As the author and renowned Holocaust speaker Elie Wiesel concluded an April 11 roundtable at Chapman University, Justine Volkman, a senior at the school, shed a few tears. Asked why, she didn’t mention any of Wiesel’s dozens of inspiring works or the fact that his health today is a significant concern. Instead, she said, “I see someone that, despite everything he has been through, he really is young at heart.”
Wiesel had just completed an hour-long roundtable with about 20 students at Chapman and was nearing the end of a weeklong visit to the school, his fourth annual as a distinguished presidential fellow.
Meeting with the students in a room just down the hall from Chapman’s impressive Holocaust library, Wiesel’s youthfulness shone through his aging body. He spoke with humor, passion and clarity, and looked sharp, sporting a black suit, blue shirt and his signature white, disheveled hair.
He appeared to enjoy interacting with the students, engaging in back-and-forth dialogue, and when a film major asked him why he had said he doesn’t like films, given their ability to influence people, he looked at the student, and responded warmly with a smile, “I like films — but not mine.”
That Wiesel still makes the cross-country annual trips to Orange County from New York City — only a few years after open-heart surgery — shows how much work he feels he still has to do. Aside from the scores of books he’s written, the dozens of honors he has received and the multitudes of world leaders he has met, Wiesel is still working hard to impress the lessons of the Holocaust on as many people as he can, and on one group in particular — students.
His desire to pass the mantle to a younger generation, to create new witnesses — a lifelong theme of his — was evident at Chapman. He pleaded with the undergraduates to “never underestimate your own capacity” to rectify evils that they see in the world.
“Usually, the answer is, ‘Who am I?’ ” said Wiesel, in his thick Romanian accent, commenting on what he feels is a misplaced humility among people who feel they can’t make a difference. But, he reassured the students, “If you do it, your friends will do it.”
Later, during a separate interview, I asked him where people who want to right wrongs might begin, given the number of injustices in the world. Wiesel responded energetically:
“I had that outlook: Where do I begin? My answer is, always, begin anywhere — just anywhere. Go to the hospital and try to help cancer patients. If a beggar stops you in the street, lend a hand. Begin there, put something in his hand.”
To the roundtable, Wiesel tempered his call for action with some caution. While he emphasized that these advanced students, who had earned the prestigious title of “presidential scholars,” must use their education for noble purposes, he reminded them that academic degrees are no guarantee of morality, referencing the large number of well-educated Nazi soldiers.
“Ph.D.s, and they became killers,” said Wiesel with an exasperated laugh. “I couldn’t believe it. They have doctoral degrees. How is that possible?”
The solution, he implied, is to infuse everything with morality. “Any behavior has to be moral behavior,” Wiesel said.
When I asked afterward how he thinks moral people can be created, Wiesel answered quietly, almost sadly, “Nobody knows. To create an immoral person,” he said, “is too easy.”
One of Wiesel’s most striking and inspiring qualities is his apparent humility. He patiently answered questions without glancing at the clock, gave his time and posed for photos for whoever asked. When our interview began, he even pre-empted me by asking questions about my own background.
Yet, his expression of doubt about his own influence, as well as that of his works, seemed surprising.
“I don’t think that now, the Jew that I am, the man that I am, [that] I had that power,” he said.
Relenting, though, he admitted: “I have influenced some people, mainly young people.”
And, indeed, the Chapman students hung on his every word, such as when he referenced the brutal 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in broad daylight in New York City as an example of indifference taken to the extreme. Or when he advised them to always keep a book about World War II on their nightstands.
“It will help you understand the other book that you are reading,” he said.
Although Wiesel is best known for “Night,” one of the defining works on the Holocaust, he was quick to point out that most of his writing does not touch on the Shoah, which he prefers to call the Chorban — destruction.
He even predicted with some confidence that he doesn’t think another such destruction will happen again to the Jews. “Something happened then which [was] absolutely abnormal,” Wiesel said. “There will not be another.”
Toward the end of the interview, Wiesel shared a little-known story about an encounter he had with former President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, which, he said, led to the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Wiesel traveled to Washington, summoned by Carter, and the president indicated to Wiesel that he wanted his help in erecting a statue to memorialize the Holocaust.
“I said, ‘Mr. President. I’m a Jew. We Jews don’t believe in statues,’ ” Wiesel recalled, chuckling. Instead, he suggested to Carter, “Why not create a museum?”
The result is a museum that has served as an essential witness to the Holocaust, guiding more than 36 million people through its exhibits and testimonies.
And now, Wiesel hopes to do with students what has been done with the Holocaust Museum — create witnesses and testimonies through all of his interactions.
“Each year, he becomes more concerned with students and how we are going to take this education and use it,” said senior Kayla Camacho, who has now met with Wiesel over the four years of visits. He is “pleading to students to continue this burden of testimony.”
Acknowledging that this is not all Wiesel is doing, and that he is still working as hard as ever — though he wouldn’t disclose the topic of his next manuscript — Camacho added, “I want to know what he sees in store for the rest of his life.”
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