Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Elie Wiesel—The Nagging Conscience Passes

Elie Wiesel-- The Prophet in old age.

Elie Wiesel passed on Saturday in his adopted home of New York.  The world paused to mourn a figure who came to be identified as one of the secular saints of the modern era with the likes of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Thích Nhất Hạnh—men who embodied a spiritual quest for justice and a challenge for all peoples to rise above the squalor and horror of hate.   It was something he did not aspire to and which he resisted as long as he could.  
He came to it as Jonah came to Nineveh in the Biblical story after defying the call, being swallowed by the Big Fish and then spit out.  There, the story goes, Jonah at the command of God, called on the wicked people to repent their sins, and repent they did from the mighty king to the lowliest slave.  When God spared the city rather than destroy it as promised.  Noah was angry and sulked until the Lord God rebuked him:
Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night;
and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?
— Gospel of Matthew 12:39-41, New International Version
The sins of the modern world were greater by far than Nineveh’s dalliances with false idols or rowdy impiety.  What had transpired across Europe in the forests and plains of Poland and the Ukraine, and in the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald was so horrible it could not be named.  That is until the reluctant prophet gave it one—The Holocaust—transforming the word that once meant a burnt offering that was completely consumed.  Yet he regretted that this stark image of whole peoples consumed by the rages of bigotry was not big enough accurately express the catastrophe.  But like Jonah this agnostic who had cursed God, came to understand the transformative power of the event if it could be face fearlessly.   He offered then the hope that Never Again! extended to all oppressed and threatened peoples and that even the hearts of the would-be mass murderers could be turned by the recognition of common humanity.
Eliezer “Elie” Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928 in the city of Sighet in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania.  The city was and lay near Transylvania, the Hungarian region where, ironically, the world’s only Unitarian King, John Sigmund, had first proclaimed religious liberty.  His family was in the Jewish minority and was principally Yiddish speaking, but could also converse in Hungarian, Romanian, and the German of the former Autro-Hungarian rulers.

Elie Wiesel as a boy with his sister Beatrice and Hilda and mother Sarah.
His father, Shlomo, was a sophisticated and cosmopolitan humanist who encouraged his son to read widely in great literature and learn Hebrew, the nearly dead language being promoted by the Zionist movement.  His mother, Sarah Feig, came from a prominent Hassidic family, and encouraged her son to study the Torah and be an observant Jew.  He had three sisters, Beatrice, Hilda, and Tzipora.
Wiesel at 15 just before his deportation.
In 1940 under a forced German and Italian arbitration Transylvania and bordering areas were transferred to Hungary, which had a pro-fascist government.  This was a great relief to the Hungarian speaking majority in the region, but opened the door to repression by the anti-Semitic Hungarian government.  Things were bad, but got much worse when the Nazis occupied Hungary in March of 1944.
First the family was rounded up the rest of Jewish population Sighet, estimated at about 2,500 people and put in one of two ghettos established in the town.  They did not stay there long.  In May local Hungarian authorities under orders of the Germans began shipping Jews from the ghettos to Auschwitz.  Fifteen year old Elie there became simply A-7713, the identification number tattooed on his arm to expedite efficient Nazi record keeping.  Years later he recalled in a powerful poem:   

Never Shall I Forget

Never shall I forget that night,
the first night in the camp
which has turned my life into one long night,
seven times cursed and seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the little faces of the children
whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke
beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames
which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence
which deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

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.


—Elie Wiesel

The boy was quickly separated from his mother and sister Tzipora, who are presumed to have died at there. Elie and his father were sent to the attached work camp Buna-Werke.  He remained with his father for a year as slave laborers meant to be worked to death.  As the war wound down and Allied troops began to close in they were shuffled between three concentration camps.  On January 29, 1945, just as intended Wiesel’s father died from dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion, and his body was sent to the crematorium few weeks after the two were marched to Buchenwald. 

Wiesel has been identified as the prisoner in the second row of bunks next to the post by the elbow of the standing man in this famous U.S. Army photograph taken at Buchenwald four days after liberation, but there is some dispute about it.
On April 11, 1949 the camp was liberated by the American Third Army.  Wiesel would always remember that day and held a special place in his heart for the soldiers who saved him and the nation they fought for:
from The America I Love
That day I encountered the first American soldiers
in the Buchenwald concentration camp.
I remember them well.

Bewildered, disbelieving, they walked around the place,
hell on earth,
where our destiny had been played out.

They looked at us,
just liberated,
and did not know what to do or say.

Survivors snatched from the dark throes of death,
we were empty of all hope—
too weak, too emaciated to hug them or even speak to them.

Like lost children, the American soldiers wept and wept with rage and sadness.
And we received their tears as if they were heartrending offerings
from a wounded and generous humanity.

—Elie Wiesel
Traumatized, dazed, and physically wrecked, Wiesel instantly became a stateless person, as the United Nations delicately phrased it or in the lingo of the American liberators and folks back home a DP—a Displaced Person.  There were literally millions of folks like that across Europe.  Nobody knew what to do with them.  The defeated nations were too impoverished themselves to support them and the refugees feared for their lives to be put in the bosom of their oppressors.  The Allies were, for the most part, uneager to accept them, especially those pesky Jews.  Only the guilt felt by the public over the horror images of the death camps as they finally became known, pressured reluctant politicians to accept carefully limited numbers. Very many remained in displaced persons camps for years before they found a place to go.
Wiesel was shuffled between camps until he was finally sent to a French orphanage.  There he was reunited with his older sisters Beatrice and Hilda who he had believed had gone to their deaths with his mother and an estimated 90% of the pre-war Jewish population of Sighet.
In the orphanage he quickly learned French and impressed authorities with his quick mind.  They helped to get him a hard-to-come-by permit to live in Paris and study literature and psychology at the Sorbonne.  He attended lectures by theologian Martin Buber and Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and darling of the French left intelligentsia and was moved and influenced by both.
When the Irgun bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July of 1946 as part of the campaign end the British mandate in Palestine and establish a Jewish state, Wiesel, like other bright young Jews still lingering in ruined Europe, wanted to join them in their fight.  His attempts to contact recruiters working in Europe somehow failed, something that distressed him at the time but which he eventually recognized as good fortune. 
The Irgun attack and subsequent actions by it and the Stern Gang introduced what would come to be called terrorism into the complex politics of the old Holy Land.  It would be a reminder that your heroic freedom fighters were somebody else’s terrorists.  
Wiesel as a young man in Paris.

  By 1948 Wiesel, by then working as a journalist in Paris, contributed articles to pro-Irgun publications but never formally joined the movement.  It was the beginning of a long and complex relationship with the militant Zionists who would give birth to the State of Israel and the new nation that promised safe haven to the world’s Jews.   His commitment to that State was never absolute—despite regularly working for Israeli news papers and occasionally residing in Jerusalem as a correspondent for French publications, Wiesel did not choose to immigrate there himself or accept Israeli citizenship.  However he has generally defended Israel and especially its “special claim” on an undivided Jerusalem and in recent years as the stark brutality if the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank became known to the world, he was slow to criticize the government or speak up in defense of the Palestinian people, as he had spoken up for so many other peoples under brutal occupation.  He did not offer a blanket endorsement of the occupations, but his rebukes on how they were conducted were muted and mild.
Similarly he had a soft spot for the United States and tended to think that, on the whole, the nation that liberated him was an actor for good in the world.  He could be, and was, more critical of the U.S. than of Israel, vocally denouncing segregation and Jim Crow laws and supporting the Civil Rights Movement and opposing nuclear armament and the War in Vietnam.  When President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq in Wiesel wrote in defense of the action in a controversial letter published in the Los Angeles Times:
Under normal circumstances, I might have joined those peace marchers who, here and abroad, staged public demonstrations against an invasion of Iraq. After all, I have seen enough of the brutality, the ugliness, of war to oppose it heart and soul. Isn't war forever cruel, the ultimate form of violence? It inevitably generates not only loss of innocence but endless sorrow and mourning. How could one not reject it as an option?
And yet, this time I support President Bush’s policy of intervention to eradicate international terrorism, which, most civilized nations agree, is the greatest threat facing us today…
… Under normal circumstances, I might have joined those peace marchers who, here and abroad, staged public demonstrations against an invasion of Iraq. After all, I have seen enough of the brutality, the ugliness, of war to oppose it heart and soul. Isn't war forever cruel, the ultimate form of violence? It inevitably generates not only loss of innocence but endless sorrow and mourning. How could one not reject it as an option?
And yet, this time I support President Bush’s policy of intervention to eradicate international terrorism, which, most civilized nations agree, is the greatest threat facing us today.

He took at face value all of Bushes later discredited claims of justification for the war finding it impossible to believe that a nation he so admired could be so duplicitous.  In the letter he cited Western military intervention in the Balkans as an example of how a quick military response may have saved genocidal attacks on the Bosnian and Croats by Serb nationalists and the massacres of the Tutsi in Rwanda as the price on non-intervention.  And, of course, he had always felt that early action by Britain, France, and other Western powers could have prevented the Holocaust. Given that context his support of the war may have been understandable, but it was not, in retrospect, any less wrongheaded.
Similarly more recently he as accepted at face value Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claims of an imminent threat from supposed Iranian nuclear arms coming close to endorsing a first strike against Tehran.

For these reason the pro-Palestinian press and many western leftist supporters were quick to dismiss Wiesel as a hypocrite and denounce his entire body of work as a sham.  They belong to the purist school that believes that the tainted fruit of one branch means the whole tree must be burned. 
But human beings, including Elie Wiesel are much more complex than that and the good that they do cannot so easily be dismissed.

But we have gotten ahead of ourselves.  Back around 1950 the young journalist Elie Wiesel was set on building a new life and career.  He was determined to put his personal past behind him and to bury the memories that were too painful to bear.  He never spoke or wrote about his experiences and shunned those who did. That long period of denial lasted for years.

The former French Resistance fighter, novelist, activist, devout Catholic, and winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Literature François Mauriac became a friend and mentor of the young writer. He recognized him as a tortured soul.  He persuaded the reluctant and resistant Wiesel to finally write about his experience.  When Elie began to set his pen to paper, Mauriac described his as “Lazarus rising from the dead.”

Once he got started, Wiesel wrote furiously in his native Yiddish.  His 900 page manuscript was too bulky to publish and the language too obscure.  An abridged edition was published in far away Argentina as Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent.)  Knowing that the audience who most needed to hear the story would never read it in Yiddish, Wiesel re-wrote a much briefer version in French which was published as La Nuit in 1955.

French first editions of La Nuit.

The book was not an immediate hit.  It sold very modestly to the general public which was uncomfortable with the unpleasant facts of the Holocaust.   The publication of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl in French and English translations in 1952 was just beginning to open up wider public interest.  Wiesel’s book first attracted the attention of academics and historians. As interest in the Holocaust grew, the author began to be interviewed by the international press.  Sales of the book slowly grew along with a word of mouth reputation.  The English version, Night was published in 1960.  By the end of the decade it was widely read and admired and became an acknowledged classic often assigned as young adult literature in American high school and college classes.
Wiesel found himself unexpectedly famous and called on frequently as speaker on the Holocaust, which he had come to embody. At first he was a reluctant activist, but grew to respect the moral authority with which his experience endowed him.  Increasingly, he would not be reluctant to exercise that authority.
The year La Nuit was published in Paris, Wiesel moved from France to New York City as the correspondent of the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot.  He also freelanced articles to French publications and as he rapidly became more fluent in English, in the U.S.  Over the next decades he would write more than 40 books, mostly non-fiction Holocaust books, but also novels, poetry, and memoirs. 
Among the most interesting of these books—and a play he wrote based on it—was The Trial of God inspired by a trial staged by angry Auschwitz  prisoners charging God with being oppressive to the Jewish people.
Most of his earliest activism came, naturally, in promoting Holocaust awareness.  His friend Simon Wiesenthal was the face of Jewish thirst for justice and the search for war criminals.  As the Wobbly bard and philosopher Utah Philips would say in a different context years later. “The Earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.”  Wiesenthal and his followers felt the same way about Nazis and were willing to track down the names and knock on the doors so that no one would escape justice.  Wiesel was fine with that, but he presented a different tact—exposing the horrors of the Holocaust to prevent its reoccurrence.  He urged recognition of common humanity across racial, ethnic, religious, political, and tribal boundaries.  That experience quickly moved him beyond being a one note drone.  For the sake of simple consistency as well as humanity itself he had to speak out wherever the danger laid, no matter the perpetrator.
Over the years he would speak out forthrightly against Soviet attacks on Eastern European freedom movements and in support of Soviet Jews who wished to immigrate to Israel.  But he also decried the Vietnam war and scolded Israel for it slowness to rescue and accept the Black Jews of Ethiopia.  He spoke out against apartheid in South Africa and called for justice for Argentina’s Desaparecidos.  He defended potential victims of genocide including Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia, Rwandan Tutsis, Nicaragua’s Miskito Indians, the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, and the Tamils in Sri Lanka, among others.  He also blasted Turkey for its refusal to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the first highly organized state-sanctioned mass murder of a minority population in modern history.

Wiesel speaking after receiving his Nobel Prize.
It was this kind of activism that earned Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, which only spurred greater action.  In his speech Wiesel said:
… do I have the right to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honor on their behalf?... I do not. That would be presumptuous. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions…
… I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.
Wiesel was also awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 1984 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1992; Grand Cross of the French Legion of Honor, in 2000; and an Honorary Knighthood from the United Kingdom in 2006.  On his first return to his home since childhood, he was awarded the Star of Romania and the Grand Cross of Hungary in 2009 but returned the Hungarian Medal three years later when an increasingly right wing nationalist government began a systematic campaign of denial of Hungary’s role in the Holocaust.
His other awards and honorary degrees are way too numerous to list here.
In 1969 Wiesel married Marion Erster Rose, an Austrian immigrant, in New York.  She translated many of his books originally written in French into English.  They had one son, Shlomo Elisha Wiesel, named for his father.  The family lived principally in Greenwich, Connecticut.
In addition to his writing and frequent speaking, Wiesel held several teaching appointments at American universities.
Elie Wiesel is survived by his wife and son and by millions of the oppressed whose effective voice he was. 

from Have You Learned the Most Important Lesson of All?
Should you encounter temporary disappointments, I pray:
Do not make someone else pay the price for your difficulties and pain.

Do not see in someone else a scapegoat for your difficulties.
Only a fanatic does that—not you, for you have learned to reject fanaticism.

You know that fanaticism leads to hatred,
and hatred is both destructive and self-destructive.

I speak to you as a teacher and a student—
one is both, always.

I also speak to you as a witness.
I speak to you, for I do not want my past to become your future.

—Elie Wiesel

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