Elie Wiesel on Humanity, Violence and Retribution

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In observance of International Human Rights Day we present this 1991 Moyers Moment from Facing Hate with Elie Wiesel. In it, Nobel Laureate and human rights advocate Elie Wiesel talks with Bill Moyers about his own childhood experiences at Auschwitz and addresses our capacity for humanity, inhumanity, violence and retribution.

MOYERS: How many members of your family perished in the camps?

WIESEL: Innumerable uncles and cousins and- every Jewish family in Eastern Europe really was the same.

MOYERS: You lost your mother and your father, your sister-

WIESEL: And my little sister and uncles and cousins and grandmother and grandfather and so many.

MOYERS: You said that Himmler and Mengele and the others didn't hate the Jews because- was it because they didn't see you as human or-

WIESEL: We were not human for them. We were what they called "subhumans," and you don't cry when a subhuman cries.

MOYERS: A beast, a mineral, an object.

WIESEL: Not even an animal, but an object. Because what they tried to do- you know, I believe, in general, they had a theory. They really wanted to create a universe parallel to our own. They wanted to reinvent creation. And in that universe, in that creation, a new language was invented, a new attitude towards human being, a new God. An S.S. man was God. We had no right to look at an S.S. man in the face, because you cannot look into God's face and remain alive. And therefore, in their concept of the universe, we were subhuman, unworthy of living. So what did they do? They shrank everything. Let's say, from the universe, we went to a country and a country to a town, from a town to a street, from a street to an apartment, apartment to a room, from the room to the cellar, from the cellar to the train. It's always smaller and smaller -- from the train to the gas chamber. And then the person, who was first a person, became a prisoner, and the prisoner became a number.

MOYERS: And the number became an ash.

WIESEL: Ash, and the ash itself was dispersed. When you think of what they tried to do us, they were relentless. They lost the war, and they still wanted to kill Jews and to annihilate Jewish memory.

MOYERS: Did you see them as human?

WIESEL: That is, of course, the question of all questions, that you asked in the very beginning. Is humanity good or is humanity evil? At the time, I didn't think in these terms. It's only much later, when I began thinking and searching and doing my own inquiries. I think that they wanted to dehumanize the victim and, in doing so, they dehumanized themselves. But at the beginning, they were human. Their own acts, their own projects dehumanized them.

MOYERS: I remember reading in one of your books about the Russian prisoners at Buchenwald who, when they were liberated, commandeered American jeeps, drove into the nearby German town and killed the civilians there for simply having lived outside beyond the barbed wire. The Jews didn't do that, apparently, and I've often wondered, did the Russians have the right idea? Did they reconcile more fully with death and the dead than those of you who, all these years, have been weighed down by your inability to reconcile what happened?

WIESEL: I don't have an answer to that. That was a very special day. It was the day of liberation, and the Russian prisoners of war suffered as much as we did, maybe because of their military training. What was my training? I was a student. I brought into the war, into the camps, a bag thick with books, as much as with anything else. More than food, I had books. So therefore, my point of reference was books -- words, ideas, memories -- not acts, not gestures. I cannot condemn them. I do not. Who am I to judge? But I remember that when liberation came, really, our first community, created immediately, was a community of prayer. We gathered, and we prayed, and we said Kaddish, the Prayer for the Dead. /

MOYERS: Do you ever find yourself wishing that perhaps -- or thinking that perhaps – it might have been better for you to have done what the Russian soldiers did?

WIESEL: I never felt any attraction towards violence. I never tried to express myself through violence. Violence is a language. When language fails, violence becomes a language; I never had that feeling. Language failed me very often, but then, the substitute for me was silence, but not violence.

Watch the full conversation between Bill Moyers and Elie Wiesel.

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  • Bishop Andrew Gentry

    would that the world would listen to his wisdom! 

  • Lee Anderson

    I write this not as a jew or even as a particularly religious person, but only as one who has given some thought to the plight of the jewish people throughout history. I think the reason they would not have even thought about retaliating against the German people after the war was because they understood what it was to be God’s chosen people. It is not a blessing but more like a curse. They were chosen to bear the worst burdens life can send them and yet not waiver in their faith in God. It is their mission from God to be an example of the power of faith, no matter how horrific the trials may be.

  • Anonymous

    The Russian soldiers retaliated because they were (A) genuine soldiers who were (B) part of a state military — The Red Army – that was at war with Germany, and (C) allied with the American Army. The Jewish prisoners wanted justice, but they were people without a country, never mind an army. If Israel had been in the same situation as Russia during WWII, I’m sure that rescued Israeli POWs would have taken vengeance on German civilians too. WWII was hellacious.

  • Jennifer Lane

    He judges no one but does say that dehumanizing others is what will eventually dehumanize oneself. He also says that when words fail we have other expression choices, and that among those choices are violence and silence.

  • Anonymous

    For the sake of the wholeness of his humanity I wish Elie Wiesel could come to a place where he could define himself as other than – as more than – a victim of the Shoah.

  • Guest

    If evil could be considered a virus, WWII would be its black plague. Think about it, three so called civilized nations all turned perverse and monstrous at he same time. I have wondered, in an age as overwired as ours, if it could happen again. And sadly, I think it could. When kids are posting beatdowns and rapes because they think they are funny, I weep for the future. The best lesson to learn from the Holocause is that it only takes a few people do drive a nation, and a world, into darkness.

  • Anonymous

    If evil could be considered a virus, WWII would be its black plague. Think about it, three so called civilized nations all turned perverse and monstrous at he same time. I have wondered, in an age as overwired as ours, if it could happen again. And sadly, I think it could. When kids are posting beatdowns and rapes because they think they are funny, I weep for the future. The best lesson to learn from the Holocaust is that it only takes a few people to drive a nation, and a world, into darkness.

  • Orsinimedici

    I agree Old Poet!! We’ve already got the 1% who has no heart for humanity, nor the enviroment, as they are quite content to destroy our beautiful planet for their own profits. Violence has become the norm and language. The countries living in peace at this time in history are far fewer than those at war. That we haven’t blown ourselfs out of orbit by now is nothing short of miraculous!! The forces for good are working overtime!!!!!! And they must never be silent or stop, or game over!!

  • orsinimedici

    I am not a Jew and have lived though so many excruciating challenges, and still my faith in a loving, and forgiving God is unblemished!! We ALL have to trust that we are here to endure whatever this earth throws our way, and we will be embraced by our maker one day, and will be given answers. I could not live on this planet if I did not trust in that inevitability. We also need to use the intelligence we were born with to look at the conditions that make this kind of nightmare possible. What is going on in American politics with regard to corporate billions being pumped into lawmaking and elections, is what is setting the stage for so much misery here and around the world, and the eventual catastrophe it will bring!! If we do nothing to stop it, we cannot blame God!!

  • Grampie R

    What a tangible and vital word is “dehumanizing”! The interview brought me to a similar place as the preceding post but in terms of how, in the United States, we’ve been able to first ignore and even dehumanize the ever-growing poor, while we citizens — thinking we are outside the barbed wire — allow a tiny number of our fellow humans to blithely acquire all wealth. There is a passive acceptance of the right of unlimited individual entitlement. It makes us a cowed society.

    Bill asks whether the freed Russian prisoners who killed those outside the gates, or the freed Jews who did not, were in the right. The poor are not sent death camps. But the growing separation dehumanizes us all.

  • j

    ? I have never heard him do this. He does so much with his life and makes all of us aware of what took place in history. You sell him so short.

  • S – B

    I completely disagree… it takes a lot of people to close there eyes and allow what happens… it is is never a couple of people. NEVER forget that everything that Adolf Hitler did was LEGAL!

  • WVB3

    There are many today that do not believe the Holocaust happened. We need him to do what he does to teach and remind the world what happened and that it can happen again. And it is. With Putin in Russia for example.Don’t think for one minute he couldn’t go that far. History repeats itself if we don’t learn from our mistakes. This man is vital to our future.

  • Meredith Anderson

    I think the Nazis and their supporters did what all abusers do. They refused to look at their true motivations, perhaps feelings of insecurity and low worth after WW1 and probably also lots of anger about the repressive, cold way in which it was typical to treat children there at the time. Like all abusers, they did not want to do the work of dealing with those feelings , so they took them out on other people. Then, as long as they were not being self aware or honest anyway, they lied further and said , “I am not bad because I do bad things to you, I do bad things to you because you are bad.”
    I really think the degree to which a person is kind or cruel is the degree to which they are willing to be self aware and honest, and the degree to which they are willing to do that depends on how selfish they are. Come to think of it, that’s really not very deep. Oh well. Selfish people are mean, mean people are selfish.

  • Meredith Anderson

    Actually , I think that it ironic that we talk about evil as “inhuman.” It is so common, it is really very human, sadly!