May 6, 1999
Elie Wiesel speaks out on Kosovo
By ELIAS LEVY Staff Reporter
MONTREAL - Renowned writer, Nobel Peace Prize winner, talmudist, philosopher, advocate for human rights, Elie Wiesel is one of the great intellectual and humanistic figures of our time.
A survivor of the Auschwitz and Buchenwald extermination camps, Wiesel has spent 40 years fighting racism, exclusion of minorities and totalitarianism. On Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 13, Wiesel was the guest of honor of President Bill Clinton, at the White House. In his talk on The Dangers of Indifference, which attracted considerable attention, Wiesel analyzed the stakes in the current crisis in Kosovo, and once again warned humanity against the historic amnesia of memory. Volume 2 of Elie Wiesel's memoirs will appear before the end of this year. On May 28, the Université de Montréal will honor Wiesel with a doctorate honoris causa. He recently agreed to an exclusive interview with The CJN.
Canadian Jewish News: Do you believe the military intervention of the 19 member countries of NATO will ultimately put an end to the murderous folly of Slobodan Milosevic?
Elie Wiesel: This is certainly a major change. In my day, the world was silent. Today, the world is no longer silent. If we had been able, in 1938-39, to count on the support of such an incredible alliance as the one established by NATO, we would certainly have prevented the angel of death from holding sway I don't like war, and I have always been fiercely opposed to any sort of violence; nevertheless, I am in favor of the military campaign NATO is conducting against the Belgrade regime. It is essential that the democracies of the free world put an end to Milosevic's aggressive folly. Deporting a million innocent human beings, evicting them from their homes, burning their villages, destroying their hopes, these are crimes against humanity that we cannot continue to tolerate. I am absolutely convinced that this coalition of democratic nations will succeed in forcing Milosevic to give in to the humanitarian demands dictated by the civilized world. At any price, the hundreds of thousands of persecuted Kosovar refugees must return home, and the western democracies must help them rebuild their ruined homes.
Canadian Jewish News: Since the beginning of the war in Kosovo, the State of Israel and many of the Jewish communities in the Diaspora have mobilized to offer humanitarian assistance to the victims of this tragedy. Did you expect such a show of solidarity?
Elie Wiesel: Since the beginning of the conflict, the Israelis and the Jews in the Diaspora have behaved admirably with respect to humanitarian aid for the Kosovars. The State of Israel dispatched medical teams to the area and sent medications, food, clothing...Israel even welcomed several hundred Muslim Kosovar refugees. It was symbolic perhaps, but it had to be done. President Clinton recently told me at the White House how much he appreciated the remarkable co-operation and humanitarian solidarity of the activities undertaken by the Jewish community on behalf of the Albanian Kosovars, from the beginning of the conflict. Numerous fundraising activities to aid the crowds of refugees who have lost everything are currently taking place in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. It's marvellous. It was necessary for us, the people of memory to do this. We have remained faithful to one of the primary requirements of the moral Jewish ethic.
Canadian Jewish News: More and more, we get the impression that becoming a nation means, above all, war and hateful inter-ethnic confrontation. Isn't this ancient lesson being forcefully taught again with the tragedy building up in the Balkans?
Elie Wiesel: Nationalism is synonymous with fanaticism. I believe nationalism is the scourge that will threaten the next century and the next millennium. Fanaticism and power together can become the most lethal of combinations. We see it today in the war in the Balkans. It is true that each human being loves his native land. But patriotism pushed to the extreme and to excess often emerges as ruthless fanaticism. To express one's attachment to one's country is laudable.
However, things begin to turn sour as soon as a nation adopts a condescending attitude to the other nations that surround it. When one nation considers itself as the most important nation in history, it tends to grant itself all rights, including the most despicable, such as that of occupying with impunity the territory of a neighboring country. Even nationalist claims of minorities within democratic countries, as in the case of the Irish and the Basques can sink into violence and the murderous logic of terrorism. I believe, however, that we are moving towards internationalism and the disappearance of borders between countries.
Canadian Jewish News: Last November in Washington, you gave the inaugural address for the international conference on property stolen from the Jews during the Nazi era. You stressed the intellectual and moral dimensions of the work we must undertake to perpetuate the memory of the victims of the Shoah. Don't you have the impression that the financial dimensions of that horrible time is undermining that necessary duty of memory?
Elie Wiesel: Last year, I was asked to chair a commission to restore, to those eligible, the funds held in Swiss banks belonging to the Jewish victims of Nazism. I refused because I believe that it is not through financial compensation that we will restore the honor and the dignity of the Jews exterminated in the death camps. The real issue here is not money, but memory. The steps being taken to restore the property taken from the Jews is an integral part of a major oeuvre of memory that is so important to the Jews. There is much misunderstanding in this affair. There is a lot of talk about the hundreds of millions of dollars and the large Jewish fortunes appropriated by the Nazis and their henchmen. But people forget that 99 percent of the Jewish victims of Nazism were poor. The rich families were only a small minority. By speaking only of money, we are going to end up believing that all the European Jews were millionaires in the '40s, which was not at all true. It was not only the riches of the rich that were stolen, but also the poverty of the poor. They stole from the poor, their bodies and their most personal possessions, especially their hair. That is what we have to think about when we refer to memory, not to the millions of dollars of a few fortunate families. But, at the same time, it is essential that the money belonging to the despoiled Jewish families be restored to their direct heirs or to the Jewish communities that are also their heirs. On the other hand, these financial claims must be made with sobriety and grace.
Canadian Jewish News: In Canada, the plan to build a museum dedicated to the memory of Jewish Holocaust victims recently gave rise to controversy. Several community groups - Armenians, Arabs, Vietnamese - wanted the memorial to honor the memory of the victims of all the genocides perpetrated throughout history. Doesn't such a request risk trivializing the unique nature of the Shoah?
Elie Wiesel: I hope that the Canadian Holocaust museum will be built. We must put an end to the current confusion. These comparisons undermine the singularity and the authenticity of the memory of the Jewish victims of Nazism. The Holocaust is a Jewish tragedy with universal implications. Its universality rests in its uniqueness. Any attempt to dilute it or to extrapolate from it can only falsify its meaning. It is above all as a Jew that I remember that horrible tragedy. It is my duty. By doing this, I make others remember the drama of their own families. For me, memory is not an instrument of exclusion and reduction, but rather one of openness and inclusion. Memory can only enrich by becoming deeper. In other words, the more the memory of a Jew is Jewish, the more it transcends in order to attain the universal.