Middletown, CT – The sole survivor of the Cheshire home invasion killings, William Petit, did not attend Elie Wiesel’s lecture on capital punishment at Wesleyan University, but for a few minutes the Nazi death camp survivor spoke as if the man who lost his wife and daughters was his only audience.
“Your wound is open,” Wiesel said. “It will remain. You are mourning, and how can I not feel the pain of your mourning? But death is not the answer.”
During the Nobel Peace laureate’s Tuesday, Oct. 26, lecture, the 82-year-old author and human rights activist said that if the death penalty could bring back victims, maybe he would change his stance. He did allow that murderers should be punished more harshly than other prisoners.
“They should get hard labor,” he said.
“Death is not the answer” became the refrain for Wiesel, as he wondered aloud what could be done to help survivors of violent crimes, “so that families will not feel cheated by the law.”
The Romanian native spoke with authority, having lost both parents and a sister in Nazi death camps. He escaped Buchenwald in April 1945 when it was liberated by soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 6th Armored Division.
“I know,” he said. “I know the pain of those who survive. Believe me, I know.”
Wiesel spoke in the university’s Memorial Chapel, which was packed with about 400 students, professors and invited guests. In simple, lyrical language that carried the lilt of his Eastern European beginnings, he defended his anti-death penalty position using stories from the past.
In the Biblical story of Adam’s two sons Cain and Abel, Cain is said to have asked God, after he had killed his brother and God wondered about Abel’s whereabouts, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
“I think it wanted to teach us that whoever kills, kills his brother,” Wiesel said.
In Israel, where there is no capital punishment, the capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in 1960 posed a dilemma. Should someone who engineered millions of deaths be executed?
“Luckily, they didn’t ask my opinion,” Wiesel said, eliciting laughter.
Eichmann was hanged in 1962, but he was an exception.
“The law remains the law,” Wiesel said. “Terrorists came in, killed hundreds of people, not one of them was executed.”
Wiesel’s hour-long speech was punctuated with two standing ovations from students and visitors who had snapped up tickets within hours of the announcement he would visit.
Near the end of the lecture, someone asked, “What will happen when there are no more Holocaust survivors?”
Wiesel said he hopes he is not the last to die. He also said the Holocaust would not be forgotten.
“I do believe with all my heart,” he said, “that to listen to a survivor, to listen to a witness, is to become a witness.”