Elie Wiesel doesn’t make appearances as often as he once did, but he will make one in Greenville this year. The 84-year-old Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor will share his wisdom to help the city celebrate what is being called the Year of Altruism.
Wiesel, who has given his voice to human rights efforts around the world, will speak from the Peace Center stage Oct. 1.
“I love it,” Wiesel said of the idea. “Man is not alone in the world. There is always someone else and I have to live for that person, not only for myself.”
The Year of Altruism is a community-wide effort from August to May. Sixty organizations will promote altruism in thought, speech and action. The hope is to introduce kindness and pursue humanity so that the whole community might help create an even better Greenville.
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“This doesn’t end in May,” said Bob St. Claire, one of Year of Altruism’s founders and directors. “Altruism doesn’t end. This is going to go on beyond there. We’re not really clear where it’s going yet, but out of all of this, something’s going to grow.”
The Year of Altruism grew from a 70th anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht, “the night of broken glass,” considered the start of the Holocaust. The November 2008 program at Greenville Tech with former Greenville Mayor Max Heller and his wife, Trude, packed an auditorium and left close to 400 people waiting in the lobby.
This year’s 75th anniversary posed the challenge of commemorating in a different way. Organizers ultimately focused on the potential for human good and kindness that existed even among the horrors of the Holocaust.
“We lamented the horrors back at 70, now we are going to celebrate the potentialities at 75,” said Marc Wilson, co-founder and co-director.
The Year of Altruism year will be a collective approach to promoting humanity. The list of participants comprises multi-faith, multi-racial and multi-cultural organizations across the county who will hold performances, lectures, seminars and other special events throughout the year.
Among participants are Furman University, Greenville Chamber of Commerce, Greenville County Schools, United Way, St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, Greenville Jewish Federation, Long Branch Baptist Church and NAACP Greenville.
“We also realized at the same time that while clearly the program had its roots in Kristallnacht and the Holocaust, that now that we were talking about altruism, compassion, this was becoming a universal project,” Wilson said.
If the mission of the YOA could be represented in a person it would be Wiesel, said Bob Yarbrough, special assistant to the president for strategic initiatives at Furman. And so the writer, professor, Nobel Peace Prize winner was the only choice. The Peace Center stepped in to offer sponsorship.
“I think we desired to captivate the imagination of the community and energize the community,” Yarbrough said. “And who better to do that than Elie Wiesel?”
In his 84 years, Wiesel’s name has become synonymous with human welfare, even as he endured the worst kind of human brutality. When he was 15, Wiesel and his family were shipped to a concentration camp. He was tattooed with the number A-7713. He saw babies burned alive and man turned against man. Wiesel’s father died, weak from dysentery, on the bunk beneath him, after being beaten by Nazi soldiers.
Yet Wiesel survived. He said the responsibility of survival isn’t just to know what happened, but to teach it. And Wiesel has. He published “Night” in 1958. The memoir is a personal account of the year he spent in concentration camps and is now widely used as part of middle and high school curricula across the country.
Since then, Wiesel has published almost 60 books and has become a tireless leader for social justice movements around the world.
“If somebody needs me, I have no right to say I am not here and I am too weak and I am powerless,” Wiesel said by phone from his office in New York. “We always find an excuse. Somebody needs me, let the person who needs me decide if really I can help or not. We always need someone. We do. We really, really do.”
Wiesel, his parents and three sisters were deported to Auschwitz in 1944. World War II was underway, and the German army was making its sweep across Western Europe.
In Sighet, the Romanian town where Wiesel grew up, things felt separate from the rest of Europe. But the perceived quiet of Sighet changed quickly. First, Jews weren’t allowed to dine out or drive. Then, they were forced to leave their homes and move into ghettos. Then, Jews were made to wear yellow stars.
In “Night,” Wiesel shares his account of facing the unimaginable. Many in his town didn’t imagine it. Tales of the concentration camps were rumored, but still it seemed unreal, like a work of fiction.
Reality came quickly.
At Auschwitz, Wiesel’s mother and younger sister, Tzipora, were taken to the gas chambers upon arrival. Wiesel’s older sisters survived, and Wiesel and his father remained together.
He endured starvation, beatings and humiliation. He witnessed his father’s death, unable to act. Wiesel’s yearlong experience in the concentration camp nearly destroyed his faith in God, but his faith in humanity’s good has helped him reconnect.
Wiesel’s voice has the sound of one who has been to the edge of life and back. At once soft and unwavering, sweet and stiff, Wiesel’s words cascade out, eliciting feelings of horror and beauty.
“There’s too much hatred in the world, and hatred has to be eradicated, immediately,” Wiesel said softly. “Hatred can be born simply because of language, behavior or innuendo, there are so many reasons. But all of them are wrong. Hatred should never be justified.”
For 10 years, Wiesel was silent, unable or unsure of how to speak about his experiences. After the war ended, he studied in Paris and later became a journalist. He wrote “Night” only after an interview with French writer Francois Mauriac, who encouraged him to tell his story.
“It was simply,” Wiesel said, attempting to explain. “I wanted to be sure that I would find the words. I decided 10 years. I could have decided 20 or 30 and I decided 10 years. And after 10 years, I’m not sure that I did find the right words.”
“Night” is Wiesel’s testimony that the Holocaust was real and that six million weren’t just killed, but ruthlessly slaughtered. Wiesel himself, however, is proof that humanity survives. His role has become one of teller, his words have become his tools.
We must use our voice for the voiceless, Wiesel said. In Greenville, he will share that message.
“The victims should not feel abandoned,” Wiesel said with force. “The victim has enough to be a victim — his or her victimhood is the burden they carry. But for the victim to feel that she or he is abandoned, alone, that is my fault. That’s why I wrote all my books.”
His efforts to fight injustice have taken him around the world — to Cambodia, Bosnia, Nicaragua, Darfur, South Africa.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986, he discussed the responsibility he feels.
“There is so much to be done, there is so much that can be done,” Wiesel said then. “One person — a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr. — one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death.”