In S.F. speech, Elie Wiesel questions limits of human cruelty

Elie Wiesel speaks softly. Because he can.

When the Holocaust survivor, lifelong human rights advocate and Nobel Peace Prize-winner talks, people listen. On Thursday, Feb. 1, more than 300 people hung onto his every word as he wondered aloud how humans could be cruel enough to do the things we do.

Wiesel’s frenetic white hair shoots out in every direction and is a stark contrast from his somber — even wan — demeanor. Even when he tells a joke, his slow cadence and patchwork European accent (Wiesel was born in a Romanian town now in Hungary and grew up in France) make him sound wistful.

“I swear to you, to this day, I don’t understand how men with Ph.D.s in philosophy or M.D.s can kill and kill children. When I see a child, I melt. I want to change the world for that child … We must give the children the future they deserve,” he told panel moderator Stan Bunger, a reporter for KCBS radio.

The weekend conference at San Francisco’s Argent Hotel was put on by the Redrock Institute, an S.F.-based nonprofit promoting nonviolent conflict resolution.

“We, the Jewish people, suffered because the criminals, the killers, to them in their perversity we were not human. Furthermore, they believed what they were doing in trying to annihilate the Jewish people from the surface of the planet was the right thing in the name of morality,” Weisel said.

“That is not so far away from today. Now we are going back to the Middle Ages, when religious fanaticism dominated. Now we are in danger again because of the use of the children as suicide killers.”

On a past trip to Cambodia, Wiesel said, he had visited a sprawling refugee camp and come upon a tent his guide told him was a “special” one housing children younger than 14.

“I said ‘poor victims,’ but he said ‘No, they are Khmer Rouge.’ Society has educated children to become killers. Some killed their own parents. It was the same thing with the Hitler Youth, in Russia and today’s suicide bombers.”

Wiesel did not offer the crowd any solutions to the world’s problems. When Bunger asked him about “sitting around a big table and working it out” with suicide killers, he balked at the notion.

“What could I say? He won’t understand my language if I’m speaking about the sacredness of life and the importance of the other … It makes no sense to waste my time on that. That is a problem,” he said.

Religious terrorists “are not realizing that they turn their God into an accomplice for murder. I feel sorry for God. What kind of God is that, seriously?”

Wiesel and Bunger were later joined in the panel by Rabbi Lee Bycel, an adviser to the organization International Medical Corps, which has provided aid to thousands of Darfurian refugees, and Alice Musabende, a young Rwandan who lost her parents and all of her siblings in the genocide of 1994.

Bycel has told stories of the Darfurian genocide to thousands upon thousands of listeners, but he quickly admitted that publicizing the news of the genocide hasn’t slowed it down.

He noted that the third story in the Bible was Cain slaying Abel and “in the year 2007 with so many technical and scientific advances, why haven’t we advanced humanly from the time of Cain and Abel?”

Musabende, who is studying journalism in Canada, said she is still haunted by the threatening Rwandan newspaper commentaries of 1994, when she was 14. In hindsight, it was so obvious what was coming, she said, “but you can’t believe your neighbor will come and kill you.”

Bycel, meanwhile, drew a standing ovation for a fiery soliloquy lamenting the state of the world.

“Maybe it’s time for new tactics. What if 25,000 citizens walked from Chad into Darfur? Can’t we put some of the best minds into the same room and ask what are the best tactics?” he asked.

“Forty million Americans are going to bed hungry tonight. It’s insane! I’d like to lock up all the Democrats and Republicans in Congress and say, ‘This is the richest country in the world and you ain’t going home until you figure it out!'”

If audience members were looking for a comforting message to take home, they left disappointed, but, then again, maybe that was the point. The closest thing to a note of optimism came from Wiesel.

After the war “Germany was vanquished as never before and they were afraid that Jews would come back and do to them what they did to the Jews. They lived in fear,” he recalled.

“There were DP camps all over Germany and Austria. And it would have been easy for [Jews] to leave the camps and set fire to the streets.

“And it didn’t happen. The memories were still there. The smoke was still there. [We could have said] ‘We shall impose justice our way.’ It didn’t happen. I think that is a marvelous example that you can overcome it … Just as evil is contagious, goodness is contagious.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.