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Wiesel speaks to sanctity of learning, power of memory

Mark Caro

5:04 PM CST, November 11, 2012

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Elie Wiesel didn't need Holocaust deniers to lend immediacy to his discussion about the importance of learning and memory, but there they were anyway, three men standing outside the Symphony Center Sunday morning holding an anti-Semitic banner and barking such nonsense as, "There never was a Holocaust."

"Hopefully he doesn't reproduce," one woman muttered about the group's leader as she stepped inside.

The bile outside, of course, was no match for the eloquence, poignancy and good humor of the 84-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner. Wiesel's writings, inspired by his experiences in Nazi death camps, earned him the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, which he received Sunday as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Wiesel was interviewed on stage by Tribune critic Howard Reich, himself the son of Holocaust survivors and writer of the book and documentary "Prisoner of Her Past" about his mother's struggle to come to terms with her ordeal.

Reich spent time with Wiesel in New York for a profile that ran recently in the Tribune, and the pair had an easy, warm rapport as interviewer prompted interviewee to tell of a life devoted to education and wrestling with faith. In his deep voice, inflected with an Eastern European accent, the white-haired, trim author spoke of growing up in Sighet, Transylvania (now part of Romania), amid "a culture, a tradition, an atmosphere of learning."

A book, he said, was "a sacred object," and as he looks back at his boyhood self, he wonders: "Have I changed that much? I'm still looking. I'm still searching. I'm still wondering. And as much as I find something new or old or very old and very new, which is the same thing, there is a joy, a joy of discovering again, of learning."

Also part of life in the 1930s — as much as snow in the winter, he said — were anti-Semitic attacks that took place just about every evening. But it wasn't until May 1944, just weeks before D-Day, that the German army deported the now-Hungary-controlled town's Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, where his mother and younger sister Tzipora were executed upon arrival.

To a hushed room, Wiesel recalled seeing his father being beaten in camp, the father suffering all the more knowing that his son was witnessing his humiliation, the son suffering all the more knowing that his father knew that he knew. They lived for each other, Wiesel said, yet his father did not survive after the two of them were moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp.

A topic that has consumed Wiesel and many others since World War II's end is why people were unable or unwilling to comprehend the scope of the Holocaust as it was occurring. Even in his village, he said, people disbelieved those who reported of massive atrocities against the Jews.

"Why should they believe that human beings are capable of such inhuman behavior?" Wiesel said.

At Auschwitz, he said, he and his fellow prisoners would say, "If only the world knew …" yet after his liberation he discovered that people — at least those in power in many countries, including the U.S. — did know. A simple warning to the Jews of Hungary in 1944 to stay away from the railway station could have sent many into hiding instead, he said, adding, "Had we known, we would have made sure other people had known."

The author, whose memoir "Night" is considered one of the most important works of Holocaust literature, discussed these matters with the sad clarity of having processed these experiences for decades. He did not abandon God, he said, because he felt to do so would be a betrayal of his father, grandfather and teachers who continued to believe despite the horrors they endured or witnessed.

Yet he has also has not excused God.

"In spite of God," he said, "I will continue believing."

Wiesel told a chilling tale of speaking with fellow Auschwitz survivor and author Primo Levi years ago and, noting something dark in his voice, imploring his friend to drop everything to take a trip with him. "Too late," Levi told him, and committed suicide the next day.

"He came to the conclusion that life is not worth living in such a world," Wiesel said.

Wiesel has made no such choice. He did not seek revenge, he said, because "it's not the Jewish way …. My response to the tragedy was my books."

People would tell him, "Turn the page, forget," but, Wiesel said, "That is not the way. Memory has its own mystery and its own mysterious power."

He added, "Without memory, there is no culture …. We Jews, especially, we are defined by our memory and by our link to memory, our passion for memory."

The memories may be painful, but their purpose is positive. "My job as a teacher, as a witness," he said, "is to give hope."

Toward the end of the hour-long program, Reich read some questions from the audience, including one from a 17-year-old seeking the advice that Wiesel would give to young people.

His main points: "Be open to learning" and "Listen to the other, whoever that other is …. Listen and remember."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro