Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, professor and prolific writer who is perhaps most well-known for Night, the story of his survival of the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II, speaks more softly than you’d expect. And although he has lived in the United States since 1955, his accent is still thick. But leaning in to listen a little more closely is worth it: Wiesel’s words are profound.
In town for the Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall lecture series, Wiesel was slated to discuss the philosophy of morality, with sold-out talks held at 10:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.
“The problem with the world,” he said at a press conference early Tuesday morning, “is indifference. It’s easier not to be involved—it’s easier not to look at those who are suffering. But who says life should be easier?”
“The question,” he continued, “is how do we transform that information into knowledge, and knowledge into sensitivity? And then how do we turn sensitivity into commitment?”
Later, at his lecture, Wiesel was a captivating speaker, indeed focusing the majority of his talk on philosophy, but also discussing his writing process and even reading several pages he’d written for the occasion. Acknowledging that some become writers because they idolize the written word, Wiesel—who at one point “oscillated between music and philosophy” as a career—says he chose to write because he wanted to “probe silence.”
Although the Holocaust is what immediately comes to mind after hearing that, Wiesel insisted that he doesn’t write or teach too much about the event, although “it was hard to adjust to the living, to adjust to love” after experiencing it. “It was a total change,” he explained. “I allowed myself to question God, but I never divorced God.”
Wiesel has more than 50 books to his name—Night being the most well-known. “I wake up at 5 a.m. every day and write for at least four hours,” he said, “except for the Jewish holidays.”
And though he speaks quietly, Wiesel’s life is not quiet—nor is it exempt from turmoil. In 2007, he was attacked in a San Francisco elevator by a college-age Holocaust denier, and in 2009, his Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, as well as his life savings, were two of the victims of Bernie Madoff’s infamous Ponzi scheme. But Wiesel simply insists that he has more to do—more to teach his students, more books to write.
Still, when contemplating the trajectory of his life, you can’t help but think that the 83-year-old Wiesel has experienced so much more sadness and loss than most ever will. It’s a testament to the strength of his spirit that, in spite of it all, he manages to believe in the good.
“People want to know each other,” he said. “They want to know the good in others.”
The lecture ended with a series of questions from the audience, which was, all in all, an older crowd. Appropriately, the last question posed was about what Wiesel has learned as he’s grown older. Laughing at first, Wiesel then grew serious as he responded.
“I believe that, until I die, I am fully alive,” he said, “and I believe, until my last breath, we are all immortal.”