Reflections on Elie Wiesel at Colgate

Back to All Stories

Peter Balakian is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Chair in the humanities in the Department of English. He was the first director of the Center for Ethics and World Societies. His book Ozone Journal won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

I first met Elie Wiesel when my friend and English department colleague Terrence Des Pres hosted him for a lecture at Colgate in 1982. Terrence, who had written a trailblazing and best selling book The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps was a leading scholar in Holocaust studies and had worked with Elie in the planning phases of the U. S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Washington.

At a reception on the great green slope of Terrence’s yard at Olmstead House, where he lived on the lower knoll of Preston Hill Road, I spent an hour talking with Elie about survivor experience, Armenian and Jewish experiences of diaspora, Turkish government denialism of the Armenian genocide, and so forth. It was the beginning of a collegial friendship of more than 30 years.

Over the years, Elie came to campus a number of times, and his books — especially Night — were taught in our curriculum year after year. In 1984 he gave the baccalaureate address to the graduating class, and I published that address in the literary magazine Graham House Review (published by Colgate University Press), which I edited then with the poet Bruce Smith. In 1998–99, when I was asked by then Dean and Provost Jane Pinchin to direct the Center for Ethics and World Societies (the center was Jane’s creation), Jane and I brought Elie to campus three times that school year as part of our year-long series we called “Art out of Atrocity.”

Elie’s third visit was scheduled for a culminating two-day symposium to be held during Reunion Weekend 1999, and it turned into a dramatic culmination of a year of extraordinary programming for the center. Because Elie had been asked at the last minute to go with President Clinton to Kosovo, where the United States was intervening in the human crisis, he had to cancel his visit to Colgate. But, it was Jane’s idea to turn Elie’s absence into an even more spectacular event — one that would entail our doing an interview with Elie at his apartment in New York City as he was leaving on his mission and one immediately upon his return.

Jim Leach, then director of communications, our film specialist Jim Bona, and I took a Colgate van, which Jim drove, to Elie’s apartment in New York City, where we met Colgate alumnus Chis Hedges ’79, then a New York Times reporter who had covered the Balkans during the war of the mid-90s, to conduct an interview with Elie on the eve of his departure for Kosovo. Then, upon Elie’s landing at Kennedy airport from Kosovo, we conducted a video conversation with him about his experience in Kosovo — that chaos-riven, small Balkan province that was soon to be a country.

The conversation, which was marked by a spontaneous authenticity, was broadcast live in the Colgate Memorial Chapel to an audience of hundreds — alumni, students, faculty, and townspeople. It was an important event and one that embodied some of the best of the cutting-edge kind of education that can happen on a college campus.

Elie Wiesel, who died on Saturday, July 2, at 87, was a singular figure in a global age, and his life as a Holocaust survivor, a writer, a teacher, and a public intellectual brought a large humanistic vision to millions of people over many decades. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The following are excerpts of the baccalaureate address he gave to the graduating class of 1984, at which time he received an honorary doctorate from Colgate:

I’ll tell you a few things. First, I have learned that evil must be fought right away. Don’t give evil a second chance. Always remember that ten or eleven years passed between Hitler’s book Mein Kampf and the death camps. Words, a few words, produced the greatest tragedy in recorded history. If evil had been fought then, I think the world would have been spared millions and millions of lives. If Hitler had been stopped in ’33, and he could have been stopped, human multitudes would have been spared. And in ’36 the same. And in ’39 the same. Had the world spoken up in ’42, hundreds and hundreds of communities would still be alive and vibrant.

The second lesson I learned is the importance of words. Language. Words can kill. Words can hurt. Words can be vehicles of hate and death. But words can also be vehicles of generosity. There were times when one word from one person meant more than anything you could have given us — more than bread or water. The word is important. Words can be spears. They can also be prayers. Words can destroy, and they can heal. I’m afraid that what we are doing to words these days is almost criminal. After all, I deal with them. I write, I teach. But, when I listen to our own language, I get frightened …

In spite of scientific achievement, men and women have never felt so lonely and so estranged, so alienated in their own surroundings. I wish I could sound more hopeful, but you will enter a world often disgorged by bigotry and endangered by fanaticism. Just open the newspaper — today’s paper, for example. How many more casualties in Ireland? And what about the empire of evil in Iran? What about the mass slaughter in India? And the bloodshed in Lebanon? The armed conflicts in the Persian Gulf? And what about the thousands and thousands of nuclear missiles produced weekly or daily? There isn’t a month without the discovery of a new tragedy …

As a teacher, as Jew, as a witness, as a student — and I study from students: they are my best teachers — I can tell you that, although we know almost with certainty that there is not much we can do to save our species, we must try. It is the individual spirit, the individual gesture that will ultimately matter. It seems desperate. It seems hopeless. And yet, beyond despair there is something else. And beyond hopelessness, there is something else. I suggest that you do not be afraid to go beyond despair; that you face it and continue.

Are we going to succeed? I have a child, and I would like my son, one day, to be among you. I would like him to learn better things. And I would like him to read better novels. With love, and with happiness and with fervor.