On October 7th I had the good fortune to spend the better part of the day and night learning from Elie Wiesel, acclaimed humanitarian and author of Night (among many other works).
I first attended his question and answer session at Milner Library from 3:30 to 4:30. It was soon obvious that Mr. Wiesel, even at his advanced age, was by far the smartest person in the room. He answered questions for a solid hour, and he did so gracefully, articulately, and honestly. While his voice was frail, his words were powerful, and I think everyone in the room was deeply moved by his frank responses to a series of thoughtful questions. Some paraphrased highlights among those answers include the fact that he would not comment on who he endorsed for the next presidency, but he added that he found American politics getting uglier with each passing decade-particularly the last thirty years. He said he does not forgive Nazi Germany for the Holocaust, but he would always forgive an individual should they apologize. He said he had more sympathy for the children of killers than anyone else, because they often carry the burden of their parents’ guilt. He said that he did not think the world would ever learn to be peaceful, because if it hadn’t learned from the atrocities of the Holocaust, what could possibly make a difference now? However, he amended that statement by saying we must never lose hope, and we must always strive to make a difference for the children in the world. He emphasized the need to protect and care for humanity’s children, and then quoted Scripture about never standing idly by.
I’ve done a few question and answer sessions myself in regards to my writing, and I can tell you firsthand it is both exhausting and stressful. You must keep on your toes with your impromptu responses and hope you don’t come off sounding like an imbecile. Mr. Wiesel’s probably answered the same general questions a thousand times, but all of his replies sounded genuine, original, and produced specifically for that person asking the question. He never appeared nervous, and he truly had a calming presence that I found quite unique.
At the end of the question and answer session, they asked that we all remain in place while he was escorted out of the room by security. I would learn later that evening by his candor that many in the world find his honesty threatening and would seek to harm him.
Consequently, I was amazed by how many people showed up at Milner Library for his question and answer session; however, that wonderful turnout was nothing compared to his presentation later that evening at the Bone Student Center …
We arrived at Braden Auditorium in the Bone Student Center around 6:15 p.m. for his 7:00 p.m. address. The center teemed and we were lucky to find seats in the very last row of the main level. As we sat for forty-five minutes, people kept flooding in, and my heart burst with pride in the people of Central Illinois. So many showed up to listen to this man, there literally weren’t enough seats in the mammoth auditorium which can hold almost 3500 people. Can you imagine? On a rainy Tuesday night? My faith in people’s respect for intellectualism quadrupled that night.
When Mr. Wiesel appeared on stage, he sat at a simple table with a white cloth covering it and a single microphone. His security flanked him on either side in the shadows, for he had a single spotlight shining down upon him. The auditorium remained well-lit, so everywhere you looked you saw thousands of people hanging upon his every word.
This time Mr. Wiesel offered a prepared talk, though he sprinkled some tidbits from his afternoon at Milner Library into it. He spoke again about our responsibility to the children, that we must never stand idly by, and he reminded us that genocide still occurs in places like Myanmar, Cambodia, Bosnia, and Darfur. He referenced Scripture often, focusing upon the story of Cain and Abel, and the ability brothers have to kill one another. Totally humble, he spoke of meeting with world leaders, moderating peace talks, and addressing presidents. He denounced racism, heavily criticized the leader of Iran, and spoke against fanatics who use religion as their excuse to propagate hatred and murder. He reminded us that each and every person has the responsibility to help our fellow man, and as long as anyone in this world dies from hunger, we should all feel intense shame. In the end, he left us with such simple and inspiring words-“Think higher. Feel deeper.”
They announced Mr. Wiesel would sign books for half an hour, but with the thousands of people there, we knew it would be futile to even try. I regretted that I wouldn’t get a copy of Night signed for my three-month-old daughter-one day to be a gift-but I understood that a man of his age who speaks so openly against those who think nothing of killing may not want to interact with the general public at a relatively unsecure location for too long. In the end, even though I didn’t get a book signed to her, I can one day tell Emma all about the day Elie Wiesel came to Central Illinois, and that’s something to which I greatly look forward.
Again, words cannot describe how proud I am of the people who came out that night to see Mr. Wiesel. When I think about one man who’s made such a difference in this world of ours encouraging each and every person in that room to resist the urge to stand idly by, it really fills my heart with joy.
Learning from Mr. Wiesel was something I’ll forever cherish, and I thank him for coming to Illinois State University. I also believe Toni Tucker of Illinois State University’s Milner Library deserves tremendous credit for bringing him to us as well. It had to have been tremendously stressful for her, but she pulled it off fantastically. Well done, Toni!
It has not yet been even twenty-four hours since listening to Mr. Wiesel, so my brain is still bustling with excitement. If there’s anything you’d like to know-anything I may have omitted-please don’t hesitate to ask a question in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.