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Wiesel extols virtues of fighting 'indifference'

An inscription at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum reads, "For the dead and the living we must bear witness."

 Several thousand students, teachers and Triangle residents did just that, bearing witness Wednesday night at a lecture given by Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. In "Night," his famous semi-autobiographical book, the protagonist details his experiences as a 15-year-old in several Nazi concentration camps.

 Wiesel, the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanties at Boston University, delivered the 2003 Lillian Parker Wallace Lecture at Meredith College in Raleigh after receiving an honorary Doctorate of Human Letters, the first such doctorate given by the all-female college to a man.

 The speech, held outside and framed against a dusk sky and a campus lake, began with a discussion of Wiesel's love for teaching and how he uses it to fight indifference.

 "Indifference and hope are incompatible," Wiesel said. "Indifference is a refuge to the weak, to the cowards and to those who have no imagination." Many of his students complain, he said, that they cannot make a difference in the world without seniority or power.

 "We can influence the future doctor and the future politican," he said.

 If nothing else, Wiesel said, people can aid the oppressed by letting them know they are not alone. During the Holocaust, the Nazis would often extract confessions from prisoners by telling them there was no hope because they were alone.

 Using more anecdotes from World War II, Wiesel discussed the dangers of false hope.

 "The human body cannot live without dreams," Wiesel said. "Well, the soul cannot live without hope." He emphasized that the false hope of the German people after World War I allowed Hitler to gain power. And in World War II, Jews with false hope stayed in the cities while the Nazis came for them; others survived by fleeing to the forests. Wiesel focused on these sames themes in current affairs, especially in discussing the Middle East. He noted the irony in God's creation of Jerusalem as "a city of peace" but that the modern Jerusalem "has so much hatred." Wiesel's empathy with Israeli Jews was evident, but it was just as present when he spoke of the Palestinians.

 "I don't want my hope to become someone else's nightmare," Wiesel said. "If I am free, it is not because others are not."

 He described his own "proposal for peace" as something very fundamental and beginning with "the base"--children. If for just one day of each month, he said, Israeli and Palestinian pre-schoolers visited each other, perhaps the effect would continue upwards with high schoolers, college students, professors, engineers, businessmen and even politicians.

 At the end of his lecture, Wiesel addressed a topic that is very pressing in the 21st century--terrorism. He said that at the end of the 19th century, terrorists were often called "revolutionaries" and seen in a more romantic light. But today the situation is different.

 "Today, everybody is in danger," Wiesel said. "We are all targets." He admitted that he has no ultimate solution to the problem but that one of its major components will be education.

 Framing a traditional phrase in a new way, Wiesel posed a question: "Is there hope at the end of the tunnel? I would say there is hope in the tunnel."

 The effect of Wiesel's words was apparent in many members of the audience as the sky grew dark and he ended his lecture.

 "I've taught 'Night,' and after reading it a number of times and teaching it a number of times, I just knew I had to come and hear what he had to say," said Catherine Johnson, an English teacher at Green Hope High School in Morrisville.


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