Elie Wiesel draws record crowd at SLU

Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel spoke to an overflow crowd at Saint Louis University on Dec. 1, 2009. Photo: Mike Sherwin

Nobel Prize-winning author Elie Wiesel spoke to an overflow crowd at Saint Louis University on Dec. 1, 2009. Photo: Mike Sherwin

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Meeting Elie Wiesel backstage before he goes in front of a crowd of thousands, there’s no sense in asking for his prepared remarks. There aren’t any. Even the program doesn’t list a topic. So what will the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Holocaust survivor and internationally acclaimed author be speaking about at one of the oldest and most prestigious Jesuit universities in the country?

“I don’t know yet,” he says minutes before appearing onstage. “It comes from the audience. You get a feel for it.”

On Tuesday, Dec. 1, the audience Wiesel was getting a feel for was a standing room-only crowd of 1,800 in the Wool Ballroom at Saint Louis University. Organizers said that approximately 700 more observers watched a live feed of the speech from a nearby room while hundreds more had to be turned away entirely. Wiesel, author of Night, the now-classic book based on his Holocaust experiences, spoke for more than an hour at the event, which was brought to the campus by the Great Issues Committee. He took several questions afterward.

By turns pessimistic, hopeful and humorous, Wiesel exhorted his listeners to recognize their common humanity in order to transcend their differences. He noted his great respect for Catholic beliefs saying that those of faiths other than one’s own should be seen as “fellow sojourners.” Likewise, he urged students to draw meaning from one another along the road of life.

“It is the otherness of the other that humanizes who I am,” he said. “I am defined by you, every one of you.”

Speaking on topics ranging from his travels in the American South during the Jim Crow era to his attendance at the inauguration of the nation’s first black president earlier this year, Wiesel stressed that no person is inferior to another. He also said he still considered himself both a teacher and a student and that there was no substitute for the seeking of knowledge, noting that he found great beauty in the image of people learning from and with one another.

Learning and asking questions, he said, isn’t just a route to understanding but to peace as well.

“Questions never produce warfare,” he said. “Only answers do that.”

At other times Wiesel waxed less optimistic. Acknowledging that it sometimes seems that the world has spun out of control, he spoke frankly about the effect – or lack thereof – that his seminal work Night had had on a planet that would go on to live in the shadow of mass murder in Cambodia, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and brutal butchery in Rwanda and Darfur.

“In the beginning we thought if we could tell the story, it would prevent more,” said Wiesel, a survivor of both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. “It hasn’t.”

Still, that isn’t a reason to give up. While it may seem history is going mad, such a feeling is nothing new, he said.

“We live today in dangerous times,” he said. “But this is always true. All times are dangerous.”

Instead, Wiesel noted that his own generation had had so many reasons to abandon hope but refused to do so. He encouraged his audience to reject defeatism and move toward what he termed “an ethical sense of history.”

“Indifference becomes more than just an attitude. It becomes an answer,” he said. “Always the wrong answer.”

Wiesel, who in addition to his Nobel, has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, said people should spread a desire to learn rather than fight with one another. The decision between an open hand and a fist was a choice, he noted.

“Now, we are all witnesses to each other,” he said. “Not only is truth human, it is communicable.”

A handful of protesters briefly interrupted the question-and-answer portion of the evening, holding up signs saying “Go with us to Gaza” and “I am a Holocaust survivor.”

Wiesel replied, “I have heard you.”

Wiesel concluded his remarks with advice for those searching for understanding.

“The meaning of life is not in me,” he said. “It is in you facing me and me facing you because I do not want to be alone. Only God is alone.”

“I think it’s pretty clear that his whole life has been about bringing people together and that’s what he had to say,” said Rachel Schwartz of Wildwood. “Bringing people together, whether it be in learning or through openness to other people it’s good to not identify yourself as a single person, an individual alone in the world. It’s important to look at the other person and see yourselves as part of the same whole.”

Rabbi Hershey Novack, director of Chabad on Campus at Washington University, was impressed by the turnout for the event.

“Mr. Wiesel is a poet of language and every word that he says resonates for generations,” he said. “It’s a tribute to him as one of the leading Jewish intellectuals but moreover it’s a tribute to the SLU community that they have come out to hear him in the way that they have.”

Andrew Melson, a chemistry and pre-med major said he enjoyed the talk.

“I thought it was interesting how he challenged us to transcend our religion to look to more than just our religious preferences and appeal to an authentic humanity,” he said.

Hannah Urban, an international business and international studies major said she was struck by Wiesel’s challenging students to treat everyone with respect and learn from their differences.

“My favorite part of it was his talking about the otherness of the other,” said Urban, who attended a Jesuit high school before coming to SLU. “I think that’s a really great way to understand that we all influence each other. It’s important to keep in mind that we have to work together to make things happen.”