Holocaust survivor recalls monstrosity past but keeps hope

Elie Wiesel answers the phone for an interview and, before the first question can be asked, offers one of his own.

Your newspaper, he asks. Is it a daily newspaper?

Yes, it is.

"I used to be a journalist for 25 years," Wiesel explains with a chuckle, and, even today, he feels "empathy" with journalists.

"I’m sad," Wiesel adds, "that the printed press is going through such crisis."

Only after the interview has ended does the thought occur that the exchange shouldn’t have been surprising. Wiesel’s gracious attempt to learn about a stranger before talking about himself lies at the heart of what he has spent his life doing: seeking to understand people, both individually and collectively, and, for good or bad, what they do.

Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor and the author of more than 50 books, including "Night," a deeply moving memoir of his own Holocaust experience that has become a key volume in the canon of Holocaust literature. He’s also a college professor, humanitarian and human rights activist whose roster of honors includes the Nobel Peace Prize.

On Nov. 17, Wiesel will travel to Las Vegas to be honored by the Adelson Educational Campus for his literary accomplishments and human rights activities.

Wiesel, for all of his international accolades, reveals himself to be an easy conversationalist during a recent telephone interview from the New York City office of his foundation, The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. His voice – one that should be instantly recognizable to anyone with even a passing interest in 20th century world history – is kind, pleasantly accented and punctuated with an occasional quick chuckle.

Above all, he is patient, graciously answering questions he surely has been asked thousands of times before and which, understandably, he might wish never to be asked again.

Wiesel was just 15 years old in May 1944 when he and his family were taken from their home in what is now Romania and deported to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister died there.

Wiesel and his father later were transported to Buchenwald. His father died there shortly before the concentration camp’s liberation in April 1945.

Does Wiesel ever wonder what his life would be like if fate – destiny, whatever – hadn’t thrust him into the role of eyewitness to the Holocaust and, perhaps, humanity’s conscience? Wiesel begins his answer by rejecting the latter part of the question.

"Conscience is personal," he says. "I’m nobody’s conscience, and I would like all of those who read me and other teachers to feel the same way: Conscience is very personal."

However, Wiesel continues, "I occasionally ask myself that question. I would have remained in my little town, and my aspiration, really, was to become a teacher or the director of a Talmudic school – not a big one, just a small one."

"I’m still a teacher, just in a major town, and I write, and I tell the truth. I love to teach, because I love to study. In my classes, I’m the best student."

After the war, Wiesel spent several years as a journalist. However, he would wait 10 years before writing what would eventually become known in its English translation as "Night."

"I made a vow then to wait 10 years, because I was afraid I would not find the words," he explains.

Even in retrospect, it seems risky, if not emotionally dangerous, to share such an intense personal experience with the rest of the world.

"It was difficult," Wiesel says, to willingly be "plunged into the fire, into the shadows."

Was it courageous? "I think not courage," Wiesel answers. "That came much later, when I had to face the leaders of the world. I didn’t know about courage, but afterward, that is what I read by commentators."

Wiesel says his biggest fear was of speaking the truth but having no one listen to it. Publisher after publisher rejected the manuscript.

"I’ve seen the letters: ‘It’s too sad,’ things like that," Wiesel says with a quick laugh. " ‘People don’t want to read such things.’ ‘It’s too macabre,’ and that kind of thing."

Was it, perhaps, just a question of addressing the Holocaust too soon?

"It wasn’t too soon," Wiesel says.

"But the trouble, maybe, was, why should a normal reader in New York or Paris believe that people were like that, that people did what they did to other people, to other human beings? That they created a universe called Auschwitz, that 10,000 people (a day) would be killed? Why would they believe it?"

The almost implausible monstrosity of the event was "exactly what these killers were counting on," Wiesel says. "By going too far, by embracing too much and daring to do things no other state has ever done, they felt the world won’t believe, so they are immune."

In "Night," Wiesel writes that when their train stops at Auschwitz station, the deported Jews on board know nothing of the name’s meaning and assume it to be merely a work camp.

"What pains me is at the end of May 1944, everyone knew the meaning of Auschwitz," Wiesel says. "They knew it in Rome, they knew it in Washington, they knew it in Stockholm, they knew it in London. Everybody knew it, except we Jews from Hungary didn’t."

As Wiesel talks, it’s a beautiful fall day in Las Vegas and (weather forecasts say) a breezy fall day in Manhattan. Does Wiesel ever find it tiresome to be asked – by, for instance, a reporter on the other side of the country – to recall experiences he’d rather not be reminded of nearly every day?

Wiesel laughs. "Again, I feel some empathy for my former profession," he says.

But, he continues, "I don’t talk about it every day."

He pauses.

"I think about it every day."

After all he has experienced, how has he held on to his faith, his hope, his optimism?

"I find hope in children, all children," he says. "I owe them my hope. My students, I owe them my hope."

Yet, more than a half-century later, genocides and political repression still occur, hatred still exists and even Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis remain. Does it ever seem futile?

"Never," Wiesel says. "You are witness. You just bear witness. If it were futile, you would stop.

"A few years ago, I was invited to the United Nations General Assembly, which I accepted. And the title of my talk was, ‘Will the World Ever Learn?’

"I answered, no, it will not, because it hasn’t. If it had learned, there would have been no Rwanda, no Cambodia, no mass murders. Children wouldn’t die of hunger. And, yet, we must continue."

What is it that can make humans behave in such monstrous ways?

"I think I know the question," he says. "I do not know the answer."

But, he continues, "the main thing is education. Whatever the answer is to these questions, education must be a major component."

Does he worry what will happen when the generation that witnessed the Holocaust firsthand passes away?

"I believe anyone who is witness to a witness becomes one," Wiesel answers. "That is our hope and our trust. Therefore, in this case, I am confident."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280.

Mojave Poppy Bees
Male Mojave poppy bees exhibit territorial fighting behavior. The Center for Biological Diversity wants the bee, found only in Clark County, to be added to the endangered species list. (Zach Portman/University of Minnesota Department of Entomology)
Clark County Schools announce random searches
Clark County School District middle and high school students will be subject to random searches for weapons under a new initiative to combat the wave of guns found on campus. (Amelia Pak-Harvey/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss React to Dennis Hof's Death
Ron Jeremy and Heidi Fleiss speak about their friend and prominent brothel owner Dennis Hof's death at Dennis Hof's Love Ranch. (Benjamin Hager/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada brothel owner Dennis Hof has died
Nevada brothel owner and Republican candidate for Nevada State Assembly District 36, Dennis Hof has died. He was 72. Nye County Sherriff's office confirmed. Hof owned Love Ranch brothel, located in Crystal, Nevada.
Las Vegas police investigate suspicious package at shopping center
Las Vegas police evacuated a southeast valley shopping center at Flamingo and Sandhill roads early Tuesday morning while they investigated reports of a suspicious package. (Max Michor/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Las Vegas Metro hosts the K-9 Trials
The Las Vegas Metro K-9 Trials returns to the Orleans Arena to benefit the Friends For Las Vegas Police K-9 group.
Kingman residents love their little town
Residents of Kingman, Ariz. talk about how they ended up living in the Route 66 town, and what they love about their quiet community. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Service at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery
Twelve unclaimed veterans are honored at Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City in Oct. 9, 2018. (Briana Erickson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas house prices reach highest level in 11 years
Las Vegas house prices are rising But so is the amount of available homes on the market Still, properties priced below $300,000 are selling fast And September was the first time since June 2007 that the median house price reached the $300,000 mark Las Vegas home prices have been rising at one of the fastest rates in the country over the past year Recent data show the market is now less affordable than the national average
National Night Out
About 100 Summerlin residents gathered at Park Centre Dr. in Summerlin on Tuesday for National Night Out. Lt. Joshua Bitsko with Las Vegas Metro, played with 3-year-old David who was dressed as a police officer. Face painting, fire truck tours and more kept kids busy as parents roamed behind them. (Mia Sims/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Rural homeless issue comes to a head in Pahrump
On Sept. 12, Pahrump sheriff deputies told residents of a homeless encampment on private property that they had 15 minutes to vacate and grab their belongings. That decision might face some legal consequences. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance blood drive on October 1
A blood drive was held at the Las Vegas Convention Center on the one year anniversary of the Oct. 1 shooting. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Remembrance Lights memorial unveiled at St. Rose hospital
A dedication ceremony was held at St. Rose to unveil a memorial and to read the names of those who died on October 1, a year ago. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive Remembrance Wall
(Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October Blood Drive
Vitalent hosts a blood drive at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, the first anniversary of the Las Vegas shootings. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1October sunrise remembrance ceremony in Las Vegas
Myanda Smith, sister of Las Vegas shooting victim Neysa Tonks, speaks at the sunrise remembrance ceremony at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
‪Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to crowd at Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬
‪Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 1 sunrise remembrance ceremony ‬at the Clark County Government Center in downtown Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Father of Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim talks about college scholarship in his daughter's memory
Chris Davis, father of a Route 91 Harvest festival shooting victim, Neysa Tonks, talks about a college scholarship in his daughter's memory to assist the children of those who died in the shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Oct. 1 survivor Malinda Baldridge talks about life after the shooting
Malinda Baldridge of Reno attended the Route 91 Harvest festival with her daughter, Breanna, 17, and was shot twice in the leg when the gunman fired on the crowd.
Route 91 survivor talks about lack of progress in gun legislation
Heather Gooze, a Route 91 survivor, talks about lack of progress in gun legislation since the Oct 1. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas/Review-Journal) @reviewjournal
Review held in death of man after encounter with Las Vegas police
The mother of Tashii Brown, who died after an encounter with Las Vegas police on the Strip, not satisfied after public review of evidence. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Clark County Museum opening "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials"
The Clark County Museum is opening an exhibit "How We Mourned: Selected Artifacts from the October 1 Memorials" of items left to honor the victims killed in the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Memorial service for former RJ lawyer Mark Hinueber
Mark Hinueber, the Review-Journal's former lawyer and defender of the First Amendment, died in Las Vegas on Aug. 23. Hinueber, who was 66, worked at the RJ and other newspapers for 42 years. On Saturday, his friends and family gathered for a memorial service.
Army veteran honored in Henderson event
Army Sgt. Adam Poppenhouse was honored by fellow veterans in an event hosted by a One Hero at a Time at the Henderson Events Center.
Michelle Obama and Keegan-Michael Key urge Nevadans to vote
Former first lady Michelle Obama and comedian Keegan-Michael Key urged Nevadans to vote at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas Sunday, Sep. 23, 2018. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
Nevada Task Force One Cheers Golden Knights
1 dead, 1 wounded in North Las Vegas standoff
A woman was hospitalized with serious injuries on Thursday morning after being shot inside a North Las Vegas house. Police responded about 11 p.m. to a shooting at a home on the 5600 block of Tropic Breeze Street, near Ann Road and Bruce Street. The wounded woman, police believe, was shot by a man, who later barricaded himself inside the house. SWAT was called to assist, and when officers entered the house, they discovered the man dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Las Vegas Teen Makes Clothing Resale His Side Hustle
Las Vegas resident Reanu Elises, 18, started buying and selling streetwear online when he was a high school junior. Like many other young adults, the world of online resale applications like Depop and Mercari have made selling clothing online for a profit easy. Now, Elises spends his free time at thrift shops looking for rare and vintage clothing he can list on his on his shop. Now in his freshman year at UNLV as a business marketing major, Elises hopes to open a shop of his own one day and start his own clothing brand. He estimates that he's made about $1000 from just thrifted finds in the past year, which he'll use to buy more thrift clothing and help pay for expenses in college. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Fruition Vineyards Encourages Young Entrepreneurs to "Buy, Flip, Dream"
Once a month, young adults gather at Fruition Vineyards on South Maryland Parkway near UNLV to dig through a stack of rare, vintage and designer clothing that's marked down well below it's resale value. Shop founder Valerie Julian began the vent, dubbed "Fruition Vineyards" in August after running her streetwear shop since 2005. The event gives young entrepreneurs the opportunity to "buy, flip, dream" according to Jean. Meaning that they're encouraged to buy the clothing for sale and find a way to resell it for a profit, then reinvest that into whatever dream they pursue: college, a hobby or their own resale business. Shoppers lined up starting an hour before noon on the last Saturday in April for the opportunity and spoke about what they hoped to do with their finds and profits. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Local man goes under cover searching for answers to homelessness
Licensed mental health therapist Sheldon Jacobs spent 48 hours under cover posing as a homeless man in an attempt to gain perspective on the complex issue.
Celebrity photographer dedicates dance book to Las Vegas shooting victims
Behind the scenes with local celebrity photographer Jerry Metellus as he talks about his Dance For Vegas coffee book dedicated to the 58 victims of the October 1 shooting. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @marcusvillagran
Dreamsickle Kids Foundation founder Gina Glass talks awareness
Gina Glass, 35, founded Dreamsickle Kids Foundation to raise awareness for sickle cell disease in Nevada. (Jessie Bekker/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Meadows School founding kindergarten teacher retires after 34 years at the school
Linda Verbon, founder of the The Meadows School's kindergarten program and the first faculty member hired at the school, retired in the spring after 34 years at The Meadows. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Kids become firefighters at Fire Station 98 open house
Henderson residents wore fire hats, learned about CPR and met firefighters at the Fire Station 98 open house Saturday, August 11, 2018. (Marcus Villagran Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
People from all over the world attend RollerCon 2018
RollerCon 2018 is a five-day convention focused on the roller derby community and culture at Westgate in Las Vegas. (Marcus Villagran/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @brokejournalist
News Headlines
Local Spotlight
Add Event
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like