Elie Wiesel's Holocaust Experience -- And What It Taught Him About Human Grace

He's one of the people Oprah admires most in the world. In a recent airing of "Super Soul Sunday," Oprah sat down with Elie Wiesel, a bestselling author, teacher and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, now a part of Romania. One of four children, he had two older sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, and one younger, Tzipora.

Elie was 15 when the Nazis deported him and his family to Auschwitz in 1944. By the time the camps were liberated by the Allied troops less than a year later, his mother, father and youngest sister had all perished. Below is an excerpt from his talk with Oprah.

OPRAH WINFREY: When we were in Poland [in 2006] I remember you said that the souls who perished at Auschwitz were still there. That they listen.

PROFESSOR ELIE WIESEL: You know, I have in my pocket the picture of my little sister which I've never spoken about, not even with you. The only time I cry, it's not when I speak about my parents, but when I speak about my little sister.

OPRAH: How old was she?


OPRAH: Why do you think it is speaking of her that still brings the tears? Because of a life unfulfilled? Unlived?

PROF. WIESEL: Why the children? My God, why the children? You know that [a] million and a half children were killed. Straight from the train. Do you know what [the Nazis] have done to humanity? How many among [those children] could have grown up to become scientists. Physicians. Poets. Scholars. Friends of humanity. Saviors of the world. What they have done to the world...

OPRAH: You've witnessed and written about the depths of both human cruelty and also of what we call human grace. How do you make sense of the two extremes even now at 84?

PROF. WIESEL: That everything is possible. Both evil, the power of evil, which on one level I cannot understand. Why evil? Even worse, why the seduction of evil?

OPRAH: You write in [the new memoir Open Heart], "Could it be that for God, Evil represents just another path leading to Good?" You say, "For me, it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God. But then how is one to understand His silence?"

PROF. WIESEL: I don't.

OPRAH: God's silence and the world's silence.

PROF. WIESEL: God's silence. At least God can say, "Who are you to understand me?" But the world's silence is different. I don't understand it to this day.

OPRAH: It's so interesting, though, because you also write that if Auschwitz did not teach the world not to be racist, then what would? Rwanda didn't. Cambodia didn't. Bosnia didn't. Are we evolving as a species from racism and those kinds of atrocities?

PROF. WIESEL: I was invited a few years ago to address the General Assembly of the United Nations. And I called my lecture "Will the World Ever Learn?" And I answered, actually, no. It will not because it hasn't. Otherwise, how is one to explain Rwanda?

OPRAH: So do you think we will ever learn? Do you think we will as a species?

PROF. WIESEL: As a species, I don't know. We are dealing with hundreds and thousands of years. But will the individual learn? Every single human being is a unique human being. And, therefore, it's so criminal to do something to that human being, because he or she represents humanity.

OPRAH: As you're speaking, I was thinking the better question is not, "Will we as a species evolve?" The better question for everybody watching is, "Will you?"

In June 2011, Elie Wiesel underwent emergency open-heart surgery at the age of 82 after doctors found all of his arteries blocked.

OPRAH: You're lying there on the hospital bed and suddenly realized that it's a different kind of fear than when you were in the death camps.

PROF. WIESEL: Especially since, in the meantime, they have called already Marion -- my wife -- and my son. And I saw them, and I realized, ah, that it's more serious than I thought. And, in truth, I was not sure that I would see them again.

OPRAH: And that realization did what to you?

PROF. WIESEL: Oh, I had tears in my eyes as I have now. After all, it's true I was 82, but I still had so many things to tell them. And so many things to do. So many words to write. So many books to read. So many people to see. So many friends to embrace. I still have… I wasn't ready.

OPRAH: Did open-heart surgery make you fall in love more deeply with life?

PROF. WIESEL: Yes. Because every moment -- every moment was essential. When you're in the hospital, you cannot move without pain. You cannot think without fear. Every moment counts. Every second matters. Every gesture is essential to you.

OPRAH: But you knew that.

PROF. WIESEL: I never felt it. I knew it.

OPRAH: One of the things that I know you love as much as I do is teaching. If you had to summarize the greatest offering that you've been able to give your students, what would that be?

PROF. WIESEL: Sometimes [students] ask me, "What should we take away from your classes?" And a few times, I came up with a formula, which I'm not sure is always good. I said simply: "Look, whatever you do in life, remember: Think higher and feel deeper. It cannot be bad if you do that."

OPRAH: Mmm... that will be with me for the rest of my life: "Think higher." ...And what is it you most want the world to know?

PROF. WIESEL: That if there is one person on the planet who still is suffering from loneliness and from pain or despair, and we don't know about it, or we don't want to know about it, then something is wrong with the world.

OPRAH: And each of us, through our wanting to know and wanting the other person, whomever that is, to not feel alone.

PROF. WIESEL: That's exactly it. I cannot cure everybody. I cannot help everybody. But to tell the lonely person that I am not far or different from that lonely person, that I am with him or her, that's all I think we can do and we should do.

"Super Soul Sunday" airs Sundays at 11 p.m. ET on OWN.