Elie Wiesel on his beliefs
pictured addressing a pro-Israel
rally in New York this month, reminds
the world that “God did not send
down Auschwitz from heaven. Human
beings did it.” Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP
The world’s best-known Holocaust survivor says strangers invariably ask him how he managed to preserve his faith despite his suffering
Perhaps no Holocaust survivor alive today is more widely known than Elie Wiesel, who has written and spoken extensively of his experiences and the need for world leaders to stop human atrocities even outside their countries’ borders.
His first book published in English, Night, recounts his time in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other Nazi concentration camps from 1944 to 1945. It has sold millions of copies since its 1958 publication. Oprah Winfrey recently selected it for her book club.
In Night, Wiesel, 77, writes of seeing babies put into a fiery pit, of living through the camps with his father, of watching his father severely beaten, of seeing Jewish prisoners brawl over bits of food, of a death march between concentration camps and of how everything he saw affected his thoughts on God.
Wiesel’s mother and younger sister were quickly killed in the camps. His father died after a year of starvation and beatings, shortly before the camps were liberated.
A professor of philosophy and religion at Boston University, he has written 47 books, including All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full, his two-volume memoir. He lives in Manhattan.
Wiesel recently talked by telephone about Night, the world’s response to genocide, and the subject Wiesel says more people ask him about than anything else: his belief in God.
Q: What has it been like for you to see this 48-year-old piece of work receive new publicity these last few months?
A: In truth, it came to me as a great surprise. I had already (done) an interview with Oprah, one hour, years ago. I didn’t know, for instance, that my Pocket Book Penguin sold six million copies. I found out from (published reports) … I had no idea.
Q: In what ways do you feel the world has responded properly to the memory of the Holocaust? In what ways has it not?
A: Properly? Now there are museums all over the world. Many, many conferences, colloquia and lessons. That means there is an awakening, there is an awareness.
Where it has failed is, I was convinced that if the world was to receive the testimony of the Holocaust, it would improve itself, it would become a better world. And it hasn’t. … Leadership is important. And it’s failing.
Q: What is it like having strangers ask you if or why you believe in God?
A: You know who asks me the most? It’s children. Children ask, “How can you still believe in God?” In All the Rivers Run to the Sea, I speak about it. There are all the reasons in the world for me to give up on God. I have the same reasons to give up on man, and on culture and on education. And yet … I don’t give up on humanity, I don’t give up on culture, I don’t give up on journalism … I don’t give up on it. I have the reasons. I don’t use them.
Q: How often do people ask you this question?
A: Whenever there’s a question-and-answer period after a lecture, inevitably the question comes up. Inevitably. I still (can’t) remember once that I gave a lecture on philosophy or on history or the Talmud or the Bible (when it didn’t come up) at one point. It’s `How come you — or do you — believe in God?’
Q: How do you respond to people who no longer believe in God because of the Holocaust?
A: I ask them, `How can you believe in man?’ After all, God did not send down Auschwitz from heaven. Human beings did it. And most of them were cultured, educated. The (Nazis) were led by people with college degrees, some of them with doctoral degrees, some with PhDs. Then they don’t know.
Q: Why do you think people ask you these questions?
A: It is for their sake. They want to understand. Look, a very religious person would not ask me this question; only if that religious person has some anxiety or some doubt, then that person wants to know how I deal with that anxiety and that doubt. And I say, `Look, I have faith. It’s a wounded faith.’
Q: There’s a story about Jews in Auschwitz in Karen Armstrong’s book, A History of God. Maybe you’ve heard it: A group of Jews in Auschwitz put God on trial, on charges of cruelty and betrayal. They find God guilty and worthy of death. As Armstrong tells the story, the rabbi who was in Auschwitz pronounced the verdict and then looked up and said that the trial was over because it was time for evening prayers.
A: Karen Armstrong is quoting me, actually.
Q: Does that story help explain the roots of your own belief, maybe to someone who doesn’t know you, in that these people have seen these horrible things happen and they’re angry with God but it doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in God?
A: Surely, I think it’s one of the elements. For me, it’s not only that. I want to follow the tradition of my father and my grandfather and his grandfather. I don’t feel I should break the chain.
Q: Why is it that it bothers you when people suggest God helped you survive the concentration camps?
A: It doesn’t bother me. But I don’t accept it. … If God helped make a miracle for me, he could have (done so) for others worthier than I.
Q: What is it like having the whole world know what you went through, of knowing that people feel that they know the pain you went through even before they meet you?
A: I don’t want people to know what I went through; I want people to know what the Jewish people went through and, therefore, beyond it and by that, (what) the world went through … what humanity has done to itself by allowing the crimes to be committed against my people. I write as a witness, and a witness must tell the truth.
Q: Do you have a lot of people tell you Night makes them think of their own relationship with their father?
A: A lot of people say that, that what they’re moved by mainly is the father-and-son relationship. But you know, that has been haunting me in every one of my novels. … In all of my novels, I always come back to the father-son relationship.