'I love beginnings,' Elie Wiesel told a panel of eight students on stage and about 700 in the audience during a Sunday appearance at the College of Charleston's Sottile Theatre.
That's because he thought Auschwitz signified the end of history, he said. And because much of human endeavor tends to end badly, with injustice, terror and death. Though the meaning of life can be elusive, it is the obligation of human beings to act in ways that make a better world.
'When one person suffers, you have to do something,' he said later, at an evening lecture that filled the Sottile for a second time. 'The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. Indifference is the opposite of everything that's created, everything that's noble in human experience. The opposite of indifference is commitment, education.'
Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, author and teacher, appeared in Charleston thanks to local businesswoman and philanthropist Anita Zucker. At the evening event, College of Charleston President George Benson bestowed on him an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
In a lecture called 'Thou Shall Not Stand Idly By,' grounded in humanistic moral philosophy, Wiesel spoke not of his experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but of the lessons he has learned — and continues to learn.
He touched on politics, voicing his support for Israel and the aspirations of the Jewish people for a state of their own. He condemned Iranian
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel.
He decried the base tone of political discourse and called on politicians to 'elevate debate, lift us up.' History, he said, should remember us for the vigor of our ideas and the actions we take to help those in need.
He spoke of the despair of statelessness and the insidious nature of hate. 'It begins with slander, the humiliation of the other, and ends with murder,' he said. 'Humiliation is the greatest sin.'
And he talked of the need to understand 'the other,' those who are unfamiliar.
Finally, Wiesel shared a profound disappointment. The Holocaust reduced human beings to their basest level, the hate that led to genocide surely represented the worst mankind was capable of, he said.
'Simply to see what hatred could do, hatred would never prevail again.' Surely there would be no more war, he said.
So he, and other survivors, dedicated their lives to bearing witness.
'We failed,' he said. 'The world is still capable of war, of hatred. Maybe we didn't use the right words. Maybe we went wrong in thinking of our possibilities with too much optimism.'
For then came Rwanda and Darfur.
'Has the world learned?' he asked. 'No. Will it learn in the future? No.'
So why make an effort to make things better? Because, as the French writer Albert Camus suggested, 'Where there is no hope we must invent it,' Wiesel said.
And how do we invent hope? During the earlier panel discussion, one of the students asked: 'What inspires you, or who inspires you, to keep going, to fight for justice?'
'Children,' Wiesel said.