Oprah Talks to Elie Wiesel
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.
Oprah: On your first night in the camp, you saw babies being thrown into the flames. Can you ever forgive those who killed the children?
Elie: Who am I to forgive? Only the children themselves could forgive. If I forgive, I should do it in their name. Otherwise, it is arrogant.
Oprah: Do Holocaust-like events continue to take place in our world?
Elie: I don't like to compare one atrocity to another. That would be demeaning to both.
Oprah: It's an insult to all those who were involved and sacrificed their lives.
Elie: It's an insult. Every tragedy is unique, just as every human is unique. When a person loses someone dear to her, who am I to say that my tragedy was greater? I have no right. For that person, her tragedy is the greatest in the world—and she is right in thinking so.
Oprah: By becoming a voice for those who are suffering, are you doing what the world did not do for Jews during the Holocaust?
Elie: I've gone everywhere, trying to stop so many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, "What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy." I answered, "When I needed people to come, they didn't. That's why I am here."
Oprah: Is it our indifference and arrogance that makes us Americans feel that we are the center of the universe—that a mother's pain after losing her child in Bosnia or Nigeria isn't as important as our own pain?
Elie: I wouldn't generalize. There are people in America who are so sensitive. Whenever I meet young Americans abroad, they are there to help. A doctor in New York read a quote of mine that sparked her involvement. Somebody had asked me, "What is the most important commandment in the Bible?" and I said, "Thou shalt not stand idly by." So she packed up her office and went to Macedonia—I met her there.... We cannot free all the prisoners in the world or save all the victims of AIDS, but we can at least show them that we are with them. There is one thing that moves me to anger: the hunger of children. During every minute that you and I talk, Oprah, a child dies of starvation or disease or violence. While we talk!
Oprah: Is children's suffering what makes you the angriest?
Elie: Always—particularly the humiliation of children. That is the worst sin. When somebody humiliates a person or group, it breaks me—I become angry. In my tradition, humiliation is equivalent to murder.
Oprah: That reminds me of the story in your book about how your father was beaten down in the camp.
Elie: The very first night—an hour after our arrival.
Oprah: Part of what you were feeling was his humiliation, right?
Elie: I was humiliated because my father was helpless. After they beat him, he told me, "It didn't hurt." I should have thrown myself at his tormentor.
Oprah: You would be dead.
Elie: I should have done it anyway. But we were already conditioned not to fight back. In the camps, we discovered this whole universe where everyone had his place. The killer came to kill, and the victim came to die. This universe had its own language, culture, hierarchy, its own princes and madmen. Yet even in all of that, I was grateful to see my father every day. If someone smiled at me, I was grateful. Even in there!
Oprah: What kept you from losing your mind in the camps?
Elie: To this day, that is a mystery to me. After the war, I studied psychiatry, and I still don't know why I didn't lose my mind. I was thinking to myself one day, "Why didn't I go mad?" And when I say I, I mean all of us. In the camps, you could only make it if you were stronger than the others.
Oprah: In Night, you explain that on your first night in the camp when you saw babies being thrown into the flames, you touched your face and thought, "Am I alive? Is this real?"
Elie: For a long time, I wondered, "Did I see that?" Even today, I ask this of myself. I sometimes doubt my own eyes. Years after the war, I checked with friends who had arrived at the camps in those times, and they also saw what I did. But Oprah, there are many things that remain hidden inside you—it takes a special key to open them. For instance, I've been asking myself for the past few months, "What was the worst part of my experience in the camps?" And I realized that it was when my father, who was sick, called out to me—and I didn't respond, because I was afraid to be beaten up. I let him die. That day, my father got his portion of bread, and somebody who saw that he was dying stole his bread. My father wanted me to protect him, but I couldn't. To this day, I think, "How can a person go through this and not lose his mind?"
Oprah: You and the others in the camp were forced to march by three people who were hanged. And somebody behind you whispered, "Where is God?"
Elie: A voice in me said, "God is there."
Oprah: Where are you and God with each other these days?
Elie: We still have a few problems! But even in the camps, I never divorced God. After the war, I went on praying to God. I was angry. I protested. I'm still protesting—and occasionally, I'm still angry. But it's not because of the past, but the present. When I see victims of a tragedy—and especially children—I say to God, "Don't tell me that you have nothing to do with this. You are everywhere—you are God."
Oprah: Do you think that God lives in the people—and the people stand by and watch the children suffer?
Elie: The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
Oprah: Because indifference allows the world to stand by and watch?
Elie: Indifference creates evil.
Oprah: Doesn't hatred create evil?
Elie: Hatred is evil itself. Indifference is what allows evil to be strong, what gives it power.
Oprah: Did you come out of the horror of the Holocaust with your ability to love intact?
Elie: After my liberation, I fell in love with every girl—consecutively. But I would never dare tell a girl that I loved her, because I was timid—and afraid of rejection. I missed so many opportunities because I was afraid to say what I felt. I needed to love more than I needed to be loved. I needed to know that I could love—that after all I had seen, there was love in my heart.