Elie Wiesel (RIP) Talks About What Happens When We Die

Elie Wiesel not only sur­vived the Holo­caust but went on to live a full life with a pro­lif­ic career, the fruits of which includ­ed 57 books, most famous­ly 1960’s Night, a short and for­mal­ly dis­tinc­tive work drawn from his expe­ri­ence in the con­cen­tra­tion camps. “The only role I sought was that of wit­ness,” he wrote in 1978. “I believed that hav­ing sur­vived by chance, I was duty-bound to give mean­ing to my sur­vival, to jus­ti­fy each moment of my life.” And even before his death this past Sat­ur­day at age 87, the Nobel Peace Prize win­ner had learned much about what it means to come to life’s end.

“The body is not eter­nal, but the idea of the soul is,” Wiesel writes in Open Heart, the 2012 mem­oir he wrote after under­go­ing anoth­er brush with death, late in life, which neces­si­tat­ed emer­gency open-heart surgery. “The brain will be buried, but mem­o­ry will sur­vive it.” Oprah Win­frey reads those words back to him in an inter­view from that same year, a clip from which you can see above. “Now that you’ve had all this time to think about it,” she asks, “what do you think hap­pens when we die?”

“Some­how,” he replies, “I will become a child. Child­hood, for me, is a theme in all my work. Will I meet my par­ents again? I want to know that.” Win­frey express­es spe­cial inter­est in the visions of his own fam­i­ly he had in the hos­pi­tal, such as that of his father who had died at Buchen­wald, just weeks before the cam­p’s lib­er­a­tion, and the sight of whose face he had pre­vi­ous­ly glimpsed, just for a moment, dur­ing his Nobel award cer­e­mo­ny in 1986. His father’s sec­ond posthu­mous appear­ance made him think death might not be so bad after all, but “that is the dan­ger. You feel it’s so good to be with the dead, then why not join them?”

But Wiesel, who had done so much already, felt he “had more and more things to do. I haven’t even begun.” Indeed, con­tin­u­ing in his capac­i­ty as the “Con­science of the World,” he received four more awards and hon­ors between 2012 and 2014, made many appear­ances, and sure­ly wrote pages that will see pub­li­ca­tion in the years, or even decades, to come. But for all his accom­plish­ments, he him­self found noth­ing more unusu­al, as he said to Win­frey in a pre­vi­ous talk six­teen years ago, than his own nor­mal­i­ty, “that I sur­vived the Holo­caust and went on to love beau­ti­ful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life — that is what is abnor­mal.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mem­o­ry of the Camps (1985): The Holo­caust Doc­u­men­tary that Trau­ma­tized Alfred Hitch­cock, and Remained Unseen for 40 Years

Alice Herz-Som­mer, the Old­est Holo­caust Sur­vivor (Thanks to the Pow­er of Music), Dies at 110

Bertrand Rus­sell on the Exis­tence of God & the After­life (1959)

Is There an After­life? Christo­pher Hitchens Spec­u­lates in an Ani­mat­ed Video

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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