|AND THE SEA IS NEVER FULL|
December 22, 1999
RAY SUAREZ: Elie Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor and a writer. He's dedicated his life to the remembrance of the Holocaust and of its victims. Wiesel is a prolific writer with 40 books and countless articles and essays to his name. He's also traveled the world on behalf of the disenfranchised. He's been awarded the presidential medal of freedom, the French Legion of Honor, and in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. And now he's written the second volume of his memoirs "And the Sea is Never Full," covering the last 30 years. Good to see you. In the first chapter of your book, a phrase jumped out of the page at me and sort of caught me up short. You said, "I am not a symbol." And that kind of struck me because in many ways to many people around the world, you're exactly that.
ELIE WIESEL, Author, "And the Sea is Never Full:" I don't want to be a symbol. Symbols come and go. You can take it and simply erase a symbol from the page that you have before you. I'm a human being. We are all human beings. Therefore, I have my faults, my virtues maybe, my inspirations, my ambitions, my dreams, my moments of joy, my moments of expectation, of anticipation. I'm not a symbol.
RAY SUAREZ: But maybe you don't have so much control over that when you are invited to go halfway around the world to be in attendance at an event because its organizers want a certain ring of truth that is lent by having you there; when you are called on the phone in great haste because somebody wants your signature on an open letter that's going to appear in the "New York Times"-- these things are things that perhaps you don't go looking for, but they come looking for you.
ELIE WIESEL: Oh, actually I don't look for that. It's time consuming. Oh, I understand why. It's mainly because I got a Nobel Prize. Everybody wants a Nobel laureate to have his name or her name on the page, on a petition, I should say. But I'm a writer. I'm a teacher. In both cases, I try to be a witness, but not a symbol. A symbol of what? Of suffering? I don't believe in suffering. A symbol of literature? There are so many good writers, and some of them are great writers. So a symbol of what? Of hope? Hope is so futile. Very often we try to invent it, to recreate it, to create it, to invoke it, sometimes even to cling to it. So therefore the worst... we live in an age now and a society that loves to take an etiquette, a sticker, and give it to a person and that person can do nothing to take it away. It's there. So I'm not a symbol.
RAY SUAREZ: Some of the early years of the book involve your work in trying to open channels of communication to the then Soviet Union, working on behalf of men like Anatoly Cheranski, who are now free for many years. But the interesting thing about reading the book is how unbelievable what's happened now 30 years later is -- when you remember what life was like in the late 1960's and early 1970's.
ELIE WIESEL: Oh, that is true. If anyone had told me when I was in the Soviet Union the first time in 1965 that I would live to see the downfall of communism, the opening of the gates, the change of the moods or the atmosphere, the structure, I wouldn't have believed it. But then it's not the only thing that to me is miraculous. When I was in South Africa in '75, if anyone had told me then that I would see the end of apartheid, I wouldn't have believed it. So, so many things have happened in this century, the second part of this century, that are miraculous.
RAY SUAREZ: The Israeli peace process?
ELIE WIESEL: Oh, Rabin... I was here in Washington when Rabin and Arafat met. And it was a very special moment to see these two men who were enemies. It was enough for them to meet and to shake hands and to say certain words, good words. And everything changed.
RAY SUAREZ: Also, during these same years covered in your memoir, Israel is threatened by its neighbors, and in a way, watching those events from here in the united states, you speak to the relationship of American Jewry to Israel, which has also been in flux.
ELIE WIESEL: It's changed there, too, because there was a time when the Israelis-- for good reasons perhaps, although I don't accept them-- they felt in a way to superior. We are Israelis. We have achieved what we wanted to achieve. We are here in Israel. Destiny goes through Israel. Therefore, they look at us with condescendence at best. I was asked to go to speak in Jerusalem and I spoke. I couldn't deliver my message. I published it, but I didn't say it.
RAY SUAREZ: Some Jewish writers have talked about a post Holocaust Jewry, where the religion and this terrible single historical event become intermingled in a way that some suggest isn't good for either of them.
ELIE WIESEL: No it's not good and I agree actually. I don't know to whom you refer, but we should not become a morbid people. If we deal with the Holocaust only, then we must become morbid. There is so much sadness in that chapter. There's so much tragedy. There's so many corpses that we cannot avoid falling into despair. I believe it's wrong. We cannot ignore it. We shouldn't. We should keep it alive. The memory of those victims must be alive in a way but they must find ways to do it in order to enhance our dignity and theirs and not to follow into morbidity. There are so many areas in Jewish culture and the Jewish tradition, in Jewish religion, if one is religious, in Jewish life, that are so beautiful. Therefore, I believe we must explore them and have the totality of the experience become our memory.
RAY SUAREZ: As survivors age and depart this life, as the world becomes more inter-connected, there's a Holocaust memorial museum right here in Washington D.C., Do you have to worry about who owns this memory, who becomes a guardian of the flame? Because you talk yourself about how the word has become overused and compared to too many things.
ELIE WIESEL: First of all, we must listen to the survivors. They are the custodians of these memories, and then to their children, to their allies. We are witnesses. Those who listen to a witness become witnesses.
RAY SUAREZ: So is the Holocaust a universal event or one that, in a special way, still belongs to the Jewish people?
ELIE WIESEL: I think it's a Jewish tragedy with universal implications and applications.
RAY SUAREZ: And the 21st century will provide a special kind of challenge though as people who are first-person witnesses to these events are less and less with us.
ELIE WIESEL: That is true, but there are so many documents, millions of them. No tragedy in recorded history has received such attention from everyone: From the participants, from the victims, from their children, from the witnesses, from old, from religious, from agnostics into millions, and they have pictures as well. Again, no event in history has been covered by so many people. So therefore I do not believe that one must be afraid of that tragedy being forgotten. I'm afraid of it being trivialized, cheapened but not forgotten.
RAY SUAREZ: Because you write with almost a rage about deniers in particular.
ELIE WIESEL: Yet. The day that it doesn't matter that much, I would never grant them the dignity of a debate. What they do is ugly, and some of us have shown that we know how to fight injustice, but how do you fight ugliness? Racism is stupid and the deniers are stupid and ugly, morally ugly, morally sick. Therefore, I would not really enter into a debate with them... Ever.
RAY SUAREZ: Elie Wiesel, thanks for being with us.
ELIE WIESEL: Thank you.