'Fresh Air' Marks The 75th Anniversary Of The Liberation Of Auschwitz
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Monday, January 27, is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Today we're going to listen to two interviews. In a bit, we'll hear some of Terry's 1988 interview with Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016. But first, we'll listen to my 2005 interview with journalist Laurence Rees, whose book presented fresh information about Auschwitz, the site of history's largest mass murder, as well as insights into Hitler's campaign of genocide against the Jews of Europe.
Rees' book is based on more than a hundred interviews with Auschwitz survivors and Nazi perpetrators, many of whom spoke on the record for the first time. He believes his search for the truth was aided by the fact that surviving Nazis had reached an age where candor no longer jeopardized careers and by the fall of communism, which opened up a wealth of new archival material. His book is called "Auschwitz: A New History."
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DAVIES: Laurence Rees, welcome to FRESH AIR.
LAURENCE REES: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: You note early in this book that you were one of relatively few people who've been able to interview quite a number of war criminals from three of the great totalitarian powers of the 20th century - that is, Stalinist Russia, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. And you say in this book that having done so, you can confirm that Nazi war criminals that you met were different from the other two.
REES: That's right. Yeah.
DAVIES: How were they different?
REES: They're different in a kind of paradoxical way because when I grew up at school and first heard about the Nazis and - the whole line that was taken then in the '70s was that Nazi war criminals would give us the standard defense. Oh, I was only - I was acting under orders. I was acting under orders. And so that was kind of what you imagine, when you meet people like this, they're going to say. Well, paradoxically, that was the kind of response I got from Stalin's secret policemen, from members of the Imperial Army who committed terrible crimes in China and in the Pacific War. That was what they were saying. I didn't tend to get that from Nazi war criminals. The frightening thing to me - particularly frightening - was that most of the Nazi war criminals I've met actually, when you push them, say, well - and you say, well, why were you doing this - don't say, I was acting on your orders. Say, well, at the time, I thought what I was doing was right.
DAVIES: And what do you attribute that to? I mean, they seemed to be true believers in the cause.
REES: I think it's a variety of things that, in the end, for me, mean that Nazism is more horrible but more interesting as a phenomenon. I think it's to do with the fact that, certainly, if you were a secret policeman in Stalin's Russia, I think for the most part, the terror was so ubiquitous that no one was safe from the knock at the door. No one could really understand exactly why individuals were sometimes being targeted. Stalin famously had one of his own Politburo, Molotov's wife, tortured. I've talked to people who were at meetings where they stood up and were denouncing other people as enemies of the state because they were worried they'd be denounced. There didn't seem to be a rhyme or reason to some of this. So this means that the only way of making sense of it, really, for a lot of these people doing the bad things was to say, well, you know, I was doing it because I'm ordered to do it.
Similarly, in Imperial Japan, the level of training - the brutality of the training of Japanese soldiers, I think, is without parallel in the modern world, what these people were put through in training - bullying, the vicious beatings and so on, the indoctrination as well. But it was such that if you didn't - you know, you obeyed, and you obeyed blindly, I think, in a number of cases.
What's going on in Germany is rather different. What's going on in Germany is that - I think to some extent thanks to the work of Goebbels, who - again, a horrible, nasty person, but the genius of propaganda of the 20th century. Thanks to the work of Goebbels, but also thanks to the fact that there was a genuine feeling of injustice in Germany after the end of the First World War. There was a feeling put about that Jews were to blame. There was a feeling of fear of communism, that Jews were somehow falsely attributed in their totality to communism. Simultaneously, Jews were thought to be running Roosevelt in American politics, anti-German and so on. So there were a whole series of what they took to be, at the time, pragmatic, positive reasons to do what they were doing, and that's one of the frightening things about it.
DAVIES: When the Nazis spoke of achieving the Final Solution to the Jewish problem in the early years of the war, is it clear they meant extermination of the Jews?
REES: No, they didn't mean extermination, I don't believe. It's clear that the words Final Solution change in meaning, I believe, during 1941. When Heydrich is charged by Goring with organizing the Final Solution to the Jewish problem, initially, the order explicitly states evacuation. And that was the overt policy, certainly, since 1938 and the Anschluss with Austria. When the German troops go into Austria, they, under Eichmann of the SS of - you know, later absolutely infamous for being one of the organizers of the murders in the Final Solution - he organizes a system of expropriation, of robbing, of treating violently the Jews of Vienna, robbing them and then those who can almost pay to go, expelling them.
I think that what's clear is that Hitler always hated the Jews. He always loathed the Jews. He always wanted rid of the Jews in one way or another. The form that that wanting rid of would take varied at different points. The Final Solution, therefore, varied, I think, at different points. And certainly, at the beginning of the war, the Final Solution, I think, to the Jewish problem is one as they see it. I mean, horrible to use this language. It's not a problem. It's the problem of their mentality. But as they described it, the Jewish problem - the way to, quote, "solve," unquote, this was by evacuation.
DAVIES: It's remarkable that you find places where people talk about the notion of mass killings as being uncivilized and un-German.
REES: Yes, that's right. Both Heydrich and Himmler say that in the - 1940. And so we know, I think, beyond reasonable doubt that the Final Solution does not mean extermination because in - actually on paper, Himmler and Heydrich are talking about extermination as being uncivilized when later on openly, at his speech at Poznan in 1943, Himmler is talking about physical extermination. Something changes.
And again, we know that from the documents that - and from eyewitness testimony that in the summer of 1940, they had this - what it seems now at this distance - utterly outlandish, insane plan to transport Jews to Madagascar, the island of Madagascar of Africa. What they anticipated, the Nazis, was that the war was going to end in 1940. Britain would make peace, and they had - would have the French colonies at their disposal, including Madagascar. And the Jews would be able in French ships probably to be shipped there, which is why they were herded into ghettos. Ghettos were only ever seen as a temporary measure prior to expulsion.
But again, as you see time and again in this terrible history, things don't go the way the Nazis want. They're constantly - really, they're always constantly thinking the war's going to end. They keep thinking, any minute now, any moment now, the war's going to stop. We'll have won, and we'll be able to deal with this in this way. And it never does end when they think it's going to end.
DAVIES: Well, the development of this notion of a Final Solution from being the evacuation of Jews to the extermination of Jews you sort of describe as a process of increasing radicalization. Now...
DAVIES: What does this mean?
REES: So I think one of the best examples of this cumulative radicalization, of the Nazis responding brutally to crises that they themselves have created, occurs in the Lodz ghetto, where what happens is that the Jews have been imprisoned. They've been forced to give up their money to buy food. They've run out of money, so they begin to starve. So then Nazi functionaries face a choice. Some say, let them all starve. Others say, no, no. We need to get something from these people, exploit them. That view prevails. They put them to work in horrible conditions, of course, and they pay them a tiny pittance. But those who are working can actually feed themselves a bit. Other people - the old people, children - are suffering terribly and still starving.
And actually, one Nazi functionary looks at this situation they themselves have created and can - and writes a note saying, wouldn't it be more humane to kill these people rather than let them starve? So that's an example of how they end up in this position that they themselves have created, where they almost - where someone has the obscenity to write that it's more humane to kill somebody than to leave them to starve.
DAVIES: So it's done with this utterly immoral idea of herding people into ghettos with the idea you will transport them out. When you can't transport them out...
DAVIES: ...They begin to starve. And one thing leads to another, and then you've come to this utterly horrific conclusion that...
REES: Yes. And so what...
DAVIES: ...You have to kill people - hundreds of thousands.
REES: And also you see - exactly. And what's going on in the minds of a lot of these Nazis - unbelievably, we might think today, rightly - is a sense of annoyance and indignation as - that the Jews have brought this on themselves because the war is still going on, and they can't be expelled.
So I've heard Nazis say - and seen it - that they say, oh, well, of course Churchill is controlled by the Jews. That's why they'd - the British don't do the logical, sensible thing in 1940 and make peace with us.
we're still trapped in this war, and we're in the war as a result of what the Jews are doing. And if the war had gone - if the war had ended, we'd been able to expel the Jews somewhere - where incidentally they would probably have had some form of genocidal horror awaiting them anyway - but they would have been expelled somewhere, and now we can't expel them. What are we supposed to do with them?
And so this is the kind of mentality that you hear and you see it absolutely plainly now, I think, as a result of a lot of new research around Pearl Harbor, that there are killings going on before Pearl Harbor, notably in Eastern Europe and behind the lines in the war against the Soviet Union. But there's nothing - there is no major death camping operation. But what happens is, as soon as Pearl Harbor happens, you see Hitler's rhetoric change. And he starts talking about, right now it's a world war, and you remember my prophecy of 1939, in which he stated if the Jews succeed in causing a world war, the result will be their annihilation.
He sees this as a fulfillment of a prophecy. He said, if the Jews get involved and cause a world war - America coming into the war is de facto a world war. They simultaneously think the Jews are not just behind Stalin and - but they're behind Roosevelt as well. It's pathological, this stuff. They absolutely believed that I think. And so as a result of that, they absolutely push forward with a massive expansion in the killing around that time, immediately after Pearl Harbor.
DAVIES: Laurence Rees' book is called "Auschwitz: A New History." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We're listening to the interview I recorded in 2005 with journalist Laurence Rees, when his book "Auschwitz: A New History" was published.
When the Nazis first began executing Jews in large numbers, they did it, really, with firing squads. What was the impact of that kind of close-quarter execution on the Germans who carried it out?
REES: The impact for quite a substantial proportion of them was terrible. They were emotionally made distraught by this. They're having to shoot women and children at very close range. And this - thus, I believe, begins this journey to the gas chambers that we know of, the infamous gas chambers. And it's because, we see, when Himmler visits Minsk in August 1941, he's told of the emotional problems that the killing in this way, the shooting killings are doing to his men. And he puts in training, as a result, a whole series of experiments to devise a way of killing that is not so emotionally disturbing to his men.
I'd always thought that the reason that the gas chambers were devised was primarily to kill people in large numbers. Well, it wasn't just that at all; it was actually so that there was a less emotionally stressful way that the killers could commit murder.
DAVIES: They began initially by putting people into a - I guess, in a cabin of some kind and piping exhaust fumes into it.
REES: That's right. Well, what happens now again - and we can see this as an example of both cumulative radicalism and competition within the Nazi state - is various people at various different locations come up with different initiatives. What happens is there's an initiative which is the gas van, which is a van where you connect the exhaust back into a compartment hermetically sealed in the rear, where people are gassed. There's the building of the - camp Belzec, which is the first stationary gas chambers, again, using large engines with carbon gases going in to gas them.
And then at the same time, in September 1941, you find a totally different initiative beginning at Auschwitz, which is the only camp where this initiative begins, which is the use of Zyklon B. Zyklon B is a powerful insecticide using - used for disinfecting rooms. And it was already in Auschwitz, and they used it for delousing prisoners' clothes and rooms because they had a terrible problem with lice because of the inhumane conditions, not least, that prisoners were kept in.
And one of the functionaries there thinks to himself, well, it's got printed on the Zyklon B cans - dangerous to life; don't go in the room while this is being let off. And he goes, well, actually, of course, if you want to kill people, they should be in the room. So he starts experimenting, not on Jews but on the sick and on Soviet prisoners of war at Auschwitz. And he starts with Zyklon B. The experiments go wrong to start with. They alter doses. They do experiments. And eventually, they evolve a different method of killing to the ones used in the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec.
DAVIES: Now, as you noted, Auschwitz was not originally conceived of as a death camp, but as a labor camp, which meant that it was large and had lots and lots of barracks. And you note that when the killings of Jews really accelerated in 1942 that this was done not so much at Auschwitz, but at three other camps - at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. And...
DAVIES: They were specifically set up as death camps. And you made the point that when visitors go to those sites, they are always shocked at how small they are even though...
DAVIES: ...These three camps alone accounted for 1.7 million deaths. Why were these deaths camps so small? How did they function?
REES: Because they had no other function than killing. Auschwitz is unique in the history of the Nazi states, unique in the history of the world. It's not just the site of the largest mass murder the world's ever seen as a physical site. It's also unique in the Nazi state in that it's the only camp that combines two functions. It's both a concentration camp and a death camp, and those functions vary at different times in its history.
What's happening at places like Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor is they are set up in 1942 - all of them open in 1942. They are set up purely to murder Jews. And if you plan on just - just, I say, just - murdering people, one of the shocking things is you need no real space at all. These places are a few hundred yards square - nothing left of them now because the Nazis themselves destroyed these camps in late 1943. They knew that they wanted to keep this their secret. And they were essentially places where trains would arrive, and the Jews would be taken off. And 99 - more than 99% of these people would be dead, probably, within two hours. So there was no stay of any kind, really, at all.
A camp like Treblinka, which was capable of killing 300,000 people in little more - in around less than two months in the summer of 1942 - 300,000 people in that one small space - it was run by around 20 Germans and about 100 Ukrainian guards. And these Ukrainians had been mostly selected from prison camps. They had been people fighting on the Russian side who, in the horror of the prison camps that the Germans set up for these Russians where millions died, were offered this chance of saving themselves, to go and work on the German side.
And then there was the third category of people working in these camps who were, tragically, Jews themselves. The Nazis selected, very occasionally, from incoming transports a number of fit Jewish people and forced them, on pain of their own immediate murder, to participate in the process by cutting people's hair, by showing the way to the gas chamber, by cleaning the gas chambers, by burning the bodies and so on. And the torment that these people went through is scarcely imaginable.
DAVIES: So the actual horrific task of murder, of cleaning the bodies, of cleaning out the chambers after the killing has occurred is, by and large, not done by Germans.
REES: Never done by Germans, really. No.
DAVIES: Yeah. And that was true at Auschwitz as well.
REES: That's right.
REES: So they end up at the huge, industrial-style killing factories of Auschwitz-Birkenau. You have a crematorium gas chamber complex that's capable, in the summer of 1941, of killing 10,000 people in one day - 10,000 people in one day. And it's run by between 2 to 4 Germans and around about 100 Jews. Now, the Nazis save the absolute moment of murder to themselves. They're the ones who drop the canisters of Zyklon B actually into the gas chamber. But pretty much all the other tasks involved in making this operate are run by Jewish Sonderkommando, who we know both from interviewing some - the few people who survived this and also from documents that Jewish Sonderkommando wrote and hid in the foundations of the building often at the time. The torment these people went through was practically indescribable.
DAVIES: I was struck by your description of the arrival buildings at the death camps, that they often were fairly pleasant-looking, I mean, with flower plantings and the kind - I guess designed to reinsure the incoming inmates...
REES: Exactly. Exactly.
DAVIES: ...That their fate was not what it was going to be.
REES: Again, this is all part of the cynicism, but it's also part of the learning curve that the Nazis go on because what happens at Treblinka, which was the most deadly, if you like, of all of these death camps outside of Auschwitz - they were killing so many people that the system broke down - summer of 1942 - that the system broke down. There were bodies everywhere. There was just mayhem, people being shot. It was chaos.
So they actually had to shut it down and reorganize it. And the new commander of Treblinka, what he managed to do as he pushed it forward was come up with all of these devices like the fake railway station, fake timetables, lovely flowers - same thing happened at Sobibor. One of the most extraordinary individuals I've ever met, Toivi Blatt, who survived Sobibor, said, actually, when he got off there, he'd been expecting some horrible place. He said, it was always beautiful. And as you say, it's all designed so that when, say, Jews coming from Holland arrive, they're told, you are at a transit station, hygiene stop while - we just need to take a shower, have your hair cut and we're going to move on east. And it's deliberately designed to do that.
DAVIES: Laurence Rees' book is "Auschwitz: A New History." We'll hear more from him after a break, and we'll hear some of Terry's 1988 interview with Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Monday, January 27 is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We're listening to my 2005 interview with journalist Laurence Rees, whose book presented fresh information about Auschwitz, based on more than 100 interviews with survivors and Nazi perpetrators. It's called "Auschwitz: A New History."
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DAVIES: You note that Auschwitz became, really, a death camp at a point when the Nazi death machine had become very well-developed, and Nazi initiative and ingenuity had addressed some of the technical difficulties of mass murder and had worked out solutions. Tell us a bit about those arriving Jews who were selected for immediate death. What exactly faced them, and who did the work?
REES: Well, they would be taken from the - by the time - in 1944, by the time this became the most sophisticated procedure, they'd be taken straight from the arrival ramp, which was the area they arrived at, directly inside Birkenau. The railway line ran into the camp. They'd be taken, really, a few hundred yards round to one of four combination gas chamber-crematoriums.
They would then be taken down in two - cases of two of them, they'd be taken on - all on ground level. The other two - one had basement, undressing rooms and gas chambers. They'd be taken down or into a room where they'd be told to undress because they were going to have to have a shower as part of the camp's admittance procedure. And they would then be crammed into an airtight room - the door shut, locked behind them.
And then either from above, in the case of the basement gas chambers or through the windows of the ones all on the ground floor, canisters of Zyklon B would be thrown in. And it would normally - it would take - dependent on how many people were in these gas chambers, dependent on the weather because Zyklon B was more effective the warmer the air was - it would take 15, 20 minutes for these people to die, I think, a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible death of suffocation and poisoning.
The gas chambers would then be opened. The Sonderkommando, Jewish - other Jewish prisoners with gas masks, would have to go in, would take out the bodies, would - in the case of the adults - go through them and take out the gold teeth, would shave the hair of the women. The bodies would then be pushed into lifts taken up to the first - to the ground level or the basement gas chambers, where the bodies would be burned. And then their ashes would be collected and either thrown in the immediate area or taken down to the nearby river, Vistula. So that was the horror of the process that they devised in the end.
DAVIES: Were many of the SS officials who conducted the murder at Auschwitz held accountable for their actions?
REES: Well, I think this is one of the great scandals of this story, a story rich in scandal at every level. But this is one of the greater scandals, which is that less than - well, maybe, 12%, 10% of SS people who worked at Auschwitz were ever prosecuted. Around 90% of the SS who worked at Auschwitz during the war escaped all forms of prosecution. And myself, I think that's a scandal.
DAVIES: Why was that?
REES: One of the reasons that so few people were prosecuted was that by the 1960s, the German prosecutors had taken the view that unless a member of the SS was absolutely directly involved in the killing or had been directly involved in acts of brutality - physical brutality - then they could get off scot-free. And of course, it meant that the way that the gas chambers had been devised, which was that so few Germans were needed for their actual physical operation, it meant that the vast majority of SS at the camp could say, oh, I wasn't really directly involved in the killing at all.
Now, myself, I think that's a calamity. That's terrible because, of course, if you're working in the currency units counting out money, if you're working in the SS transport division, if you're a guard at the camp, you are directly involved in the operation of the camp that results - that's an extermination center. So I certainly disagree with - you know, for all the good it's going to do anybody that I disagree, but I certainly disagree that they took that view.
DAVIES: In this book, you compare the crimes of the Holocaust to other mass exterminations in history - going as far back as Genghis Khan's genocide in Persia - and conclude that this represents the lowest act in human history and should not be allowed to recede into distant memory as some of these other mass killings have. What's different about this extermination?
REES: I think that if you're looking at how you should think about events in the past - or even events in the present, actually - what you've got to do is look at the overall circumstances in which these things happen. You know, it's not much good thinking, well, oh, the Vikings were terrible. Well, the Vikings operated in a system of values at the time that was - they were, by all accounts from latest research on Vikings, for example, scarcely better or worse than any other 10th century marauding hordes. I mean, it's a ludicrous - it seems to me a ludicrous way to go to start blaming Vikings for being Vikings.
Something different is going on here. What's happening is that you are taking a cultured nation at the heart of Europe in the 20th century, long after the Enlightenment, that has adopted absolute civilized cultural values in the wake of the end of the first world war. It is a thriving, although troubled, democracy. Its take - it's got rid of all legislation against Jews. It's liberal in that regard. All of these things are going on. It's got a great written culture. It's got a great musical culture. It's got a great artistic culture. It's the place you would think would be the most civilized almost to be. And yet that very place, within a matter of years, turns into this.
So you've got a journey that they go on that's unlike - and it's not like the journey the Vikings go on or Genghis Khan or the plains goes on. This is not like that. This is a different journey. This is a journey from one pole - one extreme, if you like, to the other extreme. And in the process, they use 20th-century technology that they warp and adapt to this very service of mass killing. And unlike Stalin, who even at his worst, when he was deporting entire nations - the Kalmyk nations, the Crimean Tatars and so on. He's deporting whole nations to Siberia. Even Stalin isn't trying to put forward measures to eliminate them in their entirety. So something different, I think, is going on here.
DAVIES: So many students of Nazism and the Holocaust have tried to in some way answer the question, how could this happen? You've interviewed a hundred or so survivors and war criminals from Auschwitz. Do you feel you have some new insights into that question?
REES: I think what surprised me about this - because I never intended this career (laughter). Like, this kind of happened to me, you know, that I've been - written so much on this and made so many programs on this. And one of the reasons it's happened is because I keep thinking I'm getting close to being able to answer that properly. And as I - as I keep getting towards it, it keeps going away from me a bit more. So I think I'm a long way down the road, I hope, to being able to get to there. But I'm not there yet. Maybe it's absolutely impossible to get there.
But one thing I took from this was a big fear I've now got about people of absolute faith. I always thought faith of itself was - could only be a positive thing. Everyone talks about the importance of having faith. Well, these guys had faith, absolute faith. And there's one really desperately upsetting - all desperately upsetting. But ideologically, there's one desperately particularly upsetting moment where - in the book where I talk about how Himmler and Hoss most admired, as prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses. They pointed to them and said, see that faith? That's the kind of faith we need in our fuhrer - absolute, unshakable faith.
Now, of course, no one is equating what the Nazis did with Jehovah's Witnesses, who operate a whole creed of peace and love and so on. Absolutely. But the very notion of absolute faith is at the core of this. And so I'm beginning to start to have questions about people who - or communities that are absolutely certain about things.
DAVIES: Well, Laurence Rees, thanks so much for speaking with us.
REES: Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Laurence Rees' book is called "Auschwitz: A New History." After a break, we'll hear some of Terry's 1988 interview with Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: Today we're commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Next, we'll hear Terry's interview with Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, who died in 2016 at the age of 87. Wiesel was born in what was then Romania and was 15 when he and his family were sent from Hungary to Auschwitz in 1944. He was later moved to another camp, Buchenwald, from which he was liberated in 1945. Among his family, only two of his sisters survived the war.
Wiesel became one of the first survivors to devote his life to bearing witness to the Holocaust. His memoir, "Night," was published in English in 1960, and he spent the rest of his life speaking about social injustice. Terry spoke with him in 1988 when his novel "Twilight" was published.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Why have you made it your life work to bear witness?
ELIE WIESEL: What else could one do, having gone through certain events? I believe a human being, if he or she wants to remain human, then he or she must do something with what we have seen, endured, witnessed. Not to live through an experience, but the experience is there - it's bad, but not to communicate it is worse.
GROSS: You know, I think that it's almost a human instinct to let time dim memories of horror and tragedy. Have you fought that in a way? Have you tried to keep those memories alive so that you can continue to communicate about them?
WIESEL: Naturally. I mean, naturally, the human being wants to forget pain. In this case, although, for most of those who went through the experience during the war, they want to remember more and more and more. They go deep into their own consciousness, into their own memory, trying to find more events, more faces, more eyes, more words, more sighs, more tears, more agonies. It's never enough because we feel that we have to tell the story, and no one can tell the story fully.
GROSS: You once described Auschwitz as the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a meaning, with a capital M, in history. Do you feel that, nevertheless, you've been really spending your life trying to find some meaning of the Holocaust, some larger meaning you could tell us about man or about God?
WIESEL: I'll tell you, all the questions I had remain open. I really don't believe that I found any answer to any one of the questions I had. I don't know the meaning. I don't know why it happened. I don't know how it happened. I still don't know anything, really. I'm trying to tell a story, and even the story cannot be told. And therefore, it cannot be communicated, and therefore, people - and deep down, I know - won't receive the testimony that we are giving. We are a very special kind of writers, those who write about that event. And I write very little about it, really. But I know that people cannot understand.
GROSS: I think when you were in the camps, you saw some religious people stop praying and saw people who had not been observant turn to God. You had been very observant and very immersed in the religious texts when you were young, before you were deported to the concentration camps. How did your experiences and your survival in the camps change your own experience of religion?
WIESEL: Well, the change - to the extent that it occurred - did not occur there. It's afterwards that the problems became urgent. Inside that universe, we continued praying. We continued believing. We continued affirming. We needed that link with our past. It's only after the war that I began asking questions, and I began articulating a certain protest. And that protest is still with me. I am still angry at all the forces in history that provoked such a catastrophe. That doesn't mean that my faith left me or that I left fate. I try to develop a certain protest within fate.
GROSS: Have you gone back to the religious texts that you were reading when you were young?
WIESEL: I never stopped reading or studying. Even inside that universe, I studied. I had a teacher there with name I never knew and whose face I hardly saw. But he was a teacher, the head of a Talmudic school in Galicia. And we work together, and we studied together. I know. It's incredible.
GROSS: This is in the camps.
WIESEL: Inside - in Auschwitz. So we studied. They kept on studying from morning to evening. And after the war, the first thing I wanted was a book, was a Talmudic treatise. I never stopped studying. That probably saved me.
GROSS: In your first novel, "Night..."
WIESEL: "Night" was not a novel. It was a memoir.
GROSS: I don't know why I think of it as a novel.
WIESEL: Oh, no. Every word...
GROSS: I think of think of it as a very autobiographical novel, but...
WIESEL: It is autobiography.
WIESEL: Every word is true.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I - then I guess I was going to ask you about your religious teacher who narrowly escaped from being murdered with hundreds or thousands of other Jews in the forest by the SS. And he somehow managed to escape and come back to your village to warn people about what was happening, and no one would listen.
WIESEL: We didn't listen because he was a simple man. He was a beetle. Had he been an important person, I think some people would have listened. What is so extraordinary is when we remember today the silence, the indifference of so many people who were not inside the tragedy but on the other side, just imagine if we had heard on the radio Ben-Gurion from Israel or Roosevelt or Churchill telling Hungarian Jews don't go because they are killing. They're massacring. I think they would have believed them. But why should one believe a beetle, a man who came back from the other side and was telling such atrocious stories?
GROSS: We're getting back to the question of madness. I think a lot of people in your village just assumed he'd lost his mind and was making up - you know, was having visions or something, that this couldn't possibly have happened.
WIESEL: Well, absolutely. I myself - I was very close to him. And we spent many, many hours alone together every evening. And I would listen to him. Plus, I love to listen to stories, even to his stories, maybe especially to hear stories. But I didn't believe them.
DAVIES: Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAWTHORNE STRING QUARTET'S "TRIO: II. VARIANCE NA TEMA MORAVSKE LIDOVE PISNE")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. We're listening to Terry's interview with Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel recorded in 1988. Wiesel died in 2016.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GROSS: Did you do anything to mentally prepare for what was in store when your father told you that the next day the whole village was going to be deported, the whole ghetto was going to be deported?
WIESEL: No. We didn't know. See; Hungarian Jewry was deported at such a pace. Everything came so fast. The Hungarians allowed the Germans to come in in March. The end of May, all the Jews were out already in Germany. In less than six weeks, Eichmann had managed to deport to their death more than 600,000 Jews - men, women and children. So it came very fast. And it ended very fast. We didn't have time to think.
GROSS: You've described yourself as having been very weak and sickly when you were young. I know you think of yourself as having survived purely by chance. Did you learn things, though, to help you survive when you were in the camps?
WIESEL: Oh, no. Not at all. I was the wrong person, the wrong candidate for survival. I was always weak, as you said, and disarmed, cowardly. I would never try to do anything, which was not what I could have done or should have done. I never asked for a supplement of anything. I didn't volunteer. I was always pleased to think that I could be invisible. Not to make myself visible was my task. I don't know why I survived. I don't know how I survived. It was really by accident.
GROSS: Did you know when you got out of the camps that you wanted to write?
WIESEL: Well, I knew that I was going to write before I entered the camps. I come from a tradition, from the Jewish tradition, we believe - which believes in words, in language, in communication. And already at the age of 12 or 13, I was writing. Of course, it wasn't good. It meant nothing, but I tried to write. I even found the manuscript. I went back to my hometown. It's not good. But I tried.
Afterwards, I knew I would have to bear witness. Everyone who was there is a witness, and everyone who was there is a true witness. Others who are trying to speak about this subject occasionally are false witnesses. And I felt that I had to be a true witness. And therefore, I decided to wait for 10 years, not to speak about it but to use language related to these experiences until I knew that the words were true words.
GROSS: Why 10 years? Why not five years? Why not one year? No, seriously. What made you think..
WIESEL: I don't...
GROSS: ...That 10 years is what you needed to really know what it was you wanted to say and what words you wanted to say it with?
WIESEL: Well, 10 is a biblical figure, I know. And the - it's a good figure, why not? I cannot tell you that I got up one morning and decided that - let's see, that five or six or seven. It entered my mind - it has to be 10. I decided 10.
GROSS: Did you actually have an anniversary where like...
GROSS: ...The 10th - really?
GROSS: And that day you sat down to write.
GROSS: And is that when you started to write "Night?"
WIESEL: I wrote "Night," yes. That's when I wrote "Night," on April 11, 1955, which is 10 years later.
GROSS: And looking back, do you think that this was definitely the right thing to do, to wait those 10 years? In what ways were you changed as a witness and as a writer during those 10 years?
WIESEL: Maybe I didn't change, but the words in me changed. They grew. you know, Words have strange destiny, too. They grow, they get old, they die, they come back. Words can be turned into spears. They can be turned into prayers. It's a strange world that you are in when you deal with words.
GROSS: In one of your essays, you wrote that after the war, you deliberately avoided all contact with Germans and that their presence sickened you physically. Did that change? And if so, what changed that?
WIESEL: It did. But I didn't want to go back to Germany, really. I went once because I didn't want to judge people. I went once in the early '60s to do a piece for commentary. And I realized that every person I see in the street, I judge him or her asking, where was he, what did he do, how old is he, could I - could he have been there? And I didn't want that role, so I didn't go back. But I did go back last year in '86, '87.
Today, you have a young generation of Germans. And I do not believe in collective guilt. So I have absolutely no problem with the young Germans. I even feel sorry for the young Germans because to be maybe sons or daughters of killers is different than to be sons and daughters of the victims. And I felt sorry for them. I still do.
GROSS: The generations of survivors are getting older. The older generation of survivors is no longer with us. Are you concerned about what's going to happen after the generations of survivors pass on, like, who will be around to actually speak the memories?
WIESEL: Oh, I'm profoundly concerned, naturally. In one of my novels, I try to describe that feeling of the last survivor, what it means to be the very last. And I would not want to be that last survivor. But on the other hand, we are leaving a legacy. We are bequeathing a certain message, a certain story. This tragedy is the most documented tragedy in recorded history. And therefore later on, if there will be a later on, anyone wishing to know will know where to go for knowledge.
DAVIES: Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Wiesel died in 2016 at the age of 87.
On Monday's show, how our military leaders think about the unthinkable. Journalist Fred Kaplan says President Trump's threat to rain fire and fury on North Korea has made many Americans consider the prospect of nuclear war for the first time in decades. His new book explores how our leaders have planned for and sometimes narrowly avoided nuclear conflict. The book is called "The Bomb." Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
We'll end today's show with music from the album "Chamber Music From Theresienstadt," performed by the Hawthorne String Quartet. Theresienstadt was a camp designed by the Nazis to look like a paradise ghetto to mislead the world about their Final Solution for the Jewish people. It was actually a waystation to the death camps. This is from Viktor Ullmann's "Third String Quartet," which he composed at Theresienstadt. He was killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.
(SOUNDBITE OF HAWTHORNE STRING QUARTET PERFORMANCE OF VIKTOR ULLMANN'S "STRING QUARTET NO. 3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.