Wiesel Tours Utah, Speaks At Snow
By Jessica Ravitz The Salt Lake Tribune
Nobel Peace Prize laureate lectures on suffering and forgiveness
EPHRAIM — People in the room called him a hero, one of the greatest among mankind, a spokesman for the Jewish people, the essence of humanity.
Elie Wiesel, internationally acclaimed humanitarian, activist and author, autographs one of his books at a reception at Snow College before he delivered a lecture at the Ephraim campus. (Ryan Galbraith/The Salt Lake Tribune )
Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, world-renowned Holocaust survivor, humanitarian, professor and author of more than 40 books, made a whirlwind tour of Utah on Monday. He came to receive an honorary doctorate from Snow College, where he also delivered the Tanner Lecture on Human Values. But before he rushed off to Ephraim, Wiesel came to Salt Lake City's Jewish Community Center, where a sold-out crowd of more than 300 people hung on his every word.
Wiesel, 77, spoke briefly of his childhood and the violin he played. But the music stopped during the war. And after he had survived Auschwitz, Buna and the death march to Buchenwald, Wiesel - who landed in France after the war - was faced with a choice. He could pursue music or study philosophy. He chose the latter.
"I came to it because of the questions," he said. "I left because of the answers." Later, he explained further that questions unite people; only answers divide them.
For 30 years, Wiesel has been a professor of philosophy and humanities at Boston University. He said bringing students together and teaching them to question yet always respect one another is his greatest passion.
There were some in the crowd for whom Wiesel's visit was especially personal. Abe Katz was one of them. Katz, a Salt Lake area Holocaust survivor was in Auschwitz and Buchenwald at the same time as Wiesel, and yet, it took a luncheon in Salt Lake City for the two to meet.
The visit from Wiesel left many misty-eyed. Comforted by his wife and daughter, Leonard Haas, a University of Utah professor, broke down in tears. "Six million people couldn't be here today, and among them, most of my family," he said.
Wiesel also met with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. before he flew south to Ephraim.
His lecture in the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts drew 1,400 audience members who filled the auditorium, lobby and overflow room.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach introduced Wiesel as "the greatest living Jewish man of all," and thanked him for questioning the presence of God in the face of atrocity.
"Where was God?" Boteach asked the hushed audience, before listing off the crimes against humanity during the Holocaust and in, among other regions, Kosovo, Cambodia and now Darfur. It was Wiesel, Boteach said, who affirmed the "right to wrestle with God and to question God."
"Suffering does not confer any privileges," Wiesel told the audience. "It's what you do with it" that matters.
He turned to his roots - the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition - in discussing forgiveness. He referred to a "great teacher" who once taught him that of all the characters in the Bible, God is "the most tragic figure."
"He created a good world, and he looks down and says what are they doing to my world?" Wiesel said.
"God was not angry at people for rebelling against him," he said. "God is angry when his creatures do not live in peace with each other."
A college official estimated a crowd of 1,600 attended Wiesel's speech for the Tanner Lecture on Human Values. People not only filled the concert hall where Wiesel spoke, but also a nearby theater, classrooms and the lobby of the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, where they heard the lecture over a public-address system.
Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, has devoted his life to keeping awareness of the Holocaust alive. A ritual that is part of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of atonement, illustrates the proper approach to and complexity of forgiveness, he said.
During the ceremony, people recite a prayer in which they ask for forgiveness from anyone they may have humiliated or harmed. Three times, the listeners refuse to forgive. "After the refusals, it falls on you to ask my forgiveness for not forgiving," he said.
Wiesel said he had often been asked if he could ever forgive the perpetrators of the Holocaust. He wasn't sure how to answer. Then, while in Jerusalem for the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, he recognized a man on a bus who had been one of the guards at Auschwitz and who had beaten him on occasion.
At that moment, he realized the former guard was doing what he had been ordered to do. He told him softly, "Don't worry" about what had happened years ago.
Another time, he spoke at an annual memorial in Germany for Holocaust victims. He told the audience, which included German leaders, that Germany had done a lot of good for Jewish people since World War II. It had become a democracy, an ally of America, and had paid reparations to families of concentration-camp victims. However, "you have never asked the Jewish people for forgiveness," he said.
Within a short time, he said, the German prime minister visited Israel and, in a speech to a legislative body, asked for forgiveness.
Wiesel also talked about the importance of speaking out against inhumanity, even if you can't stop it.
"The enemy has succeeded in pushing his cruelty beyond the limits of language," he said. Under such circumstances, one might be tempted to fall silent. But silence "is not an alternative," he said.
He told the audience they couldn't free all the people around the world who
are unjustly imprisoned. "But we can speak out to the one and say, 'You
are not forgotten,' " he said. When a person who is being abused feels
abandoned, "that is true torture."
Earlier in the day, Wiesel spoke at the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City and met with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. The center chartered a bus to bring about 50 of its members to Ephraim for the lecture.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who has a national cable-TV show, has been a personal friend of Snow College President Michael Benson since the early 1990s, when both were at Oxford University. Boteach was instrumental in inviting Wiesel to Utah.
In introducing Wiesel, Boteach said the lecture was the realization of a dream Benson and he had discussed 15 years ago. The two believed that the LDS community to which Benson belonged and the Jewish community "could be united by what we believed," and they talked about bringing an internationally known Jewish figure before a LDS audience.
"To have one of the most respected men alive come out to this college in Ephraim, Utah is a phenomenal accomplishment," Boteach said.
"Night," Wiesel's memoir about his Auschwitz experiences, is currently on the New York Times bestseller list. Oprah Winfrey, who selected the book for her book club, will be interviewing Wiesel at the Auschwitz site during segments of the Oprah Winfrey Show airing this week.