Oprah: There may be no better person than you to speak about living with gratitude. Despite all the tragedy you've witnessed, do you still have a place inside you for gratefulness?
Elie: Absolutely. Right after the war, I went around telling people, "Thank you just for living, for being human." And to this day, the words that come most frequently from my lips are thank you. When a person doesn't have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.
Oprah: Does having seen the worst of humanity make you more grateful for ordinary occurrences?
Elie: For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.
Oprah: Did you ever hate your oppressors?
Elie: I had anger but never hate. Before the war, I was too busy studying [the Bible and the Cabala] to hate. After the war, I thought, "What's the use?" To hate would be to reduce myself.
Oprah: In your memoir Night, you write of the Hungarian soldiers who drove you from your homes, "It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and that hate is still the only link between us today."
Elie: I wrote that, but I didn't hate. I just felt terribly angry and humiliated. At that point, our disappointment was not with the Germans but with the Hungarians. They had been our neighbors [before they joined forces with the Nazis and captured us]. The moment we left our homes, they became vultures. They came into our house and robbed us of everything. And I was terribly disappointed. I used the word hate because that was the strongest feeling I could imagine having. But when I think about it now, there was no hate in me. I grew up learning that hate destroys the hater as much as its victim. I didn't hate the Germans, so how can I hate the Hungarians?
Oprah: So you don't hate the Germans?
Elie: I do not hate them. I don't believe in collective guilt. The children of killers are not killers, but children. And they deserve my affection, my efforts to make them human, to give them a world that is worthy of them. Occasionally, I have students from Germany in my classes, and they are the best students I could have. They go back to Germany, and they become leaders who teach their generation the perils of hatred and the danger of indifference. In any society, fanatics who hate don't hate only me—they hate you too. They hate everybody. Someone who hates one group will end up hating everyone—and, ultimately, hating himself or herself.
Oprah: And isn't it true that to begin with, those who hate others really hate themselves?
Elie: Yes. They need to hate in order to feel superior.
We Hear You!