Nearly 25 years ago I was sitting alone in my office when the phone rang. It was the publisher of the Weekly Planet (later known as Creative Loafing). He wanted to know if I would be interested in interviewing Elie Wiesel. He was staying at the Don CeSar while teaching at Eckerd College as a visiting professor.
I eagerly accepted the offer. In preparation for the interview that was to take place the next evening in the foyer of the Don in St. Pete Beach, I drove to Haslam's Bookstore in St. Petersburg to purchase a copy of his international bestseller, Night, which chronicled his hellish experience in Auschwitz/Buchenwald during the Holocaust.
I spent half an hour searching through the history and biography sections of the spacious store in vain for a copy of Wiesel's work. Frustrated, I consulted a clerk who scanned the computer. "Oh, here it is, it's in the fiction section," he replied.
"That can't be." I said. "It's a personal narrative about an actual event."
His look betrayed his ignorance, much like my student who exclaimed after hearing another survivor recount his travail: "Now I believe it." Or another student who asked a survivor what the food was like in the concentration camp he was interned in. "Gourmet," he responded laughingly.
The following evening I met Wiesel at the appointed time and location. I had never met a Nobel laureate before or a Holocaust survivor. Being Jewish, I was well aware of the horrible legacy of Nazism and the extermination of 6 million Jews. I was surprised by the calm demeanor and soft tone of this diminutive man. There was no vituperation, gushing outrage, even the hint of anger that I anticipated when he spoke. Recounting my experience the previous evening elicited a smirk and the comment, "I have no control over the way people catalogue my writing."
I asked him if it would be all right to use the old tape recorder I brought. He readily acquiesced, and I was thankful because the room was noisy and he spoke so softly. Later, at my office, I turned on the recorder to see if it had captured our hourlong conversation, and to my delight every word was there, even his response to my inquiry about his professed disillusion with God and abandonment of faith over the Holocaust. "I haven't abandoned my faith in God," he said solemnly. "But if and when I get to see him, he's got a lot of explaining to do."
Before leaving I mentioned that the next day was my birthday, and he graciously inscribed my "fictional" copy of Night with a wish for a happy birthday. A few days later, in a rare public appearance in this area, he was heckled by a group of white supremacists who carried placards denouncing him as "Elie the Weasel" and denying the authenticity of his work and the Holocaust.
Every day we are losing survivors of one of the most horrendous atrocities in the history of mankind. Wiesel's gift, and that of other survivors of genocide, lies in the testimonies they convey to us and the knowledge that is passed on through their memories if we listen and learn from their tortuous lessons.
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We must never forget them or their experiences, and learn, like Wiesel and the millions who went to rest before him, that hatred of others is a pernicious disease that can devour the lives and souls of civilization.
H. Roy Kaplan was the executive director of the National Conference of Christians and Jews for Tampa Bay. He teaches courses on racism at the University of South Florida. His most recent book is "Understanding Conflict and Change in a Multicultural World."