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Wiesel on Madoff

Elie Wiesel spoke on a broad range of subjects in his interview with Tom today. Here's what he had to say about one topic that's very much in the news right now: Bernard Madoff.

Professor Wiesel was one of Mr. Madoff's high-profile victims. Both his personal assets and his charitable foundation were practically wiped out.  At a panel convened by Portfolio magazine last month, he had some strong words for Madoff, but he has avoided making further comments on the subject until now.

On our show today, Wiesel said this about Bernie Madoff and his crime:

ELIE WIESEL: He deserves the harshest punishment possible. But I want you to know, Tom, the only statement I ever made in the last three months was at that panel. As you can imagine, I was pursued by every television station, every network. I said no. I didn’t want to give a statement. I didn’t want to be part of this public conversation. I didn’t want my name to be linked to his. I want my name to be linked to literature, to philosophy, to education, to historical studies, but not to this man. And the only time, really… I made one statement, that was the only time. Why? Because this man is, I don’t understand. I really don’t understand evil. In my novels, I don’t have the perpetrators as protagonists, really. Only the victims. I am on the side of the victims, everywhere, and I try, therefore, to understand them. And I cannot see, why did he do that? Why did he need so much money? And furthermore, to go to poor people! I said in that statement, how many widows are penniless? How many orphans, now, are suffering? Why did he do that? And therefore he deserves a punishment. But questions remain. Did he have help, who helped him? And then what did he do with so much money? He must have hidden some of it somewhere. I hope the FBI will find it. So there we are.

TOM ASHBROOK: Let me ask you only this then. When you look at this case, the Madoff case, do you see it as part of a broader moral problem in our society today? A fixation with the wrong things? Is this just an eternal story, in human nature? Or is it something tied to our times?

WIESEL: In other words, can anyone become a Madoff? No. Again, I say, only a Madoff is a Madoff. There were smaller ones. Smaller Ponzis and smaller Madoffs.

ASHBROOK: Mr. Ponzi himself was a pretty big one!

WIESEL: Exactly, in his time, he was great. Now he’s been surpassed, to his shame, probably, to be surpassed by Madoff! No, I still believe in the choice. I believe that we all have that privilege and that capacity for choice, that we can choose. Though why he did it is beyond me. He could have just swindled 20 million, and stayed with it. Who would have discovered him? But to go to 50 billion!

ASHBROOK: And now, 65 billion, the latest numbers are saying. It’s an unimaginable number.

WIESEL: Unimaginable. Maybe that’s what he wanted, to have a place in history.

ASHBROOK: He's got it.

WIESEL: To be the greatest swindler in history. He got that place.

You can listen here to the full interview, in which Wiesel talks about his new novel and much more.

Sam Gale Rosen is an associate producer at On Point.

This program aired on March 11, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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