Elie Wiesel wrestled with himself Thursday night before a rapt, sellout audience of more than 5,000 in the Kent State University Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center and he won. In what were effectively two monologues, the author of “Night” and 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner delivered a lesson in history, literature, philosophy and morality, demonstrating his didactic prowess and his belief in the power of continuity.
The first 20 minutes of Wiesel’s April 11 talk almost fell on deaf ears because his microphone wasn’t turned up; most followed his eloquent words as they scrolled out on giant screens flanking the stage. But his second foray into speech went better. Actually, Wiesel’s appearance was more like musing out loud. It accumulated quiet power as this sage spun his web.
Previewed by Cincinnati native Evan Gildenblatt, a Jewish graduating senior and executive director of KSU’s undergraduate student government, he was formally introduced by KSU President Lester A. Lefton, who noted Wiesel last addressed a Kent State audience 24 years ago to the day. Calling Wiesel “an advocate for the oppressed,” Lefton, who also is Jewish, also paid tribute to Wiesel’s fellow Holocaust survivors and their families in attendance.
A tiny man with a shock of white hair, Wiesel entered to a standing ovation, and then noted that April 11 is a key date in his life. Not only did this particular day resonate for him, so did its counterpart 24 years ago. Most important, so did its template: April 11, 1945, the day Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald. “Night,” Wiesel’s debut, which put him on global map, is an account of his concentration camp stay.
“April 11 is always a measure of what I owe America,” said Wiesel, noting he never goes anywhere without his U.S. passport in his pocket.
His address twined anecdote and homily, constituting a kind of argument in which hope battled despair. He toyed with hope, dangling it before the audience as though he had lost it, only to regain it after a historical exploration. And throughout, he stressed the value of education, the business of the university he was revisiting.
He dreams of books, he said, noting he has written 100 but published only 60. And he doesn’t sleep much: “I always felt that sleeping was a waste of time,” he said.
He remains appalled by the Nazis. “The enemy managed to push its crimes beyond language,” he said, explaining the difficulty he has (and the obsessions that dog him) in telling a story that can never ultimately be told.
“They had education. They had degrees. So what happened?”
“Who am I to understand God?” he asked. While at times he has listed toward faithlessness, he said he couldn’t forget God because to do so would be to betray his religious tradition and negate his parents and grandparents. So continuity is critical, a theme he built on throughout his speech.
While he teaches philosophy and literature, his “passion” is biblical texts – and the manuscripts of Holocaust survivors he rescued from the ashes of World War II and the ashes of memory.
“I believe in memory,” he said. “I believe in memory because without memory, nothing is possible.”
But memory must bear meaning if genocide is ever to cease. “That tragedies happen means we either didn’t remember enough or we didn’t know what to do with memory,” he said.
Every April 11, Wiesel meets friends. They share smiles; the recollections are a given and need not be discussed. That train of thought led to a meditation on hope, which in Auschwitz and Birkenau meant bread, or soup. “Why shouldn’t we train our high school students to bring every day soup for the hungry?” he asked.
After the war, his first concern was his fellow Holocaust survivors. “Every one has a story to tell. Every one is a witness.”
The survivor manuscripts he has collected humble him. “I cannot believe that there are texts more sacred than these diaries,” he said.
As for hope, even if he can’t commit to it, he has no right to deny it to others, he said toward the end, directly addressing his audience. “You deserve your future,” he said, “and anyone who denies that commits a sin.”
As for himself, Wiesel said he’s basically “written about everything,” his constant goal to bear witness, as God instructed the Hebrews to do.
“God alone is alone. I’m not, nor are you.”
After his formal speech, there was a brief question-and-answer session also spotlighting moderator Eric Mansfield, KSU executive director of university media relations. There was no audience Q&A.
Who will tell these stories after the last Holocaust survivor dies? Mansfield asked Wiesel.
“Whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness,” he said, punching the air.