Elie Wiesel to journalists: Never stop the search for meaning

Elie Wiesel, witness to the Holocaust, did not die at Auschwitz or Buchenwald. He survived for more than 70 years. His death this week at the age of 87 brought tributes and reflections from all over the world. He was a familiar figure in my town, St. Petersburg, Florida, where he wintered, teaching students at nearby Eckerd College.

Early in 2002, I visited him there with Gregory Favre, then-president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Together Gregory and I invited him to address the ASNE convention in Washington, D.C. that April, and he generously agreed.

I had the honor of introducing him. In his remarks, which I will share in an edited form, Wiesel spoke to journalists about their mission and purpose. The mood was somber. Not only were we still reeling from 9/11, but Daniel Pearl of The Wall Street Journal had just been beheaded for being a journalist and a Jew.

ASNE titled the session: “Harvest of Hate: What Can You Do About It?” What follows is my introduction, a condensed version of Wiesel’s remarks, and an abridged question-and-answer session:

Clark: …For me, the most consoling message after Sept. 11 came from Elie Wiesel, in an essay for Parade. “One thing is clear,” he wrote, “by their magnitude, as well as by their senselessness, the terrorist atrocities constitute a watershed. Yes, life will go back to normal; it always does. But now, there is a before and an after. Nothing will be the same.”

Yes, life will go back to normal. It always does. It was the prophesy of future normalcy that filled me with hope. To suffer the things Elie Wiesel suffered as a boy at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, to see the things that he had seen, to remember the things he remembers, for such a man to speak of hope, of normalcy, seemed in the Hebrew word, a mitzvah, a blessing, but always with a before and an after.

….To help us achieve wisdom, healing and consolation, we turn to Elie Wiesel. It has been said that the true goodness of a person is written in the heart, a text readable only by God. But if a person’s goodness on earth is to be measured by words added to deeds, then Elie Wiesel, by all accountings, is a man of immeasurable goodness.

He’s been called many things: journalist, author, memoirist, philosopher, scholar, humanitarian, conscience, rabbi, even prophet. He’s uncomfortable, I know, with that last title, not just out of humility, but because he knows too well what happens in the end to prophets. He prefers the name of witness: witness of memory, witness to the truth, witness to the power of language, witness to compassion, witness to hope. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and friend, Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel: Thank you, Roy, good friend. I used to be a journalist, for many years. I was in Paris first and then New York, always a foreign correspondent. And there is something in me still of my journalistic awareness — impatience and also eagerness to know what is happening around me, sometimes in me.

Journalists love questions, so do I. Problem is that you like answers, and I have no answers. I like always to remember when I was in Paris after the war. I came to France in 1945, not knowing a word of French, and now all my books are written in French. I learned fast. At one point I had to decide, should I study music? I love music. I was in an orphanage in France, and I was then a conductor. And my idea was maybe I should become a real orchestra conductor.

And, I thought, “What would you have if I became a conductor?” So, I decided to study philosophy.

I came to philosophy because of the questions, and I left it because of the answers. There are no answers, really. Real questions you know very well, have no answers. Yes, there are questions that need immediate answers and you get them. But to existential problems, to essential questions that face human beings, the answers are not there, especially when we deal with the now.

Roy talked about before and after. In my life, there are some before-and-afters — of course the war. I am not what I used to be. When I was younger, I was a very, very religious person…I would never look at a girl, which I tried to compensate for later on. Now, I am not like that.

Had there been no war, I think I would have remained somewhere in my little town in the Carpathians. My ideal then was to be a commentator and writer on the Bible and the Talmud…. Now, I am a teacher and a writer, but I don’t write the same things, although I do study the same things. I still study Bible every day. I study Talmud every day, and all the other things. So there was a before and an after.

Now, too, there’s a before and an after. Life is not the same anymore. Why? Because it’s filled with more uncertainty than before, and the questions we are confronted with are more urgent. I’ll give you an example.

What I don’t understand about 9/11 is what you don’t understand. How could it happen? We have intelligence agencies. We spend billions of dollars. How is it possible that nobody knew? Second, how is it possible that these 19 suicide hijackers could grow up in our culture, in our society? Some of them lived three or five years in our midst, and they haven’t learned anything from us? What does that say about us? Haven’t they learned about the value of democracy?

Haven’t they learned about the strength of our moral commitment when the chips are down? And, then, I don’t understand, “What did they want to achieve?” My God, they had a country under their control, Afghanistan. They had bases there. They had money. They have many, many attributes of a state, which means there was a terrorist state. And they could have done much more.

So, why did they do that? They lost in a way. And then I don’t understand how some people — especially in the Middle East — I don’t like to criticize nations or communities, it’s not my style, nor my intention — how some people still see them as heroes? How is it possible? You read in your papers, I’m sure, that so many of them — in the millions — believe they didn’t do it….It’s impossible, they said.

So what is it about terrorism that it has gained such respectability? Now, surely you remember when you were students. You studied the history of Eastern Europe, or Europe in general. There were times when terrorism was romantic. There were called nihilists. They were called revolutionaries. They had ideals. It began, I’d say in Russia in the late 19th century, the earlier 20th century. They wanted to get rid of the czar. And there’s a story, which always enchants me because of its humanity.

At one point, they decided to kill the governor of St. Petersburg (Russia). And everything was ready. They followed him around. They knew exactly what he would do on that Sunday, every minute. And on every corner there was a girl or the boy with a gun or grenade. On Sunday he would go to church in his carriage, except that Sunday he decided to take his children with him. And they couldn’t do it. These tough revolutionaries who were ready to die, to go to Siberia…they couldn’t kill children.

Today, that’s not it. Terrorists today kill mainly children, because they are the symbol of our innocence and the symbol of our future. So what is it about a society that produced such terrorists?

Oh, there are many things I don’t understand today. I don’t understand the devaluation of words. Something happened to our language, and I am as responsible for it as you are, because we use words. That’s my life. That’s yours. In our country, at least in English, there are certain words that had to be changed for — I don’t know for what reason. For instance, governments no longer lie. All they do is disinformation.

There are no more poor countries. There are only developing countries….What’s wrong with telling the truth: That a poor person is a poor person, not a “developing” person? And that goes the other way around, too. I found, for instance, that the language itself has become very violent. If the book is a success, you call it a “hit.” There’s an explosion of joy. Well, “explosion” means violence. It is something about the language itself that receives our own transformation of sensitivity. We cannot face certain realities; therefore, we disguise them….

If I were a journalist today I would have a problem. To cover news as news, I can't think how I would do it. I think I would have to add the philosophical dimension… meaning to go always deeper, as I’m sure some of you do, always deeper in the story — not only the what — but the why now? And how long will it last?

I owe you my sincerity. I go around since 9/11 with a very heavy heart. I think what happened in New York is not the end of the process; it’s the beginning of a process. Who knows where it will strike again and in what way? And why?....

So I [speak] about memories of courage and hope. It’s difficult to speak about hope when you speak about the Holocaust. But where else should one speak of hope? So, in spite of all the fears that I go around with and the sadness, I do believe in hope. Why? In truth, if I think only of myself, really, I would surely yield to despair. I have good reasons for that. But if I think of my students, your children and mine, I have no right to give them despair. So, with my nails, I’m trying to wrestle hope from the hopelessness. There must be hope. And because there must be, there is. Thank you.

Cesar Andrews, Gannett News Service: You expressed some concerns about coverage overall and some sympathy for journalists’ attempts to cover such a complex story. I think you said that if you were covering this story, you would strive to add more philosophical dimension to the story of the Middle East. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Weisel: First, if I was to do that I would be fired right away….I mean that I would not only give the story itself, which of course I must give, but somehow almost go beyond that and say, “All right, it happened, what do we do now?” With the first set of suicide bombers, I would bring it there somehow. I would ask a philosopher, “tell me, as a philosopher, what do you have to tell me about the philosophy of suicide bombing?” I would ask a psychologist, “What do you have to tell me?” in the same story, because the suicide killers are terrible.

When young people give up their lives, it’s an indictment, first of all. The young people become not only suicide victims, but killers. It’s a greater indictment. I would try to bring that anguish into the story itself. What does it mean?

And that is a question I ask myself since I can remember. When I studied Talmudic literature — whatever the legal element they are trying to explore — it’s always “What does it mean?” A young man can come into a Netanya hotel where Jews are observing the Seder, which is the freedom of slavery, so important. We are celebrating freedom from slavery, not only from physical slavery under the Pharaoh. There is also intellectual slavery, political slavery, economic slavery. What does it mean to want to be free? And he uses that moment of freedom to kill. He killed 27 people. Families were wiped out. What does it mean?

If I would try to do it [as a news reporter]…I would be fired right away. There’s no doubt.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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