"I would lie to you if I said that I knew. … I don't know."
I'm willing to hazard a guess. In its stripped-down prose and unflinching, nearly journalistic chronicle of the torments that Wiesel and his father underwent together — until his father succumbed in Buchenwald in 1945 — Wiesel captured what every great writer reaches for: the unvarnished truth.
That truth about the Holocaust was so potent, however, that even Wiesel couldn't examine it for fully a decade after the war, and the world wouldn't accept it for many years later. That truth about the Holocaust was so potent that, as a child growing up in Skokie, I couldn't bear to face it, to ask my parents about it. For nearly the first 50 years of my life, I avoided books and films about the Holocaust, avoided even saying the word. It was too fraught, too tied up with the mostly unspoken tragedy on which my family was built. Not until my father had died, in 1991, and my mother had slipped into delusions of her nightmarish past, in 2001, could I start to face the truth of what had happened to them when they were young and uninjured.
When I did, I learned about my mother's long and lonely flight for her life, about my father's years in many camps, culminating in Buchenwald, where he nearly died, and where Wiesel, too, spent the final, anguished months of the Holocaust.
"Night" told me, with unsparing clarity, how the physical and psychic pain of my father's death march to Buchenwald felt. How the deprivations and depravities of Buchenwald changed Wiesel and, therefore, how it changed my father, as well.
I never really knew until I read "Night." But I couldn't bear to look at the book's cover, let alone read it, until now, at this late date. Its truth was too powerful for me before and remains almost too overwhelming for me now.
When I looked in Wiesel's face in New York and saw the sorrow it held, the pain and humanity in his eyes, I saw my father's face. Only now, more than two decades after my father's death, was I able to ask some of the questions I needed to ask him, by asking Wiesel.
But Wiesel, whose writings on the Holocaust have taken so many of us inside of it, won't be here forever. And not every child of survivors will be able to listen to his voice up close and hear in his Yiddish inflections the long-vanished world that he and my sorely missed father represent.
What will happen when there are no more Elie Wiesels, no more survivors, to sit before us, face to face, telling us what happened? What will happen when their thoughts are just black ink on a white page or pixels on a video monitor?
"Look — you are here, and I am here, and we discuss very serious matters," answered Wiesel, as our long conversation wound to a close.
"We believe that we are witnesses.
"Your mother is a witness. So am I. Therefore our task is a privileged one. No one has our authority to speak on certain issues. No one.
"But to listen to a witness is to become one," added Wiesel. "So there are many now who listen to us, and who read our books and are familiar with our statements.
"Therefore, I am not worried."
So long as Wiesel's words and the memory of my father linger in my memory, I am not either.
Howard Reich is the Tribune's arts critic and author of "Prisoner of Her Past," a book and PBS documentary film about his mother's unspoken Holocaust childhood.
Winner of the 2012 Tribune Literary Prize
Elie Wiesel will receive the 2012 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize Sunday at 10 a.m. in Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. The Literary Prize honors a writer for a lifetime of literary achievement. It's a tradition the Tribune started a decade ago; since then, we've honored many writers, including Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Margaret Atwood, E. L. Doctorow, David McCullough and Joyce Carol Oates. Today's program will be at 10 a.m. in Symphony Center. Visit chicagohumanities.org.