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You'd think we'd be able to learn from history.
After all, if you keep bashing your head on the same open cabinet, you usually remember to shut it. If you keep losing your car keys, you'll probably invest in a hook next to the door. Our memories of mistakes allow us to not make the same mistake twice…which is why we've only ever once gone on a roller coaster immediately after eating a chili-cheese dog. (Don't ask. Please.)
But when a memory is so traumatic and so raw that every second spent remembering stings all over again, sometimes forgetting seems like the best medicine. But-but: when a memory is traumatic and raw is exactly when it should be remembered in awful clarity, to ensure that it never happens again.
The Holocaust stands as one of the darkest chapters in history, and its survivors were left with that very same terrible, no-win situation: forget and lose history, or remember and feel horrific pain. Elie Wiesel, like many other survivors, made it his mission to speak out against the horrors of the Holocaust, hoping that its memory would stun people into never making that same mistake.
But since we humans always like to fly in the face of logic, world peace didn't reign supreme after World War II. At the time that Elie Wiesel delivered his Nobel Lecture in 1986, the Cold War was still raging on, the racist and oppressive South African Apartheid government was still running the show there, and, thanks to a Soviet invasion and subsequent U.S. involvement, stability in the Middle East was unraveling faster than a sweater caught in a car door.
In this moving, eloquent, and devastating speech, Elie Wiesel urges us to remember these crimes and speak out against them, because otherwise we're just going to stay on the same carousel of human rights violations we've been on for centuries. He understands why it's hard to face up to the grim realities of atrocity…but he also understands, more than pretty much anyone else, the pressing need to face them head-on.
So take your headphones off. Square your shoulders. Take a deep breath. Listen to what Wiesel is saying…and then listen to your own memories and the memories of others.
It's hard, sure. But it's a whole lot easier than turning a blind eye and letting history repeat its most grievous offenses.
To paraphrase John Lennon, all Wiesel is saying is giving peace a chance. Because unless you have news that we don't, we're still living in a world that's decidedly lacking in, well, world peace.
Racism, xenophobia, genocide, terrorism: all of these are, somehow, living right with us to this day. One would think that after seeing the horrors of the Holocaust, we as a species would have gotten it though our skulls: there are certain ways of behaving that are just plain horrendous. But no: atrocities are still committed, human rights are still violated, and people still are filled with vitriolic hate.
Given this depressing state of affairs, it might feel pretty hopeless. You might be tempted to throw up your hands and say "Nothing to be done. Humans are horrible."
But Wiesel's here to remind you that that kind of passivity is just lazy.
Wiesel tells us in "Hope, Despair and Memory" that memory is the only way we'll ever change. Memory is a way of both reliving and sharing events, of letting even people personally unaffected by atrocity feel the deep horror of having lived through it.
And hey: science backs up Wiesel's claim. (That Wiesel was no dummy.) Check it out: reading has been shown to increase levels of empathy. That's right: when you read a book like Night that chronicles an experience of suffering, you become a better person. (Source)
Huh…that sounds a lot like Wiesel's ideas on memory.
But the facts don't stop there. Recent studies show that racism decreases when people move into more diverse neighborhoods. Why? Because they're actually talking and sharing with people who come from other races/ethnicities/religions. They're actually getting to know about the lives and backgrounds of people who are different. (Source)
Huh…that also sounds a lot like Wiesel's ideas on memory.
And the good news contained in this speech is that you have the power to work toward peace right here, right now. You don't need to be in the U.N. or Doctors Without Borders. You can be a high school student who takes the time to read a book that exposes you to a chapter of history you knew nothing about. You can be a waiter who listens to a customer's life story intently. You can be a person who speaks out about their own trauma. You can be a person who sees someone acting in an unjust manner and tries to stop them.
That's all good; it's all working toward Wiesel's goal.
Check out the last line from his speech again (because it's impossible to read this line too many times):
Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.
Acts of peace, y'all: they're the gifts that keep on giving.
Elie Wiesel Foundation Twitter
The organization for human rights he founded still operates strong in his memory, and you can keep track of it online here.
Foundation For Humanity
Check out Wiesel's foundation: it's not called the Foundation For Humanity for nothing.
Nobel For a Noble Guy
Want Wiesel's bio, Nobel-style? It's all here.
Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution"
This documentary from the BBC goes deep into the history of the Holocaust, complete with interviews from its survivors. You might want to watch this one with tissues on hand.
For a more Hollywood take on the Holocaust, try Steven Spielberg's classic film. We also have a learning guide for it on hand, in case you want to dig that much deeper.
Long Night's Journey into Day
Apartheid in South Africa was finally toppled, but the process of rebuilding wasn't an easy one. This 2000 documentary chronicles that journey.
1996 Academy of Achievement Interview
Elie Wiesel answers a lot of questions about his life, particularly about what he did after the concentration camps were behind him.
This print interview ran in O Magazine in 2000. The two of them talk about the human experience in light of so much tragedy.
2004 Nobel Interview
In 2004, Professor Georg Klein sat down with Elie Wiesel to discuss the legacy of his 1986 Peace Prize and the psychological urges behind the history.
Oprah Interviews Elie Wiesel
And you get an interview! And you get an interview! Oprah and Elie Wiesel jam about his memoir, Night.
We Day Speech
One of Elie Wiesel's last speeches. In this one, he talks about the faith that he has in the next generation to shake things up for the better. Go us!
Elie Wiesel in Buchenwald
Elie Wiesel's in this group shot of concentration camp prisoners in Buchenwald, in the second row, seventh from the left.
Wiesel with Obama
What a team.