Holocaust survivor Weisel discusses hatred


November 27, 1991|By Michael Hill

Elie Weisel's face seems to mirror the horror he has witnessed. In his pursed lips, his lowered brows, his squinting eyes, he takes in all that he saw in Auschwitz and reflects it back to you, softened by his humanity, tempered by his insight.

For more than 40 years, Weisel has struggled with that horror, trying to determine if life is worth living when it can yield such disgust, if it has any meaning if its very existence can be at the mercy of the most whimsical chance, if there are words that can break the silence that overwhelms all attempts to communicate the reality of the abyss.

Tonight on PBS, Bill Moyers talks with Weisel about a subject most often met with silence -- hate. Weisel was taken to Auschwitz at the age of 15, two weeks before D-Day when the Russian troops were about 12 miles from his Transylvanian village, and saw his mother, little sister and, finally, his father die there. He has sponsored several conferences on "The Anatomy of Hate" in the United States, Israel and Norway.

Moyers used the talks given at the Norway conference for his first special on the topic, which aired earlier this year. Tonight at 10 o'clock on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, Weisel talks about the subject for an hour.

Early in the interview, he speaks of how difficult it is to speak of hatred, of how those who talked at his conference seemed eager to speak about racism or nationalism or chauvinism or anything but hate. The chord it strikes is too ominous to sound, too deep to observe.

Responding to Moyers' probing questions during this intense hour of television, Weisel looks inside himself for hatred of those who created Auschwitz and other awesome assembly lines of death.

He finds anger, but not hatred. Once, in 1964 during his first visit to Germany since in the war, he seemed ashamed of this, writing that all Jews should have a special place to nurture their hatred. But now he admits that he was wrong, that hatred certainly consumes the hater whether or not it ever does that to the hated.

In talking of Auschwitz, he reserves his most distinct feelings of contempt for the anti-Semites among his fellow inmates. Those were the ones who beat him and his father every day, not the Germans.

"That's something we don't like to talk about," Weisel says. "Because we are embarrassed, because it's so nice to think that there was a community of victims. There wasn't."

Weisel doesn't even find hatred for the Jews among the Nazis, noting that they looked upon the Jews as sub-human and thus not worthy of so strong an emotion as hate.

And after the war, when, as Moyers points out, some Russian troops simply went into towns near the camps and killed Germans, perhaps exorcising their hatred, Weisel says that he found himself most angry with Roosevelt and Churchill because they knew D-Day was coming, they knew liberation was near, but they did nothing to warn the Jews, to tell them to flee. Weisel says that even in 1944, he and his family did not know of Auschwitz. Why weren't they told on the BBC broadcasts they monitored?

As he talks, a smile occasionally comes to Weisel's face. It seems a welcome visitor, but one whose stay will be unfortunately brief. Weisel has seen too much to keep that smile, the brows must close down over the eyes to protect them from more such sights.

It is too bad that this interview seems to have been taped well before the situation in Yugoslavia turned from bad to worse. It would have been interesting to have heard Weisel speak of that war that seems fueled by ethnic hatred.

He does talk of the problems in Eastern Europe with a certain weariness, wondering how this region could have endured what it went through during World War II and not learned the futility of the path it now seems determined to follow. Why do these ancient hatreds stay alive, how can they hibernate for generations, emerging almost half a century later rested and ready for battle? What is it that makes them so strong, so hard to eradicate?

Weisel admits that he does not know. Indeed, he tells Moyers that they should reverse roles because his entire career has been about asking questions, not providing the answers.

The most provocative questions are asked by that face. What is it within us, within the human race, that allowed to happen what that face has seen?

There is no answer, but in Weisel's search for it is meaning and understanding.

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