Elie Wiesel On Loss, Starting Over

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

High on the list of people taken by Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme was Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and holocaust survivor. On Saturday, Wiesel talked about his loss, and about starting over, in an exclusive interview with CBS News correspondent Jeff Greenfield.

"For the first moment I felt a kind of not physical but spiritual, mental nakedness, that everything was taken," Elie Wiesel said.

It was late last year when Wiesel learned that he and his foundation had lost all their money at the hands of Bernard Madoff.

"For the first moment of course was almost paralyzing," he said. "Then we shook ourselves up."

And that is what Wiesel wanted to talk about in his only television interview - how someone finds the resilience to "shake themselves up" in the face of such a blow.

"When my life seems to be partly or wholly in ruins, I build on them. I may even use the ruins for the buildings. Second, I will never allow anyone to change my life or destroy what I have done with it," he said. "Somehow what I must keep in mind is what I think of myself."

There is nothing sentimental about Wiesel's view of the world; he believes that evil is a palpable presence; he does not explain what happened as a mark of God's mysterious will.

"Too easy," he said. "Human beings should be held accountable. Leave god alone. He has enough problems."

"I would imagine that one of the assets you could draw on was literally a worldwide community of friends and colleagues," Greenfield said. "Were they there for you?"

"No, not really," Wiesel said. "Very few, very very few. But this happens. It doesn't affect me, I gain a lucidity. The masks have been dropped."

Others - people he had never met - did come through.

"Five dollars, ten dollars, children. One of them sent us Chanukah money. And he said, "I prevailed upon my parents to match the fund."

And in a sense, the horrors of what Wiesel lived through six decades ago - watching his parents and little sister die in the concentration camps - provides him a sense of perspective.

"When I was young I lost everything. And almost everyone else. And so all the other fortunes mean much less. Look, if I were alone in the world, I would have the right to choose despair, solitude and self-fulfillment. But I am not alone," he said. "And if someone is, I have to be present to someone who is alone. And of course that is the sense of my life. Look at my age. I have to be self-conscious of what I'm trying to do with my life. "