In early March, when flare-ups of hate speech and anti-Semitism at Oberlin College made the news and The New York Times ran a story raising the number of concentration camps to a startling five figures, Elie Wiesel expressed mild surprise. But not shock.
He was merely curious about Oberlin, where odious messages and graffiti targeting minority groups roiled the campus, saying he thought Oberlin was a music school. And as for the Times story, “There is a certain surprise, on one level,” he said by telephone March 4 from Florida. “So many. Where were they? How come we don’t know the names when we should know the names? But the fact that they didn’t know was no surprise.” A March 1 Times story said researchers cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps.
“The more I know, the less I know,” said Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, 1984 Congressional Medal of Honor recipient and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who will speak Thursday, April 11 at Kent State University. Despite those honors and many more, Wiesel, in a sense, is a study in humility.
He has been teaching humanities, philosophy and religion for more than 40 years and has written more than 50 books. Multilingual, multicultural (a native of the former Transylvania, he originally published in French), Wiesel has combated anti-Semitism all his life; the memoir, “Night,” his debut, instantly made him an authority on it – and on the Holocaust. He may be the Holocaust’s most famous survivor.
“Night,” Wiesel’s brief, stark account of his experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, was originally written in French and established Wiesel’s reputation. It tells how Wiesel, then 15, and his family were deported from their Transylvanian home to Auschwitz and later to Buchenwald. He lost his mother and one of his three sisters in the Auschwitz gas chambers; he lost his father to the Buchenwald crematorium.
Since 1976, Wiesel has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, where he also holds the title of university professor.
Born in 1928, Wiesel is a world figure. And when he’s not teaching or addressing gatherings, he is writing. “Before I finish one (book),” he said, “I’m starting another one. I alternate between fiction and nonfiction.”
Even though he said he tries to avoid being involved in politics, he is. His own website acknowledges that, describing him as “a devoted supporter of Israel” and citing his work on behalf of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, victims of apartheid, victims of famine. Call him an advocate of conscience.
He also is no stranger to controversy. People have challenged details of “Night” and questioned whether he bears a tattoo of the number the Nazis assigned him, for example. And in 2010, Wiesel took out a full-age ad in The New York Times criticizing President Barack Obama for urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Some also have criticized him for smudging the uniqueness of the Holocaust by also working on other examples of genocide.
Honored in 2011 in Washington, D.C., for inspiring a global movement of Holocaust remembrance, Wiesel will be a part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum this month. He fondly recalled participating in the opening ceremony with then-President Bill Clinton. “It’s good that in America, the leading democracy in the world and one of the great powers, that they should give so much of their intelligence, their compassion, their commitment, to something that happened to the Jewish people and to the world,” he said.
His primary mission is to combat anti-Semitism, he said, citing the German-Jewish sociologist Hannah Arendt, author of such works as “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”
“Hannah Arendt said somewhere that of all the diseases that were cured in the 20th century, the only one that was not is anti-Semitism,” Wiesel said. It is the “oldest collective tragedy in history,” and no one understands its continuing virulence. “We are hated for being too rich or too poor, too ignorant, too nationalistic, or too internationalistic. We are simply hated for what we are. The Jew is hated for being.”
What is the solution? “Education. Whatever the solution is, surely education is part of it.
“For me, as a Jew, anti-Semitism is part of hated and hatred is what we should denounce,” Wiesel said. But denouncing doesn’t mean vengeance; “I don’t believe in vengeance,” he said. Rather, it’s an ongoing struggle, a matter of continuing pushback.”
As for forgiveness, Wiesel is “not in the field.” However, if someone, say, in Cleveland, approached him seeking it, forgiveness might be a possibility. It’s an individual matter.
“As a Jew, if you are religious, every day you repeat Maimonides’ 13 articles of faith: I believe, I believe, I believe, I believe. I do that every day,” Wiesel said. And while despair is in constant battle with hope, Wiesel said he puts his eggs in hope’s basket.
Is there hope of resolution regarding anti-Semitism? “There must be,” Wiesel said, “because without hope there would be no culture, no civilization, no life.”