Persuading tomorrow to remember

June 7, 1996

It is not easy to be optimistic in a world that has slaughtered your family and incarcerated you in the hell of Auschwitz. But Elie Wiesel tries. He talks to Huw Richards.

When I dream about my childhood, it is in Yiddish." The dreams no doubt are fine, it is the nightmares that one is reluctant to ask about. On one level the slight, softly-spoken grey-haired man seated in the lounge of an expensive West End Hotel has had a life of which many dream - journalist, academic, campaigner, Nobel prizewinner.

But Elie Wiesel's life has been defined by a period in his mid-teens. After a happy childhood in the Jewish community of Sighet - then in Hungary, now Romania - he saw his mother and younger sister taken away never to return, shared the horrors of Auschwitz with his father, and his native community and culture were devastated beyond repair.

Wiesel, professor of humanities at Boston University, described those experiences nearly 40 years ago in Night, the book which made him famous. In the first chapter of the newly-published All Rivers Run to the Sea, the first volume of his memoirs, he has returned to them. The passage of time makes retelling no easier: "It becomes more difficult because you require a stronger sense of criticism and of self-criticism."

The account is much shorter than Night, itself a vastly-reduced version of the earlier When the World was Silent, written in Yiddish. But it adds agonising detail - the bald opening sentence "I never really knew my father" piling further pain on another new and harrowing passage - a graphic description of his father's death, calling for the son who lay only feet away, forbidden by guards from going to him.

Such memories, intolerably moving even to someone who has little more than mere humanity in common with their teller, inevitably define subsequent life. "Psychologists say that once someone has been tortured, they remain tortured for life," he says. He writes that the question he has asked himself persistently is "Have I justified my survival?".

That survival was, he believes, a matter of fortune. He lost the conscious will to live after his father's death late in January 1945. And he rejects any suggestion of a higher will at work. "If it was God's will, why should he have saved me rather than others who were more deserving?" Some survivors, like Wiesel's friend and fellow-writer Primo Levi, end by taking their own lives. "So many of my friends have committed suicide," he says. He cannot explain why, but suggests that writers may be more vulnerable than most. "They have only their words to explain what has happened. If you feel those words are not getting through to the reader, it becomes intolerable."

His own success in communicating is the more remarkable in that it has been largely accomplished in French rather than his native Yiddish. He went to France as a postwar refugee. Language as much as country provided a refuge. "I needed something new in my life. I had lost a skin and the language was like a new skin, a new home. Not a new identity, but a different envelope - Yiddish before, French now."

But he still cherishes his native tongue. The one word he would choose to sum up his writing is "memory", and an important element in those memories is the vibrant frontier-crossing Yiddish culture of his youth. "It was a real, living culture. There were about 19 papers in Vilna and 22 in Warsaw." He still thinks in and uses Yiddish: "It has melodies no other language has". His recent visit to Britain was to speak to the Oxford Institute for Yiddish Studies and, contemplating vigorous academic interest in the language in both Britain and America, he asks: "How can you not be optimistic?" That appears characteristic. Journalist and academic, he has lived by seeking the answer to questions. Against the odds a core of optimism, or at least of hope, apparently survives.

It is not an easy world to be optimistic in. One mild regret is that he helped to popularise the word "Holocaust" and has seen it devalued by overuse. "Everything is a holocaust now and the word loses its meaning. Auschwitz was a climacteric in human history. It cannot, must not be equalled or surpassed." His reaction to events in Bosnia and Rwanda is "chiefly anger that we haven't learnt anything. Where human rights are being attacked, I am a convinced interventionist."

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a brutal personal blow. "I still feel the pain and cannot imagine that it has happened." Having met Rabin at his military peak during the six-day war in 1967, his subsequent incarnation as a peacemaker came as no surprise. "I remember the compassion he felt for his defeated enemies, how much he hated the killing. He was a great warrior, but one who knew that peace must come."

Speaking the day before the Israeli general election, he was careful to venture neither prediction nor preference, but the note of hope is again clear. "Both parties have said that the peace process will continue and I am certain that is right. Israel has gone too far to go back."

His words are chosen carefully. In part this is doubtless the fastidiousness of the professional user and interpreter of words. But there is also the wariness of those who are accustomed to being quoted and scrutinised, a role he regards with unease. "When you win the Nobel prize, people think it makes you a wise man. You are expected to be an expert on science and economics and politics. I had one letter saying 'You have won a prize for peace. Can you tell me how to make peace in my house between me and my husband?"

Scrutiny brings with it controversy, particularly in a community of people who are as much the Contentious as the Chosen Ones. "We argue with God, so is it surprising that we also argue with each other?" But he admits to anger against only one of his critics, Alfred Kazin. "What made me angry was that he questioned the veracity of my account."

Some of his own fiercest criticisms have been directed at fictionalised accounts of the Holocaust. "I am always worried when something is presented as the truth, when it is really drama. My own preference is for documentary". But those strictures do not extend to the best-known recent example, Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List. "His intentions were honest and he is a great film-maker. His film moved millions." The inveterate asker of questions surfaces again in his evaluation. "It has failed if people come out saying 'Now I know'. If they come out saying 'Now I don't know', but wanting to know more, then it has succeded."

That viewpoint also conditioned his reaction to Daniel Goldhagen's controversial book Hitler's Willing Executioners which examined the complicity of ordinary Germans in the Holocaust. "I am less concerned with his conclusions than that he is asking the right questions, important questions which need answering. At some point a change took place and we stopped talking about Germans, and started talking just about the Nazis. But when they came to my village we didn't say 'The Nazis are coming'. We had Nazis in our district. We said 'The Germans are coming'. Not all of the killers were Nazis."

He emphasises that he is not advocating any conception of collective guilt. "I don't believe in collective guilt - or collective innocence." His concern has been with victims rather than killers. But he supports continuing war crimes trials. "Maybe it is difficult to organise a trial more than 50 years after the crime. But it is not nearly as difficult as living as a victim of the crime."

Not knowing the full story, he did not want to comment on the controversy over the proposed Flick chair at Oxford. But he recalled an experience of his own, when asked to give a lecture sponsored by German chemical giant Bayer and alerted by horrified Jewish groups to the company's past Nazi associations. "The head of the company asked me 'What shall I do? What if I apologise for what the company did in the past?' He had the courage to apologise to the Jewish people and for that I respect him."

It was the absence of similar moral courage that ended his long friendship with Francois Mitterrand following revelations about the president's relationship with and protection of wartime police chief Rene Bousqet. "I was closer to Mitterand than to any politician, but in the end I felt he had not been honest with me about his past."

For the past 20 years he has been a professor at Boston University. He feels his earlier career as a journalist has helped with his writing. "I learnt the discipline of having to write, however bad you may feel."

But journalism was always a means to the real end of satisfying a passion for learning. "Immediately after the war in France it was studying that kept me sane, that stopped me from falling into unendurable depression." Today he teaches in the departments of religion, philosophy and literature.

Like a very different North American-based academic, the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, he prefers to keep two or three writing projects going at a time: "It stops me getting desperate. Some of my novels are depressing, and it helps to go back to writing commentaries on the Bible." Volume two of the memoirs is near completion, while a novel and a book on the Bible are also underway.

He saw his home community of Sighet destroyed by Nazism and has since lived in France and the US. After such a life it would be understandable if there were nowhere he felt at home - he once caused a stir in Israel by saying that he "felt at home in Jerusalem, particularly when he was not in Jerusalem". He says. "I feel at home with my family in New York, and then when I am with my students. They provide me with such stimulation."

* Extract from All Rivers Run to the Sea, HarperCollins, Pounds 20.

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