Elie Wiesel, who died in July of this year, left us one of the most powerful, most damning, most instructive testaments of the extent to which man’s inhumanity to man can stretch. A Jew who survived the 20th century Holocaust, he has, of course, been the butt of Holocaust denial claims at their most crude—but if we leave his body of work unread in this century, we leave ourselves without a route map in a world where hatred of ‘other’ frighteningly seems to have become the norm
The politics of the Middle East have become increasingly complex and increasingly dangerous since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of a Jewish state. Rational discussion has become a minefield—accusations of prejudice against both Jew and Muslim are tweeted and scattered around Facebook with a liberal touch that belies their sentiment.
Conflicts are deep-rooted and ancient and have been inflamed by communities that claimed to be Christian. We have only to look at the history of literature (why go any further than Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Othello?) to get a feel of the attitudes of previous centuries.
When the Nazi regime planned the elimination of those who didn’t qualify as Aryan —a plan that seems to have put Jews at the top of the list but also included those who were black, Roma, homosexual, and disabled—no-one saw it coming. The Jews didn’t see it coming.
Elie Wiesel didn’t see it coming.
Wiesel was, of course, just a boy at the time. He was born on 30 September 1928, in Sighetu Marmatiei in Romania—the area known as Transylvania in the northern part of the country. The historic town had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, when the people voted to become part of Romania. A third of Sighetu’s population of around 27 000 was Jewish.
Like a historical novel
In his early teens at the start of World War II, Wiesel had become friends with a man from the synagogue who was rounded up in the first deportation of Jews from the town in 1942. When that man came back with terrible stories of the prisoners being forced to dig trenches and then line up to be shot into them, he wasn’t believed. He had been shot in the leg and left for dead, later escaping to return home to warn his fellow citizens. It was only in 1944 when the town’s Jews were restricted to two ghettoes before being transported on trains to Auschwitz concentration camp that the reality of the situation became clear.
Wiesel records in his memoir Night that the day he and his family were marched out of the ghetto and onto the trains seemed surreal, “like a page torn from a book, a historical novel, perhaps, dealing with the captivity in Babylon or the Spanish Inquisition”.
But of course, this was no scene from a novel, but the reality of the death camps. Can we be forgiven for remembering the scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie Schindler’s List when we read Wiesel’s description of his little sister, Tzipora, “…her blond hair neatly combed, her red coat over her arm: a little girl of seven” stoically responding to the harsh police cries to move faster away from her home towards her hellish destiny?
There surely can be no doubt that Spielberg referenced that mention in Night when he gave us the monochrome scene punctured by the little girl in the red coat—and few people today have more than the cinematic point of reference, or the written testimony of a man like Wiesel, to give us any idea of those unspeakable events.
The cattle truck journey
And so, the 16-year-old Wiesel experienced the cattle truck journey (80 to the carriage), the flames and stench from the Auschwitz chimneys, the arrival at midnight in Birkenau where SS officers with machine guns sent men to the left, women to th
e right. Wiesel’s mother, older sisters Beatrice and Hilda and little Tzipora were separated from him and his father. Other prisoners, advising the two males of the family to say they were 18 and 48 rather than 16 and 50, couldn’t believe the Romanians had not known the truth about Auschwitz.
The tragedy of the later 20th century would be that others would not believe either—the Holocaust deniers who have presented the case that the story of these death camps is a fiction. Those voices at the fringe of our society have in the 21st century, with its social media, its conflicts allegedly in the name of religions, its increasing culture of insult, blame, and prejudice, are still trying to tell us that the Jews made it all up, that Wiesel’s lifelong crusade to help humanity learn from the horror of the Holocaust, was a self-seeking lie.
There is a photograph of an emaciated Wiesel in a Buchenwald bunk crowded with other prisoners. But if you were to trawl the Internet, as we do these days, for information about this man, you would find one website dedicated to disproving Wiesel’s presence in the camps—“where is his tattoo?” is the question posed in blog after blog. Better, perhaps than the ‘learned’ tomes written by so-called historians who pose the question “where were the camps?”
The harrowing account in Night of the brutal reality of the camps clearly won’t answer that question satisfactorily for such deniers. The book, however, written in France in the 1950s and published in English in 1960, thankfully became a decade later what Christian ethicist Dr David Gushee has described as “the central canonical text for Holocaust remembrance”.
A never-ending lesson
As we move on from the period that defined Wiesel to the lifetime he spent encouraging the world to learn from it, we should perhaps keep in mind a sentiment he expressed more than once: “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Wiesel’s father died in Buchenwald. In later life, he would express shame that he did not attempt to do more to help his father in his dying hour, but his father would surely have been proud of the man he was enabled to become by literally lying low the night that his father died. The camp was liberated shortly afterwards in April 1945. Beatrice and Hilda had also survived.
Wiesel would go on to study in Paris, becoming a journalist and writing Night in French in 1956. The book was subsequently translated into 30 languages—one into English by his wife Marion, with whom he worked on many of almost 60 publications he would produce during his lifetime. The body of work includes novels, memoirs, short stories, essays, dialogues and personal testimony.
When Night was first published, it sold fewer than 1 000 copies. As the world became more ready to hear the 20th century’s dirty secret (it is worth remembering that reports of the concentration camps reached the Allied countries very early in the war and were dismissed), the book went on to sell over 40 million copies.
The questions Wiesel’s book posed in time prompted a greater willingness to commemorate and to learn from the experience. In the US, especially, it became part of the school curriculum, adopted as an inspirational morality tale and perhaps, if we are to be cynical, a justification for the US’s involvement in WWII.
A peace activist
Without Wiesel’s charismatic presence in the US, however, there may never have been a full flowering of a movement dedicated to making the world aware of the worst that man can do and encouraging the best. Sequels to Night (Dawn and Day—together to become a trilogy) were written after he moved to New York. He became a US citizen, and met Marion Rose, an Austrian Holocaust survivor (they married in Jerusalem). By 1978, he had become sufficiently respected that President Jimmy Carter appointed him chair of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust.
On the world stage, he became known as a peace activist, speaking powerfully against the injustices that were perpetrated in countries including South Africa, Bosnia, Cambodia, Kosovo, Ireland, Ethiopia and Rwanda. He was a compelling orator, which not only stood in his favour in the public arena but also in the passion he had for teaching. He inspired students over the decades at Boston University’s Andrew W. Mellon, where he was Professor in the Humanities, at the City University of New York where he taught Judaic studies, and those who encountered him as a visiting scholar at Yale.
There were many awards, including the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honour’s Grand Croix, and of course, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The citation for the latter read “Wiesel is a messenger to mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.” His Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, was founded with Marion to “combat indifference, intolerance and injustice” throughout the world.
The perils of indifference
In a speech to mark the new millennium, Wiesel warned of the “perils of indifference”, defining ‘indifference’ as “a strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil”. He commented that though it is ‘troublesome’ to be involved in another person’s pain and despair, to be indifferent is to render that person’s life ‘meaningless’.
What drove Wiesel to speak out, to go on reminding the world of the ‘night’ that he experienced? In his Nobel acceptance speech, he explained that he continued to tell the boy he had been in the death camps that he had “tried to keep memory alive… tried to fight those who would forget… because if we forget who the guilty are, we are accomplices”.
He added an exhortation that could have been written by Pope Paul VI in his Populorum Progressio encyclical, or spoken by Pope Francis today in response to the current mass movement of refugees and migrants around the world: “Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that must—at that moment—become the centre of the universe.”
Of course, it has not only been extremists like the “where is the tattoo” blogger who have criticised Wiesel, nor even the committed Holocaust deniers, and of course, in a life 87 years long, not every opinion can be approved of by the world; not every decision can be a good one.
In the obituaries, there were those who were compelled to lift the stones and ask questions: What about Wiesel’s wholehearted support of US involvement in action against Iraq and Libya, endorsed by Israel? Why did he oppose the progress towards agreement between the US and Iran? How could he blame Hamas for Israel’s attacks on Gaza? Why did he support the Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, blamed by the Human Rights Watch for ‘atrocities’ in the Congo? Why couldn’t Israel ever be wrong? (He had answered this last question himself—“I must identify with whatever Israel does—even with her errors”.)
One very sad mistake that Wiesel made was to invest, as did so many others, in the fraudulent operation run by Bernie Madoff, subsequently imprisoned for 150 years. The collapse of Madoff’s scam lost both the Wiesel Foundation and Wiesel himself huge amounts of money. His judgement in matters fiscal seems to have been flawed, and he then sought support from Sheldon Adelson, a man heavily involved with the Israeli government’s finances. The link perhaps tied his hands.
The man, nonetheless, was remarkable, and we ignore his legacy at our peril.
A criticism against Wiesel made more than once was that he kept silent for a decade after his liberation from Auschwitz-Buchenwald. Why didn’t he write Night before he did? He would admit that language was the one of the biggest obstacles to starting the account of his experience. There were no words adequate to describe the indescribable. “… how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy?” was the question he posed himself in the preface to the 2006 translation of Night.
Dublin educator John Kelly wrote after Wiesel’s death “Wiesel’s language of silence is loud and restive, embracing complex and often contradictory forces. But in the end, Wiesel’s refusal to be silent—on the Holocaust, on oppression and suffering, on the Jewish experience, on the human experience—made a sublime music, a lasting art, out of silence.”
Wiesel perhaps did, in terms of his account of the Holocaust, fail to make it clear that this was not a war crime against Jews alone (yet another criticism of his life’s work) but didn’t he make up for that in his Nobel acceptance speech? He was Jewish. His roots could not be pulled up even by the Holocaust—but his life’s work intended to transcend borders, religions, and politics. He saw that like Shakespeare’s Shylock, we all bleed—and he sought to stench the flow. Who gets it right all of the time? Read Night, and understand that a life started that way might excusably be flawed.