Speaking in Oakhurst, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel warned about the persistence of twin evils — anti-Semitism and genocide — that he has devoted his life to eradicating.
“If Auschwitz hasn’t cured the world of anti-Semitism, what can? And what will?” the Holocaust survivor said in a speech to nearly 800 people on Sept. 18 at Congregation Torat El. “Unfortunately we don’t know how to eradicate it. Will the world ever learn? It will not, because it hasn’t. Had the world learned, there would be no Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia.”
Wiesel also condemned Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for Israel’s destruction.
“If anti-Semitism had been eradicated, there would be no heads of state who deny the Holocaust and publicly declare their quest to destroy Israel,” he said. “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be brought to international court and arrested for inciting a crime against humanity.”
Despite his warnings, Wiesel delivered a message of inspiration.
“We live in a democracy in America. Our voices can be heard,” he said. “Even if we cannot cure hatred universally, we can make people aware.”
The event was headed by the synagogue’s fund-raising chair, Laurie Gross of West Allenhurst, and committee cochairs Bill Belfer and Beverle Richelson, both of Ocean Township.
Wiesel, 83, won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986, for his work bearing witness to the Shoa. But his novels and nonfiction have also reflected his lifelong pursuit of Jewish learning.
“I have been teaching for almost 40 years, yet every time I open a book I am a student again,” he told the gathering.
“Before I take questions from an audience, I always worry what the questions will be. I have dedicated my whole life to questions, yet I do not know the answers. I have published more than 50 books and taught tens of thousands of students, yet I feel like I am just beginning.”
Added Wiesel: “I have lived a long life. Every day is a gift. Every encounter is a gift. Every lesson I give or receive is an offering.”
‘Learn from our past’
In his welcome speech, Rabbi Aaron Schonbrun told Wiesel he was one of the most influential teachers of our time.
“Whenever I teach about the importance of sharing our stories, it is Professor Wiesel whom I turn to,” he said. “When I spread the message about fighting injustice and learning to love our neighbors as ourselves, it is Professor Wiesel whose writings have inspired me. And whenever I speak about the Holocaust, it is Professor Wiesel whom I look to for guidance.”
Wiesel referred to the recent merger of congregations that created Torat El. He was pleasantly surprised, he quipped, to address “two Jewish communities that have become one. Usually it is one community becoming two.”
Holocaust survivor Eva Wiener of Neptune attended the lecture with her 14-year-old grandson. Wiener fled Germany among the 937 Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis, which was turned back to Europe in what became known as the “Voyage of the Damned.”
“We must never forget because we may be doomed to relive it if we allow ourselves,” Wiener said. “We must learn from our past.”
Abe Chapnick of Howell, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor, said he met Wiesel while they were both boys imprisoned at Buchenwald concentration camp. “It’s important that the younger generation takes over to save humanity,” he said. “Speaking about my experiences in schools makes me feel I have accomplished something.”
The audience included about 75 students ages 13 to 22.
“Witnessing this event is especially important for our youth,” said Torat El president Gary Zimmerman of Ocean Township. “It’s our history, but our youth don’t really feel it and see it.
“Listening to someone as special as Elie Wiesel makes it real for them.”
Hannah Schwartz of Ocean Township, 16, said meeting Wiesel was a dream of hers since she read his classic Holocaust memoir, Night, in seventh grade.
“After I finished the book I shut myself off from it a little because it was so emotional,” she said. “Seeing him tonight helped give me emotional closure. He came out of a tragic experience yet devotes himself to helping others. That is truly inspirational.”