Twenty-one Chapman University freshman listened intently this week as Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Nazi death camp survivor Elie Wiesel discussed the role of religion and morality in the face of immense, terrifying evil.
Wiesel, 82, a witness to the human suffering experienced in the Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald concentration camps, was in his element — assuming the burden of memory for the millions who did not survive the Holocaust.
The much-honored writer and professor clearly relished the exchanges in the main library at the campus in Orange. When a student spoke to him, it was as if the two of them were the only people in the room. His words, spoken in accented English and a soft, low voice, visibly affected the students.
One wanted to know how Wiesel managed to overcome the memories of the deaths of his father, mother and sister to write his first book, “Night,” an autobiographical account of the atrocities he and fellow Jews suffered at Nazi concentration camps.
With deep sadness in his eyes, Wiesel replied, “Only those who were there know what it was like. We must bear witness. Silence is not an option.”
Another student asked, “How can this generation preserve what you learned there?”
Wiesel brightened as he said, “Listen to the survivors. They are an endangered species now. This is the last chance you have to listen to them. I believe with all my heart that whoever listens to a witness becomes a witness. Once we have heard, we must not stand idly by. Indifference to evil makes evil stronger.”
Wiesel emphasized that he holds no malice toward Germans whose parents and grandparents were Nazis. “Only the guilty are guilty,” he said. “The children and grandchildren of these killers are not killers.”
It was Wiesel’s third visit to Chapman and his first as a Distinguished Presidential Fellow at the university. During his weeklong fellowship, he visited with undergraduates in Chapman’s Holocaust history courses and other disciplines including literature, French and religious studies.
On Tuesday, Wiesel, who is a professor at Boston University, spoke on the subject of “Knowledge and Ethics” to an audience of 900 in a Chapman auditorium.
“One thing I hope comes of these visits for our students is that history will have a face, and that as a result of meeting him they will become inspired and engaged in the human story,” said Marilyn Harran, a religion and history professor who is director of the campus’ Rogers Center for Holocaust Education.
Wiesel’s is an extraordinary life.
Born in 1928, in Sighet, Romania, he was one of the town’s 15,000 Jews transported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944. His mother and sister died in the gas chambers there.
In 1945, Wiesel and his father were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, where his father, a shopkeeper, died from starvation and dysentery.
Wiesel was freed from the camp as the war in Europe ended and taken to France. Penniless and living on his own, the teenager learned to read and write in French and went on to become a journalist.
Wiesel waited a decade before describing his experiences in “Night,” which has been translated into 30 languages and is now taught in many public schools. Since then, he has had 40 books published on a variety of subjects, only a few of them involving the Holocaust.
But in his characteristic self-effacing manner, he told a group of Chapman students that after a career that has joined literature, philosophy, religion and Holocaust studies for decades, he still has no answer to this question: What makes people good or evil?
“I discovered that some of the SS officers who killed people with machine guns after forcing them to dig their own graves had college degrees and PhDs,” he said. “What they learned did not shield them from such cruelty. How is this possible? That is the question.”
He paused, and then added, “How did we not lose our values? Nothing but questions remain.”
That point resonated with freshman Ethan Pacewiczh, 19.
“He suggested that life is a series of contradictions — and that’s not a bad thing,” Pacewiczh said. “It leads to questions, and every question leads to still deeper questions. So there’s always more to know about in everything that happens in this life.”
Chapman senior Sarah Van Zanten, 21, said it was an honor to meet a man she described as “a living memorial to a huge chapter in my heritage.”
“I’ve learned first-hand from him how important it is to stand up for what you believe in,” she said, “and to make an effort to really listen to what others have to say.”