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Wiesel advocates 'bearing witness … thinking higher, feeling deeper'

Despite the advancing age of Holocaust survivors, the horrors of WWII will not be forgotten when they die, because "anyone who listens to a witness becomes a witness," said Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel April 29 to a packed Bailey Hall.

"Silence is not an option," said Wiesel -- a Holocaust survivor, advocate for peace, professor and author of more than 40 books, including "Night," which has sold more than 6 million copies and been translated in 30 languages. In his hour-long talk and 30-minute question/answer period, he touched on such topics as madness, faith, hope, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the power of children, the value of memory and whether the world has learned.

"I have tried with all my passion, all my fervor to follow [this] commandment: Thou shall not stand idly by," he said. "When a human being suffers, one has no right to turn away, or even worse, to look and do nothing."

The need to "bear witness" compelled Wiesel to write the memoir "Night" 10 years after he was freed from Auschwitz, but he trembled, he said, with every word he wrote.

While in Auschwitz, he said that while he lost hope at the time, and his faith was wounded, he did not "divorce God. I simply couldn't," he said, later adding: "God is within all of us, and we have to hear one another. When we do that God listens."

On a personal level, he said that when he feels despair, his remedy is to turn to children: "When I see a child smile, all doubts disappear."

To combat hatred and indifference, he said that education, learning and asking questions are key tools, recalling that as a child in Transylvania, "I cannot remember myself in my little town without a book under my arm. I simply couldn't be without books. …Nothing in our world is more noble than education. … A good question remains a question forever," he said. "Questions never provoke war. Answers do."

He recommended to "start at home," in small groups, discussing what one can do. "Today you can reach 50,000 people in one second, in one minute [with the Internet]. So do it." And earlier in the day, he stressed: "Whatever you do in life, think higher and feel deeper."

As for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, where there is "not enough geography and too much history. … peace will be there," he said. "Both sides are tired," he said, advocating for a two-state solution.

But in looking at the world, it seems not to have learned from its mistakes, said Wiesel, pointing to Darfur and "too many wars, too much hatred, too much ignorance and a new age of distrust." But the fact that colonialism, imperialism, Nazism, Communism and Fascism have been largely eradicated, "means humanity has the strength in itself to choose, to choose, to choose freedom … that it has the strength and conviction and grace to do something … to elevate itself" to evolve into "a society which is worth a celebration," he said.

The election of Barack Obama is another example, he said: "To see for the first time, a man who 50 years ago would not have been served in a coffee shop in certain places in our country becoming the president. … History has tried to correct its own injustices."

He ended his talk saying, "I will conclude these remarks with hope… Hope is not God's gift to human beings. Hope is only our gift to one another," he said.

Wiesel received two standing ovations and thunderous applause from the audience.

Hanna Roos '10 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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Blaine Friedlander