NEWS: Remembering Not to Forget with Elie Wiesel

Natasha Luckhardt and Katherine Lalancette, photos by Rachel Woroner | Contributors |

For Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, memory is a lot like love and money: it all depends on how you use it. It can be beautiful, or it can be reduced to something cheap and vulgar. It can feed grudges and fuel hatred, or it can prevent past atrocities from ever being repeated.

“Never shall I forget those moments that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live”. These words can be found in Wiesel’s book, Night, a haunting recollection of the horrors he witnessed in concentration camps.

Yet, as he spoke before a packed auditorium at Concordia University, he offered nothing but hope for a more peaceful future, attributing his renewed desire to live to his duty to share his story and make sure the world never forgets it.

“If we forget events, somehow [these events] make other events possible,” warned Wiesel. “If we start forgetting, then it would be a crime as potent as genocide itself.”

Wiesel’s memories trail back to Sighet, now in Romania, where he lived humbly with his parents and three sisters. This would be the last place the family would be altogether. In 1944, the Nazis displaced all the Jews of Sighet in ghettos before sending them off to concentration camps in freight trains.

The last time Wiesel would see his mother and little sister was by the front gates of Auschwitz, at the age of 15. He and his father managed to stay by each other’s side for some time, painfully enduring the physical and moral dehumanization inflicted by the Nazis.

But shortly after the two were transferred to Buchenwald, another concentration camp, his father, suffering from dysentery, starvation and exhaustion, was marched to the crematorium. A few months later, in 1946, the camp was liberated and Wiesel reunited with his older sisters in a French orphanage.

Speaking to a hushed audience, Wiesel, now 82, emphasized the importance of remembrance of the victims of such tragedies. “Anyone who does not remember betrays them again,” he said.

He wishes to use his words as weapons against ignorance, for he considers words to be the only means with which to remember. As a professor, speaker and author of nearly 60 books, Wiesel has dedicated his life to disseminating his words of remembrance in the hopes his past will never become someone’s future.

He deplores how the world has not learned from past injustices. For, “If the world had learned, there would be no Rwanda… If they had learned, many more children would be alive in Darfur,” he said.

For Wiesel, “Indifference is what enables evil to be triumphant… To be indifferent to other people ultimately means to be indifferent to one’s self”.

Yet, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been charged by many, including Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein, of being indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has often been criticized for supporting the Israeli occupation of the Gaza strip.

Concordia is familiar with this controversy. In 2002, Wiesel accused the Concordia Student Union of being “anti-Semitic” for canceling a speech by Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, after protesters clashed with riot police inside the school.

During his lecture, Wiesel did not address the incident or his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, only recalling a powerful moment between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas during their first meeting in 2006.

As the questions were pre-selected, there was no chance for the audience to pursue the issue. Despite the past controversies, the Concordia crowd was warmly receptive to Wiesel, offering him bursts of applause and two standing ovations.

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