Concerning the great Elie Wiesel, a few words.
I sat next to him once, at a dinner. As with other public figures of considerable importance, I found him blunter and more conservative in private than on the stage. I also found him, needless to say — maybe needless to say? — very impressive.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. They called him “a messenger to mankind.” In New York, Wiesel immediately said, “I dedicate [the prize] to my fellow survivors and their children.” He also said that he would use the prize’s leverage to “speak louder” and “reach more people.”
He wasted no time: Wiesel called on the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to release Andrei Sakharov from internal exile and to allow the refuseniks to emigrate. (Sakharov, remember, had won the Nobel Peace Prize in the mid-’70s.)
Let me quote, please, from my history of the Nobel Peace Prize:
Before he went to Oslo, Wiesel went to the Soviet Union, where he pressed for human rights. He repeatedly asked to see Sakharov — now his fellow laureate — but was repeatedly denied this opportunity. He told the authorities that, unless Sakharov was released, he would certainly speak of him and his plight in his Nobel lecture. He notes in his memoirs (written in the present tense), “Interestingly, the Soviet authorities seem to fear the impact of criticism in that address. A member of the French Communist party’s Politburo contacts me to persuade me not to mention Sakharov. What is it about the Nobel Prize that worries them?” Sakharov was not released, and Wiesel spoke of him in both his lecture and his acceptance speech.
N.B. For many years, a Nobel peace laureate gave two speeches: the acceptance speech, during the prize ceremony, and the lecture, the next day. Since 1990, the laureate has given only the lecture, at the ceremony.
A prominent citizen of Oslo, and Norway, was pleased with Wiesel’s win. I will quote some more from my book:
Before the ceremony, Wiesel had his audience with the king, Olav V, in the palace. The king told him — “smiling shyly,” says Wiesel — “In my position, I don’t have the right to suggest candidates to the Nobel committee; otherwise, I would personally have proposed you.”
Not everyone was pleased with the award. Outside the hall, there was a demonstration against Wiesel: Holocaust deniers. These people, we will always have with us. They tweet at me (and others) on Twitter. Of course, some days, they celebrate the Holocaust. It depends. Same with the Iranian government.
In his acceptance speech, Wiesel made a point very important to him — maybe the point, in his life and thought. And it is a perpetually controversial point. But there comes a time to take a side, you know?
We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.
Another swatch from my book:
The following day, Wiesel gave his Nobel lecture, titled “Hope, Despair, and Memory.” It was classically Wieselian, a poetic piece of moral teaching. It was also short: one of the shorter Nobel lectures on record (and one of the best). He talked about his life, the Holocaust, and the Jewish people, of course. But he universalized his talk, in his usual fashion. He said, “We must remember the suffering of my people, as we must remember that of the Ethiopians, the Cambodians, the boat people, Palestinians, the Mesquite Indians, the Argentinian desaparecidos — the list seems endless.” The Mesquite Indians, more commonly known as the Miskito Indians, live in Nicaragua, and were being abused and chased out by the Sandinista government there.
One last thing, for now. In his memoirs — I am speaking, and have been speaking, of his 1999 volume, And the Sea Is Never Full — Wiesel clues us in on something very human: all too human. “With a Nobel Prize come quite a few lessons. For one, you learn who is a friend and who is not. Contrary to popular wisdom, a friend is not one who shares your suffering, but one who knows how to share your joy. I was pleasantly surprised by some and sadly disappointed by others.”
Yup. What a man, Elie Wiesel.
P.S. Can’t help mentioning one more thing. He loved music, as does his wife, Marion. They were frequently in Carnegie Hall together. And, when they saw me, they wanted to talk music. But Wiesel was open to other subjects too. I wish I could pick his brain, right now, on many of them. But, cripe, he gave so much, over decades. Who gives more? Who does better out of catastrophe? He made use of his survival, if you will.
P.P.S. Forgive so personal a post. Others will say the universal things about Wiesel, and have been. They will say them for a long time to come.