An Evening with Elie Wiesel: The Q&A

by Olivia Goldman

Barnard College/Asiya Khaki ’09

Last Thursday, Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate, holocaust survivor, and author of Night, a staple of so many high school curricula, came to Barnard. Whether fans of his novels or aware of his reputation and his remarkable life story, interested students waited over an hour for seats before the event. The Diana Event Oval was packed. You could feel the depth of the audience’s excitement and the intensity of their wide gazes. With the rising and falling of a European-Yiddish accent, Wiesel softly addressed a hypnotized audience in a continuous stream of profound positivity and inspiration. The rhythm of his sermon seemed to be punctuated only with applause and the hush of emotion and nodding heads.

Wiesel stressed justice, equality, and the value of teaching and learning, as well as the interconnectedness of all communities and the dangers of apathy and indifference. Everything he said was with remarkably unrelenting optimism, despite horrors he had witnessed that might otherwise inspire bitterness and desperation.

“Even in the midst of darkness, it is possible to shed light and share warmth with one another. Even at the edge of the abyss, it is possible to dream exalted dreams of compassion. It is possible to be free and strengthen the ideas of freedom even within prison walls. Even in exile, friendship, the greatest of all gifts, becomes an anchor.”

While less spellbinding than his prepared remarks, the question and answer session led by President Debora Spar proved just as intriguing. President Spar began with her own question about how the world knew about concentration camps like Auschwitz when the people of German-occupied nations were left in the dark. President Spar asked whether or not this situation of oblivious victims and something like Auschwitz could happen again, setting up for Wiesel to make a comment on social media, in that the likes of Twitter and YouTube provide a constant flow of critical information. Although Wiesel didn’t take the bait, the question instead led to the first directly political statements of the evening. Here, Wiesel deviated slightly from his positivity.

“There is a man in the world called Ahmadinejad,” Wiesel began, met with chuckling from the audience. “He goes around in New York and the United Nations saying openly and repeatedly that he wants to destroy the Jewish State…. I say, why don’t we arrest him? And bring him to The Hague. There he would be charged with a plan to destroy an entire people—genocide, which is a crime against humanity.”

Wiesel went on to explain that one of the great weaknesses of the Jewish people before the war was the lack of their own country, and that the difference between then and now depends on the existence of Israel. “When you hear the prime minister of Israel say that even he will do everything possible to prevent Ahmadinejad from having a bomb, I believe him. So, can it happen again? I hope not.”

Wiesel’s faith in the goodness of man seems unwavering—however, he is not unrealistic in his beliefs that the Jewish people, or any other people, may be subjected to hate crimes and persecution. A people without a voice, or without the ability to make themselves heard, can too easily be silenced.

President Spar continued on to the next question, from a Barnard alumna and second-grade teacher, about the important life lessons that should be taught by educators. Wiesel answered by underscoring sensitivity as one of the most important lessons that a teacher could impart on his or her students. “To the beauty of Art, to the pain of another, to the dream of some other… that I think is what education is all about.” Wiesel closed the thought by coming back to his perceptions on the dangers of apathy. “Insensitivity is almost a disease.”

The final question, from Hannah Rosenbaum BC ’14, President Spar asked how Wiesel and so many survivors, who have experienced so much injustice, come out “not bitter, not hateful, but instead committed to justice and goodness… how does that happen?” Wiesel responded, “What would it have done if I had become a bitter, angry, hateful man? It’s not our style. I’m a Jew. The Jewish people since the beginning of our history, especially since the destruction of the second temple… have been persecuted by so many classes and tribes and regimes. If we had chosen to hate those who persecuted, there would be no end to that hate. Is that the answer? I don’t think so. I’m a student of that tradition.” In a memorable moment, Wiesel summarized, “We are not allowing ourselves to go down to the level of the hater.”

Lina Katayeva BC ’13, said of the event, “I thought what he said had a lot of resonance for any generation… Overall, it was a very touching experience, especially when he was talking about education and sensitivity.”

On Wiesel’s remarks about Ahmadinejad, Katayeva continued, “I that was surprised he even mentioned Israel, considering there’s a mixture of people here… but I understand where he’s coming from.”

Olivia Goldman is a junior at Barnard and Editor-In-Chief for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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