Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and author of over 40 books, spoke before a full Battell Chapel audience Sunday to commemorate the 20th birthday of Yale’s Fortunoff Video Archive, which documents the experiences of Holocaust survivors.
Wiesel was the keynote speaker in a three-day international conference about the Holocaust. The conference, which continues today and Tuesday, features various panels, films and talks around campus.
Wiesel, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his leadership of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, spoke about the difficulty of explaining the Holocaust’s trauma to those who did not experience it firsthand.
“The duty to tell the tale is a powerful element of my life, but so is the realization that it cannot be told,” Wiesel said.
As a teenager, Wiesel survived the Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps and later went on to write several accounts of the Holocaust, an event which he said “defies both knowledge and imagination.”
Yale President Richard Levin, who introduced Wiesel, said that Yale has an obligation to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and to provide a deeper understanding of it through the archive.
“Surely it is our educational institutions that must shoulder the burden,” Levin said.
Wiesel began his talk, “The Imperative of Testimony: Speaking of Unspeakable Evil,” by praising the archive for recording the accounts of Holocaust victims and commending the conference for bringing some of the most prominent thinkers about the Holocaust together.
“You have the best critics, the best historians, the best philosophers of history, what more can I add?” Wiesel said.
Wiesel also questioned the ability of any medium, including his own writing, to capture the true horror of the Holocaust.
Later, Wiesel read a letter written by a mother and a daughter, both victims of the Holocaust. Alternating between the original Yiddish and English he read: “I hope that someone, somewhere, will survive and tell of our torment. Every day we wait for death and in the meantime we mourn for our dear ones.”
The speech concluded with a reference to the dangers of the modern world. Wiesel said the audience should never succumb to the urge for violence.
“Hate is growing, fanaticism is invading,” Wiesel said. “Don’t allow fanaticism to become a seductive power. Don’t allow hatred to become a policy of state.”
Wiesel also urged Yale students to take political action in order to prevent any future genocides on the scale of the Holocaust.
“Students must have a role in any endeavor that improves society,” Wiesel said.
In his concluding remarks Levin encouraged Yale students to visit the archive, which he said perpetuates the knowledge and memory of the Holocaust.
Conference participant Lawrence Langer, a professor of literature at Simmons College, said he has seen Wiesel speak on a number of occasions and that this particular speech was one of Wiesel’s best.
“At our conference, I didn’t see anyone who looked like a Yale student,” Langer said. “[But] when Elie Wiesel comes to speak, this place is packed with Yale students.”
Since its founding, the archive has collected and catalogued over 10,000 hours of videotape with over 4,200 survivor and bystander testimonies.
“This is a project which is exceptionally unique and which is very powerful,” said Martin Butora, the Slovakian ambassador to the United States and a member of the conference.
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