He's one of the people I most respect: Elie Wiesel. After I first read his memoir Night seven years ago, I was not the same—you can't be the same after hearing how Elie, at age 15, survived the horror of the Holocaust death camps. Through his eyes, we witness the depths of both human cruelty and human grace—and we're left grappling with what remains of Elie, a teenage boy caught between the two. I gain courage from his courage.
The story—and especially that number, six million—numbs us: A Jew hater named Adolf Hitler rises to power in Germany, the world goes to war in 1939, and when the showdown is over six years later, the tyrant has slaughtered six million Jews. Six million. Inconceivable. We see footage of the concentration camps, the gas chambers, the gallows.Yet words like Holocaust and Auschwitz are still abstractions—seemingly impossible until we see photos of someone who was there. A face. Eyes. Hair. Prison numbers tattooed into an arm. A real person like Elie Wiesel who, 55 years ago, made it through the atrocity.
"How could you live through the Holocaust and not be bitter?" I ask Elie. At 72, he emanates quiet strength; with his strong handgrip, it's as if he's saying, "I assure you—I am alive." We sit across from each other at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, where hundreds come to see evidence of what happened to the Jewish people. Thousands already know Elie Wiesel's name—he is a prolific writer, a professor at Boston University and an activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986—but I want him to take me back to the time when living to tell the story was the last thing that mattered to him. I wanted to know:
"What does it take to be normal again, after having your humanity stripped away by the Nazis?"
"What is abnormal is that I am normal," he says. "That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life—that is what is abnormal."
"Why didn't you go insane?"
"To this day," he says, "that is a mystery to me."
And a miracle. In 1944, during World War II, Elie, his parents, his three sisters—and his 15,000 Jewish neighbors in Sighet, Hungary—were captured by the Nazis, put into cattle cars and shipped off to concentration camps at Auschwitz, Buna, Birkenau and Buchenwald. Within an hour of walking through the gates of Auschwitz, Elie was separated from his mother and sisters—but he held close to his father. "I had one thought," Elie writes in his memoir Night. "Not to lose him. Not to be left alone." He wasn't. In the coming months, Elie and his father survived together— they witnessed the hangings, escaped the human ovens and endured the hatred of the Nazis. The horror of the camps was unreal. On his first night in Auschwitz, Elie saw German soldiers throwing Jewish babies into a fire, then pinched his face to be sure that he wasn't dreaming. "For a long time," he says, "I wondered, Did I see that? I sometimes doubt my own eyes. In the concentration camps, we discovered this whole universe where everyone had his place. The killer came to kill, and the victims came to die."
And so began some hard questions for his God: "Where are you now? How can you let this happen?" In 1945, when he witnessed his father's death from dysentery and starvation, he questioned God's silence again—and he decided that he no longer wanted to live.
Yet he did, and in retrospect, he doesn't know why. After he was liberated from Buchenwald in 1945, he and other orphans were sent to France. There, he lived in an orphanage, then later supported himself as a tutor and choir director—and he decided that he wanted to live again. He studied literature, philosophy and psychology at the Sorbonne, and in 1952 he became a reporter for a newspaper in Tel Aviv. For ten years after his release, he vowed not to speak of his experience. "I wanted to be sure that the words I was going to use about this event were the proper words," he has said. With the publication of his memoir Night, which was translated from French to English in 1960, Elie finally broke his silence. He has since written more than 40 books.
You can't hear Elie's story without wondering: "Can he live through that kind of hate and not become a hater? Can he still be capable of love? Can he find any reason to be grateful?" When I talk with Elie about these things, he tells me that he has few answers and many, many questions—yet even in his questions, I hear hope that the human spirit can survive anything. Anything.
In our time together, Elie and I talk about how it is possible that he can still believe in the sovereignty of a force bigger than himself, why he has no explanation for his survival in the death camps, and what, five decades after Auschwitz, brings him what he calls real joy.
Start reading Oprah's interview with Elie Wiesel