Elie Wiesel (1928-2016): His speeches and writings will endure
Today the news came out that Elie Wiesel had passed away, on 2 July. As we are mourning his death, we remain grateful for his moral courage and leadership. His speeches and writings will endure. His Nobel Prize acceptance speech, given at my own university in 1986, is still a source of inspiration whenever we seek an intellectual foothold in a world of conflict and turbulence.
Many are the quotes that survive from his acceptance speech, including the one I incorporated at the end of my own talk in the City Hall on June 23: “Action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all.” On that occasion - the closing ceremony of the 6th World Congress against the Death Penalty - I could easily have referred to an additional speech of his - a speech he gave in October 2010 and that addressed the issue of death penalty head on. Speaking to an audience at the Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Elie Wiesel stated that murderers should be punished harshly, but that "death is not the answer." This is the full quote: "I know the pain of those who survive. Believe me, I know. Your wound is open. It will remain. You are mourning, and how can I not feel the pain of your mourning? But death is not the answer." (Source: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/new-voices-elie-wiesel-speaks-about-death-penalty)
Back to his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Embedded in his speech is a clear message to us all, and not least to our schools and universities: “…. if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.” This statement should guide us in our mission as educators and university leaders. The darkest epochs of our past must be revisited time and time again, for each new generation. Few if any have expressed this high ambition as forcefully as did Elie Wiesel himself, in an interview he gave to Guri Hjeltnes, director of The Center for Studies of the Holocaust and Religious Minorities. In this interview, published in Aftenposten on 27 January 2014, he stated that “by listening to a witness you become a witness”. Ideally our students should graduate as witnesses – nothing less.
Elie Wiesel called for empathy and engagement across borders. Again his words come through as relevant today as they did three decades ago. In his acceptance speech he said: “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.” The universities should take heed: there is just one academy, and that is the global one. Our support of Scholars at Risk and Students at Risk, and our endeavor to integrate qualified refugees into our educational programs, are borne out of this conviction. The “center of the universe” – however remote – is deserving of our attention.
Elie Wiesel will continue to inspire – through his speeches and writings and through his moral courage. His voice should resonate with those who question the value of the humanities in higher education. The humanities are the antidote to forgetfulness. Nothing less.