Speaking to a packed Bailey Hall on Thursday evening, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel opened his lecture with a warning.
Although he knew members of the audience would have questions for him, he cautioned that “there are no answers.” “I live from question mark to question mark. The answers are not here,” said Wiesel, who has written more than 40 books and is best known for his memoir Night. Instead, Wiesel stressed the importance of continuous learning throughout life — even for him, after decades as a professor at Boston University.
“I learn from my students and with my students,” he said, encouraging the Cornell community to passionately pursue education. He emphasized the value of studying history and of connecting with the people and events of the past.
“Human beings are living links to one another,” he said.
In a discussion with members of the press earlier Thursday afternoon — which covered everything from his life experiences to a controversial advertisement regarding Jerusalem that he recently posted in several national newspapers — Wiesel said he has a mantra he tells to students who seek to do good in the world and combat the kinds of evil he experienced: “Whatever you do in life, think higher and feel deeper,” he said.
“When I say ‘feel deeper,’ I mean feel what other people feel,” he said. “If you choose that mantra, you cannot go wrong.”
In his evening speech, Wiesel expressed sorrow and bewilderment at some of history’s moments of extreme intolerance, asking the audience, “What were the Crusades but madness? ... The Spanish Inquisition? Madness!” before turning to the atrocities of his own experience in the Holocaust.
Wiesel said that some people had been concerned that he gave up on his Jewish faith while in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, especially after seeing the brutality of one human against another and after discovering that his entire family had been killed.
“No, I have not divorced God,” he said, but acknowledged that the experience did leave him with “a wounded faith.”
And while Wiesel said his heart had been broken, “that would never move me to go against God’s creation.” Instead, he said he has decided to follow God’s directive to not “stand idly by” when he witnesses oppression.
In one example of oppression, Wiesel discussed how he felt when he first visited the American South, where he saw discrimination embodied in law and witnessed “racism, the shame of humankind.”
“I never felt shame to be a Jew, but there I felt shame to be white,” he said.
However, with the election of President Barack Obama — who, Wiesel pointed out, “would not have been served in a coffee shop” only a few decades ago — “history has tried to correct its own injustices,” he stated.
But Wiesel noted that hatred and other problems between people are still rampant, citing Darfur as a modern example of great human suffering.
Another problem the author identified in today’s world is the emergence of an “age of distrust,” which he said was created partly by the global economic crisis, but which extends into politics, race relations and other aspect of life.
To regain trust, Wiesel again stressed the importance of education. Through studying history, in particular, he said students can discover that whatever happens in our time has happened before.
Wiesel said he is never without a book, and declared, “What a joy [it is] to learn wisdom from those men and women from centuries and centuries ago!”
During his media appearance Thursday afternoon, Wiesel also responded to criticism he has received following an advertisement he recently posted regarding how to create lasting peace in Jerusalem.
In the ad, which ran in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The International Herald Tribune on Apr. 16, Wiesel argued that world leaders should not try to find a solution to the conflicting claims of Israelis and Palestinians on Jerusalem until they can create a sense of understanding between the two sides.
Although the advertisement says that Jerusalem is mentioned in Jewish scripture six hundred times “and not a single time in the Quran,” and the city “belongs to the Jewish people,” Wiesel emphasized Thursday that he believes that Palestinians should have their own state.
He said that the goal of the ad was not only to prompt leaders to start negotiating immediately — but to advise them not to negotiate yet for Jerusalem because it is too controversial.
“If you start there, you’ll be hooked,” he said.
Instead, leaders should focus on allowing Israelis and Palestinians to “understand one another,” adding that “children should go to each other’s schools.”
If Israelis and Palestinians lived together for one generation, Wiesel said, there would be enough understanding between them to allow the two sides to find a solution for Jerusalem.
“You’ve waited two thousand years; wait a few more,” he suggested.
At the conclusion of his speech Thursday night, Wiesel stressed the importance of human solidarity and of never giving up hope, no matter how dark the world may seem.
“Hope is not God’s gift to human beings,” he said. “Hope is only our gift to one another.”
The audience honored Wiesel with two standing ovations and many audience members said they were deeply moved by the speech.
“I think [the speech] was important for the Cornell community to hear because it was directed at any person and talked a lot about education and understanding,” David Chan ’12 said. “I hope everyone took as much out of it as I did.”