Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. In this clip from a 1991 interview, Nobel Laureate and human rights advocate Elie Wiesel tells Bill Moyers about his 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 toward human being, a new God. An SS man was God. We had no right to look at an SS 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 toward 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.