"Probably pessimistic," he says. "A few years ago I was invited to address the General Assembly (of the United Nations). I called my lecture, 'Will the World Ever Learn?' And I gave the answer: No, because it hasn't learned. Otherwise, how was one to explain Rwanda and Cambodia? That is what makes me so pessimistic."
Yet Wiesel cannot end his thought on that note.
"But it's an active pessimism: not to give up," he hastens to add. "Because of it, you must do more, you must work harder, rather than say, 'Since it hasn't helped, forget it.'"
So Wiesel's work continues. He hopes still "to educate more students and to really try to save the world from itself, to the extent of my abilities."
The power of words
s Wiesel winds up his lecture at the 92nd Street Y, it's clear that these intimate talks stand as another part of his campaign, another way to teach.
When he's done, he stands up, bows slightly and waves gently to his audience before disappearing offstage.
Afterward, the audience streams into the lobby, where a bust of him — years in the making — was unveiled earlier in the evening. Young people swarm around it, snapping pictures of themselves and one another in front of it with their smartphones.
"I had the misconception that he'd only be appreciated by older people," says Sol Adler, executive director of the 92nd Street Y. "But the fact is that younger people are in awe of him. He's touching something very central to them.
"Many of them will say: 'It's amazing what he went through in his life, and that he's such a good spirit.' … These high school students are sort of aching to learn from him."
As everyone heads out, something Wiesel said the day before echoes in memory. Several years ago, when there was a move afoot to draft Wiesel as president of Israel, he was determined not to be considered for the post.
Asked by a journalist at an Israeli news conference why he wouldn't accept the highest honor the country could give him, he remembers giving this answer:
"I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, why do people come to me? For one reason alone: I have nothing except words — but they are mine.
"'The moment I become president, they no longer are.'"
Elie Wiesel's words still resonate around the world. And they are still his.
Elie Wiesel receives the 2012 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize and is interviewed by the Tribune's Howard Reich at 10 a.m. Nov. 11, at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.
In Printers Row Journal
Howard Reich, a son of Holocaust survivors, writes about the difficulty of facing this subject and draws insights from Elie Wiesel. The piece appears in the Nov. 11 issue of Printers Row Journal and online at chicagotribune.com/printersrow.