On Tuesday, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Elie Wiesel at St. John’s College in Annapolis. The auditorium seated hundreds, and was standing room only.
When the author of Night stepped onto the stage, the crowd stood and applauded. Wiesel, who is in his eighties, bowed graciously to the audience and seated himself behind a small table. He spoke for an hour and a half with a richly accented voice. During his remarks there wasn’t a sound.
Born in Transylvania in 1928, Wiesel survived Nazi Camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His mother and father, did not, however, so he was sent to a Paris orphanage following the liberation in 1945. He has published over sixty books, including Night–one of most haunting and memorable accounts of the holocaust ever written. He started the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, fights injustice and intolerance in the world, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
Wiesel opened the lecture by saying that when he visits colleges, they always show him the stadium first. At St. John’s, they showed him the library. (This was much appreciated by the audience of one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in the country, modeled after the Oxford style of using great books. ) He said that the silence of the library is a great comfort to him. He said that there is a “different tonality–a different dimension of tenderness to listen to books, two thousand years old, talking with each other.”
One of the first topics he discussed had to do with our interaction with the written word, and how we must enter into what we read to find its beauty. He said that we must read sacred text or text of great value over and over again, in a different way each time. He said that words have power to give passion or poison, and it is our obligation to use them to bring people together, rather than tear them apart.
Wiesel also spoke of his campaign against indifference. He said that indifference is the greatest enemy of love and of life and of education. We must care deeply about suffering and injustice, even when it is a world away. We must try to eradicate it. We must never give up hope.
He addressed the strength of his faith even after what he suffered. He can’t comprehend the depths of the evil of the Nazi’s, he questions God, he struggles with doubt, but he said that he must continue. He is bound to God, and even in his pain and fear and perplexity, he must continue with Him.
Wiesel credited Pope’s John the 23rd and John Paul the 2nd with helping open a dialogue between Christians and Jews, and fostering the ecumenical spirit. He said that he does wish that Muslims had been included in those meetings, and that scholars of all religions should meet often to study their sacred texts together.
In spite of the weight of his words, and the seriousness of his lecture, it was punctuated with much humor and lightheartedness. Elie Wiesel radiates hope and tolerance in spite of the horrors he has endured.
In conclusion, I’ll leave you with his mantra:
Think higher and feel deeper.