October 20, 2018

Elie Wiesel and questions of God and duty

The madness always calls him back.  You only have to glance at Elie Wiesel’s tortured face to know that he is always at risk.  Even after the countless novels and the Nobel Peace Prize.  Even after producing “Night,” his devastating masterpiece about Auschwitz.  Even after all the interviews and speeches and frustratingly vague answers about God’s presence and absence, both before, during, and after the Nazi assault.  Even after marriage and fatherhood and grand-fatherhood; danger lurks.

Perhaps it is because we unwittingly keep pressing him to comfort us with his “survival.”  We insist upon his civility and nobility and his restraint and forgiveness, and he has, and keeps willingly obliging us.  But at what cost?  They murdered his mother and baby sister upon arrival in the camps, and he watched his father die later on.  Two sisters survived.  He wound up a shaky young teenager alone in Paris, where he resumed his religious studies but also felt the lure of secular pursuits and a compulsion to tell his story and make sure the world remembered.  He tried to enter other worlds that weren’t marred by the tragedy he had endured, but it kept pulling him back.  He wanted to make sure that people understood the specificity of this Jewish tragedy and was irritated by those who were careless in their representations of it.  An old man now and in poor health, he keeps talking and teaching and praying and hoping for a better world he unfortunately has not yet lived to see.  He has spoken out vigorously against other genocides and spent years assisting Russian Jews escape the Soviet Union.  In that, he allows himself a small measure of pride, but it fades against the doubts he harbors that perhaps somehow he has not done enough; perhaps he could have done more.

We unintentionally place a tremendous burden on the shoulders of Holocaust survivors. We re-traumatize them in order to secure our own feelings of safety in a world still wildly unfriendly to the Jews.  Back in 1986, Phillip Roth interviewed Primo Levi, another Auschwitz survivor, and seemed obsessed with presenting Primo Levi as someone who somehow outwitted the Nazis.  Roth talks about how alert and astute the 67-year-old Levi seemed, and listed with pride his many accomplishments: his work as a chemist, his books, his wife and children, and the tender care he showed for his 92-year-old mother who still lived with him.  Roth describes Levi’s reaction to his own personal tragedy as a “profoundly civilized and spirited response to those who did all they could to sever his ever sustaining connection and tear him and his kind out of history.”  Roth seems to so much want to see Levi as triumphant that he can’t really see him at all.  Roth is not trying to be deceptive.  On the contrary; his fine piece about Levi seems spiritually hungry and sad; but still does a disservice to him.  Primo Levi committed suicide years later after several bouts with severe depression.  In a similar way, we treat Elie Wiesel.  Not as a grief stricken man who has suffered intolerable losses, but rather as someone who has transcended his own agony.  But no one can or ever has.

In a sense, asking someone to deny their own inner reality causes them further rupture.  It was in “Night” that Elie Wiesel was able to summon his most private feelings about what had happened to him and he did so with unforgettable candor.  He wrote about the moment he stopped believing in God saying, “Blessed be God’s name?  Why, but why would I bless him?  Every fiber in me rebelled.  Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves?  Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days?  Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?  How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces?…But now, I no longer pleaded for anything.  I was no longer able to lament.  On the contrary.  I felt very strong.  I was the accuser, God the accused.  My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.”

But Elie Wiesel returned to some sort of shaky truce with God and religious study and began to filter his memories through a religious narrative of faith and forgiveness.  He became the public Elie Wiesel, the one who is afraid to offend us, who wants to offer solace and ask for little in return.  The one who often seems awkward; sometimes disingenuous; a man cut off from his most primal feelings.  A man who presents a “self” to the world that becomes indistinguishable from his own inner self.

It is this Elie Wisel that comes to the forefront in “Open Heart” (Alfred A. Knopf, $20), his new short memoir about his recent open-heart surgery.  There is a void in his personal narratives, an absent presence that unsettles the reader.  The book begins in June of 2011 after he has returned from Jerusalem where he has spent some time with friends.  He discovers he needs a quadruple bypass and attempts to reveal to us his thoughts upon entering the surgical chamber.    He thinks warmly about his wife, his beloved son, his most cherished grandchildren and his many close friends.  He worries about his students.  Unexpectedly, he sees startling images of his dead mother and father and baby sister, which have become unusually vivid.  He recalls certain memories of his grown son as a little boy and how he felt overcome, even then, with a desire to protect him.  He writes movingly “Mornings, when he left for nursery school, Marion and I would walk him to the yellow school bus.  As I watched the vehicle draw away, my heart beat faster.  I see him still, his little hand motioning to us. And deep inside me I prayed to God to protect him.” 

As the memoir progresses Wiesel confesses he fears he has fallen short.  He asks, “Have I performed my duty as a survivor?  Have I transmitted all I was able to?  Too much, perhaps?…Did I commit a sin by saying too much, while fully knowing that no person who did not experience the proximity of death there can ever understand what we, the survivors, were subjected to from morning till night, under a silent sky?”  Still bewildered by God’s silence, he asks politely, “What shall I say to God?  That I was also counting on his help?  Shall I have the nerve to reproach Him for his incomprehensible silence while Satan was winning his victories?  While my father, Shlomo son of Eliezer and Nissel, lay dying on his cot?’’  Wiesel survives his heart surgery and a year after reports feeling strained and tired but still consumed by his relentless study of the ancient and immortal texts where he believes the answers lay hidden to his pleading questions.

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.