immune to anti-semitism, without hate, without class struggle, without bitterness – a happy, good, peaceful man. Yet that dream failed. Each young Jew who dances in the streets of Moscow on Simchat Torah, and studies Hebrew and wants to go to Israel is the living proof that communism was defeated.
This is the reason, I believe, that the Russians were so involved in the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptians had thrown the Russians out some years before. So why did the Russians come to their rescue? Why were they so determined to punish Israel? In addition to the political considerations, there is a psychological one. They wanted to punish Israel because of the Russian Jews. And here again we are facing the question of unity. What we do in Israel affects Russian Jews. What we do in Russia affects Israel. What we do here affects Jews everywhere. Today we live in a time when what a Jew does anywhere has repercussions much beyond his sphere.
BERKOWITZ: In one of your essays you point out that Jews in medieval times were wiser than we are today, indicating, for example, that when the Jews in France suffered, the Jews in Germany trembled. You make the observation, that in the past there prevailed a sense of interrelationship and solidarity with regard to the well-being of Jews the world over. In light of this concept, what did you think of the effectiveness of the demonstrations that took place in America for Soviet Jewry?
WIESEL: Of course, I quoted the example from medieval times, when communities were concerned for each other, in contrast to what happened during the Holocaust. There was a kind of eclipse in Jewish life during the Holocaust. The Jewish heart was not Jewish, or not Jewish enough. While Nazis were killing Jews, humiliating Jews in Europe, other communities overseas were not concerned enough. Today it’s not the same. Today when Jews are persecuted, we do something about it, or at least some of us try.
As for demonstrations, I am a bit of a skeptic. Of course I am for demonstrations, but I want them to be big – very, very big. In a city like New York, with three million Jews, we cannot get out half a million for a demonstration. Why can’t we? Maybe it has something to do with the mentality of the American Jew. I always come back to myself as an example, because I speak of what I fully know. We were 15,000 Jews in Sighet, my home town. When the refugees arrived from Galicia, thousands of Jews would come to the train with bread, cake and other food. No one remained at home. Imagine, if the third assistant to the vice consul of Israel had arrived, 15,000 Jews would have gone to welcome him. We would have even kissed his garb! How many Jews here would come to greet the Prime Minister of Israel? How many would take three hours of their lives to go to LaGuardia or Kennedy airport, or to fill the avenues? It may have to do with the atrophy of some fibers in some American Jews.
In the beginning, we couldn’t move the American Jewish community to help Soviet Jewry. The Jews of Silence came out in 1966. That year I returned to Russia, and when I came back I went to the American Jewish leaders to plead with them on behalf of Soviet Jews – unsuccessfully. You just couldn’t move them. Do you know what moved them? Do you know what made the difference? Young people; our brave young people. They are our pride and our secret weapon. Young Jews were the first to organize demonstrations. They were the ones to shout, and they were the ones to urge their parents to come too. Their parents didn’t come. They stayed home. Just like in Russia, in the beginning. Who rebelled in Russia? Not the old people. The old people were afraid. Not those of their sons who were former communists. But their younger sons, the 18 year olds, the 20 year olds, they were the ones to rebel, and they were the ones who defeated the Kremlin.
Imagine the poor Russian anti-Semites. They could die out of spite, they really could, as they saw humiliated, persecuted Jews who managed to do what no one else had done! Young Jews managed to change the policy of the Kremlin. Think about it. Jews were convicted and sentenced to death, and because of other Jews abroad, their sentences were revoked. Jews were sent to jail, and because of other Jews abroad, they were let out of jail. The Russian government never thought of allowing Jews to go to Israel. And then, because of some young students who dared to sing and dance, to shout and protest, the Kremlin opened the gate and let them go to Israel. During the Yom Kippur War, I was in Israel visiting the front and military hospitals. Then I went to Lydda to welcome somebody and I couldn’t believe my own eyes. There was a plane with 150 Jews who arrived from Russia during the fighting. It was absolutely insane. On the one hand the Russians were sending missiles and weapons and tanks to kill Jews, and on the other hand they were sending Jews to Israel.
BERKOWITZ: Some time ago there was a debate raging over the issue of the noshrim, Soviet Jews who were at that time dropping out in Vienna and going to the West instead of Israel. A committee deliberated this very complex issue of the dropouts. What was your reaction to this?
WIESEL: I am for education. I would like to educate these Jews in Russia and show them what aliyah to Israel is and what it used to be: a Messianic concept, a Messianic movement. And when I say Messianic movement, I mean it. It would be the second time in our history that there was such a movement. The first came during the Spanish Inquisition. And we must admit it: the Spanish Jewish community actually yielded to conversion. Very few left. Those who did were an exception. The majority of Jews stayed in Spain. True, they wanted to remain Jewish in hiding. But do you know what happened to those who became Marranos? Substantially, they forgot their origins and kept only a few symptoms and symbols of their origins.
The same thing occurred in Russia, where in the beginning the Jews were communists. These Russian Jewish communists wanted to submerge, wanted to immerse themselves in Russian history and disappear. What happens now? These very Jews who then wanted to leave us are coming back. And if they don’t, their grandchildren come back. This is an extraordinary adventure, with Messianic undertones.
BERKOWITZ: Mr. Wiesel, having spoken movingly about Soviet Jewry, will you now turn to the State of Israel?
WIESEL: I believe that to be Jewish is to have a Jewish consciousness. And that means that the Jew must always see himself related to history. The Jew without history cannot be fully Jewish. History, therefore, goes back to the beginning. That’s what I have tried to do in my writings and lectures. I’ve tried to show that Moses was not a mythical figure. Moses lives here. What he taught us is relevant to us. I’ve tried to show that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were Jews who are here today. Their problems are our problems. Their fears are out fears, and their defense is our defense. The same is true of the present: Whatever happens to the Jewish people in the present touches every Jew, not just me. When I felt in the 1960's that history was going through Russia, naturally I had to go to Russia. In the early 1950's I went to India to see the last Jews of Cochin, and I went to Morocco to see the last Jewish communities in the Atlas Mountains. I went to Algiers where there was a sovereign Jewish tribe in the eighth century. I am obsessed with our people, and I am haunted by its powers.
Whatever I have to give, I have taken from our people. And that is why I am always so full of gratitude when I think of the people of Israel. On Yom Kippur (in 1973) there was a war. I felt I must go there – not to fight, for I have never fought. But during the Yom Kippur War I felt I must be in Israel. Let me tell you something that may sadden you. The day after the war started, I phoned a few Jewish leaders and I said, “We must go. If I go alone, it doesn’t mean a thing.” Then Israel is at war I think we should show Israelis that at least we are with them. The results? I am ashamed to tell you. I suggested that we charter a plane for a hundred passengers so as not to take away the El Al planes that were carrying ammunition. I said, don’t worry about money. I’ll get the money from rich people. I was disappointed – they didn’t want to go. They had all kinds of excuses. They wee needed here. They had a business to run. They were needed to raise funds. I pleaded with them. Let us go and celebrate Sukkot with the soldiers in the desert. Imagine what it would do for them and us to celebrate Sukkot in Sinai. I used all kinds of romantic arguments and pictures to fire their imaginations.
Finally I got twenty people who said, “All right. We cannot charter a plane but we’ll go with you.” So I began to buy medicines and transistors for the soldiers in the hospitals. But then the twenty became seventeen, the seventeen became twelve, the twelve became seven, and the seven became two. The other one was a friend, a Survivor. Sigmund Strochlitz (who passed away last Monday, October 16th 2006, at the age of 89). Of course, who am I to accuse them? There was a war going on; there was a danger. Yet I felt sad. That was the overriding feeling even after we arrived in Israel. The war was different; it began on a note of sadness. Maybe the 1967 war was a different war because it erupted before Shavuot – a joyous holiday celebrating the meeting of God and His people – but in 1973 we were in a Yom Kippur mood, and it lasted well beyond Yom Kippur.
I remember Tel Aviv during the blackout, and being afraid to call friends because they all had children on the front. What will they say? What news will they give me about whom? There were many – so many – casualties. But then somebody said something beautiful and moving: “If a family is not afraid to pick up the phone, you shouldn’t be afraid to dial.” So we dialed. And then, of course, came the first visits to people who had lost their children. You know usually whatever I feel, I write. And usually what I write I try to publish. But not about this war. There was simply too much sadness. Something happened to me there. Something happened to Israel. Something happened to the Jewish people that year. Yet I couldn’t have wanted to miss it. If I had not gone, I would have felt deprived. When Israel goes through any experience, how can a Jew not be part of it? So in a way I am thankful I was there.
BERKOWITZ: Today one of the pressing issues is that of the Palestinian Arabs. In your book A Jew Today, you write a letter to a Palestinian Arab. What do you say?
WIESEL: I try to explain to him why I feel sympathy for his suffering, but why I cannot accept the responsibility for what he is doing with his suffering. I cannot share responsibility with anyone who uses his suffering to commit violence, who kills at Malot, who organizes the massacres at Lydda and Kiryat Shmoneh, and so forth. In spite of my sympathy for the suffering of children among Arabs – and I do feel sorry for them – I am afraid, as I say in my letter, I cannot go further; and add that because of all that I am with you. I am not with them because they have misused their suffering against our people.
BERKOWITZ: In a recent interview you made a profound statement about Israel: “I believe Israel can and should personify a powerful message to the world, a message for the great powers.” What is this message?
WIESEL: No doubt the message of independence, sovereignty, and humanity. This is the message we always try to communicate. Israel, strangely enough, has never been an empire. It has always been a victim of empires. Somehow Israel was never attacked by its neighbors – always by distant empires, by distant armies. Israel survived those empires maybe because it never wanted to become an empire, except in imagination, or in history. Our obsession was not geography but time, history, memory. So I believe that even today when we are assaulted by so many powers, big and small, there is something that Israel can do. Israel can show how to resist forcefully and yet gracefully. And Israel can show that in spite of the pressures from the outside, we maintain our identity. We maintain our concept of ourselves, the image that we have of ourselves. This image may ultimately reflect the world at large.
BERKOWITZ: You have traveled across America. In your lecturing you have visited many synagogues and institutions. At one point in your travels you said, “I foresee a serious spiritual crisis in this country. The American Jewish community is going to go down.” Do you feel that way today? And if so, why?
WIESEL: I oscillate. Often I oscillate between hope, extreme hope, and dark despair. That day must have been one of dark despair.
Let me tell you that a crisis for our community may be dangerous because we have not been strengthened from within. I think the Jewish community is not strong from within basically because it lacks leadership. We have no moral leadership. We have had many presidents and vice presidents, and who knows what kind of presidents we had. But people who speak on behalf of a collective vision of history, of a moral concept of history, that we don’t have. Because of that we don’t really know what do to with ourselves. Education is not stressed enough. And the real education is to have our children study and discover the beauty in study and discover themselves in that study, And to assume all the world that they have learned about and to claim kinship with all the people that they read about. This can give us the strength we need. But we don’t do that. So if a crisis comes, it may be a dangerous crisis.
BERKOWITZ: I fully agree with you. We are desperately lacking in Jewish leadership, and I believe that much more has to be done to develop it. In this context, in an interview with the French magazine L’arche some years back you said, “The most representative international Jewish organizations preferred to adopt the philosophy of the ostrich.” What did you mean by this?
WIESEL: I remember that interview. It was in France in the early 1960's before the 1967 war. I was referring specifically to European leadership, which usually yielded to the government. French Jews didn’t want to anger the French government. Belgian Jews didn’t want to anger the Belgian government. They felt so insecure that they adopted the policy of not seeing in order not to be seen. I think it has changed. I think that the Six-Day War in 1967 produced a major upheaval in history and a major psychological change in the Jew. And the Yom Kippur War only reinforced that change. Today even American Jewish leaders manifest less awe than their predecessors.
BERKOWITZ: In a magnificent address delivered before the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem you said, “I am still worried. Because of others? No. Because of our enemies? No. Perhaps I sound naive, but the Russians don’t frighten me, neither do the Arabs, and not the Chinese. But the Jews do.” Why do the Jews worry you?
WIESEL: Because of the lessons of our history. Most Jewish catastrophes were preceded by a certain process of Jewish weakening from within the community. Jeremiah actually announced and denounced the weaknesses before catastrophe. Take Churban Bayit HaSheni, the destruction of the Second Temple. You recall the terrifying example of Kamza bar Kamza. The blows came from the outside – but from the inside they were prepared to receive them. I am not afraid any more. We are beyond fear. What can the world do to us that it hasn’t done already? What else can it do? In a way, we are immune. In a way we are shielded by the event of one generation ago. The danger comes when Jews stop being Jewish. When they turn away. That is the danger; when they decide it’s enough. When they decide to forget. When they decide why worry only about ourselves when there are so many people to worry about –as if there were a conflict between the two. As if there were a conflict between being human and being Jewish. This is what disturbs me. As long as we shall remember the recent past, the danger is not real.
BERKOWITZ: In this context of Jewish destiny, what do you see as the uniqueness of Jewish history that distinguishes it from other histories and other people?
WIESEL: Vitality. I am constantly astonished by the vitality of our history. We cannot die. Strange, the Jewish people cannot die. Even if it wants to, it cannot. Our killers died; our enemies died, mightier nations than us have died, but we cannot die. This is part of our mystery. The immortality of our destiny. The netzach Yisrael, the eternity of Israel I believe in with all my heart. There is something, especially today, that corroborates this impression. For the first time Jewish history and universal history coincide. For so many centuries they were parallel. Sometimes they were in conflict. Now it’s the same history. And whoever does anything to the Jewish people is doing it to himself. If the world wants to destroy the Jewish people, I am convinced it will mean the end of the world. So that is Jewish destiny; to keep destiny alive. Somehow it is ironic. We have been hunted, we have been persecuted more than anyone by more people more than any other. And here we area again in the position and the situation to force others to survive, and teach them the art and the necessity of survival. That sense of irony: it cannot but make me smile.
BERKOWITZ: You speak of Jewish education and of kinship with Jewish figures being the key to Jewish strength. As you look back and reflect on your own life, who had the greatest influence on it in terms of your thinking and commitment?
WIESEL: There were more than one. One was my grandfather, Dodye Feig, a Chasid who taught me Chasidism. Whatever I know about Chasidsm, Chasidic songs, Chasidic stories, or Chasidic passion and compassion I have from him. Then I had a teacher, Kalman, in my little town. And Moshe – the madman. And then in Paris I had another crazy character, shushani. He left an indelible imprint on me. Actually every encounter is important in a person’s life, to enrich it and give it density that it hadn’t had before. Some stand out. Today, for instance, my master is Professor Shaul Lieberman, the greatest teacher of his generation. I imagine that my rebbe in Israel would certainly also qualify, or rather his children would. The Lubavitcher Rebbe has had – in the meetings we’ve had – a very profound influence on me. Strangely enough, there are great people among us today. They are true guides and teachers. But who is here to listen? I try to listen. I try to listen to those voices that are still being heard and to those voices that have been muted. A Jew is he or she who listens.
BERKOWITZ: In a recent television interview you said that you were pessimistic about humankind, but optimistic about the Jewish people. What did you mean?
WIESEL: I don’t make a distinction, really, except for the purpose of explaining these attitudes. I believe that for a Jew the only way to be human is through his Jewishness. But if one is not Jewish, of course, he has his own way to fulfill himself. For a Jew, humanity goes through his Jewishness. When there was a conflict, the Jewish people did not come out of the tests of history too badly or too poorly. We withstood the test. We withstood the trial. We all know that the real tragedy occurred to the soul. It was a test over our souls. We were going to yield to the executioner and accept his rules, or not? We did not. We were killed, and we shall be mourning for many generations and for many eternities. because the losses were so great. But we refused to yield. Yet if today we don’t have leadership, what is it if not the fact that a generation ago we lost many teachers, so many rabbis, when they still were children? A million and a half children. How many among them would have become scholars and geniuses, violinists and scientists, writers and artists? That is it. It will take a generation or more to realize what we lost. But still we did not come out too poorly. The world that permitted those events to take place, that world failed the test then as it is failing the test right now. What kind of world is that? So much hypocrisy; so much cynicism. So much bloodshed. today, for the first time in history, there isn’t a single place under the sun where there is hope for humankind. There is no hope invoked as a movement or as an idea. There is no hope anywhere except in Jerusalem. And so why shouldn’t I have more hope for our people? We do invoke hope for our people, and we shall share it with humankind as a whole.
BERKOWITZ: Let me conclude with a Chasidic tale that best expresses what we all feel and think. Long before the great Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev became a rebbe he traveled to the court of Rebbe Schmelka of Nikolsburg to enquire about the meaning and essence of a new phenomenon called Chasidism that was sweeping so many communities in Europe. When he arrived at the court of the Rebbe, he was immediately ushered into the inner chambers. The old rebbe sat before Levi Yitzchak and listened as he asked. “Tell me what is the meaning of this new movement, Chasidism.” Reb Schmelka, in turn, asked the young man if he knew how to study Torah. Suddenly, overwhelmed by the power of the Torah, Levi Yitzchak replied: “Ah, Torah, wonder of wonders.” And again Reb Schmelka asked the young man, this time, if he knew what the Shabbos meant. Suddenly, overwhelmed by the power of the word Shabbos Levi Yitzchak could only reply, “Ah Shabbos, wonder of wonders. Ah Shabbos, wonder of wonders! But what is Chasidism,” the young man persisted in asking. And all the old rebbe replied was, “Tell me, do you know what is the love of G-d and Israel?” “Ah, the love of G-d; Ah the love of Israel,” answered the young student. And with this he rose knowingly, and left to join the Chasidic movement. You see, ends the tale, this is the secret of Chasidism, the secret of Jewish living and, may I add, of Jewish listening. The “ah” that is evoked, the “ah” that is offered. The “ah” that is felt and transmitted. For equally important as what we receive is how we receive it. How we respond to it.
To you, Elie Wiesel, great master, great teacher, great luminary, I would like to link this tale of Levi Yitzchak by exclaiming: Ah – for what you have taught us over so many years in your writings and your lectures, but also most importantly in your person and by your presence. For if I would have to choose today a Jewish Renaissance man, it would have to be you: scholar, teacher, writer, activist, committed Jew, concerned friend. Ah, for this, Elie Wiesel, we bless you.