“Last night I saw my father in a dream.”
Born in the town of Sighet, Romania in the Carpathian Mountains in 1928, Wiesel’s family of six was part of a thriving Jewish community. During World War II, murmurs of Jewish persecution by the Germans reached the town, but the villagers doubted the rumors and discounted anything they heard. Even with the German occupation of the town on March 19, 1944, the Germans behaved correctly and no one was disturbed. Months before their arrival, a man called “Moshe the Beadle” arrived in town with talk of his escape and stories of atrocities, yet his words fell like a barely noticeable rain:
“Messenger of the dead, he shouted his testimony from the rooftops and delivered it in silence, but either way no one would listen. People turned their backs so as not to see his eyes, as though fearing to glimpse a truth that held his past and our future in his steely grip. People tried, in vain, to make him doubt his own reason and his own memory, to accept that he had survived for nothing —– indeed, to regret having survived.”
Their own housekeeper, Maria, tried to convince the family time and again to seek refuge with her at her house in the mountains, but they were reluctant to abandon their Jewish community, still believing that all would be well. Even when they were imprisioned in the ghetto, she would sneak through the barbed wire barricades to bring them food. She figures prominently in Wiesel’s memory:
“I think of Maria often, with affection and gratitude. And with wonder as well. This simple, uneducated woman stood taller than the city’s intellectuals, dignitaries, and clergy. My father had many acquaintances and even friends in the Christian community, but not one of them showed the strength of character of this peasant woman. Of what value was their faith, their education, their social postion, if it aroused neither conscience nor compassion …. It was a simple and devout Christian woman who saved the town’s honor.”
Wiesel doesn’t examine in depth his time in the concentration camp —– his book, Night, describes this ordeal —- rather he shares questions which he had before and after the nightmare. Why didn’t Jews in other countries do more for their suffering brothers? Why were there not more bombings to stop the transport of Jews? Why did the world watch as six million Jews were exterminated? There is a poignancy to the fate of the town of Sighet, as the Third Reich was already in disarray, and Hitler knew that his fight for world dominance had ended, yet he was determined to exterminate the Jewish people, making the deportation of Jews a priority over military convoys.
Wiesel comments on the Jewish passivity during the Holocaust:
“Today, as I write this, I think of all those who chided us for our passivity, our resignation, during the war. ‘Why didn’t you resist?’ What about the Germans? What accounts for their obsequious cowardice before foreigners after their defeat? There were endless rumors about parents who sold their wives and daughters to the first American soldier for a pair of nylons, former high-ranking Wehmacht officers who would shine shoes for any corporal, bankrupt merchants who fought over cigarette butts flicked into the road by drunken solders. Their strength was gone, their power dissipated, their arrogance a memory. Yesterday’s supermen had become subhuman. But no, I don’t like either of those terms, superman or subhuman; both victors and vanquished are no more, no less, than human beings.”
“Jewish avengers were few in number, their thirst for vengeance brief ……. the Jews, for metaphysical and ethical reasons rooted in their history, chose another path. Later, this absence of violence among the survivors, this absence of vengefulness on the part of the victims toward their former hangmen and torturers was widely discussed. Of course, the setting was a Germany barely able to breathe under the weight of its ashes, a nation humiliated as few have ever been.”
Yet within the tragic fate of so many of his people, Wiesel observed the quiet resolution and courageous determination that his fellow Jews exemplified.
“With hindsight I realize that it was in the ghetto that I truly began to love the Jews of my town. Throughout the ordeal they maintained their dignity as human beings and as Jews. Imprisoned, reduced to sub-human status, they showed themselves still capable of spiritual greatness. Against the enemy they stood as one, affirming their faith in their faith.”
With the death of both of his parents in the camps, after his release Wiesel went to France where, under the children’s rescue society, he began schooling and reconnected with his Jewish religious roots. He rather naively began his journalistic career working for a Yiddish news weekly funded by the Igrun, an Israeli resistance group. Eventually, he found himself in New York as a foreign correspondent, and finally became a U.S. citizen. He recounts his meetings with political dignitaries and writers such as Golda Meir, Ben-Gurion, Saul Lieberman, Yitzhak Rabin, Hannah Arendt, etc., as his travels took him between France, the U.S. and Israel. Through his experiences, we get a first-hand view of Israel’s fight for independence in 1947, to its struggles up to the Six Day War with Egypt in 1967.
About claims that he renounced his faith, Wiesel responds:
“There is a passage in Night — recounting the hanging of a young Jewish boy — that has given rise to an interpretation bordering on blasphemy. Theorists of the idea that “God is dead” have used my words unfairly as justification of their rejection of faith. But if Nietzsche could cry out to the old man in the forest that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot. I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it ……. my Talmudist master Rabbi Saul Lieberman has pointed out another way to look at it. One can — and must — love God. One can challenge Him and even be angry with Him, but one must also pity Him. ‘Do you know which of all the characters in the Bible is most tragic?’ he asked me. ‘It is God, blessed be His name, God whose creatures so often disappoint and betray Him.’ He showed me ….. God wept, His tears fell upon His people and His creation, as if to say, What have you done to my work? …… Perhaps God shed more tears in the time of Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz, and one may therefore invoke His name not only with indignation but also with sadness and compassion.”
Yet throughout this book, the tragedy of his people lives within him, their suffering and memory never far from the surface of his thoughts. It is as if their legacy lives inside him and his soul needs to shout their story.
“To write is to plumb the unfathomable depths of being. Writing lies within the domain of mystery. The place between any two words is vaster than the distance between heaven and earth. To bridge it you must close your eyes and leap. A Hasidic tradition tells us that in the Torah the white spaces, too, are God-given. Ultimately, to write is an act of faith.”
I really loved his biography, as Wiesel is very honest and forthright, yet we see compassion and understanding, not only for Jews, but for Germans and Arabs as well. There is no resonance of hatred in Wiesel’s narrative, only a cry for understanding. He does not want vengeance, and not necessarily even justice, but more a soul-searching to prevent another atrocity such as the Holocaust, which would give some sort of meaning to the tragedy. Wiesel tells his story with a quiet strength, offering questions that perhaps have no answers, but always has the Jewish plight speaking from both light and shadows. Ultimately, a good part of life is made up of questions without answers and perhaps Wiesel exemplifies best how to live in that tension, and also to use it for good.