Holocaust Remembrance Day: Elie Wiesel on what makes us moral

Prisoners of the Buchenwald concentration camp inside their barracks, a few days after U.S. troops liberated the camp near Weimar, Germany, April 16, 1945. The young man seventh from left in the middle row bunk is Elie Wiesel, who would later become an author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The late Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner who remained firm in his belief that we simply cannot be indifferent to the suffering of others.

Wiesel was born in 1928 in a village in Transylvania. He was 15 years old when he and his family were deported by the Nazis to Auschwitz. His mother and younger sister died in that camp, his two older sisters survived.

Wiesel and his father were later transported to Buchenwald, where his father died just months before the camp was liberated by U.S. troops in April of 1945.

For some 10 years, Wiesel didn't speak about the Holocaust. But then he began to write about it; he also wrote about morality and intolerance. He wrote more than 40 books and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

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In 2009 he accompanied President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they toured Buchenwald, and when he returned, he gave the keynote speech at the Chautauqua Institution's Lecture Series in New York, where he was asked to reflect on what makes us moral.

Obit Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel smiles during a 2009 news conference in Budapest, Hungary.
Bela Szandelszky | AP 2009

"What we believe was moral, Germany and the Soviet Union believed was immoral," he said. "They believed it was moral to kill us."

Adolf Hitler and his followers thought they were killing Jews, homosexuals and communists not just for Germany, but for the betterment of humanity, "and that was, for him, morality."

When people believe these terrible things with such tenacity, what we can do to fight back is remain ourselves, Wiesel said, "And say 'whatever you say, we disagree with, and you will never change us.'"

While he sees the military intervention against Hitler in World War II as necessary, Wiesel says he cannot say he is for war, because he knows the pain and destruction it brings, especially to children.

"A moral society is the one that takes care of its children and of its elderly," he said. "Of those who need help and protection and compassion."

Wiesel died last summer at the age of 87.

To listen to the speech, click the audio player above.

He is the author of "Night," a book based on his experiences in the concentration and death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The book contains what may be the most widely recognized passage in Holocaust literature:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed."

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