Wiesel in Montreal: “You are not alone! Somebody cares.”

By Joel Goldenberg on October 1, 2009

Individuals should never think there is nothing they can do to help solve society’s ills, professor, Nobel Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel told an audience of more than 2,200 at Théâtre St. Denis recently.
Wiesel’s speech was a presentation of  Côte St. Luc’s Beth Israel Beth Aaron Synagogue, Lasalle’s St. Jean Brébeuf parish and the Mike Dym Memorial Lecture Series sponsored by the Dym Foundation headed Mike Dym’s son Jack, one of this city’s most engaged philanthropists and community leaders who has provided critical support - moral and material - for many causes and projects ranging from the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, the MADA Community Centre, the Montreal Children’s Hospital and several anti-poverty groups. The event was moderated by Rabbi Reuben Poupko and Father John Walsh.
Wiesel told the audience that perceived indifference and solitude are “the worst feelings” to those suffering, whether from political persecution, poverty or illness.
“When the tormentors of Nazi Europe, of the Communist prisons, wanted to force the prisoners to give names and to surrender a piece of their dignity and honour and personality by betraying their fellow fighters, they would say, ‘come on, don’t you know that you are abandoned, nobody cares, your own friends forgot you,’ That is the worst thing that can happen, and the person feels nobody cares anymore. Such as the person who suffers from AIDS in a hospital bed, or the child who is hungry in Africa. Nothing is worse than a person who is either a victim of society or a prisoner of destiny. We say ‘oh no, I can’t help them, I don’t have the key to open the prison or the [ability] to save the person from his or her disease.’
“But one power I do have is to tell that person that he or she is not alone, that somebody cares.”
Wiesel said Holocaust survivors have a right to be indifferent to the sufferings of others.
“Some of you here went through the same trial that I did,” he told survivors in the audience. “That memory has never left us — never left us. It cannot leave us, It’s too overpowering, overwhelming an experience that is part of our life, every fibre of our being.
“We have the absolute right to give up on humanity, to say we were abandoned by it. ‘We needed you, and you didn’t help us so therefore, leave us alone. Don’t come to speak to me about other people’s suffering, I suffered more.’ We had the right to do that, and we could have done that, but we did not invoke that right, just the opposite.”
Wiesel said that, in general, the answer to society’s ills “is always in your hands.
“The choice is yours,” he added. “Remember that the individual has a role to play, not only in his or her own life or the family, but what single people have done for the history of humanity is amazing, in good or bad. A single person discovered remedies against certain forms of cancer. A single person made decisions that affected so many others. It always begins with a single person.
“Don’t say ‘what can I do?’ In Darfur, people say ‘only governments can do, only presidents can do.’ Our answer is mobilize yourselves, wherever you are, high schools, colleges, universities. Write petitions, send them to the White House, to your prime minister, to the UN. They have an effect. If somebody comes and needs you, don’t let the question of your powerlessness harm the person who needs you — you can help.”
Wiesel said his recent contribution was full-page New York Times and International Herald Tribune ads, featuring the signatures of 15 Nobel laureates, expressing solidarity with the “young, courageous people in Iran who had the audacity, the courage to face Ahmadinejad, who had all the powers of the police and the army.
“They came out and publicly, with open faces, they dared to oppose and say what they thought of him. And nobody cared. We decided they should at least know that we cared. Their leaders said ‘at least somebody cares.’
“That is something we have learned. God alone is alone. Human beings are not, must not be. When a person is alone, you can help the person break the walls of solitude and say ‘you are my friend, my ally, my companion, my brother, my sister.
“We had all the reasons in the world to give up, but we didn’t. Nor should you.”


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