What Really Makes Us Free
by Elie Wiesel
page was compiled
and edited by
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
There is divine beauty in learning,
just as there is human beauty in tolerance.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.