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Czech Republic: The Men Behind Forum 2000 --Havel And Wiesel

Prague, 3 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel are co-organizers of the Forum 2000 conference in Prague this week. Here are brief biographies of the two. Vaclav Havel

Czech President Vaclav Havel, co-organizer of Forum 2000, emerged from the shadows of Communist oppression to shine as the conscience and moral voice of a nation. He once described himself as a "confused intellectual" but it was his clarity of thought and utterance, more than any office or all the international honors, that won him acclaim and authority.

Havel was born in 1936 to a comfortable upper-middle class Bohemian family. But soon came the war and then the Communist regime, which stripped the Havel family of its wealth and barred the future president from university.

Havel was assigned to work in a chemical laboratory. But he soon gravitated to the theater, gaining fame as a budding writer of absurdist plays. The Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 stripped Havel and other intellectuals of his generation of their access to publication. Havel became active in the underground human rights movement, banding together with other Czechoslovak thinkers and humanists in 1977 to publish a human rights petition -- Charter 77 -- that received world attention. The government prosecuted a number of the Charter 77 signatories. The authorities jailed Havel from October 1979 to February 1983.

In the closing days of 1989, Havel re-emerged as one of the leaders of the Velvet Revolution that overthrew the Communist regime. For most Czechs, he was the natural choice for president. Pro-democracy demonstrations reverberated with the sound of keys clanging and calls of "Havel to the Castle." He took office as interim president of Czechoslovakia that December and was chosen again by a new parliament in June 1990.

In July 1992, disheartened by the imminent breakup of Czechoslovakia, he resigned the presidency. Just weeks after the dissolution took effect in January 1993, parliament elected Havel as president of the Czech Republic. Throughout his public life, Havel has been a pleader for the return of a "civil society" and for a humanistic approach to life.

Elie Wiesel

Romanian native Elie Wiesel made the passage from childhood to manhood in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Having emerged from that hell, Wiesel began a new life dedicated to the fight against injustice, using his talent as an orator and author to become one of the leading moral voices of his generation. His seminal work, "Night," was published in 1960 and recounts his time in the camps. In "Night," Wiesel poses the central question that haunts much of his later writing: How can man accept God1s existence given the horrors of the Holocaust?

Despite that doubt, it has always been Wiesel1s firm conviction that man should never turn a blind eye to injustice, wherever it may strike. He has tirelessly campaigned for rememberance of the Holocaust and its victims and the attempt by some to forget the past. When war broke out in Bosnia, Wiesel traveled to Sarajevo to share the suffering of the besieged city1s residents and to draw the world1s attention to their plight.

Speaking on his return from Bosnia, Wiesel said the lesson of that tragedy, once again, was that "If enough people cry out, injustice may retreat. This means: if injustice continues, it is because our outcry was not loud enough."

Elie Wiesel has been a professor at Boston University since 1976. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and is co-organizer of the Forum 2000 Conference along with Czech President Vaclav Havel.