Elie Wiesel returns to Germany with questions, not answers

Elie Wiesel returned to Germany this year, for the first time since American soldiers freed him from the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945. As was to be expected, perhaps, there was no mention of reconciliation in his conversations with some hundred German interlocutors.

``Reconciliation is a strong word,'' he commented in an interview at the close of two days of interchange at the Protestant Academy in Loccum. There was, however, abundant respect in the intensive consideration of common questions and doubts, and of the searing remembrance of the Holocaust that Wiesel has made his lifework.

``I'm impressed with the German young people I have met,'' Wiesel commented. Before returning to Germany for the first time on official business early this year -- and to Loccum for his first public session in Germany at the end of May -- ``I did not know what to expect. I came with apprehensions, fears, curiosity, not only about what they [the Germans] would feel but [also] about what I would feel.''

He left ``impressed with the quest I find among the young Germans. All I know is those I have met. But those I have met impressed me deeply.''

Wiesel realized that his self-selected group of rapt listeners at the Academy hardly represented the full spectrum of German opinion today about the German murder of 6 million Jews 45 years ago.

Present in the audience were Lutheran theologians who lead groups in Christian-Jewish dialogue; an official in a Protestant organization that sends German volunteers to work in Israel, Auschwitz, and American slums; a member of the Israeli-West German schoolbook commission to revise classroom texts about Jewish-German history; a Protestant survivor of a Nazi concentration camp; one young man who had broken with his father years before over the latter's unrepented membership in the dread Nazi SS. Probably everyone present had read at least the first of Wiesel's two dozen books, the autobiographical ``Night'' that carried a Rumanian Jewish boy through the nightmare of extermination camps and guilty solitary survival at the age of 16. Others had read ``The Fifth Son,'' with its counsel even against hate that would seem justified. Most heard excerpts from Wiesel's contemplation of the prophet Jeremiah in an evening reading in the monastery in Loccum.

The questions poured out to this novelist, Boston University professor, head of the American Holocaust committee, and, above all, moral authority as witness.

How could Wiesel still believe in God after the Holocaust? What is wrong with our faith, that a Holocaust can happen? Don't today's Germans owe it to the perished Jews to prevent inhumanity to the Turkish workers in their midst? What is it that makes so many West Germans admire Israeli soldiers but (asked a West German Army captain) so reject their own? Must Germans (the captain again) forever be international outcasts because of atrocities their grandfathers committed? Wiesel didn't have answers, he said repeatedly, only shared questions. He told of the young Talmudic scholar whose doubts so blocked him from prayer that he implored his teacher for help. The rabbi told of his own incapacitating doubts as a youth and of his importunate query to his own great teacher. The doubts remained, he concluded, but somehow the young man -- both young men -- found that despite them they could go on with their religious study.

Wiesel could imagine no one unchanged by the Holocaust. He could imagine a believer who turned atheist -- or an atheist who turned believer -- from the agony of the Holocaust. But he could not conceive of anyone who observed that experience, yet remained the same.

``Am I hopeful? Yes. Am I desperate? Yes. And the two go together. I'm hopeful because I'm desperate. . . . What I try to do is turn the despair around into an act of hope. We do have despair and reason to despair, but if we are wise we shall find enough insight in that despair, in that darkness, enough reason to find hope.''

In Germany to Germans, Wiesel continued: ``I say without anger, something should bother all of us. Why were there people in your nation that wanted to eradicate Jewish memory? Why? How come? I can't understand how it could happen. I swear to you, I don't know, I don't understand. All the explanations are wrong. . . . I think I know one thing. No one has the monopoly over truth.''

Later he said, ``I don't believe in collective denunciations. There are no such things. Only the killers were guilty. Children of killers are not guilty. I see in every child only a child.''

Bystanders who avert their eyes as others suffer are guilty, however. ``The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. The opposite of hope is not despair, but indifference. The opposite of sanity is not insanity, but indifference.''

And are today's Germans indifferent?

``I feel you are ready to learn with us,'' Wiesel told his audience at the end. ``I have hope for the young people in Germany. I can't tell you how much hope I have. It would be extraordinary if the young people in Germany could show us how to survive and how to survive in the name of dignity and humanity.''

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