Elie Wiesel was a keynote speaker at the Chicago Humanities Festival in 2012 having been awarded the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize. His emergence onto the stage at the Symphony Center was met with a standing ovation the likes of which I have never experienced before or will ever experience again. It was the type of ovation that builds upon itself—sparked by awe and excitement and appreciation for one of the great voices for peace and justice. The applause was a wave, starting high, waning briefly, and then rising again and again driven by emotion. I can’t remember how anyone in the Symphony Center convinced us to stop applauding and sit down so the interview could begin.
The audience’s response, while appropriate in honoring Wiesel’s accomplishments, was somewhat at odds with the understated manner that was present in all of Wiesel’s writing. So much of Wiesel’s brilliance derived from his ability to tell a story so simply and beautifully in so few words.
Of course, Night is the most familiar of Wiesel’s work. Originally a much longer narrative, Wiesel begins with his spiritual tutelage from Moshe the Beadle and ends his descriptions shortly after the death of his father. Night does not explain why the atrocities occurred—other writers can explore the political and economic and societal factors that preempted the rise of the Nazis. Night is the story of first a community and then a family and finally an individual who could never have anticipated what would happen next because every aspect of the Holocaust defied imagination.
Here are some of my most prevalent memories from Wiesel’s interview (which you can hear via podcast). I was surprised by the thickness of his accent—I’m not sure why I was surprised given that he was born in present-day Romania and wrote most of his books in French. Wiesel was very funny, even when telling stories about discrimination from his childhood: “The anti-Semitism was not a surprise. In my belief, summer it was raining, winter it was snowing, and antisemites are in the streets waiting for me. It was part of nature, so to speak.” Wiesel answered pre-written questions from Chicago school children including one about whether Wiesel still has nightmares related to the Holocaust (“yes”). He talked about a conversation he had with Primo Levi three days before Levi’s suicide in which Wiesel tried to convince Levi to visit him, but Levi said it was “too late.”
My hope for Wiesel’s legacy is that history will remember Wiesel for his many books in addition to Night. The Wiesel novel that I read most recently is a must read for any theater fan. In The Sonderberg Case, Wiesel’s protagonist Yedidyah is a theater critic who, though circumstance, has been assigned to cover a murder trial in which defendant Werner Sonderberg pleads, “Guilty… and not guilty”—some questions cannot be answered by choosing one of two predetermined opposites. As Yedidyah reflects on Sonderberg’s unique trial, he considers his past including his relationship with theater. He remembers these words from a mentor—“My advice to you is to never stray from the theater. It’s your world, your universe, I’m even tempted to say your salvation. It will justify your life and give it meaning.”
Perhaps what distinguishes a philosopher is his/her ability to change the world with a few words. For me, I heard those words on November 11, 2012, at the Symphony Center when Wiesel explained despair. Wiesel taught that despair should not be the answer but rather the question.* Injustice occurs throughout the world in all facets of life—genocides, hate crimes, discrimination, bullying, slander, ignorance—all symptoms of a human race where so many lack empathy for the struggles of others. Stories of suffering are so commonplace that we often skip over the headlines or switch channels without realizing the extent to which we have accepted suffering.
On July 2, 2016, humanity lost one of its greatest voices. Elie Wiesel, through his spoken words and written words, through the tragedies he suffered and the intolerance that he overcame, helps to remind me that asking questions and considering the pain of others is a small place to start in playing my role in the world… and dismissing the pain of others is never a place to end.
*NOTE: Wiesel spoke about despair in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The following is Wiesel’s complete answer when asked about despair at the Symphony Center (beginning around minute 39 in the podcast):