As I approach another birthday, just a month from now, I am reminded that High School was a long, long time ago. But it was in high school that I first became acquainted with the works and the life of Elie Wiesel.
Because it was so long ago, we didn’t have Holocaust studies like many school systems have today. In our world history course, we barely made it to World War Two, much less any deep exploration of Nazi atrocities. So I came to know Elie Wiesel after school hours, in what was then called ‘forensics’ – competitive oral interpretation of books, plays and poetry.
For some reason, the couple of years I competed, the same excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s book “Night” was used over and over again, at least a dozen times. I don’t know why. It had been available in English for nearly 20 years at that point. But maybe that’s how long it took to work its way into the general curriculum, even without a special emphasis on the Holocaust. Anyway, it was always the same scene, captured more successfully sometimes than others. It’s the scene where Elie, as a 15-year-old boy, accompanies his father through the line at Auchwitz, where the notorious Dr. Mengele will sort those who can work from those who will go directly to the gas chambers.
As they approach, Elie begins reciting the mourner’s kaddish, preparing to say goodbye to his father, and to life itself.
“My heart was bursting,” Wiesel wrote. “The moment had come. I was face to face with the Angel of death…No. Two steps from the pit we were ordered to turn to the left and made to go into the barracks.
“Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
So that’s what I first learned about Elie Wiesel. That he was a boy whose faith in God was tested by the evil and brutality of humanity. That these images would haunt him forever. But that he understood enough to blame humanity and not God.
At least that’s what I thought.
What I only came to know recently – actually what nobody knew until recently – was that an earlier version of the text was very different. After he wrote the original Yiddish, he wrote an extended version in Hebrew that he never shared with anyone, buried for decades in his archives. Here’s part of what he wrote:
“I stopped praying and didn’t speak about God. I was angry at him. I told myself, ‘He does not deserve us praying to him.’ And really, does he hear prayers? . . . Why sanctify him? For what? For the suffering he rains on our heads? For Auchwitz and Birkenau? This time we will not stand as the accused in court before the divine judge. This time we are the judges and he the accused.”
This was Elie Wiesel in the late 1950s, more than a decade after his liberation. Angry at the world for remaining silent. Angry at some Jews for foolishly believing that they themselves would not be targeted by the Nazis.
Angry at other Jews in places like New York and London and even in Israel, who knew exactly what was happening and did not warn their fellow Jews in Hungary. And yes, angry at a God who would let humanity come to this.
Dr. Joel Rappel, who was asked by Wiesel to organize his vast archive, is the one who found the missing material. He thinks that Wiesel intended to use it in an extended Hebrew version specifically for an Israeli audience, which would include many survivors of the camps, including Auchwitz and Buchenwald where he had been. But even though he never published it, Rappel says Wiesel never wanted it destroyed.
I think Wiesel knew there would come a time when people would question what really happened, as though maybe it wasn’t so bad – because after all, how could this happen in 20th century Europe?
I think Wiesel knew. That Holocaust deniers like David Irving would claim the numbers were small. That Jew-haters across the world would take to the streets and chant that Hitler was right, and that the gas chambers should be rebuilt so that they could finish what he began. That with turmoil and terror and murder throughout the Middle East, with Muslims slaughtering Muslims, somehow Israel would be blamed and ostracized and punished.
And I think that’s why he became a voice of conscience, not just a voice from the grave. For Jews in places like the Soviet Union, but not just for Jews – but also for victims of slaughter and genocide in Cambodia, and in Honduras, and on behalf of people in Tibet and Biafra and Paraguay. We say “never again.” But Wiesel knew that we never quite mean it.
After his death, I saw many otherwise intelligent people chastising Elie Wiesel for his support of Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing governments in Israel, which has eschewed peace talks with the Palestinians and expanded the reach of settlements in what might otherwise, eventually, become Arab communities. Some have even going so far as to equate it to support of Nazism. Now, you all know that I’m no fan of Bibi Netanyahu, that I think he has needlessly and frequently squandered both the opportunities for peace and the good-will of the international community.
But given Wiesel’s personal history, which he gifted to us, I cannot blame him. His experience taught him that virtually no one in the world would lift a finger to save a Jewish life. Not one, much less six million. So we’d better prepared to do it ourselves.
And thank God we have his history. The memoirs, the novels, the mystical tales, survive – and maybe a lot more that we don’t know about in that vast archive. “To forget the victims means to kill them a second time,” Wiesel once wrote. “So I couldn’t prevent the first death. I surely must be capable of saving them from a second death.”
That’s all the more important now. Those who survived have been passing away – many without sharing their stories. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington has tried to preserve as many stories as they can. So has Yad Vashem in Israel. Director Steven Spielberg was so swept up in the story he told in Schindler’s List that he created a foundation to record individual survivors’ accounts. His Visual History Archive includes the testimony of 53-thousand survivors.
But soon there will be no more people alive to tell the tale first-hand of the horrors they experienced, and how they managed to survive. And of all those voices, Elie Wiesel’s was the most powerful, and the most important. Because he spoke and wrote and preached and taught, for decades – refusing to be silent, refusing to let someone else tell the story. He never had an organization. He was an army of one. And yet his story is the one that everyone turns to – even if the one he published is not quite the whole story. And now that voice – that voice of conscience, that voice of truth – is silent.
So we must go back to the written words. Words like these:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”
This is the voice that calls us to action, to justice, to compassion. We must take sides. For some of us, it may mean standing up to the neo-Nazis in the streets of Paris. For others, it may mean demanding safety from gun violence in our own communities. Whatever cause calls to us, we cannot stay on the sidelines. We must take sides.
Historian Deborah Lipstadt – the one who stood up to the lies of Holocaust denier David Irving and beat him in a court of law – wrote this week that there is no replacement in sight for this man who spoke truth to power. That may be so. Maybe nobody else could be quite as eloquent, and as angry, and as determined, and as brave. But if the life and legacy of Elie Wiesel teaches us anything, it is the power of one voice in a world that sought to silence it.
Ken Yehi ratson. May we find courage in our own voices. As we say together: Amen.
©2016 Audrey R. Korotkin