Wiesel Stresses Forgiveness
By Suzanne Dean for The Deseret Morning News
Nobel Peace Prize Winner Elie Wiesel
EPHRAIM — Asking for forgiveness is the responsibility of every sinner, and accepting it the obligation of each victim, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel told an overflow crowd at Snow College on Monday night.
"I don't believe in collective guilt," Wiesel said. "I don't believe in collective punishment, I believe in the responsibility of every individual."
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.