New York — In the preface to his lates novel, Elie Wiesel retells the story of the Just Man who tried to save Sodom from destruction. Ignoring his warnings, mocking him with silence, inhabitants shielded themselves with indifference. But still he persisted. Taking pity on him, a child asks, "Why do you go on?" "I'll tell you why," the teacher replies. "In the beginning, I thought I could change man. Today, I know I cannot. If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me."
Of all Wiesel's parables, those literary prisms through which he refracts his question, none comes closer in selfportrait and purpose than this one. Like the Just Man, Wiesel is burdened by the survivor's dark legacy: the need to bear witness. to tell the tale that cannot -- but must -- be told: the Nazi Holocaust, an event which he survived as an adolescent and which he's spent his adult life recounting. If in book after book he's chronicled man's inhumanity to man -- the killer's capacity for hatred, the spectator's for indifference -- he's also borne witness to the very dignity they threaten. Like the Just Man, he refuses to be contaminated by despair. Rather, by witnessing he affirms life even if it means recounting all that conspires to reduce it.
For Wiesel, nothing threatens and dimishes man more than silence. It is the theme and matrix of his work. Every book, every lecture is a study of men's silences -- guilty silence, redemptive silence. silence as God's presence; as His absence. In one novel, silence is even a character. To understand why silence haunts his life and work, one must willingly confront the event that spawned it: the world's silence over the Holocaust. A world, Wiesel points out, that from 1942 on knew but did not act.
With every book he writes, Wiesel triumphs over that silence, speaking for those who history denied a voice. In keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust, he asks us to honor its victims; to break the silence that afflicts its survivors. Moreover, he asks us to shatter the silence that has grown since then -- recent silence over atrocity in Cambodia, massacre in Biafra, human rights violation in Latin America.
While, by the very magnitude of its horrors, the Holocaust denies comparison to anything, for Wiesel it serves as a dark measurement against which all subsequent history is gauged. Each of his books bristles with Santayana's observation that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." In his warnings, Elie Wiesel, the survivor of two death camps, hopes to prevent us from such lethal redundancies.In his ceaseless witnessing, past and present, he has come to symbolize not only the Holocaust survivor, but also, for many, the living conscience of a world of which Auschwitz wasn't the end but the beginning.
In a recent interview in his New York home, Wiesel talked about the shift in emphasis that has attended his work since the 1971 publication of "One Generation After," his final collection of Holocaust essays. Since then, he's stopped writing directly about "the war" (the term he now uses), a decision stemming from his desire to preserve the "sacred dimension" of his subject and prevent its trivialization by others. Instead he's turned to the broader themes that now characterize his work: biblical studies; Hasidic tales; human rights violations, specifically, the plight of Soviet Jewry, the subject of his lates book.The subject that, in turn, sparks our discussion of the recent intensification of anti-Semitic incidents here and abroad; the thickening of silence over human rights; the menace of nuclear confrontation, a possibility he says "obsesses" him.
A man of elaborate courtesy, Wiesel graciously gestures you into his study, a small book-line room overlooking Central Park. Nesting in a canvas chair, careful not to topple the bboks that rise in Talmudic columns near his feet, he fixes his listener with a look of focused intensity. One stares back into that face whose sharply defined features lead Francois Mauriac, Wiesel's earliest supporter, to describe him as having "the look of Lazarus." A face that is a kind of silence in itself. A wound with an eye.
The day we spoke, Wiesel was busy with last-minute preparations for the White House ceremony during which April 28 and 29 would be officially declared "Days of Remembrace" for the victims of the Holocaust. In two days' time, he would fly to Washington to officiate as chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, the 34-member panel established in 1978 to propose a permanent monument to the 11 million people, 6 million of whom were Jewish, who perished in Nazi camps. The panel has recommended that a national museum be created, dedicated to the research and documentation of the Holocaust and European life before and after the war. While commemorating those who risked their lives sheltering victims from Nazi persecution, the center will also document those in power, notably the Allied heads of government who knew but did no act in time (a subject fully treated in Walter Laqueur's recent book, "The Terrible Secret").
On a conference call to Washington, he switches, often in mid-sentence, from English to Hebrew. He's discussing the address he will soon give. His theme: "For the first time in history, being became a crime. We must tell the tale." And two days later, in an emotionally charged ceremony, he did. A visibly moved President Reagan, responding to Wiesel's call to "turn history into a moral endeavor," issued his strongest statement yet on the need to champion and safeguard human rights. A few hours later, however, the White House would qualify the President's words, blunting their impact.
None of this will surprise Mr. Wiesel. As we speak, his conversation is already pocked with doubt over the effect his speech will have. Yet like the Just Man, he will speak even though he knows many will not listen. But many do. And it is always an experience to listen to him. A man who, in conversation, is by turns curious, self-aware, ironic, gentle, always sincere. Often his stories are laced with mild-mockery as, for example, when describing how his students at Boston University petitioned that he teach his own books, a practice he has rigorously avoided. Yielding just once, he devoted one semester to his fiction, another to his nonfiction.
"I don't think they knew how many books there were," he smiles ruefully. One is sure they did. Just as they knew that, in class, Wiesel would repeatedly force them back on their own questions. so, too, in interviews are questions answered with parables; often with other questions. for Wiesel, "the essence of man is to be a question.I only have questions," he says in a voice so quiet it seems to be shuffling away.
"For me," he says, "writing isn't an occupation, but a duty. I write as much to understand as to be understood. What obsesses me is how to transmit experience." No one could fault him on that score. The author of 18 books -- seven novels, two plays, and nine nonfiction works -- he produces a prolific stream of essays while averaging a book a year. An indefatigable lecturer, crisscrossing the globe, he draws large crowds. His annual lecture at New york's 92nd Street YM-YWHA, for example, is sold out months in advance. In turn , his Monday seminar at Boston University, where since 1976 he's been the Andrew H. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, is always filled to capacity. There, students of all reli iouerary issues. It's these students, emblematic of a generation willing to question, in whom Wiesel places most hope for the future.
And it's in the person of Elie Wiesel that many have placed their hope, as evidenced by the honorary doctorates and humanitarian awards that crowd his study walls. In him, many see "the spirit of authenticity, of authority," of the Jewish experience. A man whose work grapples with the issue of Jewish identity before and after the Holocaust. "For me," he says, "to be a Jew today means telling the story of that change." Regarded as a "spiritual archivist," he resolutely details the historic cycle of Judaic themes: the guilt and burden of survival, the need to testify, the duty to celebrate and forge continuity of tradition.
In his literature of survival, Wiesel has sparked a wide contemporary audience that transcends background.His legacy, in a sense, is his ability to summon the universal lesson out of the deeply partisan problem. In the most profound sense, he is a teacher, a thinker turned activist by an urgent moral passion. And at the center of all his work one discovers the poet, the poet of silence and survival.A writer whose stories of flight and exile, interrogatory and incantory in style, are grounded in a stubborn affirmation of life. If, together, his books constitute a 20th-century Book of Exodus -- studies in election and exile -- they also constitute a modern Book of Psalms, a celebration of a tradition that has survived 3,500 years of opposition.
Nowhere is this continuity more celebrated than in Wiesel's latest novel, "The Testament." The book was sparked by an incident during a visit he made to the Soviet Union in 1965, when he stood outside Moscow's Central Synagogue watching Russian Jews celebrating Yom Kippur with song. "People," he says, "who will wait an entire year just to celebrate one day." Wiesel, one of the first Western writers to call world attention to the plight of Soviet Jews, says he wrote his novel as "a debt toSoviet Jewry. It's what i owe them for speaking out at great danger to themselves. And in doing so, they united the conscience of world Jewry."
In chilling counterpoint to this recent speaking. Wiesel selected a moment of historic silence as his narrative vehicle. On aug. 12, 1952, Stalin ordered scores of Russia's finest Jewish writers shot.No record survives. In his novel, he thus amplifies poet Anna akhmatova's lines from "Requiem," her elegy to an entire generation of Stalin's victims: "No sound. No sound. Yet how many/Innocent lives are ending."
"The Testament," nominated for France's Prix Goncourt, charts the dark political odyssey of Paltiel Kossorver, a minor Jewish poet who embodies his real-life counterparts. Set against a broad historical canvas, the novel, written in the form of Kossover's prison diary, traces his drift from Judaism to the secular millennialism of Marxism. Kossover's "testament," the reaffirmation of his religious identity, is secretly passed to his son, Grisha, by the prison stenographer, Zupanev. The latter, whose life has been profoundly changed by Kossover's, seeks to transform Grisha's in turn. In giving him the historic record, Zupanev also bequeaths Grisha its moral responsibility: to tell the tale that will change others.
As in all Wiesel's work, "The Testament" takes a hard look at whatever thwarts that telling. In kossover's misplaced ambitions -- political ideas of over religious truths, propaganda over poetry -- Wiesel implies that in assuming the world's voice, Kossover lost his own. Yet in the tradition of Dante and Akhmatova, poets of witness, Kossover comes to realize that to silence poetry, one must first sterilize memory. By consciously remembering and speaking, he knows he's preserving more than his dignity, he's preserving its history. So will Zupanev. So will Grisha.
In reading about Paltiel Kossover, one can't help thinking of the dark displacement of Wiesel's own life. Born in Sighet, a tiny Hungarian village nestled in the Carpathian Mountains now part of Romania, he grew up in a devout family. Insulated by timeless tradition, he studied the Talmud by day, the cabala by night. Had events been different, he says, he would "still be poring over the same page of the same book." It was not to be. In the spring of 1944, with the Russians shelling only 30 miles away, the Nazis rounded up Sighet's 15, 000 Jews and jammed them into cattle cars, the first step of the long descent into night. Arriving at Auschwitz, the 15-year-old Wiesel protested to his father, "It's impossible. We live in the 20th century, not the Middle Ages -- people cannot be silent." But, condemned from camp to camp, from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, he discovered that the world could indeed be silent. "Where was man in all this?" he was to ask over and over.
After the Allied liberation, Wiesel refused repatriation to Sighet. (Of his family, only he and two older sisters survived.) Instead, he was sent to France with 400 other orphans. On a French children's-aid scholarship he went to Paris , where he learned French by silently reading Racine to himself. Later, supporting himself as a tutor and translator, he attended the Sorbonne, where from 1947 to 1950 he studied philosophy. In the early '50s, after a trip to Israel, he became a political correspondent for various Israeli-German conference at Wassenaar, he says, "Nobody could have guessed that it concerned me any more than the other delegates."
For Wiesel, the Holocaust had spawned the most harrowing of paradoxes: While proficient, even prolific, as a journalist, he was unable to utter a single word about his past experience. Words only tamed the present. How could be describe the indescribable? Should he even try? Like most survivors, he transformed the silence that stalked him into an oath. For 10 years. It was only after Francois Mauriac, a writer and humanitarian he greatly admired, urged him to write that Wiesel sat down and produced what is still considered the most searing of all such accounts: "Night." In this highly autobiographical work, whose power issues from its restraint and sparse style, Wiesel chronicles how "the child discovers the old man within himself." As critic George Steiner once wrote, the only way "to review" such a book is to recopy it "line by line, pausing at the names . . . until we know the words by heart."
In 1956 he came to the United States, where, since his naturalization in 1965 , he has settled with his family. Yet his true self, he says, "belongs to a world that is not here." It exists only in his books, his "pilgrimages to the past." Written in French and translated by his wife, Marion, Wiesel's books are hallmarked by their unrelenting, spare style, their powerful, aphoristic portraits and dialogue. Noting that all survivors' writing reads "as if it were written by one man," Wiesel scrupulously observes a tradition that "wrote not with words, but against them." Wiesel's "voice," then, is that of all survivors: one that burns and whispers in every sentence.
Acknowledging the burden of responsibility to the past, he says, "It's always there. I feel their presence always. It's so physical." Here, as in his books, it's not what is said but what isn't that startles -- the echoing ellipsis. "Their presence," for example, conjures the father killed before Wiesel's eyes, the mother from whom he was separated at arrival at Auschwitz. He is haunted by the dark inheritance of his art. As a voice in "One Generation After" says: "Millions of human beings had to die so that youmight become a sculptor, and I, a storyteller."
In writing, Wiesel stresses, the survivor "doesn't create, he re-creates," By re-creating Sighet, repopulating it with its beggars and storytellers, he fulfills his primary duty as a witness.Like Kossover's testament, Wiesel's work transcends the very history that tried to silence him. In the beginning andm in the end was the word.
In an interview with translator Lily Edelman, Wiesel once observed, "For almost 3,000 years the Jewish people have had no army, no political leverage, nothing. The only power we have had is in the word. . . .Jews have never believed in statues, we have never believed in buildings . . . . Jewish building is in words, we build words."
"Our memory does not begin with out own," writes Wiesel."A Jew never says 'I' but 'we.' The source of our strength is history, not geography." In the Jew, he sees the symbol of today's Everyman: practiced in survival, skilled in alliances. The world's survival, he says, is actively dependent on fulfilling "a dynamic collectivem morality." In the spirit of Camus, his modern philophic mentor, wiesel says, "Our fate is never ours alone. If I have one moral message , it's this: Save one person. If you've saved one person, you've saved the world."
Wiesel has acted upon his own words many times. In June 1979, for example, he traveled to Cambodia with the International Rescue Committee to aid those fleeing the Pol Pot regime. "Worse than fear, torture, even humiliation," he said at the time, "is the feeling of abandonment, that you don't count. I've come here because no one came when I was there." Outraged at the sight of the "boat people" set "adrift with no country willing to welcome them ashore," Wiesel could only think of the 1939 incident when 936 German Jews, sailing on the St. Louis, were repelled from Cuban shores and sent bak to Nazi Germany, where they perished.
"You must choosem to act. a witness you choose to be. A spectator, you are," he notes. Today, though, Wiesel sees "a world drifting rather than choosing." He cites a society dulled by overfamiliarized images of horror; a media generation "without imagination, without memory." In a society that, for Wiesel, came close to suicide at Auschwitz, "ideology is still more important than truth , machines more indispensable than men. . . .
"The world hasn't learned. It didn't want to listen. Is that the world's fault? Is it mine? I don't know. We spoke out at costs nobody can imagine. If survivors had the strength to write those words, we must have the strength to read them." If we silently drift toward a Holocaust universe, ignoring the testimony of our latest witnesses -- the Sakharovs and Timermans -- Wiesel says our real literary prophets won't be Babel or Camus, but Hitler in "Mein Kampf."
Weisel describes his dilemma as "a messenger unable to deliver his message." As a writer, he says, "words fall into place, but, in truth, I know where they lead. To where there are no words." What, then, does he think of the current fictionalization of the Holocaust? Novels like Styron's "Sophie's Choice" and Leslie Epstein's "King of the Jews"? while attributing sincere motives to such authors, he nonetheless offers: "It's an either-or situation. Either it's novel or it's about Auschwitz. A novel about Auschwitz is either not a novel, or not about Auschwitz."
While saddened by "a certain lack of sacredness" that pervades many contemporary Jewish novels, Wiesel is, interestingly, an admirer of postwar German novelists Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass. Both are writers who, like Wiesel, have been mentioned for a Nobel Prize and have attempted to come to grips with the Holocaust. "They understood that to gain self-respect as men, they first had to earn the respect of their fathers' victims," Wiesel says. On Grass: "His entire body of work is one long outcry of a shattered conscience crushed by the burdens imposed by others."
In America, "where more books are published than "written,' "Wiesel notes that the public routinely accepts 10 books written on one murder case, but finds more than two books on the Holocaust "repetitive." He gives one example of why he continues to publish. In August 1979, he visited Kiev with members of the President's Commission on the Holocaust. Laying a wreath at the monument at Babi Yar, where in 1941 the Nazis machine-gunned 100,000 citizens, including 70, 000 Jews, over a 10-day period, he noticed there was no mention of them among the Soviet dead. Once again, they were invisible to history.
Wiesel turns to the subject of renewed anti-Semitism here and abroad. Alarmed by its sharp rise, he cites incidents that range from the desecration of synagogues in New York to the splattering of swastikas on the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles. Fearful that acts such as the terrorist bombing of a Paris synagogue will escalate in an increasingly conservative climate, he foresees greater hostility toward Israel. As we talk, he notes the rising tensions in the Mideast."We now know that a war against the Jews would no longer be limited to Jews alone. It is bound to end in world destruction. It's this that obsesses me most."
For a man who in his youth witnesses both the Holocaust and the resurrection of Israel, Wiesel is constantly poised between fear and hope. While, like the Just Man, he no longer believes he can reshape the world, he hopes that he might safeguard his message by transmitting it to a younger generation. "Each generation is richer in its tradition," he says, "and more burdened in its task. I am deeply moved by my students, by their desire to understand what they know will shock and pain them.All I can do is give them certain tools. I can try to help them formulate the right questions. We all have to raise ourselves to God's questions."
To his students, as to his readers, he urges: "not that you live, but that you choose to live. It is the most important commandment. that means a refusal to capitulate to despair, a refusal to see life through the enemy's eyes. You must try to transform suffering into a vehicle of compassion and meaning. Above all, of meaning." That, in turn, means "asserting the right of spirituality in a world that denies it; it means singing louder and louder. Laughter is man's defiance, it is also his victory."
And in his own life? "I know that each minute I live is grace, a gift, and I must do something with it. There's a feeling of gratitude for small things. I want to be more capable of gratitude in my life. All I want to do now is celebrate."
Listening to Elie Wiesel, one thinks, strangely, of Keats, the poet of negative capability, and his comment, "A man's life of any worth is a continual allegory . . . his works are the comments on it." It's particularly fitting for Wiesel. But here, as always, another writer's words are painfully misplaced. If you're reading these words, let them lead you to those of Elie Wiesel. All other words silence the four that quietly sing in his work and person:
I remember. I am.