Nobel laureate shares foreboding about hate in Europe, hope for Judaism Elie Wiesel visits to honor his mentor

December 07, 1992|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Staff Writer

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, in Baltimore briefly yesterday to celebrate the 90th birthday of a friend, spoke pessimistically about world events and mankind's prospects in the next century but optimistically about the survival of Judaism.

He described Bosnia-Herzegovina, which he visited last week on a discouraging mission of peace, as a place not only of devastation but of near hopelessness. Sarajevo, he said, "is a city which today symbolizes isolation . . . and total abandonment."

Yet, abandonment cannot be allowed because "a Jew is responsible for his or her community," he reminded his audience at Beth Am Synagogue on Eutaw Place. "I feel that we are here under the sun for a purpose."

His immediate purpose was to join with his old friend and mentor, Louis L. Kaplan, in an hour-long celebratory "conversation" at a shared microphone -- marked by witty exchanges, gentle disagreements and warm affection -- before a packed and appreciative congregation.

Dr. Kaplan, who for 40 years headed the college that became Baltimore Hebrew University and is a former chairman of the University of Maryland Board of Regents, helped found Beth Am 18 years ago.

His distinguished visitor, a close friend for 25 years, is a survivor of two Nazi concentration camps whose chronicling of the Holocaust won him the Nobel prize in 1986.

What prompted Mr. Wiesel's first mention yesterday of his trip to Sarajevo was this comment from Dr. Kaplan: "No matter how concerned you are about mankind as a whole, you must never overlook the individual. Every human person is a world in himself."

Before the program ended with the congregation's standing ovation and the warm embrace of the two guests of honor, Mr. Wiesel spoke with foreboding about the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany. He called for strong, official statements of concern from the United States government.

"Our children need us," he said. "We are entering a new century and,

the way things are today, I am pessimistic about the next century.

"Look at what's happening in Germany. Once more, Germany is assaulted morally by the Nazis."

Mr. Wiesel, who usually adopts the role of questioner, asked his friend to explain the remarkable survival of Judaism. "I suppose it because we are the chosen people," Dr. Kaplan replied. "If we disappear, God disappears."

To the survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust, he added, "I think sometimes that persecution and anti-Semitism heighten the consciousness of many Jews -- who remain Jewish for that reason."

During their hour together, the two scholars shared concerns about the dangers of religious fundamentalism and they agreed on the importance of teaching, while entertaining their listeners with pointed, though friendly, disagreements.

"The most important person in Jewish life is the teacher," Mr. Wiesel said, and he went on to suggest that "teachers should get the highest salaries."

Dr. Kaplan remonstrated, "As a former teacher, I have to take a little exception to that." Recalling that he often spent 16 hours a week in the classroom, he said many professors now "teach only four hours a week, and the rest of the time they write papers that nobody reads . . . and hundreds of footnotes! This is not scholarship. This is not learning.

"Learning has to be something which inspires a person, takes over a person. The real purpose of education is to teach people how to study themselves, and to teach others to study. Unless I teach myself, I can't teach anybody else."

The conversationalists expressed some disagreement over capital punishment. Mr. Wiesel noted his fear "that the wrong person will be executed." Dr. Kaplan countered, "In some cases our court system is not as good as it should be. . . . Men who commit murder and rape are paroled and go out again to live in the society that they have practically destroyed."

He said he believes there is "an absolute necessity to remove from life someone who has demonstrated that he cares so little for it that he can take two or three human lives."

The speakers did agree forcefully, however, that an execution must never be a public spectacle. When Mr. Wiesel said that death should always be private, Dr. Kaplan responded, "You are 100 percent right about that."

The afternoon program at Beth Am was the beginning of a week of special events honoring Dr. Kaplan, who turns 90 on Friday.

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