“Thank you for being who you are.”
This is how Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel opened his speech to Concordia students last Tuesday, before showing the audience who he is in a discussion of his life experiences and his efforts to always stand up against human suffering.
Wiesel began his speech with a discussion of memory, emphasizing the need to “keep memory alive.” This message was reiterated throughout the lecture, with Wiesel noting that if the world was always ready to learn from history, there would not have been genocides like the one in Rwanda.
Another central theme in Wiesel’s discussion was combating indifference, which he said “enables evil to be triumphant.” Referencing the Book of Job from the Tanakh, Wiesel told the story of how Job questioned God’s ability to watch innocent people suffer asking “Is God indifferent to his own creations…Is God therefore someone who doesn’t even listen when people speak to him?” Indifference is something Wiesel said, like Job, he cannot accept.
“Not a single work of art was created by an art of indifference,” Wiesel continued. “Works of art can be created out of anger, out of sadness and even out of despair – but not out of indifference.”
Wiesel’s appearance was this year’s first event in association with the CSU’s annual speaker series. The student union’s VP external and projects Adrien Severyns, one of the event’s main organizers, said earlier this semester that they have secured former governor general Adrienne Clarkson to speak in January, and are also working on having David Suzuki and a few other speakers for this year’s series.
Using his own experiences to illustrate his points, Wiesel offered personal stories from his time at Auschwitz Birkenau to his experiences as a teacher, and quoted passages from his books on multiple occasions during the speech.
At one point, Wiesel told the audience that the question of whether forgiveness is possible is one that he is often asked. He answered, saying that he does not believe in collective guilt or collective innocence and therefore forgiveness is possible. He emphasized this by saying that “children of killers are not killers, children of killers are children.” In his experience, he says he has students from Germany who feel guilty for the actions of their grandparents and they themselves “are victims also of their grandparents and the regime.”
Yet, despite his willingness to forgive, Wiesel recounted how one thing that was always unsettling to him as well as his students was that Germany, as a functioning democracy, never asked the Jewish people for forgiveness.
Wiesel ended his speech saying that 50 to 60 years “are concentrated in these words,” for which he received a standing ovation. He then answered questions submitted by attendees before the event, rather than the open question period commonly seen during these lectures.
Security for the event was very tight, and guards even spread out among the crowd for the question period, likely in case of an outburst from within the audience. The potential for controversy at the Wiesel lecture played itself out on its Facebook event page. The wall acted as a forum of debate, with posters passionately facing off on the issue of Wiesel’s opinions and participation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The actually event, however, remained incident free.
The speech seemed to be very positively received with Wiesel drawing a second a standing ovation from the capacity crowd at the end of the question period. Political science student Dwight Best said that Wiesel did an incredible job of transmitting the emotions and experiences of the situations he described. “He goes into spiritual things, he goes into political things, he goes into so many different aspects of the life of somebody in adversity,” Best said.
In introducing Wiesel, Concordia professor Frank Chalk said that he has “sworn never to be silent, wherever and whenever human beings endure suffering and humiliation.” After covering topics from the genocide in Rwanda, to the Tibetan conflicts and even the continued imprisonment of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, Wiesel proved these words to be quite true.