THOUGHTS ON THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY OF THE PASSING OF ELIE WIESEL
The Present Tense
In our Jewish tradition, the first yahrzeit, the memorable date of passing, of Elie Wiesel was on Sivan 26th which this year was on June 20th. In a secular calendar, the first anniversary of the great writer’s passing is July 2, 2017.
My husband Michael was surprised when I mentioned to him on the day that it is the first yahrzeit of Elie’s. “How come? Already? So quickly? It feels that it had happened just so very recently”, – Michael said being a bit baffled. “Yes, it does feel this way”, – I replied. In truth, I still am in denial of the fact of Wiesel’s passing. Not an intellectual denial, but an emotional one.
I do not feel that this man is not among us. I still feel his pain outpouring from his books; I also am completely in-tuned with his questions which have no answers. I can hear his voice, see his eyes with that unique look. And of course, that disarming Wiesel’s smile. The smile which assures you that this world is still a right place to be despite all the horrors committed against innocent people by the ones who supposed to had some human inclinations, too.
It feels strange and misplaced to speak about Elie in the past term. When Norman Lebrecht wrote his fantastic Why Mahler? book, he decided to set it in a present tense, evoking quite a shower of critic from a conventional reviewers who simply did not get the author’s point, or rather his sense of time. Absolutely justly, Lebrecht felt the hero of his book Gustav Mahler, the one of the most dramatic figures in the modern world of culture, as his own contemporary. I am in full solidarity with Norman on his choice, and indeed, his so very special, the one of a kind book on Mahler would lose a half of its magnetism would it be set in ‘ an accurate’, from the point of view of conventional reviewers, past tense. The point here is not on grammatic. The point is on one’s sense of a person, of time, and of drama around us.
I have the same sensation with regard to Raoul Wallenberg. I just feel him as my contemporary ever since I was in my late 20s. And this feeling is subconsious one, to the serious degree.
Maybe, with the years passing on, I would be able to perceive Elie Wiesel in the way that would enable me to write and to think about him in a past tense, but it certainly not is happening now, a year since his precious soul has left This World.
I am often thinking on what has made Wiesel such universal phenomenon? There were many well-known survivors, many of them writers, artists, actors, musicians, some public figures, but hardly anyone among them had been so non-divisive and so universally respected and loved as Wiesel. Did he try to please various parties? He did not. Was he changing his views in order to be compatible to a variety of spectrum of affiliations? No, it was not the case either.
I think that the Wiesel’s secret for being loved and respected universally was his ultimate modesty. We all love modest people because they give us a room for our own existential world. In the case of Elie Wiesel, there has been a truly rare phenomenon: being completely introvert person, he was still perceived by many of us as a relative, and often as a close relative. I do not know any other case like that except another human giant, Leonard Cohen. Leonard was much more vivid and animated though, due to both his profession and his biography.
There is also another question rises here: there are so many books on the Holocaust and the Second World War, so many personal accounts. Why it is that the Wiesel’s books took such a grip of so many hearts? I think, it is because of the combination of two factors: Wiesel’s crystal honesty was narrated in his customary undertone. At the moment of horror a man speaks to himself, whispering. Speaking to himself, Elie Wiesel did heal so many. And did evoke so many others.
That writer respected his readers per definition; he did not lie to us. His and his family’s experience were existing in the Elie Wiesel’s life in its present tense always. He felt them alive and being next to him, as we all do feel our parents, grandparents and siblings alive does not matter how many years passed since their passing. Such is the nature of human existence.
How to speak unspeakable?
After reading practically everything that Wiesel had written, all his books of documentary prose, his memoirs, novels, essays, his books on prolific Jewish personalities and heroes, the main question occupies my mind for years: how on earth one speaks unspeakable?
I am not surprised at all that for more than ten years, until he has become almost 30, Wiesel did not talk on his Holocaust experience and tried to avoid the subject in general by all means.
My grandfather being far more mature man than young Elie who was just 17 when the Second World War was over, never spoke about his experience in the Stalin prison already after the war, during fierce anti-Semitic purges in the 1950s in the Soviet Union.
The silence of the Holocaust survivors is a very well-known phenomenon. In the case of Wiesel, however, it was not silence for life. As he did mature, he fell being compelled to write it all down writing frantically aboard while sailing to Argentina in early 1950s. The first version of Night is 900 pages, it does exist in Yiddish, and in my opinion, this book written under the title And the World Has Remained Silent has to be translated into English. We ought to Elie that much.
There is no question about the direct connection between the size of the classic version of Night and the effect of that probably the most important book on the Holocaust. Super-concise, quasi-distilled prose of Night has its sensational, bombshell-like impact on readers to serious extent because it has been so screamingly laconic.
But in order to examine the process in general, in order to know what Elie Wiesel wanted to say in the first place when he decided to let it go, it would be very important, and truly necessary, in my opinion, to publish the first edition of Night, those 900 pages in English and the other languages, as well.
Thinking back on the circumstances in which 17-years old Elie did find himself after the liberation from Buchenwald, I try to analyse his way in becoming the Reminder.
I try to put together those bits of the picture which are still puzzling me: you are witnessing the things which are beyond your capacity to perceive, both regarding your immediate family, your friends, acquaintances, neighbours, and people in general; you are shocked by the cruelty, sadism and crimes around you to your bone; you are victimized repeatedly, in myriads of sorts and ways, daily and nightly, for quite a long time.
You are brutally and abruptly forced into livid hell which stays with you forever. Being a teenager, not a small child anymore, you are witnessing the horrible murder of your beloved little sister, helpless, beautiful, innocent child, and you are unable to do a thing about it, even to scream.
In our family, my young aunt Minna who was just 18 had been murdered by the Nazis in Ukraine in August 1941, and the helplessness of the rest of my family, especially my grandmother, to do something to save her younger sister overshadowed her life until the end of it.
My husband’s aunt had been murdered at the same time and place by the Nazis and their Ukrainian eager collaborators with her entire family, including two small sons, boys aged three and five, and Michael’s family, his survived grandmother, mother and aunt were tormented by their daughter and sister’s destiny to the rest of their lives.
This kind of pain, and this kind of partially irrational but still very powerful feeling of guilt for not being able to save the loved ones, stays with us for good. This feeling has no statue of limitations.
Coming back to the experience of Elie Wiesel, you lived through an ultimate horror. You have lost your mother who had been murdered practically in front of your eyes. You saw your beautiful eight years old little sister being thrown into the flames, literally. You are witnessing your beloved father dying, being emaciated by terrible hunger and disease, being beaten and molested in his last hour in front of you, with you being kept away from him on purpose by the beasts in your barrack in the camp, not the German ones, but nice Poles and Ukrainians, and being so totally afraid of losing the last live-rope in your life, your universe, your very being that you cannot overcome the thugs and get close to your dying father who is tearfully calling for you, and this is going on for hours.
Now, how-one-is-able-to-live after all this, being seventeen at the moment of getting this outcome of human experience in a pace of time compressed by non-stopping horror? I have no answer to that question which is still standing for me.
What to do with your life for the person who had been developed from a child to an youth being the victim of sadist murders, whose adolescence has been spent in the Nazi camps, and who is still quite young, as a young tree, to be able to withstand the horrific pressure of the nightmare-like yesterday that never ends, actually?
I was not surprised to learn and understand from Elie Wiesel’s tormenting and beautiful books on his several suicide attempts. Yes, it comes against our Jewish tradition, and Elie of many people did know that tradition by heart and lived it with devotion and understanding. But you do sympathise completely to his palpable inability to live without all those dear ones who were taken from him by animal-like criminals. All of his loved ones did suffer so much, they did not just pass away in their sleep. This also affects one’s psyche day and night, perpetually.
I sympathise fully to the other similar tragedies, like the ones of the great poet Paul Celan or writer Primo Levi who just could not live after the camps, losing their entire family, as it was in the case of Celan.
After the Shoah, 17-year old Elie Wiesel was alone in the entire world. How one gets up and out of that abyss? How to live with all those nightmares which are felt more real than a day-light realities?
When reading in several Wiesel’s books on his almost unpreventable semi-conscious desire to get closer and closer to the huge space of an ocean from a ship board, you do understand that an overwhelming attraction of bottomless sea could be seeing by him at the time as calming answer or comforting space with no answers needed any longer.
And then, in Day you are smashed realising that by throwing himself under the taxi in New York, young hero had no strength, no will, any physical and metaphysical possibility to live; to continue his existence in this world being so tragically and totally orphaned.
You are starting to realise that contrary to general belief that with maturing of a person the tragedy of an orphan is somehow coming to some ease. No, it is not like that, you realise with being immersed into that unbounded sea of restrained and dignified but pulsating desperately pure pain of the orphan who is 20, and then 25, and then 30 while reading Wiesel’s books.
The contrast of a huge city as New York, so ever busy, with a desperately lonely soul which is wounded and orphaned, and hangs in a blackened space around it, is only makes this pain sharpened. In some small place one could feel more comfortable, perhaps, with his own world being shredded to the pieces mercilessly.
And here he was alone in that post-Second World War world, the world which was frantically busy and rather cold at the same time. It is important to realise that for some reason, or for a number of reasons, the horrors of the war, as it happened, did not ignite much of compassion in Europe, or in the USA or anywhere else, actually. In that cold and busy world, there was that poor, hungry, tormented Jewish man who was inclining to jump into the bottomless ocean rather than to lead a merry life.
He did not know how to get married. He just could not. He had some relationships, naturally, but he just could not to start a family. That part of the Elie’s inside world has been frozen, and he was sure that it was for good.
But so very luckily, he was still going to his small and modest shul ( synagogue) in New York, the address of which he was lovingly guarding from the journalists till almost the end of his life. One guards in this way something which is especially dear to him. Those in the outside circles who knew to which synagogue Wiesel belongs and going for the services, felt especially privileged, justly so.
And then, in early 1960s, he decided to visit the Rebbe Schneerson. It was a call of the Saviour, as I am seeing it. When more than a half of a century later I saw the footage of Elie Wiesel remembering that meeting, I could see it non-stop, because of the way Wiesel talked about the Rebbe, because of his eyes, and that smile of an introvert child who had been occasionally happy for a moment and grateful for that forever.
As we know, the Rebbe who knew about the Wiesel’s grandfather, important Chassidic Rabbi in Romania, and who took a special interest towards the orphaned young writer, had been instrumental figure in Wiesel’s life, also because it was that giant of man, Menachem Mendel Schneerson who managed to convince Elie, against all odds, to get married and to start a family.
We know how happy the Rebbe was when Elie and Marion wed in Jerusalem. And we know that Elie Wiesel has put so much meaning in the Rebbe’s role in his family’s very origin that he believed that the bouquet which him and Marion have got from the Rebbe in Jerusalem on the day of their chuppah was the most beautiful bouquet in their entire life. In the way he saw it, it certainly was.
Having Love Back
Wiesel got married to his future wife of 47 years Marion when he was 41, rather late. From that moment onward, his life has become happier, especially with the birth of his only son Elisha who looks so remarkably like the Wiesel’s father after whom he is named. No wonder that Elie did love his son bottomlessly and boundlessly. He regarded Elisha’s appearance to this world as a miracle – which it was, indeed.
The land and country of Israel, our land and our country, was a magnet of love in the Wiesel’s life always. Elie went to Israel on his first opportunity, soon after war, in 1949, being very young, just 19. Reading his description of his and the other peoples’ feelings being aboard of that small ship sailing for Haifa, so soon after the end of the war, Jews who survived the hell of the Shoah and were anticipating their first encounter with the land and the country which is the centre of the universe for many of us, one is having a very strong sensation of being aboard that ship physically, and the distance of time disappears again, as it always happens in the Wiesel’s books.
The same feeling is felt by those of us who were not born in Israel, but who were longing for it always, while reading on the first encounter of young journalist Wiesel with the Kotel, the Western Wall. It is like the most sacred things which are enrooted in him – and us – and which are going back to generations, were materialised in a dream-like way which was made of another kind of substance. The one which keeps you on the ground, preventing you from jumping into the dark whirl of an ocean, saving you from your desperate nights.
Israel has become a source and subject of love which started to return to young survivor Wiesel from his first visit there. His love for Israel was unconditional, as real love can only be. His pride of Israel was a source of his own motivation for his work, and his inspiration for life. He kept that beautiful and so meaningful for him tradition of keeping the Shavuot, the Jewish holiday of giving Torah to the Jewish nation, in Israel, among his friends, and he was so happy of not sleeping that special night, but instead reading and learning the Torah at the synagogue in Israel along with his dear friends there.
It made a lot of sense for Elie, because his family was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz precisely on Shavuot, and the uplifting and inspiring holiday of receiving the Torah has become the blackest mark of his and his family’s life since he was 15. How and where to try to erase that blackness, if not in the Jewish state, among the friends, many of them survivors, honouring the memory of his parents, grandparents and his little sister?..
Similarly to Leonard Cohen, Wiesel was supporting the IDF with all his heart, and like Leonard, he wanted so much to get enlisted into the Israeli army. But they both were kept safe by the IDF commanders who knew that it would be seriously better to keep those two enthusiasts alive, not subject them to any risks, and not allow them to be on the front-lines, anyway.
The Life Returned
And then, Elie has become jolly. He was smiling and he was laughing. He was singing and he was dancing. The fountain of love did open inside him and that fountain had been pulsating till the end of his life. What had happened?
He went to the Soviet Union and met with the Jewish people there. The first time Wiesel went to Moscow in 1965. It was a love from the first glance between him and his brethren there, and that love was mutual. 37-years old writer saw the people so very close to him, stoic, modest, aspiring in their hearts, avid readers and thinkers, people living under constant pressure.
Indeed, we did live the life on which when I am remembering about it now, would it be during the lectures for my students or for the other international audience, I would barely believe myself relating the details which sounds quite Orwellian but which were our daily life. We did not know any other.
What’s more, we knew dead sure that there will be no other life for us being encaged inside the USSR. That knowledge defined so many people’s mentality and mode of behaviour in the Soviet Union.
When my husband and I have met with Elie Wiesel in Helsinki just over two decades since he came to seeing the Soviet Jews for the first time, we were surprised and humbled by his warmth, respect and ingenuity of his interest towards us. It also was a love from a first glance, mutually.
Although there were other precious for us meetings with Elie, in New York and the other places, during the years that followed, we both still remember our first meeting with him , dated over 20 years back, as if it has happened just yesterday.
It is due to that genuine, warm fraternity that he was so generously radiating towards us that a special bond has been formed in between us and the great writer in no time; the bond which is the one of our both’ treasures in life.
Back to the Soviet Union and the Elie Wiesel’s engagement to the story of the Soviet Jewry and the destinies of many people from that stratum, on the ground of what I know, read and heard from Wiesel personally, I am unlimitedly grateful to him for his attitude towards the people who were persecuted in generations, in big and small, who were stigmatised by the society around them on a subconscious level.
I am eternally grateful to Elie for his momentarily understanding, his generous, supportive love, his grace in noting so many nuances in our lives, characters, moves and intentions as only the one of us could ever noted and appreciate.
And then, he did help. To end the siege of the Soviet Jewry has become the Wiesel’s perpetual priority which he did tackle tirelessly and successfully. His impact on the eventual liberation of the Soviet Jewry shall not be underestimated. He did help large and he did it with love.
The attitude that the Soviet Jewry had towards Elie during more than 30 years, from his first visit to the Moscow Choral Synagogue until the collapse of the USSR and the Elie’s visit just literally on that very moment in 1989, has always been very special. Every sympathising foreigner did matter. Anyone who was helping in any way, however small, was a hero and a subject of high hopes, and a lot of gratitude.
There was no one who had been so much loved by many people among Soviet Jewry, ultimately loved without any expectations, any agenda at all, as Elie. People there knew and felt by their innermost feelings that Wiesel was a family. The family. The one that he lost, perhaps? I always did hope for that.
In any case, in my reading of the Wiesel’s life, it was his very destiny-like acquaintance with the Soviet Jewry that made it possible for him to return to life, to start to feel its colours, to remember his disappeared laughter, to feel compassion. Like in the traditional Eastern and Central European Jewish families which are wrapping their members in enduring love, the people whom Elie met in Moscow and the other places in the Soviet Union, did embrace him with instant, natural family-like aura which he had lost, as he thought, forever.
Elie and the Jews of Silence as he named them, did remember each other mutually for long time, despite the pauses in the Wiesel’s visits to the Soviet Union. In my understanding, it was his return to life, which had happened shortly before his marriage. Those three major happenings – Elie’s visit and his connection to the Rebbe, his bond with the Soviet Jewry, and his marriage forms logical line of return of his ability to live again. In surviving the Survival, if you wish.
Striving for the Answer
I always thought and am still thinking that Wiesel’s Night is the ultimate book on the Holocaust. Many times in my head, and as I know, many other directors did it, too, I visualised the Night on the screen. I am convinced that as the book has imprinted the Shoah into the minds and hearts of the millions, as the film could have this pivotal role, too.
With the role and place of cinema in the modern world, its effect would be colossal. I quite aware with the Wiesel’s categorical refusal for making the movie from his Night; with his utter disbelief in the possibility of his book to be transformed into a film.
I also know about his conviction on the impossibility ‘to show’ the Holocaust in general. Of course, I do respect the conviction of the person who did live through the nightmare and who did write so compellingly about it, still believing, as Elie did, that to describe the Holocaust is the mission impossible.
He also was convinced that Khurban, Whirling Destruction, as he preferred to call it, and as the Holocaust survivors actually called it during the years after the Catastrophe, just cannot be explained.
I can see the point in the Wiesel’s conviction. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, we are sitting with a dear friend, highly educated diplomat compassioned regarding the Holocaust, the person whose graduation work was on Paul Celan and who tirelessly works during all her long distinguished international top diplomatic career to make sure that the Holocaust remembrance is alive and adequate in any country she is posted, from the US to Finland.
My friend says: “I am thinking about it my entire life since my youth, and am lost for answer still. How on earth the Nazism did succeed to the degree we know? Where the ideology of inflamed nationalism went over its top and had been transformed into a massive beastiality?..”
At the very same time, my other friends, two professors of history, were debating the issue of the expectations of the local population of Europe, including the Jewish residents there, on the eve of the war, of the Nazis to behave accordingly to the known for their nation status of so very cultured and educated one. “How on earth our predecessors could be so utterly naive?” – asked the first professor. – “But how that truly cultured and education nation has turned into such sadists in no time?”, – asked the second one. And both were lost for answers, the same as Elie Wiesel was given that not only he had lived through it , but that he has read everything what could be read of the Nazism and Holocaust thereafter.
I know about the formulations which some Rabbis has elaborated on the still standing question on the very nature of the Shoah and its perpetrators, after many years of painful looking into that. I know also about the position of the Rebbe Schneerson on the issue, as he was asked about it by many troubled souls, including Elie Wiesel.
The Rebbe was personally affected by the Holocaust deeply and painfully, too. His younger brother DovBer, being completely helpless and on his own, had been murdered by the Nazis in Dnepropetrovsk, the city in which my grand-aunt young Minna with her immediate family, and my husband’s aunt Chalah with her small children had been murdered too, at the same time. The Rebbe’s father died of utter hunger and poverty in exile in Kazakhstan in 1944 and his mother who was with her husband in exile, has never fully recover from that horrible experience. But the Rebbe kept his personal pain for himself while was tirelessly healing the other’s wounds of the Shoah, as he did for many years for Elie Wiesel.
When you see the footage of the Rebbe’s meetings with Wiesel, you are impressed by the Rebbe’s reaction on seeing Wiesel every time he did it. The Rebbe is looking on Wiesel as on his own son or grandson, his feelings are palpable; and Wiesel’s smile every time when he sees Rebbe is the smile when one sees his beloved uncle. The Rebbe spoke with Elie in the way which was neither formal, or distant. He was very much involved when talking with Ellie. Every time, it was a family talk. The family talk of a cosmic importance, to me. I will always remember how the Rebbe was minding Wiesel ‘not to be angry in his books, because you are affecting so many of your readers that way”. The Rebbe did read in what was in the Elie’s books in the way that he was reading straight in the Wiesel’s heart. What could be more merciful than that?..
But I, I am still looking for the answer. Maybe, I am doing it for the reasons which are beyond rational explanation. My own explanation of my strive to get the answer is that in so many ways, the justice for the victims of the Holocaust has not been done as yet, still seventy years after the liberation of the camps which is no way had been the end of the suffering of the millions of the victims of the Shoah.
Not the whole truth has been said and become the public domain, not on the pre-Second World War development, nor on the situation after it. This maimed, distorted in many way picture of the happenings which led to the Holocaust and which has become its continuation for several decades after 1945, in my understanding precludes us from getting the answer which Elie Wiesel felt as the one which is impossible to get. But I still think that the effort is it worth of trying.
Wiesel felt himself to be compelled to examine the understanding about the Khurban, the Whirl of Destruction, one generation after. He authored a brilliant self-research and self-portrait on that called simply, One Generation After.
Three generations after, there is enough of the people who are still devoted to that search, brilliant historians and honest, brave men, such as professor Jan Tomasz Gross, professor Jan Grabowski, professor Omer Bartov, Efraim Zuroff, late David Cesarani. There are the also deep-looking cinematographers, such as Roberto Olla and Saulis Bersinis who are working on this very theme as the main one for them for several decades, still looking for the answer. There are many others, too.
Three generations after, I am still looking for the answer, too. You just cannot explain your absorption with this subject when you are asked about it. I only know that you need to walk you own way to realise the phenomenon of the Shoah. I think that each of us, the people who are devoted to the theme, do have our own, very personal understanding of it. You have to place it in your heart, in your world. And yes, it is rather impossible to place it to your mind because it does not go there.
But there is a compass of your emotional world which always moves its arrow towards the Shoah pole, every time the theme is evoked in many of its variations. This compass commands your occupation and your involvement. This compass is leading you, and you know the arrow has oriented you in your world.
In my world, Elie Wiesel’s honesty in relating the Khurban’s shock to the world stays as the beacon of truth. It also stays as an unparalleled sample of humanism, after the tragedy he and our people lived through, and the trauma which he and the other survivors were living with untill the rest of their lives.
How that utter, shattering, devastating suffering could be melted into that unforgettable Elie’s smile? – I am asking myself so very often. For that, I definitely have no answer, and I know that there is none. So, I perceive it as a mercy of the Creator and as a miracle. To show to the Nazi and pro-Nazi beasts of all sorts and calibres the answer to their bestial effort, the Holocaust has become a source of many miracles, as we know. The Wiesel’s smile is the one of them.
But the knowledge which he did produce for the mankind on the Shoah and on a human being is not a miracle. This is the fruit of the hardest labour possible, and this is a revelation.
It is the revelation because the first-hand knowledge and unbearable personal experience went to be processed through the innocent, good soul, and it was told modestly, unpretentiously, honestly to the bone, with a rare sincerity.
Elie used to say when people were astounded by the degree of honesty that they found in his books: “Why to start to write if not to tell the truth?..” He saw things this way. To be honest and sincere in literature it is a very demanding task. To be such sincere on the subject of Khurban is almost mission impossible because you are living it all through again and again. But from some certain moment, Wiesel knew that it would be his path, and he went through it with outstanding devotion. He thought on himself that he was not courageous enough. But in sharing of his and his people, our people’s pain and truth, he was simply heroic.
There is a quiet love and there is a quiet suffering. In the case of the Elie Wiesel, his suffering had become so quiet because a voice had gone from the man who was shocked by what he had went through. Was he telling on behalf of all the victims of the Shoah and survivors? Absolutely. Was he talking to us very privately that we see a certain person behind his every word? Definitely.
How did he reach the both outcomes in one go of his creations? Because he had guts to speak his heart out, and this language is both highly individual and vastly universal.
In the meaning of speaking the depth of a wounded heart out to the world, and the outstanding courage of doing it; on devotion to his family and his brethren, I see the life-long work of the haunted Jewish youth from a small Romanian town as coming from the remarkable man who was loved by the Creator. My man for all seasons, Elie Wiesel.