Nobel Laureate Speaks With The LinkIn the 65 years since Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust, there has been no end to ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass murder on a global scale.
Faced with this staggering reality, Wiesel refuses to be discouraged.
“I get angry, I get absolutely angry but not discouraged,” said Wiesel before addressing a packed house in Concordia University’s Hall building on Oct. 19. “If I get discouraged, what good would it do to the victims? They are the center of my activities, of my obsession with justice and compassion.”
Wiesel—a Romanian-born author and Nobel Peace Prize winner—has devoted his life to speaking out against racism, oppression and genocide. Wiesel has been openly critical of the international response to South African apartheid, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians in Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide.
“Rwanda is a mark of shame on the UN and the world,” said Wiesel. “The UN knew it was coming and they did nothing.”
In 2006, Wiesel spoke before the UN Security Council to raise awareness on the civil war in Sudan’s Darfur region.
“The lesson here is do something,” continued Wiesel, adding that genocide is a product of “laziness and cowardice” on the part of the international community.
“The Europeans say Americans should [intervene], the Americans say it’s a European story, let them do it. In the meantime, tens of thousands of people are killed.”
In 1954, Wiesel began writing about his experiences surviving the Holocaust. His 865-page Yiddish transcript, originally titled And the World Remained Silent, was shortened and translated into English as Night. In Night, Wiesel details his dehumanization at the hands of the Nazis, beginning with oppressive laws designed to segregate and ghettoize Jews from the rest of European society and culminating in systematic murder.
“Usually I would say [dehumanization] is gradual,” he said. “But in those days, in those times it was not. The victim had to be plunged into a different world, a kind of parallel creation with its own laws, its own traditions, its own beggars, its own princes, its own prophets. That was it right away, from the very first day. It was an attempt to dehumanize a people.”
Wiesel’s visit to Concordia comes eight years after the infamous Netanyahu riots, when a speech by former and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was cancelled after protesters clashed with riot police inside Concordia’s Hall building.
In the aftermath of the Netanyahu incident, Wiesel criticized Concordia’s management of the demonstration.
“They should have let Netanyahu speak and then protested,” he said. “But to prevent someone from speaking, I am against that. And therefore, I think I owe it to the students of Concordia to speak.”
In the weeks leading up to the Oct. 19 event, activists within the Montreal community took a stance against Wiesel’s speech, claiming his support of the state of Israel contradicts his opposition to institutionalized violence.
Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights issued a statement denouncing Wiesel as “anti-Palestinian” and Bruce Katz, president of Palestinian and Jewish Unity Montreal, told The Link a speech about the Holocaust and its effects should not exclude a discussion about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Gaza.
“I have no position on Israel,” said Wiesel.
Wiesel criticized the UN as being anti-Semitic after its release of the Goldstone Report in 2009. The report found that during Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza, the Israeli Defense Forces targeted Palestinian civilians, used them as human shields and destroyed civilian infrastructure.
“I don’t accept [the report],” said Wiesel. “I know that the entire council is anti-Semitic, from A to Z.”
Wiesel’s stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict was not addressed after his speech at Concordia, as the Concordia Student Union preselected the questions from the audience.
Night Author addresses ConcordiaMemory can be something beautiful, but it can also be reduced to something cheap and vulgar, said Elie Wiesel to a crowd of about 700 at Concordia University’s Hall Building.
Throughout his address, Wiesel—a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor—stressed the powerful nature of memory.
“I try to celebrate memory,” he said. “Because without it culture would not be possible, civilization would not be possible and friendship would not be possible.
“We must remember,” he continued, “to honour the dead, but also the living.”
Memory, he said, can teach the world to learn from its mistakes.
“If we start forgetting, then it would be a crime as potent as genocide itself,” said Wiesel.
Wiesel then shifted his focus to the dark side of memory, recounting a trip he made to Rwanda after genocide claimed the lives of nearly one million Tutsis in 1994. For weeks, Wiesel traveled from village to village, collecting stories from the survivors of mass murder.
“I asked them, ‘why did you hate your neighbour so much?’” said Wiesel. “Because in those days they killed their neighbours […] their cousins. And at one point one of them said to me ‘what do you mean? Three hundred and eighty-four years ago my grandmother was violated by my late neighbour’s grandfather.’
“I said, ‘my god I believed memory can help us,’ but there memory hurt us. Because they remember, they use such terrible methods on each other.”
Wiesel’s lecture was the first of this year’s Concordia Student Union speaker series organized by CSU VP External and Projects Adrien Severyns and co-sponsored by the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies.
“This is about taking lessons beyond the classroom and about starting a conversation,” said Severyns. “That’s why we have a speaker series.”
Since escaping death at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, Wiesel said he has made justice and compassion his obsession. Before the Rwandan Genocide, he visited former French President Francois Mitterrand and pleaded for him to intervene in the conflict. His pleas fell on deaf ears.
Frank Chalk, president of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, introduced Wiesel with an anecdote about their first encounter in 1996.
“[Wiesel] and I spoke about the use of radio to spread the use of hate propaganda in Africa,” said Chalk. “Especially a secret radio station that was broadcasting from Zaire to fan hatred between Hutu and Tutsi.”
Chalk said Wiesel offered to speak to President Mitterrand, and within months the station’s signal was jammed with Israeli-supplied equipment.
“I never found out if Wiesel was behind that,” said Chalk. “But if [he was] I thank you, Elie.”
Wiesel concluded his speech by advocating education as a tool against indifference, which he considers to be one of the most dangerous elements of human behaviour.
“Whatever the situation, indifference is not an option,” said Wiesel.
This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 11, published October 26, 2010.