Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel, 77, is a teacher, writer--and survivor. His memoir Night, chronicling his time in Nazi concentration camps, was named last week as the latest selection of Oprah's Book Club. The Boston University humanities professor spoke with TIME's Jeff Chu about reaching new audiences, the trendiness of Kabbalah and why he admires Moses.
OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB GIVES YOU VERY DIFFERENT READERS FROM THOSE YOU HAD WHEN NIGHT FIRST CAME OUT. This book came out 45 years ago in America. At the beginning, there were very few readers! Priests and rabbis, when they spoke about the book, were reprimanded by parents who said, Why turn our children into morbid persons? Curiosity has increased, especially among young people. And now, thanks to the extraordinary voice of Oprah, people will read it who had never heard of me before.
THIS IS A NEW TRANSLATION OF NIGHT. CRITICS HAVE QUESTIONED CHANGES FROM THE OLD ONE, LIKE YOUR AGE WHEN YOU ARRIVED AT AUSCHWITZ, WHICH WAS "NOT QUITE 15" AND IS NOW JUST "15." I think [the criticism] is incredible. I started laughing. I'm not surprised about anything anymore. Look, in this version, I say I was 15. That's not really true either. I was born on Sept. 30, 1928. I arrived in Auschwitz in May 1944. So I was 151/2.
THE VERACITY OF MEMOIR IS A HOT TOPIC, ESPECIALLY AFTER THE DOUBTS ABOUT JAMES FREY'S A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (OPRAH'S PREVIOUS SELECTION). I don't want to speak of that controversy. I will say, with memoir, you must be honest. You must be truthful.
IN NIGHT, YOU WRITE ABOUT YOUR INTEREST IN JEWISH MYSTICISM AND KABBALAH, WHICH HAVE FOUND A NEW PLACE IN POP CULTURE. I'll tell you what: I believe mysticism is a very serious endeavor. One must be equipped for it. One doesn't study calculus before studying arithmetic. In my tradition, one must wait until one has learned a lot of Bible and Talmud and the Prophets to handle mysticism. This isn't instant coffee. There is no instant mysticism.
YOU WERE A BOOKISH BOY. TODAY, YOU MIGHT BE CALLED A GEEK. [Laughs] I've heard that word, but I never knew what it meant. In my childhood, there were others that were as assiduous as I was and some more learned than I. I was not unusual, not in my time.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE BIBLE HERO? Moses was the greatest legislator and the commander in chief of perhaps the first liberation army. He was a prophet, God's representative to the people and the people's representative to God. And he never had a good day in his life. Either the people were against him, or God was against him.
SO WHAT COULD MODERN LEADERS LEARN FROM MOSES' EXAMPLE? Humility. Everyone needs it, but mainly leaders. Because they have power.
HUMILITY, CONSCIENCE, THE USE OF POWER--THESE ARE THEMES YOU'VE DISCUSSED FOR YEARS. My mission has not changed, because I don't think the world has changed. In the beginning, I thought, Maybe my witness will be received, and things will change. But they don't. Otherwise we wouldn't have had Rwanda and Darfur and Cambodia and Bosnia. Human nature cannot be changed in one generation.