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Nobel Laureate Wiesel on His New Novel, Memoir

Readers, says the BU professor, “have become my witnesses”

| From BU Today | By Susan Seligson

Writer, professor, peace activist, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74) has published a new novel, Hostage, and a memoir, Open Heart. Photo by Vernon Doucette

With the recent publication of a new novel and a memoir, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel shares two powerful tales of imprisonment. In Hostage, set in Brooklyn in 1975, a hapless storyteller is held in a basement by pro-Palestinian terrorists. In the brief, starkly honest Open Heart, Wiesel is a prisoner of his own body as the prospect of potentially lethal surgery forces the prolific writer, professor, and peace activist to take stock of his life and his accomplishments.

Wiesel (Hon.’74), who has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at BU since 1976, is a Holocaust survivor. His best seller Night, first published in France in 1958, chronicles the horror of Auschwitz.

Hostage’s Shaltiel Feigenberg, a professional storyteller, is abducted from his home by an Arab and an Italian seeking to barter his life for the freedom of three Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. Blindfolded, tied to a chair, and mystified as to why he was chosen, Shaltiel tells stories, through which Wiesel conjures a Europe in the grip of the Holocaust as well as gentler, whimsical memories of young love, and a silent orchestra. “I smiled when I had this idea,” says Wiesel. Memory is also the force driving the slender Open Heart, a fervent plea to God as well as a lyrical meditation on mortality, work, and what gives life meaning. But it is mostly a love story, woven throughout with Wiesel’s tender gratitude for his wife, Marion (Hon.’90), who translated the 96-page volume, his son and grandson, and his students. Wiesel underwent emergency heart surgery two summers ago, at 82, and has made a full recovery.

The Hungarian-born Wiesel, who writes in French, has been awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor’s Grand Cross, an honorary knighthood of the British Empire, and the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. Bostonia spoke with him recently about his new books, life after surgery, and who will bear witness after the last Holocaust survivors are gone.

Bostonia: In Hostage, one of the men holding Shaltiel captive reveals a human side, while the other, more predictable, man displays only cruelty. Should we fear one type more than the other?

Wiesel: We have to watch out for both. Both are by definition fanatics. And I am totally against fanaticism—fanatics in religion, not only politics. But Luigi showed that he could change. The other fanatic just wanted to kill.

Hostage is set in 1975. At that time, did you ever imagine terrorism coming to our shores?

No, not to America. But terrorism is not just against democracy; it’s against humanity. In 1975, at the Munich Olympic games, terrorists killed Israeli athletes. Terrorism didn’t happen here, but kidnapping was part of the American psyche.

Shaltiel spends much of his time talking to children and old people. What can they teach us?

He chooses to learn from children because of their future and old people because of their past. I have learned from my students much more than they have learned from me.

Do you believe that most of us, like Shaltiel, don’t know how strong we are until we are tested?

I don’t think I am strong, though different situations have an impact on you. I don’t know what I would have done. Who knows? Who can know? You’re faced with two terrorists, and they hate you. Shaltiel is a guide to me, if I should one day be kidnapped. I hope it won’t happen.

In the writing process, do your characters take on lives of their own?

Yes, the moment you write a novel, they have their own identity. They surprise me. What are they doing? I tell them, I am the writer, not you! More than that, I try to understand them better.

Shaltiel is a man racked by guilt. How has guilt come to be seen as a Jewish cultural trait?

I don’t think people should feel guilty. Only the guilty should feel guilty. In our history, the enemy tried to make us feel guilty, but why should we? It’s something that they attribute to us.

Can a man remain free, even in prison?

I think he—the generic man—can be free in prison. He can be free if he wants to be free. There’s a certain zone of freedom that belongs to the prisoner, and it’s up to him or her. And there are certain times when the only persons left who are free are in prison, such as those who fought the Germans in World War II. On a broader scope, anyone can be free, anywhere.

Tell us about your decision to write Open Heart. Was writing it therapeutic?

It’s called that because two years ago I had open heart surgery. Five arteries were blocked. I was two hours away from death and it came like that all of a sudden; for three days the doctors didn’t know if I was going to live.

Well, the doctor said, I want to tell you that everyone after such surgery is very tired and very desperate. So I know how to fight despair, if not fatigue—I began writing this book, the story of my surgery, and I write in French. To my great surprise, it became a huge best seller in France. Maybe they love me sick.

Are you still driven to do more, and write more, or do you feel you can relax a bit?

It’s never enough. I feel a sense of urgency about everything—to do more books, more classes if I can, more organizing. I’ve tried my best, but it’s not enough.

You speak so often of the need to bear witness. Who will continue to bear witness after the Holocaust survivors are gone?

The problem is, who will testify for the witness, who will be the witness? Anyone who listens to a witness becomes one. So, therefore, my students are witnesses. Those who read my books have become witnesses. It’s so painful, and I wish they didn’t have to read this, to become the witnesses to the witnesses. It’s not easy. I was invited to speak to the United Nations General Assembly, and the lecture was called Will the World Never Learn? And I said, it hasn’t learned, or there wouldn’t have been a Rwanda. Does that mean we should work harder?

What should that work involve?

The work is how to save the victims anywhere, because we remember what happened to my generation, the massacres. We must also protest, or at least raise our voices. The victims felt abandoned. They felt that nobody cared. I want today’s victims to know that somebody cares.

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