Ethics in Leadership

Holocaust survivor shares his experiences with crowd at Viterbo

World famous author and possibly the most well known holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, takes questions from the press Wednesday at Viterbo University in La Crosse. PETER THOMSON photo
By KATE SCHOTT | La Crosse Tribune

Elie Wiesel was naive in 1945.

Emerging from the horror of years in Nazi concentration camps, he was convinced the world had learned some lessons.

Wars would stop and no child ever again would go hungry, because the world had learned about hatred.

But fighting continues. Children starve. Hatred exists.

Yet Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, keeps hoping.

“We shall never give up hope,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner told an estimated 1,700 people Wednesday while speaking at Viterbo University.

“Hope is like the gift that we give one another.”

Wiesel, considered one of the world’s most respected voices on the Holocaust, spoke at Viterbo as part of the university’s D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership fall lecture series.

“Tonight you will touch history,” Viterbo instructor Darryle Clott said in her introduction of Wiesel.

The 77-year-old Wiesel, a professor at Boston University, is the author of “Night,” a memoir of his Holocaust experiences. He was 14 when he and his family were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

His mother and younger sister died there, while his two older sisters survived. Wiesel and his father later were transferred to another camp, where his father died just before the camp was liberated in April 1945. Wiesel was 16 at the time.

During his blessing, Rabbi Saul Prombaum of the Congregation Sons of Abraham asked that participants leave “better people than when we came in,” and to be “transformed into instruments of loving kindness,” a theme that ran through Wiesel’s presentation.

Wiesel’s words elicited laughter at times, such as when he suggested universities offer classes for credit on peace, and tears at others, such as when he described children being killed during the Holocaust.

Throughout, Wiesel advocated for hope and peace to make a better world, and placed the possibility of that future on his listeners.

During the Holocaust, many world leaders knew of the atrocities but most common people did not, he said. He compared that to the current conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan, where people are murdered, children exploited and women raped.

“There is no excuse today,” he said. “We know.”

Hatred is like an infectious disease and should be treated as such, Wiesel said in response to a question after his 40-minute prepared statement. An emergency plan should be put in place nationwide to deal with hate when it breaks out, and education about tolerance can help eradicate it, he said.

Several people, including Viterbo junior Ryan Gilbertson, said they particularly were taken with Wiesel’s suggestion that the media, which spends billions on entertainment programming, devote money on delivering the news to all people. Information turns into knowledge and knowledge into commitment, Wiesel said.

Wiesel specifically called on youth to turn hope into action, looking at a row of students while he spoke of their potential to create a better world.

This generation can create a world of peace by leading by example, Wiesel said. Their heroes can be people of wisdom and morals, not those who fight.

“You have inherited this century,” he said. “If I teach, if I write ... then you, you make this century into a better world. It began poorly. You do something. It is your century. I give you my help, and I say to you, ‘Look, my generation had all the reasons in the world to give up hope.’

“Enough said.”

Kate Schott can be reached at or (608) 791-8226.

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