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What Really Makes Us Free
by Elie Wiesel

Nobel Laureate Elie WieselThis page was compiled and edited by Michael R. Burch, an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry. You can click here to read his essay: "What I learned from Elie Wiesel and other Jewish Holocaust Survivors, about achieving World Peace."

There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
—Elie Wiesel

Even if only one free individual is left,
he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom.
But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone.
The free man is the one who, even in prison,
gives to the other prisoners
their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.
—Elie Wiesel

Does there exist a nobler inspiration than the desire to be free? It is by his freedom that a man knows himself, by his sovereignty over his own life that a man measures himself. To violate that freedom, to flout that sovereignty, is to deny man the right to live his life, to take responsibility for himself with dignity.

Man, who was created in God's image, wants to be free as God is free: free to choose between good and evil, love and vengeance, life and death. All the great religions proclaim this. The first law after the Ten Commandments had to do with slavery: It prohibited not only owning slaves but also entering into slavery voluntarily. One who gave up his freedom was punished. To put it another way: Every man was free, but no man was free to give up his freedom.

To strip a man of his freedom is not to believe in man. The dictator does not believe in man. Man's freedom frightens him. Imprisoned as much by his ambition as by his terror, the dictator defines his own freedom in relation to the lack of freedom of others. He feels free only because, and when, other people—his subjects, his victims—are not free. The happiness of others prevents him from being happy himself. Every free man is his adversary, every independent thought renders him impotent.

Caligula felt sure of his own intelligence only when faced with his counselors' stupidity; Stalin derived morbid pleasure from the humiliations he inflicted on his ministers; Hitler liked to insult his generals. Every dictator sees others as potential prisoners or victims—and every dictator ends by being his own prisoner and his own victim. For anyone who claims the right to deprive others of their right to freedom and happiness deprives himself of both. By putting his adversaries in prison, his entire country will be one vast jail. And the jailer is no more free than his prisoners.

In fact, it is often the prisoner who is truly free. In a police state, the hunted man represents the ideal of freedom; the condemned man honors it. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, in occupied France, the only free people were those in prison. These men and women rejected the comfort of submission and chose to resist the forces of oppression. When they were put in prison, they no longer had anything to fear. They knew they were lost.

When the great French humorist Tristan Bernard was arrested by the Germans after months in hiding, his fellow prisoners were surprised by his smiling face. "How can you smile?" they asked. "Until now, I have lived in fear," he said. "From now on, I will live in hope."

For the free man is open to hope, whereas the dictator is a man without hope. It is because his victims cling to hope that he persecutes them. It is because they believe in freedom as much as they do in life itself that he is determined to deprive them of both. Sometimes he succeeds, but more often he fails. For, in dying, the free man reaffirms the value of life and freedom.

We find many examples in the tales told about all revolutionary movements, in the histories of every struggle for national independence. Heroes and martyrs became the pride of their people by fighting with a weapon in their hand or a prayer on their lips. In a thousand different ways, each proclaimed that freedom alone gives meaning to the life of an individual or a people.

For a people—that is, for a social, ethnic or religious group—the problem and its solution are both simple. When a people loses its freedom, it has a right, a duty, to employ every possible means to win it back. The same is true of the individual—with one difference: An individual's resistance can be expressed in more than one way.

The Jews who lived in the ghettos under the Nazi occupation showed their independence by leading an organized clandestine life. The teacher who taught the starving children was a free man. The nurse who secretly cared for the wounded, the ill and the dying was a free woman. The rabbi who prayed, the disciple who studied, the father who gave his bread to his children, the children who risked their lives by leaving the ghetto at night in order to bring back to their parents a piece of bread or a few potatoes, the man who consoled his orphaned friend, the orphan who wept with a stranger for a stranger—these were human beings filled with an unquenchable thirst for freedom and dignity. The young people who dreamed of armed insurrection, the lovers who, a moment before they were separated, talked about their bright future together, the insane who wrote poems, the chroniclers who wrote down the day's events by the light of their flickering candles—all of them were free in the noblest sense of the word, though their prison walls seemed impassable and their executioners invincible.

It was the same even in the death camps. Defeated and downcast, overcome by fatigue and anguish, tormented and tortured day after day, hour after hour, even in their sleep, condemned to a slow but certain death, the prisoners nevertheless managed to carve out a patch of freedom for themselves. Every memory became a protest against the system; every smile was a call to resist; every human act turned into a struggle against the torturer's philosophy.

Do not misunderstand me: I am in no way trying to minimize the Nazis' maleficent power. I am not saying that all prisoners succeeded in opposing them by their will to be free. On the contrary, locked with a suffering and solitude unlike any other, the prisoners generally could only adapt to their condition—and either be submerged by it or carried along by time. The apparatus of murder was too perfect not to crush people weakened by hunger, forced labor and punishment. But I am saying that the executioner did not always triumph. Among his victims were some who placed freedom above what constituted their lives. Some managed to escape and alert the public in the free world. Others organized a solidarity movement within the inferno itself. One companion of mine in the camps gave the man next to him a spoonful of soup every day at work. Another would try to amuse us with stories. Yet another would urge us not to forget our names—one way, among many other, of saying "no" to the enemy, of showing that we were free, freer than the enemy.

"Even in a climate of oppression, men are capable of inventing their own freedom. What if they are a minority? Even if only one free individual is left, he is proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom."

Without trying to compare different periods or regimes—one has no right to compare anything to Auschwitz—I want to tell about a struggle for freedom that still is going on in our world today, mainly in the Soviet Union. I cannot write a meditation on freedom without referring to it. Ever since I learned about this struggle in 1965, I have participated in it with all my heart and soul.

In 1965, at the time of my first trip to Moscow, I met thousands of young Jews who had gathered before the city's largest synagogue on the evening of Simchat Torah (the celebration of the Law) to dance and sing their faith—which they freely proclaimed—in the Jewish people. They were the first Soviet citizens to free themselves from the police terror. I never will forget our meeting. I made their fight my own. Their love, their passion for freedom, inspires my own.

For the Soviet Jews, writing, translating, reading and studying are free and liberating acts. By passing the word on, as by living the faith, they are integrated into an ancient collective experience and memory. Suddenly they are less alone, less vulnerable. Thus we have the bravery of people like Prof. Alexander Lerner and Dr. Alexander Ioffe—people who have been waiting 17 years for visas that would allow them to live an authentic Jewish life among their own people in the land of Israel.

Each of these modern heroes, the "Refuseniks," already has paid a high price for his or her desire to abandon everything and start over again far away. How can one help admiring them? During the many years they have lived as outsiders, spurned by their old neighbors or colleagues, how have they managed not to lose their courage? How do all these courageous Jews, as well as the non-Jewish political dissidents, manage to preserve their faith, not to speak of their sanity? More simply, how do they manage to remain human?

For they are, all of them, human. Their humanity is moving, even staggering, their solidarity exemplary. The ways in which they help one another have to be seen. If a man is arrested, the others immediately organize an action in his support. If a woman is in pain, they rush to her side. They are always there for one another. And here again their act, their being there, is a free act.

The truth is that even in a climate of oppression, men are capable of inventing their own freedom, of creating their own ideal of sovereignty. What if they are a minority? It does not matter. Even if only one free individual is left, he will be proof that the dictator is powerless against freedom. But a free man is never alone; the dictator is alone. The free man is the one who, even in prison, gives to the other prisoners their thirst for, their memory of, freedom.

I went to the Soviet Union for the fourth time last October. In a private apartment somewhere in Moscow, in a crowd of 100 or so Refuseniks, a man still young addressed me shyly: "A few years ago," he said, "I decided to translate your first three books in samizdat [the illicit publication of banned literature in the USSR]. Friends and I distributed thousands of copies, but I knew I would meet you someday, so I kept the first copy. Here it is." Blushing, he held it out to me, and I felt like embracing him in thanks for both his courage and his devotion. An hour later, in the same apartment but in a different room, an older man came up to me: "I have something for you," he said, smiling. "A few years ago, I translated your first three books. I kept one copy. I knew I would meet you someday." I took him by the arm and introduced him to the first translator. They fell into each other's arms, crying. Yes—joy makes people weep. Freedom does too.

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