We Are All Witnesses: An Interview with Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel in 1985. Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Elie Wiesel in 1985. Neal Boenzi / The New York Times

Elie Wiesel died Saturday, July 2, 2016 at his home in Manhattan. The Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner was 87. In May of 1985, we interviewed Elie Wiesel for our “Exile” Issue (Vol. X, No. 2).

The long exile of the Jews, from the Babylonian Exile recorded in the Bible to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, has been both physical and spiritual fact. From Biblical Prophets to medieval Kabbalists, eighteenth-century Hasidim, and twentieth-century Zionists, exile has never been forgotten. No longer a physical reality, it remains one of the deepest and most fruitful insights of Judaism, which still awaits the Gathering of the Sparks and redemption from the spiritual exile to which all human beings and the cosmos itself are subject.

“I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner”—the ancient Hebrew poetry of exile is unforgettably powerful. But so too is the modern poetry. PARABOLA asked Elie Wiesel, internationally recognized as one of the great Jewish writers of our time, to share his understanding of exile with us.

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, a small Transylvanian town with a richly traditional Jewish life. From his grandfather, he heard Hasidic tales retold as if the eighteenth and nineteenth-century holy men and seekers in the tales were still alive, their lives still a dialogue between the above and the below. From his father and mother, he received a liberal, broadly European point of view which complemented formal Jewish studies at schools in the town and region. And after school hours, he discovered an obscure synagogue caretaker who responded to his appeal by teaching him the elements of Kabbalah and the Jewish mystical view.

In 1944, the Nazis occupied the region and deported the Jews of Sighet to their deaths in concentration camps. At Auschwitz and Buchenwald until the liberation in 1945, Wiesel lost his grandparents, parents, and a sister but survived, deathly ill and in despair, vowing not to speak of his experience in the camps until ten years had passed. He found his way to Paris, where he resumed his studies and in time became a journalist. In these years, he worked not only with teachers but with a Teacher, the inscrutable Rav Mordecai Shushani, whom he has memorialized in one of his most joyful stories, “The Wandering Jew.”

In 1958, the prominent French author, François Mauriac, convinced him that the time had come to speak. The result was Night, the brief and unforgettable account of his concentration camp experience which remains the most read and perhaps the most central work about The Holocaust. Thereafter, he continued to write-novels, stories, essays, plays, more than twenty books in all, ranging in theme from contemporary lives and issues to powerful recastings of Hasidic tales and the Hasidic world.

Elie Wiesel is a witness and a survivor; this alone gives his work moral authority. But beyond that, he has incarnated the true vocation of the writer with a rare seriousness and power.

He lives today in New York City with his wife and child and is the Andrew W Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University and Chairman of the United States President’s Commission on the Holocaust. These and many other honors are far from one’s thoughts when one meets him. He erases any doubt we may have as to the essential dignity of man.

—Roger Lipsey

Roger Lipsey Exile and the return from exile can be seen from many different levels. When the feeling appears of not quite belonging here, of being a stranger, that can be the beginning of a movement of return. What do you see as the real exile?
Elie Wiesel I cannot see any other exile but the real exile, and that exile is total. It envelops all endeavors, all explorations, all illusions, all hopes, all triumphs, and this means that whatever we do is never complete. Our life is not complete, and lo and behold, our death is not complete: one does not die when one should, or the way one should. As you know, in our tradition we speak of exile in absolute categories. Exile envelops God Himself; God Himself is in exile. Language is in exile. The Shekhinah, of course, is supposed to be everywhere, and it is exile that carries it everywhere. So exile for us is something which is as absolute, as infinite, as life.

R.L. There is a feeling of being cut off, and yet there can be a thread, no more than a little thread to someone or something higher than oneself. When that is cut, that is the exile, don’t you think?
E.W. Not necessarily. For example, exile has a link to solitude-why? Because we are away from home, we are away from our memories, we are away from security. But what is easier to bear-to be in exile alone, or with someone whom one loves? It may become worse to see the other person also suffering. So maybe the cutoff is a blessing and not a curse. One of the reasons why so many Hasidic rebbes sank into melancholy was precisely the Galut ha-Shekhinah, the Exile of the Shekhinah. They were ready to bear their own suffering, but not the suffering of God.

R.L. Is that your understanding today, or did they express that in their own way?
E.W. It’s my understanding, which they didn’t express. I discovered their melancholy, I was struck by it, and I couldn’t understand why it was so. The greatest of the Hasidic masters, meaning the first generation, the companions and disciples of the Besht, all of them without any exception at one point in their lives had an encounter with melancholy, with deep depression. And I couldn’t understand it, because all of them were speaking of joy and happiness and exhilaration. Why should they be in such danger of falling in to depression? I studied it, I researched every case, always in their terms, with their books and stories. And the reason was a transfer, a transfer in the sense that they didn’t encounter depression on their own account but because of the separation of the Shekhinah. And that’s something, after all. If I suffer, maybe I’ve done something, but if God suffers, what right do I have to suffer for Him?

The real exile, the profound exilewhere did it begin? It began with Adam, who fled God, and with Cain, who fled human beings. Or did it begin with Abraham, who fled his parents, or with Moses, who fled his enemies? There are categories in exile. God’s exile also has many stages. In the Kabbalah, we read that God’s exilethe Breaking of the Vesselsoccurred very far back, at Creation. The Creation and exile were almost simultaneous. In the Midrash, we read that it happened during the destruction of the Temple, the first destruction.

R.L. God’s exile from what?
E.W. We don’t know about that, we only know that we are in exile; that, we know. And we ask ourselves, how did God our Father allow this to happen? There are many answers given. One answer was that God Himself is suffering.

R.L. Terrible trials and tests have been put in the way of the Jewish people, which are inseparably bound up with exile. After the concentration camps, someone said, “God saw that it was enough.” After two thousand years, the Jews could return to their land. Does this mean the exile is over?
E.W. The entire period is a question. I envy those who think that God said it is enough. Maybe He said it’s only a warning. I’m scared, I’m literally scared for the future of mankind. It seems to be the plan that whatever happens to the Jews later happens to the world. God gave the Law to all the peoples; we were the first to accept it, and then we shared it. Almost every phase in our civilization we later shared because we wanted to share; for after all, God said “I am your God,” and we said, “Thank you, but don’t be our God alone, be everyone’s God.” He gave the Torah, we are told in our tradition: He went from one people to another, from one nation to another, and nobody wanted it. And again, we accepted it-under duress, but we accepted. The moment we accepted, He said: everybody gets it!

There is a tendency in us: the more Jewish we want to be, the more universal we become. That is true in everything. There is a thesis to be elaborated about the connection, let’s say, between the Inquisition in Spain and what happened to Spain, between the exodus of the Jews from Spain and the downfall of Spain. Somehow, when Jews left the country, it fell into bad shape. Very often, in Europe, they called them back.

R.L. What we’ve been talking about so far has more to do with all of us, with human beings in general. But when it comes to a man’s own work on himself, then things have to be looked at in quite another way. A man learns enough about himself to see that something is lacking. He needs to live in the present, and not worry about past history or the future. Maybe the first thing he has to understand is that something in him is in exile from his true self.
E.W. Yes, but what you say about having no concern for past history or the future is impossible. How could human beings be human without the past?

R.L. Yes, but what about the present moment when I can be?
E.W. What is exile? What is galut? Whenever I have a problem, I go to the original Hebrew idioms. After all, the world was created in that language. Let’s go back to the relations of that word: gal, move, gil, joy: it means movement, continuous movement. It means that everything is moving, except me; or the other wayI am moving and everything else stands still; or still a third way, we are not moving in the same direction. Then exile means to be displaced, I am here and I am not here. The content and form do not espouse one another. That means they are in exile. When a person is in exile, nothing fits.

R.L. Do you see a purpose in the exile?
E.W. We are told there is a purpose, the purpose is redemption. This is expressed in the Kabbalistic theory of the Gathering of the Sparks, after which the universe itself will be redeemed.

R.L. The Jewish people have had experiences which, had they stayed in one place, might never have occurred. And the rest of the world has had experiences because of the Jews which it might never have had. From the point of view of a return, could there have been something useful there?
E.W. Do you ask my opinion or the opinions of other people whom I could quote? In my personal opinion, I cannot bring myself to find a purpose to suffering, so much suffering. I am ready to accept my suffering, but not the suffering of others. Does it have a purpose, was it useful, two thousand years of suffering?

R.L. Yet there are individual stories of men growing as a result of their suffering. People suffer intentionally, perhaps, to reach another level, to come closer to God.
E.W. You find that phenomenon in every mystical movement: the self-inflicted wounds, suffering to reach a higher level, a higher sphere; then, variations occurred, you joined your suffering to the suffering of Christ, or you suffered for God, but it’s still self-inflicted suffering. We never accepted it. You know in the Bible, when somebody renounces the usual, normal, everyday joys of life, he must make a sacrifice in atonement.

R.L. You said that the goal of exile is redemption. What does that mean?
E.W. I am told, I didn’t invent it. My feeling is really that we did not choose exile, we never did. As long as we were in exile, we tried to rationalize it, and to see it in a larger context. We weren’t satisfied to say that because Israel was in exile, the redemption would be only the redemption of Israel, a geographic redemption. We wanted to return to the Kingdom of David. In other words, we wanted the impossible. Only the impossible could explain or accept or justify so many sufferings. We speak of exile, and we speak of Messianic redemption, which is universal redemption-not only of the Jewish people but of Creation itself. And then all the imageries are possible: the wolf and the lamb at peace, there will be no slaves, justice will prevail.

R.L. Is there an exile within Judaism itselfnot the exile of Jews in the diaspora versus Jews in Israel, but an exile within the religion? The religion of the successful American Jew often seems very dilute, and yet there is a longing to return to a more authentic Judaism. Have authentic Jews reached out to these economically successful and religiously failed Jews?
E.W. I don’t know them! I know quite a few young people whom I teach (and I love them), who have a profound, authentic quest for something truthful. Not only in my classes at Boston University, but wherever I go, I meet people who want something. But there is no support anymore. The future is frightening, it is frightening.

I had to give a lecture two years ago in a seminar on the Year 2000. My topic was the future of language. So I worked on it, and never have I had to work so hard on a lecture, because I couldn’t imagine the Year 2000. Yet it’s only fifteen years away! Is this the feeling of the millennium? I’m not sure. It’s the feeling that we are racing too fast; technologically, scientifically, we’re going too fast, and in ethics and in philosophy we remain behind. Technology is never really pure, it’s always at the expense of something. Maybe that is what the young people are afraid of: they see themselves running, thrusting into the future at a tremendous pace, and they look for support in the past, which is there, and the past after all is synonymous with survival: we survived the past. But can we survive the future?

R.L. Until modern times, traditions and customs made it possible for people to have more or less tolerable lives; they supported people, the possibility of living closer to one’s center was there. Now, there is such a collapse of many traditions. You and a few other authors have restored the Hasidic tradition
E.W. Well, I have not; I have tried to tell a few stories.

R.L. It seems as if, in the absence of traditions, the master is terribly importantthe single individual who concentrates the knowledge and whose very presence in a room changes the way people think and feel.
E.W. Absolutely, absolutely, look at the Besht: when he came to a town, the simple fact that he was there influenced people. MosesI would be afraid to meet Moses, but I would like to meet him. He was the one who was a watershed in everything, not only to his disciples but to all the people that he and his disciples had never met.

R.L. Is there a teacher to send people to nowa spiritual guide?
E.W. Ah, this is a disturbing question. I am looking for one. My own case is different, because I had teachers. The longing is not only for teachers but for what they represent, a whole world.

Hasidism is very beautiful, but to me it’s amazing to see Hasidism in New York. It’s so atypical here. Hasidism had to be in villages; it was born in villages, it was meant for villages. Hasidism is not only a structure of perceptions or of melodies or of stories, it is a geography. It had to be in the mountains of Carpathia, and in the villages there that were abandoned and forsaken. It was never a city movement, it was a village movement. You know, some streets in Brooklyn are structured like the villages in Eastern Europe. But the fact is that the Hasidic movement suffered most of the losses. I think three Masters survived among hundreds and hundreds.

R.L. There is a sense in which Hasidism was very healthy and alive even in 1930, but in your books you have also implied that there was a decline after the first three generations in the Hasidic movement.
E.W. I confess, I glorify them. I do it with love, because whenever I have to repeat something negative it hurts me so much. If I had written my books in the 1930s, like Martin Buber, I would have become an objective, neutral, critical historian of normative Hasidism; why not? But today this wouldn’t do them justice. Of course, I know the truththe first and second generations, and the third, were great. The fourth was less great.

R.L. The third generation was trained by the Great Maggid?
E.W. Yes, and then began the dynasties, families, and everywhere you found children becoming heads of schools. It was no longer in the tradition of the Besht. The Besht’s successor was not his son, but a disciple. Moses left his succession not to his children but to his disciple Joshua. That is the tradition: it goes from master to disciple, not from master to son. But in later Hasidism, it went from father to son.

R.L. So that people wouldn’t fight and envy each other?
E.W. They fought! Why? Because really the generations became less worthy.

R.L. Isn’t there always the “chain of tradition”? Doesn’t someone always appear to maintain the life behind Judaism or behind any traditionthe melamed vav in Jewish tradition?
E.W. The melamed vav is by definition unknown. But that doesn’t matter. There are always masters, but they change. That is of the very essence of Judaism. How was the tradition handed down? Moses gave it to the Elders, the Elders to the Judges, the Judges to the Prophets, then to the Teachers, then to other Teachers. Every generation has had its paradigmatic personage. Somehow, Jewish history has always managed to find those who kept it alive.

R.L. There has been something Biblical about recent Jewish history, hasn’t there?
E.W. I think we live in Biblical times. This is the conclusion I have reached. We live in extraordinary times.

R.L. To see through the inner exile, to find oneself deeply happy to be here and to be what one is, accepting whatever burdens and suffering there may bethis requires a great deal of intensity. Where is the intensity in Judaism today? Where is the real quest?
E.W. Our times are Biblical, but also paradoxical. On one hand, you may say we have never been so poor because of what we have lost; on the other, when you see what is going on in Jewish life, it’s amazing. Never has Talmud been taught in so many places as it is being taught now. Never has there been such growth. Never has Hasidism been so popular. People want to study, they want to come along to communities.

In France, all those young people in ’68 who belonged to the Maoists, the Trotskyites, etc.what are they doing now? They are studying Talmud! Jean-Paul Sartre’s adopted daughter just published a translation of Eyn Ya’akov, a huge Midrashic work. You can’t imagine what’s happening there.

R.L. Abraham Heschel once said that the ”school” in the sense of ”school of the prophets” is missing in Judaism.
E.W. It’s difficult to evaluate, for geographic reasons again. In a small city with 15,000 Jews, sixty or seventy shuls, houses of prayer and study, it was easyeasier than it can be in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Here we need other methods. But the new methods must never be against the orthodox; a new method must be an outgrowth of orthodoxy but never against it. If the Talmud had been against the Prophets, there would be no Talmud; the Talmud came to complement. If the Midrash later came against the Talmud, it would never have grown; if Rashi had been against-but never against; it’s always an adjustment, but not in opposition to. A new method is possible, it is necessary. We have to remember that we need also strong roots.

R.L. May I ask: you have been a witness, and
E.W. We are all witnesses, I have no privilege.

R.L. But you have witnessed such things as most people don’t see. As a witness, you help us all to remember: what is it we should remember?
E.W. Everything! We have to remember that we can’t remember. My fear really is that memory is in exile. The only possible salvation of the Jewish people is to remember our whole experience. But this memory is so powerful, so exalted, that we can’t remember fully: it is bigger than us, bigger than all of us, than all the people. So how do you transform it into memory? Memory must not stop. If I were to stop in, let’s say, 1944, it would lead to madness. And then I realize that, after all, there was a Jewish life before, and there I find my friends and my teachers, and I go back and find my grandparents, and go back and I find the Hasidim, and go back and find the Kabbalists, and I go back-memory must go back until it goes back to the source of memory. It is a creative channel.

R.L. Everything in Judaism says, ”Remember.”
E.W. Absolutely. We have lived through such events.

R.L. In a certain way, my life is not only the events of my life. Isn’t this something that has to be faced?
E.W. Events are outside, reverberations inside. To be awake means to listen to these events. Each event is a code, history is telling us something, God is telling us something, and if we don’t try to decode the message, then what will make us understand it?♦

From Parabola Volume X, No. 2 “Exile,” Summer 1985. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.