Elie Wiesel to speak in Santa Cruz, S.F. about 21st century

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

There's no doubt Elie Wiesel will be remembered as the foremost spokesman for the Holocaust's victims and survivors.

Wiesel has other hopes for his legacy.

"Oh, I want to be remembered as a good father, a good Jew, a good teacher," he said.

In fact, he rejects the label of Holocaust spokesman outright.

"I am a spokesman for no one…I refuse," he said just before Shabbat last week in a short telephone interview from a Chicago hotel.

He points out that few of his more than 35 books have dealt with the Holocaust directly. Yet these very books, including "Night," "Dawn" and "The Gates of the Forest," are the ones that led to his renown as the pre-eminent survivor.

The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Boston University humanities professor has likewise spent decades speaking out frequently and passionately about the Nazi genocide.

Wiesel will make two appearances in Northern California during the next week. He will speak at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St. He will also speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9 at San Francisco's Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St.

The San Francisco talk — sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of S.F. and supported in part by the Jewish Bulletin to mark the 100th anniversary of Bay Area Jewish journalism — is entitled "On The Threshold of the 21st Century."

While he would not reveal the content of the upcoming speech, the 67-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald is well aware that the new century means time is running out for the witnesses to offer living testimony.

"Many of us feel a certain biological pressure. It's a last chance," he said.

He does not necessarily feel optimistic about the future.

"I'm afraid the next century will have different attitudes," said Wiesel, who speaks with a soft Romanian accent.

This shift in attitudes, he said, may mean that the world will be unwilling to face the pain of constantly confronting the Holocaust, and instead will say: "Once a year we will mourn with you."

Even now, Wiesel is troubled by how the world generalizes the Shoah and thereby trivializes it.

"Everything becomes `Holocaust.' Every simple thing, every tragedy becomes the Holocaust," he said.

Like many survivors, Wiesel is uncompromising in his belief about the singularity of the genocide that took the lives of his mother, father and younger sister.

"It's a unique tragedy. Therefore it must remain unique."

At the same time, Wiesel knows that some young Jews today question the constant emphasis on the Holocaust.

"I follow the debate. On one hand, I understand. It shouldn't be the only subject that interests Jews. We would become a morbid people," said Wiesel, who was 15 when he was deported to Auschwitz.

Still, he is adamant that the Holocaust should have equal footing with religious study, support for Israel and what he terms "Jewish solidarity."

"There's enough room for it all."

He calls the specter of another Holocaust "impossible," in part because a Jewish state now exists.

But then again, Wiesel was convinced at the end of World War II that anti-Semitism would vanish as a result of the Jewish tragedy. Today, anti-Semitism persists. This puzzles Wiesel.

"I studied it. I tried to understand. But I can't," he said.

Among the anti-Semites who attract the most attention today are Holocaust deniers. But Wiesel has no fears these revisionists will ever gain wide acceptance.

"I think they are a small, small group. They are crazy — not mentally crazy, morally crazy," he said.