Patt Morrison Asks

Elie Wiesel, history's witness

I think it began well, a kind of spiritual and political rebellion. It was hijacked and turned into something else. Take Syria. The problem with Syria is painful because the Syrian border with Israel is the only one that has never been violated. The Syrians are respecting the border with Israel. And yet their fanatics are fanatics. What to do? If I knew the answer to that!

Why have you kept yourself apart from the discussions of the Israelis and Palestinians?

I speak; when asked, I will speak but not to create more controversy. I believe in the absolute fervor of Israel to have peace with the Palestinians; I am ready to swear on whatever is holy. I am confident that they will make peace, before many other countries make peace. My feeling is that it will happen soon, because it is enough. The Israeli population wants peace. A large majority are ready to give up territories for that. I am waiting for a miracle. I belong to a people that had miracles, that survived by miracles.

You lost your savings, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity lost its $15 million, because of Bernie Madoff's crimes. Has there been any restitution?

[The foundation is] beginning to get restitution. They won't get the whole sum. Personally, we [he and his wife] lost everything. One Thursday night, we came home from dinner and the phone rang and we heard he was arrested.

What circle of hell would Dante consign Madoff to?

All!

Sometimes Mormons baptize non-Mormons, including Holocaust victims and survivors, even though the church has told its members not to. You're laughing …

When someone said, "You are in the process of being converted," I began laughing, and I said to myself, "It's so absurd." I stopped laughing [when] I said to myself, 100 years from now, some researcher, a student, will find something and say, "Hey, I didn't know Elie Wiesel was a Mormon." A researcher will say, "Look, the Jews were not killed by the Germans. Mormons were killed by the Germans." To hurt our sensitivities — how can they do that?

You were born in Romania, lived in France and are a U.S. citizen.

First, I am an American. I lived in France as a stateless person. But I got citizenship here. The first thing I did, I got a passport. I never had a passport. I kept it in my pocket. And it's always with me, in my pocket.

The plight of refugees occupies much of your work. How should the world treat political, economic, environmental refugees?

I also was a refugee. I came to America as a stateless person, therefore I am sentimentally close to the refugees. Whatever they are, wherever they are, I don't know how, but I'm on their side. My obsession is the otherness of the other. We cannot humiliate the other by denying his or her otherness. The sin of humiliation — I came to America as a journalist, and in the South I saw the attitude toward blacks at the time. It was the law. The law of the land was to humiliate an entire race.

Buchenwald was liberated in April. On the anniversary, do you reflect on that deliverance?

Naturally. That day, we were supposed to leave the camp. Had we left, we would have been killed, like those who left the day before. We were already at the gate. There was an air alarm and the inmates had to go back to the block. And the American soldiers came.

You survived, but your father and your mother and sister died. So is it random ? Does God make these decisions?

If you believe in God, God makes these decisions. But we don't know why. Why did he decide me, when others were worthier? To this day I don't know.

Is that a burden?

I say to myself, since I did survive, my duty is to do something with my survival. I try. I'm not sure I've succeeded, but I try.

patt.morrison@latimes.com

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes

This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.

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