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February 27th, 2009
11:11 PM ET

How Wiesel would punish Madoff

Elie Wiesel lost his personal savings Bernard Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme.
Elie Wiesel lost his personal savings Bernard Madoff's alleged Ponzi scheme.

Michael Schulder
CNN Senior Executive Producer

If anyone should know better, if anyone should have his guard up, you’d think it would be Elie Wiesel. “I should have learned,” he said, “that a human being is capable of anything.”

Elie Wiesel, holocaust survivor, does know what a human being is capable of. He put the nature of good and evil into words in ways others cannot, and won the Nobel Prize for it. “A messenger to mankind” is what the Nobel committee called him. And yet, when, many years ago, a wealthy friend introduced him to Bernard Madoff, Wiesel’s imagination failed him. “I have seen in my lifetime,” the Auschwitz survivor told a Conde Nast roundtable on Madoff this week, “that the problem is when the imagination of the criminal precedes that of the innocent.” Even Elie Wiesel could not recognize what he considers a criminal imagination right in front of his face.

Wiesel says he lost all of his personal savings to Madoff’s alleged Ponzi scheme: everything he put away from his more than 50 books and countless lectures, and $15.2 million of his charitable foundation’s endowment. Among other things, that foundation provided care for one thousand Ethiopian children in Israel.

How it Happened

Before we get to Wiesel’s recommended punishment of Madoff, here’s how the survivor and his wife got sucked into Madoff’s orbit. “…We had friends who were very close friends of Madoff, and years ago a friend just came to us and he said, look …. You work so hard, what are you doing with your money? And, we said, “look, we don’t know, shares here and there.’ … Our friend was a friend of Madoff; it was 50 years ago or so that our friend gave him seed money. And that’s how we came to him. We met him twice in our entire existence. He made a very good impression. We had dinner together. … I know that we checked the people who had business with him, and they were among the best minds of Wall Street – the geniuses in the finance field. I am not a genius in finances; I teach philosophy and literature. I don’t know anything about the economy or financing. … And so it happened.”

Putting aside the question that the court system will decide in the Madoff case, what does Wiesel believe? He says he believes Madoff was probably always a crook. “Great events simply make the good better, and the bad worse.”

How Wiesel Would Punish Madoff

Do you believe Wiesel’s suggested punishment is a just punishment should Madoff be found guilty of orchestrating what may be the biggest Ponzi scheme ever? Let us know. Elie Wiesel, the man the Nobel committee called a messenger to mankind, says this punishment is just for Madoff; “I would like him to be in a solitary cell with a screen, and on that screen, for at least five years of his life, every day and every night there should be pictures of his victims, one after the other after the other, always saying “look, look what you have done to this poor lady, look what you have done to this child, look what you have done.” But nothing else – he should not be able to avoid those faces, for years to come. This is only a minimum punishment.” You could call that the imagination of the victim.

The Power of Imagination: Take Two

I’ve shared Elie Wiesel’s observations about the criminal imagination and how it often outpaces the honest mind. But, as Wiesel said the other day, “I do not want to stop here.” Remember the 15 million dollars Wiesel says his foundation lost to Madoff? “You cannot imagine (there’s that word again) the response of this tragedy to us, of the people to us….Unsolicited, hundreds of people that we have never known sent us money through the Internet: $5, $18 (the number that symbolizes life in Judaism), $100, even $1,000 …. it’s just incredible the generosity of people who want to help.” It reminded Wiesel, in a way, of the aftermath of 9/11. “… people on the street, strangers, would speak to one another, would share the pain … they stood in line to give blood … And so here again, the generosity, it cannot compensate, but it shows again, a human being is capable of both very great, good things, and very horrible things.”

In other words, life is a battle of competing imaginations.

Read the full transcript here.


Filed under: Michael Schulder • Wall St.
soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. Betty Killbuck

    It is horrific to the general population of America that Madoff is not in jail. How can a person–just because of his wealth–spend his time in a multi-million dollar apartment/penthouse instead of jail? He has hidden enough money to flee the U.S. and get away. Is that what the authorities are waiting for? Or is every other wealthy establishment in cahoots with him? Why is he not in jail?

    March 2, 2009 at 10:34 am |
  2. James AZ

    Madoff should get life in prison with no parole.

    February 27, 2009 at 11:48 pm |
  3. Lauren R, WV

    who helped Madoff, and how should THEY be punished?

    February 27, 2009 at 11:46 pm |
  4. Pablo Durissimo

    I am not a psychiatrist but I am convinced Madoff is mentally deeply disturbed. I don't believe he has a conscience (he would have taken his own life long time ago if he did) nor do I think he understands the enormity of what he did. I predict his attorney will use the insanity defense. – As we all know by now, the whistle has been blown on Madoff years ago by an alert money manager but the SEC didn't bother to audit Madoff's books. Doesn't the SEC bear some responsibity?

    February 27, 2009 at 11:22 pm |
  5. DrFrann

    Madoff committed financial terrorism and the insanity is that the whistle blower brought this to the SEC's attention at the beginning of this decade and nothing was done. The insanity is that Madoff is walking around and not in a cell. That a court ok'd this and there was bail enough to get him out, bracelet or not. The insanity is that Madoff's face is on the cover of the Conde Nast mag. Waste of ink. That sickens me. I can't stand looking at his face.

    I think Wiesel's punishment suggestion is just. Unfortunately, the punishment will never keep step with the lives of those he robbed.

    February 27, 2009 at 11:20 pm |
  6. Lone Investor

    It continues to amaze me that people who are so intelligent put all of their savings and their entire endowment into the hands of one man, based solely upon the recommendation of a friend who knew him, or on the kind expression on his face. None of these intelligent people apparently heard of diversification, and they put millions upon millions in the firm controlled by one man alone and his two children. It is a sad story. There is no punishment for Madoff other than jail. Even now, he has jewelry and other wealth, nothing compared to what he has lost that belonged to others. The press reports that he is trying to save what he has from confiscation and distribution to his victims, paltry amount that it would bring each of them. And we sit idly by, when Bank of America uses federal funds to repaint its signs on every branch across from white to red, and its chief officers do not even know if the bank will survive. Are we all just fools?

    February 27, 2009 at 10:43 pm |
  7. JC-Los Angeles

    In 1929 during the stock market crash, real men who were proven to be abject failures showed brave courage and hurled themselves from rooftops.

    Unfortunately, with a dearth of real men in our country today, we find today's abject failures holed up in penthouses or extending their arms for bailouts which come in addition to their massive employment contracts.

    While our leaders learned nothing from Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia and Tyco, hopefully, today we will all learn what real men don't look like.

    February 27, 2009 at 10:20 pm |
  8. sam fleishman

    wouldn't it make sense to not invest more than 500k with any one investment house or broker? that's the amount the sipc (securities investor protection corporation) insure each investor for

    February 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm |
  9. 40 Acres & A Mule

    why is this guy sitting in a lush apartment while the people he stole life savings from dont have that luxury??

    February 27, 2009 at 8:46 pm |
  10. Larry

    What did Weisel expect to gain from Madoff; should have put all his $$ into the Holocaust fund,

    February 27, 2009 at 8:17 pm |
  11. guille

    Michael,
    "Life is a battle of competing imaginations" – I loved it. Thank you.

    February 27, 2009 at 8:14 pm |
  12. Jack Cresap

    Touching story – punishment seems appropriate but with high profile legal team chances are remote of anything similar occuring.

    February 27, 2009 at 8:06 pm |
  13. Annie Kate

    Wiesel's punishment for Madoff is a good one if Madoff has any conscience left at all and I kind of doubt he does. I just hope that all the victims get at least some of their money back – especially Wiesel's fund for taking care of the children. I can't even imagine losing the savings built up over 50 years to a Madoff – and I wish none of us even had to. Our financial system has at times been described as having too many regulations – in this case there were either not enough or the regulators were asleep at the helm.

    February 27, 2009 at 7:28 pm |