Thursday, June 16, 2011

My Conversation with Elie Wiesel

Human Rights is a term that many people seem to take seriously. My research informs me that the best explanation of what the term means is found in the United Nation’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states in part:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood [sic.]

Many years ago, when I was a seminary student, I had the unique opportunity to join with a half dozen of my fellow students in a sit-down conversation with a man who had all of his human rights stripped from him—a man who had been dehumanized in the most horrible ways. His name is Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel and, if you aren’t familiar with him, I pray that you become so.

I don’t want to take up space recounting his story. If you’ve not heard it, may I suggest that you go HERE? Briefly, Elie is a Jewish survivor of the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Buna, Buchenwald and Gleiwitz. He tells his story in many of the books he has written.

The first of his books that I read is perhaps the most powerful: Night. It is biographical and covers the period from 1941, when Elie was twelve years old through the years during which his family and neighbors discounted the dangers posed by the Nazis into 1944 when the Jews of the town are transported to German concentration camps. What follows is the horror of dehumanization:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed....Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. Chapter 3, pg. 32

I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time. Chapter 4, pg. 50

When they (the guards) withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son. I was fifteen years old. Chapter 7, pg. 96

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me. Chapter 9, pg. 109

In April of 1945 Elie was liberated from the Buchenwald Concentration camp, where his father died shortly before the camp was taken by Soviet soldiers. After the war he became of journalist and has dedicated his life to telling the story of the Holocaust because he believes that, with out the story, the horror will happen again and again.

During our conversation with Elie Wiesel back in 1985, I was struck by his humility and gentleness. This man who, as a child, had been stripped of his human rights—of his basic humanity—spoke softly of the past and of a future in which all humanity must be on guard to combat indifference, intolerance, and injustice—all of those things that lead to dehumanization and the denial of human rights. He said, “If humankind forgets the story of the Holocaust, it will happen again.”

Perhaps not enough of us have heard Elie’s story. Perhaps we have forgotten the evil and horror of the Holocaust. Perhaps we have been so centered on our own comfort that we’ve looked the other way when human rights have been denied our brothers and sisters—when genocide after genocide has occurred since the Holocaust:

  • Pol Pot in Cambodia: 1975-1979 (2,000,000 Deaths)
  • Kurdistan (Iraq): 1988 (182,000 deaths)
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1992-1995 (200,000 Deaths)
  • Rwanda: 1994 (800,000 Deaths)
  • Darfur: 2003-present (600,000 and counting)

I've gone everywhere, trying to stop 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.” ~ Elie Wiesel

Education in the key to preventing the cycle of violence and hatred that marred the 20th century from repeating itself in the 21st century. ~ Elie Wiesel

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  1. Nick,

    I am in awe that you actually sat down with Elie Wiesel!! I can't even tell you!

    Elie Wiesel's story and books changed my life. Not only is he my favorite author of all time, he is the personification of all that represents human kindness, decency, wisdom, courage, authenticity, brilliance, humility, strength...on and on. His writings changed my view of the human condition. After reading "Night" many years ago, I distinctly remember the moment that happened. I was never the same after reading it.
    It should be required reading for the entire world.

    He was a peacemaker before I even fathomed what that meant.

    Oh, to meet him. You are blessed.

  2. Nick, you truly are one-in-a-million. This is a beautiful tribute to Elie Wiesel and an inspiration to each of us to "be there" where there is injustice.

  3. Wonderful post, thank you for reminding us of Elie Wiesel and all he went through. He is a truly saintly person who has dedicated his life to others wherever he sees a need. Amazing that you have met him in person.

  4. Excellent post, Rev Saint. I like the colorful changes you have made to your blog.

  5. Elie Wiesel WAS required reading in my high school. Not only that, the man himself came to my classroom to discuss the book "Night" and answer our questions. I think the year was 1982. Truly the bravest man I have ever met. He made a lifelong impression on me. Thank you for reminding your readers of him.

  6. A marvelous story. Thank you, SSN, for sharing it.