Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel Decries a Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism at Home and Abroad
11/29/1982 at 01:00 AM EST
Shortly after the Beirut massacre last September, terrorists armed with grenades and guns attacked worshipers leaving a synagogue in Rome, killing a 2-year-old boy and wounding 34 others. In August there were eight such incidents in Paris, including an attack by gunmen on Goldenberg's restaurant in the traditionally Jewish Marais district that left six people dead. Even in the United States, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith has reported that anti-Semitic incidents—mostly vandalism and harassment—increased in 1981 for the third year in a row. Such news is particularly troubling to novelist and essayist Elie Wiesel, 54. Born in the Transylvanian village of Sighet, Wiesel (pronounced We-ZELL) survived imprisonment in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but his parents and younger sister perished in the camps. A U.S. citizen since 1963, Wiesel has devoted his life to exploring and intensifying the Jewishness the Nazis tried to exterminate. He shares a New York apartment with his wife, Marion, and their son, Elisha, 10, and commutes each week to Boston and Yale universities to teach humanities. The rest of the week the slender author lectures peripatetically or studies and writes in his book-crammed study. Wiesel expressed his growing concern and outrage over the latest signs of renewed world anti-Semitism to Eric Levin of PEOPLE.
At a lecture this fall, you said 1982 has been for you "one of the most difficult years since 1945." What has made it so hard?
As a child, I took it as a law of nature to be hated by the non-Jew. It was clear to me that if I went on the street, sooner or later I would be beaten up. After the war I thought that Auschwitz and the other concentration camps had discredited anti-Semitism to such a point that never again would decent people allow themselves to be identified with it. I thought the condemnation would be irrevocable. But here we are in 1982, with the last of the Holocaust survivors still around us, and the world has not changed.
Why do you say that?
When I heard, on Rosh Hashanah, about the Beirut massacre, I was sick, physically sick. But I must also say I was terribly distressed by the world response. Nobody claimed Israelis did the killing; they said Israelis knew and didn't stop it. Which is bad, very bad. But what about the killers, the Christian Phalangist militiamen? Who will bring them to justice? There was a certain relish with which some people criticized Israel. Not with pain, but with relish. And that proved to me once more that anti-Semitism was in disguise until now and that the ice broke very rapidly.
Are you minimizing the horror of the massacre?
Never. I'm telling you I couldn't sleep at night. Those in Israel who knew about it and didn't prevent it should be brought to justice. The very moment it happened Begin should have appointed a commission to investigate.
How do you feel about Begin often using the Holocaust as a justification for Israeli actions?
I find it objectionable whenever anyone uses the Holocaust for political or other purposes. We who went through it don't talk about it lightly or often. The word has become fashionable, and that is wrong.
How do you distinguish between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism?
Those who loved Israel and applauded it when it did something good and now say it deserves some criticism, that's one thing. But many of the people who attack Israel now either were not heard from before or said the same thing before. Therefore, they are not credible witnesses. Is it anti-Semitism? I could not apply this terrible word to everyone.
What are the most significant examples of anti-Semitism you see?
There are more incidents—swastikas, beatings, curses, vandalism. Attacking the synagogue in Rome, naturally. And also the lack of outrage in the world about it.
Is anti-Semitism also taking subtler forms?
Yes. That's how it begins. At times it's almost intangible—the jokes told in a certain way. The defensiveness if you point it out. But the ultimate is the concentrated attempt now to demystify the Holocaust. Meaning, in a way, to take it away from the Jewish people.
What do you mean?
Until now, somehow the Jewish people were shielded by the Holocaust. But other people began resenting it. We became their bad conscience. All over Europe and even in America, since the Lebanese crisis began, you heard and read that Israel committed genocide, perpetrated a Holocaust. Which was nonsense. These people said it to create an inversion, meaning, "Yes, there was a Holocaust, and you are doing it. So do not claim any more moral rights. Don't talk to us about the Holocaust anymore." The Palestine Liberation Organization observer at the United Nations speaking about "Judeo-Nazis"—my God, the blasphemy, the obscenity of putting these words together.
Is it possible that continuous reminders about the Holocaust create ill will?
What is the alternative? To turn away? I would rather err on the side of ultrasensitivity. In the long run it is the safer course. Paradoxically, only when we tell the story of what happened to the Jewish people can we save other people.
Don't you risk looking for offenses where none are intended?
I don't look. If I were to look, I would find a thousand times more. Even so, I admit it may be possible that I overreact. But, really, how could I not? I don't remember a period since 1945 when so many of my friends who are Holocaust survivors have had nervous breakdowns, all reacting to the anti-Semitism that was a reaction to Lebanon and the massacre. I have one such friend in Israel, one in France, another in New York State. In addition, in the last couple of years seven writers I know who are Holocaust survivors have committed suicide because they felt what they had said had no effect. People don't change.
Do you hold the U.N. responsible?
I don't understand politics. I only know that when I see the United Nations becoming a spectacular forum of anti-Semitism today, it's rather disgusting. Who are these nations that have dared to judge Israel? The great democracy of Uganda under Idi Amin? The great democracy of Libya under Qaddafi? Iran under Khomeini? It's a farce. The U.N. could have been beautiful, but it gave in to the pressure of oil. Not ideals, but oil. It's a cynical experiment in history, and history will never forgive it.
Could anti-Semitism in the U.S. ever reach fanatical heights?
The Holocaust was not committed by an underworld group but by government officials at the highest levels. I cannot imagine in my worst nightmares the Supreme Court and the Congress of the U.S. ever allowing this to happen.
What are the causes of anti-Semitism?
There is more than one answer. The economists would say it begins with a poor economy. For centuries, the Jews were a perfect scapegoat. Even in this country, if the economy gets much worse for an extended period of time, then some people will say Jews caused it. In the early days of Christianity, church fathers dehumanized the Jews by depicting them as satanic Christ killers. Historically, Jews have represented the stranger, and the stranger evokes suspicion and ancestral fears.
Can anti-Semitism be stamped out?
I'm afraid the answer is a despairing one, unless we take stock right now and do something drastic—create a moral climate in which the offenders would feel outcast. I'm thinking of organizing a summit conference on anti-Semitism with 200 world scholars, Jewish and non-Jewish, to explore why people hate, why it sometimes becomes a mass psychosis. I'd like to conclude it with a manifesto adopted at a ceremony in New York attended by at least 10 heads of state.
Can you bring this off?
I think so. Whether the manifesto will be implemented is another thing. And yet I still believe in spite of everything there are some good people.
Did you mean just now to paraphrase Anne Frank?
No. My philosophy, in two words, is "And yet." When I am very sad, I close my eyes and say, "And yet." And when I am less sad, I also close my eyes and say, "And yet."
Are you ever happy?
Do you have belly laughs and go bowling and watch movies?
Laugh, yes—naturally, if I read something good. But I don't have any relaxation, any sport, any pastime.
How do you live without those things?
I don't know. I work a lot. I belong to a very strange community—people who came back. My time is not my own. It was an accident I survived. I was too young, too timid, too weak. I didn't do anything to survive. Therefore I must justify my existence now. Every minute is a minute of grace.
Are you endangering your health?
You know doctors. They say "Cool it" and "Slow up," but I don't think about it. People say there are cranks in the world, I should be more careful. But I have seen danger in more serious places. I'm going to start taking that seriously now? Once you think in those terms, what good are you?
How do you feel about the militant way the Jewish Defense League responds to anti-Semitism?
I really do not believe in violence. I still believe that words should resolve problems. Should there come a day when I will realize maybe they are right, it will be a very sad day for the Jewish people.
What should be done?
I believe in tolerance, but here I am not tolerant at all. I would ostracize an anti-Semite. I would say to him, "Listen, we live in a democracy, so if you want to believe these things it's your privilege. But you should do it openly. That way everyone knows you choose sides, the side of Eichmann and Hitler and Himmler." If all of us were to say that, I think we could manage to control anti-Semitism and perhaps even eradicate it for a while.