Oprah Talks to Elie Wiesel
Elie: April 11, 1945. The Americans were close by, and a few days before that, on April 5, the Germans had decided to evacuate all the Jews. Every day, they would evacuate thousands—and most were killed upon leaving. I was in a children's block with other adolescents, and we were left until the end. [But every day we marched to the gate anyway.] I was near the gate more than five times before I was released, and each time, the gate closed just before I came to it.
Oprah: How do you explain that you survived the camps?
Elie: I have no explanation.
Oprah: You—someone who has studied the Talmud, the Cabala—have no explanation?
Elie: Believe me, I have tried to know, but I do not. If it is God, I have problems with that. If he bothered to save me, why couldn't he have saved all the others? There were people worthier than I.
Oprah: Don't you think your survival has something to do with who you've become and what you've said to the world about the Holocaust?
Elie: No, no, no. The price is too high. Because I survived, I must do everything possible to help others.
Oprah: After you were liberated, what did you do?
Elie: The first thing many of us did was reassemble to say a prayer for the dead. Then I went to an orphanage in France. That's when I began to live again. I was reunited with my two sisters by accident. [Wiesel was reunited with his sister Hilda in 1945 in Paris, and then Bea several months later in Antwerp, Belgium.]
Oprah: Did you know your sisters were alive?
Elie: No. When I was still in Buchenwald, I studied the lists of survivors, and my sisters' names were not there. That's why I went to France— otherwise I would have gone back to my hometown of Sighet. In France, a clerk in an office at the orphanage told me that he had talked with my sister, who was looking for me. "That's impossible!" I told him. "How would she even know I am in France?" But he insisted that she'd told him that she would be waiting for me in Paris the next day. I didn't sleep that night. The next day, I went to Paris—and there was my older sister! After our liberation, she had gotten engaged and gone to France, because she thought I was dead too. Then one day she opened the paper and saw my picture [a journalist had come to the orphanage to take pictures and write a story]. If it hadn't been for that, it may have been years before we met. My other sister had gone back to our hometown after our release, thinking that I might be there. It took almost a year [after meeting my other sister] for us to meet again.
Oprah: After living through such an atrocity, was it possible for you to be normal again—to go on with your life?
Elie: What is abnormal is that I am normal. 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.
Oprah: How did what you experienced affect the way you reared your son?
Elie: I let my son choose the moment when we would speak about what happened to me. I didn't want to impose—I let him develop his own curiosity. When I traveled, I often took him with me [so he could see what my work was about]. And one day he came to me and said he wanted to go back with me [to my hometown and the camps].
Oprah: How old was your son then?
Elie: He had just finished college. I took him and one of my nephews back home to my little town, and I showed them my house. Then we went to Birkenau. That trip was a defining moment in our lives.
Oprah: How so?
Elie: My son and I talk differently to each other now. It deepened our relationship.
Oprah: Because he knows a part of you he hadn't known?
Elie: Not because he knows it. He saw it.
Oprah: And reading a book could not have helped him see it?
Elie: Not even reading my book.
Oprah: If a person were to take a train to Auschwitz, would he or she ever be the same after seeing the camp?
Elie: You cannot be the same.
Oprah: And just by seeing the camps, can any of us ever really know what the Holocaust was like?
Elie: I don't think so. Only those who were there know. But we can take you in with us, and you would know more. You would come to the gate, and you would know a lot. But when you've actually experienced it, every cell of your being is different. What we lived through is beyond language. If you and I were to go to the camps right now, you would come out a different person—wounded from seeing and being with someone who was there. At once wounded and enriched.
Oprah: And is every person who did survive proof that the human spirit can triumph over anything?
Elie: It's hard to say. Some people survived because they wanted to, Oprah. I did not [want to survive]. As long as my father was alive, I wanted to live—but only because of him. After he died, between the end of January and April [of the year we were released], I didn't really live.
Oprah: So you became a nonperson?
Elie: We were all nonpersons. I wish I could say that I wanted to live to tell the tale. But it wasn't important then.
Oprah: You have no answer for why you went on living?
Elie: I have no answer for anything, really. I have shelves and shelves of books in my apartment, but none of them has answers—only questions. I teach my students how to ask questions. In the word question, there is a beautiful word—quest. I love that word. We are all partners in a quest.
Oprah: And is there an answer for every question?
Elie: The essential questions have no answers. You are my question, and I am yours—and then there is dialogue. The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. Questions unite people, answers divide them. So why have answers when you can live without them?
Oprah: Elie, do you think all experiences are meant to teach us about ourselves?
Oprah: Do you have any regrets about the way you've chosen to live?
Elie: Not doing enough. For example, I wish I had done more for the Palestinian refugees. I regret that.
Oprah: What brings you the greatest joy?
Elie: Besides my family? Seeing a student understand what I say. Real joy is when you can help somebody in need.
Oprah: Do you think that each of us is here to serve others?
Elie: Yes, always. My humanity derives from my efforts with others. If I come close to a beggar, I come closer to God.
Oprah: On the last page in the magazine, I write a column called "What I Know for Sure." Elie, what is it that you know for sure, that you have no doubt about?
Elie: I have no doubt that we are here for a purpose. I have no doubt that the purpose is not only to bring God closer to his creations, but to bring his creations close to one another. I have no doubt that a human being is human simply because he or she is human—and we have no right to say that a poor person is of less value to society than someone who is rich.
Oprah: Yes—simply being born is what gives us worth. This is gooood!
Elie: I have no doubt that education is good for the soul, not only for the mind. I have no doubt that questions have their own magic, their own charm and their own immortality. I have no doubt that faith is only pure when it does not negate the faith of another. I have no doubt that evil can be fought and that indifference is no option. I have no doubt that fanaticism is dangerous. And of all the books in the world on life, I have no doubt that the life of one person weighs more than them all.
Contact the Museum of Jewish Heritage— A Living Memorial to the Holocaust at 646.437.4202 or log on to MJHNYC.org.