Elie Wiesel's story endures, empowers

Always a writer, Holocaust survivor knows his life's work is examining faith, humanity

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Eli Wiesel

A bronze bust of Elie Wiesel at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune / October 21, 2012)

NEW YORK — A slender, silver-haired gentleman steps onto a nearly bare stage, the instantaneous applause continuing long after he reaches the spare wooden table awaiting him.

For a moment, amid the din, he studies the audience — young and old, some in business suits, others in jeans and sneakers — then sits down and promptly begins to deliver his essay on the prophet Ezekiel.

Elie Wiesel has been giving these talks at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for 45 years, long before he won the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1986), long before his book "Night" had become a landmark in Holocaust literature, long before he had begun to change the world through the searing yet lyric power of his prose. His life's work has won him many accolades, including the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, which he will receive Nov. 11 at Symphony Center during the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Though every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama has sought his counsel, though world leaders have courted him and repudiated him, though international humanitarian crises have inspired him to catch the next plane into the next war zone, Wiesel always returns to the wooden table at the 92nd Street Y to deliver his reflections on the Bible, the Talmud and, of course, life itself. As far back as 1970, he promised himself that his writings would move on to subjects other than the Holocaust — which he survived in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps — but, inevitably, he returns to the theme, as he does on this night.

"We lived in death," says Wiesel, 84, weaving his Holocaust past into his thoughts on Ezekiel. Then he wonders aloud whether the prophet foreshadowed the tragedy that destroyed most of Wiesel's family and millions more. Or perhaps what someone said to Wiesel in the camps is correct, so he quotes him: "I think that he — Ezekiel — was there with us."

In essence, Wiesel is wrestling with faith in the face of genocide. How one holds on to it when there are so many reasons to doubt. How Wiesel clings to it ever more firmly, despite all that has happened — or perhaps because of what has happened.

A 22-year-old man in the audience, who will be heading to Navy Officer Candidate School this October week, takes note of Wiesel's ongoing struggles. Though the fellow has read many of Wiesel's books and knows well the author's motifs, he feels he needs to be in Wiesel's presence before shipping out.

"My generation is the last one to know Holocaust survivors," says Jonathan Panter, who graduated magnum cum laude from Cornell in May. "I know that my (future) kids will never hear Elie Wiesel. It's important for me to do what I can to hear these stories, so that I can pass them on."

Though he may not know it, young Panter has just helped Wiesel fulfill one of his primary missions in life since the end of the war: nurturing memory.

Searching for meaning

T

he day before Wiesel's talk at the 92nd Street Y, he's seated in his Manhattan office, contemplating his oft-combative relationship with God. The deep creases in Wiesel's face and the wide-open gaze of his large, expressive eyes indicate a man who has seen more darkness and felt more sorrow than most of us ever will.

Shortly after his liberation from Buchenwald, on April 11, 1945, Wiesel — by then 16 years old and twice an orphan — found himself transported to France with other child survivors and noticed immediately what was happening to them.

"Most of us actually became very religious — as much as before, if not more so," he says, speaking in a soft, warm baritone.

"Why?" he asks himself, before a visitor has a chance to. "Maybe because we were trying to prove that we are stronger than history. That Hitler wanted to deprive us. And (we thought): 'Go to hell. We shall continue believing in God, the God of Israel.'"

And yet in his writings Wiesel struggles openly with the meaning of that belief.

"I will never cease to rebel against those who committed or permitted Auschwitz, including God," he writes in a volume of memoirs, "All Rivers Run to the Sea." "The questions I once asked myself about God's silence remain open. If they have an answer, I do not know it. More than that, I refuse to know it. But I maintain that the death of 6 million human beings poses a question to which no answer will ever be forthcoming."

Even so, says Wiesel today, he must believe.

"You can struggle outside or inside — I prefer to do it inside faith," he says. "If it's outside, it's finished: 'Goodbye God.' Finished, right? And there is no problem anymore. And problem is part of my existence, of my consciousness and of my life."

This questing, questioning approach to life derives directly from Wiesel's religious training in Sighet, Transylvania, (now Romania), in what he affectionately calls a "shtetl" (a small Jewish village). There, like his friends in the 1930s and early '40s, Wiesel immersed himself in his studies of the Bible, the Talmud and — against the wishes of his elders — the mysticism of the Kabbalah, a fascination that echoes through his fiction and nonfiction.

"I was taken by the mystery of the beginning (of existence), which one is not supposed to study, not before 30, according to Maimonides, or 40," says Wiesel.

"And I'm still very much involved in searching the mystical truth, the mystical beauty of truth."

To underscore the origins of his search, Wiesel walks over to his desk, unlocks a drawer and delicately pulls from it a tablet of yellowed paper the size of his palm. Its handwritten Hebrew text, penned by him before the war, contains his earliest ideas on mysticism and points to the other obsession of his youth and of all the decades that have followed: writing.

A sister of his found the item when she returned to Sighet after the war to see who in the family had survived, and the document attests to Wiesel's early impulses to put thoughts to paper.

"Of all (my) writings, this is one that gives me palpitations," he says, drawing a deep, long breath. "Can you imagine this survived? I always wrote. At 13 I wrote this. … For me, writing was a part of my life. I remember they acquired Hebrew typewriters for the Jewish community center (in Sighet). … And I would go there occasionally just to type with my two fingers, to see if I could write."

After his mother and little sister, Tzipora, were executed upon arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 1944, and after his father died a slow and brutal death in Buchenwald, in 1945, Wiesel did not believe there was any further reason for him to live.

"I shall not describe my life during that period," he writes toward the end of "Night." "It no longer mattered. Since my father's death, nothing mattered to me anymore."

Yet Wiesel's will to live clearly overcame his desolation, and when he began to recuperate, one of his first impulses was to ask his caretakers in France to allow him pen and paper.

The initial words he put down, however, did not describe the horrors he had just survived. Instead, he wrote this: "After the war, by the grace of God, blessed be His name, here I am in France. Far away. Alone. This morning I put on my own tefillin (a Jewish prayer item) for the first time in a long while."

Wiesel promised himself not to write about his Holocaust experience for 10 years. For a man whose testimony not only on the Holocaust but on genocide around the world has inspired great reverence, his long silence may surprise some.

Why didn't he write sooner?

"I was worried," he says. "I was worried that I will not find the right words. I was worried of using the wrong words, even worse. I still am not sure whether I found the words. I am not sure.

"But at least I said, 'I will wait 10 years.' You know, 10 in Jewish ritual is a special number. Ten years. So I waited. … I kept my word."

In this regard, Wiesel was like most survivors, and in fact, like the American soldiers who liberated them. Silence, at least at first, was their means of survival against the horrors they experienced and witnessed. They needed to push the past further into the distance.

Wiesel toiled as a journalist — first in Paris, then in New York — and finally wrote the story that mattered most: his own. Yet he might never have done so, he says, were it not for the French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.

While interviewing the great man in 1955, Wiesel at first breathed not a word about his past, as was his custom.

"We spoke at that time; I remember, it was about Israel, anti-Semitism, the usual questions," recalls Wiesel. "And at one point he simply said: 'You know, the worst what I have seen in my life, I saw the trains, with the children.'"

By this, Mauriac referred to the cattle cars that took families, including Wiesel's, to the camps.

"And I said … 'I was one of them,'" remembers Wiesel. "And he began weeping like a child. … And he wept and wept and wept and wept. And I said, 'I was there in the camps, but I never speak about it.'

"And then when he wept, he said, 'You should.'"

With the 10-year anniversary at hand, Wiesel began writing while on a voyage to Brazil. Alone at sea, he allowed his memories out.

After reworking the manuscript from the original Yiddish, Wiesel sent Mauriac the first French copy, and Mauriac began contacting publishers on Wiesel's behalf, one after another rejecting the manuscript. The small publishing house that finally bought the French translation of the book — for approximately $100, Wiesel remembers — had the additional gift of a foreword from Mauriac.

"I maintain therefore that this personal record, coming as it does after so many others and describing an abomination such as we might have thought no longer had any secrets for us, is different, distinct and unique nevertheless," wrote Mauriac.

The book sold a few thousand copies in its first five years, says Wiesel, the world uninterested in Wiesel's unflinching contemplations of what happened. Perhaps his depiction was too harrowing for the world to accept at first.

"He takes you up to the doors of the Holocaust — and then he takes you inside," says Irving Abrahamson, who spent a decade preparing the three-volume set "Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel." "It's a short book that contains a whole world — a whole world that existed once and that was destroyed."

Wiesel wrote the text in Yiddish because it's "my homeland," he says. "I was born in Yiddish. You can describe Jewish suffering in Yiddish better than in any other language. Suffering or humor. It's either laughing or tears, in Yiddish."

While "Night" languished on bookstore shelves, Wiesel continued writing, prolifically. Novels, essays, plays, speeches, diaries — an avalanche of words, all written first in French, the language in which he was schooled after the war, the language that he says "adopted me."

At the same time, he restlessly toured the globe, giving lectures contemplating the world we live in but steeped in the lessons of the Talmud. All the while, he struggled against the specter of the Holocaust, wondering, he says, if he could hold on to his mental equilibrium.

"I wasn't so sure I would," he says. "I was afraid of that, maybe, and I was taken by that: insanity. That's why in every novel of mine there is always a madman. Look, to tell you that I know the answer, I don't. Logically, normally, I should have given in to despair or to insanity or something, anyway, or to total disbelief."

But Wiesel concluded, he says, "that we are stronger than we think. I think a French philosopher or a French poet said it: 'Actually I am so weak that any pebble can kill me. But as long as I breathe — as long as I breathe! — I'm immortal.'"

Fighting for justice

W

iesel was among the first to champion persecuted Soviet Jews, following a trip to the Soviet Union in 1965, writing and advocating on their behalf and, in effect, ultimately helping to liberate them. He similarly has fought for Nicaraguan Miskito Indians, South African victims of apartheid and others terrorized because of their identities.

In 1969 he married Marion Erster Rose and they had a son in 1972, the year Wiesel left journalism to become a professor at City College of New York (and later at Boston University, a position he still holds). His wife emerged as a translator of his works into English, while his copious writing, constant traveling and uninterrupted advocating for the powerless won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

"His aim is not to gain the world's sympathy for the victims or the survivors," then-Nobel chairman Egil Aarvik said in presenting him the honor. "His aim is to awaken our conscience. Our indifference to evil makes us partners in the crime."

The moment Wiesel was to receive the Nobel in Oslo, however, he was stricken, he says.

"I remember something very strange," he says. "During the ceremony, when I came, the whole world is watching. And all of a sudden, I had a feeling I was seeing my father. … I couldn't speak. Long, long endless minutes passed. I couldn't speak. …

"His eyes never leave me — and my little sister's (eyes) — they don't leave me. And all that fused into the Nobel: 'What am I doing here? So many of my peers, of my family, are not there, and I am there? What am I doing there?'"

The Nobel made Wiesel a global leader, a man of already considerable moral authority accorded the kind of platform few receive. He was a prominent figure in galvanizing support to build the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1993; he took a delegation to prison camps in Sarajevo during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, in hopes of drawing the kind of global attention to crimes against humanity that might have stopped the crimes of the Holocaust; he has convened conferences of fellow Nobel laureates from Haifa to Hiroshima to discuss themes such as "The Anatomy of Hate" and "The Future of Hope."

His work echoes widely.

"He tells the truth with a capital 'T,' which is something many people would like to forget or even deny," says Sister Marci Hermesdorf, an assistant professor of English at Dominican University in River Forest. "Dominicans proclaim the truth. Elie Wiesel proclaims the truth in the face, sometimes, of denial and resistance. For that, he's what I would call a Dominican — even though he's not Catholic."

After all he has lived through, how does Wiesel feel about the fate of the world we live in?

"Probably pessimistic," he says. "A few years ago I was invited to address the General Assembly (of the United Nations). I called my lecture, 'Will the World Ever Learn?' And I gave the answer: No, because it hasn't learned. Otherwise, how was one to explain Rwanda and Cambodia? That is what makes me so pessimistic."

Yet Wiesel cannot end his thought on that note.

"But it's an active pessimism: not to give up," he hastens to add. "Because of it, you must do more, you must work harder, rather than say, 'Since it hasn't helped, forget it.'"

So Wiesel's work continues. He hopes still "to educate more students and to really try to save the world from itself, to the extent of my abilities."

The power of words

A

s Wiesel winds up his lecture at the 92nd Street Y, it's clear that these intimate talks stand as another part of his campaign, another way to teach.

When he's done, he stands up, bows slightly and waves gently to his audience before disappearing offstage.

Afterward, the audience streams into the lobby, where a bust of him — years in the making — was unveiled earlier in the evening. Young people swarm around it, snapping pictures of themselves and one another in front of it with their smartphones.

"I had the misconception that he'd only be appreciated by older people," says Sol Adler, executive director of the 92nd Street Y. "But the fact is that younger people are in awe of him. He's touching something very central to them.

"Many of them will say: 'It's amazing what he went through in his life, and that he's such a good spirit.' … These high school students are sort of aching to learn from him."

As everyone heads out, something Wiesel said the day before echoes in memory. Several years ago, when there was a move afoot to draft Wiesel as president of Israel, he was determined not to be considered for the post.

Asked by a journalist at an Israeli news conference why he wouldn't accept the highest honor the country could give him, he remembers giving this answer:

"I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, why do people come to me? For one reason alone: I have nothing except words — but they are mine.

"'The moment I become president, they no longer are.'"

Elie Wiesel's words still resonate around the world. And they are still his.

Elie Wiesel receives the 2012 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize and is interviewed by the Tribune's Howard Reich at 10 a.m. Nov. 11, at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

In Printers Row Journal
Howard Reich, a son of Holocaust survivors, writes about the difficulty of facing this subject and draws insights from Elie Wiesel. The piece appears in the Nov. 11 issue of Printers Row Journal and online at chicagotribune.com/printersrow.

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