Speaker questions America’s moral direction

Raksha Varma

CHICAGO — With a soft German accent, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel slowly asked, “Who are we, and, more importantly, who are we becoming?”

Wiesel, an author and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke Sunday afternoon about his experience in Nazi death camps and the “lack of moral awareness” in today’s society to a crowd of about 2,000 people, including 200 Northwestern students, at the Temple Sholom of Chicago, 3480 N. Lake Shore Drive.

“One human being weighs more than all the writings about humanity,” said Wiesel, 74. “We are God’s language.”

Wiesel, an activist for human rights, said the need to speak out against injustices based on religion, race and national origin is greater than ever before. He spoke about need for moral action in today’s world and called the recent developments in the Middle East and the hostage holdup in Moscow acts of “complete madness.”

The possible war with Iraq and the production of nuclear weapons also were of concern to Wiesel.

“I don’t think I’ve seen such dangers threatening people since the events of 1945,” Wiesel said. He addressed his personal experiences and urged the crowd to rebel against “moral ugliness and hatred.”

Wiesel, who described the Holocaust an event “for which there are no words to describe,” survived death camps at Auschwitz, Buna, Buchenwald and Gleiwitz.

“Night,” a detailed account of Wiesel’s experiences in the death camps, was published in 1958 and translated into more than 30 languages.

“Never shall I forget that night,” he wrote in the book. “Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”

In addition to writing more than 40 books, Wiesel has been appointed as chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Achievement. Wiesel, who called education “the key to survival,” has taught students at Yale University, the City College of New York and Boston University.

At the end of the speech, NU students questioned Wiesel during a brief question-and-answer forum. When asked about Holocaust revisionists, Wiesel said he could not believe anyone would question the legitimacy of the Holocaust — one of the most documented tragedies in history.

Wiesel also urged students to boycott NU electrical and computer engineering Prof. Arthur Butz, a Holocaust revisionist. In 1976, Butz wrote “The Hoax of the Twentieth Century,” a book about Holocaust revisionism.

Students in the crowd were conflicted over Wiesel’s message, and some said the speech was an insightful look at the Holocaust.

“It was interesting to hear his perspective in light of what’s currently happening in the world,” said Jamie Aldes, a Weinberg sophomore.

But some students said they felt Wiesel mainly spoke about Israel and the Jews instead of his general message — the power of words.

“Wiesel seemed to occasionally stray from the topic of his presentation,” said Allen McMillen, a Weinberg senior. “(But) his points were quite telling about the Holocaust and other injustices committed against humanity.”

Rabbi Michael Mishkin, executive director of Fiedler Hillel Center, said Sunday’s speech showed Wiesel’s message about moral injustice “has never been stronger.”

“It’s an important message today, one that gets lost,” Mishkin said.