Elie Wiesel

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Itzhak Ivry (review date 17 December 1960)

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SOURCE: Ivry, Itzhak. “Memory of Torment.” Saturday Review 43, no. 51 (17 December 1960): 23-4.

[In the following review of Night, Ivry provides a brief plot synopsis and asserts that the memoir is a powerful and important recounting of life in the Nazi concentration camps. He also reviews Herbert Agar's book The Saving Remnant.]

Children's shoes are a touching sight when piled up in a concentration camp storehouse, and a child's reaction to the twentieth century's greatest calamity is especially poignant. This may be why The Diary of Anne Frank emerged as one of the most unforgettable documents of the period. A child's response to life in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) concentration camp is presented by Elie Wiesel in Night, which was written originally in French and has been ably translated into English by Stella Rodway. It contains a moving foreword by François Mauriac, who was stunned when—after remarking, “How often have I thought of the children in the concentration camps”—he heard Mr. Wiesel reply quietly, “I was one of them.”

Mr. Wiesel was but a child, a deeply religious one, in the Hungarian Jewish community of Sighet when the maelstrom of war and destruction threw him into Oswiecim. And he was naïve—but not more naïve than most of the members of his community. “The Germans were already in the town,” he recalls. “The Fascists were already in power. The verdict had already been announced. Yet the Jews of Sighet continued to smile. …”

For, despite all their sufferings in the past, the Jews of Europe believed in God and humanity. To the very last moment they could not comprehend that Hitler's command could be true and, if true, could be carried out to the letter in the face of a silent world. They, who had endured so many persecutions in the past, could not conceive the full force of the devil in power. In this sense they were no less naïve than their children, with whom they marched to their doom.

Stories by the victims of the Nazis are often strikingly similar because of the fact that the genocide was, by its very essence, such a uniform and orderly operation, marked by typical qualities of German discipline: robot-like obedience and quiet efficiency in carrying out the cruelest of orders.

And yet there is a unique quality in the experiences of a child in hell. Mr. Wiesel writes in short, staccato sentences, in the simplest words, and in a relentless, self-denying effort to tell the whole truth as he saw and felt it, moment by moment, day by day. One of his most shattering reactions was loss of his belief in God. Another was his shame over wanting to continue living at any cost. At any cost? It seems that the child, through all his tribulations, was never ready to purchase his life at the cost of sacrificing his father's. The Yeshiva boy who felt robbed of God's mercy never gave up the commandment “Honor Thy Father.” A single betrayal of a stumbling father by a son during the hunger march in the last stage of the war shocked Elie Wiesel more than Nazi cruelty or the Hungarian Fascists' callousness towards their Jewish neighbors in Sighet. His book deserves to be read by everyone who is deeply concerned about the future of civilization.

Those Jews who, like Elie Wiesel, survived, owe much to one of the greatest relief endeavors in human history—that of the Joint Distribution Committee, whose activities have been financed since 1939 through the United Jewish Appeal. Herbert Agar, an excellent scholar and essayist (his “The People's Choice”...

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won a Pulitzer Prize), was moved to write about the organization after a recent trip to Israel. What he heard from the remnants of European Jewry gathered there so impressed him that he decided to study at closer range the past activities of the American J.D.C. The result is an absorbing work written with the thoroughness of a scholar and the lively approach of a sensitive observer and humanist. None of the horrors of World War II are specifically depicted in his book, yetThe Saving Remnant conveys the drama and the stark tragedy of a world in convulsion and of an ancient people and culture destroyed by a maniacal, twentieth-century tyrant.

Mr. Agar's book is essentially nonpolitical—to the same degree that the J.D.C. is a nonpolitical relief organization. When it was founded in 1914 the largely assimilated Jews believed that “anti-Semitism was an aberration which could be overcome, on their part by wisdom and patriotism, and on the part of the non-Jewish American public by good will.” In its beginning, therefore, the Joint Distribution Committee was non-Zionist, and its contributors were, for the most part, highly suspicious of “Jewish nationalism” or Zionist activities. However, whether the founders of the J.D.C. intended it or not, the organization's relief work became deeply entwined with the tragic events in Europe, Palestine, and elsewhere after World War I and reached a peak during and after the Nazis.

The story of the J.D.C. as told by Herbert Agar is one of life-saving activities, of feeding the hungry and curing the ill. It is also a story of self-sacrifice and total devotion by many J.D.C. representatives, leading European and Palestinian Jews, and Jewish Agency men. There are absorbing chapters in Mr. Agar's account of the June-July, 1944, negotiations of Joel Brand with Adolf Eichmann concerning the “trade” of the lives of a million Hungarian Jews for a quantity of funds and supplies—negotiations which ended in heartbreaking disappointment. There are breathtaking pages in Mr. Agar's account of the Brichah, the organized (and, from the British point of view, “illegal”) migration to Palestine of Eastern European survivors in the years immediately after the Second World War.

The role of American Jewish philanthropy in the momentous events leading to the revival of Jewish statehood has never before been as well stated or as vividly described as in The Saving Remnant.


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Elie Wiesel 1928-

(Full name Eliezer Wiesel) Romanian-born American novelist, memoirist, journalist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, children's writer, and playwright.

The following entry presents an overview of Wiesel's career through 2001. See also Elie Wiesel Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 5, 11.

A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel is one of the most acclaimed authors of Holocaust literature and an eloquent spokesperson for contemporary Judaism. Throughout his career he has delineated the horror of the concentration camps and has explored the apparent indifference of God, ultimately reaffirming his life and faith. His lyrical, impressionistic novels, written primarily in French, frequently juxtapose past and present to examine the effect of the Holocaust on Jews, both as individuals and as a people. Although Wiesel focuses strongly on the experience of Jews, his work also speaks for all persecuted people, and, by extension, for humanity itself.

Biographical Information

Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania, a well-known center of Jewish cultural life in the region of Transylvania. His parents encouraged his interest in the Hebrew and Yiddish languages as well as in the teachings of the Hasidic masters and the traditions of the Torah, Talmud, and Kabbala. In the spring of 1944, Nazi forces deported Wiesel, then fifteen years old, and his family to the Birkenau concentration camp. Separated from his mother and sisters upon arrival, he was then sent with his father to Auschwitz. When Soviet troops neared the concentration camp in 1945, the inmates were forced to march to Buchenwald; Wiesel's father died of dysentery and starvation soon thereafter. Upon being liberated in April of that year, Wiesel learned that his mother and younger sister had perished in the gas chambers. His older sisters, however, had survived, and years later they and Wiesel were reunited. Following his release, Wiesel hoped to leave for the then-British state of Palestine, but immigration restrictions proved insurmountable, and he was placed on a train with other Jewish orphans bound for Belgium. The train was rerouted to France at the insistence of General Charles de Gaulle. Living at first in Normandy, Wiesel eventually moved to Paris, where he studied literature at the Sorbonne. He later became a journalist for the French-Jewish periodical Arche and was sent to cover the formation of the Israeli state. In 1952 he left Arche to work for Yediot Ahronot, a newspaper in Tel Aviv, Israel. Two years later he was assigned to interview Françcois Mauriac, the well-known Roman Catholic novelist and Nobel Laureate, who persuaded Wiesel to break his vow of silence concerning his concentration camp experience and to bear witness for those who had died. The resulting eight-hundred-page memoir, Un di velt hot geshvign (1956), was transformed over two years into the much shorter text of La Nuit (Night), which has become regarded as one of the most powerful works in Holocaust literature. In 1956 Wiesel traveled to New York City as Yediot Ahronot's United Nations correspondent and was struck by a taxicab. Compelled by his long convalescence to remain in the United States, Wiesel applied for and received U.S. citizenship when his French travel papers expired. In 1969 he married Marion Erster Rose, a fellow Holocaust survivor who is now the primary English translator of his works. With the success of his writings, Wiesel has emerged as an important moral voice on issues concerning religion, human rights, and the Middle East. He now serves as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University.

Major Works

A powerful, moving account of his experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Night expresses Wiesel's feelings of guilt as a Holocaust survivor and his anger at God for having allowed people to be destroyed despite their faithfulness to God's law. These emotions also inform Wiesel's two subsequent novels, L'aube (1961; Dawn) and Le jour (1961; The Accident), which revolve around survivors who must find some meaning in the Holocaust before they can regain their faith in God and humanity. In Dawn a young survivor becomes a terrorist in the war to free Palestine from British rule yet discovers that he has forsaken his religious ideals in the process. The Accident is about an Israeli foreign correspondent who, after being struck by a taxicab, gradually realizes that his subconscious guilt as a concentration camp survivor has led him to seek his own death. Wiesel's later novels elaborate on the theme of self-discovery and examine such moral issues as the choice between death and life, indifference and responsibility, and suffering and love. In La ville de la chance (1962; The Town beyond the Wall) a Holocaust survivor returns to Hungary to confront his former Nazi guard, only to discover that revenge and madness are merely denials of his own moral responsibility. The Jewish survivor of Les portes de la foret (1964; The Gates of the Forest) changes his perception of his relationship to the world when he realizes that he has imprisoned himself in his pain and memories. The protagonist ultimately accepts that suffering must lead to an embracement of others, not a rejection of life. Le cinquième fils (1983; The Fifth Son) examines the impact of the Holocaust on the children of survivors, telling the story of a young Jewish American who travels to Europe with plans to kill his father's persecutor. He relents in his pursuit, however, when he is faced with the man's incomprehension of his deeds. Wiesel further explores the themes of guilt, innocence, and history in Le juges (1999; The Judges) a novel set in the confines of a Connecticut house. Five airline passengers are stranded in the house during a snowstorm when their flight from New York to Tel Aviv is grounded. The passengers are at the mercy of a sadistic host who calls himself the Judge, and who decrees that one of them will die by morning. As the night progresses the passengers examine their lives and ambitions, as Wiesel ponders philosophical questions about the nature of good and evil. Wiesel's mythopoeic plays Zalmen; ou la folie de Dieu (1966; Zalmen, or the Madness of God) and Le procès de Shamgorod (1979; The Trial of God) address the notion of a cruel and unjust God and weigh human responsibility for God's judgments.

In the mid-1960s Wiesel extended his commitment to speak for the persecuted by focusing his nonfiction works on contemporary Jewish victims of oppression. Le Juifs du silence (1966; The Jews of Silence) is both an eyewitness report of Jewish persecution in the former Soviet Union and a plea for global Jewish solidarity. Wiesel further examines the political and moral effects of apathy upon today's oppressed people in the stories and autobiographical fragments collected in Le chant des morts (1966; Legends of Our Time) and Entre deux soleils (1970; One Generation after). Although Wiesel states in One Generation after that the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust, he also emphasizes the need for the modern Jew to impose a meaning on these events and draw comfort from their nameless, faceless pain. This idea is again explored in Un juif aujourd'hui (1977; A Jew Today), a collection of autobiographical sketches, essays, and dialogues in which Wiesel expresses shame for the past and a cautious hope for the future. Wiesel has additionally addressed the affirmative aspects of Judaism through his humanistic examinations of Jewish biblical figures and legends. Beginning with Celebration hassidique: Portraits et legendes (1972; Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters), Wiesel expounds on his belief that Hasidism's modern relevance lies in its example of how to live joyfully in an incomprehensible and absurd universe. Ensuing collections of Wiesel's biblical portraits, based on lectures delivered at various international universities, include Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy (1978), Five Biblical Portraits (1981), and Contre la mélancholie (1982; Somewhere a Master). In recent years, he has published two additional volumes of memoirs—Tous les fleuves vont a la mer (1994; All Rivers Run to the Sea) and And the Sea Is Never Full 1969- (1999).

Critical Reception

Wiesel's works have often generated disagreement among critics. While some reviewers have considered his plots and characters to be mere vehicles for his moral, religious, and philosophical concerns, many have praised his sensitive insight into human behavior, his candor, and his ability to objectively examine the Holocaust and its effect upon modern Jewish thought. Commentators have explored Wiesel's dominant thematic concerns, such as man's inhumanity to man, the importance of memory and faith, and the effect of the Holocaust on the survivors as well as the next generation of Jews. Reviewers have frequently lauded Wiesel's examinations of such complex themes as life, death, guilt, and forgiveness in his fiction. Commenting on The Judges, Jonathan Rosen has stated “Evil is a real presence in Mr. Wiesel's novel, though he seems most interested in the response to evil, and it is this that gives his book its metaphysical tension.” Although some reviewers have faulted Wiesel's novels—including The Judges—for their inattention to minor details, numerous critics have praised the underlying questions and larger themes present in Wiesel's writing. Though his detractors have argued that much of his writing—especially works such as Dawn—are more polemic than artistic, a majority of commentators have agreed that Wiesel's fiction has a riveting emotional core. Praise for his memoir Night has been almost universal from both critics and readers alike. Despite this range of critical opinion, Wiesel's fiction has been widely regarded as among the most passionate and powerful of all Holocaust writing.

Richard M. Elman (review date 15 September 1964)

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SOURCE: Elman, Richard M. “Parable of Faith.” New Republic 151, no. 10 (15 September 1964): 32, 34.

[In the following review, Elman praises The Town beyond the Wall, calling it “an existential parable of faith.”]

Evil is human; weakness is human; indifference is not.

—Elie Wiesel

Even in his literary expression the Jew remains cosmopolitan. Despite the creation of a Jewish state, the reinvigoration of the Hebrew language, writers continue to express themselves as Jews in the various tongues of the Diaspora; and their imaginations seem forever fixed on a Europe that is in ashes. In a recent Commentary, Isaac Bashevis Singer explained: “Demons symbolize the world for me, and by that I mean human beings and human behavior.” Surely it is not accidental that this surviving Yiddish master should now be achieving world-wide recognition (including a West German nomination for the Prix Formentor) at a time when the conscience of the western world is again trying to confront the premeditated murder of six million Jews. Nor is it merely coincidence that Elie Wiesel who survived the death camps—a Yiddish speaking Jew from Hungary—should address us during this period with the French idiom of Camus. If some Christians are still testing the relevance of their faith against the proven apathies of their spiritual leaders, the Jew remains faithless and skeptical. These, indeed, are his only faiths. They are what liberate him finally from being parochial. Through his symbolic eminence as victim, the Jew has become the object of Christian atonement.

Thus, to François Mauriac, a French Catholic liberal, the work of Elie Wiesel is an act of conscience. Mauriac may try to locate the Christian myth of sacrifice in the actualities of what he chooses to believe was a Jewish martyrdom, but that effort is finally tentative, acknowledged to be inadequate precisely because the Jews did not set themselves up as martyrs but were absurdly victimized. Just as the theme of guilt—corporate, collective, or personal guilt—still scars the literary imaginations of writers in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia as well as England and France, the United States and Russia, as well as Israel, so, too, is the Final Solution still able to mock Jewish and Christian pretensions, encouraging agnosticism, reducing genuine concerns to mere crocodile tears, but managing, nevertheless, to overshadow all other human experience of the past three decades. One Jewish writer has even argued: “We live with one Auschwitz—the Auschwitz of the Jews—behind us, and another, the universal nuclear Auschwitz ahead of us. This is a time when the Jew has something to say.

But, if some writers think they can reenact the prophetic vision for the rest of humankind, others may be only seeking a personal expiation with the insight that God has also perished. To such writers the ancient injunction that “out of Jerusalem will go forth the Law” may seem like naïve, provincial sloganeering. Often, their effort is just to dispel madness, to find a community among men. Still vulnerable and ambivalent, men like Wiesel (and his friend and contemporary André Schwarz Bart) continue to search for a meaning to their ordeal even as they manage to confront mere ash heaps. Their works are flawed; they may fail more often than they succeed in communicating their visions. Yet these are heroic failures, affirmations of some meaning to their search and of context. These men, who have stood in the shadows of the crematoria, cannot deliberately obliterate memory.

In Transylvania, where Elie Wiesel was born and lived until he was 15, there was no war before 1944. Some Jews endured in an ancient sacramental style of life. Others were very much the creatures of the Enlightenment. It was so even in Wiesel's family: His father was a rationalistic humanist; his mother a follower of the Hassidic wonder rabbis. Both these groups were slaughtered without distinction beginning in 1944. Night was Wiesel's earliest published account of the deportation experience; it was a direct statement about that historic event. Night was a memoire, factual, argumentative charged with a nausea for the realities it depicted; it was a document as well as a work of literature—journalism which emerged, coincidentally, as a work of art. In a later unsuccessful work, The Accident, set in New York and Western Europe, such candor was shown to be a lingering misery for the protagonist—surreal and self-destructive. Now, in The Town beyond The Wall, Wiesel finds both emblem and aesthetic in the Dostoevskyan vision of insanity. He writes of a survivor, Michael, returning to Szerencsévaros, his former home in Eastern Europe, only to be imprisoned by a new set of authorities, as well as by his fantasies, visions, old loyalties. Michael finally chooses the martyrdom which was denied to the six million.

As an existential parable of faith, The Town beyond The Wall is purposely set outside the conventions of realistic fiction. It is a narrative of the mind, moving backwards and forwards in time, a continuous passage through memory and delirium in which some of the characters are hardly more than convenient mouthpieces for Wiesel's ideals and passions while others—occasioned by remorse, nostalgia, or both—are dramatic figures even when they are also representations of the inhumanity to which the Michael figure was exposed. As in all dreams, the motivations are somewhat mechanistic. Michael has been haunted by a face in a window which glanced out at his deportation and did nothing. Made to withstand a maddening torture so as to protect his friend (and only protector), Michael recalls this “bland face, banal, bored: No passion ruffled it. … It was gazing out, reflecting no pity, no pleasure, no shock, not even anger or interest.” It is like the face of his inquisitors—neutral and indifferent—yet it has lured him back to Szerencsévaros, and will eventually betray him. Their confrontation is mutually hallucinatory. “You won't humiliate me … You won't do it. … I will not let myself be humiliated,” the man announces, invoking his former neutrality, accusing Michael of cowardice, and finally recalling how it was like a game—“a game which I didn't understand: a game you had all begun playing, you on one side, the Germans and the police on the other. I had nothing to do with it.” Because Michael is still contemptuous, the man must finally humiliate himself by turning Michael over to the police.

What do we learn from such an encounter? Why does Wiesel constantly lay bare this one painful experience? In this and in other scenes, his theme would seem to be that human loyalties are the ultimate form of religious commitment. With a visionary lucidity, often in the language of prayer, he manages to make this concern historic. Taken into custody, Michael (who has no last name) recalls Szerencsévaros “like a mantle of purple silk” when the sabbath “came to drape the city at sundown.” Michael's onrushing madness is a kind of deliverance from his tormentors. It is even depicted as beatitude: He “had come to the end of his strength. Before him the night was receding, as on a mountain before dawn.” To protect his friend, Michael must sacrifice his own sanity. But this, after all, is an extreme situation; Szerencsévaros—the city of luck—is now a graveyard. If The Town beyond The Wall manages to seem God-obsessed, that is clearly not Wiesel's intention. He shows us religious experience in order to dramatize a personal code of honor and behavior. In his captivity, Michael instructs his fellow prisoner not to oppose humanity. “A man is only a man when he is among men,” Michael explains. “It's harder to remain human than to leap beyond humanity. Accept that difficulty. Tell yourself that even God admits His weakness before the image He has created.”

Coming from one who rode the stifling box cars of Europe to the barracks at Auschwitz, the poignancy of such a plea should be obvious. If, elsewhere in his works, Wiesel has vowed: “Never shall I forget,” he now seems to recognize the personal peril of such a position, and that one cannot keep faith with the dead except by acts. When Wiesel through Michael urges “sighs heavy with existence” his speech has an unearthly persuasiveness, a sense of consequence, and a humanism that is not to be fobbed off with programs for human perfectibility, although it may continue to struggle and yearn for just that.

Principal Works

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*Un di velt hot geshvign [abridged and translated as La Nuit and Night] (memoirs) 1956

L'aube [Dawn] (novel) 1961

Le jour [The Accident] (novel) 1961

La ville de la chance [The Town beyond the Wall] (novel) 1962

Les portes de la foret [The Gates of the Forest] (novel) 1964

Le juifs du silence [The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry] (nonfiction) 1966

Le chant des mortes [Legends of Our Time] (nonfiction) 1966

Zalman; ou, la folie de Dieu [Zalman; or, the Madness of God] (play) 1966

Le Mendiant de Jerusalem [A Beggar in Jerusalem] (novel) 1968

Entre deux soleils [One Generation after] (nonfiction) 1970

Celebration hassidique: Portraits et legendes [Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters] (legends and parables) 1972

Un juif aujourd'hui [A Jew Today] (nonfiction) 1977

Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy (nonfiction) 1978

Le procès de Shamgorod (tel qu'il se déroula le 25 février 1649) [The Trial of God (as It Was Held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod)] (play) 1979

Five Biblical Portraits (nonfiction) 1981

Le testament d'un poète juif assassiné [The Testament] (nonfiction) 1981

Contre la mélancholie: Célébration hassidique II [Somewhere a Master: Further Hasidic Portraits and Legends] (nonfiction) 1982

Le cinquième fils [The Fifth Son] (nonfiction) 1983

Le crépuscule au loin [Twilight] (nonfiction) 1987

L'Oublie: roman [The Forgotten] (novel) 1989

From the Kingdom of Memory (essays) 1990

Sages and Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends (nonfiction) 1991

Tous les fleuves vont a la mer: memoires [All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs] (memoirs) 1994

Memoire a deux voix [Memoir in Two Voices] [with Francois Mitterand] (memoirs) 1995

Ethics and Memory (essays) 1997

And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969- (memoirs) 1999

Les juges [The Judges] (novel) 1999

King Solomon and His Magic Ring (juvenilia) 1999

After the Darkness: Reflections on the Holocaust (nonfiction) 2002

*Un di velt hot geshvign, originally an 800-page memoir, was abridged into the much shorter La Nuit in 1958, which was later translated into English as Night in 1960.

Walter Laqueur (review date 23 March 1967)

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SOURCE: Laqueur, Walter. “People without a Country.” New York Review of Books 8, no. 5 (23 March 1967): 23-4.

[In the following review, Laqueur compliments The Jews of Silence as a moving account of Soviet Jewry in the mid-1960s.]

It is still widely believed that everything that happens in the Soviet Union is planned according to some overall theoretical blueprint. Reality is more complex; in their internal policies Soviet leaders have been so preoccupied with economic problems that they have hardly been able in recent decades to pause for reflection and re-examination of anything except the most urgent issues. This much, at any rate, they seem to have in common with political leaders in democratic countries.

There is far less deliberation and planning in the non-economic sphere and far more improvisation than is usually thought. Basic ideological tenets exist, but these are often out-of-date and inapplicable in a modern society. In the absence of a clearly thought-out policy, decisions are usually deferred, or, if that is impossible, adopted on a trial-and-error basis. This goes for many cultural and social problems; it also applies to the present status and the future position of non-Russians in the Soviet Union, of which (one often forgets) there are some 100 million. Since Stalin wrote on the national question in 1913 there has not been much authoritative guidance, and Stalin's obiter dicta are no longer authoritative either. Soviet leaders have not been able to make up their minds how much national independence and how much assimilation there ought to be. This, according to some observers, is the reason for the present difficulties of Soviet Jews. Others maintain that the position of the Jews differs from that of all other minorities, and that a more liberal policy in the national question would not necessarily benefit the Jews. There is some truth in this contention, as a comparison between the Jews and Armenians shows. The Armenians, too, have their “diaspora” and their “Israel,” and many of them have relations abroad. Yet they are not suspect in the eyes of the authorities; on the contrary, they are among the most favored minorities. Even their church enjoys a great deal of freedom. It is the misfortune of the Jews that most of them happen to be outside the Soviet Union.

There have been in recent years contradictory reports about Russian Jewry; talk about genocide at one extreme, propaganda about their absolute equality and perfect happiness at the other. Mr. Elie Wiesel, the novelist, went to Russia in the late summer of 1965 in an attempt to find the truth beyond these conflicting accounts and the fog of propaganda. He went without introductions and recommendations, resolved to meet, not rabbis and leaders of communities, but rather the anonymous Jews of Russia who hold no position in society. He found a great deal of discrimination and fear, but he also reports that more Soviet Jewish youths have remained Jewish than one could possibly have expected. The best moment in this little book [The Jews of Silence] is the description of a dance in the Chasidic tradition by some thirty thousand youngsters in the streets of Moscow on Simhat Torah (the last day of the festival of the Tabernacles):

They came in droves, from university and the factories, from school dormitories and the Komsomol club … But once there, they became a single body, voicing a song of praise to the Jewish people and its will to live. And they were singing “David, King of Israel, lives and endures.” Tomorrow they would descend and scatter, disappear in the innermost parts of Moscow, not to be heard from for another year. But they would return and bring more with them. The line will never break; one who has come will always return. … There was a chorus of voices in a series of questions and answers: “Who are we? Jews! What are we? Jews! What shall we remain? Jews!”

Even so, Mr. Wiesel left Russia disheartened and depressed. He believes that the Jews of Russia, despite the hardships and the fears, will withstand the pressure and emerge victorious. But will the Jews abroad ever be worthy of their trust: “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.”

This is a powerful and moving little book, very well translated from the Hebrew. It is based on mystic belief and one hesitates to discuss it in rational terms. It is pointless to criticize Mr. Wiesel for not bringing to his subject the trained mind of the academic sociologist and political scientist. Jewish history, including much of recent history, defies systematic methods; it is likely that a sensitive poet or writer understands this better than those who put their trust in social surveys and quantification.

But Mr. Wiesel after all saw only one aspect of a complex phenomenon. He met the religious and Yiddish-speaking Jews who are a minority among Soviet Jewry. Most Jews in Russia are culturally assimilated, yet, under present conditions, and in the forseeable future, they cannot be so well integrated. The assumption among many Jewish leaders in the West that Soviet Jews will disappear “unless something is done within the next ten years” is largely unfounded. There are more than enough national and social pressures to prevent this. But the positive content of the sense of Jewish identity in Russia will be small—they will know that they hail from a very ancient people and religious community, whose history is one of great suffering. A Jew, Mr. Wiesel says, is a man who feels himself a Jew. And he quotes a woman in Moscow: “I'll tell you why I am a Jew. Because I like to sing.” Others may give more sophisticated explanations, but they will mostly refer to the past: ancestry, Jewish history, the killing of six million Jews. But the holocaust already recedes into the distant past insofar as the younger generation is concerned. What meaning then does Jewishness have for the young physicist in Dubna, or the young engineer in Siberia, and the accountant in some provincial village in the Ukraine? The line may not break, but how much significance will it have in daily life—and will it not gradually lose meaning altogether? Admittedly it is a predicament facing not only Russian Jews.

The main issue is not that certain professions are closed to Soviet Jews and that from time to time newspaper articles are published singling out Jewish villains. The real problem is that the Jews are caught in a vicious circle: those among them who want minority rights—schools, newspapers, and theaters, for instance—cannot get them. They have been arguing that much smaller minorities have been enjoying these rights. But the authorities have refused these demands; what happened under Stalin (they say) is regrettable, but cannot be undone. And the authorities argue that today there is simply no demand for a Jewish culture and a Jewish national life. This has been violently contested; the Volga Germans, after all, exiled by Stalin to Central Asia, did get their schools and literature back in recent years and they now have even TV programs in their native language.

Most Jews, especially the younger ones, would probably not go to synagogue even if there were many more and if there was no risk involved. Nor is their interest in Yiddish culture very deep. Culturally they are fully assimilated to their environment. But their position remains anomalous, for their full integration is impossible: in contrast to America, the Soviet Union is not a melting pot. There is Soviet citizenship, but no Soviet nationality or Soviet language. Everyone except the Jews belongs somewhere; the fact that they speak Russian does not make them Russians. They remain a distinct group, identifiable yet without identity. There is no provision for this in Leninist doctrine or the Soviet Constitution. If the general trend in the Soviet Union were towards national assimilation, one could regard these developments with greater tranquillity: the Jews could then be the first to be denationalized, but others would follow and in a few generations all would be one great harmonious family. But while the Jews are becoming assimilated and are losing their privileges as a minority, there is at present no evidence that the other groups will follow on the road to denationalization. On the contrary, national consciousness has been growing in recent decades among the Russians and the other nationalities. Which means that the Jewish problem will not disappear but may in fact become more acute. A Jew may now have to work harder to make headway professionally, and some key positions may be closed to him. This is annoying, but there are graver injustices in the world. However, there is also the far more sinister prospect that the Jews will continue to be a potential scapegoat in a future Russian winter of discontent.

For many years Jewish leaders have discussed ways and means to induce the Soviet authorities to change their attitude to the Jewish minority, and incidentally, to modify their anti-Israel policy. Jews in Israel cannot possibly hope to influence Soviet policy; there are only two million of them, and many more Arabs. Jewish communities in the West are in a stronger position. Some of their leaders favor friendly persuasion, unofficial contacts, keeping the Jewish issue out of the Cold War.

Michael J. Bandler (review date 21 November 1968)

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SOURCE: Bandler, Michael J. “Why Auschwitz? The Answer: Silence.” Christian Science Monitor (21 November 1968): 9.

[In the following review, Bandler praises Wiesel's courage, insight, and compassion in addressing the Holocaust and its aftermath, particularly in Legends of Our Time.]

In this era of good feelings between Jew and non-Jew—a period of forgiveness, reparations, and recognition of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state—it becomes easy to forget the events of 25 years ago in Central Europe. The memory of six million is sometimes invoked, but with it some doubt and uncertainty often lingers: did six million really go to their deaths, and if so, why did they go without a strong fight?

[In Legends of Our Time] Elie Wiesel, the literary laureate of the holocaust, the sweetest singer of the most bitter and tragic era of our times, has tackled these questions with a force and stylistic drive that leaves the reader stunned, and should lead to a rethinking of each person's private involvement. As a Jew and as a survivor of the concentration camps, he has searched his soul for the explanation of what transpired there and why. Having reached an understanding, if not an explanation, he shares it with his many devotees.

Wiesel's key sections in the book stem from the evidence presented and omitted at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. “The role played in the annihilation program by all humanity—Nazified or otherwise—was brought up only in passing,” he writes. “We never attempted the impossible—we never even exhausted the possible.”

Each person who was spared in the camps, be it for a day, a week or longer, developed a feeling of guilt—first, because he was not chosen for death while others were, and then guilt for living to experience a sense of gladness that he indeed was not chosen. Conscious of this guilt, Wiesel writes, the Jews “came to believe that they were neither worthy nor capable of an act of honor” such as choosing the honorable death of defiance, with knife in hand and hate on their lips.

“To die struggling would have meant a betrayal of those who had gone to their death submissive and silent,” he writes. “The only way was to follow in their footsteps, die their kind of death—only then could the living make their peace with those who had already gone.”

Now, however, the author points out, in the name of objectivity toward the Germans, as well as good will or ecumenism or what have you, the question often arises as to why the Jews marched like cattle to their deaths. But in the face of all the collusion on the part of humanity, the author maintains, the time has come to emulate the silence of the victims. “The dead have earned something other than this posthumous humiliation,” he declares. We dare not dig up the coffins of the victims of the holocaust; we should “be content they do not wake up, that they do not come back to the earth to judge the living.”

Can anyone truly understand the meaning of what happened in the camps? Wiesel posed this question to one of the Israeli judges at the Eichmann trial. The jurist admitted that although he knew the facts, the events and the details on how the tragedy unfolded minute by minute, “this knowledge,” he said, “as if coming from outside, has nothing to do with understanding. There is in all this a portion which will always remain a mystery; a kind of forbidden zone, inaccessible to reason.” In truth, the author emphasizes, “Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of 2,000 years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find a Meaning—with a capital M—in history. What Auschwitz embodied has none. The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing.”

During 1943 and 1944, Wiesel emphasizes, the world ignored the events in Eastern Europe. Listening to short-wave radio reports from London and Moscow, the author's fellow Jews in Transylvania heard no broadcast warning them not to leave with the transports; “not one disclosed the existence, not even the name of Auschwitz.” Ironically, the Russian front was only 30 kilometers from Sighet, his town. But the Jews were kept in the dark by Western insensitivity, or at the least, a lack of concern.

In light of this, one must agree sadly with Wiesel's conclusion that “the victims suffered more, and more profoundly, from the indifference of the onlookers than from the brutality of the executioner. The cruelty of the enemy would have been incapable of breaking the prisoner; it was the silence of those he believed to be his friends—cruelty more cowardly, more subtle—which broke his heart.”

And so, in the face of the silence and lack of indignation during the 1940's on the part of the West, it is incumbent upon the descendants and countrymen of the Roosevelts, the Churchills and the Popes “not to make an effort to understand, but rather to lower our eyes and not understand.” Like the camp victims, we must “learn to be silent,” and not question the actions of those we failed to help.

In other sections, the author describes three traumatic personal journeys—to the Transylvanian village of his youth, to today's “new” Germany, and to the Jewish community in Moscow.

All three are directly related to the key questions of the book. For here we have the Jewish community before the destruction, the land in which the destruction was conceived and executed, and the scene of a possible future holocaust.

His return to Sighet is filled with a sense of emptiness and impotence. “My journey to the source of all events had been merely a journey to nothingness,” he writes. Nothing in the town had really changed; “the house was the same, the street was the same, the world was the same, God was the same. Only the Jews had disappeared.”

Further Reading

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Friedman, Maurice. “Elie Wiesel's Messianism of the Unredeemed.” Judaism 38, no. 151 (summer 1989): 310-19.

Friedman explores the role of Jewish Messianism in Wiesel's work.

Garber, Frederick. “The Art of Elie Wiesel.” Judaism 22, no. 87 (summer 1973): 301-08.

Garber evaluates Wiesel's literary accomplishments.

Goldsmith, Arnold. “Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Judah Lowe, and the Golem of Prague.” In Studies in American Jewish Literature, Number 5: The Varieties of Jewish Experience, edited by Daniel Walden, pp. 15-28. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Goldsmith explores Wiesel's reliance on the Golem myth in his The Golem, The Story of a Legend.

Hall, Barbara. “Weighty Memories.” Christian Science Monitor (19 October 1990): 13.

Hall offers a positive assessment of From the Kingdom of Memory.

Leiter, Robert. “Perhaps You Wonder Why I Called You Here.” New York Times Book Review (25 August 2002): 15.

Leiter faults The Judges for its contrived setting, typecast characters, and stilted dialogue among other shortcomings, but praises the work for its ability to pull readers along to the ending.

Merkin, Daphne. “Witness to the Holocaust.” New York Times Book Review (17 December 1995): 7.

Merkin asserts that there is a sense of ambiguity that lies the core of All Rivers Run to the Sea.

Rosen, Jonathan. “Five Passengers and a Judge with Murder on His Mind.” New York Times (25 October 2002): B29.

Rosen provides a plot synopsis of The Judges, noting that Wiesel is skilled at writing parables and that readers are apt to forgive his “carelessness with mundane details” in a work examining familiar themes of good and evil.

Sherwin, Byron L. “Elie Wiesel and Jewish Theology.” Judaism 18, no. 1 (winter 1969): 39-52.

Sherwin examines aspects of Jewish theology in Wiesel's work.

Additional coverage of Wiesel's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 7; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 40, 65; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 5, 11, 37; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 83; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1987; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vol. 56; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Michael Wood (review date 7 February 1974)

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SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Victims of Survival.” New York Review of Books 21, no. 1 (7 February 1974): 10-12.

[In the following excerpt, Wood offers an unfavorable assessment of The Oath.]

Survival. The defensive myth of a long-persecuted people becomes an oblique apology to those who failed to survive, to those who got “lost.” Singer's woman who loses herself is really terrified of losing her child, since she loses everything else. A mother in Elie Wiesel's The Oath does lose a child in the camps, obeys an order to be separated from him and never sees him again. This the central, poignant moment in the book, the source of its anguish and its questions. “I don't understand,” a boy says to his father. “God's role in the camps—explain it to me.” And again: “You. And Mother. Both of you. How did you do it—how did you survive?”

The survivors by their very survival lose the right to speak directly of the dead, those millions who constitute, as Singer says, “a treasure of individuality that no literature dare try to bring back.” They can't be resurrected, they can only be celebrated in the lives of others, in the resilience of the race. For Wiesel, who is not really a novelist, the issue becomes a problem in moral philosophy, to be explored in a fable. The Jews are the “people of memory,” have always felt that forgetting “constituted a crime against memory as well as against justice: whoever forgets becomes the executioner's accomplice.” In every disaster there is one survivor, one person left to tell the tale: “one storyteller, one survivor, one witness to revive the past and resuscitate the murder, if not the murdered.”

Azriel, the protagonist of The Oath, is just such a survivor, caught symbolically between his father's vocation as town chronicler, the very personification of Jewish history as testimony, and the legacy of his master Moshe, madman and martyr, who, in the days before a senseless, inevitable pogrom erased their town, demanded of his fellow Jews an oath of silence, a dramatic inversion of a whole tradition:

Oh yes, it has been going on for centuries. They kill us and we tell how; they plunder us and we describe how; they humiliate and oppress us, they expel us from society and history, and we say how. They forbid us a place in the sun, the right to laugh and sing or even cry, and we turn it into a story, a legend destined for men of good will. … Since someone would be left to tell of the ordeal, it meant that we had won in advance Since, in the end, someone would be left to describe our death, then death would be defeated; such was our deep, unshakable conviction. And yet now the time has come to put an end to it. Put an end to it once and for all. We have been mankind's memory and heart too long. … Now we shall adopt a new way: silence. … Let us take the only possible decision: we shall testify no more.

Azriel, having kept his oath until his old age, now meets a young man from the other side of the German holocaust (“born after the holocaust, you have inherited the burden but not the mystery”), and in order to save him from suicide, breaks faith and tells the forbidden story. “Memory, insisted my father, everything is in memory. Silence, Moshe corrected him, everything is in silence.” Who was right? That, I take it, is for us to ponder. In any case the question matters more than the answer: Azriel has kept and not kept his oath.

Wiesel writes in French, and while a great deal of his fancy rhetoric clearly loses out in translation (“With no landscape of your own, all landscapes are yours. In your search for time, you conquer space”; “At the end of the word there is silence, at the end of silence there is the gaze”), I'm not sure a work of such intended urgency and seriousness should be fussing with silly rhetoric of this kind at all, whether it comes off in French or not.

As a novel, the book is very weak, full of sentimental character cliché—the Polish sadist, for example, who talks confidentially to his riding-crop, the poor orphan girl whose sadness lends her an ethereal beauty—and of narrative faux pas. A man kicks and beats Moshe the martyr, and we are then told, hardly to our surprise, that this man is a “sadistic brute, anti-Semitic in the extreme.” Azriel keeps assuring us that he will never break his vow and tell his story. Wiesel slyly hints that he will—“And yet, the old man will speak. He doesn't know it now, but. …” The old man may not know it, but we do, and have done since the first page of the book, and such failed authorial fun and games are very distressing.

I wish I could say that in spite of all this The Oath remains a powerful, disturbing work, a poor novel but a significant fable, but what is powerful and disturbing here is Wiesel's subject: what he is after, not what he gets. Wiesel is a delicate and intelligent writer, but the tidy formality of his language keeps on letting him down, causes drastic falsifications of the questions he wants to ask. Everything is in memory, everything is in silence, the world divides into two symmetrical abstractions, a riddle for bookish schoolboys. Everything, as Singer knows, is in the tact and the quality of the memory or the silence. Or to return for an instant to a wrangle of my own which took place in these pages last year: we must not, cannot forget the past, yet there are cheap and extravagant forms of remembering which do us no good at all. Silence, for that matter, can also be eloquent, even voluble.

Samuel H. Joseloff (essay date spring 1974)

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SOURCE: Joseloff, Samuel H. “Link and Promise: The Works of Elie Wiesel.” Southern Humanities Review 8, no. 2 (spring 1974): 163-70.

[In the following essay, Joseloff traces Wiesel's literary development throughout his career.]

For whoever lives through a trial, or takes part in an event that weighs on man's destiny or frees him, is duty-bound to transmit what he has seen, felt and feared. The Jew has always been obsessed by this obligation. He has always known that to live an experience or create a vision, and not transform it into link and promise, is to turn it into a gift to death.

(“To a Young Jew of Today,” One Generation After)

The year is 1944; the place is Sighet, Hungary. The Jews in this town feel secure, for with the good news from the Russian front, it seems that Hitler's barbarians will at last be defeated. Then their illusions are shattered. German and Hungarian police appear in Sighet; and Elie Wiesel, a sensitive, intelligent, spiritual adolescent, is locked in a cattle car with the other Jews of his hometown and taken on a journey to a terrifying kingdom of night. In Auschwitz and Buchenwald this young boy is forced to watch a cart full of babies thrown into a furnace, to see a father and son attack each other like starving animals for a crust of bread, and to stand by helplessly and without tears as his own father slowly dies. At the end of his first book, Night (1958), when he is finally freed from the concentration camp, Elie Wiesel looks into a mirror and sees a corpse, an emaciated body with the haunted eyes of a person alone in a dark world without love, mercy or reason.

What remains after one's life has become an eternal nightmare? What is there to believe in after Auschwitz? Elie Wiesel's works are a search for values in a society that apparently has none, a journey to find his own humanity in an inhuman world. This author's desperate quest is an inspiration for all who suffer or question man's purpose in life.

The obvious temptation after Auschwitz is to strike back, to seek vengeance, to take unscrupulously from a world that has shown no mercy. In his early novels Elie Wiesel explores such a response. The narrator in The Town beyond the Wall (1962) meets a childhood friend who has survived the holocaust and become a smuggler. This man feels that all ideals and principles went up in the smoke and flames of the concentration camps, and a person should therefore grab what he can in any possible manner. In another novel, Dawn (1960), Wiesel has endowed his main character with the power to kill. The setting is Palestine, the struggle to create a homeland for the Jews, and Elisha, a young holocaust survivor, has to execute a British captain in reprisal for the hanging of a Jewish terrorist. In both works the author is giving his protagonists the opportunity to reverse their roles as victims and instead prey upon society. The narrator in Dawn is even granted the ultimate power of life and death, a power reserved for the Kapos and Nazi guards in the concentration camps.

Wiesel, however, rejects this attitude of nihilism, cynicism, or bitter anger. The main character in The Town beyond the Wall cannot become an adept criminal, and Elisha in Dawn feels no pleasure from executing the British captain. Elisha discovers that man does not act alone, but rather as a representative of his family and friends, and that it is not a simple matter to kill another human being, no matter what the justification. As one of the remnant from the holocaust, Elisha acts and speaks on behalf of all his loved ones who perished at the hands of the Nazis. If he commits a murder, he is, in a real sense, making all those martyrs murderers too, since he is their agent on earth, the recorder of their names and deeds. To take a life would be to negate the values of Judaism, to reject the teachings of the rabbis, to destroy the idealistic and spiritual boy he once was. And so after Elisha has fired the shot, he realizes in terror that it is Elisha, the young boy from Sighet, who has really died. As the young man gazes into the night breaking into dawn, he realizes that the fragments of darkness are a reflection of his own distraught inner being. Clearly vengeance and cynicism are not an answer but merely a negation of six thousand years of Jewish history. To become a criminal or a person filled with hate is to complete the work the Nazis began; it is giving the final victory to the forces of night by crushing even the memory of the six million.

In his search for meaning, Wiesel has found one important function, to write about the past. For some reason he has been chosen to remain alive after so many have died, and this fact carries with it a certain obligation. For most of the world Sighet is an unfamiliar name; for Elie Wiesel Sighet is people, thousands of people who do not even have a tombstone. Their story must be told. No one acts in a vacuum, for we all reflect and hopefully justify the values and lives of our parents, teachers and friends. For Elie Wiesel there is a special urgency. He can not allow rage or bitterness, no matter how understandable in the face of the nightmare he has experienced, to prevent his setting down the legends of the Jews who formed and nourished him until their doom.

Wiesel's role as witness to the holocaust does not mean that he pretends to understand Auschwitz. Too much has already been written about the causes of the tragedy or the psychology operating in the concentration camps; too many books and articles have already been published attempting to explain the unexplainable. There are no answers to such a monumental and scientific act of murder, only questions, mystery, and universal shame. “A Plea for the Dead” (Legends of Our Time, [1968]) warns us not to presume to pass judgment on an event that overwhelms even the victims. Instead the best debt we can pay the dead is silence, hoping that the dead do not return to judge the living, to tell our horrified and guilty ears what they have seen and felt.

Wiesel's purpose in living and writing is not to explain the holocaust, to change the course of history, or even to help the world profit from such a tragedy. Auschwitz can not be understood and the world has learned nothing. About this Wiesel is emphatic. Rather, Wiesel is fulfilling his duty as storyteller, writing legends and tales, singing through words about a world that has vanished. He describes Sighet so that it will survive for future generations, especially for Jewish children growing up twenty-five years after the holocaust. He is a link to a past that has been destroyed and should be remembered.

This sense of an obligation to record the spirit and story of the holocaust victims, the desire to present a world at the moment before its destruction, is a first step in Wiesel's journey from the hell of Auschwitz back to humanity. But this is only the beginning. While this is a reason for living and for not becoming a vengeful; cynical person, there is still little joy in such an existence. One is obsessed with the past, haunted by memories, unable to find a home in the present world, and easily prone to despair. There is always the temptation to find relief from the pressures of life through suicide or insanity. Through death the survivor could rejoin his loved ones turned to smoke and ash; through madness he could forget about the absurdities of everyday life, and perhaps pretend in his delusions that the Nazi atrocities never occurred. The protagonist in one of Wiesel's early works, The Accident (1961), chooses such a release. He has allowed himself to be struck by a cab and lies in a New York City hospital waiting to die. Despite the words and efforts of the doctor and Kathleen, a friend, the young man can find no pleasure in society after the experience of Auschwitz and prefers to dwell permanently in the past through death.

It is at the end of The Accident that Wiesel's search takes a new direction. Gyula, a gruff Hungarian painter, shakes the narrator out of his lethargy by offering friendship. Gyula tells the young man that even if God is dead or passive, man is alive and capable of touching another human being through friendship if not love. The dead no longer suffer, but the living still do; and it is man's duty to make suffering cease, if only for an hour. To lock oneself up in pain and memories is to imprison oneself behind walls no one else can scale; instead, suffering must serve to free a person, to help him become more human in the highest sense by reaching out to others.

Gyula's offer of friendship, his philosophy of making suffering a life force rather than a death force, of striving to be concerned about other individuals rather than submitting to suicide or madness, becomes a dominant theme in Wiesel's books. Near the conclusion of The Gates of the Forest (1964), the main character says, “No one can fight the night by himself and conquer it, Mendel. Victory would be meaningless even if he won. For two persons together victory is possible.”1 Wiesel has recognized that alone man can not struggle successfully against despair, and that life without companionship is basically empty. Isolated from other people, dwelling on memories, reliving painful events, an individual becomes overwhelmed by the dark forces of civilization, its cruelty and indifference. With the strength of another human being, with the link between two people who understand and care, man can emerge triumphant over all the forces of night. This is the message of Gyula in The Accident, it is also the message of Pedro in The Town beyond the Wall, Gavriel, Yehuda, and the Hassidic Rabbi in The Gates of the Forest, and Katriel in A Beggar in Jerusalem (1968).

Along with their words of encouragement, the characters in Wiesel's novels bring gifts of laughter and silence. The laughter is both mocking and affirmative, both defiant and loving. When Gavriel, in The Gates of the Forest, surrenders to the Nazis in order to save a young boy's life, he breaks into peals of laughter. This is a defiant laughter that spits in the face of the Nazi guards, ridiculing their so-called power, which is far less than the strength of one man to save a companion. Gavriel's laughter is also positive in spirit, for it says to the small boy that there exists genuine feeling in the world, that there is a person who dares offer his life for a friend, asking only that he be remembered with laughter and love.

The silence is also not one of bitterness, a force that divides one man from another. Rather it is a profound form of communication between friends, one that transcends words that can so easily be distorted or misinterpreted. As Katriel in A Beggar in Jerusalem explains, the creative silence that he loves is not the chaotic silence that preceded the creation in Genesis, but the rich silence, pregnant with presence and meaning, that accompanied the revelation on Mount Sinai. It is not an emptiness that needs form and substance, but a fullness that gives purpose, a richness of spirit flowing freely between man and man, and man and God.

The theme of friendship, with its attributes of creative silence, proud laughter, and suffering for others, is an important step in Elie Wiesel's quest. He is able to feel ties not only with the past, the six million, but also with the present, those persons struggling and in torment today. This desperate affirmation is, however, no guarantee for happiness or certainty. Wiesel is far too honest, and has lived through too much cruelty and pain to be satisfied with platitudes. The friends provide comfort and communication; they do not give answers. They do not offer remedies, but instead a way of living and a reason for remaining human in a world that is not. This situation is vividly portrayed in The Town beyond the Wall, when Michael, the main character, returns to his birth-place to confront a bald, flat-nosed man with empty eyes, a person who watched impassively as the Jews were taken away to their extermination. This figure, who represents all the indifferent forces in society, responds to the encounter by having Michael arrested. In jail Michael withstands the pressures to hate the cold man, to go insane, or to kill himself. Instead he remembers the words of his friend Pedro, that remaining human in spite of life's humiliations and cruelties is the only way to be victorious against the forces of night. With Pedro's philosophy, Michael is able to perform two positive actions: though he is tortured for three days, he refuses to reveal the whereabouts of Pedro, who must escape back across the Iron Curtain; and he attempts to break through the silence and empty stares of an autistic boy in the cell and thus save the boy's soul. These are difficult actions, and there is no guarantee of success. Michael is still in prison as the book ends, and the boy has not yet spoken or even smiled. Pedro might be arrested despite Michael's silence. Still there is some hope. Night has given way to dawn, a signal of new light or possibilities, and the boy's name is Eliezer, which means God has granted my prayer. Michael has a chance of being victorious. But more important, he has found a way to live with dignity in the prison of contemporary civilization, a way to avoid the temptations of vengeance, nihilism, suicide, or madness.

With this basis of friendship and communication, Wiesel can move outward in his search to celebrate not only the bond between individuals, but also the continuing triumph of the Jewish people. Specifically in his later works, The Jews of Silence (1966), A Beggar in Jerusalem,Legends of Our Time, and One Generation After (1970), the author looks at the Jews in the Soviet Union and Israel. He often abandons the semi-fictional techniques of the earlier novels to write travelogues or collections of essays. He writes less frequently as a tormented survivor searching for a way to live, and more as a witness recording, from the distance of time, the legends of a vanished world, while also celebrating the miracle of contemporary Judaism in Israel and the U.S.S.R.

In the Soviet Union, Wiesel is astonished at the spirit of the persecuted, supposedly silent Jews. The fear of authorities, suspicion of informers, imprisonment of leaders, and repression of Jewish learning and culture are everywhere. And yet, on Simchat Torah, thousands of Jews, young and old, men, women, and children, dance and sing until dawn outside the synagogues in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, and other cities. In defiance of the secret police and informers, in spite of the heavy hand of the Soviet rulers, these Jews celebrate their Judaism, a heritage that has been denied them. These Soviet Jews as a people have illustrated the spirit and desperate joy of the friends Wiesel met earlier in his journey.

The second miracle is Israel. A persecuted and homeless people, victims of pogroms in Eastern Europe and North Africa, remnants from Hitler's death camps, have forged a vibrant nation out of rocks and sand. This tiny nation has already faced and survived four wars of extinction and is still flourishing. Furthermore, as Elie Wiesel brings out in One Generation After, Israel has been not only victorious, but also humane. There have been no mass murders, rapes, or lootings. Instead, Israel has fulfilled the philosophy of the friends in Wiesel's earlier works by retaining its dignity and reverence for life, its joy and humanity, in a seemingly intolerable situation.

Israel remains more than just a new nation; it is a land of dreamers and soldiers, beggars and builders, pious Hassidim and proud Sabras. At the center of A Beggar in Jerusalem is Jerusalem the ancient capital, seventeen times destroyed yet seventeen times rebuilt, the great symbol of survival. The novel describes the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Days War and the gathering of people at the Western Wall. Israel won because it fought with both the physical strength and technical competence of the new citizens and the soul and spiritual strength of the six million. At the Western Wall, old meets new, dreamers and beggars meets soldiers and farmers, and a people is reunited along with a city: “Just like long ago, at Sinai, when they were given the Torah. Just like a generation ago, in the kingdom of night, when it was taken back. Once again the exiles are being gathered in, the knot is being knotted—the end is rejoining the beginning and justifying it.”2 In Jerusalem by the Western Wall, the Jews are not brought together to be crushed, to be burned up in a terrible holocaust; they are gathered to rededicate themselves as they did in the desert at Mount Sinai on the exodus from slavery to freedom, to a land flowing with milk and honey. They are together to create a nation of charity, peace and love, a new Jerusalem that will, we may hope, spread its spirit over the entire world.

With Jerusalem a cycle has come to a close. Elie Wiesel has completed the first phase of his writing. Of course he has not stopped his search for insights into life, for there are many areas still to be explored or reexamined. Wiesel's recent book, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (1972), a discussion of the questioning, suffering, love, laughter, and silence of the founders of Hassidism, begins a new journey. The quest continues. The narrator at the end of A Beggar in Jerusalem admits that he does not know how to live fully in the present without betraying his obligation to record the legends of the dead. Elie Wiesel cannot easily balance his role of survivor with that of witness to Israel and the Soviet Union, his haunting memories of night with his joy in friendship and in the spirit of the Jewish people. Furthermore Wiesel does not hope to understand the holocaust, and feels that the murder of six million Jews as well as the triumph of Israel are awesome wonders that must reduce man to respectful silence. One looks in vain in his works for a proof of God's existence or a justification of His ways on earth. Repeatedly Elie Wiesel asks the most profound questions, and then backs away in silence from the mysteries and ambiguities of life, content to share the questions. But as Wiesel states, the questions are more important than the answers, for only they can be shared.

It is in sharing, in the triumph of friendship and ultimately the deep bonds among the Jewish people, that Wiesel finds life valuable. With the link between the victims of Nazi persecutions and the Jews today in Israel and the Soviet Union, there is a promise, a hope, a reason for song. There are no answers, but there is a triumph of spirit. In a letter “To a Young Rebel,” Wiesel admires those who challenge society, but warns that rebellion must be on behalf of the world, constructive; such is the lesson of the survivors of Auschwitz. When asked if he wanted to make his words live, the author responded that such a feat was impossible. Instead his problem was how to make names sing. Elie Wiesel's names do indeed sing, a desperate yet joyful song of life, a song of past and present. The world has given him every reason to be bitter, to feel crushed, to commit suicide, to give in to madness, or to become nihilistic; instead, this storyteller has answered defiantly, “I will sing! I will dance! I will build!”


  1. Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York, 1967), p. 193. Wiesel has written nearly all his works in French.

  2. Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem, trans. Lily Edelman and Elie Wiesel (New York, 1970), p. 200.

Mary Jean Green (essay date summer 1977)

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SOURCE: Green, Mary Jean. “Witness to the Absurd: Elie Wiesel and the French Existentialists.” Renascence 29, no. 4 (summer 1977): 170-84.

[In the following essay, Green considers the influence of French existentialism—particularly the work of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre—on Wiesel's fiction.]

Elie Wiesel has gained a certain reputation in America as a “Jewish writer,” a survivor of the Holocaust and a teller of Hasidic tales. As the sales of his books in English translation far surpass those of the original French editions, the fact that Wiesel wrote his novels in French is in danger of being quietly forgotten. Yet, although Wiesel first came to France only in his late teens after his liberation from Buchenwald, his contact with French literature and thought had a considerable influence on his novels. In fact, the central concerns of Wiesel's novels reflect those of the French existentialists, principally Camus and Sartre, who dominated the Parisian literary scene to which Wiesel was exposed in the late 1940's.

In making the themes of these French authors part of his own literary creation, Wiesel has woven them together with the memories of his concentration camp experiences and the Hasidic tales of his childhood to produce a new form which does not immediately reveal its existentialist sources.1 It is important, however, to unravel these strands from the fabric of Wiesel's work, not only in order to determine Wiesel's place within the French literary tradition, but also, more important, to see how he has used the premises of atheistic existentialism in constructing a vigorous contemporary theism. Wiesel's position as a religious existentialist is not unique in literature: his distinguished predecessors include Pascal, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard and Kafka, as he himself often reminds us in interviews. His own concerns, however, are particularly close to those of Camus and, to a lesser extent, Sartre, and he often seems to have set out with the specific intention of providing a theistic response to the questions raised in their work.

In part because Wiesel's novels rarely use the existentialist vocabulary of Camus and Sartre, the relationship between his work and theirs is not immediately apparent. The idea of the absurd, for example, the point of departure for the French existentialists, seems, on first reading, relatively unimportant in Wiesel's work. Instead, he begins by confronting the Holocaust, an event fraught with personal meaning for him as a Jewish survivor of the camps. Wiesel considers the Holocaust, however, not only as a personal or even a uniquely Jewish experience, but as an event involving all men. In The Town beyond the Wall the protagonist Michael returns to his Hungarian home to confront a by-stander who had observed with indifference the deportation of the local Jewish community. Wiesel strongly condemns this man's indifference as an abdication of his identity as a human being. As men, Wiesel is saying, we were all involved in this drama of suffering and death and must all share in facing the problems which it poses.

The Holocaust, then, plays the same role in the Wiesel canon as the allegorical plague of Camus' novel, a plague which itself reflected the era of the Occupation and the concentration camp. For Camus—and for Wiesel—these experiences point beyond themselves to reveal the nature of the human condition: man is condemned to suffering and death by an irrational universe. Wiesel would seem to agree with Camus' use of the term “absurd” to describe the confrontation of man, with his demands for logic and meaning, and a universe which denies these demands. In the work of both writers, the absurd is not an abstract concept, but a reality experienced by the plague victims of Oran and the inmates of the camps, who seeing that the death sentence is imposed without reference to guilt or merit, become aware of the limitations of their mortality and the absence of rational order in the universe. While Camus makes clear the allegorical nature of his fictional plague, Wiesel's treatment of the Holocaust may appear to be merely historical. Wiesel states emphatically, however, that the Holocaust is not an event limited in time and space, but rather a manifestation of the enduring nature of human existence. As the Hasidic Rebbe says at the end of The Gates of the Forest, “Auschwitz proves that nothing has changed, that the primeval war goes on” (p. 192).2 Wiesel himself has said of the experience of the camps that it went “to the limits of the human condition.”3 And in a 1967 symposium on the Holocaust, Wiesel described it as both a historical and trans-historical event: “To the sick person, Auschwitz lies in his despair; to the father whose child is dying, Auschwitz has the face of a child.”4

Through his novels Wiesel has developed a certain number of images which evoke the world as revealed by the Holocaust. The forest is one of these. It expresses the nightmare world of pure contingency which Sartre's protagonist discovers in La Nausée and of which Camus speaks in Le Mythe de Sisyphe. In The Gates of the Forest the forest is the place where the characters are forced to flee from their ordered everyday lives in town and where they must live like hunted animals. Its awesome voice, drowned out by other concerns in normal life, is now audible to them: “this roaring voice which, before creation, before the liberation of the word, already contained form and matter, joy and defeat, and that which separates and reconciles them, from all of which the universe, time, and their own secret life were fashioned” (pp. 122-23). It is the voice which spoke to Job from the thunder, the voice of Chaos: “it's madness, pure madness” (p. 123). Like the experience of the absurd in La Nausée, the experience of the forest in The Town beyond the Wall strips the world of false meanings and definitions imposed by human habit: “The universe frees itself from the order in which it was imprisoned. Appearance snaps its ties with reality. A chair is no longer a chair, the king no longer king, the fool ceases to be a fool, or to cry” (p. 180). Echoing the words of Dostoevsky often quoted by Camus and Sartre, Wiesel calls it, “the liberty in which anything is permitted” (p. 180).

Camus sums up his understanding of a universe of death and chaos opposed to human strivings in Caligula's statement, “Men die and are not happy.” This aspect of the absurd finds its expression in Wiesel's novels in the image of night. This is, in fact, the title of Wiesel's first novel which describes his concentration camp experiences, and it continues throughout his novels to represent those things which deny human values. At the end of Dawn, Wiesel's protagonist, after having killed a man, sees his own face reflected back at him in a darkened window pane: his has become the face of night. The progression of Wiesel's personal discovery of meaning in human life is tellingly revealed in the titles of his first three novels: Night,Dawn,Day (in English, The Accident).

As the images of night and the forest represent forces of the non-human universe, the prison reflects man's position within it, walled in by the limits which it sets to his freedom. The image of a man in prison, often condemned to death, has been used by writers in the existentialist tradition, at least since Pascal, to describe the human condition, and never more than in the French literature of the 1930's and 40's. Sartre's Le Mur and Camus' L'Etranger take place in the cells of men condemned to death, and in La Peste Camus makes the entire city of Oran into a vast prison. Critics have, in fact, lamented the omnipresent prison cell in the literature of this period, but it is an image almost thrust upon writers of the 30's and 40's by the historical situation and, in addition, one appropriate to their vision of the human condition.

Prisons, similarly, abound in Wiesel's novels, most evidently in the concentration camps described in Night and evoked in the other novels. But prison scenes are not limited to the camps. The plot of Dawn revolves around two men, a British soldier and a Jewish terrorist, who await execution in a form of cell. In The Town beyond the Wall, emprisoning walls are everywhere, a fact noted by the American translator who changed its original French title, La ville de la Chance. Its protagonist Michael is forced to stand with his face to the wall until his legs give out, a torture ironically called The Prayer. Later he is placed in a cell with a religious cellmate who asks him, in a scene reminiscent of the visit of the priest in Camus' L'Etranger, whether he has heard the voice of God. “‘No,’ Michael said, ‘It never got through to me. The walls must have been too thick’” (p. 145). There are also the walled garden of Michael's childhood, the walls of his small airless room in Paris, the symbolic wall of the Iron Curtain which Michael and Pedro must traverse to reach their destination. Seen in this way, The Town beyond the Wall illustrates the thesis set forth by Gregor's father in The Gates of the Forest, “It's man's duty to make a free choice and to push back walls” (p. 34).

Man abandoned in the forest, lost in the night, bound in by prison walls—all of these images reveal Wiesel's vision of the human condition, but none so forcefully questions its justice as the image of the suffering and dying child.5 Examples of unmerited suffering have traditionally been used to challenge the existence of a just world order, and in literature the child has often embodied the idea of innocence. It is the suffering of innocent children which most troubles Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov and which leads him to revolt against God. The theme recurs at the center of Camus' La Peste, where the long, agonizing death of a child forms a background for the confrontation of Father Paneloux and Doctor Rieux on the subject of theodicy.

Since Wiesel himself was in a concentration camp when still a child (although just old enough to escape extermination), it is only natural that images of suffering children recur in his work. The little sister Tzipora, who first appears in Night, continues to haunt his work, appearing at length in The Town beyond the Wall and A Beggar in Jerusalem. In the latter novel Katriel's wife mourns a dead child, as does the mother of the would-be suicide of Wiesel's most recent novel, The Oath. The most striking and certainly the most horrible treatment of the death of a child occurs in the scene in Night where a child, along with two adults, is condemned to death by hanging. The child, being too light to weight the rope, does not die immediately, and the other prisoners are forced to watch his agony. It is this episode which most strongly threatens the protagonist's faith in God: “‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows’” (p. 76).

Children also play an important role in The Town beyond the Wall, especially little Yankel, an even younger child who has been Michael's companion in the camps. Wiesel follows the hopeless effort of the boy to come to terms with his experience as a Piepel, a favored mascot of a camp guard, possessing the power of life and death over the other inmates. This role seems to fascinate Wiesel, perhaps because it so vividly illustrates the irrational nature of the actions taken in the camps. Having too intimate an experience of the absurd, Yankel arranges a suicidal traffic accident. Michael spends a week at his bedside watching his slow death, which calls into question the accepted order of things: “All the men on earth bore a single face: that of my dying friend. Their destinies were measured by his. A child who dies becomes the center of the universe; stars and meadows die with him” (p. 99).

Sharing with the French existentialists a vision of the human condition, Wiesel also shares with them their stress on human freedom. As for Sartre, freedom for Wiesel is the quality which distinguishes humanity: in The Town beyond the Wall, Michael says to Pedro, “Freedom is given only to man. God is not free” (p. 101). In the parable of creation told by Gavriel in The Gates of the Forest, laughter is seen as the manifestation of human freedom, and in the same novel Gregor's father declares, “It is man's duty to make a free choice …” (in the original French, more strongly, “se choisir libre”).6

Sartre views man as a being without previous definition who creates himself by his actions: “man … is condemned every moment to invent man.”7 Almost echoing these words, Wiesel writes in The Accident, “Man must keep moving, searching, weighing, holding out his hand, offering himself, inventing himself” (p. 125).

Man is free but how is he to exercise this freedom in the face of the absurd? This question, which preoccupies Camus and Sartre, is at the heart of all of Wiesel's novels, and it seems to reflect a very personal search for meaning. Wiesel's characters are often tempted to give up the struggle by committing suicide. The protagonist of The Accident has let himself be run down by a taxi because of his inability to bear the guilt of surviving the Holocaust, a suicide attempt like the child Yankel's. Like all of Wiesel's protagonists, he must find a reason for continuing to live. Camus, too, felt compelled to handle the problem of suicide in his Mythe de Sisyphe. Although it may seem a logical human response to the dilemma of the absurd, both Camus and Wiesel strongly reject suicide because it resolves the problem by removing one of the elements in confrontation: to commit suicide is, in effect, to accept the supremacy of an irrational, meaningless world order.

Madness, a suicide of reason, seems to represent a similar temptation for Wiesel's characters. Although madness sometimes has a positive side in his work, revealing an irrationality allied with the divine, in The Town beyond the Wall it clearly signifies submission to the chaos of the universe. Old Martha, the mad-woman, is a recurrent figure in the novel, offering her favors to the protagonist as a means of escape. At the end of the novel Michael is thrust into endless captivity among fellow prisoners who have already gone mad. The temptation to join them is strong, but he realizes that to accept madness is to admit defeat at the hands of his jailers, to ally himself with the absurd. There is a certain analogy in this situation with that of Camus' Caligula, who reacts to his discovery of the absurd by trying to escape the human condition and himself playing the role of an irrational destiny. For Camus and for Wiesel, man's obligation is to resist the irrational cruelty of the world order rather than to become part of it.

Wiesel's characters are saved from suicide and madness by an attitude of what Camus would call revolt. Whereas the idea of the absurd can itself furnish no basis for positive action, both Camus and Wiesel find such a grounding in the sentiment of revolt aroused in man by consciousness of his condition. The response of many of Wiesel's characters is similar to that of Camus' Sisyphus; eternally condemned to roll his rock up the hill from whose summit it will immediately tumble down. Yet his freedom defies the supremacy of the gods, and his happiness denies the punishment: “There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. … If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days.” Thus, Camus concludes, “one must imagine Sisyphus happy.”8 The same feeling of rebellious joy is evoked by the laughter and song of Wiesel's Hasids at the end of The Gates of the Forest. The Rebbe explains the peculiar meaning of the Hasid's song to Gregor: “It's his way of proclaiming, ‘You don't want me to dance; too bad, I'll dance anyhow. You've taken away every reason for singing, but I shall sing’” (p. 196). Earlier, Gregor's friend Gavriel had told him that God's gift of laughter gave man a weapon of vengeance, and Wiesel's characters typically react to tragedy with a burst of laughter.

The militant Jewishness of Wiesel's protagonists is, in fact, an aspect of their revolt. In the symposium on the Holocaust, Wiesel expressed his own feelings on the subject: “You, God, do not want me to be Jewish; well, Jewish we shall be nevertheless despite your will.”9 For Wiesel, the Jew plays the role of the eternal rebel: throughout their history Jews have felt the irrationality of the human condition and have known the depths of despair. By their very continuing to live and create in the face of this fate, they are revolting against it. Again quoting Camus, Wiesel says of his people,

I do not like to think of the Jew as suffering. I prefer thinking of him as someone who can defeat suffering—his own and others.' For his is a Messianic dimension; he can save the world from a new Auschwitz. As Camus would say: one must create happiness to protest against a universe of unhappiness. But—one must create it. And we are creating it. We were creating it. Jews got married, celebrated weddings, had children within the ghetto walls. Their absurd faith in their non-existent future was, nevertheless, an affirmation of the spirit.10

For Wiesel, as for Camus, the concept of revolt carries within it a demand for reaching out to other human beings. In the course of his examination of revolt, Camus discovered a new cogito: “I rebel,—therefore we exist.”11 That is to say, in his movement of revolt man finds in himself qualities which link him to other men; in his assertion of his own human dignity, he is also necessarily asserting the rights of all men. It is this feeling of responsibility for others which provides a reason for Wiesel's characters to go on living and which gives meaning and direction to their lives. In The Town beyond the Wall, Michael's friend Pedro explains, in specifically Camusian terms, “To say ‘I suffer, therefore I am’ is to become the enemy of man. What you must say is ‘I suffer, therefore you are’” (p. 127).

This movement of concern for the other is not mere sentimentalism on Wiesel's part. It results from a philosophical view of man as responsible for all men, a view not far distant from Camus' or even from Sartre's formulations in L'Existentialisme est un humanisme: “in making this choice he also chooses all men. In fact, in creating the man that we want to be, there is not a single one of our acts which does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be.”12 In The Oath the narrator's teacher Moshe (another recurring Wiesel character) says: “Every man can and must carry creation on his shoulders; every unit is responsible for the whole.”13 And at the end of The Gates of the Forest, the Rebbe explains: “Doesn't helping a human being mean rescuing him from despair? Doesn't it mean subordinating destiny to your idea of man?” (p. 194). This concept of individual responsibility for all men is an illustration of Wiesel's characteristic blend of existentialist concepts with Jewish belief, in this case, the traditional teaching that the coming of the Messiah is dependent on the faithful behavior of each individual Jew.

This philosophical conclusion is expressed more often through action than in abstract terms. The narrator of The Accident abandons his pursuit of death to save his despondent friend Kathleen. Gregor in The Gates of the Forest devotes himself to saving his wife Clara from the claims of her dead lover. Michael of The Town beyond the Wall, who has withstood torture to protect his friend Pedro, finds a meaning even in hopeless imprisonment by trying to save his demented young cellmate. The old man in The Oath breaks his vow of silence to save a young would-be suicide. In fact, a frequently recurring pattern of action in Wiesel's novels involves a somewhat weak and despondent protagonist who, often strengthened by contact with a stronger, more optimistic friend, overcomes his despair in an attempt to save someone yet weaker than himself.

But the relation of man to man in Wiesel's books does not always involve a stronger character reaching out to rescue a weaker. There are also virile friendships, like that of Rieux and Tarrou in La Peste, which are characterized by long conversations and intimate understanding. These friendships are central to the Wiesel philosophy: they strengthen the protagonist and give him courage to go on. Michael says to Pedro in The Town beyond the Wall: “Together, we'll win. When two solitudes unite, there is the world on the one hand, and they on the other—and they are stronger than the world” (p. 134). This type of friendship is often consecrated in Wiesel's work by an exchange of names. In The Gates of the Forest, when Gregor meets the stranger Gavriel in the cave, he gives him his name. In The Town beyond the Wall, Michael and his friend Pedro feel themselves able to exchange identities, and at the end of the book this exchange is repeated with the madman Michael has begun to cure: “You'll tell me your name and you'll ask me, ‘Who are you?’ and I'll answer, ‘I'm Pedro.’ And that will be a proof that man survives, that he passes himself along. Later, in another prison, someone will ask your name and you'll say, ‘I'm Michael.’ And then you will know the taste of the most genuine of victories” (p. 189). This exchange of names is significant, then, as a device which man may use to overcome his own mortality, again an idea taken from Jewish tradition, which requires that a dead man's name be perpetuated.

If human relationships are the sphere of affirmation against the absurd, then an absence of relationship must contribute to chaos and meaninglessness. In The Town beyond the Wall, Wiesel uses the Sartrean concept of the Other, whose glance has the power to reduce a human being to the status of an object. Michael has returned to his former home, now behind the Iron Curtain, in order to confront the man who had passively observed the rounding up and deportation of the Jewish community, including Michael's own family. The man later admits to Michael that, while his wife had cried at the spectacle, he had taken refuge in the idea that the whole episode was only a play in which he himself had no role. Under his gaze, the condemned Jews had become objects, “living sticks of wood” (p. 159). In Wiesel's view, this man is not an exception, but rather, “a symbol of anonymity, the average man” (p. 164). His condemnation of this attitude recalls Sartre's castigation of the bourgeoisie of Bouville in La Nausée; Wiesel charges him with leading an inauthentic existence: “You think you're living in peace and security, but in reality you're not living at all. People of your kind scuttle along the margins of existence [perhaps like the insect-like creatures in La Nausée]. Far from men, from their struggle, which you no doubt consider stupid and senseless” (p. 172).

Wiesel continues to charge this man with attempting to evade the limits of his existence as a man, reiterating the plea with which Camus ends L'Homme révolté: “in order to be a man, to refuse to be a god.”14 At the end of The Town beyond the Wall, Michael says to his cellmate: “It's in humanity itself that we find both our question and the strength to keep it within limits. … A man is a man only when he is among men. It's harder to remain human than to try to leap beyond humanity” (p. 188).

Wiesel's commitment to action on behalf of his fellow man extends to his own activity as a writer. It seems clear from the fact that all of his novels involve the Holocaust that his novelistic activity is a form of witness. The importance of this witness as a reason for remaining alive is made very forcefully, for example, in The Oath, where the Old Man, the sole survivor of the extermination of the village of Kollvillàg, must live on as the keeper of the Chronicle which relates the village history: “And once a messenger, he has no alternative. He must stay alive until he has transmitted his message” (p. 33). The aim of this witness is not only to preserve the past, however, but also to influence the future. Again and again in Wiesel's novels we find the figure of Moché the beadle, who first appears in Night. The survivor of the massacre of an entire village, he has returned to the protagonist's town to attempt to warn the population there. But his warnings go unheeded until it is too late. The approach of the Holocaust is also the terrifying message brought to Gregor in The Gates of the Forest by Gavriel, whose very name suggests his role as messenger.

Art, for Wiesel, also seems to have a purpose beyond mere communication. The telling of tales, song, dance—all of these activities which are so important in Wiesel's novels are rooted, even more fundamentally, in man's need to create, to “invent himself.” In The Town beyond the Wall, Wiesel provides a sort of parable on the origin of art:

if a man has something to say, he says it most perfectly by taking unto him a woman and creating a new man. And then God remembers that he too has something to say; and he entrusts the message to the Angel of Death: … The dialogue—or the duel, if you like—between man and his God doesn't end in nothingness. Man may not have the last word, but he has the last cry. That moment marks the birth of art.

(p. 103)

The dance of the Hasids, the song of the Jews marching off to execution—these are assertions of human qualities in the face of all that denies them, thus an important expression of man's revolt. The activity of witness is itself a way of transcending the physical death of loved ones and the near-annihilation of a tradition of Jewish teachings. As Wiesel says in a review of another novel about a now-extinct Jewish community, “Every literary creation aims to correct injustice.”15 The image which epitomizes this view of art as man's revolt occurs in Night when the protagonist's friend Juliek extricates himself and his beloved violin from beneath a pile of dead and dying in order to play a final fragment from Beethoven. “He was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the strings—his lost hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future” (p. 107). What is expressed by Juliek's art is simply man's creative power in the face of death, and his message is not really intended for a human audience barely able to hear him. He plays for himself and, beyond that, for God.

The responsibility for others fundamental to the ethics of Wiesel and the French existentialists makes the issue of violence a particularly complicated one. Discussed by Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre's disciple, in Pour une morale de l'ambiguité, it becomes a central issue for Camus in L'homme révolté. There Camus admits that in the modern world the taking of life is sometimes a necessary step in the struggle to defend human values, but he questions whether it is a permissible act. He concludes that murder is a denial of the very human solidarity affirmed by the movement of revolt: thus, necessary but impossible. The solution to this dilemma, for Camus, lies in the example of the Russian terrorists portrayed in Les Justes, who killed only to accept death themselves, in order to restore balance to the world.

Wiesel confronts the same problem in his second novel, Dawn, and both his statement of the problem and his resolution of it are embodied in a concrete situation. Elisha, the protagonist, has become part of a Palestinian Jewish terrorist organization shortly after his liberation from the Nazi camps. He is convinced that the establishment of a Jewish state represents the only future left to his people, and this belief gives him the strength to engage in raids on British army outposts despite his aversion to violence. One night, however, he is chosen to perform an even more difficult task, the killing of a British hostage whom the terrorists have taken to prevent the execution of one of their own men. The moral case for the murder of the hostage is made as strong as possible. World opinion condemns the execution of the captured terrorist and the British have only to bow to it in order to save their own man. They refuse to give in, however, in large part because they believe the Jews are too moral to go through with the threatened killing. To be merciful to the hostage, then, is to encourage the British to execute more captured Jews and to weaken the cause of a Jewish Palestine, desperately awaited by the boatloads of concentration camp survivors daily being turned back by the British authorities.

Convinced of the necessity of this killing, Elisha nevertheless feels the judgment of his dead parents, teachers and fellow students—and even of the little boy whom he once was. Their silent figures are there to participate in his act: like Sartrean man, in choosing for himself, Elisha must choose for others. As the repository of their teachings and the only living witness to their existence, his actions reflect on the meaning of their lives as well. Elisha poses to himself the objection to murder so forcefully expressed by Camus: in committing murder, man attempts to move beyond human limitations, to become God. Like Camus' moral terrorists, Elisha goes through with the killing, but in doing so he understands that he has changed his role from that of victim to executioner and has identified himself with the Nazi torturers that haunt his memory. Although the protagonist continues to live at the end of the book, he bears a heavy burden of guilt.

The case against murder is made with similar reasoning by both Camus and Wiesel, and the Wiesel novel, which is clearly more accepting of violence, seems almost to have been written directly in response to L'Homme révolté. Wiesel's character does, after all, choose to carry out the execution in full knowledge of what he is doing, and he feels no need to do away with himself afterward. While Camus' abstract discussion of murder and its ideological justifications in L'Homme révolté does not seem to relate to any particular cause for which he himself would be ready to kill, Wiesel puts his discussion in the context of Israel, in whose existence he strongly believes. He has publicly defended Israel's actions against such moralists as François Mauriac, who had condemned the Jewish state as “avid for conquest and domination” (Dawn is dedicated to Mauriac). To this charge Wiesel replied with a line from the classical French dramatist Corneille: “What do you want them to do?” The implied rhetorical answer is, “Die?”16

Thus, despite his aversion to violence, Wiesel seems willing to accept it as the price of continuing human life—without Camus' demand that the murderer forfeit his own life as well. His conclusion is thus similar to that of Sartre in Le diable et le bon dieu. The strong male characters in Wiesel's novels do not hesitate to participate in war-like activities: Gad leads the terrorists in Dawn, Leib leads the partisans in The Gates of the Forest, and the narrator's friends, Gad and Katriel, die fighting in A Beggar in Jerusalem. In this last novel, dealing with the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, Wiesel again confronts the moral implications of violence. The victorious Israeli soldiers whom Wiesel describes, both in the body of the novel and in the introduction, are astonished and disconcerted by their victory and even more so by their new-found role as conquerors of innocent Arab children: “victory is gradually losing, not its significance, not its necessity, but its taste of joy” (p. 24). Wiesel thus views the taking of human life as a necessary consequence of moral action, to be accepted not with joyful righteousness but with humility and compassion.

While adopting Camus' attitude of revolt and certain other ideas central to the thought of the French existentialists, Wiesel differs fundamentally from his atheistic contemporaries by his firm belief in God. It is certainly for this reason that he has manifested such hostility to Sartrean philosophy, to the point of refusing to admit the striking parallels between the ideas of the Sartre-de Beauvoir circle and his own. His criticism of the Parisian post-war intellectual atmosphere in The Town beyond the Wall clearly has Sartre as its target:

Despair—they said—stands guard at every exit, hell is the neighbor who snores all night, the absurd has usurped the throne abdicated by God, therefore you have to do something! … God is dead, and only the false messiahs, the false prophets, knew it. And no one shouts louder, no one makes himself more clearly understood than a false prophet announcing the arrival of a false messiah.

(p. 73)

This expression of hostility to Sartre's atheism is easily understood. While Wiesel has been willing to enter into dialogue with those atheists who have wrestled with the question of God,17 he seems to recognize that Sartre has never really taken the existence of God seriously.18

If Wiesel is less hostile to Camus, it may be because in contrast to Sartre, Camus is in constant sympathetic dialogue with theism, and the problem of belief in God runs throughout his work. For Camus, God is an intriguing but abstract philosophical concept, one which could resolve a number of problems besetting human existence. In L'Etranger the priest offers God as a guarantor of human immortality; in La Peste He is proposed as the explanation and justification of human suffering and death; and in La Chute as the giver of grace, the restorer of innocence. But Camus steadfastly refuses to accept any of these tempting solutions, which would require belief in an entity inaccessible to human experience. In L'Homme révolté he specifically criticizes the existentialist philosophers of the past who, like Kierkegaard, have made a “leap of faith” beyond the limits of human knowledge. Belief in God is, in Camus' opinion, not only unjustified by human experience but even more important, incompatible with an attitude of revolt against an unjust universe for which God would have to be held responsible. “From the moment that man submits God to moral judgment,” Camus states, “he kills Him in his own heart.”19

The problem of evil, which becomes the central issue in La Peste, is also of primary importance to Wiesel. As he recounts in Night, his personal experience in the Nazi death camps came close to destroying his own faith: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. … Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust” (p. 44). His novels are filled with accusations against the divine justice, “that transcendent inhuman Justice in which suffering has no weight in the balance” (The Town beyond the Wall, p. 59). In The Gates of the Forest Gregor tells of a rabbinical court in a concentration camp which tried God for murder and found Him guilty. The Rebbe replies by admitting: “He is guilty. He has become the ally of evil, of death, of murder” (pp. 196-97). Yet, although Wiesel's attitude toward God was profoundly altered by his confrontation with radical evil, he is incapable of denying God's presence. Like his protagonist Michael in The Town beyond the Wall, Wiesel's revolt can never go beyond the confines of theism: “I go up against Him, I shake my fist, I froth with rage, but it's still a way of telling Him He's there …” (p. 123). Wiesel himself has echoed these words: “I have my problems with God, believe me. I have my anger and I have my quarrels and I have my nightmares.”20 But Wiesel's God always retains the unshakeable reality of another person, and his characters, like their author, do not hesitate to dialogue with Him as equals.

The strange Hasidic story which ends The Town beyond the Wall illustrates the interdependent relationship between man and God in Wiesel's work. Legend relates that man and God decided to change places, and that man, now possessing omnipotence, refused to change back. “Years passed, centuries, perhaps eternities. And suddenly the drama quickened. The past for one, and the present for the other, were too heavy to be borne. As the liberation of the one was bound to the liberation of the other, they renewed the ancient dialogue whose echoes come to us in the night, charged with hatred, with remorse, and most of all, with infinite yearning” (p. 190).

This concept of a God open to human criticism is radically different from that of Camus, who sees even the slightest attack on the divine perfection as a fatal flaw in the entire structure of belief. It must be Wiesel's Jewish background, with its stress on the covenantal relationship between God and man, which gives him the basis for his particular response. Even more specifically, the Hasidic stories which colored Wiesel's childhood are filled with examples of such accusatory dialogues with God. In Souls on Fire, his non-fiction study of various Hasidic masters, Wiesel speaks at length of the rebellious attitude of such men as Levi-Yitzhak of Berditchev, who did not hesitate to accuse God of injustice. Wiesel explains that such accusations were not considered blasphemous because, “Jewish tradition allows man to say anything to God, provided it be on behalf of man.”21

Because of their freedom to enter into dialogue with their God, Wiesel's protagonists are able to escape the dilemma of the problem of evil in both its classical form, as expressed, for example, by Hume, and its modern version, made particularly acute by the vivid memory of the Holocaust. One contemporary formulation of the problem of evil was proposed to Wiesel by Richard Rubenstein, a modern Jewish philosopher who has himself adopted a Camusian atheism:

I have had to decide whether to affirm the existence of a God who inflicts Auschwitz on his guilty people or to insist that nothing the Jews did made them more deserving of Auschwitz than any other people, that Auschwitz was in no sense a punishment, and that a God who could or would inflict such punishment does not exist. In other words, I have elected to accept what Camus has rightly called the courage of the absurd, the courage to live in a meaningless, purposeless Cosmos rather than believe in a God who inflicts Auschwitz on his people.22

This situation is similar to that which confronts Camus' characters in La Peste. While Father Paneloux collapses under the strain of maintaining his faith in a God who tortures innocent children, the protagonists choose to reject God in order to affirm the innocence of man. Wiesel, in contrast to both Camus and Rubenstein, simply refuses to accept this formulation of the problem. As we have seen, he insists again and again on the innocence of the victims of the Holocaust and does not hesitate to point an accusing finger at God. Yet, for him, such an accusation does not constitute grounds for the denial of God's existence. Without attempting to put forth a detailed explanation of God's seeming injustice; Wiesel's protagonists elect to live with the constant tension of believing in a God whose actions they do not always condone.

Wiesel has never explained in rational terms why they make this choice. He rather leaves us with a question, like the Rebbe in The Gates of the Forest, who answers Gregor's anguished question, “After what has happened to us, how can you believe in God?” with the further question, “How can you not believe in God after what has happened?” (p. 192). By implication, the existence of even an incomprehensible God who, nonetheless, provides an overarching framework of meaning is preferable to the acceptance of a state of Hobbesian warfare as the ultimate reality. Wiesel finds the atheistic alternative more destructive to man than the problems and paradoxes of theism. He points out that atheistic humanists were the first to lose their will to survive in the concentration camps and that the survivors of Auschwitz, those who have lived the problem of evil in the most personal way, are not among those who propose a God-is-dead theology.23 Belief in God is thus, for Wiesel, the very foundation for man's continuing revolt.

In La Peste Camus charges that if a man really accepted the existence of God, he would cease to fight against human suffering on earth. He reasons that if God is held responsible for this suffering, He could be expected to provide both its justification and its remedy. As has been pointed out earlier, Wiesel refuses to see such ethical inaction as a necessary consequence of belief in God, and his characters work unceasingly on behalf of their fellow men. They are not content to await passively the arrival of a promised Messiah; rather, they elect to bring about his coming through their own action. At the end of The Gates of the Forest Gregor says:

Whether or not the Messiah comes doesn't matter; we'll manage without him. … We shall be honest and humble and strong, and then he will come, he will come every day, thousands of times every day. He will have no face, because he will have a thousand faces. The Messiah isn't one man. Clara, he's all men. As long as there are men there will be a Messiah.

(p. 223)

Wiesel's novels confront the same contemporary problems of human action in the face of the absurd that dominate the works of Camus and Sartre. While he has adopted many of their fundamental perceptions of the human condition, Wiesel brings to these insights his own, searing personal experience of Auschwitz and his individual form of belief in God. His novels provide a forceful theistic alternative to the atheistic philosophies developed by Camus and Sartre, a theism which, however, approaches similar problems in similar terms. Wiesel thus must be seen as something more than an “ethnic” novelist whose limited message is directed toward a limited group. Rather, he must be placed in the company of those writers who, like Camus and Sartre, use the novel as a means of exploring the fundamental philosophical and religious questions of the modern era.


  1. Although the topic has not been studied in depth, certain parallels with existentialist thinkers have been suggested by Maurice Friedman in “Elie Wiesel: the modern Job,” Commonweal; LXXXV (October 14, 1966), 48-52, and Robert Alter in his chapter on Wiesel in After the Tradition (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1969), pp. 151-160.

  2. All citations in my text from The Town beyond the Wall,The Gates of the Forest,Night,The Accident, and A Beggar in Jerusalem refer to the English translations published by Avon books. These editions are more easily obtainable than those in the original French, a fact which reflects the complicated nature of Wiesel's literary identity.

  3. New York Times, February 10, 1970, p. 48.

  4. “Jewish Values in the post-holocaust future; a symposium,” Judaism, XVI (Summer 1967), 291.

  5. This image is discussed in particular by Thomas A. Idinopulos in “The Mystery of Suffering in the Art of Dostoevsky, Camus, Wiesel and Grunewald,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, XLIII (March, 1975), 51-61.

  6. Les Portes de la Forêt (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1964), p. 32.

  7. Existentialism, trans. Bernard Frechtman (New York: Philosophical Library, 1947), p. 28.

  8. The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage Books, 1956), p. 91.

  9. “Jewish values in the post-holocaust future,” p. 291.

  10. Ibid., p. 293.

  11. The Rebel, p. 22.

  12. Existentialism, p. 20. Wiesel's view of the possibility of human relationships, however, is much more optimistic than Sartre's. Directly contradicting Sartre's well-known statement in Huis clos, Wiesel's protagonist in The Accident declares, “Hell isn't others; it's ourselves” (p. 24).

  13. The Oath, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Random House, 1973), pp. 190-191. Further references in my text refer to this edition.

  14. The Rebel, p. 306.

  15. New York Times Book Review, September 1, 1974, p. 5.

  16. New York Times, February 10, 1970, p. 48.

  17. See, for example, his dialogue with Richard Rubenstein in The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust, ed. Franklin H. Littell and Hubert G. Locke (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1974), pp. 256-277.

  18. As Sartre states in Les Mots, any religious élan he may have had in his youth was stifled by the too-ready availability of bourgeois Christianity: “Faute de prendre racine en mon coeur, il a végété en moi quelque temps, puis il est mort” (Les Mots, Paris: Gallimard, 1964, p. 83).

  19. The Rebel, p. 62.

  20. The German Church Struggle, p. 271.

  21. Souls on Fire, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), p. 111.

  22. The German Church Struggle, p. 262.

  23. Ibid., pp. 271-273.

Ted L. Estess (essay date spring 1978)

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SOURCE: Estess, Ted L. “Choosing Life: An Interpretation of Elie Wiesel's The Oath.Soundings 61, no. 1 (spring 1978): 67-86.

[In the following essay, Estess provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Oath, viewing the novel as Wiesel's most satisfying novel to date.]

In a recent lecture Elie Wiesel remarked that the task of the artist is “to ask questions. That is what he must do and all he can do. For he, too, has no answers.”1 Consonant with this artistic self-understanding, Wiesel's literature sets forth the fundamental questions of human existence in the starkest of terms. Life or death, hope or despair, love or hate, involvement or indifference, community or isolation, God or man—Wiesel often positions his characters before these alternatives and confronts them with the Biblical injunction, “Choose you this day. …”2

Wiesel's literature does not always, indeed, typically it does not, render unambiguous decisions or answers. There is even a strong censure on the effort of thought to force clear-cut solutions to existential crises. Rather than disposing of issues intellectualistically, Wiesel's protagonists often struggle to come to terms with contradictions in the depths of the self; they often pursue the reflective process to the point at which the force of opposition is dispelled or contained within the wholeness of the self. A character in A Beggar in Jerusalem suggests this movement of the self when he speaks of coming to the place “where words and silence come to terms. I like them both. Here I'm not afraid of them” (BJ [A Beggar in Jerusalem] 21).

Despite the inadequacy of rationalistic solutions to many questions, and despite the recognition that the self contains within itself the very opposites with which it struggles, Wiesel's protagonists repeatedly find themselves in situations where they are asked to know and choose in life what they cannot know and choose in thought. I have in mind those points at which the protagonists are situated before the final court of the human enterprise, the court of action. There they come to terms with the questions, and while not unambiguously disposing of the matters by argument, they do somehow know and commit themselves in action. They know because they are called upon to act.3 Hence, while the stance of interrogation is focal to the spirit and substance of Wiesel's artistry, his literature also suggests that one cannot suspend living until he has answered or even dealt with all life's deepest questions. However much a person might insist that he “can do without solutions,” that “only the questions matter” (BJ 16), he does nonetheless commit himself, if not to answers, at least to one path rather than another.

For a fuller exploration of these ideas, I turn to Wiesel's recent novel, The Oath. In many respects this is his most satisfying work, for the defects which mar his earlier narratives are less apparent here. He is less given to preachy excursions; the tone is more evenly sustained; the style, while at times lapsing into the “tinny” quality which disturbs many readers of his earlier works, is on the whole more tensive and controlled; the narrative pace, particularly in the last two sections of the novel is extraordinarily well orchestrated, making these sections some of the finest prose that Wiesel has yet produced. In addition, the novel paradigmatically displays the judicial drama of which I have been speaking. In the agon of that drama, we see Elie Wiesel declaring himself as an artist who is coming to terms with some of the perennial options which trouble us in the human adventure.


Wiesel provides sparse information about the setting of The Oath. His neglect of orienting information reinforces our premonition that for Wiesel all places and all times are, to a large extent, the same place and the same time: after the Holocaust. His vocation as a specifically Jewish writer is to reimagine the possibilities for existence in this post-Holocaust context.

The Holocaust again hovers above The Oath, but here Wiesel is dealing with the struggles of persons who are “born after the holocaust,” who “have inherited the burden but not the mystery” of the atrocities. The specific character who is so situated is a young man, nameless throughout, whose mother survived the camps. He struggles with remembering his mother's memories. When we meet him in the novel, her past has robbed him of his present and future, and he is ready to commit suicide.

We can say more about this matter; for the context in which the deepest issues of one's life are finally adjudicated is for Wiesel that of the encounter of a single person with another. In The Oath the encounter is between the young man and Azriel, who, now close to eighty years of age, is an engaging mixture of saint and madman. Though not a survivor of the death camps, Azriel carries within himself the scars of his own holocaust: he is the sole survivor of a pogrom which destroyed the small village of Kolvillàg somewhere in Eastern Europe earlier in this century.

The context of encounter is fundamental to the vision which is mediated throughout Wiesel's literature. Though in all appearances occurring merely by chance, these events carry a density of significance, since “true encounters are those set in heaven, and we are not consulted” (O [The Oath] 70). “Chance” or “accident” are perhaps adequate to speak of those experiences one could as well have done without. But for those few occasions in life when a person senses that all roads have led to this single place, that all previous experience has been but a prelude to the present moment, that all which has come before has been but a preparation for action in this particular situation—for that type of encounter, Wiesel reserves the word “destiny.” In such a situation, the person becomes strangely “capable of embracing his whole life and considering it as one undivided destiny, hanging upon a simple alternative.”4

The response of Azriel to the encounter with the young man reflects this denseness of destiny: “Have I lived and survived only for this encounter and this challenge? Only to defeat death in this particular case?” (O 41). He resolves “out of gratitude” to help the young man, as much out of need to save himself as out of a need to deliver the other. He realizes that neither he nor the young man will ever be the same, for “man changes whenever he confronts his fellow-man, who, in turn, undergoes an essential change” (O 88). Azriel does change: he emerges out of the “closed world of memories” to act in behalf of his despairing companion (O 97). The young man changes as well: he is diverted from suicide and lives to become the narrator of the story which we read.

The context of encounter should be distinguished from two other possibilities which are considered by Wiesel, yet finally rejected. At one extreme, there is the single individual who, having confronted and having been battered by the external world, retreats to the solitude of his own interiority to settle the large issues of existence. Moshe speaks for this option when he counsels Azriel, “This world is not beautiful to behold. You will come to prefer the one you carry inside you” (O 131). At the other extreme is the political activist who attempts to settle the fundamental matters in the societal order. Azriel himself followed this path when, many years earlier, he looked for salvation in revolutionary ideology. But by the time of the novel, he has long since rejected the societal for the personal: “These battles [political] no longer concern me. But your particular choice does. Here I am, responsible for your next step” (O 18).

The single encounter, while it might appear as basically a private affair, very limited in scope, does nonetheless carry a significance quite beyond the two lives which are involved. Indeed, “every encounter suggests infinity” (O 88). Azriel carries the motif further: “To turn a single human being back toward life is to prevent the destruction of the world, says the Talmud. Do something good and God up there will imitate you; do something evil and suddenly the scale will tip the other way. Let me succeed in diverting death from this boy and we shall win. Such is the nature of man … whether he celebrates joy or solitude, he does so on behalf of all men” (O 90-91). Such is the weighty significance which Elie Wiesel places on the genuine meeting of two persons; and in that meeting, as rare and mysterious as it is, the great issues of the human spirit are contested.

This imposing understanding of the encounter does seem somewhat at odds with other currents that move through Wiesel's literature. David at the end of A Beggar in Jerusalem decides to take up the rather ordinary life of his friend Katriel by marrying his widow; Gregor, at the conclusion of The Gates of the Forest determines to live a “normal life” by which he intends that he will work, have a family, be a citizen, and do other pedestrian-like things. We also find Pedro in A Town beyond the Wall teaching the virtues of “simplicity.” With these earlier characters Wiesel appears to be suggesting that the context for declaring who one is resides in the quotidian relationships to which we commit ourselves over a period of time. Indeed, on reflection, a notion of the momentous encounter does seem somewhat overdramatic, rather like something we would expect in the concentrated world of literature but scarcely anticipate in the more mundane patterns of ordinary life. Perhaps we reveal the true nature of our character in those countless deeds which we undertake, or fail to undertake, in behalf of the other without so much as a thought. Not the great moments, not the decision taken after reflection, not the momentous relationships—perhaps those are not the context for a test of our fundamental life options. Rather, that test occurs in the commonplace activities we do without thinking.5

Wiesel leaves us with these two possibilities; and he is not, nor are we, compelled to choose which is the arena where our freedom for authentic action is ultimately tested and tried. Though The Oath emphasizes the momentous, Wiesel's literature taken as a whole suggests that the extraordinary fructifies the ordinary, and vice versa. In order to have the one, you must have the other, and the loss of fidelity in either is a diminishment of the human spirit.

Nonetheless, we need fully to recognize the import of Wiesel's insistence on the extraordinary encounters, for that insistence is right at the center of his distinctiveness as a contemporary writer. Many contemporary artists obviate the truly extraordinary from the human scene, thus flattening human experience and giving the person no fulcrum around which to pattern the diverse moments of time. There is no before and after, only the interminably painful “in the middle of.” What is lost is storied existence. Storial consciousness, and that is what Wiesel's is, sees variegation in the human experience of time. A story, at least an interesting story, requires modulation between the crescendo given by the moment of high intensity, such as the encounter, and the diminuendo provided by the mundane. In preserving the salient moments of true encounter, Wiesel reveals his commitment to story as the basic model of the self. Those extraordinary encounters provide axial points around which to organize one's life; they are the occasions for the emergence into consciousness in dramatic fashion of the fundamental convictions which resonate through all of life; they bring the character to fresh understanding of who he really is and who he might become.


The focal choice in The Oath—indeed, in the whole of Wiesel's literature—is between life and death. By the time we meet Azriel in the novel he has resolved in behalf of life, while his companion has chosen death. Azriel insists that “death, on all levels, is not a solution but a question, the most human question of all” (O 65). He has come to this conviction largely because he has assimilated into his life the witness of Shmuel, his father, and Moshe, his teacher. We can better discern the nature of his choice and the lineaments of Wiesel's vision by attending to these two formative influences.

We learn of Shmuel not so much from explicit descriptions, but from what he does: he is the Chronicler of the Jewish community. When, on the fateful night of the pogrom, Shmuel entrusts to Azriel the Pinkas, the book containing the deliberations of the community over the centuries, he bequeaths to his son a symbol of the principal values of his life. These values include memory, tradition, speech, community. Without them his life would be unimaginable. They constitute a destiny which he might deny, but never escape.

In dialogue with the values of Shmuel stands Moshe. In many ways Moshe does not belong in this world, for his sensitivities are attuned to eternity, not history. His energies turn toward transcending this world, not transforming it; he looks to the Messiah who is to come, not to the messianic community which is here already. His way is that of the mystic, of the person who secludes himself in order, paradoxically, to serve the community he shuns. He seeks to be the one person who, by the force and passion of his own religious intensity, rises above himself and compels the Messiah to come out of exile and deliver his people from the contradictions and sufferings of history.

In his visionary intensity Moshe edges toward madness. This is not surprising, for in Wiesel the mystic and the visionary are always somewhat mad. Indeed, “true madmen are as worthy as true saints” (O 178). There are for Wiesel, however, different kinds of madmen, some possessing insights which can be shared, others recoiling totally into themselves. The danger is that “madmen move inside a system all their own, where they alone can pass judgment” (O 178). Moshe's plan to avert future persecution through the oath of silence encompasses the entire community within his own self-justifying system. Through the force of his vision and personality, through the energy generated by his absolute commitment, he moves the community to sacrifice all its actual past in behalf of a fanciful future.

These, then, are the moments in the dialectic of Azriel's life. While Shmuel bequeaths to him the public record of the religious community, Moshe initiates his disciple into the esoteric, hidden tradition. While Shmuel directs Azriel to the words spoken on Mount Sinai, Moshe wants him to experience the silence which accompanied those words. While Shmuel is committed to what words reveal, Moshe is given to what they conceal. Moshe himself draws the lines of difference for his young disciple: “I like your father. He and I are trying to attain the same goal. Only our methods differ. He takes care of the past, my domain is the future. He trusts memory, I prefer imagination” (O 130). It is not the case, then, that one is for life while the other is for death; it is a question of whose way best serves life. On the night of the catastrophe in Kolvillàg, Shmuel speaks for the last time to his son; “Who is right, Moshe or I? Who sees further? … We shall know that when we know the continuation and end of this story” (O 268). Before getting to the end of the story and seeing, if not who is right, at least the nature of Azriel's choice, we need to explore further the ingenious strategy that Moshe proposes, the strategy of silence.

While the encounter of Azriel and the young man is the focal confrontation of the novel, the meeting of Moshe and Shmuel toward the end of the story is no less important. There in Moshe's prison cell the spokesmen for history and silence, for memory and imagination, for the past and the future come face to face. For Moshe, history must cease: “If suffering and the history of suffering were intrinsically linked, then the one could be abolished by attacking the other; by ceasing to refer to the events of the present, we would forestall ordeals in the future” (O 244). Silence, then, is the way to “resolve the problem of Jewish suffering,” “without the help of the Messiah” (O 244).

Why this fascination for silence? What is there about speech that leads Moshe to abdicate the word in favor of silence? Azriel suggests one reason when he asks, “How was I to speak of what defies language? How was I to express what must remain unspoken” (O 50). He realizes that language has limits, that “all experiences cannot be transmitted by the word” (SF [Souls of Fire] 257). Forced by experience against the boundaries of language, we must finally acquiesce to the finitude of our capacity to speak the reality which is ours. Moreover, the appeal to silence suggests that speech is always ambiguous. Azriel reflects this awareness when he remarks, “to speak of it [the pogrom] is to betray it” (O 17). Language both clarifies and obfuscates; it both brings to light and commits to darkness. Azriel himself recalls that at one point in his life he forgot the ambiguous character of language, persuading himself “that language was omnipotent as the link between man and his creator” (O 61). As Wiesel somewhat bitterly writes in another place, “language can mend anything”—or at least we trap ourselves into thinking that it can (LT [Legends of Our Time] 222). Another factor which surely figures in Moshe's abandonment of speech lies in the recognition that language, in part, creates the reality of which it speaks. The poor and outcast of the Jewish community have this insight when they vow not to speak of the impending disaster. Adam the Gravedigger seizes the thought: “In the beginning of evil and death there was the word. Read the Bible! It's all there! The word announces what it names, it provokes what it describes—didn't you know that?” (O 207). The simplicity of the beggars and the madness of Moshe coincide: if you do not speak of suffering, it will go away.

These factors all figure in Moshe's choice against speech. But are there not some features of silence which commend it as a way of serving life? Is not silence more than the negative of speech, with a power and a domain creatively its own? In The Gates of the Forest Clara suggests as much when she counsels Gregor: “You stop at words. … You must learn to see through them, to hear that which is unspoken” (GF [The Gates of the Forest] 176). Similarly, Moshe maintains, “When the Messiah will come … man will be capable of understanding not only the words but also the blank spaces of the Torah. Yes, yes, they are important, those blank spaces” (O 163). It is, however, self-contradictory to attempt in language to give an argument for silence, and Moshe wisely does not try to convince the community of the superiority of silence over speech. His only claim is that silence is the one weapon against unjust suffering that the Jews have not tried. Words have failed; the stories of the storytellers have only sparked the imaginations of the oppressors to even greater injustices. Perhaps silence is the “language” of “a new era” (O 246).

Another contemporary master of silence, Samuel Beckett, counsels us, however, that “it is all very fine to keep silence, but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.”6 Katriel, Wiesel's protagonist in A Beggar in Jerusalem, provides us with two kinds of silence when he remarks: “I love silence. … But beware: not all silences are pure. Or creative. Some are sterile, malignant. … There is the silence which preceded creation; and the one which accompanied the revelation on Mount Sinai. The first contains chaos and solitude, the second suggests presence, fervor, plenitude. I like the second. I like silence to have a history and be transmitted by it” (BJ 131).

Now, which is the silence to which Moshe compels the community? To the silence of chaos and solitude, or the silence of presence and plenitude? In the confrontation with Shmuel in prison, Moshe initially suggests, as if remembering Katriel's distinction, that he favors the latter: “The words pronounced at Sinai are known. … Not the silence, though it was communicated from atop that same mountain. As for me, I like that silence, transmitted only among the initiated like a secret tradition that eludes language” (O 194). With these words, Moshe petitions the way of the mystic who moves through the active powers of his own inward receptivity into the unspoken, unspeakable divine presences. But he does not stop here: “But even more, I believe in the other tradition, the one whose very existence is a secret. A secret that dies and relives each time it is received, each time it is invoked” (O 194). This is not the silence which accompanies speech, which a community shares and passes along through the discipline of meditation. This, rather, is the “pure” silence which is altogether discontinuous, which breaks periodically upon only the few ecstatic souls whose disaffection from this world is total. It is the silence of chaos and solitude; it is the silence, not of the mystic, but of the madman. It is into this silence which is silent even about itself that Moshe initiates the community of Kolvillàg. About this silence Azriel must make a decision.

We come to see, then, that silence, just as speech, is ambiguous. Azriel admits as much when he remarks, “I should like to remain silent without turning my very silence into a lie or betrayal” (O 51). By silence as well as by speech one can inauthenticate oneself. Kaiser the Mute, a character who has for years practiced the purifying discipline of silence, finally breaks into language to remind the community of this. To the religious leader, he shouts: “It is by keeping silent that you are perjuring yourself, Rebbe!” (O 229). We begin to realize, as perhaps does Azriel, that “man is responsible not only for what he says, but also for what he does not say” (O 163).

Moshe does perhaps also understand the ambiguous character of silence, but he is willing to sacrifice the gifts bestowed by language in one last desperate effort to free his people from death. He is willing to sacrifice the essence of his community in order to save that community. Celebrated as the distinctive blessing of Israel to the human situation, historical consciousness only guarantees, in Moshe's view, further persecutions. We Jews, he insists, turn suffering into a story, and thereby “shout our attachment to history.” “Now the time has come to put an end to it” (O 243).

After this long excursion into the strategy of Moshe, we can now step back to the nature of Azriel's choice in the encounter with the young man. Azriel hears two voices: “Memory, insisted my father, everything is in memory. Silence, Moshe corrected him, everything is in silence” (O 284). Azriel must choose the way to serve life: through history, or through an end to history; through relationship, or through solitude; through the past, or the future; through memory, or silence. Azriel of course, as does Wiesel in writing the novel, comes finally to speak and thus to repudiate the madness of Moshe. In assuming his destiny as a member of the people of memory, Azriel sides with Shmuel: “Is oblivion not the worst of curses? A deed transmitted is a victory snatched from death. A witness who refuses to testify is a false witness” (O 193-194). Azriel realizes that language, especially storytelling, is one of the surest ties to and signs of life; that “one does not commit suicide while speaking or listening” (O 22); that the oath of silence is itself a type of suicide pact for the community; that language, even with all its dangers and ambiguities, is a path to healing relationship; that language provides not only the boundary for human understanding, but a bridge to other persons. To speak is, for Azriel, to voice Lehaim! Lehaim!

We should not think, however, that Azriel's choice to break the oath signals an absolute refusal of silence; for he no doubt realizes that what storytellers have to transmit has to do “with silence as much as with words” (BJ 60). The silence of the storyteller is linked with words and becomes present only in tandem with words. To unite one's words with one's silence is for Wiesel to move toward that place, perhaps unreachable, where one's speech does not betray that which one speaks. Even if not attainable, this surely is what Azriel and Wiesel wish their testimony to be. Their attempt reminds us to “be careful with words, they're dangerous. … They beget either demons or angels. It's up to you to give life to one or the other” (LT 31).


A choice of life is not made apart from some vision of the life one chooses. Indications of the kind of life Wiesel chooses have emerged in the preceding discussions; but to deal with this issue more directly, it might be illuminating to petition the well-worked categories of the ethical, the aesthetic, and the religious. In Wiesel these dimensions are in conversation, not competition. All three are essential dimensions of the human, the loss of any one being a reduction in the wholeness which is a person.

In many respects, the Holocaust declares an end to what we can expect from the ethical dimension of life. The pogrom in Kolvillàg serves the same function, for it displays the bankruptcy of a vision which lauds the innocence and perfectability of the human. The atrocity indicates that all things are possible, precisely because all ethical ties were so radically violated. The Rebbe sees this clearly when he comments, “A Jew must not expect anything from Christians, man must not expect anything from man” (O 257). To place one's faith in man is, to the Rebbe and to Wiesel, foolishness; for Jewish history, if it teaches anything, indicates that mankind is a capricious deity in which to trust. There are persons, however, who persist in an improper elevation of the ethical capacities of man. For instance, the enlightened Stephen Braun, having disassociated himself from his tradition, embraces a facile humanism by saying “I believe only in man …” (O 216).

While it is foolish with Braun to expect everything from man, and while it is shortsighted with the Rebbe to expect nothing from man, we can in Wiesel's vision expect something from man. We can do so because of conscience, that human capacity which is proper to the ethical dimension of life. Nurtured in a community, tempered by action and failure to act, sustained through the shared memory of one's people, conscience is at once the apex of man's dignity and the occasion for his debasement.

In Wiesel, conscience is not an individual affair; and, to be sure, the word itself connotes a “knowing with” (con-scientia). The relational—that is, the dialogical—grounding of conscience is suggested when the narrator remarks, “Whoever says ‘I’ creates the ‘you.’ Such is the trap of every conscience” (O 17). Conscience makes possible a meaningful and responsible existence, for conscience is that which goads the self to see that it is in danger of existing meaninglessly, non-responsively, negatively.

As an accomplishment of humanity which is passed on through the fragile linguistic connections linking generation to generation and person to person, conscience is not only inextricably connected with a community but also with the past. For Wiesel, memory sustains the conscience, individual and corporate. The association of conscience and memory is explicit in several places in The Oath, as when Azriel reflects on his memory of the pogrom: “What then is the significance of this mute testimony deposited within me? An invisible force compels me to walk a stretch of road, my head bowed or held high, alone or at another's side—and we call that life. I look back, and we call that conscience” (O 78). The memory of what has been and what might have been allows Azriel to envision possibilities for what might yet be. Conscience, then, is in Wiesel as much retrospective as it is prospective; indeed, its being the latter is dependent on its being the former.

The ethical dimension of life of course is principally concerned with present action in behalf of the other. For Wiesel, apathy typically deters persons from such action. Azriel remarks, “I am afraid of only one thing: indifference” (O 201). This finally is why he tells the story of Kolvillàg: to save the young man from the deadliest death-in-life, that of apathy and boredom and detachment. Habits of perceiving, of valuing, of acting, of hoping and failing to hope keep persons chained to indifference. Azriel's story breaks the habits into which the young man has fallen and restores his attachment to life, enabling him to re-envisage his world. As he listens, his conscience is awakened, and he is released from indifference and delivered into the suffering and vulnerability of being with others.

The awakened conscience propels persons to the liveliness of action, moving, for instance, Azriel to tell his story. To be sure, the voice of conscience speaks ambiguously. On the one hand, it counsels Azriel to keep his oath of silence; on the other, it urges him to speak in behalf of life. Azriel cannot expect unambiguous direction; for we are “all too weak, too ignorant to foresee the outcome of our plans” (O 70). But in the struggle of life with death Azriel realizes, “One must act, do something” (O 22). He must do something because he is called to do so. The call of conscience—it is an important notion in Wiesel—comes to the self, from within the self, asking for response. “Every word is a call and every call is an adventure,” a call to venture one's self in being with another (O 55).

The ethical dimension, which includes memory and conscience, thus is central to the life which Azriel chooses in The Oath. With an insistence on these elements, Wiesel stands against a tendency over the past two centuries to free Western man from conscience. Some persons have viewed conscience as a tyrannical force, foisted on a spontaneous, truly human existence. Conscience, some have suggested, has contributed to a morbid self-consciousness characteristic of a stage of history which needs to be left behind. We surely cannot deny that conscience in the West on occasion manifests the excesses of a life-denying rigidity and of an enervating scrupulosity. Conscience sometimes reduces individuals to a self-enclosed narcissistic fascination with their own interiority. But a thorough-going rebellion against the excesses of conscience in Western culture contributes, as Erich Kahler observes, “not just to a devaluation of specific values, not a mere invalidation of a world of values.” Rather, there can be, and Kahler argues that there has been, “a dwindling of the faculty of valuation altogether … a devaluation of valuation as such.”7

In retaining conscience as an essential element in the life he chooses, Wiesel reminds us that we cannot, or ought not, avoid judging the life we lead. To recoil from judgment through an escape into indifference, or through a retreat into the supposed freedom of momentarism or a thorough-going relativism, is to abdicate a human life in favor of one less than fully human. Without judgment we retreat from the possibility of a meaningful existence; we abandon the responsibility of distinguishing that which serves life from that which serves death. Moshe himself makes this explicit: “To be Jewish is to be able to distinguish. … In our tradition, danger is called mixture, the enemy is called chaos. … His whole life long the Jew is committed to separating light from darkness, Shabbat from the rest of the week, the pure from the impure, the sacred from the profane, the return from the exile, life from death. … ‘And thou shalt choose life’ means you shall separate it” (O 196-97). Neither Azriel nor Wiesel would agree with Moshe's passion for clear separation, for a fundamental element of Wiesel's vision is that life within history is always a mixture. While we might reject Moshe's concern for precision as an indication of his madness, we cannot in Wiesel obviate the insistence on judging. To distinguish that which diminishes evil from that which increases it, to discriminate that which contributes to community from that which undermines it, to judge between that which engenders hope from that which erodes it—such judgments of conscience are essential to the life Wiesel portrays.

While linking the ethical with memory and the past, Wiesel integrally connects the aesthetic with imagination and the future. The association of the aesthetic with imagination might at first seem to contradict his insistence that storytelling is essentially an act of testifying, that repetition is more important than creation. What Wiesel says of Zalmen, or the Madness of God applies to all his works, that each is “conceived as testimony rather than as a work of the imagination …” (Z [Zalmen, or the Madness of God] ix). As one character remarks in The Oath, “All has been said, I can only repeat” (O 89). In the art of Wiesel the past does seem to dominate over the future, and certainly, “a man without a past is poorer than a man without a future”—or, memory without imagination is preferable to imagination without memory (O 76). Yet, in the life that Wiesel affirms you do not have one without the other. Memory and imagination, conscience and dream, past and future work together, each tempering the other against excess and absolutization. Moreover, the act of witnessing to the past is not solely an act of memory; it is also an act of imagination. To witness to the past is irrevocably to imagine the past.

The interdependence of the aesthetic and the ethical is apparent in The Oath, for the novel is about enlivening the imagination of the young man as much as it is about resensitizing his conscience. Just as an awakened conscience is the antidote to indifference in Wiesel, a revitalized imagination is the antidote to despair. Conscience is necessary for action; imagination is necessary for hope; both are necessary to sustain one through a lifetime of action. Azriel remarks to his companion, “You have not yet lived and already you hate life” (O 68). The reason he hates life is that he fails to see alternatives for the future; for without imagination, no person can project possibilities in the context of life's necessities. Azriel says, “Make him dream. … If I succeed, he is saved. One doesn't kill oneself while dreaming, not even while dreaming to kill oneself” (O 64). Azriel tells the story, and Wiesel writes the novel to make us dream, to vivify the imagination, to evoke visions of another kind of world, to add “what might be” to “what already is.”

To consider imagination in Wiesel is immediately to enter upon a discussion of the messianic theme in his literature. Without being able in this context fully to explore that theme, we must in passing observe that the Messiah is inextricably linked to the imagination and connotes a realm so grand that we call it “eternity”: “The Messiah will not die. He is our link to eternity” (O 132). Importantly, Wiesel often associates the messianic theme with the image of the child. As Moshe says: “We think he [Messiah] is in heaven; we don't know that he likes to come down disguised as a child. And yet, every man's childhood is messianic in essence. Except that today it has become a game to kill childhood. Thus it is hopeless” (O 132-133). The death of the child signals, for Wiesel, the death of the imagination, the future, and the Messiah. The Oath is in large part concerned with saving the child. Part I of the novel is called “The Old Man and the Child,” and Azriel himself refers to the young man on several occasions as “child.” Of course the young man is not literally a child, yet Azriel's story is directed to the element of childhood which in every person is on the verge of extinction. To save the child is to sustain hope; it is to free the imagination to create a future; it is to join one's present with the messianic possibilities which are one's future.

The imagination, and with it the aesthetic dimension of existence, is not, however, sovereign in Wiesel. “To dream,” Azriel says, “is to invite a future, if not to justify it …” (O 64). To justify or to legitimate the creations of one's imagination is the task of conscience. The mistake of Moshe lies precisely in the fact that he comes to the place where he is unwilling to submit his imaginings to conscience for evaluation. He assumes what every madman assumes, that imagination provides its own justification. In The Oath the retreat into pure imagination is rejected, for unbounded imagination often teeters into destructive madness. When the imagination is loosed from every claim of memory, when dream is severed from any restraint of reality, madness—or at least, irrelevancy—is the consequence.

In this rejection of a pure aestheticism, Elie Wiesel again declares his distinctiveness as a contemporary writer. Starting with certain of the Romantics, art has at times been viewed as a way out of history, as an exit from the alienating and alienated condition so characteristic of our culture. Often art has emerged as a self-justifying activity, accountable solely to its own criteria of judgment. In this retreat into the realm of pure imagination, it is difficult at times to discern anything resembling a firm connection with the fullness of human life. Much of recent literary art consequently seems suspended in a self-contained, hermetically sealed world, whirling on its own axis, revolving around and into its own proliferation of contradictions. Such art often is tedious, at least in part, because it turns from, rather than serves, life in history.

It is his insistence that history and memory be at all points linked with imagination that guards Wiesel from a retreat into an absolute reliance on imaginative powers. We see this in the treatment of Moshe in The Oath. As the spokesman for the way of imagination, Moshe's final answer to the problem of Jewish suffering is to put an end to history. This is the import of his strategy of silence, for silence is the speech of the atemporal, of the non-historical. Silence is, in a sense, the medium of the purest art work, for silence stands outside the ineradicably historical character of all human speech. In the aesthetic dimension, Wiesel rejects the pure art work, just as in the ethical, he rejects the pure life. For him, all art and all life are a drama of good and evil, of time and eternity, of history and imagination. This mixed world may not be the best world that imagination could devise or that conscience could envisage, but it is more truly a human one.

As important as the ethical and aesthetic dimensions are in the life envisaged in Wiesel's literature, we cannot overlook the importance of the religious. It is perhaps as much a deep awareness of the inadequacies of a reductionistic humanism and an expansive aestheticism as it is explicit theological commitments that compels Wiesel to preserve a creative place for the religious. Life is too mysterious, too fraught with ambiguities for him to relinquish the religious. Man is too frail, too given to destructive passions and false idols to be the sole repository of one's fundamental commitments.

While the scope of this essay does not permit an adequate treatment of this aspect of his vision, we can note that the religious in Wiesel is the sphere of the inexplicable and the mysterious. The symbol for this dimension of experience is God, and the response to that experience is faith, which takes variously the forms of rebellion and defiance, gratitude and expectation. The symbol “God” names a character in the story of Judaism, and as such it points not so much to a being as to levels of experience which defy commonsensical explanations. The symbol is an encompassing one, evoking a depth in a large range of experience. We see this in a remark of the young man's mother in The Oath: “Memory, conscience, the past, fate—God. I am helpless against God” (O 95). In the syntax of the first of these statements “God” encompasses the previous four realities, which is not to say that God “equals” the four. Rather, the symbol “God” is needed adequately to speak the density of the experience involved in each of these separate realities. Also, for Wiesel, the Jew finally is “helpless against God,” which does not mean that the Jew is necessarily for God. Indeed, in Wiesel, the stance is often against God; but finally the Jew cannot be without God.8

Wiesel's religious vision, for all its defiance and questioning, does finally come to imbue ordinary existence with revelatory potential. Azriel reports, “It was my Master who had taught me the art of tracking down the presence in our surroundings: all is life, all is symbol” (O 149). “The presence” is the dimension of God in all that is; this is the Shekhinah, the divine presence which always lies in wait for the attentive spirit.

In repudiating Moshe, Azriel chooses against what, in the broad sweep of Wiesel's literature, appears as a distortion in the religious dimension of existence. The distortion is to seek an unmediated experience of the divine, to bypass the human and aim directly for the high prize. The Rebbe reflects this aberrant religiosity when he remarks, “Consolation can and must come only from God” (O 257). “God” symbolizes the ultimate source of all consolation in Wiesel, but that consolation is made present only through human relationships. Moshe, in his speech to the community, signals the excesses of pure religion when he proclaims, “Better to speak to God than to man, better to listen to God than to His spokesman” (O 241). The strategy of silence is itself a discipline of pure religion, for in Moshe's vision, God understands silence, while man does not. Silence sacrifices the relationship with man in behalf of an unalloyed relationship with God, and in so doing it distorts a life-serving religiosity. Moshe's religious response abstracts itself from history in order to enact the trans-historical “city of the sun” (O 147). While the pogrom is raging, he is already imaginatively transported to another place and time: “Moshe in his cell was working on the speech he planned to deliver to the Celestial Tribunal” (O 259). There perhaps comes a time, as it has with Moshe, when one's advocacy for justice before the terrestrial tribunal has met with such failure and rejection that one, if only as an act of despair, not of faith, sets his sight on the celestial at the expense of the terrestrial. Yet, Azriel's choice suggests that one can never be sure that he has done all that he can in the historical; hence one must never totally desert the human city in order to secure a place in the divine.

Though it is not explicitly stated as such, it is appropriate to see Azriel's choice of life as a choice in behalf of God. In his effort to dissuade Moshe from being a martyr for the community, the Rebbe makes the correlation: “You shall live your life, you shall protect it. Whoever renounces his life, rejects life, rejects Him who gives life” (O 152). Life is to be protected, enhanced, celebrated, and sanctified precisely because it is given by God: “Life is a gift, and not a piece of merchandise” (O 267). This means that finally life is not at one's disposal, one's own life or that of another. Life is not chattel to barter away by compromise with false idols, or to sacrifice to the wild imaginings of madmen.

What is God in Wiesel's literature? He is the giver of the mysteries which compromise life; and, as such, he contains within himself the gifts which he bestows—good and evil, suffering and joy, exile and return, being and becoming, laughter and tears. And, “what is man? A cry of gratitude. … Because of it all, in spite of it all” (O 175).

These, then, are features of the life which Azriel, and by implication, Wiesel, chooses in The Oath. It is clear that with this vision he attempts to enhance our awareness of our shared humanity and to deepen our commitment to time and history. With this vision Wiesel is perhaps not so much saying “this is my world,” as “this is the world toward which I move; it is a world toward which I, in the art of speaking, feel, yearn, and strive.” Perhaps his literature will not attain the stature of true genius, but perhaps that is not his intention or desire. He seems, rather, to have taken the role of, in the words of W. H. Auden, “the less exciting figure of the builder, who renews the ruined walls of the city.”9The Oath itself is about the destruction and recreation of a town. The larger city, of course, is the human city. In committing himself to modest changes in the realm of the human, Wiesel risks his artistry in behalf of work which will not endure but which will be forever in need of renewal and repair. It is, however, a risk worth taking, for to him any other is a choice of death over life.


  1. “Two Images, One Destiny,” (New York: United Jewish Appeal, 1974), p. 2. Hereafter all references to Wiesel's writing will be noted parenthetically in the text. The following abbreviations and editions are used: BJ = A Beggar in Jerusalem, trans. Lily Edelman and the author (New York: Avon Books, 1970); GF = The Gates of the Forest, trans. Frances Frenaye (New York: Avon Books, 1967); LT = Legends of Our Time (New York: Avon Books, 1970); N = Night, trans. Stella Rodway (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960); O = The Oath (New York: Avon Books, 1974); OGA = One Generation After, trans. Lily Edelman and the Author (New York: Avon Books, 1972); SF = Souls of Fire, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Vintage Books, 1973); TBW = The Town beyond the Wall, trans. Stephen Becker (New York: Avon Books, 1970); Z = Zalmen or the Madness of God (New York: Random House, 1974).

  2. Joshua 24:15. I have previously explored the dimension of questioning in Wiesel's literature in “Elie Wiesel and the Drama of Interrogation,” The Journal of Religion, LVI (January 1976), 18-35. The present essay continues the discussion which was begun in the earlier essay and hence is, in some respects, a companion piece.

  3. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, cited by Edward Engleberg, The Unknown Distance: From Consciousness to Conscience: Goethe to Camus (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 28.

  4. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p. 103.

  5. For a fuller discussion of these matters, see James Wm. McClendon's critique of “decisionism” in Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today's Theology (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974), pp. 18-28.

  6. Three Novels by Samuel Beckett: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 309.

  7. The Tower and the Abyss: An Inquiry into Transformation of the Individual (New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1957), p. 203. Emphasis is Kahler's.

  8. Wiesel himself makes this point in “Storytelling and the Ancient Dialogue,” lecture delivered at Temple University, November 15, 1969.

  9. Quoted by Robert Currie, Genius: An Ideology in Literature (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), p. 211.

Byron L. Sherwin (essay date October 1978)

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SOURCE: Sherwin, Byron L. “Jewish Messianism and Elie Wiesel.” Notre Dame English Journal 11, no. 1 (October 1978): 33-46.

[In the following essay, Sherwin discusses Wiesel as a Jewish author and examines his “utilization of the sources and themes which constitute classical Jewish Messianism.”]


There are three varieties of Jewish authors. One kind writes neither out of his Jewish experience nor out of his Judaism. This type of writer rejects what he is an sometimes will write anti-Semitically and with distinct Christian symbolism in order to flaunt his “liberation” from geneological ties. An example of this variety would be Nathanael West.1

A second variety of Jewish author writes out of his Jewish experience but not out of Judaism. This is the dominant category in America. An example of this kind would be Philip Roth.2 Members of this class are often characterized as “Eastern, liberal, academic—in short, ‘Jewish.’”3 This brand of writer often writes about Judaism. He often expresses a self-confident ignorance sometimes joined by an arrogance bred of self-hatred.4 His standards for defining what is authentic to the Jewish people and to the Jewish religion are often sociological generalizations and personal interpretations of questionable ethnic peculiarities. Jewish historical experience and classical Jewish literature are rarely considered. When this type of Jewish author attempts to write out of his understanding of Judaism, theological absurdities and historical blunders often ensue.

The final type of Jewish author writes both out of his Jewish experience and out of Judaism. He writes about the Jewish people and about the Jewish religion from within. His own experience is interpreted from the perspective of Jewish historical experience and with an awareness of the literature of classical Judaism. Members of this class, therefore, can claim a more intense authenticity than those of the other varieties of Jewish authors. Few can qualify for membership. Elie Wiesel is one who can.

An author is not only a spectator. He may also be a witness. Elie Wiesel has served as a witness to the three central events in contemporary Jewish experience: the Holocaust, Israel, and Soviet Jewry.

The Greek word for “witness” is “martyr.” Once the martyr is dead another witness is needed. Wiesel fills this role for the martyrs of Auschwitz. He is the “messenger of the dead among the living,”5 the “spiritual archivist of the Holocaust.”6

Elie Wiesel was in Israel during both Israel's War for Independence and the Six Day War. His novelette Dawn treats the former; his novel A Beggar in Jerusalem describes the latter. His writings on Russian Jewry are based upon his visits to the Soviet Union.7 He speaks for those who cannot speak and to those who, he claims, will not listen.8

Wiesel directly confronts the vital experiences of contemporary Jewry armed with a profound and erudite knowledge of classical Judaism. His grasp of the primary sources of classical Jewish literature, which most of his American Jewish colleagues do not share, enables him to offer literary contributions of impeccable Jewish historical and theological authenticity. The present essay will attempt to serve as a source-critical analysis of Wiesel's utilization of the sources and themes which constitute classical Jewish Messianism.


According to Jewish mystical thought, man need not be a passive spectator to the cosmic drama of redemption; he can be a participant, a liberator, a protagonist.9 Man's task is to work in partnership with the Divine to effect redemption.

For the Jewish mystics, redemption comes for man, for the world and for God's Indwelling in the world—the Shekinah. Redemption is marked by bringing the scattered forces into unity and harmony. The Messianic Age may thus be understood as one in which “exile” or alienation ceases. It is a time of liberation for man, for the world and for the Divine presence in the world.

Until the final redemption, insists the Jewish mystical tradition, everything in the natural and the supernatural spheres remains alienated from its true essence. God Himself is no exception. His presence in the world, like that of His people, is in exile, alienated from its true essence. The exile of Israel is understood to reflect the exile of the Divine. “Wherever Israel was exiled, there was God exiled.”10 The redemption of Israel, therefore, implies the redemption of the Divine.

That the redemption of the Divine is interlaced with the redemption of man is an important theme in Rabbinic literature.11 “When Israel is redeemed, God too is redeemed,” says a midrash. Rabbi Meir is quoted by another midrash as saying, “‘Redemption,’ says God, ‘will be mine and yours,’ as if to say: ‘I will be redeemed with you.’”12

On the verse in Psalms, “My heart shall rejoice in Thy salvation,” (13:6), Rabbi Abahu taught: “This is one of those difficult verses which declare that the salvation of the Holy One, blessed be He, depends upon the salvation of the people of Israel. Note that it is not written ‘My heart shall rejoice in my salvation,’ but ‘in Thy salvation’ by which David means: Thy salvation depends upon our salvation.”13

Still another source suggests that in the Messianic era God will be compared to a bridegroom.14 Marriage, in Jewish thought, is an end to alienation, a symbol of fulfillment. A parable:

Once a prince was betrothed to a princess. A certain day had been appointed for the festivities before the wedding. The prince was looking forward to his wedding joy … So does the Holy One, blessed be He, look forward to redemption for Israel, and Israel awaits redemption for the Holy One, blessed be He.15

This Rabbinic notion of the exile and redemption of God and man was further developed in the sixteenth century by R. Isaac Luria. According to Lurianic mysticism, the harmony which characterized existence on all levels—human, cosmic, Divine—was disrupted by the “breaking of the vessels” which contained the Divine Light. As a result of this event, the Shekinah was cast into exile and part of the Divine light flowed downward into the cosmos. Thus sparks from the Divine light are to be found throughout creation. But these sparks, which belong reunited with their Source, are now mixed with the evil elements which surround and imprison them with “shells.” The purpose of human existence is to restore the primordial harmony and unity. Redemption is acquired through man's attempts to liberate the sparks through the performance of good deeds, and rejoin them to their Source.16

Luria formulates a similar theory concerning the soul of Adam, the first man. According to this view, after Adam's fall, which intervened when he should have completed the restoration of harmony by lifting up all the Divine sparks from the broken vessels, the great and all-embracing soul that was his was shattered, too. The souls of all men, symbolized as sparks, originally comprising the soul of the first man, were scattered throughout the world. The human sparks, like the Shekinah and its sparks, are in exile, dispersed. The reunification of the sparks of the First Man brings about the advent of the Last Man, the Messiah.17 In this view, the Messiah is not one who brings redemption but one who comes as a sign that redemption has arrived.18 The Lurianic notion that each of our souls contains a spark of the soul of the primordial Adam, which is identical to the soul of the Messiah, means that each individual shares in the drama of bringing the Messiah because he shares in being the Messiah. Luria's system often fails to distinguish between these two kinds of sparks: human and divine.

The already described perspective of Luria appears in Wiesel with this characteristic absence of a clear differentiation between the human and divine sparks.19 Wiesel writes:

An aspect of God was concealed even in evil, and the theory of the Nitzotzot said so poetically: every man possesses a divine spark. The Shekinah is the sum of the sparks. Let the Shekinah—the divine emanation—be reunited with God, and the world will have achieved its final liberation.20

Wiesel restates the rabbinic notion that man has the power to redeem God's presence in the world and the Kabbalistic notion that attainment of the internal unity of the Godhead is to be equated with redemption. The collection of the sparks, restoring the primordial unity of the divine forces in the cosmos, stressed in Lurianic thinking, is reiterated by Wiesel:

Once I asked my teacher, Kalman the cabalist, the following question: For what purpose did God create man? I understand that man needs God. But what need of man has God? … ‘The Holy Books teach us,’ he said, ‘that if man were conscious of his power, he would lose his faith or his reason. For man carries within him a role which transcends him. God needs him to be ONE … man—who is nothing but a handful of earth—is capable of reuniting time and its source, and of giving back to God his own image.’21


Some critics claim that Wiesel “asserts that it is too late for the Messiah,” that he rejects the Messianic advent.22 What is claimed here is that Wiesel does not reject the Messianic idea. He simply stresses the Lurianic notion of a collective Messiah over the role of an individual Messiah. The same text which has been used to illustrate Wiesel's rejection of the Messiah can be used to validate his opting for the collective Messiah. Wiesel writes: “‘The Messiah is not coming. He's not coming because he has already come. This is unknown, but he is neither at the gates of Rome nor in heaven. Everybody is wrong. The Messiah is everywhere.’; ‘The Messiah,’ he used to say, ‘is that which makes man more human, which takes the element of pride out of generosity, which stretches his soul toward others.’”23 “‘We shall be honest and humble and strong, and then he will come, he will come every day, thousands of times every day. He will have no face, because he will have a thousand faces. The Messiah isn't one man, Clara, he's all men. As long as there are men there will be a Messiah.’”24

Though Wiesel stresses the Lurianic notion of the collective Messiah, he continues to allude to the individual Messiah. He writes:

‘The Talmud tells us,’ said Gavriel, ‘that the Messiah sits, waiting to be called, at the gates of Rome, amid beggars and cripples and other outcasts. The Kaballah, on the other hand, says that he conceals himself far from men and near to God, in the most holy and inaccessible of sanctuaries, and from there he sees time unfold—time filled with pity and distress—and beyond time, eternity.’25

In this text Wiesel reflects a polarity inherent in Jewish messianism.26 From one perspective the Messiah is apprehended as a heavenly being: another view has him a citizen of earth.

The apprehension of the Messiah as one who lives amongst men is common in Wiesel's writings.27 The Talmudic passage to which Wiesel refers in the above citation is the following:

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi met the prophet Elijah standing near the tomb of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai.

Rabbi: When will the Messiah come?

Prophet: Ask him yourself.

Rabbi: Where shall I find him?

Prophet: At the gates of Rome.

Rabbi: How will I recognize him?

Prophet: He sits among the poor lepers bandaging their sores.

The rabbi then travelled to Rome and found the Messiah as the prophet had said.

Rabbi: Peace upon you, Master and Teacher.

Messiah: Peace upon you, son of Levi.

Rabbi: Master, when may we expect you to come?

Messiah: Today.

After some time, when the Messiah had not yet come, the Rabbi asked Elijah for an explanation.

Rabbi: He spoke falsely to me, stating he would come today, but he has not come.

Elijah: He was quoting the first word of a verse in Psalms: Today, IF you will hearken to His voice

(Psalm 95:7)28

As Wiesel notes, the Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, to some extent, stresses the farness, the hiddenness, the inaccessibility of the Messiah in his heavenly abode, close to God. This motif already appears in apocalyptic literature where the Messiah is perceived as “chosen and hidden before Him” and “dwelling under the wings of the Lord of spirits.”29 Rabbinic literature preserves a similar notion. God “puts His Messiah away, under His throne, until the time of the generation in which he will appear.”30 A representative citation of what Wiesel describes as the Kabbalistic perspective is the following text from the central book of Jewish mystical literature, the Zohar:

In the lower Paradise there is a secret and unknown spot, embroidered with many colors, in which a thousand palaces of longing are concealed. No one may enter it, except the Messiah whose abode is in Paradise. … There is another place, entirely hidden and undiscoverable. It is called “Eden,” and no one may enter to behold it. Now the Messiah is hidden in its outskirts. … The Messiah enters that abode, lifts up his eyes and beholds the Patriarchs visiting the ruins of God's sanctuary. He perceives Mother Rachel, with tears upon her face; the Holy One, blessed be He, tries to comfort her, but she refuses to be comforted. (Jeremiah 31:14) Then the Messiah lifts up his voice and weeps, and the whole Garden of Eden quakes, and all the righteous and saints who are there break out in crying and lamentation with him. When the crying and weeping resound for the second time, the whole firmament above the Garden begins to shake, and the cry echoes from five hundred myriads of supernatural hosts, until it reaches the highest throne. … The Holy One swears to destroy the wicked kingdom by the hand of the Messiah, to avenge Israel, and to give her all the good things which he promised. Then the Messiah is hidden again in the same place as before.31


As was mentioned above, Jewish messianism provides man with a dynamic, participatory role in securing redemption. Man must not passively wait for the Messiah but should precipitate his advent. This motif is reiterated many times by Wiesel: “I wanted to discover the sanctuary of the Messiah, to grip him by the shoulders and bring him forcibly to earth.”32 It is therefore understandable why Wiesel should choose to recount the legend of Joseph di-la-Reina.

There are many versions of this powerful example from Jewish lore of a man who tried, single-handed, to bring about the promised redemption. Wiesel relates it as follows:

A famous medieval cabalist, Joseph di-la-Reina, made up his mind to put an end to the comedy which man is condemned to play against himself and to bring about the advent of the Messiah. At the cost of considerable sacrifice the great sage overcame Satan and threw him into chains. Everywhere—in heaven and upon earth, in paradise and in Hell—there was a great commotion: the end was at hand. But the sage made one mistake: he took pity on his captive and succumbed to his tears. Pity is a double-edged weapon, and Satan knows how to use it. He broke his chains, and the Messiah, already on the threshold, was forced to return to his prison, somewhere infinitely far away, in the chaos of time and man's hope. Everything had to start all over, because the poor miracle-maker had a heart which wasn't hard enough.33

The sacrifices to which Wiesel alludes include extreme ascetic exercises: e.g., fasting, lack of sleep, many immersions, and the dangerous, sometimes fatal practice of magic associated with “practical mysticism” (Kabalah ma'aseeth). Only after first training his mystical and magical abilities to withstand a bout with Satan does Joseph engage his opponents.34

Many versions of this episode, unlike that of Wiesel, have the protagonist either converting or committing suicide when hope of redemption is lost.35 But this ending seems to be a gloss, superimposed upon the original tale.36 Wiesel, therefore, recounts what is probably the authentic version of the tale.


Engrained within Jewish optimism is the awareness of the redemptive potentiality of suffering and affliction. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem said that from “suffering”—tsa'ar—can come 'tzo'har—light, the symbol of redemption. Redemption may elicit from affliction.

The paradigm redemptive act in Jewish history, the Exodus, was the climax of the afflictions suffered in Egypt.37 From the bitterness of affliction many blessings can accrue.38 It should, therefore, not be surprising that the time of redemption is envisioned as being preceded by the “birth-pangs of redemption.”39 It is only to be expected that the Redeemer must suffer to secure redemption.

According to a tradition repeated in several midrashim, the Messiah assumes one-third of all suffering.40 According to other sources, he suffers for the sake of each generation, the degree of his suffering being determined by the gravity of the sins.41 For this reason Hermann Cohen called the Messiah “the moral Atlas of the world.” According to a medieval midrash, when he learns that his suffering is the necessary prerequisite for the resurrection of the dead, “the Messiah immediately accepts all these afflictions in love.”42

The Midrash Pesikta Rabbathi records the Messiah's willingness to suffer, but only if redemption is the outcome of his affliction. The Midrash has the Messiah demand of God:

Master of the Universe, with joy in my soul and gladness in my heart I take this suffering upon myself, provided that not one person in Israel perish; that not only those who are alive today be saved in my days, but that also those who are dead, who died from the days of Adam up to the time of redemption; and that not only these be saved in my days, but also those who died as abortions; and that not only these be saved in my days, but all those whom Thou desirest to create but were not created. Such are the things I desire, and for these I am ready to take upon myself whatever Thou decreest.43

The Zohar also reiterates the theme of the suffering Messiah. When the Messiah hears of the suffering of the righteous, he weeps, imploring God to allow him to assume the burden of the suffering of his people. He then assumes that burden. If not for this, insists the Zohar, no one could endure the sufferings which one's sins would normally justify.44

The Messiah suffers not for himself but for others, not for his own redemption but for the redemption of others, because he knows that sometimes affliction must be penultimate to redemption. Wiesel echoes this motif. He insists that when suffering is to secure only one's own redemption, it is brutish, selfish and immoral. It can make one proud rather than humble.45 When suffering is self-reflective it is counter-redemptive; only when suffering is for another can it be redemptive.46

Suffering gains meaning when it is for a “thou,” whether the thou be human or divine. The “other” attains his existence and his redemption through our suffering for him. To the human thou Wiesel suggests: “Suffering must open us to others.”47 “To say ‘I suffer, therefore I am’ is to become the enemy of man. What you must say is ‘I suffer, therefore you are.’”48

Wiesel suggests the Lurianic claim that everyman carries a spark of the Messiah's soul and that all men, consequently, can share in bringing the redemption. Each man can bring “a drop of Messianic fulfillment.” Everyone, therefore, has a duty to suffer, when necessary, to bring about redemption. The “suffering servant” is not one man but every man; each man is a miniature Messiah.


The Hebrew root of the verb “to wait” (K V H) can also mean “to hope” and “to pray.” Much of Jewish history has been waiting, hoping, praying. After each of the many great catastrophes which befell the Jewish people, it was expected that the Messianic Age would soon dawn. Persecution and calamity were often interpreted as the birthpangs of what was expected to be a new era of peace and prosperity. Hope was perceived even in apparently hopeless situations.

The destruction of the First Temple and the exile of the Jews was a time of tragedy, sorrow and despair. The razing of the Second Temple and the end of the Second Jewish Commonwealth led many to despondency. But no matter how harsh the tragedy, the rabbis still found hope, even with the temple destroyed, even with thousands massacred or exiled. This ability to find hope within despair is expressed by the Rabbinic view that the Messiah was born on the day on which the Temple was destroyed.49 In other words, redemption is always potentially present, even within tragedy.

Many writers on the Holocaust express an expectation for the Messianic advent during the Holocaust. Certainly if the Messiah was expected when one Temple was destroyed, so could he be expected when six million temples were destroyed.

The birth-pangs of the Messianic age felt during the Holocaust produced a still-born. The Divine promise, recorded in the Midrash, was not fulfilled:

Israel: ‘When will you redeem us?’

God: ‘When you have gone down to the bottom of the pit, then shall I redeem You.’50

Yet even at the pit, hope persisted. Wiesel writes:

It was night. I found myself transported into a strange and distant kingdom. In the shadow of the flames, the exiled were gathered. They came from everywhere, they spoke every language and all told the same story. Seeing them together under the fiery sky, the child in me had thought: This is it; this is the end of time, the end of everything. Any moment the Messiah will appear out of the night. …51

The question which haunts Wiesel is whether the waiting has been in vain, whether the prayers have gone unheard, whether one can hope for a future, much less for a Messiah in the future after Auschwitz.52

Wiesel's response to this question becomes evident in the progression from deep pessimism toward a somber but firm optimism discernible in the chronological development of his writings.53 His earliest work, Night, presents a world without mercy, without humanity, without God. It is a world of night and abandonment of responsibility.54

Wiesel's second work—Dawn—begins at the end of night. A glimmer of hope is perceived. The meaning of the establishment of the State of Israel begins the end of absolute pessimism for the survivor of tragedy. Le Jour is mistakenly translated as The Accident; it should be called “Day.”55 With the assertion that life has meaning, Wiesel states the assumption to be expounded in his following work, The Town beyond the Wall. In this work, meaning in life is understood as found in one's caring for another, in suffering for another, and in preventing another from suffering: “I suffer—therefore you are.”56 These ideas are explored more completely in The Gates of the Forest. Here Wiesel is optimistic. As long as there is man, there is hope. “What is man? Dust turned to hope.”57 The theme of care and suffering is expanded. Suffering endows man with the fortitude to work, even in spite of God, for redemption.58 Remembrance of former suffering and·new faith are needed to prevent a recurrence of old suffering. The goal of suffering is to ennoble.

In The Jews of Silence Wiesel derives hope from Russian Jewry, a community which thrives on hope.59 In A Beggar in Jerusalem, a psalm about, the Six Day War, the reader is witness to a transformation from doubt to affirmation, from fear to joy. The Jews of Silence indicts World Jewry for being apathetic to the plight of Russian Jewry, of not having learned the brutal lessons of Auschwitz. In A Beggar in Jerusalem, Wiesel congratulates World Jewry for preventing a second Holocaust, for not affirming his fears. During the Six Day War, claims Wiesel, the prayers of Israel were answered,60 their hopes fulfilled, and a Messianic presence was evident.61 In One Generation After, the optimism of A Beggar in Jerusalem is tempered. Wiesel now expresses optimism and pessimism. The future becomes a question mark. After all that has happened, one can only hope and pray and wait.

Having concluded that human suffering was beyond endurance, a certain Rebbe went up to heaven and knocked at the Messiah's gate.

“Why are you taking so long?” he asked him. “Don't you know mankind is expecting you?”

“It is not me they are expecting,” answered the Messiah. “Some are waiting for good health and riches. Others for serenity and knowledge. Or peace in the home and happiness. No, it's not me they are awaiting.”

At this point, the Rebbe lost patience and cried: “So be it! If you have but one face, may it remain in shadow! If you cannot help men, all men, resolve their problems, all their problems, even the most insignificant, then stay where you are, as you are. If you still have not guessed that you are bread for the hungry, a voice for the old man without airs, sleep for those who dread night, if you have not understood all this and more: that every wait is a wait for you, then you are telling the truth: indeed, it is not you that mankind is waiting for.”

The Rebbe came back to earth, gathered his disciples and forbade them to despair:

“And now the true waiting begins.”62


  1. Stanley Edgar Hyman. “Afterword,” in Nathanael West. Miss Lonely-hearts (New York: Avon, 1955), pp. 119ff.

  2. See for example: Theodore Solataroff. “Philip Roth and the Jewish Moralists,” Marvin Murdick, “Who killed Herzog? or Three American Novelists,” and the little known review of Portnoy's Complaint by Gershom Scholem, the leading authority on Jewish mysticism, in the Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 17 (1970), pp. 56-58.

  3. Glen Meeter. Philip Roth and Bernard Malamud: A Critical Essay, (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 10.

  4. Eugen Borowitz. “Believing Jews and Jewish Writers,” Judaism 14:2 (Spring 1965), p. 181.

  5. Elie Wiesel. The Accident. (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962), p. 45.

  6. Curt Leviant. “Elie Wiesel: Soul on Fire,” Saturday Review of Literature, LI (January 31, 1970), 25.

  7. Elie Wiesel. The Jews of Silence. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966) (hardcover); (New York: Signet, 1967) (softcover); Legends of Our Time (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968) (hardcover), (New York: Avon, 1970) (softcover), “Moscow Revisited.”

  8. The Jews of silence refers to silent American Jewry and not to the silenced Russian Jews; Jews of Silence,ibid., hardcover: p. 103; softcover: p. 127.

  9. Zeev Eshkoli. Tenuath Ha Meshihiyuth B'Yisrael (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1952), p. 280; Abraham Heschel. Israel: Echo of Eternity (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1969), p. 159.

  10. Megillah 29a: See Abraham Heschel. Theology of Ancient Judaism (Hebrew) (London: Soncino, 1962), I, 68-70.

  11. Midrash Tanhuma, end “Aharey.”

  12. Exodus Rabbah 15:12 on Exodus 12:1.

  13. Midrash on Psalms 13:4.

  14. Yalkut Shimoni “Song of Songs” #988.

  15. Midrash on Psalms 14:6.

  16. See, for example, Shaar Maamarey Rashbi “Pekuday” 34:71; Shaar Ha Pesukim “Genesis” 3:4.

  17. See Meir ibn Gabbai. Avodath Ha Kodesh, “Helek Ha Avodah” Chapter thirty-eight; see Numbers Rabbah 13:12.

  18. Gershom Scholem. The Messianic Idea in Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1971), p. 47; Shabbtai Zevi (Hebrew) (Jerusalem Am Oved), I, 37: Isaiah Tishbi. Torath Ha Ra v'ha Klipoth b'Kabalath Ha Ari (Hebrew) (Jerusalem, 1963), pp. 134ff.

  19. Gershom Scholem. The Messianic Idea, op. cit., pp. 186f; Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken, 1941), chap. 6. Wiesel's lack of a careful distinction between the divine and the human sparks is also expressed in the fact that the Hebrew word for God—El—forms part of the names of each of his major figures—Eliezer, Elisha, Gavriel, Katriel, Michael. Man's redemptive capabilities draw from the Divine element within him. The Kabbalists, beginning with the sixteenth century, stressed the Divine element in man. No longer intimidated by Christian polemics, they asserted the possibility of a divine “part” within man. The great Jewish mystic of sixteenth century Prague, Judah Loew (Maharal), even asserted the possibility of the incarnation of God and man in the personage of Moses, the redeemer of Israel from Egypt. Loew calls Moses the man-God; see his Tiferet Yisrael, chap. 21. Hence, Wiesel's messianism is not humanistic but Kabbalistic. Furthermore, one should read Wiesel's work, specifically Beggar in Kabbalistic terms. In Kabbalistic parlance, certain personalities symbolize various sefirot or divine emanations. References to these personalities are to be read on two levels, literal and symbolic. In Beggar, Katriel represents the upper emanation Kether, David the emanation Tiferet, and Malkah the lowest emanation, the female aspect of God—Malkut or the Shekinah. Thus, Katriel and David's relationship with Malkah has not only a human but also a divine referent. When union occurs between the human couple, it effects a union in the divine realm of the sefirot. Redemptive acts below—on the human sphere—reflect above into the divine realm. Beggar is therefore not only a novel, but a modern attempt at Kabbalistic discourse.

  20. Elie Wiesel. The Town beyond the Wall (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), p. 41 (h) 46 (p) (h signifies hard cover edition, p signifies paperback edition.) See Souls On Fire (New York: Random House, 1972), pp. 33, 189. Louis Jacobs, “The Doctrine of the ‘Divine Spark in Man’ in Jewish Sources” in ed. R. Loewe. Studies in Rationalism, Judaism and Universalism (London: Routledge and Paul, 1966), pp. 98ff.

  21. ———The Accident (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962), p. 42; Town, op. cit., p. 79.

  22. Emil Fackenheim. God's Presence in History (New York: New York University Press, 1970), pp. 88, 78.

  23. Elie Wiesel. The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), pp. 32f (h), 42f (p); see also p. 33 (h), 43 (p).

  24. Ibid., p. 225 (h), 223 (p); Souls on Fire,op. cit., p. 189. Phophetic literature contains both notions, an individual as well as a collective Messiah. Rabbinic literature strongly opts for an individual Messiah; see sources noted in Joseph Klausner. (transl. W. F. Stinespring.) The Messianic Idea in Israel (New York: MacMillan, 1955), p. 214, 217; Solomon Schechter. Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (New York: Schocken, 1961), p. 101, note 2; Steven Schwarzschild. Judaism, “The Personal Messiah,” 5:2 pp. 123-135.

  25. Wiesel. Gates, op. cit., pp. 30f: A Beggar in Jerusalem (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 54.

  26. Heschel. Israel, op. cit., p. 159; Scholem. Shabbtai Zevi, op. cit., I, 7.

  27. Wiesel. Gates, op. cit., pp. 32f (h) 42f (p); 22 (h), 43 (p); Legends of Our Time (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), pp. 59, 85.

  28. Sanhedrin 98b.

  29. See Ethiopic Enoch 48:6; 39:4, 6a, 7a, 4 Ezra 12:32, 13:26-55; 14:4 and the many sources collected by Judah Even Shmuel Kaufmann. Midreshei Geulah (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1955).

  30. Pesikta Rabbathi; 36:1; Yalkut Shimoni “Isaiah” #499.

  31. Zohar II, 8a.

  32. Wiesel. Gates, op. cit., p. 31 (h), 40 (p); see Dawn (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961), p. 95; Accident, op. cit., p. 41; Town, op. cit., p. 32 (h), 37 (p); Legends, op. cit., p. 151; compare H. Leivick. “I am ready every second to go to the Messiah in the desert and free him from the chain.” Contrast Elie Wiesel, The Oath (New York: Random House, 1973), pp. 226-7.

  33. Gates, op. cit., p. 18.

  34. See the reconstructed tale from its many versions in Abraham Kahana. Maase Norah Al Yoseph de la Reina v'Hamishath Talmeedav (Hebrew) (Tel Aviv).

  35. Ibid.

  36. Gershom Scholem's analysis of the historicity of the tale in Zion (Hebrew) (old series) V, 124-130; David Kahana, A History of Sabbateans and Hasidim (Hebrew) (Odessa: 1913) I, 49f; see also Abba Hillel Silver. A History of Messianic Speculation in Israel (New York: MacMillan, 1927), p. 148.

  37. Jerusalem Talmud, Taanith 1:1.

  38. Pesikta Rabbati 44:9, Midrash on Psalms 106:9 and see, for example, Midrash on Psalms 94 and Abraham Heschel. Theology of Ancient Judaism, op. cit., I, 104-6.

  39. Hosea 13:13; Sanhedrin 98b.

  40. Midrash on Psalms 16:4; Midrash Samuel, chap. 19.

  41. Pesikta Rabbati 37; Yalkut Shimoni “Isaiah” #469.

  42. Quoted in Saul Lieberman. Shkin (Hebrew) (Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970), pp. 58f.

  43. Pesikta Rabbati, chap. 36.

  44. Zohar II, 212a.

  45. Gates, op. cit., p. 144 (h), 197 (p); Accident, p. 49; see Gates, p. 179 (h), 180 (p).

  46. Town, op. cit., p. 118 (h), 127 (p).

  47. Gates, op. cit., p. 179 (h), 180 (p).

  48. Town, op. cit., p. 118 (h), 127 (p).

  49. Lamentations Rabbah I, 16, 51; Jerusalem Talmud, Berachoth, chap. 2, 5a; Agadath Bereshith, chap. 67.

  50. Midrash on Psalms, 45:3.

  51. Souls on Fire, op. cit., p. 166; also Accident, op. cit., p. 42; see Seymour Siegel. “Theological Reflections on the Destruction of European Jewry,” Conservative Judaism, 18:4 (Summer, 1964), p. 9.

  52. Waiting is a major theme in Wiesel. For example, in The Gates of the Forest, Gregor waits for Gavriel. In A Beggar in Jerusalem, David waits for Katriel. Both Gavriel and Katriel have the Hebrew word—el—God—in their names. Man waits for God and for the Messiah. Compare Wiesel, The Oath, op. cit., p. 192.

  53. Jack Riemer. “Eli Wiesel: Messenger of the Dead,” Torch, Fall, 1967.

  54. Night, op. cit., p. 81.

  55. Abraham Heschel. The Insecurity of Freedom (New York: Farrar, Strauss, 1966), p. 147, note 5.

  56. “In this world, war, suffering, the evil inclination, Satan and the angel of death hold sway.” “Midrash Voyosha,” Beth Midrash ed. Jellinek, part 3, p. 55; “This world is compared to night.” Baba Metzia 83 b, Pesachim 2 b.

  57. Gates, op. cit., p. 87.

  58. Elie Wiesel, “Jewish Values in a Post-Holocaust Future” Judaism, Summer 1967, p. 299.

  59. Elie Wiesel, Jews of Silence (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 94.

  60. Beggar, op. cit., pp. 116ff.

  61. Ibid., pp. 53f, see 62f, 111.

  62. Elie Wiesel. One Generation After (New York: Avon, 1972), pp. 92-93.

John K. Roth (essay date December 1979)

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SOURCE: Roth, John K. “Images of God: Reflections from Elie Wiesel's Four Hasidic Masters and A Jew Today.Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea 54, no. 215 (December 1979): 419-23.

[In the following essay, Roth explores the images of God found in Four Hasidic Masters and A Jew Today.]

Elie Wiesel is a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. He is also a storyteller struggling relentlessly with the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. Author of nearly twenty books, Wiesel employs varied forms of prose and poetry, fact and fiction, to interrogate the Holocaust in ways that honor the victims and teach the living. Drawing extensively on Jewish legend and tradition, he creates literature of lasting power and moral authority. Two recent examples are Four Hasidic Masters and A Jew Today. These works can be read in many ways, but we shall focus here on the “images of God” they reflect.

Pinhas of Koretz, Barukh of Medzebozh, the Seer of Lublin, and Naphtali of Ropshitz—Wiesel's “four Hasidic masters”—take seriously that their lives are and must be images of God. As Wiesel portrays each of these teachers, his book becomes a classic Hasidic tale about friendship and hope against overwhelming odds. Its strategy is not to provide resolutions but to provoke men and women to make their own quest so that no one is left alone after Auschwitz.

Each master hones a style and a gift. Truth is Rebbe Pinhas' “total obsession and all-consuming passion” (p. 20). Barukh's distinction is an anger born out of understanding “that love alone—in a world without love, filled with violence and crowded with strangers—is not enough to assure the survival of his people” (p. 57). As for the Seer of Lublin, in spite of what he can see, his life aims at joyous celebration as a weapon “to fight melancholy, sadness, and despair” (p. 90). And where Naphtali is concerned, Wiesel writes that “wisdom is his trademark” (p. 105), and the trademarks of that wisdom are humor and laughter.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many of the Jews, oppressed and poor, found release in Hasidism's emphasis that “God is not indifferent and man is not His enemy” (p. 15). No less important was an injunction: “help others and you will help yourself. You want to serve God? Start with serving His children” (p. 16). With such principles at the foundation, Hasidic masters and their followers fought despair and resignation by confirming the worth of individuals and by building communal pride and joy.

The fight was successful but incomplete. Although each Hasidic teacher inspired his disciples to reach new heights, none of these spiritual leaders escaped depths of fear and futility. Something pushed these men too far. Sadness threatened to consume them. At times it did. The teachings and the melancholy of the Hasidic masters remain unreconciled and perhaps unreconcilable. As a Holocaust survivor, Wiesel urges us not only to feel that tension but also to make it creative.

Whatever their religious persuasions, many persons will not find it difficult to identify with the humanistic intensity that filled the Hasidim. We will not appreciate that intensity sufficiently, however, unless we remember some fundamentals. These teachers, for example, are sons of the spiritual tradition that taught us all—in one way or another—that human existence is no chance occurrence within cold emptiness. Instead, they affirm, life is a gift. It is created out of and for a purpose centered in a Law to be written on the heart: “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

But the waters are damned. The stream is polluted; and where hope runs so high can melancholy be far behind? Apparently not in the world of Hasidic masters, where the paradox emerges that the image of God embodied in human flesh—Jewish or not—is more an image of what God is not than of what he is. Thus, to identify with the Hasidic masters is to ask: Why does God refuse to be God? Why does God accept an image that makes him an enigma or nothing at all?

Such questions—are they not futile, better left unasked? Does not a Hasidic master spend his life trying to build a world that keeps their despair-causing effects from taking hold? True, but the veil is now torn open. Too much has happened; too little has been done. Men and women created in the image of God? Madness, because the most obvious sense of that idea lies in the ties that evil—enacted and permitted—establishes among us. Still … Wiesel's Hasidic masters are tenacious. Wiesel writes that each of them “controls himself, and overcoming all obstacles—reasons, reality, doubt, irony—liberates in himself and in his followers a certain kind of joy that will be justified only retroactively” (p. 123).

Joy justified? Even retroactively? There indeed are questions that mark images of God. They mark us—and God—because there is so little assurance that joy is justified, at least on any permanent basis. When things improve perhaps a caring God of history does seem evident again. But history's counsel says: wait a while; the wheels will turn again. Hope will be dashed; we know it. To think of oneself, then, as created in the image of God, where that concept expresses a vision of what is good … in this world one destiny of that self-image is to let people down.

What is the next step? There is the tension that must be felt. Just as Hasidism originated in a compassionate response to human need, a response rooted in conviction that men and women are images of God, so is it also true that anyone who cares deeply will neither be free from despair nor always triumphant. Alternatives? There are no good ones. All are tainted by curses of indifference. Thus, Elie Wiesel's post-Auschwitz advice is not to go beyond the early Hasidic teachers. Such “progress” is illusory, impossible. Following in their footsteps, however, is another matter. Making their struggle our own may be all that keeps tragedy at bay.

The themes of Four Hasidic Masters carry forward to create A Jew Today. Who is a Jew today? In one sense only those who share the memory, plight, and promise of a particular people, Israel. On the other hand, because the Jew's mission, according to Wiesel, is not to make the world Jewish but rather to make it more human, the opportunity to be a Jew today—yes, to see oneself as created in the image of God—is open to anyone determined that oppression will not have the final say.

Such a role produces conflict with God no less than with human power that kills. Nevertheless such conflict must not be motivated by bitterness and revenge that desire suffering for others. If it does move from those feelings, if it seeks ultimately to oppose God and creation to each other, the defiance in being images of a God-who-is-not-God betrays itself. So the method in this madness is two-fold. It is to discover “the ruins of the world and the dark side of God,” and then it is to build Jewish-human history on them (p. 113, italics mine).

The dark side of God. What does Wiesel suggest that it involves? First comes a warning: “The concept of a theology of Auschwitz is blasphemous for both the non-believer and the believer” (p. 198). Where the dark side of God is concerned, the point must not be to explain, justify, or vindicate. Such efforts denigrate victims and legitimate suffering. The Holocaust helps us to see that much theologizing includes tendencies of that kind, no less real if they are unintended. Thus, the blasphemy involved is the same, whether one is non-believer or believer.

It does not follow, however, that Wiesel's warning eliminates confrontation with God. Quite to the contrary, it enjoins such encounter and the idea of God's “dark side” is a case in point. Some persons, of course, would prefer an image of God that sets darkness aside. But because Elie Wiesel is so serious about Jewish life and Hasidic experience in particular, that option cannot be his. Consider therefore what A Jew Today knows about Night, God's darkness.

A Portrait from the Past: A photograph. An old man surrounded by others different from himself because they are laughing and because they will kill him. The old man is Grandfather.

The silent photograph asks questions of God: Why did You create this world? Why did You invent suffering? Why did You form men and women in Your image? It does not answer them, and yet this picture contains Dodye Feig's faith, friendship, understanding. He is a Jew today and forever, an image to make God proud, perhaps to make God be God.

Dodye Feig's last words to his grandson: “‘You are Jewish, your task is to remain Jewish. The rest is up to God’” (p. 70). Dodye Feig could not make God be God. His life, a worthy image of God, produced no divine metamorphosis. But had there been no Dodye Feig, might not the world have consumed itself and God with it? He and his like make it possible to keep hopeful images of God alive.

Legends of Today: Two accounts must be settled. One party appraises the ledger. Obligations and debts on both sides, but they are not equal. In fact, the second party is far more in debt—outrageously so—than the first. The first party makes an offer: Let's call things even. “‘Do You accept?’” he asks (p. 127). Confronted by the astonishing boldness that turns images of God upside-down, the Master of the Universe evidently gives no answer. But the storyteller does: Accept the bargain? “Not I … not I” (ibid.). And thus, given one twist more, images of God are turned not only upside-down but also inside-out.

To think of men and women as images of God is reason for despair. For such thinking tends to leave us caught with a heap of evidence, taken from the brutal facts of life on earth, that suggests God's image to be one of indifference or hostility if there is any image at all. But that same despair can be/must be the experience that causes at least some people to refuse that bargain. Neither humanity nor God has to be indifferent or hostile. That is the crucial premise, a premise rooted in another experience: namely, that both have revealed better sides as well. One place to look is in the spirits that make legends of today.

Another story from A Jew Today, for example, tells of a Jewish family long ago expelled from Spain. Plagued at every turn, they can find no refuge, except that sleep turns into death for them, one by one. Finally only the Father is left, and he speaks to God: “‘Master of the Universe, I know what You want—I understand what You are doing. You want despair to overwhelm me. You want me to cease believing in You, to cease praying to You, to cease invoking Your name to glorify and sanctify it. Well, I tell you: No, no—a thousand times no! You shall not succeed! In spite of me and in spite of You, I shall shout the Kaddish, which is a song of faith, for You and against You. This song You shall not still, God of Israel’” (p. 136). God's reply is unclear; the father did not die.

To be for God and against God: Is that what it means to be an image of God after Auschwitz? Wiesel's legend offers that possibility. Its hero makes a refusal that is both affirmation and protest. It affirms that the dark side of God is not the only side, and it protests that God must do more to let light shine out of darkness. But Wiesel's Spanish Jew also understands that God's fate depends largely on human hands, and thus the struggle goes on.

A Quarrel: “What is Jewish history,” asks Elie Wiesel, “if not an endless quarrel with God?” (p. 163). The topic of the quarrel is a question: Who has greater cause to despair? And the equally quarrelsome answer? God and Jew alike, and therefore neither.

Jewish history runs two ways. First, it goes forth from a tale of creation-called-good to a covenant made and broken more than once. This version stresses that “God did not give up” (p. 163). Second, Jewish history moves through experience so monstrous that there is every right to reject God because the dark side prevails. And yet, if it is true that God does not give up on human good, it is even more true that Jewish persistence—“we did not give up on Him either”—has not ceased (p. 164). To give up on God would be to oppose God and creation to each other, which involves a giving up on the earth and its humanity. But the other side of the coin is that to give in to God involves a similar fate. Hence Wiesel's quarrel: To exist in the image of God in a Holocaust Universe means nothing if not to be quarreling with God for the sake of humankind and God alike.

A Dialogue: A little girl tells her mother that she is tired. Everybody is, comes the response. “Even God? … I don't know. You will ask Him yourself” (p. 145).

Only a few words, and they are simple. Still, can their meaning be comprehended when one imagines them shared on the way to death in Birkenau's gas? Indeed, far from comprehending them, can any reader grasp the scene? And yet their meaning does not escape us altogether. “You will ask Him yourself.” Those words reassure. They also contain rage, sadness, protest—none of which can be shared openly with eight-year-old-innocence-about-to-perish, but which must be shared with God.

“You will ask Him Yourself.” And what will you get in return? Silence seems most likely. And then because of that silence, a question: Even God? Even God is silent when things are so badly wrong? Or should it read: God is silence? Silence is nothing? Or perhaps the questions form this way: Will you ask Him yourself? Will you be able to do so? Will you do so even if you Can? Will death prevent the asking of the questions? Will life, even life beyond death, do the same? The Holocaust turns God and us into questions.

The Last Witness: “A Plea for the Survivors” is the last word of A Jew Today. And the last lines of that plea are these: “Wait until the last survivor, the last witness, has joined the long procession of silent ghosts whose judgment one day will resound and shake the earth and its Creator. Wait …” (p. 208). Have a shred of decency, Wiesel seems to say, so that these men and women will not be robbed of their own memories by claims that events never happened or that eyes did not see what they saw. But these final words do not stop there.

Witness … wait. Those words encompass warning and judgment, anticipation and possibly even redemption. In the unceasing movement back and forth required of anyone who will share Jewish being today, one may discover that human witnessing and waiting are reflections of a God who also witnesses and waits, not always sharing our human yearnings, but not without them either. If so, Wiesel's appeal (in The Town beyond the Wall) may yet ring true: “‘Tell yourself that even God admits His weakness before the image he has created.’”

Elie Wiesel's images of God are screams, pain-filled and defiant, brought forth from God's dark side. They are also laughter and tears of joy brought forth from determination that the dark side of God must not be all.

Robert McAfee Brown (essay date 3-10 June 1981)

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SOURCE: Brown, Robert McAfee. “The Power of the Tale.” Christian Century 48, no. 20 (3-10 June 1981): 649-52.

[In the following essay, Brown suggests ways for readers to approach Wiesel's The Testament.]

If Elie Wiesel wanted to communicate through systematic reflection, he would write systematic reflections. He doesn't. He tells tales. And although the corpus of his writings includes three books of essays and an account of a visit to Russia along with all the novels, the retellings of biblical and Hasidic tales, the dialogues, the verse and the drama, it is story that is his major medium of communication.

The cruelest blow a reader could inflict on a teller of tales would be to reduce his tales to a series of systematic reflections, betraying him with the words, “Now this is what he really meant.” The greatest tribute one could pay would be to start talking (or writing) about a tale, and discover at the end of the exercise that all one had succeeded in doing was retelling the tale itself, without embellishment.

But that would also constitute betrayal, since (in Wiesel's case at least) no tale comes off so well at second hand.

So, without either reducing the tale to systematic reflection (and betraying the teller), or retelling it in an inferior way (and betraying the tale itself), how is one to respond to Wiesel's newest and (with the possible exception of The Town beyond the Wall) his greatest novel, The Testament? Only, it would seem, by a kind of pastiche, a series of reflections that are self-consciously unsystematic, and that reveal only enough of the tale to entice the reader of the essay to become a reader of the tale.

Always Wiesel writes about laughter. Healing laughter. maniacal laughter, laughter that builds bridges, laughter that seals victories, laughter that disguises tears. This book begins (in its original French version) with laughter, or rather the lack of laughter, and how Wiesel begins a novel is always a major clue to its intent. “I have never laughed in my whole life,” old Zupanev tells us. And throughout the book he never laughs. Not once. Until the very last page. And then he laughs.

This does not mean that the book ends with a funny incident. For it is decidedly not a funny incident that releases the laughter of Zupanev. It is an uproarious incident, to be sure, even if not funny, for it is laughter signaling a cunning victory, laughter announcing that there is something more powerful than the NKVD and the Politburo, more powerful than Stalin himself. And that something is a tiny, insignificant court stenographer who, by his very invisibility, manages to survive the purging of the purgers, and to tell the story of the Stalinist purge of Jews that nobody was supposed to hear about. Everybody involved was to be liquidated. But they forgot about Zupanev. And so he, the invisible one, makes the story visible, passing on the “testament” of another so that the story will always live. It was Zupanev's only victory. An occasion for laughter.

The irony is compounded. Not only does an invisible man make a story visible, but because of that, a mute man will tell the story to the rest of the world. Grisha Kossover, son of the narrator of the “testament,” has bitten off his tongue rather than speak of his father to one whom he fears is an informer. So he cannot speak. But because he has received the story which Zupanev alone could communicate, Grisha, the mute, will tell the story to others. The one who cannot be seen sees. The one who cannot talk tells.

It is Wiesel's way of reminding us of one of his most important beliefs—the power of the tale. No story, he asserts, is ever finally lost. It will reappear, it will be told, in some fashion or other. And it will change lives. So, well done, Zupanev, good and faithful servant, you have done your task and given us the book. And since the book is really not about you, you can retire back into your anonymity and rest content. Laughing.

“I lived a Communist and I die a Jew,” Paltiel Kossover tells the Stalinist court that will execute him. Nine words are enough to sum up the meaning of a life. Nine words are a full enough “testament.” One can add more words, as Wiesel does, 346 pages of them, but nothing gets closer to the heart of the testimony.

Paltiel Kossover. A strange name. But, like all of Wiesel's names, a significant one. No names are happenstance in his works. They are always a clue to the persons. It is astonishing how many of them begin or end in “el,” the Hebrew word for God: Katriel, Michael, Elisha, Eliezer, Gavriel.

And here is Paltiel, the emancipated Jew, who despite (because of?) his orthodox upbringing, attempts to throw it overboard, joins the communist cause, consigns his phylacteries to the bureau drawer or the bottom of the suitcase, and yet, despite a new-found Messianism that appears without God, cannot quite let go of the God whose Messiah fails to appear. For most of his life he is not a practicing Jew, and yet, toward the end, when his son is born, the phylacteries reappear, the mohel is summoned, the faith once abandoned is found to be unabandonable.

Paltiel? It means “God is my refuge.”

When the rebbe, years ago, accused Elie Wiesel of “writing lies” because he was writing fiction, Wiesel replied, “Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred” (Legends of Our Time, viii).

If ever there was an example of events that “are [true] although they never occurred,” it is the story of Paltiel Kossover, into whose story are compressed the stories of a whole generation of Russian artists, who, having given their lives and their talents to the cause of the party, were victims of a Stalinist purge shortly after World War II. Their “crime,” of course, was being Jewish, a sufficient crime under either Hitlerian or Stalinist versions of tyranny. What was it like for these actors, composers, artists, poets and musicians? Paltiel tells us, in his “testament” before the court, laying out his whole life with a sweep and a grandeur that Wiesel has not come close to in his previous writings.

A few critics have asserted that Wiesel, in later novels such as The Gates of the Forest and A Beggar in Jerusalem, was creating characters chiefly as mouth-pieces for his own ideas, characters who consequently (so it was charged) lacked a certain three-dimensionality or flesh-and-blood reality. To whatever degree there was even a grain of truth in the charge (and each rereading of the novels in question persuades me of its falseness), the trend has certainly been curbed in The Testament.

In none of Wiesel's earlier novels are the characters so earthy, so real, so finely chiseled, as in this one. Women advance more fully to center stage and play more dominant roles; episodes throughout 50 years of European history are dealt with graphically, realistically and poignantly; politics becomes an explicit concern, having been largely implicit before; events with which we assume familiarity (Berlin in the early 1930s, Paris in the middle '30s, Spain during the Civil War, Russia during World War II) are revealed in brand-new dimensions when recalled from a perspective unfamiliar to most readers, that of a Jew-turned-communist, who is desperately seeking for meaning—whether through ideology, women, poetry or rebellion.

The almost photographic realism of the narrative gives it a cumulative power that is overwhelming, whether we are sharing Paltiel's first fumbling attempts at lovemaking, waiting breathlessly underground with fearful Jews while the ugly forces of hatred sweep overhead (a description even more devastating, if more compressed, than the pogrom described in The Oath), or noting shifts in the party line with a growing realization that to be recalled to Moscow may be not for reassignment but for liquidation.

The struggle between Judaism and communism is powerfully portrayed. The young Jew Paltiel wants to relate Judaism and social justice long before he ever hears of communism. He is affronted at the contrast between the opulence of a Jewish wedding and the feast provided (in another room) for the poor. The Jewish roots of what is authentic in the communist dream are sympathetically disclosed, and the disillusionments within the Russian communist reality are devastatingly drawn. While Wiesel is not mounting a political soapbox in this novel, one feels the inherent thrust of Judaism toward a social vision that encompasses full justice, and one wishes Paltiel could have found ways to give expression to it in Jewish form before it was too late.

So, a book for Jews. But a book for Christians? Are we not spectators to a struggle for faith that is particularized in Jewish experience and thus removed from our own?


One of the greatest sources of Wiesel's power is his insistence on writing out of the particularity of his own Jewishness. It is how he touches universal chords. He does not write about “the human condition,” but about “the Jewish condition.” Correction: in writing about the Jewish condition, he thereby writes about the human condition. For the human condition is not generalized existence; it is a huge, crazy-quilt sum of particularized existences all woven together.

When I read a story telling me that the location of Jewish faith is always in the midst of a constant battlefield, I am put in touch with an integrity that is missing in much Christian faith made up of pseudo and premature assurances, which try to tell me that faith has annihilated all opposition on the battle ground. Wiesel rudely upsets my assured universe, for I discover that his contention with God must also be mine. And he engages with me in an unequal trade. He not only takes away my easy answers and demolishes them; he gives me his hard questions and leaves me saddled with them. And the questions are a good deal more powerful than the answers.

When I walk into Majdanek with Paltiel Kossover after the war, and then walk out with him, neither of us is the same as we were before. He, however, had fewer illusions to shed than I. For when Paltiel Kossover accompanies me through the bloody pogrom of his youth, a story he already knows from the history of his own people a hundred times over before it happens to him, I begin to understand why he has not had very many illusions, and I, in the process of understanding that, am forced to confront a few more of my own—both about how practitioners of my religion have treated practitioners of his religion, and how a life lived constantly on the edge of terror is more typical of the human lot than a life lived with even a minimal sense of security and well-being. “Being a Jew in a Christian world,” Paltiel reflects, letting me overhear him, “meant to know and become accustomed to fear” (pp. 47-48).

Not very pleasant lessons. But by starting with the Jewish story, Elie Wiesel involves us all, for our stories are all interrelated, and the creators of our story, we discover, have been the destroyers of his story. Except that his story refuses to be destroyed; there is always an invisible Zupanev, or a mute Grisha, or an articulate Eliezer.

“No systematic reflections” was the promise. Let us keep the promise, but let us cheat—just a little.

1. In Wiesel's early novels, the past was a curse. The survivors of the death camps found not only that their story was a story from which they could not escape, but also that when it was acknowledged, it made them “the graveyard of the unburied dead,” who continued to pour their filth upon the living.

This agony came to fullest expression in The Accident, where there seemed no escape. The ashes of the past (apt symbol and more than a symbol) were everywhere. In The Town beyond the Wall, Michael, rather than continuing to flee the past, finally confronts it directly by returning to the town from which the deportation took place that landed him in a death camp. Once there, he can begin to deal with it. The process is extended in The Gates of the Forest, and is followed by a breathtaking breakthrough in A Beggar in Jerusalem, where for the first time the past—the Jewish past, the past of 6 million dead—can, in an almost frenzied mystical vision at the wall in Jerusalem, be invoked as a source of power, almost of healing.

Likewise, in The Testament, in the midst of the shattering of his communist dreams and hopes, it is his Jewish past that creates redemptive possibilities for Paltiel. “I lived a Communist and I die a Jew” is his fortification. He would have raised his son an observant Jew, we believe, and, thanks to Zupanev, the son will know the story of his father, and something of the power of that Jewish past will be transmitted to another generation.

2. A poignantly recurring theme is the fragility of friendship. On a dozen occasions at least, Paltiel's life is uprooted by the necessity to go elsewhere, either to promote his cause or to evade capture. And on each occasion, as he leaves his friends, he asks a variant of the question, “Will I ever see them again?” And on each occasion the implicit answer is, “Probably not, almost surely not.”

It is a cruel world that snips away so relentlessly at the bonds of friendship we weave so precariously. An ongoing web of enduring friendship is largely denied to Paltiel, partly by his own decision to leave home, partly by a centrally controlled discipline that moves people in the party at someone else's whim, partly by the universal upheaval of 20th century Europe that gave no one the privilege of rootedness either of place or of affection. It is cause for sadness more than anger. Even when he returns to his boyhood home at the end of the war, and discovers that all the people he knew have been destroyed, it is sadness more than anger or hatred that predominates.

It is something like recognizing that God is not a murderer, just a grave-digger.

3. God the gravedigger. Paltiel is justifiably outraged when he visits Majdanek after the war. And he engages in a justifiable quarrel with God. The charge:

You are a gravedigger, God of my ancestors. You carry Your chosen people into the ground, just as I carried the soldiers fallen on the battlefields. Your people no longer exist. You have buried them; others killed them, but it is You who have put them into their invisible, unknown tomb. Tell me, did You at least recite the Kaddish? Did you weep for their death?

[p. 316]

But there is another voice, probably that of David Aboulesia, who unexpectedly reappears at opportune times, claiming that “God is resurrection, not gravedigger; God keeps alive the bond that links Him and you to your people; is that not enough for you? I am alive; you are alive; is that not enough for you?” (p. 316).

No, it is not enough. What more must there be? The answer: redemption. That surely can be demanded in Majdanek. That is what Paltiel demands: “So do I,” the other voice responds. “So do I. And so does He” (p. 317).

Is there redemption for God? The answer is not given us. Is there redemption for us? It remains a question.

Wiesel is very fond of questions. He is not fond of answers. And whatever else this novel says to us, it surely says that if there is an answer, it is to be found in the fact that we continue to ask the question.

Denis Diamond (essay date spring 1983)

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SOURCE: Diamond, Denis. “Elie Wiesel: Reconciling the Irreconcilable.” World Literature Today 57, no. 2 (spring 1983): 228-33.

[In the following essay, Diamond surveys the defining characteristics of Wiesel's body of work.]

Artists are praised when what they have created is described as their world. Elie Wiesel would defy anyone to write of “Wiesel's Auschwitz.” And yet, nobody has made that place more present than he, or has done so more relentlessly, more remorselessly, more persistently. That being the case, it becomes impossible to expect his work to do what he has said cannot be done: to concretize the mystery.

One generation later it can still be said, and must now be affirmed: there is no such thing as literature of the Holocaust, nor can there be. … Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely. … The very attempt to write such a novel is blasphemy.1

Wiesel has produced a body of writing which is a meditation on humanity, on God, on humanity and God and on their shared world. His literature of radical survival by the victims of ultimate persecution is a protest and an attempt to discern the ways in which life may be lived in the face of sovereign absurdity: “We must invent reason; we must create beauty out of nothingness.”2 In work after work, Wiesel makes it clear that even as an artist he is engaged in theological speculation of an extraordinary kind. Despite all the despair, in the face of the undeniable absurdity of history and of the challenging doubts about the theodicy, despite an ever-unraveling revelation of a brutalized, cheapened society and indifference to life or death, he will shake the cynic and assert mystery: “Does the word ‘mystery’ make you sneer? Well, I'm beginning to believe in it. The words you strangle, the words you murder, produce a kind of primary, impenetrable silence. And you will never succeed in killing a silence such as this.”3

The risks Wiesel has taken are those of artist, philosopher and theologian, not to mention the stake he has laid on his very sanity. All these risks are inescapable, bearing in mind his obsessive sense of being a survivor, his role as an angry but not bitter witness and his vocation as a teller of tales, enriched by his religious background and the great Hasidic masters but governed by the dark overlay of his experiences in the territory which he has so often called the “Kingdom of the Night.” Wiesel's tales and speculations center on a world so different from all others that its emotions and events bear scant relation to any outside that world, either in degree or in kind. It is after all a world in which emotions were burned; it deals with the dead and not the living, at least primarily. Its focus would tend to be moral rather than emotional, mysterious rather than intellectual, theological rather than psychological. But Wiesel, however maddened or driven, is also a teller of tales, and it is well to remember that despite the existential horror suspended in its emotionally strictured language and arid expression, a novel such as Night deals centrally with inconsolable grief and extreme despair. Those feelings, raw and human, establish the moral spaces of the writing; they are parts of the whole, as much as everything they hold and frame.

The other novels reflect similar balances and interfaces between human and moral passions, even as each expresses its particular modulations and describes its own circumstances. Thus, for example, Dawn poses an extreme moral dilemma against a severely contrasted blunt emotional background: Elisha, an eighteen-year-old survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, must execute John Dawson, an English soldier in occupied Palestine, for crimes committed by the British forces to which Dawson belongs. Elisha has no doubts about the need to kill the hostage; but he has never killed, and his hatred of the enemy is impersonal. Indeed he abhors not the man he must kill, but his own hatred. Murder remains murder no matter how it is considered, and it holds no triumph. Having been a victim, Elisha has come to know that killing is bestial; but confronting the imperatives of the changed circumstance in which he is made executioner, he faces new questions: “When is a man most truly a man? When he submits or when he refuses? Where does suffering lead him? To purification or to bestiality?”4

The matter is not cut and dried. The answer of the victim is not the answer of the executioner. But the questions are the same. Indeed the resolution of the book goes quite beyond answers, leaving the doubts and questions intact. The young executioner who kills for the first time destroys the boy who has never killed before. Elisha kills John Dawson and also kills himself: “We shall be bound together for all eternity by the tie that binds a victim and his executioner” (D, [Dawn] x). All this moral speculation, however, is urgently personalized: “‘Elisha—’ said the hostage. I fired. When he pronounced my name he was already dead; the bullet had gone through his heart. A dead man, whose lips were still warm had pronounced my name: Elisha” (D, 126). These two symbolic figures had each been intended as a person as well, and the humanity of each is the stamp which makes the speculative dimension at all important. Everything boils down to man in the end: his friendships, his hates, his passions, his choices, his virtues, his evils, his indifference. The heart of A Beggar in Jerusalem expresses a similar resolution about a wholly different issue.

“What do you expect of life?” I asked Katriel.

“Life itself,” he answered.

“And of love?”

“Love itself.”

“I envy you,” I told him. “I am more complicated than you. I want the one to surprise the other. I ask of them to surprise me as well.”

“So do I but that's a secret. Keep it to yourself.”

“I will. What I like most about you is your secrets.”5

In addition to the author's handling of the fragile balance between intense meditation and moral speculation on the one hand, and human interrelations and feelings on the other, the order of art also makes its demand. In this regard, the storyteller must come to terms with his often stated belief that in the face of mystery, silence is the only and proper response. Out of this consideration come the discursions on irrational but necessary laughter, the gibbering secrets of the madman, the haunting and inconclusive heart of the Hasidic tale and language itself.

And now teller of tales, turn the page. Speak to us of other things. Your mad prophets, your old men drunk with nostalgic waiting, your possessed—let them return to their nocturnal enclaves. They have survived their deaths for more than a quarter of a century; that should suffice. If they refuse to go away, at least make them keep quiet. At all costs. By every means. Tell them that silence, more than language, remains the substance and seal of what was once their universe, and that, like language, it demands to be recognised and transmitted.6

It is not clear whether Wiesel has resolved the conflict between the artist and his words on the one hand and, on the other, the man and his resolve that only in silence can he respond to his past. That would depend on the way in which the books read. But the tension as he moves along his seemingly irreconcilable courses, compelled by the variety of their urgings, is stirring and prepossessing. The torment of this dichotomy is shared by the author and the reader. While the experiences themselves may not be imparted, let alone shared, speculations on the meaning of these experiences can be conveyed, and at similar levels of intensity: “Because you too have lived the Holocaust. You were born after? No matter. One can step inside the fiery gates twenty-five, fifty years later. … One can die in Auschwitz after Auschwitz. We are all survivors” (One Generation After, 168-69).

Answers tend to be limiting, defined by all manner of private notions, facts and experiences, by things acquired and innate. But questions remain open-ended, and they bind people to people, past to future, the present to eternity: “I attach more importance to questions than to answers. For only the questions can be shared” (OG, [One Generation After] 175). Such a terse conclusion is neither evasive nor stentorian. It is typical of Wiesel's refusal to deny the imponderable, the mysterious and the ineffable. In the face of all risk—both philosophical and artistic—he will dare to sum up by that kind of moralizing. The reader may well be shocked by the witness to whom facts are disturbing and even distorting. But Wiesel is neither a historian nor simply a recorder. The question arises compulsively: is this man not a prophet rather than a witness? I have already mentioned, in respect to Wiesel the survivor, witness and storyteller, such descriptive terms as “obsessive sense,” “role” and “vocation.” Those are words which go a considerable way toward defining a prophet.

There is more: the notion of sacred madness; possession by an unshakable purpose directed from the revealed vision toward society; unceasing response to the revelation; irresistible commitment to an external vision or circumstance, quite independent of and even antagonistic to reason, desire or natural psychological orientation; the sense of being a messenger, randomly but ineluctably appointed; and above all, after all, the speaking, the communication of the message, the revelation. There is really no great difference between the spirit of God which took hold of the biblical prophets and Wiesel's tangent with another world. The prophet was forced to remark that all trembled at the lion's roar and that the Word of God compelled his prophecy. There is no real distance between the prophet's trembling, his words and the bewildered, terror-filled novels of one who lived where madness reigned in the Kingdom of the Night. There is really no reason why the voice of prophecy should be thought completely stilled in an age such as ours, which has endured so much of the unfolding mystery of creation, of its savagery and glory. To call Wiesel's a prophetic voice might be an exaggeration, but it is not a gross one. Certainly the prophetic passion reverberates there. His tales have the power of myths in which the basic material, the facts and events they contain, are so awesome that they do not yield to any but the most heightened of responses. Anguish, joy, even ecstasy are among those responses. Fury, rage, protest and ardor are others. But Wiesel is also the chronicler of less exacting passions like human yearning and loss, grief and sadness, celebration and bravery. When it comes to these, he is gentle, encouraging and concerned. Not for him, then, stoic indifference, or worse, cynicism. While he is predominantly called a Holocaust writer—and seen by some as the greatest of them all—paradoxically, his major theme is the redemptive power of love and friendship. He has not avoided saying that this would also include knowing when and how to despise and hate, often strangely more difficult. Recognition of Wiesel as the poet of fellowship and human engagement would not be inappropriate. It would certainly help account for his widespread attractiveness as a contemporary author.

Whether Wiesel would go as far as Auden—“We must love one another or die”—is not altogether clear, for in his works we also discover those who live without love, despite fellowship. We witness the survival of people in the midst of a frenzy so murderous and brutal that it robbed more than life itself, destroying every humane gesture. This was the place, after all, where a son, so driven by hunger, could kill his beloved father and then gouge the lump of half-chewed bread from his dead mouth. It also included a skilled and refined surgeon who had no compunction about using his best talents to spitefully remove the fingers of a sculptor's hand, one by one, day by day. And it was the slaughter-house of a million or more children, killed by men who were themselves fathers and sons.

Nevertheless, Wiesel, without any sense of self-consciousness (for it is not trite at the time he chooses to say it), has also written of unequivocal love and friendship.

“When the self of man has crumbled away, what can remain if not love without limits, an absolutely pure love, pure of all self?” … Still, there must be some true liberation in the silence of the soul—or rather its muffled murmuring. At least this: a liberating movement of the self which has suffered enough to be transformed into love.7

The doctor's words to Kathleen when he learns of her love for the critically injured would-be suicide, the protagonist of The Accident (“In that case, there are good reasons not to lose hope. Love is worth as much as prayer. Sometimes more”) and the words of the patient's friend Gyula (“Maybe God is dead, but man is alive. The proof: he is capable of friendship”)8 express an important thematic movement forward which occurs in this the third of Wiesel's books and continues throughout his oeuvre: the recognition of the grace of fellowship, friendship and its redemptive force. This central theme and most persistent focus assumes far-reaching connotations, becoming the bridge by way of which lives and whole histories are transported to the future. Borne upon their human agents, ideas and moral imperatives gain a living potency which can influence and determine present and future events as much as can breathing people. In this way events gain legendary power and, like the Hasidic tale, come to “humanize fate.”

But Wiesel's writing is nothing if not deliberately and complexly inconsistent. No sooner is the theme of messianic fellowship pinned down as an option for hope, even harmony, than Wiesel reintroduces Moshe the madman, who had haunted the first novel, Night, but then assumed an ever more important and central role until he became the protagonist of The Oath. This madness is of course not clinical insanity. It is rather the obsession with describing what cannot be imagined, with submitting dreams to what the writer has called “the weight of history.” This madness is the driven urgency of the witness who has uncovered a most hideous secret at the very heart of creation, a destructive secret which calls creation itself into question, and certainly the Creator. Elie Wiesel, the youthful Talmud student from Sighet (Transylvania), was just ready to begin his earnest search for the meanings and purposes of life and creation when he was deported with his family by the Nazis and cast into the madness of the Kingdom of the Night. What he was to find there was an awful and shattering horror, a horror which cast darkness on the hope and certitude of an earlier, beloved kingdom and on the legends of that place as well: “And so, in the kingdom of Hasidic legend, the Baal Shem follows his disciples to the end of night. Another miracle? Certainly not. Death negates miracles, the death of one million children negates more than miracles.”9

He can explain nothing of the purpose of the insane destruction but is haunted by its undeniable reality. He is left to grope for a response: “There is no alternative: one must impose a meaning on what perhaps has none and draw ecstasy from nameless, faceless pain” (Souls on Fire, 35-36). Which brings him to the madness of the survivor. Before wanton cruelty and persecution, this special madness is defined: “What must we do, what can we do in response? We must continue to sing. Because we have been hurt? No, more likely because we are mad. But ours is a different kind of madness; when the enemy is mad, he destroys; when the killer is mad, he kills. When we are mad, we sing.”10

In this sense, then, the beggars, the tellers of strange tales, the rabbis whose behavior may betoken more than just eccentricity, the broken and the betrayed—heralds all—are madmen. They are the necessary population of an abandoned universe in which history is absurd and disconnected, where only dreams and visions are mutable enough to withstand the shattering anguish of betrayal and loneliness, where madmen alone are equipped with energy disjointed enough to shield them from being overwhelmed by chaos. It is the madman who is sufficiently disengaged from the world to escape its terrors, or perhaps, altogether aligned with its wild disorder, he lives without fear despite all that the world shows of itself. Today's post-Holocaust witness of the Holocaust is also the madman who will dare to see the present as a pre-Holocaust time too, like a harbinger.

The tale the beggar tells must be told from the beginning. But the beginning has its own tale, its own secret. That's how it is, and that's how it always has been. There is nothing man can do about it. Death itself has no power over the beginning. The beggar who tells you this knows what he is talking about. … For tales, like people, all have the same beginning.

(A Beggar in Jerusalem, 3)

Moshe the madman laughed as he led the prayers on his last day in his hometown, the day of the transport. He sang and danced at the railway station and finally, “walking at the head of a silent procession, Moshe was still singing, louder and louder, until the end, as if to mock an enemy known only to himself.”11 But defeating time, unbroken by the murderous wickedness, Moshe still moves about the world: “That enemy did not succeed in silencing his deep, disturbing voice. That voice wanders through the world, as dangerous to hear as not to hear.”

Typically, as soon as he has shifted his prepossessing image into its central thematic place, Wiesel begins to move on, to see the image not as answer or explanation, but as the impulse to a further challenge. He perceives and considers the possibility of a beatific, mysterious, perhaps divine intervention in the course of human history. Writing about his journey to Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, he describes his compulsion and what came of it, the novel A Beggar in Jerusalem

Then came the Six-Day War and I had to put everything aside. I went to Jerusalem because I had to go somewhere, I had to leave the present and bring it back to the past. You see, a man who came to Jerusalem then, came as a beggar, a madman, not believing his eyes and ears, and above all, his memory. … If I were to qualify this tale, I would say perhaps: this is neither novel nor anti-novel, neither fiction nor autobiography, neither poem nor prose—it is all this together. It is an adventure of one madman, who one night saw not the end of all things, but their beginning.

(BJ, [A Beggar in Jerusalem] preface)

Such beginnings, which are not independent of the past and are not rooted in innocence, do not leave the new voyager free of the past, of its haunting, its loss and its anguish—or of its darkness and evil. But it takes the place of the past in the movement of things.

What is important is to continue. It will take time and patience: the beggar knows how to wait. … That is why I am still here on this haunted square, in this city where nothing is lost and nothing dispersed. An indispensable necessary transition. To catch my breath. To become accustomed to a situation whose newness still makes me dizzy. During this time I do not count the hours or the men. I watch them go by. The beggar in me could detain them, he lets them pass. He could follow them. He lets them pass. …

(BJ, 210-11)

The overlapping themes each seek their own emphasis, and the author tries to give them place and voice, enveloping them in situations which are no less real for posing also as symbols. The centuries of human communication have made it plain that the ideogram has its own reality and the notion that a man can become a cipher is reversible. Although he has often warned that words can obscure and are inadequate for what they are sometimes—even often—called upon to do, he has also warned that “some words are as important as deeds—some words are deeds” (SF, [Souls of Fire] 59). Amplifying these views, Wiesel modifies his caution and the backtracks with an example of the characteristic startling directness which contributes so much to maintaining the tensile dialectic of this central speculation: “Perhaps you are lending too much importance to words. Tell yourself that they too are God's creation. Tell yourself that they possess an existence all their own. You prefer to feed truth with silence? Good. But you risk distorting it with contempt” (BJ, 135).

The author's own awareness of the paradoxes of his sudden shifts of focus and direction leads him to monitor his reader's responses carefully, lest these readers become lost in the contemplation of paradox, lest they perceive that paradox as an esthetic device rather than an integral element of the storyteller himself and his tale. Thus, for example, he reminds us that the madman was no sudden advent; he had always been present.

But how does one assassinate an angel gone mad?

One day I thought I had found the solution: I imprisoned him in a novel. … Panic-stricken, I re-read my earlier narratives: there too he reigned as master. There too he had preceded me. Even more serious: he had accorded himself the status of temporary resident, turning up and disappearing as he pleased. Hardly was he unmasked than he was already running off, more savage than ever, to new adventures to which he was dragging me by force.

(Legends of Our Time, 76)

Not only madmen and madness were ever-present, ever-hovering, but also fear and faith, the ubiquitous confined spaces, fire, darkness, friends, lovers, beggars, Death and the haunting dead for whom he bears such relentless witness, the living to whom he speaks about the past in order to bespeak the future, stories and storytellers, history and chaos. And surrounding it all, the Kingdom of the Night, which he even reads backward, into the ancient memory of his Jewish people, its victims. The Kingdom had been there even before it enveloped its victims with its smokestacks and gas chambers and furnaces, its whips, disease and torment. It always was a threat and it still is. It always was a vision, too unimaginable to describe or believe, and it remains unimaginable: “Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred” (LT, [Legends of Our Time] viii). For the witness-survivor, what took place not only happened but existed too as a prevision: “From time to time I would look up to find my mother staring at me as though seeing the future witness I would seek to become” (BJ, 67).

The heavy portent of this and other observations, where time is melted down in the wake and vanguard of history, has little to do with esthetic devices, with deliberate anachronism. It is part of the mysterious reality which has conquered the witness and which, however disconcerting, the writer must contemplate, cannot escape. The obliteration of time and its replacement with another kind of reality altogether—the myth, the legend and the tale—is central to his witnessing and thought. These are independent of their protagonists, their locale, and gain sudden transcendent meaning in the author's mind, where the filter of memory and experience associates them with events they neither influenced nor really bore upon. The effect very quickly ceases to be startling, becoming rather, altogether and readily, an appropriate angle of vision in the storyteller's world, wherein both author and reader are participants.

A disciple sent by Rabbi Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezeritch, to learn the secrets of the high holy days by observing the actions of an ordinary innkeeper, returns to describe how the ordinary man, seeking to render account for his sins, suggested a deal to the Judge of the Universe. The innkeeper asked that his own infractions—which to the disciple seemed very minor indeed—be offset against God's, the enormity of which were alarming, and that they call the score even between them. The Maggid asked:

“So now you know?”

“Yes,” said the disciple, “Now I know.”

“And you agree”

“Yes,” said Reb Elimelekh, “I agree.”

Not I, says the storyteller, not I.

(LT, 127)

The storyteller, haunting uncharted places outside of time, was naturally attracted back to the Hasidic tales of his youth and the strange masters who told them. Unrestricted by chronology or geography, the tales had the resilience to supplant time and place, to survive the destructive fires of the death camps, to sustain their tellers and the listeners: “In Hasidism everything becomes possible by the mere presence of someone who knows how to listen, to love and to give of himself” (SF, 257).

Possessed by his nightmares and his memories, driven by his obsessive need to witness and to warn, to speak, perhaps in order to change a dismal world or at least to prevent that world from changing him, the storyteller was not drawn to the Hasidic masters by nostalgia. The voices of the masters spoke in the midst of his living; indeed he felt their very presence, and he meaningfully called his collection of their stories, biographical sketches and commentaries Souls on Fire. The incandescent stories in the book owe as much to the transforming and burning passion with which their new narrator has welded them together as they do to the sacred purposes of their original tellers—perhaps more. The Hasidic master, the Tzaddik, was called Rebbe by his followers. There is a proportion of the Tzaddik in Wiesel too. It is found in his arresting personal presence, the challenging, anguished protest of his words and the healing, redemptive power of his message, his melancholy and his mystery—the unavoidable sensation experienced in his presence and in his writings of someone who has uniquely seen to the limits of circumscribed human life and maybe beyond. Thus his laughter is not that of the clown in a spirit of hilarity but that of the saint in the face of absurdity; his insanity is not of the broken mind which registers bits and pieces irregularly; it is the temper of the prophet; he who has been haunted terribly with a vision of the whole, its juxtapositions, paradoxes and immutable mystery. The Rebbe is the teacher, and his tales must bear the full weight of their moral burden, to which the pure creative impulse and all esthetic considerations and devices are subservient. Because he is a Jewish writer, however universally received, his work finds its place in a clear tradition stretching from the Bible, the Haggada of the Mishnah and Talmud, through the Hasidic writings and to his own work. That was a tradition in which he had been nurtured very early at the religious schools of Sighet and in his home. Insofar as he is a European writer—his books are almost all written in French, although the fine English translations undertaken by a few diverse hands show a stylistic unity which in large part is obviously to be ascribed to his own judicious monitoring—he speaks in a unique form, for all its echoes of Kafka and Camus, among others.

While the traditions in which he writes are tangible in theme and emphasis, they have little to do with the curiously awkward and sometimes distractingly discursive prose, the stentorian notes and the rhetorical parentheses, the sharp shifts of tone and focus which frequently depend on no more than an aphorism as they move from dramatic passion to theology or portraiture or even anecdote, the often stilted and lumbering characters who barely cope with their dialogue. Perhaps most perturbing in his style is the imaging of cruel and raw emotions in platitudes and against clichéd backgrounds. Wiesel's sustained arresting passion and the emotional, intellectual and psychological responses of his readers compel consideration of the reasons for the stylistic flaws. They are quite clearly not accidental lapses. Their persistence alone would make that clear. In addition, his stylistic talent—characterized by the fluid, easy grace evidenced so spectacularly in Souls on Fire and in a quieter way in Messengers of God—is clear proof of a decidedly refined literary sensibility.

Traditional analytic technique would not show how Wiesel's work so repeatedly shatters indifference and exacts response, excites passions and often arouses remarkable commitment to the challenges posed in his work, how his writing breaks down complacency and stirs previously unrecognized feelings. There is a level of passion in his works which invites comparison with the greatest confessional writings. In his books Wiesel has frequently questioned whether or not the Holocaust is a fit subject for art. On the other hand he has also questioned whether, after the Holocaust, any attempt to understand humanity and history is possible without the Holocaust. Despite the eclipse of the writer's art by the survivor's theme and his certain claim that the only and proper response to absolute horror is horrified silence—a challenging, protesting silence—Wiesel the witness is doomed to articulate. He is so uncompromisingly merciless with himself and engages his readers with such daring as he explores his and their world, that to carp about stylistic flaws is nitpicking and quite unhelpful in any attempt to understand the source of his achievement. The language of silence has had to be invented to avoid minimizing either Auschwitz or the words that bear witness to it on behalf of all its victims. The awful irony torments the author with its ethical dimension: it becomes impossible to divorce the moral and esthetic implications of the dilemma. The tension in Wiesel's work, so arresting, derives in no small degree from his grave doubts about the validity of his literary endeavor and the violence of the creative impulse which demands his art. His responsibility as witness adds the element which makes of this a moral rather than an esthetic tension. But if his work gains immediacy from the implicit problem of reconciling the conflicting elements, the resolution itself yields sometimes startling and often evocative imagery as well as the characteristic and tantalizing silences. It also transfixes experience and transcends art by its mythic power. In short, the art is consciously and deliberately overwhelmed by its theme. That is what Wiesel has been forced to achieve, despite himself and because of his integrity and commitment to a demand more imperative than esthetic obligations.

His one-sentence meditation upon a blessing received from a revered rabbi illustrates with what anguish he performs his task.

“You're young and you'll grow up. I promise you that. You'll see things neither I nor your mother can imagine. That too I promise you. Know therefore that we shall see them through your eyes.”

I was too innocent to understand that that was not a blessing.

(BJ, 68-69)

Blessings, like people, have their own fate. And so, it would appear, do curses. But it sometimes happens by way of rare, magical transformations that when certain curses and certain people transfix and change us, deeply and for a long time—even forever—they are themselves changed and move among us as saving blessings. It may well be that Elie Wiesel and his tales are such curses and such blessings.


  1. Elie Wiesel, “For Some Measure of Humility,” Sh'ma, 5:100 (31 October 1975), pp. 314-15.

  2. Elie Wiesel, “Jewish Values in the Post Holocaust Future,” Judaism, 16 (Summer 1967), p. 299.

  3. Elie Wiesel, The Testament, New York, Bantam, 1982, p. 15.

  4. Elie Wiesel, Dawn, New York, Avon, 1970, p. 24. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation D.

  5. Elie Wiesel, A Beggar in Jerusalem, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970, pp. 29-30. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation BJ.

  6. Elie Wiesel, One Generation After, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971, pp. 197-98. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation OG.

  7. Elie Wiesel, The Town beyond the Wall, New York, Avon, 1969, p. 86.

  8. Elie Wiesel, The Accident, New York, Avon, 1970, pp. 21, 123.

  9. Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire, New York, Random House, 1972, p. 37. Subsequent citations use the abbreviations SF.

  10. Elie Wiesel, A Jew Today, New York, Random House, 1978, p. 184.

  11. Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968, p. 74. Subsequent citations use the abbreviation LT.

Eli Pfefferkorn (essay date winter 1984)

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SOURCE: Pfefferkorn, Eli. “Elie Wiesel: The Inward Eyewitness in The Testament.Modern Language Studies 14, no. 1 (winter 1984): 3-10.

[In the following essay, Pfefferkorn underscores the role of verisimilitude in Wiesel's oeuvre.]

Among the various factors that shape Elie Wiesel's poetic vision, verisimilitude is probably one of the most decisive. Whether drawing on his own concentration camp experiences or on other witness accounts, or on historical documentation, Wiesel goes to great lengths to set the plots of his stories in realistic backgrounds. This faithfulness to historical veracity seems to emanate from the impulse to bear witness, which has become his life's commitment. Wiesel regards individual testimony, carried by word of mouth or inscribed in letters, as a cumulative process in which collective memory is tantamount to ethnic survival; oblivion, in contrast, equates with the death of a people and its culture.

The underlying triple connection between memory, testimony and survival, undoubtedly valid at all times, assumes a meaning of immediate urgency in the context of the Holocaust. In Conversation with Elie Wiesel, the interviewee conveys some of the awesomeness involved in bearing witness:

Recently I reread the chronicles written by historians in the ghettos: Ringelblum, Kaplan. They were all young and all became witnesses. They all felt that they had to record events for future generations, the main obsession during the war, so the tales should not be lost or wasted—the experience should not go astray. … Actually, I saw myself following in their footsteps.1

“… Following in their footsteps,” Wiesel has invested his artistic and intellectual energies in a body of work whose focal point is man's suffering in extreme situations. It is this preoccupation with man at the edge of his endurance, compounded by a sense of Jewish responsibility, that took him to Soviet Russia. Twice he went there. Once in 1965 and again in 1966. Why did her return to Soviet Russia only one year after his first visit? Wiesel muses; “… I don't myself know. Perhaps because I needed to confirm, for myself, that what I had seen and heard the year before was not in the nature of a momentary dream that had suddenly ignited my imagination.”2

On his two visits to Soviet Russia, Wiesel gathered impressions of hasty exchanges and nervous echoing steps which he put down in The Jews of Silence. His sense-impressions and thoughts resulting from his encounters with Soviet Jews, Wiesel managed to retain in vivid images in The Testament, written about fourteen years later. And just as his autobiographical work Night provides the foundation for his ensuing novels of the Holocaust experience, so Jews of Silence furnishes the factual nucleus which generates the narrative for The Testament.

The affinities between these two works are many and various. But the most telling are the surreptitious ways the beleaguered Jews conveyed then messages to the visitor. Not one of them failed to express his pain, Wiesel writes, “whether by his silence, or twisted smile, or through words that managed to hide more than they revealed.”3 In a more detailed account, Wiesel tells of an incident that occurred in a Kiev synagogue on Sukkot. Separated from the congregation by two N.K.V.D. agents, Wiesel's ears suddenly caught the chanting of a liturgy not recited on Sukkot. It was a prayer that mingled quotes from the prayer-book with snatches of information relating to the plight of the Jews in town.

These verbal and emblematic communications related in Jews of Silence become transfigured into literary manifestations in The Testament. Wiesel enacts a transfiguration process from the factual to the fictional by which the events taking place in the novel stand in recognizable relation to historic reality. The Testament is in fact a literary response to historical events epitomized in the tortuous life of Paltiel Kossover, a minor Jewish poet.

The novel recreates the turbulent days of the Bolshevik Revolution and its far-reaching repercussions across the European continent. Caught in the revolutionary whirlwind, the nineteen-year-old Paltiel leaves his Shtetl, Liaynov, for a Berlin ravaged by political and ideological strife. The Leninists fight the Trotskyites, who jointly battle the Social Democrats and the Zionists; and each one separately tries to meet the onslaught of the Nazi troopers. It is in this motley Weimar Berlin that Paltiel is initiated into the mysteries of love and the intricacies of historical materialism. All this is happening while the dark forces of the underworld gather strength for their final bid for power. In the wake of the Nazi's parliamentary victory in 1933, Paltiel escapes to Paris where he puts his poetic and polemical talents at the service of the cause. As befits a young Jewish revolutionary, Paltiel joins the International Brigade at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war in 1936. After the debacle, Paltiel returns to Paris only to be deported to Moscow by the French police. Moscow in 1939, the year of the Berlin-Moscow pact, is hardly a congenial place for the flourishing of Yiddish letters. But in the wake of the German attack on Soviet Russia in 1941, Yiddish culture is allowed a revival that lasts till 1952. On his return to Moscow from the war in 1945, Paltiel feverishly throws himself into literary work, as if to make up for the destruction of his people's culture. The Jewish cultural revival is, however, brutally suppressed at the order of the paranoid Stalin. The hatchet that falls on the Jewish writers, poets and artists, does not spare Paltiel.

It would be erroneous to infer from this rather slim plot summary that Wiesel's preoccupation with historical factuality deflects his creative impulse. Rather, as in his other fictional works, Wiesel brings to life pictures gleaned from the album of twentieth-century annals, transforming them from historical cases into vibrating human experiences. His descriptions of Weimar Berlin beset by apocalyptic spasms; the sense of exultation and frustration of the battle-ridden Madrid; the gloom cast over the Jewish intelligenstia during the staged mass-trials in Moscow—are poetic recreations of historical events. Of particular interest is the way Wiesel captures the prevailing jargon of the visionary sect intent on redeeming humanity.

We were drunk on words, invariably the same ones: progress, change, realism, the proletariat, the sacred cause, the cause that recalled into question all other causes. … We were living in the very midst of a farce. The cabarets, the humorists and caricaturists set the tone: those who did not join the laughter were laughable.4

These are Paltiel's reminiscences as they filter through his sharply-honed consciousness onto the pages of a memoir which also contains diary entries. Paradoxically, enough, it is the imprisonment that allows him an extent of intellectual freedom hitherto restricted by party directives: “I can write as much as I like and whenever I like. And what I like. I'm a free man.” (p. 19) Paltiel acquires freedom by a strange combination of circumstances. After realizing that Paltiel's refusal to confess cannot be broken by the conventional means used by the N.K.V.D., the investigating magistrate lures him into writing his life's story. While for the practical-minded magistrate, the memoir is intended to be used as incriminating evidence against other defendants languishing in prison, for its author the words take on an indestructible value: “You can destroy my notebooks,” writes Paltiel in his memoirs, “no doubt you will burn them, but a voice within me tells me that the words of a condemned man have their own life, their own mystery.” (p. 30) Earlier in a letter to his son, Grisha, Paltiel expresses his faith in the Metaphysical nature of the word that has power to transcend time and place: “… something in me tells me that a testament is never lost. Even if nobody reads it, its content is transmitted. The call of the dying will be heard, if not today then tomorrow.” (p. 19) But how is the memoir to be saved from destruction, and made known to the outer world within the fictional reality of the novel without impairing its psychological probability, and without disrupting the narrative flow of the story?

Wiesel has retained psychological plausibility and narrative cohesiveness by a complex layering of the narrative structure. The four-layered structure of the novel is embodied in the characters of the author, Elie Wiesel; Paltiel Kossover, the Poet; Victor Zupanev, the stenographer; and Grisha, Kossover's son.

In a six-page introductory note signed E. W., Wiesel lays the groundwork for the novel: its major characters are casually introduced and its background is broadly sketched. Wiesel relates how he accidentally meets the mute Grisha at the Ben-Gurion airport and learns about Kossover's manuscript entitled “The Testament.” It seems that Wiesel's short role as a character in the novel is meant to inject into it a dimension of historic authenticity as well as to establish a rapport with the reader. Wiesel's next brief appearance in the novel is that of the omniscient author who states his poetic credo which informs the entire novel:

In writing his “Testament,” Paltiel Kossover had sought precision first of all. Every word containing a hidden meaning; every sentence sums up a wide range of experiences.

(p. 29)

In a style that oscillates between the descriptive and the lyrical, Paltiel tells of the split between his commitment to the Jewish tradition and his fascination with Communism to which he was introduced by Ephraim. “According to Ephraim,” Paltiel notes in his memoir, “Communism was a sort of messianism without God, a secular, social messianism while waiting for the other, the true one.” (pp. 78-79) And as long as “the true messiah” tarries it is incumbent on his faithful to speed up the coming of the secular messiah.

The process of initiation into the Marxist world slowly takes hold of Paltiel but it never impregnates his entire being. Though intellectually, Marxism wins the upper hand over Judaism, emotionally the Jewish heritage remains embedded in the depth of his soul. This split between the emotion and the intellect provides the thematic structure of the novel, as is manifested in his adherence to the phylacteries which become a symbolic landmark of Paltiel's return journey to Judaism.

Even in his most exultant moments of willing submission to the Marxist ideals, even in his unquestionable acknowledgment of its ultimate aim, Paltiel does not give up the practice of putting on the phylacteries. However, when Paltiel gives up the practice, it is a result of momentary forgetfulness rather than a result of a conscious decision. While being nursed back to health by Inge, his lover and ideological tutor, Paltiel has a “lapse of memory,” as he puts it, for which he has never forgiven himself. Now in the solitary cell, he recalls in shame marked by a touch of irony how he broke with God, but not completely:

I did not forget Him. I remained attached to Him, hoping he did not hold against me too much when I left Him at night to meet Inge. I needed her lessons, her presence. As for God, He could manage without prayers.

My phylacteries? I tucked them away in a corner. (p. 123) Paltiel replaces the phylacteries with revolutionary symbols which signify the coming of a new era to mankind. Even as they are listening for the Messiah's footsteps, the faithful become engaged in a bloodletting that divests the revolution of its ideals. When, after a cessation of about thirty years, Paltiel retrieves his phylacteries from a lower drawer, he senses a resurgence of a spiritual life-force that lay dormant in his subconscious. In the wake of his religious revival, Paltiel arrives at a sceptical view of man and at an affirmative view of his Creator. This he relates to Grisha, his son, in a letter:

I've learned a lot—I don't know the answer that will have to be given to the grave, fundamental questions that concern human beings. The individual facing the future, facing his fellowman, has no chance whatsoever of survival. All that remains is faith. God.

(p. 20)

Consequently, the return to his earliest source of faith replenishes Paltiel's intellectual and verbal reservoirs, so depleted by the party's use of cliches during the years of political strife. The philosophically explorative nature of the memoir that painfully probes the Jewish condition, and for that matter the human condition, should be seen as the emblematic expression of the contemporary Jewish experience.

Understandably, Wiesel has made Paltiel's memoir the centerpiece of the four-layer narrative structure of the novel. For the memoir constitutes the structural fulcrum upon which Zupanev's and Grisha's fragmentary narratives lean, serving as counterpoints to the major narrative. In addition, within the overall structure of the novel, the fragmentary episodes function as catalysts in advancing the plot, and sharpening its perspectives.

Whereas Paltiel is the spokesman of the contemporary Jewish experience, a kind of memory-maker, Zupanev serves as the memory recorder and preserver, embodying the third layer of the narrative structure. Wiesel draws Zupanev's character in brief unsuccessive sketches, each sketch adding another feature to his personality as well as to his increasing role in the unfolding of the plot. It is a cumulative process of character shaping, moving from mere stroke, to sketch to profile—finally ending with a full-fledged, three dimensional personality. Strategically spacing out the flash-like sketches mostly between the parts of Paltiel's memoir, Wiesel sometimes integrates Zupanev's talks into the narrative flow, and sometimes ends them in an abrupt break that titillates the reader's imagination. Two examples will suffice to illustrate Wiesel's transition technique.

Speaking in a monologue style, Zupanev tells Grisha of his inability to laugh:

I wanted to laugh, to have one really good laugh, to roar with laughter, laugh until I croak. But I never could. … And then a poet different from the others, a crazy Jew, burst into my life and changed it by telling me about his own. And then …

(p. 29)

The laughter motif, though not immediately related to what follows, is recurrent in the Zupanev tale, and significantly enough, is included in the closing page of the last chapter of the novel. Silence is another motif that spins through the narrative. Here Zupanev tells Grisha how he has mentally recorded

The hunger pangs, the agonies of thirst, the wounds of memory: I have recorded them all. Which was the worst—Silence. There, your father recorded it all. Wait, let me find it. Here it is, do you see?

(p. 206)

Immediately following Zupanev's monologue begins a section from Paltiel's memoir which opens with a line on silence subsequently developing into a discussion of its meaning:

I wonder who invited the test of silence, the torture of silence. A madman? A poet of madness, of vengeance?

(p. 207)

In his capacity as stenographer in the investigating magistrate's office, Zupanev enjoys the advantage of the non-observed observer. Unobtrusively, sitting in a corner, Zupanev records the investigation procedure. Even as he is taking down the verbal fencing between the magistrate and Paltiel, Zupanev resolves to prevent Paltiel's creative effort from being obliterated by silence. On his retirement from the position of stenographer, Zupanev becomes a watchman of the apartment house in which Grisha and his mother, Raissa, live. It is there that the fateful meeting takes place between Zupanev and Grisha in which the latter is charged with the responsibility of transmitting his father's “The Testament.”

From the outset, Wiesel has suffused Zupanev's figure in strands of mystery which slowly become unravelled as his function grows in importance in advancing the plot of the novel. In the introductory part of the novel (the one signed E. W.), Wiesel casually drops his name in a way that draws immediate attention. Apparently, there is a third copy of “The Testament” that “belongs to a certain Victor Zupanev, a night watchman in Krasnograd.” (p. 16) Zupanev has never laughed in his life, as he freely imparts to Grisha. Moreover, according to his own admission he is “… a human chameleon, something close to it. I blend into the landscape.” (pp. 101-102) Stealthily moving in the corridors of the police station or later hiding in a corner of the apartment building as a night watchman, Zupanev sees into the mind of the tenants. Indeed, he assumes some kind of supernatural trait that eludes definition. The sense of the mysterious does not escape Grisha whose encounter with Zupanev evokes in him a series of questions that have an incantatory quality about them. Here is a sample of questions that make up an entire paragraph:

Who are you, Zupanev, my friend? Where do you come from? What planet dropped you into my life? What have you done, whom did you see before taking charge of this district at night? … And will I ever know what you're keeping from me?

(p. 152)

It seems that Zupanev's function has a two-fold purpose. One is to comment on Paltiel's memoir, to relate the circumstances in which it is written and to tell about its author's moral and intellectual triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. Indeed, Zupanev affords a perspective on Paltiel which lends further psychological credibility to the major character of the novel. The other is to mediate between Paltiel, the slain poet, and his son, Grisha, whom Zupanev appoints as executor of his father's poetic legacy. The weird situation in which a mute is called upon to testify for a dead poet justly strikes Zupanev as farcical: “These words, snatched from a dead man, from death itself, in order to be repeated, transmitted and kept alive, I am entrusting to a mute. Will this farce never end:” (p. 202)

The situation is, however, partially redeemed from its farcical implications by the mute messenger himself, who, immediately after his arrival in Israel, tirelessly copies and recopies his father's legacy, “The Testament.” What Grisha can not do, though, is to carry out the oral part of the legacy handed to him by Zupanev. Nor can Grisha voice his own reflections on the legacy. In addition, Grisha's memory inevitably carries myriads of diverse emotional impressions that are associated with his traumatic childhood, his ambivalent attitude towards his mother, his lyrically romantic relationship with Katya and his conspiratorial alliance with Zupanev. All these experiences Grisha can not relate because of his muteness. To resolve this communication problem, Wiesel has a narrator enter Grisha's consciousness to tell the story. Thus, Grisha's function as memory-carrier and memory disseminator is embodied in the fourth layer of the narrative structure. Acting as his verbal surrogate, the narrator assumes a roving role, moving in and out of Grisha's consciousness. The narrator begins by observing Grisha's behavior and facial expressions, stealthily skirting on the fringes of Grisha's consciousness while moving in concentric circles to its center. This strategy also provides the narrator with a time-scanning device that allows him to move back and forth from the present to the past, pinpointing crucial moments of Grisha's experiences. A characteristic passage of this modus operandi is the one which opens with the writer telling Grisha that his mother will not leave Vienna because of her illness. This news touches off in Grisha a stream of recollections stretching from childhood to adolescence to his last talk with his mother, ending in a description of Zupanev and Grisha at their final memorizing session. To illustrate my observation, I am citing selected excerpts from Chapter VIII:

Grisha blinks. He is so busy clearing his mind of sleep that he does not grasp what his friend is saying.


For an interminable and hazy moment Grisha remains paralyzed. Nothing moves him, nothing affects him. He feels nothing, weighs nothing. He is floating in a nebulous universe where the dead and the living mingle. Far from Jerusalem.


Grisha makes an effort. He is surprised by his own sorrow. The last evening with his mother, on the eve of his departure for Israel, had been less painful. And yet, at that particular moment, he had no hope of ever seeing her again. Why would she have left Krasnograd, her habits, her comfort and her friend Mozliak? And yet she did leave them, why?

Then, briefly shifting back to the present, the narrator picks up again Grisha's reminiscings which shape into a dialogue between him and his mother:

Scenes from his childhood, images from his adolescence appear in his mind's eye, at first in sequence, then overlapping in time. … “Did you love him, tell me? My father, did you love Him?” “Of course, Grisha, of course I loved him.” “But then, why was his heart broken?” “Who told you that his heart was broken?” “I know it, I read his poems. His heart was broken.” “But, my child, all poets have broken hearts. …”

This bitter exchange reminds Grisha of Zupanev's advice not to tell his mother about the existence of Paltiel's memoir:

I trust your mother, but as to that Dr. Mozliak, if he gets wind of our project, we're done for. Be careful, son. You are a Jewish poet's messenger, it is your duty to be careful.”

(pp. 299-301)

Sometimes, Grisha's consciousness sees into an imaginary future where a scowling Zupanev chides Grisha for having been forgotten:

As he turns the pages he hears the hoarse, staccato voice, unlike anyone else's, of Victor Zupanev—the man who could not laugh—who passes on to him the story of the Jewish poet slain far away.

Suddenly he tenses; he tries in vain to visualize Zupanev. Faces parade in his head—delicate or vulgar, calm or nervous, surly or happy faces—but not one of them bears the feature of the old watchman of Krasnograd. He does hear his voice: “Aren't you ashamed of yourself, Grisha? Wasn't I your guide, your protector? Would you have gone to Jerusalem if I hadn't sent you? Why have you forgotten me?”

(p. 25)

As I have demonstrated, the device of time-shifts from present realities to recollections and sometimes to an imaginary future corresponds to the shifting attentions from outside observations of Grisha to his inner being. In order to avoid abrupt transitions of the time dimensions and of the different levels of reality—that might have ruptured the narrative cohesiveness—Wiesel uses subtle associations of verbal and imagistic links. Wiesel had used this device in his other works, notably in Gates of the Forest. But in The Testament it is a mute character from whose consciousness the narrative web spins, embracing different realities in a variety of literary forms made of tales within tales told by a chorus of voices evoking time past, present and future.

Why would Wiesel choose a mute character as one of the two story tellers for his novel? The answer seems to lie in the paradoxical nature of Grisha's muteness which in turn points to Wiesel's belief in the phoenix-like vitality of the word. A corollary to this paradox are the links between Jews of Silence and The Testament. The former is, as I already mentioned, a factual account of Soviet Jewry in its struggle to break out of the siege of silence while the latter is the fictional realization of this struggle. In the novel Wiesel uses his witnessing inward eye and his poetic talent to see into the thing itself, beyond the fleeting moment. Building on its factual base, The Testament, as its title implies, embodies both covenant and legacy, the one passed on to Wiesel in the great chain of the Jewish tradition, the other bequeathed to him by Soviet Jewry.


  1. James Cargass, In Conversation with Elie Wiesel (Paulist Press), p. 5.

  2. Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence (A Signet Book, 1967), p. 102.

  3. Ibid., p. 121.

  4. Elie Wiesel, The Testament (Summit Books, New York, 1981), p. 110. All subsequent citations will be to the Summit edition.

Marie M. Cedars (essay date fall 1986)

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SOURCE: Cedars, Marie M. “Silence and Against Silence: The Two Voices of Elie Wiesel.” Cross Currents 36, no. 3 (fall 1986): 257-66.

[In the following essay, Cedars traces Wiesel's development as a writer and political activist.]

Against Silence epitomizes Elie Wiesel's obsession: to sensitize people to the injustices that afflict their contemporaries. Having suffered from the silence of others' indifference, he spends his life speaking out against inhumanity everywhere. Now his Nobel Peace Prize signals that people are listening. It gives him reason for hope. “It is not for prizes that one works,” he replied, when asked if the award would change him. To Wiesel, who was notified of the award at the close of Yom Kippur, the prize means “a new beginning. … It is a possibility to speak louder.”1

Although Wiesel is best known for his untiring efforts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in order to prevent its recurrence, he has earned further renown and admiration for turning that experience towards positive action:

… because we have known hunger, it is up to us to battle against hunger. Because we have sustained humiliation, it is incumbent upon us to oppose humiliation. Because we have glimpsed the ugliest side of humanity, we must appeal to its most noble aspect.2

Hence, Wiesel has cried out against suffering in Biafra, Bangladesh, and Uganda, and against persecution of the Bahai in Iran, the Miskito Indians in Central America, and the Aché tribe in Paraguay. He has called for help for the boat people of Indochina, for the Lebanese, the Palestinians, and the Haitians. He has decried oppression in Poland, Afghanistan and El Salvador, and the torture of children wherever it takes place. He has personally gone to Argentina to secure freedom for political prisoners, to Cambodia to deliver food and try to stop the massacre, to Ethiopia to arrange help for the starving populace, to Israel to intervene personally on behalf of Arab prisoners, and to the Soviet Union to pressure for release of prisoners of conscience. “And so I shout. I alert my journalist comrades. I call up senators and high-level functionaries: We do not have the right to keep silent! … It is in combating the suffering of others that we find meaning in our own” (A [Against Silence] 1:192).3

Wiesel is driven by the same zeal to save mankind as he was when, as an adolescent, he fasted two days each week and maintained silence on the Sabbath. The youth turned inward with unquestioning faith, hoping to hasten the arrival of the Messiah. Today he believes in the Messiah, even “more than before.” However, he believes that the Messiah is not one man, but all humanity, and so how and when the Messiah will come depends on us. That is why Wiesel has turned his efforts outward, writing and speaking and teaching to encourage the development of collective responsibility. He is trying to save the species by changing individuals.

What has brought about this shift in Wiesel's emphasis? The clues are in his own works. Not only do Wiesel's books trace the metamorphosis in his view of the individual's relationship to God and to others, but conversely, his change in outlook produces a metamorphosis in his writing style. From silence Wiesel moves against silence, as he confronts the implications of the Holocaust, first for himself and then gradually, for its universal implications—from contending with his destroyed world to doing what he can to change the outside world.

The child he had been, “drunk with Talmud and prayer … lived by and for the Shabat and its singular serenity, …” (A 1:245). It is that child who “died” in the Holocaust. It is that child who looks back at him from the mirror, asking him what he has done with his life, driving him to justify every day of his existence. But in his first works, Wiesel, striving to give voice to the unspeakable, to re-create a world out of chaos, could barely utter the tale.

That is why silence is the language of Wiesel's first book, Night, as it documents the camp experience that killed his faith “forever.” Its neutral tone is the language of the witness. By suppressing all emotion, analysis, and embellishment, it speaks of despair and cynicism. But it also forces the reader to fill in the feelings and judgment that Wiesel has silenced. It thus communicates Wiesel's perception, the perception of the witness. The absence of causal connectives is symptomatic of the broken Covenant between God and His people. Stripped to the essence, Wiesel's concise expression adheres closest to the truth. Reticence and understatement overrule sentimentality and repellant literalness, allowing the author to endure and the reader to believe. Both meet across the silence between words, the reader seeking the secret messages and becoming a participant in Wiesel's experience and quest.

Silence as a mood, silence as a mysterious presence, remains in Wiesel's books, even while he moves from despair to affirmation of literature and life and as he continues to probe the unanswered questions of human cruelty and God's silence. As he shifts responsibility from God to men and women, Wiesel's voice against silence begins to emerge. In The Accident, the protagonist tells of his dream in which God is no longer present.4 Then, in The Town beyond the Wall, Kalman, the mystic, tells Michael, “God is in prison. It is up to man to free him.” Implied is the idea that God becomes known through our deeds. Later, Gavriel, in The Gates of the Forest, tells Clara, “The Messiah, Clara, is not a single man, but all men,” thereby indicating each individual's responsibility for ushering in the messianic time. In Souls on Fire, Wiesel reinforces this concept by emphasizing a partnership between the divine and the human: “… man and God make one.” God's creation requires completion by the created. Furthermore, God may be disappointed in what we have made of his work. Indeed, in Ani Maamin: a song lost and found againAni Maamin means, “I believe”—God sheds tears when he sees what has been done with His creation, and God is touched by His people's continued faith in Him.

Then, in Messengers of God, Wiesel visualizes Cain accusingly questioning God, “You are the guardian of the world. If you did not want me to kill my brother, why did you not intervene?” Questioning God is within Jewish tradition, and it shows Wiesel believes He is still there. The dialogue with God continues in The Trial of God. God's defender says: “… it is a very simple situation: some men have been killed by other men. Why implicate the Lord?” With responsibility now placed on men and women for their crimes, Wiesel can direct his efforts to changing them. But to say that God is not involved is too easy an answer. Wiesel will keep asking questions, for he feels the magnitude of the Holocaust was such that it must implicate God.

I am not excusing God. I still question Him and shall question Him to the end of my life. But to say that God alone is on trial is hypocritical. … In Argentina thousands of people have disappeared. … Who is to blame for what is happening there? …

Who is to blame for Cambodia? …
Who is to blame for Iran? …

(A 1:177)

Although Wiesel is still contending with God's failure to speak, he can follow the faith of the Hasids who say, “If man had listened to the voice of God, there would not have been the great slaughter in Europe.”5 It is true that if everyone had obeyed God's commandment against murder, there could not have been a Holocaust.

Wiesel continues to probe the implications of that event, but now speaks with two voices: silence in his books, and against silence in his lectures and addresses. Wiesel himself explains the difference:

… between speaking and writing, there is an essential difference. You can disguise yourself in a book; you reveal yourself when you speak. …

… In a book what you do not say is important—or rather, it is as important as what you do say. Not in class: silence does not contribute in the slightest to knowledge

(A 2:94)

The words “Against Silence” not only encapsulate Wiesel's message in Abrahamson's collection; they are also the clue to its style. The message is against indifference, and it is clearly and explicitly stated. In the more than three hundred lectures, addresses, newspaper and periodical articles, book reviews, forewords and afterwords, radio and television transcripts, interviews, and dialogues, we hear Wiesel as Wiesel, not as a character in his books. We hear his humor, his anger, his tenderness, his enthusiasm, his relaxed, friendly side. These three volumes, invaluable as a resource for scholarly investigation as well as for the general reader, are not to be read all at once. They are rather to be savored little by little, then again and again, for each reading reveals more wisdom, more poetry than the previous one, as Wiesel shares insights into his books, guidelines for writers, teachers, and students, the impact of the Holocaust, Soviet Jewry, and Israel, and lessons from the past as well as hopes for the future.

Always, he speaks from within the history, faith, and culture of his people. “I am first a Jew and only then a writer” (A 1:10), Wiesel has said, and as he speaks from his Jewish experience, he addresses people of all faiths. John Roth, Harry James Cargas and Robert McAfee Brown affirm that he speaks to them.6 “… the better a Jew I am, the better a person I am …” (A 1:357), Wiesel states, and he asks of the rest of the world not that they become Jewish, but only that they be good Christians or good Moslems or good Buddhists—and that they respect the right of Jews to be good Jews.

Wiesel follows his own advice to writers to create an oeuvre by telling about the universe they know. He draws on the Hasidic milieu of his childhood as inspiration for his characters and stories, reveals the influence of his lifelong study of Talmud on his method of literary explication, finds contemporary relevance in the Bible legends and personages, and invokes the central events of Jewish history to insure the future of humanity. These sources not only provide the content of his work; they determine its form.

Wiesel says “The soul of every writer is his childhood and mine was a Hasidic one” (A 2:255). As he so frequently does, he drew on a Hasidic tale to make his point during a commencement address, warning his audience that they might forget his words, but would remember a story:

… a student … came to his master, the celebrated Hasidic teacher, Rebbe Mendel of Kotzk. “Rebbe,” said the student, “there is something I do not understand. It took God six long, endless days to create the world. Look at it! It's terrible. It's corrupt. It's cruel. It's inhuman.” The master looked at his disciple and said, angrily, “Can you do better?” At that point the student felt forlorn; he knew what he wanted to say and so he said it: “I think—yes!” “Yes?” the master shouted, “then what are you waiting for? Get busy. Go to work—immediately!”

Then, Wiesel addressed the students directly. “Well, it did not take you six days. It took you four years. And now the time has come for you to start work. Immediately!” (A 2:166).

By returning to Hasidic tales in his lectures and books, Wiesel retrieves his happy, secure childhood. He feels whole again. Hasidism was a haven when Wiesel chose to leave the subject of the Holocaust. It professes that the only way to love God is through man. Hasidim were profoundly human and demanded “nothing from the world, everything from God, and even more from themselves” (A 2:259). “Hasidism is compassion. Hasidism is love. Hasidism is fervor” (A 2:256). And one can even hear Wiesel's fervor as he speaks about it.

One of the characteristics that made the Hasidim so accessible, and the one which Wiesel subtly displays, is a sense of humor. The following excerpt shows that Wiesel has his feet on the ground:

Torah in Midrash is compared to water and fire, and it is a remedy against pain. The Talmud says: “If you have a headache, study Torah.” In my yeshivah the joke among the yeshivah students was that if you had a headache and you studied Torah, you would see that you had no head—and no headache

(A 1:307)

When Wiesel consciously left the topic of the Holocaust and turned to his Hasidic past, he introduced the Hasidic melody, the “niggun,” into his writing and thereby made his style more lyrical. His grandfather had taught him to make words “sing.” “With novels it's the first line that's important The first line determines the form of the whole novel. The first line sets the tone, the melody. If I hear the tone, the melody, then I have the book” (A 2:118) Wiesel expresses the rhythm of the Hasidic chant through repetition. His purpose is emphasis, but “it can become a vehicle of art” (A 2.112). Indeed, much of Wiesel's prose is poetry. His speech at Uri Zvi Greenberg's award ceremony, entitled “The Pure Fire,” conjures rising and falling flames as it builds to a crescendo with the same word pattern repeated two or three times, then drops to a quiet level as a concluding statement wraps up the first three. Then, silence. Crescendo again with the next pattern of repeated phrases—it is as if Wiesel is painting “the very pure fire of truth” that he credits Uri Zvi Greenberg with showing:

When no one knew what would happen, you knew. When no one believed what was happening, you believed. When no one dared to tell, you spoke. How were you able to live with this knowledge?

I read your words, your poems, your verses, I read the silence in them, I read the fire in them—and I do not understand how you were able to live. …

We see in you an exceptional teacher and a brother. We see in you a man who lives before us, dies before us, and comes to life again before us. I have always thought it possible to live thousands of miles from the temple and yet live through its destruction. I have always thought it possible to live from one destruction through the next destruction. I have always thought it possible to pass through the death camps after they were closed. If I have these thoughts it is because of you. …”

(A 2:74)

Wiesel follows the Talmudic method of starting with a question. Because questions disturb, and therefore lead to a search, raising questions is the duty of the writer.

How do you describe to a child in the ghetto who had no bread what it is to have a cake? Or fruit? Or sugar? “What does an apple look like?”, a child asks a father. Another wants to know, “What does happiness mean? Are there happy Jews in the world? Have there ever been?” And a third child inquires, “You told us that people are good at heart. Are they?” And a five-year-old asks, “Am I going to die? Have I lived enough?”

(A 1:151)

Do the questions disturb? Indeed they do, and there are no simple answers.

Furthermore, Talmudic “explication de texte” serves Wiesel as a guide when he uses a word definition as a take-off point. He often translates a word's derivation and its literal meaning into a moral lesson.

In Hebrew the word for “suffering” is sevel; to suffer is lisbol. From lisbol we go to savlanut or patience. And from savlanut we go to sovlanut, which means tolerance.

As a Jew and as a man totally committed to my people and its tradition, I have learned that suffering, sevel, must generate sovlanut; compassion or tolerance, and not bigotry or hate. The fact that the Jewish people, in spite of twenty centuries of persecution, have not become obsessed with or dominated by bitterness and vengeance, violence and resentment, is to me a source of astonishment and pride

(A 1:371)

“And in the Talmud one is always asked: What if the situation were the opposite? Whatever we read we are forced to read either way …” (A 3:298). Mirror images similar to the Biblical verse, “I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine, …” (Song of Songs 6:3) dot Wiesel's literary landscape:

Incapable of living simply, or simply of living, these heroes and anti-heroes, …”

(A 2:72)

We are all members of the human race if we make the race human.

(A 1:378)

… for most writers, their work is a commentary on their life; for Jewish writers it is the opposite; their lives are commentaries on their work.

(A 2:255)

Talmudic study has still other applications. For instance, just as Wiesel gently and respectfully, but insistently, implored President Reagan to “find another way” instead of visiting Bitburg as a symbol of reconciliation with Germany, Wiesel used Talmudic argumentation to convince Roman Rudenko, the attorney general of Russia in 1979, to meet with him privately and to take from him a letter containing the names of four dissidents. Here are two excerpts from their conversation:

“… And now, Mr. Rudenko, I have a favor to ask you. I would like to see you alone.” He did not understand. He said, “Why?” I said, “Mr. Rudenko, to explain to you why, I must be alone with you.” You see, learning Talmud has its advantages. Realizing that he had no choice, Rudenko took me into his study. …

“You have no right to give me this letter!” … He gave it back.

I said, “Mr. Rudenko, I am not taking it back. Either I or the letter stays here. I am not taking it out.”

(A 2:244-245)

Within a few months, the first man on the list was freed. It took longer for the release of the second man, Anatoly Shcharansky.

The Biblical injunction to “choose the good” (Deut. 30:15 and 30:19) serves as a silent reference point for Wiesel whose critiques reveal his ability to see both sides: the positive and the negative, the good and the evil, in what is said or left unsaid, in what is done or left undone, and to subtly emphasize which choice he sees as the good and moral one. Thus, Wiesel singles out the compassion of Malamud in this laudatory review:

The pulsing excitement in Bernard Malamud's work is the immense compassion which he feels for all would-be creative men who experience defeat after defeat, loneliness after loneliness; in his work they are given the right of refuge.

(A 2:273)

Then, Wiesel juxtaposes what Malamud might have done against what he chose to do:

Far from mocking them and exploiting their misery, far from condemning and scorning their mistakes and their ugliness as do so many of his contemporaries, he offers these phantoms a guiding light.

(A 2:273)

In this way, Wiesel demonstrates, too, how “… the writer becomes responsible … not only for the language but for the silence” (A 2:65).

Wiesel honors the sanctity of human life that is proclaimed in the Talmud when he writes his poetically tender and beautiful pieces in paying homage to his friends and teachers. Whether the tribute is presented on the occasion of an award ceremony or as a eulogy, each honors the humane qualities in the honoree. And each reflects honor upon Wiesel for the respect and compassion his caring words convey.

But Wiesel proclaims the sanctity of life, as well, when he declares his outrage at the wanton destruction of the Aché, in his “Epilog” to Genocide in Paraguay, edited by Richard Erens.

Deculturization, ghettos, collective murders, manhunts, tortures, and agonies: that in a country so near to ours humans can still be locked with impunity inside stifling camps, can still be tracked down legally like wild beasts before being reduced to slavery, …

But our society prefers not to know anything of all that. Silence everywhere. … But now, after having read these testimonies, we know. Henceforth we shall be responsible—and accomplices.

(A 2:372)

Again, in this insight into Wiesel's book, The Testament, he upholds the sacredness of human life:

Among other things I wanted to show the meaning of communism. The problem with communism was that it became an experiment of sacrificing living people for the sake of an abstraction. That is something one does not do … The end does not justify the means. When it comes to human life, every person is an end, not a means.

(A 3:267-268)

Wiesel is always conscious of his link to all of Jewish history. He believes “profoundly that the past is present” (A 1:279), and he illustrates this conviction by relating Biblical personages to his contemporaries. “They were forefathers, not myths, and their singular destiny affects ours. We identify with them. They were neither saints nor idols. They were human beings with weaknesses and shortcomings, but thrust into a drama of cosmic magnitude” … (A 3:100). And so, on the subject of Cain and Abel, Wiesel asks why Adam and Eve do not intervene between their quarreling children. Where are they? Even if Adam is too busy, where is Eve?

How is one to explain and justify this pedagogical failure, the first, and probably the most fatal, in history. Must we attribute it to the “gap” which divides all generations, in times past as today, and makes parents incapable of understanding their children, incapable of raising them intelligently?7

Wiesel's conviction that “past is present” is also manifested in the movement of his characters or of their thoughts, back and forth in time, as he alternates chapters of present-time with past-time in The Town beyond the Wall,The Testament, and The Fifth Son; or alludes to contemporary events in telling tales of the past, as in The Trial of God and The Oath; or blends past and present, as in A Beggar in Jerusalem and The Gates of the Forest.

Irving Abrahamson and most other critics of Wiesel are overwhelmingly laudatory, citing his eloquence, his poetic quality, his authenticity, and the relevance of his works to theology, philosophy, history, and literary criticism, to our past and our future. Although Wiesel maintains that he is just a “teller of tales,” Terrence Des Pres emphasizes his qualities as an artist who affects his readers so deeply that “we cannot read him without the desire to change, to lead better lives.”8 To Cargas, he is “the most important living writer”9 and should have the Nobel Prize for literature as well as the Peace Prize.

The occasional negative appraisals of Wiesel's writing have faulted him for not achieving a “great style,” mixing disparate genres or giving precedence to conscience over craft. Frederick Garber is critical of Wiesel's inability to “sustain his occasional fine moments”10 and thinks that the books that bring together several shorter pieces are more suited to Wiesel's talent.

Wiesel, however, is unruffled by adverse criticism and takes as a compliment any allusions to his sacrificing craft for conscience. Since he has seen firsthand that culture without a moral dimension may be inhuman, he perceives such criticism as an indication that he has succeeded in communicating morality.

Furthermore, the obligation to express what is impossible to express has produced among survivors a language that is fragmentary, and more silence than words. How does one say the unspeakable and make credible the unbelievable? A recent study of survivors' language by Sidney Bolkosky,11 Professor of History at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, indicates that the “struggle with narrative forms” is common to all survivors, a fact of which Wiesel is well aware. Des Pres believes that only an “archaic quasi-religious vocabulary” is suitable when writing about the death camps, while Emil Fackenheim opts for a language of “sober, restrained, but … unyielding outrage.”12 All this suggests how inadequate an understanding most of us have of the survivors' dilemma, and consequently, how inappropriate is traditional criticism.

In order to really understand Wiesel, one must know, in depth, who he is and whence he comes. One cannot separate his life from his work; both possess moral beauty and a deep religious feeling. He may be against God, but he is not without God, and he is always on the side of man. He is authentic and compassionate, and even inspires a kind of reverence. The following words, which analyze the effect on Wiesel of his return visit to his pre-war home in Hungary, could describe as well Wiesel's effect on one who is deeply involved in his works: “There are certain themes and certain experiences that make you change whether you want it or not, when you must reevaluate your relationship with the surrounding society, with man and with God and with yourself” (A 3:41). Reading Wiesel is one of those experiences.

Having survived only to testify, Wiesel is a driven person. He is trying to answer the young boy that he used to be. “I hear him asking me: ‘What have you done with your life?’ I write and I write and I write, trying to tell you what I have done with my life” (A 1:198). Thirty books in as many years plus hundreds of lectures and articles aim not to induce guilt or pain, but to insure hope for the future.

We do not want you to be sad. What do we want you to be? More aware, more open, more sensitive. That is the key: more sensitivity. … We have learned that indifference to evil is evil. We have learned that if evil strikes one people and others do not react, evil has its own dynamics. I wish we could stop that evil.

(A 1:198)

The fact that Wiesel is the first writer to receive the Nobel Peace Prize is recognition that he lives his words. What has he done with his life? Will he succeed in changing man? “The answer will come not from me,” Wiesel says, “but from our children” (A 1:198).


  1. ABC News, “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings,” 14 October 1986.

  2. Elie Wiesel, Signes d'exode [essais, histoires, dialogues] (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1985), p. 187. Here, and wherever I cite the French edition for a quotation in English, the translation is mine.

  3. Irving Abrahamson, ed., Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, 3 vols. (New York: Holocaust Library, 1985). All quotations from this work will be noted in the text, as follows: (A 1:192).

  4. Elie Wiesel, Le Jour [roman] (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961), p. 86. Starting with Le Jour, the seven French titles under note 4 follow the order of their English equivalents in my text and are from Editions du Seuil unless otherwise noted: La ville de la chance (1962), p. 19; Les Portes de la forêt (1964), p. 236; Célébration hassidique (1972), p. 20; Ani Maamin, un chant perdu et retrouvé [Edition bilingue 1, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Random House, 1973), p. 102; Célébration biblique (1975), pp. 54-55; and Le Procès de Shamgorod (tel qu'il se déroula le 25 février 1649) (1979), p. 111.

  5. Elie Wiesel, Paroles d'étranger [textes, contes et dialogues] (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1982), p. 157.

  6. John K. Roth, A Consuming Fire: Encounters with Elie Wiesel and the Holocaust, with a Prologue by Elie Wiesel (Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1979); Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel (New York: Paulist Press, 1976); and Robert McAfee Brown, “The Holocaust as a problem in Moral Choice,” in Elie Wiesel et al., Dimensions of the Holocaust: Lectures at Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University, 1977), pp. 46-63.

  7. Wiesel, Célébration biblique; p. 47.

  8. Terrence Des Pres, Foreword to Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel, by Ellen S. Fine (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982), p. xiv.

  9. Cargas, In Conversation, pp. vii-viii.

  10. Frederick Garber, “The Art of Elie Wiesel,” Judaism 22 (Summer 1973): 301-308.

  11. Sidney Bolkosky, “Against Silence and Disbelief: Toward a New Language of the Holocaust,” Dimensions 2 (Fall 1986): 14-15.

  12. Terrence Des Pres, quoted in Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), p. 27: Fackenheim, p. 28.

Elie Wiesel, Robert Franciosi, and Brian Shaffer (interview date fall 1987)

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SOURCE: Wiesel, Elie, Robert Franciosi, and Brian Shaffer. “An Interview with Elie Wiesel.” Contemporary Literature 28, no. 3 (fall 1987): 281-300.

[In the following interview, Wiesel discusses his literary philosophy, the role of history in his work, and the impact of Holocaust literature.]

The public and private worlds of Elie Wiesel seemed to come together as we talked in his Manhattan office. From the tenth floor we could hear sounds of heavy construction, of automobiles, of the noises that Wiesel says “characterize our generation.” In the midst of this Wiesel himself was a figure of calm with a voice that barely rose above the din.

It is a refreshing and unusual experience to speak with a writer of truly international fame extending well beyond the literary sphere, who nevertheless possesses an inherent reticence of manner and speech. Elie Wiesel is not a broker of the casual word in an era in which literary success sometimes seems to depend more on glib public relations than on a bond between author and reader. Wiesel remains committed to the sanctity and mystery of language—even when called upon to enter the public realm. One senses his discomfort in this public role, be it before the President of the United States or at a reception sponsored by a local Hillel House. Such discomfort, however, has not prevented him from speaking eloquently and compellingly for justice, communication, and remembrance.

Since the publication of Night in 1958, he has written nearly thirty books, but conversation with Elie Wiesel soon reveals that he has little interest in commenting on the work of other writers or on “the current scene in fiction.” He will discuss his own works as well as his thoughts on the nature of literature, history, or memory, for example, but even so, one still senses in the man a restraint. As he said during a November 1985 lecture in Iowa City, “literature is the antithesis of indifference,” yet each word, whether spoken or written, must also be an act of responsibility. It is finally the private exchange between author and reader, between reader and word, that is most important and most fascinating to Wiesel. He has been called a “messenger to all humanity.” Elie Wiesel is a messenger in pursuit of silence, one who writes toward the moment when testimony is finally given, words are finally understood, and the silent mystery that lies between the words speaks at last.

Nine months after our conversation, Elie Wiesel was awarded the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize.

[Franciosi and Shaffer]: You have said that one purpose of literature is “to correct injustices.” By what means does literature affect the world for the better?

[Wiesel]: Literature did affect the world in the past. Whether it can affect it now, I am not sure. In the past, after all, the great changes occurred thanks to words: the great books, the great religions, the great cultures, the great traditions; whether they were written in hieroglyphs, or on papyri, or on stone, still they are words. And for me the words of the Law, the story of the Law, or the story of the people who benefited from the Law, all of them are part of the same category—the category of literature. In that case you may say that surely all of these words came to improve the human condition. Now … who knows? Now I think we live in a dehumanized era; words have lost their innocence and their power. They may have destructive power; whether they have redemptive power as they used to, I am not so sure. Except for individuals. Today what is important is to help one person, another person, for one minute, another minute.

So you think literature can still have a significant effect on individuals but that its effect on society as a whole is diminished?

Diminished, yes. In the past, in the eighteenth, nineteenth centuries, toward the beginning of the twentieth century, it affected society. Today literature must be either protest or consolation.

Would you characterize your own work as predominantly protest or consolation?

Mainly protest, but here and there … I am a student of the ancient prophetic texts; every prophet usually had to be both a seer of pain and a consoler. I wish I had the power to console. I try, meaning I desperately seek hope. The emphasis is on desperate.

That prophetic image you just used makes me think of someone like Jeremiah who protested but paid a great personal cost.

Again, I identify not with Jeremiah but with the students of Jeremiah. I am surely not a prophet, but I am a student of Jeremiah and I love Jeremiah. I am glad you mentioned him, because of all the prophets he is the one whose writings I am closest to. He is the one who foresaw tragedy, lived tragedy, and remembered tragedy to write about it. But Ezekiel too and Isaiah too, they all had words of pain, which were followed by words of consolation.

You have consistently described yourself as a teller of stories. Today much literature emphasizes aesthetic design and verbal play over storytelling as such. Do you feel these realms are mutually exclusive?

Between the experimental novel and the experiential novel there is conflict. I do not say that one is better than the other, but simply that for my temperament, for my approach, my vision, my inner dreams, one is more apt than the other. I am not for the experimental novel, although I try experiments in every novel. Why? Simply because I believe that the subjects I try to deal with, at least in some of my books, are beyond language, so I have to find a new language. The story defies imagination, so I have to invent a kind of new imagination. Therefore, the structure is always different and the very setting invites change. But it is still a classical story; I need a story. While Proust's description of one chair or one breakfast lasts twenty pages, I am much more influenced by the Talmudic concept, which is condensation—one sentence occasionally describing four centuries, four generations of scholars—and the writings in the ghettos, with their crisp, tense, short sentences.

Such as the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto?

The chronicles, all the chronicles from all the ghettos had to be short—and I understand why—because any sentence could have been the last sentence, the last word, the last period. They never knew when the police would come, when the Gestapo would knock at the door; therefore, every line had to be part of testimony and testament. And subconsciously, at least in my early works, I had the same obsession, the same attitude as these chroniclers.

So you feel a sense of urgency perhaps behind telling the story which might be lessened if too much attention is given to verbal play?

Absolutely. I did not want the verbal play, it's usually adding words. My work is just the opposite: removing, eliminating words, to say less and less and less, always less.

Is it possible that part of the diminishment of literature's effect on society can be attributed to the fascination with surface verbal texture in serious literature?

It is possible, but it happens not only in literature; it occurs everywhere. Our society talks too much. Never has society heard more noise than now.

While watching the newscasts yesterday about the space shuttle disaster, I switched from one channel to the next and heard an incredible number of voices.1

Turn on the set any day, open the channels and you will hear chit chat. Add to it the telephones and the radio stations, and the satellites, the communications satellites. We are in a hurry to bring more words to one another. Once upon a time you sent a letter by ship, it took weeks. Now it's instant delivery! We are buried under an avalanche of words. Sounds. Voices. Noises. I think this is what characterizes our generation, the obsession to avoid silence. People are afraid of silence. As for myself, I believe in silence. I try to introduce silence into my writings. If any book of mine does not have the weight of silence, it is a bad book, I would not publish it.

You have said that in literature “the weight of silence determines the weight of art.”

Absolutely, it does. The mystery lies in silence, not in words. And what art is there without mystery?

Many of the experimental novelists and short story writers would feel that they put much emphasis on the word, but I sense that your view of the word and theirs is quite different.

Maybe it is due to my upbringing. I come from a religious family. At a very young age I began studying the Bible, Talmud, and some mystical books. As you know, mysticism emphasizes what lies between words rather than what is in words. This silence that separates the words is what excites and fascinates me.

I recall a previous interview in which you talk about the burden of copying a religious text and making sure that each word is exact.2

Correct. Furthermore, we are told of a master speaking to his disciple, who is a scribe. “Should you omit or add one letter,” said the Master, “the whole world will be destroyed.” Some arrogance, but also some responsibility. I am surprised that his disciple could be a scribe afterwards. If somebody were to tell me that as a writer one word of mine would have such an impact, I would not write. I would be afraid to write.

That is quite a burden.

It is not only a burden, it is also a metaphor for a responsible conscience.

Let me shift direction. I read that you were recently in Germany and that one of the issues you specifically addressed was President Reagan's visit to the military cemetery at Bitburg last May. You were quoted as saying to a group of Germans and Americans, “Had we met before Bitburg, we would have avoided Bitburg, much misunderstanding and injustice would have been avoided.” This seems to echo your idea that literature can correct injustices.

I did not seek that debate. I closed it the moment the President went there. I did not want to reopen it; it would have been useless and senseless. But one must emphasize again the need for exchange, for words, the use of words, in spite of my reluctance with regard to language. Still, there's nothing else available to us. From psychology we know that violence is simply another form of language. When the ordinary language has no more role to play, then people resort to violence. As long as we can talk we don't hit each other. So on a deeper level, words can still be used and injustices can be corrected.

Were there any lessons that you derived from that series of events—and I am referring to you as a writer—on the effect a writer can or cannot have on society?

Oh, I am modest. I am very modest about this. I have published now some twenty-six books and three volumes of short essays, and yet I would not say that I have changed things. What I tried to do in the beginning was to move the survivors to open up, to bear witness, to wager on memory, to wager on renewed ties. Then it was for the children of the survivors to do the same. I always believed in being inclusive rather than exclusive. In other words: every person must see himself or herself as witness. I wanted the witnesses to give testimony. I tried. Maybe the book that did the most good for the Russian Jews was The Jews of Silence. Twenty-one years ago it created some awareness. As for the other causes, for Biafra, for the Ethiopian children, for helpless people everywhere whom I tried to help, or as far as the nuclear threat is concerned … No … I don't believe that society has changed. Maybe certain segments of society—here, there. But then one person, that's enough for me.

There's a book of essays being prepared by Geoffrey Hartman of Yale …

Yes, he is bringing out a book on Bitburg.3 He asked me to write a foreword, but I do not want to capitalize on Bitburg. I did what I had to do. I tried even then, when I got all the exposure which I didn't look for, never to mention any of my books, because I don't want to sell books through Bitburg or through anything else. My publishers are always telling me of their frustration because I don't make use of my exposure. I have never done it. I will not do anything to sell books, it's ridiculous.

Is it surprising that such a book is being edited by a literary critic and theorist? One would expect, of course, political analysis of that incident and historical analysis.

Yes, but why not, after all. I am sure that it's not only about Bitburg, but something more general about the whole issue. I am sure it's going to be a valuable effort.

“The opposite of history,” you have said, “is not myth but forgetfulness.” This idea seems to be at the heart of the Bitburg incident. We appear to be in a very crucial period for historical memory, because we forget things so quickly. That's the lesson that I derive from Bitburg, that we have a very short historical memory today.

Because we know too much. Too much is published. And therefore the danger today is still forgetfulness, but this time through trivialization. People see a television series on a given subject and they think, “Now we know.” All they know is what they have seen on television, and even then they forget part or they remember only the love story or this or that silly, nonsensical event. They read a cheap novel and they think “Now we know,” and so forth. For a civilization, that's dangerous. That's forgetfulness, and in that case probably, as you say, our historical memory, our ability to remember what the past has been, what the past has left us, has weakened.

Is it just because of an excess of information that it has weakened?

Yes, that's an element in the equation. Also, I think that there is something in human beings that rejects the idea of so much evil. We don't want to know that people can wield such power, and that so many can be bystanders, or that the leaders of so many people can be so indifferent. Guilt is something people reject. Therefore people naturally reject this period. In addition, if you add the fact that communication today has such potential and that so much is being written, so much is being shown. … The whole Event becomes entertainment. It's all entertainment. After all, think about it: Auschwitz as entertainment, a docudrama. There's something wrong with that. The media give people what they can take and what makes it palatable.

In Imagining Hitler Alvin Rosenfeld discusses the trivializing of these events as a common phenomenon of popular culture.

Absolutely, that's a very good, a very powerful analysis, one of the best, and he is right.

The writer William Styron has said that “when a novelist is dealing with history, he has to be able to say that such and such a fact is totally irrelevant, that certain facts can be dispensed with out of hand, because to yield to them would be to yield, or to compromise, the novelist's own aesthetic honesty.” How much does a writer of fiction owe to the facts of history?

Not much, if in his view history is unconnected to the era. If he were to write about the Pharaohs in Egypt or about Louis XIV, that's one thing. But to write about history while those who were its protagonists, or those who lived through it, are still alive—I think that I would expect a writer to have more honesty, more intellectual honesty, and above all more sensitivity. Simply because he has to think of the people who are still here. And that adds another measure of responsibility on his or her shoulders. That's why I don't agree with that position. A “distanciation” in this respect makes the writer unworthy of his vocation.

So there's an obligation to the reader as well?

It's a matter of commitment to humanity, to truth, to sensitivity. What is writing if not sensitivity? And not to be sensitive to people who are alive, in addition to the dead who are still present to those who are alive and who remember them—there's something terribly wrong with that.

How do you respond to some of the theories that history itself is another form of fabulation, that it's a text like any other text?

It depends again on what history you talk about. Today we have access to many sources. What's happening today after all is part of modern technology. The Second World War is the best documented war in history. We know it from all sides. From the perpetrators, from the aggressors, and from the aggressed, from the killers and the victims, including bystanders. They all kept records. Of course, not every single person kept records, but few events were not recorded in some way by more than one person. So we have, naturally, a good deal of it at our disposal. Therefore, it's not simply fabulation. That would mean that, let's say, hundreds of people would fabulate the same thing. It's a bit too much, to think that hundreds of people who have seen the same thing, would write the same accounts, would come to the same conclusions, if what they say were not true.

Is there a certain abrogation of responsibility when someone takes this point of view, that history is just another text?

No, I understand, I understand the temptation. Again, I do not criticize, I do not judge. They are right, why shouldn't they be? After all, history is part of culture and culture must be a debate. We must hear more than one view. It would be terrible if only my view were correct; not at all, we must listen to more than one and therefore their view is theirs and my view is mine.

When you were in Germany you recalled the Holocaust and said that “only those who were there will know what it meant. The paradox is we cannot tell the story, and yet it must be told.” You have said this in many of your books. I am reminded of a statement made by a literary critic. He is writing about James Joyce, yet it seems appropriate to this situation. He describes “an art of surround and periphery, implying and evoking, but never naming, the center.” Must all the literature of the Holocaust, out of necessity, avoid naming that center?

No, I think that this event is special, it is unique, and so I cannot compare it to any other; consequently, even the attitudes toward it are not the same.

Many literary theorists would say that language is inadequate to express any of that: even a mundane event, let alone one of such magnitude. Is there an implied despair in such a view of language?

Naturally, naturally, there is despair, but what else is there except language? It is the only tool given to us—communication. There is a better one, of course: two persons meet, they don't have to talk. But it's only two persons. We would limit our universe. It would make it easier, but it's limited. Language is as old as human beings. Nevertheless it is inadequate, and nevertheless we must do something with it; hence the despair and hence the existential dilemma. I believe, of course, we must face despair and go beyond it. We cannot speak of hope without despair. And at the same time we cannot speak of despair without hope. It all depends on what comes first. I would like hope to be an outgrowth of despair, without ignoring it or denying it.

In a recent doctoral thesis James E. Young views Holocaust literature and its criticism as virtually an extended single text. He says that the task of the criticism is to understand how preexisting cultural, religious, and mystical traditions shaped and are enacted in the literature. By means of such understanding one might then further the aims of that literature.

There may be something to that. Because, after all, I think of my case—and of course I am the result of what I learned—and realize that without my learning the religious texts and the Talmudic tradition I would not write the way I do. Yes, the equipment was given to me, it's deep within me, and I just used it. I received it from those who lived before me. But again, there is a conviction within me that we must find something new. We must find something new because whatever happened was new, and yet we cannot find anything. So we use the old texture, hoping that somehow something new will be revealed in addition to old possibilities.

It seems that the Holocaust is a compelling subject for many serious American writers. You've been in this country now for many years and have at least noticed the appearance of some of these efforts. Have any of them been successful; can they ever be successful?

I don't know. I follow the literary output, I think I have read all of the volumes that have been published. I do not want to criticize one or the other, to say this one is wrong and not the other. I am sure that the intent was honest: they wanted to come to grips with the Event. Some succeeded, others did not. The most famous ones did not, I don't think so, but again, that does not mean that they should not have tried. I respect them for their ambition, for their undertaking.

As a reader, and one not talking about specific texts, what do you expect or require of that kind of second-hand work?

Sensitivity. Take John Hersey, for instance. He's probably the first, with his novel The Wall. He wasn't there, but it is nevertheless one of the best books on the subject. Occasionally, when I teach a course on Holocaust literature I include The Wall. André Schwarz-Bart's The Last of the Just is another example. It is possible, even for those who were not there, to write something as “authentic” as the writers who were there. I don't favor one category over the other. What you ask for is sensitivity, and not all have it.

As I recall Hersey's book, he depended to a great extent on the use of diaries.

The diary of Ringelblum; but he adapted and recreated the source in what he wrote, and it's a great achievement.

There have been a number of attempts by writers to use courtroom testimony and documents as the sole source of the text rather than bringing their own experiences to it. Probably the most notorious is Peter Weiss's The Investigation, but there have also been others; for example, the American poet Charles Reznikoff's Holocaust.

The best I have seen is a movie called The Eighty-First Blow. It's an Israeli movie, three hours long, using only the voices of the witnesses at the Eichmann trial. I think that the least successful was Peter Weiss's The Investigation, which I did not like at all. But then, I am subjective.

Is there a certain sense that by at least sticking to the documents one somehow avoids the pitfalls of trying to address this problem?

No, it's simply a response to the age. When we have exhausted the documents, then we can use imagination. But we have not even begun. I myself have written much, and yet I really have not begun. One day I will. It has all been a preparation for that moment.

Are you familiar with Cynthia Ozick's story, or perhaps novella, “Rosa”? In it she writes of the survivor's plight, of the anguish that comes from trying to communicate the experience to an often uninterested world. Should contemporary writers focus more on the lives of the people after rather than during the Event?

I don't want to give advice to writers. They are as solid in their judgments and decisions as I am.

In your most recent book. The Fifth Son, you are certainly dealing with that same issue.

I deal with it in all my books, the incommunicability of the experience. I do not believe that there is only one proper solution, so I describe the impossibility of communication.

You present the impossibility of communication as what separates the father and the son, and it is the burden that the son is facing.

Because in this case I turn my attention to the children of the survivors, and I am involved with their pride, their struggles, their marvelous, awesome spirit.

Let me ask some specific questions about The Fifth Son While reading of your recent visit to Germany, I was reminded of the son's trip to that country, particularly his encounter on the train with the character Theresa. At one point in their conversation she says of the Holocaust, “It has nothing to do with me, I was born later.” Did you hear similar comments from young Germans?

Yes, I met young people, students, who said that. Others, of course, said the opposite, but I also met people who said, “It has nothing to do with me. For me, that means nothing special.” Others said, “It does!” But I have learned never to generalize.

I was especially impressed with your use of the dead son Ariel, which in many ways reminds me of the situation in Ozick's story, “Rosa,” where the main character writes letters to her dead daughter, Magda. Was the name Ariel a Shakespearean reference?

No, all of my characters have the word “El” in them. It is a link I use in every novel; it means God.

For the son, his dead brother Ariel seems the symbol of the Event itself. One of the more interesting moments in the book is when you suddenly shift from the father writing letters to his dead son, to the living son writing letters to his dead brother.

Naturally, the whole book is so structured. You know I come from a French background, and what we learn in France is structure. The main thing in dealing with a subject is that everything must be tight. Here the whole book is based on letters. It begins with letters and ends with letters; it's a shift of letters. A movement. A concentric circle of letters.

Yes, and in the course of one letter, if you're not careful, you lose track of who is writing. It is the friend, Simha, who speaks with the son of his father. Except for when he finally broke down and wept, the father, Reuven Tamiroff, never really communicated anything to his son.

Because he spoke to his dead son. That is the problem of survivors' children.

Did you find any problem with trying to write the book from the perspective of a young American? I am thinking particularly of the voice of the main character and wondering about questions of capturing the speech, though I know it was translated from the French.

No, not at all. As a writer you must transcend the universe of time and age. After all, you live in a country, you hear its language.

Was there any particular reason why you set the book in the late 1960s, during campus unrest?

First of all, I needed the chronology. Because of the narrator's age it had to happen in the sixties; I could not avoid the sixties. Also because of their upheavals. The sixties opened up many doors. People talked. All that ever really happened in the sixties was to make people talk; with religious leaders, their parents, presidents, and so forth. There was big talking then; people talked and talked. And at the sit-ins, and the teach-ins, all talked. People opened up. Freed themselves. So it was good for me to place my novel in the late sixties.

The late sixties and early seventies was also a period of renewed Jewish consciousness, particularly for young people; but the character of the father in the book seems distant from these events.

Naturally, because he is old and he lives in his own world, with Paritus and his writings. He sought a shelter and he found one. He did not want anything to do with the outside world.

The book does not end on a very hopeful note.

I do not like to offer false hope. Why do it? It would be condescending. But there's still a question mark: it ends on a question mark.

Do you plan on writing more books that will deal with American situations?

I always write fiction and nonfiction at the same time. The current fiction is taking place in America, in a mental institution in America. The nonfiction is a book on Talmudic texts.

You are not quite sixty years old, but you are approaching that age. Do you have any long range goals for your work? Is there perhaps one big book that you've been thinking about writing?

All my books are connected in some way. It so happens that they are all part of one big book; it is finally one big book.

What would you title this book?

In Pursuit of Silence.


  1. This interview with Wiesel occurred the day after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on 28 January 1986.

  2. “A Conversation with Elie Wiesel,” by Lily Edelman. In Responses to Elie Wiesel, ed. Harry James Cargas (New York: Persea Books, 1978) 14.

  3. Bitburg in Moral and Political Perspective (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986).

Stanley Moss (review date 10 July 1988)

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SOURCE: Moss, Stanley. “Adam and Cain in the Madhouse.” New York Times Book Review (10 July 1988): 12.

[In the following review, Moss offers a favorable assessment of Twilight.]

Among his books, Elie Wiesel has given us Dawn,Night and now Twilight. The day of the spirit does not necessarily follow the earth around the sun.

His novella Dawn has grown in importance. Among its messages, it warns us that we must never do what its central character, an 18-year-old Jewish soldier, does: he goes from being a victim to being an executioner. Night is early autobiography: the terrible telling and remembering of Mr. Wiesel's own boyhood and concentration camp experiences, including the death of his father, mother and 7-year-old sister before his eyes. It is a necessary and unforgettable book in which the author makes fact visionary. In the barracks of terror, Mr. Wiesel's belief was corroded. The world no longer represented God's mind.

In Twilight, Mr. Wiesel repairs his own shattered imagination; shards are joined on which were imprinted Hasidic tales, parts of the kabbala, the Talmud and the Bible and memories of the horrors of his life.

Everything Mr. Wiesel writes is written in the spirit of his early Hasidic training. He and his fellow students were taught that the coming of the Messiah depended on how they conducted their lives, and that they must become the consciences of society. As far as I know, Mr. Wiesel has obeyed this charge in his life and work, and is to be honored for it.

Twilight tells the story of the Lipkin family, all of whom were killed in the Holocaust and the gulag except for a single son who survives, comes to America and becomes a scholar of mystical tradition. In search of information about a mysterious friend and idealized hero named Pedro, who we later learn worked for a Jewish rescue organization during the war, Raphael Lipkin travels to the Mountain Clinic, a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York. There he enters into conversations with madmen who are also prophets. Some of the deluded patient-prophets believe they are Adam, Cain, Abraham, Joseph or God. To the one who thinks he is Adam, man is not God's glory but His failure. He wants God to undo His creation. But mad Cain, the son of a Cleveland industrialist, is a murderer who is ultimately seen as a victim. Cain dreams of a world in which brothers watch out for brothers.

In creating some of his madman-prophets, Mr. Wiesel throws more than a little of the magic of the kabbala at us. In the kabbala, there is the idea of “gilgul,” or eternal recurrence, a transmigration and transformation of souls not for the purpose of penance or to shake off life, but in order to repair the world. Some of this mystery is very moving, but I found that these sections of the book often function more as meditation than fictional narrative. We accept Mr. Wiesel as Prospero the magician, even if at times he reminds us of a Jewish Polonius, because when his imagination really takes flight, and he takes on the role of a Jewish Ariel, we celebrate. It is a tribute to his art that we experience this sense of joy in the midst of a story. about the Holocaust; we delight in his characters, his storytelling and wit, his humanity and our own. He sketches small and large matters of love quickly and beautifully with a very sure hand. He sometimes gives us a taste that is worthy of a full-course epic—asking a Russian policeman for some information about a lost sweetheart causes Raphael's brother's arrest and ultimately his death in the gulag.

Despite the Holocaust and its atrocities, so specially devised to destroy human life and dignity, we experience in Mr. Wiesel's novel how good the family is, how good people are. Utterly without sentimentality, he gives us a small but real measure of what the world's loss has been.

In Twilight, evil is almost faceless. Following the basic teachings of Judaism, the author pays relatively little attention to it. With the exception of the angel of death, Mr. Wiesel leaves the demons of the kabbala to Isaac Bashevis Singer. It would be easy to place Mr. Wiesel with Mr. Singer and S. Y. Agnon or with the other writers of Holocaust fiction and autobiography, such as Michel Tournier and Aharon Appelfeld, among many others. But since Mr. Wiesel writes in French (and is ably translated here by his wife, Marion) in an insane world, it may be worth thinking about him in contrast to his moral opposite, that witness to petty crimes and the Nazi occupation, Jean Genet, beside whom Cain was a simple farmer.

How did the patient at the Mountain Clinic who thinks he is Abraham teach his son to survive the Nazi occupation? Through study. The mad Abraham, speaking to a peasant who protected him during the war, said that when God ordered Noah to build an ark, He used the word teva, which in Hebrew means both “ark” and “word,” that “it is by building words that you will survive the flood.” The peasant insisted that Abraham must teach his son to pose as a Christian. Abraham replied: “You cannot understand. What rain is to you, the Word is to us.”

David L. Vanderwerken (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: Vanderwerken, David L. “Wiesel's Night as Anti-Bildungsroman.Modern Jewish Studies 7, no. 4 (1990): 57-63.

[In the following essay, Vanderwerken argues that Night is an example of the bildungsroman genre, reversed and “turned inside out.”]

One of our most familiar fictional forms is the story of a young person's initiation into adulthood. That the form remains rich, inexhaustible, and compelling can be confirmed by pointing to the success of The World According to Garp, for one. Although specifically coined to describe a certain tradition of German novel deriving from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister,“Bildungsroman”—while untranslateable into English—has become our flexible label for hundreds of works that treat a youth's apprenticeship to life. As Martin Swales has shown in The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse, considerable definitional variance exists even within the German tradition. Jerome H. Buckley's survey of British appropriations of the form, Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding, further demonstrates the form's suppleness. The latitude our English usage of the word allows does not mean that the term is so elastic as to be meaningless. Certain general patterns remain constant in works so apparently diverse as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Chopin's The Awakening, or Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Yet the ways in which Bildungsromane adhere to or depart from the patterns generate their variety and interest.

Indeed, many Bildungsromane, especially modernist ones, gain power and point by parodying or even inverting the traditional formulae of the genre. For an early parody example, Crane's Henry Fleming likely ends up learning nothing of self and world, or the relation of self to world, through the course of his initiatory experiences in The Red Badge of Courage. As well, W. Clark Hendley has persuasively argued that Philip Roth's The Ghost Writer simultaneously pays homage to and mocks the tradition (89). And no better example of the Bildungsroman turned inside out and upside down exists than the story of Eliezer Wiesel in Night. In his chapter “The Dominion of Death” in The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, Lawrence L. Langer posits that inversion, reversal, and negation are the overt strategies of much Holocaust memoir writing, skewed Bildungsromane, of which Night is the most powerful (74-123).

Traditionally, the story of maturation takes a youth through a series of educational experiences, some through books and classrooms, but most not, and exposes the youth to a series of possible mentors and guides who become, as Ralph Ellison puts it in Invisible Man, “trustee[s] of consciousness” (69). Of course, Ellison's young man has trouble distinguishing the truth-telling mentors from the liars. Usually, however, such life teachers shape the youth toward a cultural ideal of adulthood. The function of education, Joseph Campbell tells us in Myths to Live By, is to shift the “response systems of adolescents from dependency to responsibility” (46). Recall grandfather's speech defining what a gentleman is and does to young Lucius Priest at the end of Faulkner's The Reivers. Often the initiation process is worked out on a journey, some movement through space, which has the effect of accelerating the rate of maturation, as in the case of Lucius Priest or Huck Finn. And often the journey implies a spiritual quest. The result is a story of moral, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth. Normally, the initiate not only achieves self-definition, but also social definition, ready to assume a role in a community, whether the youth is from the provinces, like Julian Sorel, or remains in the provinces, like Sonny in Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show. In Night, Elie Wiesel inverts and reverses, even shatters, the elements of the traditional paradigm.

The very title itself implies a reversal since the Bildungsroman usually opens out into day, illumination, awareness, life. Instead, Night leads us into darkness and death. While the traditional raw initiate grows out into a knowledge of the richness, fullness, complexity, and multivariety of life—its open-ended possibilities—Night starts out with a sense of richness in heritage and culture that is violently and quickly stripped away, denuded, impoverished. Instead of expanding and ripening, young Eliezer's life narrows, withers, contracts, reduces to enclosure. Instead of finding a self and a place in the world, Eliezer begins with a sense of self, located in a coherent, unified community, and ends up when Buchenwald is liberated alone, isolated, and numb. Instead of becoming aware of his own potential, in touch with resources he was hitherto oblivious of in himself, Eliezer looks in the mirror on the last page and sees a corpse. The pious young boy of Sighet has been incinerated. And the corollary spiritual quest that usually leads to some satisfying accommodation or resolution—witness Hans Castorp's vision in Mann's The Magic Mountain—leads in Night to the void. Instead of climbing the mountain, Eliezer spirals into hell. And at the bottom lurk only questions, no answers.

The opening chapter introduces us to this pious and spiritual adolescent who lives in the eternal world, who knows more about what happened 5000 years ago than what is occurring in Hungary in 1943. The only son in a family of five, Eliezer has been groomed for a life of study, his future as a Talmudic scholar or rabbi tacitly understood. Now twelve, Eliezer feels impatient to delve into the mystical realm of Judaism, the Cabbala, if he can find a teacher. Although his father refuses Eliezer's request to study Cabbala on the grounds of his youth, precocious or no, Eliezer finds a master in Moche the Beadle, the synagogue handyman. In Moche, Wiesel offers an apparently traditional mentor character, the sage who will guide the initiate through the gates of truth: “It was with him that my initiation began” (14). Moche is a Socratic sort of teacher, asking challenging and paradoxical questions that have no easy answers, if any at all. He tells Eliezer that the answers to all our ultimate questions are within ourselves. As a result of their studies, Eliezer says, “a conviction grew in me that Moche the Beadle would draw me with him into eternity” (14). Suddenly Moche vanishes, deported in a cattle car with other foreign Jews, presumably to a work camp.

Just as suddenly, months later, Moche reappears in Sighet having escaped from the Gestapo, and he no longer talks of “God or the Cabbala, but only of what he had seen” (16). Wiesel now reveals Moche's significance as Eliezer's mentor, neither as tutor of the verities of the ancient sacred texts, nor as agent of Eliezer's developing self-knowledge, but as witness and prophet of the reality of the Holocaust, a reality Sighet is not only oblivious of, but also refuses to believe. Consciousness simply reneges at Moche's preposterous tales of mass murder. The town dismisses him as mad; in Wiesel's withering refrain, “life returned to normal” (17). Although Eliezer continues to pursue the truth of the eternal as Moche-I had taught him, it is the truth of temporal fact taught by the Lazarus-like Moche-II—his insights into l'universe concentrationnaire, the kingdom of night—that will prove to be the most imperative, the most influential, perhaps the most authentic in Eliezer's near future.

That, for Wiesel, only the mad could imagine the mad truth finds reinforcement in the figure of Madame Schächter on the train to Auschwitz. In chapter two, her hysterical shrieks of furnaces and flames are received like Moche's stories, an obvious consequence of madness. After all, she has been separated from her family. Finally, some of the people beat her into silence. Yet as the train nears its destination, she rouses to scream again, “‘Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!’” (38). Eliezer does look and realizes that Madame Schächter's cries all along have been premonitions, not psychotic hallucinations, for now he sees the chimneys of what he will learn are the crematoria. This woman of fifty becomes an indirect mentor who provides Eliezer with another insight into contemporary truth.

Of the other adults that Eliezer encounters in the camps, two stand out in offering contradictory advice on how to survive in hell. The first, the prisoner in charge of Eliezer's block upon arrival, makes a speech to the new arrivals that echoes the sentiments of innumerable, traditional moral sages:

Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer—or rather, a piece of advice: let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.


Comforted by this plea for faith, community, interdependence, civilization, Eliezer thinks: “The first human words” (52). Yet are they the “‘teachings of our sages’” (41)? For this condition? In Buchenwald two years later, after the death march evacuation of Buna, Eliezer hears another sort of advice from a block leader, at a time when Schlomo Wiesel is dying. This sage counsels Eliezer to look out for number one:

Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone. I'll give you a sound piece of advice—don't give your ration of bread and soup to your old father. There's nothing you can do for him. And you're killing yourself. Instead, you ought to be having his ration.


Of course, this is practical wisdom as Eliezer knows, but “I dared not admit it” (122). Yet this is the ethical dictum of hell, into which Eliezer has been fully initiated. No ties are sacred.

Night's most powerful dramatization of an inverted mentor-initiate relationship is that of father and son. Schlomo Wiesel, respected community leader upon whom others rely for guidance and strength, represents the patriarchal Jewish father, a mensch, or as Bellow's Moses Herzog puts it, “a father, a sacred being, a king” (147). Normally, the father helps the son make the transition in adolescence from dependence to independence. In the kingdom of night, however, the roles completely reverse; the son becomes the parent. In the end, the man whom others looked to has “become like a child, weak, timid, vulnerable” (117). This reversal of the normal order is prefigured at Birkenau when the veteran prisoner urges father and son to declare their ages to be forty and eighteen, not their actual fifty and fourteen, the better to survive Dr. Mengele's selection. Indeed time itself does warp, becoming nightmare time, accelerating human changes. “How he had changed! His eyes had grown dim” (47), comments Eliezer about his father the first night at Birkenau. As time unfolds, Eliezer takes the ascendancy in the father-son relationship, making decisions, taking charge of their common welfare, even feeling angry at his father for not knowing how to avoid the Kapo's wrath and getting beaten: “That is what concentration camp life had made of me” (66). Although he never abandons his father the way Rabbi Eliahou's son had (104), Eliezer has his mental moments of filial disloyalty and betrayal. When they are temporarily separated during an air alert at Buchenwald, Eliezer thinks “‘Don't let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight’” (118), but he immediately feels ashamed. However, when his father is carried away to the crematory in the night, perhaps still alive, Eliezer must face the terrible truth: “And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like—free at last” (124). He sees himself, then, as finally no better than Rabbi Eliahou's son.

Just as Wiesel radically overturns the stock Bildungsroman pattern of master and apprentice, he alters the traditional process of the evolving self on its way to fulfillment. On the day of deportation, Eliezer looks back at his home where he had spent so many years “imagining what my life would be like” (28). The ancient story of youth's departure from the nest, encountering the world and fleshing out the skeletal self, becomes for Eliezer a story of decomposing flesh, of becoming a skeleton. Literally overnight, Eliezer tells us, his sense of self evaporated: “The student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me” (47). Even the name for the “shape that looked like me” dissolves with the engraving of A-7713 on his left arm. The identity nurtured for twelve years collapses in one day.

Eliezer's sense of self is identical with his spiritual life. The worst of Night's outrages, movingly worded by François Mauriac in the Foreword, is the “death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly discovers absolute evil” (9). Again, the flames of the first night, fueled by the truckload of babies, “consumed my faith forever,” “murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust” (44). The two most powerful dramatizations of the consequences of Eliezer's sundered faith—the faith that had given richness and depth to his living—are the hanging of the boy and the first High Holy Days spent in Buna. For Eliezer, God is “hanging here on this gallows” (76). If God is not dead, then he deserves man's contempt, Eliezer feels. The bitterness pours forth during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with the mockery of the prisoners carrying out the forms, the absurdity of the starving debating whether to fast. While thousands pray, Eliezer offers up outraged accusations:

But these men here, whom You have betrayed, whom You have allowed to be tortured, butchered, gassed, burned, what do they do? They pray before You! They praise Your name!


Like Huck Finn, Eliezer knows you can't pray a lie:

My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long. I stood amid that praying congregation, observing it like a stranger.


Also in this scene of the praying ten thousand, one can see Wiesel's ironic presentation of the community that the prepared initiate is to take his place in upon completion of apprenticeship, the culmination of Bildungsromane, public and ceremonial like the ordination of clergy or the commissioning of officers. This is a congregation of the living dead, a community of corpses acting out a charade. This is as anti as a Bildungsroman can get. Furthermore, if the Book of Exodus can be described as a Bildungsroman on the level of an entire people, Night can also be read as an anti-Exodus as Lawrence S. Cunningham has cogently argued: “The life giving biblical myth of election, liberation, covenant, and promise becomes the vehicle for telling the story of the unnatural order of death-domination” (24).

Much Holocaust writing has taken the form of anti-Bildungsromane. Kosinski's The Painted Bird, for one, comes to mind—harrowingly. It's as if the victims of the people who developed the Bildungsroman, yet who denied Bildung to millions, find a small measure of revenge by turning the very form back on itself, the endpoint being human emptiness instead of human wholeness. If Wilhelm Meister could look deeply enough into his mirror, perhaps he would see Eliezer Wiesel, his twentieth-century double.

Works Cited

Bellow, Saul. Herzog. 1964. New York: Penguin, 1976.

Buckley, Jerome H. Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1974.

Campbell, Joseph. “The Importance of Rites.” Myths to Live By. New York: Bantam, 1973. 43-61.

Cunningham, Lawrence S. “Elie Wiesel's Anti-Exodus.” Responses to Elie Wiesel. Ed. Harry James Cargas. New York: Persea, 1978.

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 1972.

Hendley, W. Clark. “An Old Form Revitalized: Philip Roth's Ghost Writer and the Bildungsroman.Studies in the Novel 16 (1984): 87-100.

Swales, Martin. The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. 1958. New York: Avon-Discus, 1969.

Joyce Lazarus (essay date November 1991)

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SOURCE: Lazarus, Joyce. “Elie Wiesel's La Nuit and L'Oublié: In Pursuit of Silence.” Essays in French Literature, no. 28 (November 1991): 87-94.

[In the following essay, Lazarus underscores the role of silence as a predominant metaphor and structural device in Night and The Forgotten.]

One of the striking characteristics of the writings of Elie Wiesel is his ambivalent attitude toward language, and the predominant role of silence in his works. For Wiesel, despite his more than thirty books on this subject, the experience of the Holocaust is still inexpressible and beyond language. “Words have lost their innocence and their power”1 since the Holocaust. Since language was used to implement the Final Solution, words can never again be completely trusted. Yet in his commitment to truth, to bear witness to the millions of victims of the Holocaust, Wiesel finds that language, however imperfect it is, is man's only available tool. Through the right choice of words, there is the hope of sparing future generations the horrors of another Holocaust.

Language in Wiesel's novels is terse, highly condensed, and unadorned by wordplay. Influenced by the writings of the Eastern European World War II ghettos, Wiesel creates a sense of urgency by employing the sparse vocabulary of those living on the edge of existence. Attempting to convey the infinite solitude of victims of persecution, to express the inexpressible, Wiesel introduces the weight of silence in all his writings. In numerous interviews, Wiesel has repeatedly spoken of his preoccupation with silence, and his commitment to it as an aesthetic device.2

In this essay I hope to analyze the role of silence as a dominant metaphor and structural device in two of Wiesel's novels: La Nuit (1958) and L'Oublié (1989).3 I have chosen these two works because, although written more than thirty years apart, they have many of the same themes: the father-son relationship, the experience of religious faith, and the incommunicability of the horror of the Holocaust. By examining the role of silence in these two works, it is possible to study the evolution of this metaphor and aesthetic device across a range of emotional perspectives and a wide span of years.

Elie Wiesel himself, in a 1987 interview with Jean-François Thomas, distinguishes several different types of silence preponderant in his literary works: there is the destructive silence of the ignorant or forgetful; the silence of victims who have chosen to carry their truths with them to the grave, in the face of torture and injustice; the “biblical silence” of Job, Aaron, or Jeremiah, tormented by unanswerable religious and philosophical questions; the silence of the world during the Holocaust, and finally the inexplicable silence of God. Wiesel has attempted to make silence palpable, almost “visible”, in order to identify, through his silence, with that of all victims: “Aussi j'essaie non pas de refouler le silence, mais de le récupérer à l'intérieur des mots. J'aimerais pouvoir prendre les paroles et mettre là-dedans autant de silence que possible”.4

In La Nuit, silence is equated with anguish, despair or death, and has a terrifying, ominous power. Wiesel describes the people of Sighet, Hungary, his native town, who naïvely maintained their optimism that no harm would come to them, in the face of all warnings of their imminent demise. In their refusal to talk about the fate of foreign Jews who had been deported, or to discuss the dire warnings of Moché-le-Bedeau, who had narrowly escaped death at the hands of the Nazis, the community, through its silence, has sealed its own doom:

Des jours passèrent. Des semaines, des mois. La vie était redevenue normale. Un vent calme et rassurant soufflait dans toutes les demeures.

(p. 19)

Wiesel depicts the destructive silence of indifferent neighbours in Sighet, who make no protest at the deportation of Jews, thus aiding the Nazi authorities in liquidating the entire Jewish population. He senses them lurking silently behind shuttered windows, waiting for the moment when, like vultures, they will loot the homes of deported Jews:

La ville paraissait déserte. Mais, derrière leurs volets, nos amis d'hier attendaient sans doute le moment de pouvoir piller nos maisons.

(p. 43)

Throughout La Nuit, silence is equated with despair, in the pauses between words or sobs of victims, in the unspoken words understood in gazes or embraces, and in the anguished silence of victims facing death. Wiesel gives weight to these pauses and moments heavy with inexpressible feelings. In an exchange between his father and the townspeople of Sighet, just before their deportation, the words spoken are less significant than what is implied in the silent pauses between sentences:

Des bruits circulent selon lesquels on nous déporte quelque part en Hongrie pour travailler dans des usines de briques. La raison en est, paraît-il, que le front est trop proche d'ici …

Et, après un moment de silence, il ajouta:

—Chacun n'a le droit d'emporter que ses effets personnels. Un sac à dos, de la nourriture, quelques vêtements. Rien d'autre.

Et, une fois de plus, un lourd silence.

(p. 31)

The spoken words of his father repeat the lies which he has been told by the Nazis, while the silent pauses between words indicate the truth suspected by all his listeners, which they cannot voice: that they will be murdered.

Victims in La Nuit trying to express their thoughts and feelings find their words choked and their lips paralyzed. The horror of confronting absolute evil is beyond language, and can only be intimated by the weight of silence. Waking up a family friend in the ghetto on the morning of their deportation, young Eliezer is confronted with an old man with a beard who stares at him as if the child were mad:

Ma gorge était desséchée et les mots s'y étranglaient, paralysant mes lèvres. Je ne pouvais plus rien lui dire.

Alors il comprit. Il descendit de son lit et, avec des gestes automatiques, il se mit à se vêtir. Puis il s'approcha du lit où dormait sa femme, lui toucha le front avec une infinie tendresse; elle ouvrit les paupières et il me semble qu'un sourire effleura ses lèvres.

(p. 33)

The news of their doom is communicated silently from person to person by a look or touch; the events unfolding are unspeakable both literally and figuratively.

In Wiesel's descriptions of his mother and younger sister, marching toward the cattle cars, their silent stares and gestures communicate a depth of anguish that could not be conveyed through dialogue:

Ma mère, elle, marchait, le visage fermé, sans un mot, pensive. Je regardais ma petite sœur, Tsipora, ses cheveux blonds bien peignés, un manteau rouge sur ses bras: petite fille de sept ans. Sur son dos, un sac trop lourd pour elle. Elle serrait les dents: elle savait déjà qu'il ne servait à rien de se plaindre.

(p. 39)

Wiesel seems to draw out silent moments between father and son in La Nuit to give voice to thoughts that can only be suggested, never defined. There is the unspoken communication of hands and embraces: “Je m'en approchai, lui pris une main et la baisai. Une larme y tomba. De qui, cette larme? La mienne? La sienne? Je ne dis rien. Lui non plus. Nous ne nous n'étions jamais compris aussi clairement” (p. 110); the silent, distant gaze of his father next to him when his father seems absent from reality: “Comme il avait changé! Ses yeux s'étaient obscurcis. J'aurais voulu lui dire quelque chose, mais je ne savais quoi” (p. 64); or when his father seems lost to him and to the world near the end of his life: “Père, où cours-tu? Il me regarda un instant et son regard était lointain, illuminé, le visage d'un autre. Un instant seulement, et il poursuivit sa course” (p. 168).

Behind the words of pretence between father and son, regarding the fate of their family, are their unspoken thoughts revealing a truth too painful to express out loud:

Maman est encore une femme jeune, dit une fois mon père. Elle doit être dans un camp de travail. Et Tsipora, n'est-elle pas déjà une grande fille? Elle aussi doit être dans un camp … Comme on aurait voulu y croire! On faisait semblant: si l'autre, lui, y croyait?

(p. 77)

What is left unsaid is more significant and more revealing in La Nuit than what can be communicated through language.

Silence can also convey a complete loss of humanity, as in the poignant description of the narrator's silent confrontation with an SS officer who beats his fatally ill father:

L'officier lui asséna alors un coup violent de matraque sur la tête. Je ne bougeai pas. Je craignais, mon corps craignait de recevoir à son tour un coup.

(p. 173)

Through his terse sentences, his distancing from himself as he describes the feelings of “mon corps”, Wiesel equates silence with a death of will and spirit. Similarly, the final, terrifying image in the novel of his own silent corpse gazing at him in the mirror suggests his total dehumanization, his reduction to an empty hollow shell:

Du fond du miroir, un cadavre me contemplait.

Son regard dans mes yeux ne me quitte plus.

(p. 178)

Silence is a powerful metaphor in La Nuit for the inexplicable response of God to the Holocaust. God is paradoxically both present and absent through La Nuit, “murdered” along with the innocent victims in the camps:

Jamais je n'oublierai ce silence nocturne qui m'a privé pour l'éternité du désir de vivre.

Jamais je n'oublierai ces instants qui assassinèrent mon Dieu et mon âme, et mes rêves qui prirent le visage du désert.

(p. 60)

Though silent, God is present in the prayers of young Eliezer in the camps:

Et, malgré moi, une prière s'est éveillée en mon cœur, vers ce Dieu auquel je ne croyais plus.

(p. 144)

and present as the accused in a silent Job-like interrogation conducted by the narrator:

Aujourd'hui, je n'implorais plus. Je n'étais plus capable de gémir. Je me sentais, au contraire, très fort. J'étais l'accusateur. Et l'accusé: Dieu. Mes yeux s'étaient ouverts et j'étais seul, terriblement seul dans le monde, sans Dieu, sans hommes.

(pp. 109-110)

In the novel L'Oublié, the memory of the Holocaust is resurrected a generation after World War II, through the conversations of a survivor, Elhanan Rosenbaum, and his son Malkiel, and through the latter's visit to their native village in Roumania. L'Oublié has many echos of La Nuit: in both novels silence is often equated with suffering and martyrdom. In L'Oublié, Holocaust victims such as Malkiel's grandfather went to their deaths silently, refusing to divulge the names of other Jews, and refusing to compromise in any way in their faith (pp. 105, 112). Silence in both novels is also associated with the apathy and indifference of those non-Jews who might have prevented the massacre of their neighbours. Elhanan describes the town of Fehérfalu just after its liberation in 1945 as a ghost town (p. 185). The silence and emptiness in the town seem to reverberate with the memory of the dead, and with accusations against their uncaring Christian neighbours:

Partagé entre la colère et l'excès de désespoir, Elhanan se promène dans les rues de sa ville comme un somnambule. Il s'attend à chaque carrefour à tomber sur un ami d'enfance, un cousin, un parent. Il voit constamment son père, sa mère lui fait signe d'approcher … Il veut leur parler, mais aucun son ne quitte ses lèvres. Il est seul. Certes, il a des copains, des camarades, et il s'en fera encore plus dans l'avenir, mais ça n'est pas pareil. Rien ne rompra sa solitude d'orphelin.

(p. 189)

In L'Oublié, Wiesel experiments with new structural and thematic elements of the novel. Abandoning a linear narrative structure in favour of episodic leaps back and forth in time between past and present, Wiesel suggests that human identity is not limited to one's chronological life, but instead incorporates the collective memory of all of one's ancestors:

Malkiel: J'ai quarante ans. Plus trois mille.

(p. 11)

Elhanan: Lui dirai-je l'amour de son grand-père pour l'étrange et merveilleuse communauté d'Israel, qui à ses yeux, s'étend de toi jusqu'à Moïse? Et de toi Tamar, jusqu'à Sarah? Grâce à lui, je vivrai: grâce à toi, Abraham vit.

(p. 317)

To the silence of death of the Holocaust, Wiesel opposes, in L'Oublié, the redemptive force of the collective memory of the Jewish people.

For Wiesel, all language has become compromised since the Holocaust; all language is potentially destructive, whereas silence in the Jewish Hasidic tradition is purity. Wiesel illustrates this Hasidic view of silence in L'Oublié, by his juxtaposition of dialogue between characters, reduced to its sparse, minimalist form, with unspoken “interior dialogue” (ruminations or prayers) of characters. It is through these silent interior dialogues that the principal character of L'Oublié, Malkiel Rosenbaum, finds his roots and his identity.

The spoken exchanges between characters throughout L'Oublié are often terse and superficial, or marred by misunderstandings, quarrels, or gaffes. The following exchange between Malkiel and Lidia (his Roumanian guide) illustrates with some humour the difficulties encountered in an attempt to communicate:

—Je vous parlerai de moi si vous me parlez de vous, dit Lidia.

—Et ensuite?

—Ensuite je saurai.

—Vous saurez quoi?

—Ce que vous souhaiteriez que je sache.

—Justement. Je ne veux pas que vous sachiez.

Elle s'arrête, le toise et émet un petit rire:

—Ce que vous êtes compliqué!

(p. 24)

Throughout L'Oublié, the failures of spoken communication are illustrated by hostile exchanges and misunderstandings, as those between Malkiel and Lidia (pp. 26-27, 137), with Leila (p. 142), with Tamar (pp. 47-48, 303-305), and with Elhanan (pp. 132-135).

The silent ruminations and prayers of Malkiel, on the other hand, enable him to confront his past and his own identity (“Je sais bien: qui écoute un témoin le devient à son tour; tu me l'as dit, tu me l'as répété. … Eh oui, pére. Je t'ai entendu. Et, dans cette ville étrangére, je t'entends encore” (p. 194). Through his experience of reliving vicariously his ancestors' traumatic lives (and of encountering some of the people involved in this trauma), Malkiel is finally restored to present-day life with renewed optimism and hope:

Devant la tombe de son grand-pére, Malkiel revoit Tamar. Au chevet d'Elhanan sans doute. Elle ne punit pas le pére pour les péchés du fils. Nous allons nous marier, Tamar. Je veux que mon pére nous voie unis.

… Et la mémoire de son père chantera et pleurera dans la mienne.

Et la nôtre, Tamar, s'épanouira dans celle de nos enfants.

(p. 311)

The alternation between silent and spoken dialogue, between silence and speech, becomes in L'Oublié a metaphor for the oscillation between hope and despair. Silence has ambivalent connotations in L'Oublié: it is paradoxically both constructive and destructive for Elhanan Rosenbaum. His success as a psychologist working with Holocaust survivors has been due largely to his ability to listen compassionately in silence to his patients' tales, enabling them to heal their emotional wounds. Yet his progressive muteness is also the symptom of an incurable memory disease that frustrates his attempt to transmit his life history and his values to his son.

Silence is associated in the novel with the unjust suffering of both biblical and contemporary characters: of the righteous Job, robbed of the ability to answer God (p. 307), of Haskel, the preacher ostracized from society who became mute when not permitted to tell his terrible tale of the Holocaust (p. 155), and of Elhanan, robbed of his memory and speech, whose final message to Malkiel is left as an incomplete sentence: “Et moi qui te parle, je ne pourrais plus parler, car” (p. 318). The recurrence of this tale of the Jew throughout history who is silent against his will, so prevalent in both L'Oublié and La Nuit (cf. Mme Schachter who is gagged when she tries to voice her prophetic visions of flames to Jews en route to Auschwitz, pp. 49-51), gives it the character of a parable.

Yet L'Oublié ultimately conveys hope in the redemptive power of memory to “give voice” to the silent dead, and to express the unspoken words of a father to his son. The ghosts in Elhanan's native village knock each night at the doors of the town's inhabitants, disturbing their sleep forever to remind them of the victims of the Holocaust (p. 128); the gravediggers Hershel and his blind companion Ephraim call themselves guardians of the memories of the dead (p. 255), suggesting metaphorically the redemptive force of literature to conquer forgetfulness and indifference.

Elhanan's final message to his son is not incoherent language dissolving into silence (like the “message” of the guest speaker at the end of Eugene Ionesco's Les Chaises (1952)). Six lines before his final silence, Elhanan expresses the conviction that his son will find by himself the truth for which he is searching:

Tout en te parlant, je me dis que, par tes propres moyens, t'u découvriras quand même ce que mes lévres n'ont pas pu ou su dire.

(p. 318)

The oscillation in Wiesel's novels between hope and despair, between silence as redemption and silence as curse, reflect his roots in Hasidic messianism. The elements of messianism—the fervent waiting, the hope for redemption, the importance of solidarity and love between fellow human beings as the path to finding God—these elements are all present in La Nuit and L'Oublié. Maurice Friedman has described Wiesel's post-Holocaust faith as the “messianism of the unredeemed”:

Since God has proved an unreliable partner, the Jewish people must base their self-affirmation on their choice to remain Jews and to assume the past of Jewish history as their own. The three-fold elements of this additional covenant are: solidarity, witness and the sanctification of life.5

Like Sartre and Camus, Wiesel calls on man to invent values and to affirm meaning in life, despite the absurd, and despite the silence of an uncaring world and of God.


  1. Elie Wiesel, “An Interview with Elie Wiesel”, conducted by Robert Franciosi and Brian Shaffer, Contemporary Literature, 28 (Fall 1987), p. 289.

  2. Elie Wiesel in Jean-François Thomas, S. J., “La Vocation d'un Ecrivain: Dialogue avec Elie Wiesel”, Etudes, 367 (July-August 1987), pp. 58-59, and in Robert Franciosi and Brian Shaffer, “An Interview with Elie Wiesel”, p. 291. In the second interview, Wiesel said that all of his books were connected in some way; all were part of one book which he would entitle “In pursuit of Silence” (p. 300).

  3. Elie Wiesel, La Nuit (Paris: Minuit, 1958) and L'Oublié (Paris: Scuil, 1989). All further references are to these editions.

  4. Elie Wiesel, “La Vocation d'un Ecrivain”, p. 59.

  5. Maurice Friedman, “Elie Wiesel's Messianism of the Unredeemed”, Judaism, 38 (Summer 1989), p. 316.

John K. Roth (essay date spring 1992)

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SOURCE: Roth, John K. “From Night to Twilight: A Philosopher's Reading of Elie Wiesel.” Religion and Literature 24, no. 1 (spring 1992): 59-73.

[In the following essay, Roth delineates the major thematic concerns of Wiesel's oeuvre.]

Everything to do with Auschwitz must, in the end, lead into darkness.

—Elie Wiesel

Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard, James, Camus, and Wittgenstein—these great masters of philosophy move me. Philosophically, however, no writer disturbs and provokes me more than one who claims he “never intended to be a philosopher.”1 Whenever I read a book by Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews, I feel compelled to respond in writing of my own. No other author affects me quite that way. For more than twenty years I have been doing a philosopher's reading of Elie Wiesel. On this occasion I write because I have just reread, as I do annually, his first book, La Nuit (1958; translated as Night, 1960), and also because his novel Le Crépuscule au loin (1987; translated as Twilight, 1988) has been on my mind. Twilight complements, not to say completes, a quest begun with Night and pursued in everything else that Wiesel has written in between.


Speaking of Night, that classic memoir about his entry into and exodus from Auschwitz, Wiesel has said “all my subsequent books are built around it” (“Talking” 269). Spare and lean, that book starts with a boy who “believed profoundly.” It ends with a reflection: “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me” (Night 109). In l'univers concentrationnaire, as another Holocaust survivor, David Rousset, named it, assumptions treasured and persons loved were stripped away. But the dead left Wiesel behind to wonder and thereby to encounter the living.

L'Aube (1960; translated as Dawn, 1961) is Wiesel's second major work. This brief novel portrays Elisha, a young Holocaust survivor who strives to free Palestine from British rule so that a people and a nation can find new life. This, Elisha discovers, is easier said than done. Once the possible victim of an executioner, he must execute a British captain, John Dawson, in retribution for the slaying of an Israeli freedom fighter. “That's it,” Elisha says to himself: “It's done. I've killed. I've killed Elisha.” Insofar as choosing life requires choosing death as well, dawn may be difficult to distinguish from “the tattered fragment of darkness” that reflects Elisha's face as he gazes through a window at the breaking of a not-so-new day (126-27).

Hitler's “final solution” still seems to mock quests for healing resolutions. Thus, Dawn's title is ironic, for after Auschwitz despair coils like a serpent in the heart of being. In Wiesel's third book, Le Jour (1961; translated not literally, as Day, but as The Accident, 1962), despite the fact that he has friends and even a woman who loves him, another survivor, Eliezer, steps in front of a moving car. The “accident” is no accident, and yet life returns to be chosen again. “The problem,” Wiesel proposes, “is not: to be or not to be. But rather: to be and not to be” (81). But how best to do so? Wiesel turns to that question again and again.

In The Accident, the victim's artist-friend, Gyula, whose name means redemption, urges Eliezer to choose life and put the past behind him. He paints Eliezer's portrait. The eyes are searing, since “they belonged to a man who had seen God commit the most unforgivable crime: to kill without a reason.” After showing Eliezer the portrait, Gyula symbolizes the end of the past by setting fire to the canvas. Though he is moved by Gyula's testimony, Eliezer will not be fully healed by it, for the novel's final line states that Gyula departed and forgot “to take along the ashes” (123, 127).

Moving through night into dawn and day, Elie Wiesel's first works travel through the destruction of a supportive universe into a post-Holocaust world of ambiguity and nothingness in which life almost succeeds in fulfilling a desire to cancel itself. Plumbing such depths had to be the prelude to Wiesel's hard-won insistence that the essence of being Jewish is “never to give up—never to yield to despair” (A Jew Today 164). That affirmation is one of his categorical imperatives. Keeping it is anything but easy, as Twilight shows. Its story does so by asking about “the domain of madness,” a realm never far from the center of Wiesel's consciousness. By illuminating, in particular, Maimonides' conviction that “the world couldn't exist without madmen” (202, 9)—it serves as the novel's epigraph—Twilight also has much to say about friendship.


Arguably Wiesel's most complex novel, Twilight defies simple summary. One of its dominant themes emerges, however, when Raphael Lipkin's telephone rings at midnight. This survivor of the Holocaust, now a university scholar, hears an anonymous voice denouncing his friend, Pedro: “Professor, let me tell you about your friend Pedro. He is totally amoral. A sadist. He made me suffer. And not just me, there were many others” (179). Pedro is Raphael's friend indeed. More than once he saved Raphael from the despair that repeatedly threatens to engulf him. He taught the young Lipkin: “It may not be in man's power to erase society's evil, but he must become its conscience; it may not be in his power to create the glories of the night, but he must wait for them and describe their beauty” (118).

The midnight calls keep calling Pedro into question and Raphael into despair. Madness lies in waiting, and, if Pedro were destroyed, Raphael might succumb to it. Recognition of that possibility, recollection that “Pedro taught me to love mankind and celebrate its humanity despite its flaws,” renewed realization that Pedro's “enemy is my enemy”—such forces rally Raphael's resistance (201). By reaffirming a summons to save, Raphael's battle against madness that destroys does not ensure a tranquil equilibrium. A different kind of madness, the moral madness without which the world could not exist, is the prospect instead. “The caller tried to drive you out of my life,” Raphael tells the absent Pedro. “He failed. Does that mean I've won? Hardly. I cry into the night and the night does not answer. Never mind, I will shout and shout until I go deaf, until I go mad” (202).

Twilight is not the first time a man named Pedro has appeared in Wiesel's novels and provided saving inspiration. Differing from his namesake in Twilight because he is not Jewish, another Pedro is a decisive presence in La ville de la chance (1962; translated as The Town beyond the Wall). This book, Wiesel's fourth and fittingly the one most closely linked to Twilight, begins with an epigraph from Dostoevsky: “I have a plan—to go mad” (3). It also starts at twilight and under circumstances that can drive one to the madness that destroys.

Once Michael's home, Szerencseváros (“the city of luck”) is in the vise of Communist victors over Nazi tyrants. Secretly returning to see whether anyone can be found, Michael stands before his former home. Ages ago a face watched silently there while Jews were sent away. The face, seeking a hatred from Michael to match its own hidden guilt, informs the police. Michael finds himself imprisoned in walls within his past, tortured to tell a story that cannot be told: There is no political plot to reveal; his captors would never accept the simple truth of his desire to see his hometown once more; his friend, Pedro, who returned with him, must be protected. Michael holds out. He resists an escape into one kind of madness by opening himself to another. His cell mate, Eliezer, dwells in catatonic silence. But Michael hears and heeds the advice that he knows his friend Pedro would give him: “That's exactly what I want you to do: recreate the universe. Restore that boy's sanity. Cure him. He'll save you” (182).

What of such a plan? Twilight, as well as The Town beyond the Wall and some thirty more of Wiesel's books, follows Night. In one way or another, all of Night's sequels explore how the world might be mended. Nonetheless in the order of things dawn, day, and especially twilight leave night close by. Yet even if, as Wiesel contends, “everything to do with Auschwitz must, in the end, lead into darkness,” questions remain concerning what that darkness might be and whether the leading into darkness is indeed the end. For if The Town beyond the Wall concludes with Michael's coming “to the end of his strength,” it also ends with “the night … receding, as on a mountain before dawn” (189). Similarly, as Twilight moves toward night, “from far away, a star appears. Uncommonly brilliant …” (217).

Twilight and The Town beyond the Wall are both novels about friendship, another theme that is never far from the center of Wiesel's vision. Both Michael and Raphael have friends named Pedro. In each case, Pedro serves as a special kind of teacher. These relationships transcend the physical limits of space and time. Even when absent from The Town beyond the Wall or from Twilight, the two Pedros are very much present for their friends. Michael and Raphael take courage from the challenging encouragement that each one's Pedro provides.

Michael and Raphael have learned from their friends named Pedro. What they have discerned resonates with lessons I am trying to learn as I pursue a philosopher's reading of Elie Wiesel. Considering the authorship that moves from Night to Twilight, with journeys to The Town beyond the Wall and meetings with Pedro among the multitude of encounters in between, reflect on ten of his major insights—two sets of five that focus first on understanding and then on doing. Simple and yet complex, complex and yet simple, each point is central, I believe, to Wiesel's way of thinking and living and to his expression of friendship in particular. None of the insights is an abstract principle; all are forged in fire that threatens to consume. For those reasons these themes from Wiesel have integrity, credibility, and durability that make them worthy guidelines for all seasons.


Elie Wiesel seeks understanding—but not too much. While wanting people to study the Holocaust, he alerts them to the dangers of thinking that they do or can or even should know everything about it. While wanting people to meet as friends, he cautions that such meetings will be less than honest if differences are glossed over, minimized, or forgotten. While wanting humankind and God to confront each other, he contends that easy acceptance is at once too much and too little to accept. Wiesel's understanding is neither facile, obvious, nor automatic. Nevertheless its rhythm can be learned. Five of its movements follow.

1. “The Holocaust demands interrogation and calls everything into question. Traditional ideas and acquired values, philosophical systems and social theories—all must be revised in the shadow of Birkenau” (“Foreword” ix). Birkenau was the killing center at Auschwitz, and the first lesson Wiesel teaches is that the Holocaust is an unrivaled measure because nothing exceeds its power to evoke the question Why? That authority puts everything else to the test. Whatever the traditional ideas and acquired values that have existed, whatever the philosophical systems and social theories that human minds have produced, they were either inadequate to prevent Auschwitz or, worse, they helped pave the way to that place. The Holocaust insists, therefore, that how we think and act needs revision in the face of those facts, unless one wishes to continue the same blindness that eventuated in the darkness of Night. The needed revisions, of course, do not guarantee a better outcome. And yet failure to use the Holocaust to call each other, and especially ourselves, into question diminishes chances to mend the world.

2. “The questions remain questions” (“Telling” 1:234). As the first lesson suggests, Elie Wiesel does not place his greatest confidence in answers. Answers—especially when they take the form of philosophical and theological systems—make him suspicious. No matter how hard people try to resolve the most important issues, questions remain and rightly so. To encounter the Holocaust, to reckon with its disturbing Whys?—without which our humanity itself is called into question—that is enough to make Wiesel's case.

Typically, however, the human propensity is to quest for certainty. Wiesel's urging is to resist that temptation, especially when it aims to settle things that ought to remain unsettled and unsettling. For if answers aim to settle things, their ironic, even tragic, outcome is often that they produce disagreement, division, and death. Hence, Wiesel wants questions to be forever fundamental. People are less likely to savage and annihilate each another when their minds are not made up but opened up, through questioning. The Holocaust shows as much: Hitler and his Nazi followers “knew” they were “right.” Their “knowing” made them killers. Questioning might have redeemed them as well as their victims.

Wiesel's point is not that responses to questions are simply wrong. They have their place, and can be essential too. Nevertheless questions deserve lasting priority because they invite continuing inquiry, further dialogue, shared wonder, and openness. Resisting final solutions, these ingredients—especially when they drive home the insight that the best questions are never put to rest but keep us human by luring us on—can create friendships in ways that answers never can.

3. “And yet—and yet. This is the key expression in my work” (“Exile” 1:183). Elie Wiesel's writings, emerging from an intensity that is both the burden and the responsibility of Holocaust survivors, aim to put people off guard. Always suspicious of answers but never failing for questions, he lays out problems not for their own sake but to inquire, “What is the next step?” Reaching an apparent conclusion, he moves on. Such forms of thought reject easy paths in favor of hard ones. Wiesel's “and yet—and yet” affirms that it is more important to seek than to find, more important to question than to answer, more important to travel than to arrive. It can be dangerous to believe what you want to believe, deceptive to find things too clear, just as it is also dishonest not to strive to bring them into focus. His caution is that it is insensitive to overlook that there is always more to experience than our theories admit, even though we can never begin to seek comprehension without reasoning and argument. So Elie Wiesel tells his stories, and even their endings resist leaving his readers with a fixed conclusion. He wants them instead to feel his “and yet—and yet,” which provides a hope that people may keep moving to choose life and not to end it.

4. “There is a link between language and life” (“Exile” 1:182). The Holocaust was physically brutal. That brutality's origins were partly in “paper violence,” which is to say that they depended on words. Laws, decrees, orders, memoranda, even schedules for trains and specifications for gas vans and crematoria—all of these underwrite Wiesel's insistence that care must be taken with words, for words can kill.

Wiesel uses words differently. He speaks and writes to recreate. His words, including the silences they contain, bring forgotten places and unremembered victims back to life just as they jar the living from complacency. Doing these things, he understands, requires turning language against itself. During the Nazi era language hid too much: euphemisms masked reality to lull; rhetoric projected illusions to captivate; propaganda used lies to control. All of those efforts were hideously successful. In our own day, as Wiesel points out, we bid farewell by saying, “Relax.” “Have fun.” “Take it easy.” Seemingly innocuous, such language is certainly a far cry from words possessed by genocidal intent. And yet innocuous words may not be as innocent as they seem. They are likely to distract and detract from needs that deserve concern and care. Language and life are linked in more ways than words can say. Nonetheless, priorities after Auschwitz enjoin that words have to decode words, speech must say what speech hides, writing must rewrite and set right what has been written. None of this can be done perfectly, once and for all. The task is ongoing, but only as it is going on will lives be linked so that “and yet—and yet” expresses hope more than despair.

5. “Rationalism is a failure and betrayal” (“Use” 2:79). Although Elie Wiesel is hardly an enemy of reason and rationality, he does stand with philosophers who believe that one of reason's most important functions is to assess its own limitations. And yet Wiesel's critique of reason is grounded somewhat differently from David Hume's or Immanuel Kant's. Theirs depended on theory. Wiesel's rests on history and on the Holocaust in particular.

The Holocaust happened because human minds became convinced that they could figure everything out. Those minds “understood” that one religion had superseded another. They “comprehended” that one race was superior to every other. They “realized” who deserved to live and who deserved to die. One can argue, of course, that such views undermined rationality and perverted morality. They did. And yet to say that much is too little, for one must ask about the sources of those outcomes. When that asking occurs, part of its search leads to reason's tendency to presume that indeed it can, at least in principle, figure everything out. With greater authority than any theory can muster, Auschwitz shows where such rationalism can lead. Wiesel's antidote is not irrationalism; his rejection of destructive madness testifies to that. What he seeks instead is the understanding that lives in friendship—understanding that includes tentativeness, fallibility, comprehension that looks for error and revises judgment when error is found, realization that knowing is not a matter of fixed conviction but of continuing dialogue.


Elie Wiesel's lessons about understanding urge one not to draw hasty or final conclusions. Rather his emphasis is on exploration and inquiry. It might be objected that such an outlook tends to encourage indecision and even indifference. However, one of Wiesel's most significant philosophical contributions runs in just the opposite direction. His perspective on understanding and on morality is of one piece. Thus, dialogue leads not to indecision but to an informed decisiveness. Tentativeness becomes protest when unjustified conviction asserts itself. Openness results not in indifference but in the loyalty of which friendship is made and on which it depends. Wiesel's doing is demanding, but it, too, has a rhythm that can be learned. Here are five of its movements.

1. “Passivity and indifference and neutrality always favor the killer, not the victim” (“Freedom” 1:210). Elie Wiesel will never fully understand the world's killers. To do so would be to legitimate them by showing that they were part of a perfectly rational scheme. Though for very different reasons, he will not fully understand their victims, either; their silent screams call into question every account of their dying that presents itself as a final solution. Wiesel insists that understanding should be no less elusive where indifference—including its accomplices, passivity and neutrality—prevails. Too often indifference exists among those who could make a difference, for it can characterize those who stand between killers and victims but aid the former against the latter by doing too little, too late. Where acting is concerned, nothing arouses Wiesel more than activating the inactive.

2. “It is given to man to transform divine injustice into human justice and compassion” (Messengers 235). Abraham and Isaac, Moses, and Job—these “messengers of God,” as Wiesel calls them, understood that men and women abuse the freedom to choose that makes life human. They also wrestled with the fact that human existence neither accounts for nor completely sustains itself. Their dearly earned reckoning with that reality led them to a profound restiveness. It revealed, in turn, the awesome injunction that God intends for humankind to have hard, even impossible, moral work until and through death.

One may not see life the way those biblical messengers saw it. Whatever one's choices in that regard, it is nevertheless as hard as it is inhuman to deny that injustice too often reigns divine and that moral work is given to us indeed. Elie Wiesel presumes neither to identify that work in detail for everyone nor to insist, in particular, where or how one should do it. Those are the right questions, though, and he wants one to explore them. That exploration, he urges, is not likely to be done better than through Holocaust lenses. Enhancing vision sensitively, they can help to focus every evil that should be transformed by human justice and compassion.

3. “If I still shout today, if I still scream, it is to prevent man from ultimately changing me” (One Generation 95).2 While “and yet—and yet” may be the key expression in Wiesel's writings, a close contender could be phrased “because of—in spite of.” Here, too, the rhythm insists that, no matter where one dwells, there is and must be more to say and do. On this occasion, though, the context is more specific, for the place where “because of—in spite of” becomes crucial is the place where despair most threatens to win. So because of the odds in favor of despair and against hope, in spite of them, the insistence and need to rebel in favor of life are all the greater. And not to be moved by them is to hasten the end.

How this logic works is reflected in a story that Wiesel often tells. A Just Man came to Sodom to save that ill-fated place from sin and destruction. A child, observing the Just Man's care, approached him compassionately:

“Poor stranger, you shout, you scream, don't you see that it is hopeless?”

“Yes, I see.”

“Then why do you go on?”

“I'll tell you why. 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.”

The Just Man's choice is one that others can make as well. Thus, a future still awaits our determination, especially if the rhythm “because of—in spite of” is understood and enacted.

4. “As a Jew I abide by my tradition. And my tradition allows, and indeed commands, man to take the Almighty to task for what is being done to His people, to His children—and all men are His children—provided the questioner does so on behalf of His children, not against them, from within the community, from within the human condition, and not as an outsider” (“Trial” 1:176). Some of Elie Wiesel's most forceful writing involves the Jewish tradition known as Hasidism.3 Many features impress him as he traces this movement from its flowering in eighteenth-century Europe, to its presence in the death camps, and to its continuing influence in a world that came close to annihilating Hasidic ways root and branch. One of the rhythms of understanding and doing stressed by Wiesel derives, at least in part, from a Hasidic awareness of the relationships between “being for—being against.”

Hasidism, in particular, combines a genuine awe of God with direct and emotional reactions toward God. It finds God eluding understanding but also as One to whom people can speak. The Hasidic masters argue with God, protest against God, fear, trust, and love God. All of this is done personally and passionately, without compromising God's majesty and beyond fear of contradiction. Levi-Yitzhak of Berditchev, for example, understood his role as that of attorney-for-the-defense, reproaching God for harsh treatment the Jews received. Joining him was Rebbe Israel, Maggid of Kozhenitz, author of one of Wiesel's favorite Hasidic prayers: “Master of the Universe, know that the children of Israel are suffering too much; they deserve redemption, they need it. But if, for reasons unknown to me, You are not willing, not yet, then redeem all the other nations, but do it soon!” (Souls 133).

Nahman of Bratzlav holds another special place in Wiesel's heart. Laughter is Nahman's gift: “Laughter that springs from lucid and desperate awareness, a mirthless laughter, laughter of protest against the absurdities of existence, a laughter of revolt against a universe where man, whatever he may do, is condemned in advance. A laughter of compassion for man who cannot escape the ambiguity of his condition and of his faith” (Souls 198). And a final example, Menahem-Mendl of Kotzk, embodied a spirit whose intense despair yielded righteous anger and revolt so strong that it was said, “a God whose intentions he would understand could not suit him” (245). This rebel embraced life's contradictions both to destroy and to sustain them. Short of death, he found life without release from suffering. At the same time, he affirmed humanity as precious by living defiantly to the end. Wiesel implies, too, that Mendl hoped for something beyond death. His final words, Wiesel suggests, were: “At last I shall see Him face to face.” Wiesel adds, “We don't know—nor will we ever know—whether these words expressed an ancient fear or a renewed defiance” (254).

Anything can be said and done, indeed everything must be said and done, that is for men and women. Wiesel understands this to mean that a stance against God is sometimes enjoined. But he hastens to add that such a stance needs to be from within a perspective that also affirms God. Otherwise we run the risk of being against humankind in other ways all over again. Those ways include succumbing to dehumanizing temptations which conclude that only human might makes right, that there is human history as we know it and nothing more, and that, as far as the Holocaust's victims are concerned, Hitler was victorious.

For … against: that rhythm involves taking stands. Spiritually this means to be against God when being for God would put one against humankind. Spiritually this also means to be for God when being against God would put one against humankind by siding with forces that tend, however inadvertently, to legitimate the wasting of human life. Elie Wiesel is fiercely humanistic. His humanism, however, remains tied to God. The lesson here is that, without enlivening and testing those ties and, in particular, their ways of being for and against humankind, a critical resource for saving life and mending the world will be lost.

5. “By allowing me to enter his life, he gave meaning to mine” (Oath 16). Elie Wiesel's 1973 novel, Le Serment de Kolvillàg (The Oath), tells of a community that disappeared except for one surviving witness. It is a tale about that person's battle with a vow of silence. Azriel is his name, and Kolvillàg, his home in eastern Europe, is destroyed in a twentieth-century pogrom prompted by the disappearance of a Christian boy. Ancient animosity renews prejudice; prejudice produces rumor; rumor inflames hate. Accused of a ritual murder, Azriel and his fellow Jews are soon under threat. Moshe, a strange, mystical member of the community, surrenders himself as the guilty party though no crime has been committed. But he does not satisfy the authorities and “Christians” of the town. Madness intensifies. The Jews begin to see that history will repeat, and they prepare for the worst. Some arm for violence; most gather strength quietly to wait and endure. Permitted to speak to the Jews assembled in their ancient synagogue, Moshe envisions Kolvillàg's destruction. He knows the record of Jewish endurance, its long testimony against violence, but this seems to have done little to restrain men and women and even God from further vengeance. So Moshe persuades his people to try something different: “By ceasing to refer to the events of the present, we would forestall ordeals in the future” (239). The Jews of Kolvillàg become Jews of silence by taking his oath: “Those among us who will survive this present ordeal shall never reveal either in writing or by the word what we shall see, hear and endure before and during our torment” (241).

Next comes bloodshed. Jewish spirits strain upward in smoke and fire. Only the young Azriel survives. He bears the chronicles of Kolvillàg—one created with his eyes, the other in a book entrusted to him for safekeeping by his father, the community's historian. Azriel bears the oath of Kolvillàg as well. Torn between speech and silence, he remains true to his promise. Many years later, he meets a young man who is about to kill himself in a desperate attempt to give his life significance by refusing to live it. Azriel decides to intervene, to find a way to make the waste of suicide impossible for his new friend. The way Azriel chooses entails breaking the oath. He shares the story of Kolvillàg in the hope that it will instill rebellion against despair, concern in the place of lethargy and indifference, life to counter death.

The oath of silence was intended to forestall ordeals in the future. Such forestalling, Wiesel testifies, must give silence its due; it must also break silence in favor of speech and action that recognize the ultimate interdependence of existence. “By allowing me to enter his life, he gave meaning to mine.” Azriel's young friend echoes and sums up the insights that Elie Wiesel has shared so generously with those who have read carefully what he has to say. Rightly understood, that understanding becomes a mandate for doing unto others what Azriel did for the boy he saved.


As I studied Twilight for this essay, I was also rereading an earlier book called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. If the name of its author was not on Wiesel's mind when he wrote Twilight, it did keep running through mine as I traced the odyssey of Wiesel's character, Raphael Lipkin. Originally published in 1944, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe was written by a Jewish legal scholar named Raphael Lemkin (1901-1959). A resident of Warsaw, Poland, he was wounded during guerrilla fighting outside Warsaw while resisting the German invasion of his homeland in 1939. After weeks of hiding in Polish forests, Lemkin escaped to Sweden by way of Lithuania and the Baltic Sea. There he began to document the Nazis' murderous policies—policies that, at the war's end, would leave him as the sole survivor among some forty of his closest family members.

In 1941 Lemkin found his way to the United States. He taught with distinction at Duke, Yale, Rutgers, and Princeton, and he helped to prepare cases against Nazis who stood trial in Nuremberg after the Second World War. While still at Duke, he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. In its pages he coined the term genocide as he attempted to fathom, while it was still happening, what is now called the Holocaust or Shoah. Four years later, in 1948, Lemkin's leadership was instrumental in obtaining passage for the United Nations' Genocide Convention. These efforts made him a strong contender for the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.

Like Wiesel's men named Pedro, Lemkin was not without detractors. Some called him a dreamer, others a fanatic. A more apt description makes him a brother to Wiesel's morally sensitive madmen. Like Raphael Lipkin and his creator, Elie Wiesel, Raphael Lemkin worked to forestall ordeals in the future. Thus, it is fitting that the name Raphael links not only the three of them but all who have been and will be touched by the lessons that reading Wiesel has to teach.

Some ancient texts—Tobit and Enoch for example—as well as kabbalistic writings refer to an angel named Raphael. Stories about this angel make clear that Raphael has power to conquer demons. The name, significantly, is a compound of the Hebrew rapha, meaning “healed,” and El, which designates God. Raphael, then, is the Angel of Healing or “God's healing.” After Auschwitz, divine powers of that kind may be found wanting, thus making human counterparts to the angelic Raphael all the more important. Without them, God's healing, in all of its varied nuances, may not exist. To conquer demons permanently and forever—that task is more than human energy can accomplish. Nevertheless to resist them and to apply a healing touch wherever and whenever the opportunity arises—that Raphael-like task is one that cannot be shirked with impunity.

If reading from Night to Twilight drives home Elie Wiesel's insights about understanding and doing, it will still be true that “everything to do with Auschwitz must, in the end, lead into darkness.” Nevertheless that end ought not to be the ending. Remembering and acting accordingly could lead beyond. Honesty probably permits no greater optimism in the twilight that forms the post-Holocaust world. And yet some light remains. Though not as much as we need, might it be enough to keep destruction's nighttime madness at bay so that day can dawn again?


  1. Elie Wiesel, “Why I Write” 200. The quotation that serves as this article's epigraph is from “Auschwitz—Another Planet,” Elie Wiesel's review of Auschwitz by Bernd Naumann (2.293).

  2. See also The Testament (1981).

  3. See, for example, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters,Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy,Somewhere a Master: Further Hasidic Portraits and Legends, and Sages and Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends.

A version of this essay was presented at a symposium held at Webster University, St. Louis, Missouri, on September 29, 1988. Organized by Professor Harry James Cargas, the symposium celebrated Elie Wiesel's sixtieth birthday and the thirtieth anniversary of the French publication of his classic memoir Night.

Works Cited

Abrahamson, Irving, ed. Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel. 3 vols. New York: Holocaust Library, 1985.

Lemkin, Raphael. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944.

Wiesel, Elie. The Accident. Trans. Anne Borchardt. New York: Avon, 1970.

———. “Auschwitz—Another Planet.” Abrahamson 2:292-94.

———. Dawn. Trans. Frances Frenaye. New York: Avon, 1970.

———. “Exile and the Human Condition.” Abrahamson 1:179-83.

———. “Freedom of Conscience—A Jewish Commentary.” Abrahamson 1:208-10.

———. “Foreword.” Shadows of Auschwitz: A Christian Response to the Holocaust. Ed. Harry James Cargas. New York: Crossroad, 1990.

———. Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy. Notre Dame, Indiana. U of Notre Dame P, 1978.

———. A Jew Today. Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Random, 1978.

———. Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends (Célébration biblique: Portraits et légendes, 1975). Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Random, 1976.

———. Night. Trans. Stella Rodway. New York: Bantam, 1986.

———. The Oath (Le Serment de Kolvillàg, 1973). Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Random, 1973.

———. One Generation After (Entre deux soleils, 1970). Trans. Lily Edelman and Elie Wiesel. New York: Avon, 1972.

———. Sages and Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Portraits and Legends. Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Summit, 1991.

———. Somewhere a Master: Further Hasidic Portraits and Legends (Contre la mélancolie: Célébration hassidique II, 1981). Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Summit, 1982.

———. Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters (Célébration hassidique: Portraits et légendes, 1972). Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Random, 1972.

———. “Talking and Writing and Keeping Silent.” The German Church Struggle and the Holocaust. Ed. Franklin H. Littell and Hubert G. Locke. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1974.

———. “Telling the Tale.” Abrahamson 1:234-38.

———. The Testament (Le Testament d'un poète juif assassiné, 1980). Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Summit, 1981.

———. The Town beyond the Wall. Trans. Stephen Becker. New York: Avon, 1970.

———. “The Trial of Man.” Abrahamson 1:175-78.

———. Twilight. Trans. Marion Wiesel. New York: Summit, 1988.

———. “The Use of Words and the Weight of Silence.” Abrahamson 2:75-84.

———. “Why I Write.” Trans. Rosette Lamont. Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel. Ed. Alvin Rosenfeld and Irving Greenberg. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1978.

David Booth (essay date summer 1993)

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SOURCE: Booth, David. “The Role of the Storyteller—Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel.” Judaism 42, no. 167 (summer 1993): 298-312.

[In the following essay, Booth explores the changing of Jewish mythology, comparing the work of Sholem Aleichem and Wiesel.]

The Aggadah is a Garden
Of such childlike airy fancy.
And the young Talmudic scholar—
When his heart felt dry and dusty,
Musty from noisy squabbling
over the Halakhah, over
Quarrels on the plaguy egg
That a hen laid on a feast day
Or about some other question
Equally profound—the youngster
Fled for solace of the spirit
To the blossom filled Agaddah

—Heinrich Heine, Hebrew Melodies1

Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, explores the manner in which literature functions to help communities maintain their cohesiveness in times of crisis. A crisis, for Fussell, is a time in which old myths break down in the light of new events. His book explores the collapse of the myth of Progress during the Great War, and how literature served both to destroy old myths and create new ones. Judaism faces a similar breakdown in its central myths, that started with the Enlightenment and culminated in the Holocaust. Modern Jewish literature responds to this crisis by reformulating the older mythology of classical Jewish literature into a modern vein. Comparing the work of Sholem Aleichem, the most famous and acclaimed of Yiddish authors, to that of Elie Wiesel, a modern writer of less literary stature but similar influence, allows for an exploration of how Jewish myth is being reformed, and a sense of where modern Jewry is moving.

Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel construct an historical connection to a Jewish past that fits into the tradition of Jewish responses to catastrophe. While they break with the older models, they do so through recasting the old myth into new terms. David Roskies' Against the Apocalypse traces the development of Jewish responses to catastrophe. His argument demonstrates that Wiesel and Sholem Aleichem share three key elements with the traditional responses.

First, they attempt to assert the continuity of an event with Jewish history by mixing a modern catastrophe with images of older ones. In “Kasrilevke Nisrofim,” Sholem Aleichem juxtaposes a modern tragedy, the burning of Kasrilevke, with an ancient one, the destruction of the Temple. The Rabbi of Kasrilevke tells his people that

… our mourning will avail us nothing, and secondly, we shall be proving to Him Who lives eternally that we consider the destruction of Kasrilevke to be a worse calamity, heaven forbid, than the destruction of the Temple.2

While this reference to ancient history is tongue-in-cheek, Sholem Aleichem recognizes and reinforces the manner in which Jews deal with the present through remembering the past. Wiesel portrays a similar view of the past in The Oath. The main character of the story is reading the pinkas, or community record, which tells of all the calamities that have befallen the town of Kolvillag since Jews first settled there. He reads these stories of catastrophe at the same moment that a pogrom rages around him, reinforcing the connection between past and present.

Second, in this assertion of historical continuity, both authors forge a connection to that past and a need to preserve it through retaining one's ties to it, further linking them to traditional responses.

Third, they address theological issues that revolve about trying to understand God's failure to respond to the cries of His people. Here, in addressing God's role, Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel become distinct and revolutionary in their reformulation of older myth.

The paradigmatic response to catastrophe, the old myth, comes from the Biblical books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Lamentations. The Prophetic view of catastrophe lays out a relatively simple theme of the people's sin leading to punishment by God. Jeremiah calls on the people to “hear the voice of the Lord” or else the “sword that you fear shall overtake you there.”3 When the Israelites fail to heed the commandments of God, retribution quickly follows. In Lamentations, the author says of the destruction of Jerusalem:

Her enemies are now the masters,
Her foes are at ease
Because the Lord has afflicted her
For her many transgressions.(4)

These Biblical responses portray God as both just and merciful, for redemption follows once the guilt of the sins has been expiated through punishment. Isaiah writes:

Truly, the Lord is waiting to show you grace,
Truly, He will arise to pardon you.
For the Lord is a God of justice
Happy are all who wait for Him.(5)

A cycle emerges from the Biblical response to catastrophe, beginning with the redemption from Egypt. The Jews are redeemed, witnessing the signs and wonders of God. As time passes, the Jews forget the power of God and begin to transgress the law, whereupon God punishes them. However, God sees the suffering of the people and redeems them through His great mercy.

Sholem Aleichem's stories demonstrate that he believes this traditional model no longer functions for its adherents. In “The Clock That Struck Thirteen,” he portrays this destruction of the traditional responses and their inability to meet the problems of the modern world, which leads to the collapse of the Biblical paradigm. Reb Nochem owns a clock which dates “straight back to the days of Count Chmielnitzky”6 in the mid-17th century, showing the continuity with Jewish history. Even here, Sholem Aleichem questions traditional Judaism by implying that historical continuity is achieved by dating from tragedy to tragedy, complaint to complaint, the inability to remember when good happens: after all, Count Chmielnitzky was responsible for a huge pogrom in the early 17th century. Men from all directions set their watches by the clock. It is more than just a clock. It was “the town clock … always faithful to us and to itself.”7 Sholem Aleichem uses the clock to symbolize the tradition and its obsession with time, for

… what is Jewish life without a clock? How many things there are that must be timed to the minute—the lighting of the Sabbath candles, the end of the Sabbath, the daily prayers, the salting and soaking of the meat, the intervals between meals.8

The Jews of the town order their lives around this clock because of the importance placed by the tradition on correct times. Only Reb Leibesh, “a man of learning and philosophy,”9 doubts the clock, insisting that his own watch is far more accurate. One day, Reb Leibesh compares his watch to Reb Nochem's clock, only to find Reb Nochem's clock to be a minute and a half fast! The failure of the clock represents the first sign of a break in the ability of the tradition to function.

Yet, the clock does not merely cease to function. Instead, it picks up weird malfunctions requiring extravagant repairs. The first real foreshadowing of trouble after Reb Leibesh's complaint comes when Reb Nochem's son, the narrator of the story, realizes that the clock has struck thirteen, symbolizing a far greater failure of the tradition. Initially, his father simply yells at him for doubting, but when his mother confirms the problem, Reb Nochem realizes that something must really be wrong. He takes the clock apart and cleans and polishes all its parts, after which the clock returns to its normal functioning, except that the family “heard the clock wheeze when it got ready to ring.”10 Reb Nochem solves this problem by adding a little weight to the pendulum. This works only temporarily, and more and more weight has to be piled on the pendulum until the clock crashes to the ground under all the weight that is piled on top of it.

The clock, by symbolizing the centrality of time to the tradition, comes to represent the tradition as a whole. Reb Leibesh's challenge to the primacy of the clock indicates the importance of Rabbinic control over time in maintaining the tradition; by extension, the clock's breakdown indicates the erosion of Rabbinic control over Judaism. Reb Leibesh's measurement of time by outside sources means that his time-piece cannot be considered valid by the tradition without the tradition admitting itself incapable of undertaking its most important ritual function, the measurement of time. Yet, the tradition is clearly running down despite all of the attempts to fix it. More and more weight must be added to what was once a smooth running system, until, finally, the weight piled on to the clock to save it pulls it down. Sholem Aleichem juxtaposes the final collapse of the clock with a story about a pogrom; and re-emphasizes the failure of the tradition to cope with the modern world. Muma Yenta is telling the Nochem family a story about a tragedy that hit a neighboring community when they hear the clock fall. The family thinks “that robbers were attacking our own home.”11 Only the storyteller retains her calm, saying, “It's just the clock … What's strange about that?”12 The collapse of the clock causes the family to believe that outside forces are about to destroy them. However, in reality, all that has happened is that an antiquated clock has fallen off the wall. Since the tragedy is an internal one, the previous method of maintaining connection, by remembering from one tragedy to the next, breaks down.

Sholem Aleichem turns away from the Prophetic conception of Jewish history towards that of Job, in whom he finds a more fluid model that can teach a different message than the one taught by the Biblical paradigm. Tevye is a Job-like figure, a lost soul communicating with God, but no longer sure of the meaning of the conversation and no longer sure of God's intentions in this strange world. Throughout the stories about him, Tevye engages in theological comments that indicate his inability to understand why the world treats him in the random way that it does. In “Tevye Strikes It Rich,” he says,

They say You're a long suffering God, a good God, a great God, they say You're merciful and fair; perhaps then You can explain to me why some folk have everything while others have nothing twice over? Why does one Jew get to eat butter rolls while another gets to eat dirt?13

Tevye questions faith in God's mercy, calling into question the equity of the system as well as the tradition's ability to motivate values. Implicit in this question is a rejection of the traditional answer: the poor have sinned and the rich have performed good deeds. God's will is beyond understanding, and, possibly, is even capricious, although Sholem Aleichem backs away from so radical a view despite hints of it throughout his stories. In “Today's Children,” Tevye questions the mercy of God and the justice of God's will when he says:

The trouble is that the same merciful God who's always practicing His miracles on me, first seeing how quick He can raise a man up and then how fast He can dump him back down, has let me know in no uncertain terms, “Tevye, stop … think[ing] you can run the world!”14

Tevye has no sense of the clear cause-effect nature of God's will as evoked in earlier Jewish responses to catastrophe. In this strange new world, all that he can count on is his family and his community. In the conclusion to “Lekh-Lekha,” written in the year that Sholem Aleichem died (1916), Tevya (talking to his own author) says about the Redemption:

I don't even care if He does it just to spite us, as long as He's quick about it … Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them, wherever they are, not to worry, the old God of Israel still lives!15

God is incomprehensible, and the meaning of trust in God becomes ambiguous in Sholem Aleichem's world. Here, he pushes even the model of Job to its limits, for the powerful affirmation of God's awesome might at the end of Job becomes only Tevye's message to Sholem Aleichem. A strange message at that, similarly evocative of the mystery of God, but in a strange manner: God might redeem us only to spite us. The radical difference between the end of the Book of Job and Tevye's last monologue suggests that Sholem Aleichem uses Tevye as a starting point from which to build a new way in which to view Jewish history. The affirmation becomes more important than what is affirmed, the storyteller more important than the story.

Wiesel has a similar conception of the failure of the tradition to provide answers to modern problems, and a similar attraction to the Book of Job. As always, with Wiesel, the Holocaust stands as the backdrop against which he raises his issues of faith with the tradition. Yet, rather than defining and limiting the issues that Wiesel can deal with, the Holocaust symbolizes all of the difficulties of living in the modern world. Again, the Biblical model in Lamentations, Jeremiah, and Isaiah returns. For Wiesel, God should have rescued the Jews from the Holocaust, and His failure to do so points to a breakdown of the old ways. The covenant with God, that the Jews will obey the Torah and God will protect the Jews, has been broken by God. This reverses the traditional paradigmatic response to catastrophe, where the Jews break the covenant and God waits for the people to fulfill their part of the covenant. Wiesel and Sholem Aleichem refuse to accept this parallelism, unwilling to believe that the Jews could have possibly sinned grievously enough to deserve the length and severity of the Exile. Wiesel particularly refuses to accept the possibility that Jews committed acts so heinous that they deserved the living hell that was the Holocaust. Much as the Biblical writers use the destruction of the Temple, Wiesel uses the Holocaust as the defining point around which theological questions are organized, and the model against which all other tragedies should be judged.

“Yom Kippur: The Day Without Forgiveness,” takes place in Auschwitz. The holiday is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the “heavenly tribunal would sit and pass sentence.”16 Wiesel reverses the Prophetic answers. The world of the Holocaust that he evokes itself appears to be the antithesis of such claims. Only by reversing the answers can the questions be met. Pinchas, the narrator's teacher, decides that he will not fast because he no longer trusts in God's judgment. He has “decided to tell Him: ‘It is enough.’” The narrator observes all of the ritual, washing his hands and preparing for the fast. He attends Kol Nidre services, and another traditional image is reversed:

His voice [the cantor's] stirred my memories and evoked that legend according to which, on the night of Yom Kippur, the dead rise from their graves and pray with the living. I thought: “Then it is true; this is what really happens. The legend is confirmed at Auschwitz.”17

All the models are confirmed, but they turn out to be curses, a twisted, ironic version of the redemption. This vision saw the ghetto and concentration camp as a “surrogate shtetl and a demonic City of God, the last ingathering of European Jewry before their final destruction.”18 The irony is complete because the Christian world has finally created St. Augustine's vision of a City of God, just as the words of the Prophets are fulfilled by the ingathering of the exiles. The old models are twisted into their opposites, and the meaning of the old answers questioned.

Pinchas' final response to this theological question becomes a similar reversal of traditional theology. He decides to fast, but

… not for the same reasons. Not out of obedience, but out of defiance. Before the war, you see, some Jews rebelled against the divine will by going to restaurants on the Day of Atonement; here it is by fasting that we can make our indignation heard.19

Wiesel carries Sholem Aleichem's reversal of the Biblical model to its extreme. No longer can either of them accept the cause-effect relationship of sinning followed by punishment, because the punishment seems too terrible to fit any crime, let alone the limited crimes of the Jews when compared to the gross injustices of the outside world. Wiesel then goes one step further. The covenant must continue to be honored because the only way to accuse God “is by praising Him.”20 Wiesel cannot accept the answer of Sholem Aleichem, an answer which calls for continued patience and continued belief in God—but, without praise. He has seen more of the conflicts in the modern world, witnessing the Holocaust and knowing about the first World War. Both use Job as their model, but Wiesel goes further by using praise as a vehicle for questioning the traditional answers. In Messengers of God, Wiesel denies the ending of the Book of Job when God's supremacy is asserted, by saying:

I prefer to think that the Book's true ending was lost. That Job died without having repented, without having humiliated himself; that he succumbed to his grief an uncompromising and whole man.21

Sholem Aleichem follows the questioning of Job but cannot fully break from the model. Tevye proclaims God's existence and accepts the Divine plan even though he cannot proclaim God's justice. Elie Wiesel refuses to accept the Divine plan, demands that God redeem His people, and recasts the image of Job as refusing to relent towards God until God atones for His violation of the covenant. Wiesel's response is a radical one: praise God and so accuse God, for, by continuing to honor the covenant with God, retribution can be demanded from God.

Yet, if the traditional answers no longer provide meaning to the modern world, Judaism, to survive, must find another source of meaning. Both Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel turn to storytelling as a way of finding that meaning in the modern world. This conception of storytelling as a meaningful act comes from Hasidism's conception of storytelling as a religious act, as well as from earlier Midrashic traditions. Just as the Hasidic veneration of certain texts written in Yiddish provided the first sense of Yiddish as a language worthy of literary expression, so the Hasidic view of storytelling as a religious act provides the same seed for Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel's focus on storytelling. While other means of religious expression besides storytelling exist within Hasidic communities, “the mere telling of these legends was viewed as a mystical experience. … To tell a legend about a Hasidic rebbe became itself a religious act.”22 Hasidic storytelling has earlier origins in the Midrashic strand of traditional Judaism. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis used homilies and storytelling to re-interpret the Tradition and to fill Jewish lives with meaning. Traditional Midrashic creativity dried up some time in the 11th century, supplanted by the mystical and philosophical traditions.23 Hasidism reopened the realm of Aggadic myth for its adherents once more, to provide meaning to people's lives in the midst of the vast changes of the contemporary world. Yet, Hasidic storytelling proved meaningful to only a portion of Jewry. When it appeared to Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel that other types of religious expression no longer provided meaning, as storytellers they naturally turned to, and expanded upon, this Hasidic conception and strove to re-open Aggadah for all Jews.

Sholem Aleichem's world is a world defined by storytellers. His characters maintain their connections to the Jewish community largely through telling stories. “Station Baranovich” most explicitly examines the power of storytelling on the community. The first level of the story is about a man telling a story to a group of Jews on a train. The second level is a story full of bizarre turns and twists related by this man on the train. Sholem Aleichem demonstrates the power of storytelling in “Station Baranovich” by drawing the reader “into the story's events because of the climactic movement of the narrative.”24 That is, because of the unexpected twists and turns in the story, the reader becomes drawn into the second level of the narrative, and loses his or her superiority to the characters in it. The train provides a microcosm of a shtetl community with the same ritual behavior and the “same penchant for conversation.”25 “Station Baranovich” draws in the reader through the irony of the story. Initially focusing on the arrest of a Jew and his subsequent escape with the help of the community, the story goes in a different direction than the reader expects. After Kivke, the innkeeper who was arrested, is released, the storyteller pauses to find out what station it is: “If you want to hear the rest of it, though, you'll kindly wait a few minutes.”26 The reader expects the continuation of the story to be a problem with the authorities or a mistake of the comically portrayed shtetl Jews.

Instead, Kivke successfully escapes, and the narration switches entirely to a story of extortion by him. He sends letters to the community asking for money, first for a dowry, later for a business deal, finally for bailing himself out of a business deal. The letters first state his problem and then end by saying that if the money is not sent at once, his “disgrace would be so great that only one choice would be left, either [to] drown himself on the spot or to come hell bent back to Kaminka.”27 Should he return to Kaminka, the community would have problems with the authorities, because they faked his death to facilitate his escape. this section of the story draws the reader into the story “because of his [the reader's] broken expectations.”28 Sholem Aleichem, as the narrator of the frame story, finds himself drawn into the story within the story as well, wanting “to hear the end of the story just as much as the internal audience does.”29 When the train arrives in Baranovich, the storyteller leaps off the train and Sholem Aleichem, rather than bringing any conclusion to the story, expresses his frustration at missing the end of it by concluding with: “I wouldn't mind if Baranovich station burned to the ground.”30

In “Station Baranovich,” Sholem Aleichem explores the real power of storytelling and its ability to lift people above their surroundings. The Kaminka Jew's telling of the story creates a community from within, a group of chattering Jews, united by a common interest and a common story. When he briefly leaves to find out where the train is, all the other Jews in the compartment talk about the story or about similar experiences. Even the well-travelled Sholem Aleichem cannot rise above the storyteller's power. Though that common experience becomes a disappointing one, they become united for a brief moment, and remain united because the story does not end. The story cannot end because it provides meaning to Judaism through its telling. Its ending would signal an end of creativity and a return to the study of a canon from which Sholem Aleichem wants to move away.

In general, his Railroad Stories, a collection that includes “Station Baranovich,” focus on the power of storytelling as a community act. They are all told by a variety of interesting characters to a traveler in the third class section of the Russian railway system. In one story, “Third Class,” Sholem Aleichem draws a picture of a community of Jews in a third class cabin, sharing food and wine as well as ritual objects like tallis and tefillin, prayer shawls and phylacteries. What really pulls the community together, however, is the talking and the storytelling. Everyone has a story, and “everything is being told to everyone. The whole car is talking together at once in a splendid show of Jewish solidarity.”31 Storytelling functions to bring a disparate group of Jews together and to create a living Jewish community throughout the Railroad Stories. Every Jew is accepted and has a chance to tell a story. As Roskies put it, concerning Sholem Aleichem:

In the end, it was the story itself that kept hope alive, or more precisely, the ability of Jews to reconstitute themselves wherever they were into a community of listeners, whether as third class passengers on a Russian train or on board a ship bound for America.32

Sholem Aleichem's portrayal of storytelling stands directly against his portrayal of traditional Judaism. Traditional Judaism proves unable to provide for a house full of daughters, as Tevye's wife tells him, and the tradition has been weighted down trying to deal with the problems of the modern world as portrayed in “The Clock That Struck Thirteen.” Sholem Aleichem as narrator lives in a world where everyone has a story to tell, and through telling the story there opens up the possibility of people understanding their own lives. Most of his characters find the answers of the traditional world unsatisfactory, and need to justify themselves through telling stories to Sholem Aleichem. The desire to relate experiences, emphasizing the common features of the story, provides a uniting anchor for Jewish communities. Wiesel's characters are similarly concerned with telling stories, but in a more explicitly religious way. They concern themselves with religious themes and issues, in sharp contrast to Sholem Aleichem's lack of attraction to “the Bible, the midrashim, the medieval romance, the stories of Nahman of Bratslav, and of Shivhei Ha-Besht [Praises of the Baal-Shem-Tov].”33 Wiesel focuses on this type of material, retelling Hasidic and Biblical tales. Yet, both see storytelling as critical to community formation even though they conceive of stories differently. Sholem Aleichem's idea of storytelling as anchor is a secular conception, while Wiesel's storytellers bear witness, and function in a more explicitly religious context through their concern with religious themes and legends.

Wiesel's Legends of Our Time looks at various fictional events in the life of the narrator, who bears a striking resemblance to Wiesel himself, and many of the stories may be based on real events. Wiesel's conception of himself as Rebbe, a charismatic Hasidic leader sometimes also known as a Zaddik (a saintly or righteous person), is further reinforced by this collection, which parallels the Shivhei Ha-Besht, stories about the miraculous works of the “Besht,” first published in 1815. In contrast to this more traditional collection, however, no stories of ritual objects or of faith healing are related. Wiesel focuses on miracles of faith that stem from belief and a willingness to see the world in a particular way, rather than those stemming from magical powers inherent in some person or object. The book creates a conception of Wiesel as a mystical figure in a world filled with strange happenings and wonder, in which Wiesel can encounter anyone, whether a prison guard from Auschwitz or the Prophet Elijah. The book is also about the power of storytelling, and Wiesel's belief in its importance. The introduction to the book is an encounter between Wiesel and his Rebbe from before the war. The author no longer fits into the traditional mode, because he “was no longer his [the Rebbe's] disciple,”34 now being his own Rebbe. Wiesel tells the Rebbe that he has been writing, and the Rebbe questions the importance of that act, trying to understand this new path. Wiesel responds by saying that “some writings could sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.”35 They discuss the nature of fiction, the Rebbe insisting that Wiesel writes lies. No, is the reply, “Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred.”36 The Rebbe should know this, should understand that stories function to communicate meaning, because he is familiar with the old Aggadic tradition and the new Hasidic tradition of storytelling. Stories function to build connections between people and to provide meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Wiesel tries to place his storytelling into context as a meaningful Jewish act by drawing on the older traditions and re-telling them in modern ways. The Rebbe's failure to respond is a failure of traditional Judaism, evoking the same critique of ineffective and sterile leadership that Sholem Aleichem uses. Wiesel seeks to re-open Aggadic creativity despite the objections of the Rebbe, or, rather, because of them.

Souls on Fire, Wiesel's first collection of Hasidic tales, explores the effect of storytelling as a larger force in terms of its influence on Hasidism's development. It focuses on the Besht's heir and disciple, the Great Maggid (story-teller) of Mezritch and his disciples. Wiesel presents a fictional account of how Hasidism became institutionalized as a movement through focusing on the character of the Maggid, and concerns itself more with emphasizing the connections between individuals, forged by Hasidic storytelling, than with actual historical facts. He points up the importance with which the Maggid's storytelling was viewed in the doctrine by saying:

“When the sick Maggid told a simple story,” said Israel of Rizhin [a third generation Hasidic Rebbe who was a disciple of the Maggid], “the bed he rested on would shake violently, and so would the privileged few present.”37

Wiesel has another disciple of the Maggid,Rebbe Wolfe of Zhitomir, express the importance of storytelling in a different way:

Thought is essentially infinite … What confines it is the spoken word. Then why does man try to express himself? I'll tell you why: the spoken word's function is to humanize thought.38

Meaning and thought can be communicated only through speech, through the act of talking and of telling.

From this, a particular representation of Hasidism, that exaggerates the role of storytelling in the actual historical movement, emerges from Wiesel's stories. While storytelling occupies an important religious function in Hasidism, traditional study—both of Talmud and of mystical texts—occupies at least as important a role. Yet, Wiesel emphasizes storytelling as the critical religious act defining Hasidism. The leaders whom he portrays are storytellers who bring people back to Judaism through telling stories and through personal contact. For Wiesel, the act of telling the story becomes religious because it serves to awaken and reinforce faith. Readers are pulled in by the seductive quality of his literature and placed in a stylized Jewish world, enticing them to see the world in the way in which Wiesel wants, and tempting them to accept Wiesel's version of Jewish faith. Hasidism was a response to Rabbinic Judaism, and Wiesel portrays it as responding through stories. In his translation of the Tales of Nahman of Bratslav, Arnold Band relates the contention of Yosef Dan and Mendel Piekarz that “whereas the telling of tales had previously been frowned upon by Jewish authorities, it was regarded as a worthy pastime by Hasidic masters.”39 Wiesel's stories pick up a religious aura because they are designed for the same purpose that he ascribes to the Rebbes: to bring people back to Judaism, to respond to a Judaism where creativity has dried up, leaving a tradition incapable of responding to new issues and, therefore, incapable of providing meaning. His attempt to parallel late twentieth century Judaism with the time of the Besht and the Maggid reinforces this parallelism of his stories with theirs. Storytelling becomes a religious act capable of inspiring and maintaining faith because it is creative and can respond to new issues, and because it can open up the tradition through presenting new ways of thinking.

Storytelling becomes an individual and community act that provides a center for culture and common identity for both authors. The individual level comes from the person actually picking up an Elie Wiesel or Sholem Aleichem collection, and reading it. Yet, this serves two community functions at the same time that it reaches the individual Jew. First, it provides a common literature that allows many Jews to respond to one another on the same level, from their common basis in reading Wiesel or Sholem Aleichem. Second, both Wiesel and Sholem Aleichem portray storytellers within their stories. Their characters need to speak to one another and relate their experiences for their existences to have any meaning. They call upon the reader to see communication between Jews as a religious act capable of opening avenues to God, or at least as an act essential to community that gives meaning to Jewish existence.

Yet, the Hasidic origin of storytelling suggests a flaw in Sholem Aleichem's and Wiesel's conception of storytelling. The Hasidim conceived of storytelling as a religious act, but Gershom Scholem, in his essay on Hasidism, in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, shows the importance of theology, both written and oral, to the Hasidic movement. Scholem agrees that the new element of that movement was its “spontaneity of feeling generated in sensitive minds by the encounter with the living incarnation of mysticism.”40 Yet, the philosophic framework was essential to creating the ethos of individual contact that Wiesel prizes. In this essay, Scholem explores the Kabbalistic writings of the Great Maggid, who, Wiesel incorrectly claims, “put nothing down on paper.”41 Scholem uses these mystical writings by the Great Maggid to construct the internal theology of Hasidism. Hasidic theology depends on mystical writings that Wiesel insists were not even written. For the ethos of storytelling to function, an existing framework needs to surround the storyteller, one that provides meaning to the terms used in the stories. Hasidism could not have existed without traditional Judaism because the mystical terms and the ways in which the Hasidic mission was conceived all came from traditional Judaism and traditional Jewish mysticism.

Just as Hasidic storytelling functions within a greater context of Jewish traditional life, so do the stories of Sholem Aleichem. He tells stories to people who understand Jewish ritual. He reaches people through using child narrators for whom everything is new and wonderful, thus making his myths accessible “to all Jews because, inasmuch as every Jew had once been a child, celebrated some festival or other in one way or another, and knew how to talk,”42 they can understand his narrator. The problem with this conception is that it provides no means for perpetuating the faith. Ritual practice constructs a community through shared practice. If every Jew reads the Haggadah and has a Seder on Passover, a sense of identity as a group is forged in a concrete manner. Narrative can provide reasons for continuing to practice the ritual, but cannot replace it.

One hundred years after the Great Maggid, as Aggadic creativity began to dry up in the Hasidic movement, the movement experienced a “revival of Rabbinic thought,”43 which served to reinvigorate the old meanings of the terms, thereby providing fresh value to the stories. Heine asserts that Agaddah renews Halakhah, but Halakhah also renews Agaddah. The stories give meaning to the ritual, but the ritual gives the stories context. Furthermore, Halakhah generates norms and beliefs that are shared by a community and that bind it together. The choice by Orthodox Jews to refrain from driving on Shabbat, requiring them to live within walking distance of a synagogue, functions as a community-building ritual. Seventy-five or more years after Sholem Aleichem's death, his stories are incomprehensible to many Jews, because they no longer celebrate some holiday or other in some way or other that allows them to understand the context of Sholem Aleichem's narrators. The norms and lifestyle that bound his readers together have largely disappeared, because ritual practice no longer binds American Jews as Jews.

Wiesel's stories reflect this need to re-invigorate the Halakhic side of the tradition. He can reach people through stories, but his stories seek to convince people to return to traditional sources, if not to traditional lives. Reading a collection of Wiesel stories, that retell beautiful Talmudic, Biblical, or Hasidic parables, seduces the reader in reevaluating the importance of traditional Judaism. Wiesel constructs an attractive vision of the world, that promises real meaning from within the traditional sacred texts. Once the reader begins to accept Wiesel's world view, he may find interest in these traditional sources. The principal distinction between both writers comes from their historical position. Sholem Aleichem seeks to hold people together through stories of the past and through the idea of storytelling, while Wiesel uses the already validated idea of storytelling as meaningful, and draws people at least part way back into the tradition. He may over-emphasize Agaddah, but few choices are open to him if he wants to reach the assimilated reader. Trying to fit the experience of modern Judaism into new terms, through creating new myth, is the task that Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel set for themselves. Thereby, they hope to create a Jewish community capable of holding together in the modern world.

Through his stories, Sholem Aleichem sought to imbue Jewish content into new paths and new possibilities. Yet, he offered no practice and no standards of behavior, and his world became a foreign one to most Jews. Wiesel, as a result, must teach the tradition. Yet, if he fails to re-invigorate study of the tradition outside of reading his stories, those stories will also become incomprehensible. In Souls On Fire, he opens the possibility of beginning from nothing but the aleph-bet, when he retells a story in which the Besht manages to recover all of his powers simply through his scribe's knowing the aleph-bet. If even that is lost, however, nothing will be left with which to construct the tradition. After all, Wiesel does write in English and French. Wiesel can be read without ever learning Hebrew, but Judaism cannot be. Judaism can create new myths, but in the past the new myth always included a strong dimension of ritual practice that bound the community together by a shared lifestyle. Modern authors must provide a starting point that draws people into the tradition and pushes them to explore it further if they are to succeed in constructing a connection to a Jewish historical past that is capable of holding a community together. Halakhic literature is unlikely to provide that starting point for most Jews today, and Sholem Aleichem and Wiesel may be correct in using Western literary styles to reach modern Jews. Only time will tell if they have sufficiently Judaized Western literature so that this medium can function as the basis of a modern Jewish identity.


  1. Heinrich Heine, Jewish Stories and Hebrew Melodies (Markus Wiener Publishing, 1987), p. 106.

  2. Sholem Aleichem, “Kasrilevke Nisrofim,” in Inside Kasrilevke, trans. Isidore Goldstick (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1948), p. 89.

  3. Jeremiah, 42:15-16.

  4. Lamentations, 1:5.

  5. Isaiah, 32:18.

  6. “The Clock That Struck Thirteen,” in Favorite Tales of Sholem Aleichem, Julius and Frances Butwin, trans. (Avenal Books, 1983), p. 67.

  7. Ibid., p. 69.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Ibid., p. 67.

  10. Ibid., p. 70.

  11. Favorite Tales of Sholem Aleichem, p. 73.

  12. Ibid., p. 74.

  13. “Tevye Strikes It Rich,” Ibid., p. 13.

  14. “Today's Children,” Ibid., p. 35.

  15. “Lekh-Lekha,” Ibid., p. 131.

  16. Ibid., p. 32.

  17. Ibid., p. 37.

  18. David G. Roskies, Literatures of Destruction (The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 9.

  19. Legends of Our Time, p. 37.

  20. Ibid., p. 38.

  21. Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (Summit Books, 1976), p. 233.

  22. Beatrice Silverman Weinrich and Leonard Wolf, eds., Yiddish Folktales (Pantheon Books in cooperation with the Yivo Institute, 1988), p. 261.

  23. “Kabbalah,” Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 10, pp. 490-655.

  24. Victoria Aarons, Author as Character in the Works of Sholem Aleichem (The Edwin Mellon Press, 1985), p. 102.

  25. Ibid., p. 103.

  26. “Station Baranovich,” in Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, Hillel Halkin, tr. (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1987), p. 157.

  27. Ibid., p. 159.

  28. Aarons, p. 119.

  29. Ibid., p. 126.

  30. “Station Baranovich,” in Tevye the Dairyman, p. 163.

  31. Ibid., p. 283.

  32. David G. Roskies, “Sholem Aleichem: Mythologist of the Mundane,” in AJS Review, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2 (Spring and Fall, 1988):46.

  33. Ibid., p. 33.

  34. Legends of Our Time, p. vii.

  35. Ibid., p. viii.

  36. Ibid.

  37. Souls on Fire, p. 59.

  38. Ibid., p. 87.

  39. Arnold J. Band, trans. and ed., Nahman of Bratslav (Paulist Press, 1979), p. 30.

  40. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books, 1954), p. 338.

  41. Souls on Fire, p. 57.

  42. “Sholem Aleichem: Mythologist of the Mundane,” p. 32.

  43. Scholem, p. 345.

Simon P. Sibelman (essay date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Sibelman, Simon P. “Phylacteries as Metaphor in Elie Wiesel's Le Testament d'un poète juif assassiné.Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 18, no. 2 (summer 1994): 267-75.

[In the following essay, Sibelman argues that Wiesel's work is a search for and affirmation of his commitment to his Jewish heritage.]

The novels of the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, were initially read as eloquent expressions of remembrance and witnessing to the massacred millions who perished in Hitler's inferno. Wiesel has himself stated, however, that his writing is an attempt to rediscover the boy he happened to be, the profoundly religious yeshiva boher (Jewish student of religious texts) whose God and world were rent asunder by the events of the Holocaust. Each novel is likewise replete with the language, symbols, and meta-structural techniques firmly placing his oeuvre in both the universal and Jewish traditions of lamentation literature. I would argue, moreover, that Wiesel's novels and entire literary universe are also profound expressions of Jewishness and of the author's fundamental belief that post-Auschwitz Jewry must draw nearer to its authentic roots and affirm a personal commitment to Jewishness/Judaism and not simply to membership in the Jewish people.

In his slim volume, On Jewish Learning, Franz Rosenzweig sought to define this notion of Jewishness in the following manner:

what we mean by Judaism, the Jewishness of the Jewish human being, is nothing that can be grasped in a “religious literature” or even in a “religious life”; nor can it be “entered as one's creed” in the civil registry of births, marriages and deaths. … It is only lived—and perhaps not even that. One is it.


Jewishness could only be comprehended from within the Jewish condition and by actively living and directly practicing a Jewish life. One ought not infer from such an interpretation that Jewishness must of necessity be equated with a strict adherence to orthodox Judaism and the rigorous, logical minutiae of Divine and rabbinic laws governing all aspects of life. For Rosenzweig, and by extension I would propose for Wiesel as well, Jewishness is a recognition of one's moral and ethical responsibilities to all of God's creation. Moreover, Jewishness signifies an identification with the Jewish people, its history, culture, and traditions. As Wiesel has stated in Sages and Dreamers:

Whoever does not accept Jewish history in its entirety is not Jewish; whoever wishes to identify with one period, one tradition, one burden, or one privilege cannot be Jewish. To accept Judaism means to accept oneself within the totality of Judaism. … And whoever is unwilling to accept all of it stays outside.


More precisely, Jewishness means being a witness to God's presence in this world and to His moral mission as evidenced in the richly variegated and frequently tragic history of Israel. This exhortation to remain faithful to one's Jewishness achieves its most complete and compelling treatment in Wiesel's 1980 novel, Le Testament d'un poète juif assassiné.

In this novel, Wiesel returns to the world of Soviet Jewry, first visited in the mid-1960s, that had provoked his journalistic study cum témoignage,Les Juifs du silence (The Jews of Silence). The novel attempts to present the struggle of these Jews for survival as a religious community and a “nationality” within the Soviet state. Wiesel also examines the betrayed hopes of those Jews who had placed such faith in the utopian socialist ideals of the Russian Revolution. His protagonist, Paltiel Kossover, represents one of those Jews. The scope of his life represents a broad image of the young idealistic Jewish radicals whose yearnings for justice and equality catapulted them into the revolutionary movements that raged across Europe from 1900 until the Second World War. More than a revolutionary, Paltiel is also represented as a Yiddish poet whose work found some considerable success in the USSR after the War. Wiesel established in this fictional characterization a composite figure for those twenty-four leading Jewish poets and intellectuals who were executed by the NKVD on Stalin's orders on the night of 12 August 1952. More than a mere symbol of those murdered poets, Paltiel symbolizes the difficulty for any Soviet Jew to maintain an authentic Jewish identity in a state that seeks, at best, to minimize one's existence. Paltiel's struggle is eventually transmitted in his testament, a unique confession written while in prison and destined for eyes other than those of his NKVD inquisitors.

Paltiel's testament was meant for his son, Grisha. The document is the father's method of conveying the essence of his own failure in life to his only heir:

Truth, for a Jew, is to dwell among his brothers. Link your destiny to that of your people; otherwise you will surely reach an impasse. … I must tell you that in my Testament I did plead guilty. Yes, guilty. But not to what I take to be the meaning of the charge. On the contrary: guilty of not having lived as my father did. That, my son, is the irony: I lived a Communist and I die a Jew.

(Testament 16)

Paltiel's manuscript, thus, recounts the tale of a man in flux, always seeking himself, continually becoming. As such, the novel has been viewed by scholars and critics as a traditional Bildungsroman.

Paltiel and his story do not merely present the reader with the engrossing saga of the development of one man's character. Underlying that aspect of the tale are Wiesel's ideas concerning the problematic task a Jew confronts in being truly Jewish. By writing this extraordinary odyssey, author and narrator expose the protagonist's rebellion against the adopted façade of the communist and expound upon the genuine desire to regain authenticity and truth. The tensions between Jewish identity and communist affiliations produce the testament in which Paltiel carefully reviews his past. In this descente aux enfers, the protagonist ironically realizes that by being truly Jewish he was a “communist.” Paltiel's initial proof for this lies in his father's advice as the protagonist leaves home to pursue his quest to establish a socialist utopia:

I don't know your Communist friends. … I only know that their aim is to diminish unhappiness in the world. That is what counts, that is all that counts. … What matters is that they are fighting for those who have neither the strength nor the means to fight. The essential thing for you is to be sensitive to the suffering of others.

(Testament 81)

Firmly rooted in the teachings of prophetic and rabbinic Judaism, his father's message stresses the notion of responsibility, which in Hebrew is ahriot, a word containing the term aher, or Other. His father's admonition subconsciously serves as Paltiel's point de départ when later he begins his personal quest to revive his own Jewishness.

The testament Paltiel conceived must itself be viewed as a thoroughly Jewish document, a zavv'at. This traditional ethical last will and testament of Jewish fathers to their children enshrines the lofty moral imperatives of Judaism and reflects the authors' fervent desire for their descendants to emulate their virtues and to shun their vices and shortcomings. Comparing his own Jewishness to that of his father, Paltiel himself recognizes his failings and advises his son accordingly: “My father, whose name you bear, knew. But he is dead. That is why I can only say to you—remember that he knew what his son does not” (Testament 16).

Despite the testament being a profoundly Jewish text, one that, in addition to being an ethical will, might also be considered a vidduy, or confession, Wiesel has provided the reader a singular, subtle metaphoric mise-en-abyme in which are gathered the signs and symbols that form the author's vision of Jewishness.1 Moreover, this trope underlines the protagonist's struggle to reclaim his Jewish identity. Wiesel's chosen image also serves as a fil conducteur, linking all the novel's various narrative levels and providing the structural cement and symbolic matrix which unite the text. The symbol in question: Paltiel's phylacteries, or tephilin in Hebrew, objects whose metonymical significance has to date been ignored by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars of Wiesel's oeuvre.

The term tephilin is reminiscent of the Hebrew word for prayer tephilah, and they do indeed form part of the ritual objects worn by observant Jews during morning prayers, except on the Sabbath and festivals. They are two small, hollow quadrangular receptacles fashioned of wood and the skins of animals considered as clean and fit (kosher) for use. One is worn on the left arm, by the heart, its straps being wound seven times down the arm and then around the left hand, eventually fashioning with them the Hebrew letter shin, recalling one of the Divinity's biblical names Shaddai, or Almighty. The second is placed on the forehead below the hairline directly between the eyes.2 Wearing the phylacteries intimates subjecting human thoughts, feelings and actions to the service of God. Upon an examination of the object's contents it becomes evident that this ritual activity is imbued with a more profound intention. Each encloses the same four biblical passages: Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-20, and it is the essence of those passages that provides the metaphysical core for wearing the tephilin and determines its choice as Wiesel's symbol.

The tephilin bear witness to the sacred ideals housed within the ritual objects. They are referred to as signs between God and His people. In the Shulhan Aruh, or the Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Joseph Karo notes that in donning the tephilin, the Jew hallows a “precious precept, because the whole Torah is compared to the tephilin” (26). From this broad statement, one may conclude that the biblical passages contained within these simple boxes manifest the totality of the Divine Law and construct the foundations for the particular Jewish ethos and for a universal morality. In order to appreciate wholly the significance of Wiesel's symbol, one must analyze the biblical verses housed in the phylacteries.

The two texts excerpted from Exodus contain the Divine injunction concerning the wearing of the tephilin, as well as recalling the miraculous events of the first Passover and instituting the annual Passover festival. But the texts likewise repeat a significant imperative: “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day.” The generally accepted interpretation of this passage stresses the responsibility of the parent to teach the child and to instill in that young life a desire to be dedicated to the history and traditions of the Jewish people. In addition, the text constructs the paradigm that freedom can only be achieved by linking oneself to one's people, its history and its particular moral codes.

Coupled to those passages are the Deuteronomical texts. The first states the formal creed of the Jewish faith, the Shema, with its belief in One God; the second recounts the fundamental principle of reward and punishment with regard to Divine commandments. And yet, a closer examination of these texts again reveals that the Jew is enjoined to teach God's law to the children, “talking of them when thou sittest in thy house, and when thou walkest by the way.” This repetition propounds the assertion that the transmission of Judaism's fundamental precepts is essentially established as a primary parental responsibility. Moreover, rabbinic exegesis stresses that the parent is given the pragmatic task of instructing by example. “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy might” (Deuteronomy 6:5, my emphasis). Though the Judeo-Christian tradition appears to concur on the meaning of loving the Almighty with one's heart and soul, the third manner is less axiomatic. One rabbinic interpretation states that “with all thy might” implies performing good deeds, even at the cost of all one's wealth and resources. That is, quite simply stated, taking responsibility for others. I believe Wiesel echoes this precise interpretation at the beginning of Paltiel's father's testament:

Tzedaka tatzil mimavet. Charity will save you from death. … That admonition means something else: in helping the poor, in looking after and listening to those who need us, we are exercising our privilege of living our life, of living it to the fullest. Without it we would not feel alive.

(Testament 81)

That advice concludes with his father's plea that Paltiel remain Jewish and that he don his phylacteries every morning. “Promise me you will remain a Jew. … Promise to put on your phylacteries every morning” (Testament, 82). The evocation of the tephilin at this point not only establishes their metaphoric intent within the text, but it also signals the existence of a unique physical symbol to remind Paltiel of his links to his father and to his father's directive to remain Jewish. This purportive mise-en-abyme quite literally embodies the essence of Jewishness and likewise underscores the existential struggle Paltiel will recount in his testament.

The tephilin with their message of responsibility toward self and toward others and of remaining and acting Jewish not only serve as principal metaphor in the novel, but they also heighten the tension between the communist and the Jew. Travelling about Europe and engaging in his socialist activities, Paltiel carries with him the silent reminders of his Jewishness and his father's testament. During the early stages of his wanderings, despite the gradual erosion of other vestiges of his Jewish identity, Paltiel remains faithful to his promise as he performs the daily ritual of wearing the tephilin. But the phylacteries are eventually placed aside in a crepuscular corner of his existence. And yet, despite their disuse, Paltiel refuses to be separated from them. They constitute a mute, tangible link with his father, his own Jewish past, and his silenced Jewish identity. When requested to relinquish them to a mysterious stranger, Paltiel's firm refusal symbolizes a conscious challenge to his adopted communist image. The mere possession of the ritual objects marks a profound bond with the Jewish people and its ethos. It is his link to his own past. Despite all other “transgressions,” these simple, outward things remain to remind him of his historical and metaphysical heritage. And when his European saga has concluded and Paltiel returns to the Soviet Union, the tephilin are among those fragments in a suitcase that comprise his life: “What could there be inside this accursed suitcase to make it so heavy? Clothes. A few writings. Phylacteries in a small blue bag” (Testament 218).

The union of father and son and the continuum of past and present—all symbolized by the tephilin—are eventually shattered. These vital links exist only so long as the tephilin are among Paltiel's possessions. When they are mysteriously mislaid, the resulting rupture is rendered absolute since it is only at that moment that the Holocaust and its enormity of destructive evil manifest themselves in the tale. Prior to the Red Army's liberation of Paltiel's native town, Liyanov, the missing tephilin foreshadow a more tragic loss. Entering the town, Paltiel discovers that the world he had known, most especially the Jewish world of his father and forefathers, has forever vanished.

Though at this juncture Paltiel seemingly abandons his Jewishness by becoming a member of the Communist Party, the protagonist is haunted by his past and by his father's insistence to remain true to his Jewish self. And yet, his authentic Jewish image cannot be permanently silenced, nor can his bonds with the Jewish people be completely severed, though maintaining them appears far more complicated and tortuous. The reader recognizes that a persistent Jewish essence continues to influence Paltiel, especially as evidenced in the poetic memorial to his father's annihilated world.

J'ai vu mon père en songe (I Saw My Father in a Dream), a slim volume of Yiddish poetry, resurrects the lost world of Paltiel's Jewishness and youth, though no poem actually evokes the memory of his father. The original structure of this collection had intended that an opening poem would lyrically depict Paltiel's father leading a silent funeral procession, the verses serving as a surreal metaphor for the lost culture of which Paltiel had once been a part. At the last moment, however, the poet chooses to delete this poem for fear of offending or annoying his communist readers. But how many communists would have been capable of reading Yiddish? What reason might therefore have induced Paltiel to this cowardly act of self-censorship? I believe the protagonist consciously omits that particular poem out of guilt for having abandoned his Jewish self, for having broken his promise to his father and for the ensuing loss of the tephilin. Thus, in this bout of the struggle between the Jew and the communist, the latter would seem to have gained an advantage. But, as Paltiel quickly learns, the “communist” ideal will not tolerate any degree of Jewish identity. Frightening new programs erupt, striking at the very source of Jewish identity: words. Jewish presses are closed, books seized, writers imprisoned.

Into the chaos and failure that characterize his life, his son is born. Grisha serves as a catalyst to stimulate the revival of his father's Jewishness and to permit him to perform parental duties as prescribed in the biblical verses encased in the tephilin. Grisha becomes the means by which the painful existential struggle Paltiel has endured will be terminated. In a broad ironic stroke, the son will assist the father in rehabilitating the father's silenced Jewish image.

An important feature of Jewish life incumbent upon parents is the transmission of names. During the Spanish Civil War, Paltiel had experienced a unique event: “One morning, among the ruins of a cemetery … I came upon a tombstone whose inscription made me shiver: Paltiel son of Gershon” (Testament 190). His exact name had died centuries before, only to be reborn in him. The chain of Jewish life had been maintained. The reality of this experience later manifests itself in Paltiel's decision to name his own son after his father, thereby reviving a name in the community of Israel. Not only has a name been retrieved from the silence of death, but Paltiel consciously decides to voice that name in the ritual of brit meila, the ceremony of circumcision when a male Jewish child is introduced into the ancient Covenant between God and Israel.

With the renewal of the Covenant, Paltiel again assumes his parental responsibilities as directed by the biblical texts contained within the tephilin. It seems fitting, therefore, that the protagonist's regeneration as a Jew should achieve more complete realizations with the resurrection of the crucial symbol of the tephilin. As mysteriously as they had disappeared, the protagonist now discovers them crammed into a drawer. “The next second, without knowing what I was doing or why, I took them out of their bag, kissed them and put them on my left arm and forehead. … All the rituals had come back to me” (Testament 285). And with them, a profound sense of Jewishness engulfs Paltiel. As if encountering an old friend, he rekindles a fecund relationship. This action does, moreover, propound several other significant implications. First, it represents Paltiel's means for Grisha to observe the use of an important symbol of his faith. Secondly, father and son establish a silent bond through the straps of the phylacteries, a relationship more fully developed later when Grisha is presented with his father's testament in which the biblical imperatives contained in the tephilin become actions. In the testament, Paltiel has assumed his role as father, teacher and guide, thus fulfilling his responsibilities and forging the chain of Jewish life and traditions, thereby linking himself to his father and to his son.

In the pages of the testament, Paltiel Kossover outlines his quest to understand his Jewish nature and his desire to espouse it completely. “The reward of being Jewish lies in defining oneself, not in being defined. The gift is possessing one's heritage and in affirming one's existence on one's own ground” (Dawidowicz 31). Though menaced by torture and death, Paltiel redresses earlier shortcomings and in his testament constructs a fitting legacy for his son. In inheriting his father's words—themselves infused with the biblical messages humbly housed in the tephilin—Grisha will speak “not like his father,” but “in place of his father” (Testament 14), passing on eternal truths to yet another generation. Linked to their common heritage, father and son will struggle to create hope for a better, more humane future.


  1. Vidduy, or Jewish confession, is addressed directly to God and ought to express sentiments of honest regret and sincere repentance. The confessional prayers are phrased in the plural as the entire community regards itself as responsible for many offenses it might have prevented. In accordance with a Talmudic statement in Tractate Shabbat 32a: “When a man is sick and near to death, he is asked to make confession,” every Jew makes confession on his/her deathbed.

  2. The complete laws for wearing the tephilin can be found in the Talmud, Menahot 34a-37b, and repeated in Volume 1, Chapter 10 of the Shulhan Aruh (Code of Jewish Law).

Works Cited

Dawidowicz, Lucy. The Jewish Presence: Essays on Identity and History. New York: Rinehart and Winston, 1977.

Karo, Joseph. Kitzur Shulhan Aruh. Trans. Hyman E. Goldin. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1961.

Rosenzweig, Franz. On Jewish Learning. Trans. and ed. Nahum Glatzer. New York: Schocken Books, 1965.

Wiesel, Elie. Sages and Dreamers: Biblical, Talmudic and Hasidic Portraits and Legends. New York: Summit Books, 1991.

———. The Testament. Trans. Marion Wiesel. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982.

Joyce B. Lazarus (essay date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: Lazarus, Joyce B. “Expanding Time: The Art of Elie Wiesel in The Gates of the Forest.Modern Language Studies 24, no. 4 (fall 1994): 39-46.

[In the following essay, Lazarus analyzes Wiesel's treatment of time in his novel The Gates of the Forest.]

Master teller of tales, witness testifying to the human condition as seen through the Jewish condition, Elie Wiesel writes with an urgency that summons his readers to respond. For Wiesel, the world has still learned nothing from Auschwitz; barbaric cruelty and oppression of humanity are evident everywhere. Using one of his favorite metaphors, Wiesel describes humanity as riding a train that is about to reach a precipice. “And we, the survivors (of the Holocaust) are trying to pull the alarm. They won't listen. Even today, those who listen don't really listen.”1

To transmit his view of a world radically transformed by Auschwitz, Wiesel turns to unique narrative strategies in his fiction. Beginning with his memoir, Night,2 and continuing through over a dozen novels, Wiesel has altered the concept of time as an underlying structural principle of fiction.3 This essay will focus on some of the most striking ways in which Wiesel changes the dimension of time in his novel, The Gates of the Forest,4 to reflect his vision of “l'univers concentrationnaire.”

Structurally, the narrative of The Gates of the Forest follows a chronological sequence described by the titles of the four sections, “Spring,” “Summer,” “Autumn,” and “Winter,” but these time indicators belie the complexity of the novel's temporal pattern. Indicators of time and date in The Gates of the Forest are often ambiguous, and there is a leap over an indefinite span of years between “Autumn” and “Winter.”5 Within the chronological time frame of World War II and its aftermath, Wiesel weaves an intricate fabric of references to past, present and future.

The short prologue to the novel provides a first indication of Wiesel's conception of time. Four rabbis avert catastrophe in their respective communities by their deeds and prayers, but as each successive disciple repeats his ancestor's actions and prayers, his memory is more blurred and each recreation of the ritual is therefore different from that of the previous rabbi. The fourth rabbi is able to avert catastrophe merely by telling the story of his ancestor's deeds, having forgotten all else. Wiesel implies by this prologue that a story told acquires a new temporal life of its own in each retelling, and that in its multiple reincarnations, through successive readers, it can still alter the course of history. If The Gates of the Forest awakens readers to avert the tragedy of another Holocaust, then it will play a role similar to that of the rabbi's tale, and will participate simultaneously in the past, present and future.

Wiesel denies temporality the character it usually assumes by establishing a dreamlike world in The Gates of the Forest which blurs characters' normal perceptions of time. By restricting the setting to a very narrow space (a cave, a forest, or a room in a synagogue), and by limiting the characters to one or two in these scenes, the author creates an illusion that time has been suspended, and that the usual time indicators—watches, changing positions of the sun—are no longer valid:

He (Gregor) glanced at the luminous dial of his watch: ten past two. He knew the time even though he didn't know what day it was. It could have been Friday or Saturday; what did it matter? He was living in a time of war, outside time.


Sometimes I watch the sun rise and set, but it no longer marks the passage of time. If the sun were to stop, it wouldn't surprise me. It has become a stranger to the earth—it warms out of habit or out of boredom. People don't interest it any longer.


For Gregor, hiding from the Nazis in the forest, or delirious from his exhausting voyage to Roumania, it is the abnormality, the brutality of war that have assaulted time, creating an oppressive present.6 The recurring elements of nature that mark time and confirm the harmony of the universe are deformed and perverted in The Gates of the Forest, becoming objective correlatives for the physical and moral havoc wracked by the Holocaust. The sun is a stranger that is no longer dependable, clouds that hang low over villages are the souls of murdered Jewish inhabitants (3); stars are the eyes of murdered Jewish children (54).

The concerns of Wiesel in The Gates of the Forest extend, however, beyond those of Night: Gregor, whose family has most likely perished, is not physically victimized by the Nazis, but struggles to find a meaningful life and to redefine his Jewish identity, haunted by memories of the Holocaust. Characters in The Gates of the Forest are defined not by their personalities or deeds, but by their relations with others in the past, present, and future, and by the influence they exert on one another, an influence extending over generations.7 By jumping with seeming illogic from Gregor's present, to his past and anticipated encounters with others, Wiesel suggests that the essence of a human being is not limited to his chronological existence, and that characters' lives extend far beyond their temporal existence.

Before Gregor has met his friend Gavriel in the novel, he anticipates the latter's influence on him: “the laugh of the man who had saved his life” (3). Gregor states that what he has learned about his world—about clouds hovering over the village, for example—he would understand later from Gavriel, who has not yet appeared in the novel: “Who opened your eyes, Gregor? He did. Did it hurt? Yes and no” (4). Yet at the time of his first meeting with Gavriel in the novel, Gregor feels that he has already met him before: “It was as if he had heard this voice before, and what it was saying. In another life, perhaps” (13). With this apparent fusion of past and future, as in an Escher print of staircases that run into one another in an endless cycle, the reader sees events in The Gates of the Forest, not from a linear perspective, but from a perspective outside of ordinary time.

Gregor's grandfather is dead; yet he continues to give Gregor advice about present-day situations (12). The reader never learns with certainty the fate of other family members, or of his friend Leib, but dead or alive, they remain present for Gregor in the novel through their influence on him. Gavriel advises Gregor to continue talking about his father: “Go on,” he said. “As long as you go on (talking about him), he is still alive” (24). But more than mere memories survive; the names of the dead, bequeathed to the living, or waiting to be adopted and thus resurrected, take on a life of their own, haunting the living:

Day follows night and night follows day, men are born and die, but the most fragile thing—for what is frailer than a name?—endures. As I walk through this world I find empty cities—empty of Jews, of Jewish tears and hopes and prayers—inhabited by names, by names only. And every orphaned name begs me to adopt it.


Distinctions between past and future are blurred when Gregor speaks of his friend Leib and of the war they fought: “We waged a war that will last as long as I live, and as long as it lasts, Leib will be a part of it” (164). The Holocaust is an event that forever implicates the future as well as the past and present, and all those associated with it are inextricably part of one's life, whether or not they physically survive.

By denying temporality its usual character, Wiesel emphasizes the theme of continuity—of relationships and values from generation to generation, and from one living being to another—in spite of the destruction wrought by Auschwitz.8 Without this anchor of continuous commitment, among the living and between living and dead, there would be no meaning to existence. Gregor's friend Yehuda expresses this conviction:

You say, “I'm alone.” Someone answers. “I'm alone too.” There's a shift in the scale of power. A bridge is thrown between the two abysses.


Throughout The Gates of the Forest, there is the weight of “l'univers concentrationnaire,” defying understanding and altering characters' notions of reality, mankind, and God. To convey the irrationality and omnipresence of the Event, Wiesel juxtaposes actions of his main characters with those of people involved directly or indirectly with the persecution of Jews. Seemingly unrelated events become connected when presented simultaneously, and the reader follows a temporal sequence that is both within and outside the main story.

While Gregor was experiencing sudden calm after the capture of Gavriel, who sacrificed himself for his friend, Hungarian soldiers in dazzling uniforms were shouting “‘Fire, fire, fire.’ … hundreds of hearts ceased beating … the Messiah himself, a thousand times, a thousand, thousand times multiplied, fell into the ditch” (60). Tranquillity and silence in the era of Auschwitz, suggests Wiesel, are obtained only at the expense of the suffering or death of others.

While these disparate actions were occurring, “Spring continued; the war too: they complemented each other perfectly, the one accentuating the other, each prolonging the other's life. Cold weather isn't suitable to murder; it slows it down” (60). Wiesel implies that the soldiers were not alone in their participation in the Holocaust; even nature and God are implicated and held responsible for the Event.

Other temporal leaps outside the main story suggest the guilt and responsibility of those who at first glance appear to have no connection with the persecution. A woman in a café lets herself be seduced by a smartly uniformed German officer reciting a poem about death, while at the same time elsewhere a German officer is crying, “‘Fire!’ and a line of men, women and children, silent and barely astonished, tumble into the ditch” (148). By acquiescing to the company of a German soldier, Wiesel implies, the woman is tacitly acquiescing to all German atrocities.

The seemingly innocent remark of a Christian mother to her daughter who has just finished her vegetables, “So they weren't so bad, were they?” (in the original French version, the literal meaning of her words is, “you don't die of it”) is juxtaposed with Gregor's anxiety about his friend Leib, and an ominous description of a town that is Judenrein, [purged of its Jews (149)], suggesting that the silence and indifference of Christians regarding the plight of Jews implicate them directly in their murder. Christian children don't die, victims of genocide, but Jewish children do.

To convey the tension of “l'univers concentrationnaire”—a world assaulted by the incomprehensible event of Auschwitz—Wiesel replaces traditional linear narrative sequence with multiple narratives of characters who change or exchange their identities in the course of the novel. Temporal leaps occur not only when events take place simultaneously, but also when narratives become interchanged. When Gregor gives his Jewish name to Gavriel, a stranger he meets, he seems to fuse his identity with the other, and the story of these two characters becomes thereafter both a narrative of two friends and of one person, Gregor, who incorporates attributes of another into his own personality. Wiesel maintains the ambiguity of Gavriel's identity throughout the novel, creating the dreamlike effect of a character, Gregor, who may have two separate identities.

Wiesel also portrays characters in The Gates of the Forest who live out inner and outer lives that contradict one another. The inhabitants of a Roumanian village all have secret lives through their relationship with Ileana. Gregor himself has two identities in the village: he is a Jew in hiding, and he is a muet, Christian simpleton (the role he plays to disguise his true identity). In another instance of multiple narratives that are interchangeable, Wiesel gives the same name to two different characters in The Gates of the Forest: Leib the Lion is a dead ancestor of Gregor who returns to the world to confront the Holocaust with disbelief (120), and Leib is the leader of the partisans and Gregor's boyhood friend. Because of their shared name, with its mystical power of perpetuating an individual's temporal existence, their otherwise unrelated stories become joined in the novel.

Time is expanded in The Gates of the Forest to portray the interconnection of different lives; and time can also be condensed for particularly intense moments that transform a character's life. In an interview, Wiesel speaks of trying to portray the essence of a lifetime in a few meaningful moments.9 By choosing a closed location removed from everyday existence—a cave in a forest for Gregor's first meeting with Gavriel, a room in a synagogue for their second meeting—Wiesel accentuates the atemporal nature of these encounters. He also creates the illusion of suspended time by shrouding the character of Gavriel in mystery:

“Where do you come from?” Gregor asked.

“Over there.”

“Where exactly is ‘over there’?”

“Over there, I tell you. Everywhere. On the other side.”


Gavriel appears to live outside of ordinary mortal existence, feeling no thirst or hunger, and claiming that death has no hold on him (35). His name, now lost, was pronounced and written differently (as in the ineffable Hebrew name of God, which is transcribed as YHVH, but is pronounced as “Ha-Shem,” the Name).10 What Gavriel says to Gregor is not transcribed word for word, but only suggested, as if transpiring over an indefinable period of time:

Gavriel talked on. What he said came from another time, another world. His voice was never the same. Its accent did not change, but its essence was constantly changing. Just as Gavriel had a thousand names; he had a thousand voices. One contained the plenitude of transparent dawn, another the insensate hope of a man condemned to die, another the fearful silences of a child abandoned in the middle of a crowded street.


The second meeting of Gregor and Gavriel is also shrouded in mystery: Gavriel neither denies nor admits that he is Gavriel, yet he knows all of Gregor's weaknesses, as if he has always known him (208, 210). Gavriel appears and disappears unexpectedly; Gregor seems so transformed by this meeting that he changes the direction of his life; yet the decision-making process is instantaneous, as if hours or days have been condensed into one moment:

And just as he did not know why he had decided the previous evening to go away, so now he did not know why he was reversing his decision. Gavriel could explain, but he was silent and would not even laugh. Where was he?


Through his use of allegory, Wiesel creates an additional temporal dimension in The Gates of the Forest. The narrative of Gregor and Gavriel is a modern recreation of the Biblical story of Jacob, in Genesis 28:10-32:33. Just as the Jacob story moves along two dramatic lines: a horizontal line of human-profane action (in his everyday world), and a vertical line of divine-human action (in Jacob's dreams at Bethel and Peniel),11 so does Wiesel's narrative of Gregor have both its horizontal line (Gregor's efforts to survive the war and later to resolve marital problems) and its vertical line (his night encounters with Gavriel, whose name, as Gavriel explains, means “Man of God” (13)). In Jacob's first dream, at Bethel, God appears to him as a benefactor and consoler, giving him a reason to live and the courage to journey to a foreign land. Gavriel, similarly, plays a role of comforter and protector, prodding Gregor, who has all but lost the will to live, to journey to Roumania.

The parallelism of the two tales continues through the second divine-human encounter of Gregor/Jacob and Gavriel/God. Gregor/Jacob struggles all night with an enigmatic adversary who defies human understanding. Gregor/Jacob emerges from the struggle with a new sense of purpose and a new name: Jacob becomes Israel, the father of a new nation, and Gregor assumes his true Jewish name which he had previously denied: Gavriel. The Gates of the Forest can thus be interpreted as an allegory of the contemporary Jew who struggles in his relationship with God, in the era of Auschwitz. God appears in both Genesis and in The Gates of the Forest as ambiguously both present and absent, refusing to identify Himself and enigmatically escaping man's grasp.

Other narrative elements in The Gates of the Forest also acquire an allegorical dimension, as they echo biblical and Hasidic tales, and events in European history. Gavriel's tale of a Messiah who has come to earth as man and who submits to death without understanding God's will is an echo of the New Testament account of the life and death of Jesus Christ, but Wiesel gives the story a new twist: the Messiah is assassinated by the Nazis during the Holocaust, and has thereby arrived too late to save mankind (44-48, 58). The play directed by Constantine Stefan in a Roumanian village, reenacting the story of Judas' betrayal of Jesus, is an echo of the passion plays performed in Europe as early as the Middle Ages. In The Gates of the Forest, as in traditional passion plays, negative stereotypes of Jews and a climate of antisemitism are perpetuated from generation to generation.

The allegorical aspects of The Gates of the Forest enrich the narrative with intertextual associations. As Wiesel emphasized in an interview, without the reverberations in his novels of the Bible, Hasidic masters and tales of the Holocaust, there would be no continuity. “If we stop, we betray. When we die, we silence all the generations that would come after us.”12 The multitemporal dimension of his novel is not a literary device achieved for its own sake, but a necessary means to pass on an historical legacy which Wiesel feels may soon become silenced as remaining Holocaust survivors die.

The Kaddish prayer recited by Gregor at the conclusion of The Gates of the Forest illustrates another way in which Wiesel shapes the temporal dimension in his novel. The Kaddish is simultaneously a glorification of God in the present and a link of solidarity between the living and all past ancestors and events. It operates paradoxically on many temporal levels at once, and in his recital of it, Gregor attempts a reconciliation both with the ghosts of his past who have prevented him from fully living, and with God, whom Gregor has previously rejected. Like Jacob, Gregor engages in a spiritual combat with God which has no resolution. The Kaddish illustrates this ambiguous position of contemporary man who is pulled simultaneously by his past and present, and who in spite of himself is drawn to a God he cannot fathom.

In denying temporality its traditional character in his fiction, Elie Wiesel portrays a world threatened by the inescapable presence of the Holocaust—that of World War II, and potentially that of the future. The past in The Gates of the Forest is not a separate temporal entity to be easily dismissed. It is inexorably encroaching on the present moment: Holocaust victims are hovering in clouds over their deserted homes, haunting the living; Gregor's dead ancestors are ever-present, and his dead comrade, Leib, prevents other characters from living out their lives.

Wiesel calls on man to commit himself to accept responsibility for others' well-being, and not to be silent to the voices of the past, of history. “He who is not among the victims is with the executioners” (166) is a theme that echoes throughout The Gates of the Forest. Silence is acquiescence to evil. Yet for Wiesel it is the present moment that man must assume existentially, not letting himself be seduced by the promises of ghosts of different names, not letting grief diminish life, and not waiting for a future Messiah. “The Messiah isn't one man, Clara, he's all men” (225). The Messiah, for Wiesel, is within each of us already, in each present moment.


  1. Ellen S. Fine, “Dialogue with Elie Wiesel,” Centerpoint: a Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies 4 (Fall 1980): 21.

  2. Elie Wiesel, la Nuit (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1958); English language version, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 1960).

  3. Laurence L. Langer, in The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), notes that “The Holocaust assaulted the very notion of temporal sequence, and led to some vital experiments with the manipulation of time (as concept and principle of structure) in fiction” (251).

  4. Elie Wiesel, Les Portes de la Forêt (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1964); English language version, The Gates of the Forest (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966). All further references will be to this English edition.

  5. Allusions to chronological time in The Gates of the Forest are extremely vague. The reader learns from page 4 that “He (Gregor) was living in a time of war,” but does not know which war it is. On page 41, the reader learns that the Hungarian army is involved in the war, and that there are deportations of Jews; he can therefore surmise that it is 1944. In “Winter,” Gregor attends a Hasidic celebration in Brooklyn; the reader surmises that this occurs after World War II, since the main character has somehow survived the war, but this is not confirmed until page 211, in an allusion to “the first post-war spring.” By avoiding references to chronological time, Wiesel implies that the Holocaust was an event which did not occur just once; rather it destroyed our whole understanding of time. The references to seasons assume multiple meanings: they are states of mind and of physical development (youth, manhood, and maturity) and milestones in a lifetime as well as indicators of a passing year.

  6. Mildred L. Culp notes, similarly, in “Wiesel's Memoir and God outside Auschwitz,” Explorations in Ethnic Studies 4 (Jan. 1981): 65, the dominance of descriptions evoking the present moment in Night: “For the Jews, though, the present alone has meaning, because it is the abnormality, the brutality of that present with which they must contend in order to survive. From this standpoint, the future and past lose their meaning.”

  7. David Patterson, in “Subjectivity and Responsibility: Wiesel per Levinas,” Cahiers Roumains d'Etudes littéraires 4 (1987): 130, describes Wiesel's characters similarly: “The characters are defined not by their personalities or idiosyncrasies, but in terms of their relations to others, by the words and the silences between themselves and others.”

  8. Elie Wiesel comments to Ellen S. Fine, “If there is a single motivation (in my novels) besides the obsession to bear witness, it is continuity. Continuity not only with respect to the recent past but to the past in its totality.” Ellen S. Fine, “Dialogue with Elie Wiesel”: 23.

  9. “We live seventy years or fifty years or forty years, yet we really live only a few hours or a few days. We collect a few meaningful hours and these form our lives. In the book I only take the substance. This is the real time. So what I do always happens within a ratio of time: twenty-four hours, usually one night.” Elie Wiesel, quoted in Harry James Cargas, In Conversation with Elie Wiesel (New York: Paulist Press, 1976), 108.

  10. Simon P. Sibelman, in “The Dialogue of Peniel: Elie Wiesel's Les Portes de la forêt and Genesis 32:23-33,” The French Review 61 (AATF, April 1988): 752, notes the similarity between Gavriel's name and the Hebrew name of God.

  11. Bernard Och, in “Jacob at Bethel and Penuel: the Polarity of Divine Encounter,” Judaism 42. 2 (Spring 1993): 164, describes the two dramatic lines of the story of Jacob in Genesis 28:11-32:32 as “a horizontal one of human-profane activity and a vertical one of Divine-human encounter.”

  12. Elie Wiesel, quoted in Ellen S. Fine, “Dialogue with Elie Wiesel”: 23.

Pierre L. Horn (review date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: Horn, Pierre L. Review of Tous les fleuves vont á la mer, by Elie Wiesel. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 553.

[In the following review, Horn offers a laudatory assessment of All Rivers Run to the Sea.]

Taking the title of his autobiography [All Rivers Run to the Sea] from Ecclesiastes, Elie Wiesel presents the important people and events of his life, beginning with his childhood and culminating in his 1969 marriage in Jerusalem under the watchful eye of his parents and little sister, all exterminated during the Holocaust. Born in the Carpathian town of Sighet, Wiesel through stories and remembrances tells of a family full of piety and moral courage, of modesty and selfless devotion to Judaism. From his mother and grandmother he learned goodness and love, from his grandfather the Jewish legends he would later use in fiction and essays, from his father rectitude and altruism. His teachers, in his youth as well as in adulthood and middle age, inculcated in him a reverence for learning, an exactness in biblical or philosophical discourse, and above all the joy, sadness, and truth of the old masters.

World War II and its persecutions of the Jews shattered the author's idyllic shtetl world forever, as he and his were carted off to Auschwitz. (Only two older sisters survived.) Unable to understand the cruelty of a civilized people, angry at those who did not intervene on the victims' behalf, angry too at God for letting it happen—yet still believing in Him—Wiesel emerged at seventeen endowed with a special knowledge of life and death.

Shortly after his liberation from Buchenwald he went to France, where he eventually enrolled at the Sorbonne, enduring hardship and contemplating suicide. Saved by Zionist fervor, he worked as a journalist for a Yiddish newspaper in Paris before hiring out as a stringer/correspondent for an Israeli daily. In this capacity he observed the French cultural and political scene and traveled widely. A crucial meeting with François Mauriac in 1955 was to decide his literary career: Mauriac encouraged him to break his self-imposed silence about the Night Kingdom and found a publisher for Wiesel's first novel (La nuit), to which he contributed the foreword.

After Wiesel moved to New York to become his newspaper's American correspondent, he soon applied for U.S. citizenship. In a series of amusing anecdotes he describes the vagaries of getting published in the United States; his life in Jewish-American milieux; his relations with Le Seuil, his publisher; his meeting with Marion, his future wife and translator. More moving and bittersweet are his return to his native town, where relatives and friends have disappeared and only the ghosts of his youth remain; his personal and literary campaign for Russian Jewry; the unbearable fear caused by the Six-Day War because it could mean the end of the Jewish state and dream; and his prayer of thanksgiving at the newly liberated Wailing Wall.

Throughout, a celebration of life and of the great Hasidic teachers and thinkers as well as a moral and ethical strength permeate Wiesel's first forty years in his engagé conduct and writings. In memorializing his relatives, friends, and acquaintances and in bearing witness to their passing, he ultimately leaves his own mark behind, since, he implies, a life speaks louder than literature.

James E. Young (review date 18 December 1995)

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SOURCE: Young, James E. “Parables of a Survivor.” New Leader 78, no. 10 (18 December 1995): 17-19.

[In the following review, Young maintains that All Rivers Run to the Sea is part spiritual memoir, part bildungsroman, and “a remarkably self-reflexive if not always self-revealing memoir.”]

How did Elie Wiesel, of all the thousands of Holocaust survivors, become a living icon of that catastrophe, and why? How deliberate was his ascension, how accidental? What has it meant for Wiesel to commit his life to memory of the Holocaust, only to reap a seemingly endless bounty of celebrity, adulation, and material rewards? All Rivers Run to the Sea, the first of two planned volumes of his memoirs, may not explicitly answer these impossible questions, but it does allow subtle and elliptical answers to come gradually into view. Part spiritual Bildungsroman and part parable, this book is also a loosely woven blend of Wiesel's considerable talents as a canny journalist and storyteller; it is a remarkably self-reflexive if not always self-revealing memoir.

Just as the author's early, searing portrait of survival in Night depicts the de-education of a pious Jewish child in the maw of Auschwitz, this new, more worldly work accounts for the child's return to life and his postwar re-education. It traces his journey from a fondly remembered shtetl into the abyss of genocide and out again, from his schooling among Kabbalists and literati in Paris to his immersion in French culture and literature. It records, too, his coming of political age during the throes of Israel's birth, his accidental but eventually flourishing career as a journalist, and his move to make it in New York. It concludes with reflections on “Writing,” which are more about his various relationships—both sweet and sour—with other writers than the literature of the Holocaust.

In his opening section on “Childhood,” Wiesel sets out not to examine his first years but to bear witness to all that was lost—to give voices, faces and humanity to the murdered victims. To this end, he repopulates Sighet, his native village in the Carpathian Mountains, with blatantly idealized memories of his family and neighbors, offering an innocent's eye view of shtetl life: all rabbis, prophets and sages. In many cases the voice actually seems to reflect its chronological place in Wiesel's life: When the subject is boyhood, the tone and insights are simple and naïve. Later on, his descriptions of the media elite in New York betray a more skeptical, world-weary tone and content.

Wiesel's initial meditations on his father, in particular, present a picture that perhaps only a young and adoring son can have, uncomplicated by the more human characteristics that would have become apparent had Reb Shloime lived into Elie's own adulthood. It is clear, in fact, that what Wiesel wants to capture here is remembered childhood and its necessarily blinkered image of reality: “I am trying to remember if my parents ever quarreled or bickered, if there was ever any tension between them. If so, I have no memory of it. I want to believe that they loved each other, and that nothing ever clouded that love. That may be too idealized a memory, but I cling to it nevertheless.” Wiesel's keen sense of loss is triple-stranded: He mourns the concentration camp deaths of his mother and father, the murder of his little sister, Tziporah, as well as the murder of his childhood and its benevolent God.

“I mean not to recount the story of my life,” he informs us, “but my stories.” For he knows better than anyone that even as a youngster he saw himself refracted through Biblical tales and rabbinic legends, made meaningful and memorable by their telling. Indeed, given his Bible-, history- and story-saturated early education, it is not surprising that he often “felt as though [he] were reliving a page of medieval Jewish history.” Or that on the train to Auschwitz, he “dreamed of the Jewish exiles of antiquity and the Middle Ages. … Mixed into my sadness there was undeniable excitement, for we were living a historic event, a historic adventure.” As if by congenital reflex, he converted everything immediate or unfolding into a story. His 30-odd books share this same penchant for parable, this need to retell the recent past and thereby assimilate it with sacred history.

Throughout his memoir, Wiesel is thus able to step in and out of the past to reflect on how it might have been. To this day, for example, he remains bitter at what he regards as the passivity of Jews in America and Palestine who knew during the War of places like Auschwitz, yet never broadcast the news to the unsuspecting Jews in towns like Sighet. While the bitterness is understandable, Wiesel himself seems to suggest it is a bit misplaced. After all, the Jews of Sighet had been warned personally and graphically by Moshe the beadle. The lone escapee out of over 1,000 local Jews expelled in 1941 for lacking proper papers, he returned to describe their mass-murder and was declared mad. Why would people who could not believe one of their own have believed propagandistic sounding radio reports from abroad?

But Wiesel's indignation is also partly a result of his open glorification of the victims as victims. “Stripped of their property, crushed and mutilated [the Jews of Sighet] still embody the nobility of Israel and the eternity of God,” he writes. That is, in keeping with the martyrological tradition of Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name through death), they remain holy, their memory inviolable. This traditional veneration may explain as well why none of Wiesel's Holocaust works contain any representations of the killers. In his words, “the murderers did not interest me; only the victims.” He steadfastly refuses to depict even the landscape of a destroyed Germany on his way to France following the liberation.

One is further struck by the fact that the world's most renowned Holocaust survivor devotes a scant 20 pages out of 400 to his time in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald. Yet this too makes sense: Wiesel's memoir is not about what happened during those 11 months, but about how they shaped his life afterward, how they have been remembered, how he has lived in their shadow. The death camp experience itself is a near-absent center of this book, a void around which the rest of Wiesel's life was molded.

In June 1945, on arriving at the château in Écouis operated by the children's rescue society of France, the 17-year old Elie borrowed a pen and began a private journal: “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 for the first time in a long while.” In these words we find his amazement at survival (“here I am”), at being in France (of all places), and at having his faith restored (if never to its pre-Holocaust luster).

Having named this chapter “Schooling,” Wiesel recounts the ways Paris became his open university, and the motley assortment of memory-magicians, Kabbalists and counselors who became his mentors. But even now, what did he study? Asceticism—“the lure of and quest for suffering,” the effort to infuse “one's own suffering and that of others with meaning.” For days on end, Wiesel and his mad master, Shushani, “talked of the ascetic and his self, enriched or mutilated by suffering, the relation between suffering and truth, suffering and redemption, suffering and spiritual purity, suffering as a gateway to the sacred. …” Given his experiences, his subsequent teachers and his obsessions, it is not surprising that the holiness of victimization would finally constitute the central pillar of Wiesel's worldview.

Of all his memoir's self-insights, most revealing for me are those concerning his coming of age as a journalist. As he tells it, an act of desperation drove him literally to stumble into the vocation that eventually became the source of his incredible contacts and international network of friends in powerful places. In 1948, aged 20 and with no means of support in Paris, he only wanted to do his part for the birth of Israel. A political novice, he approached the Haganah offices in Paris, where he was turned away. Then he tried the offices of the Right-wing Irgun, and was given a job by the Revisionist Zionist newspaper Zion in Kamf.

There, in the days just after the United Nations granted Israel statehood, Wiesel published his first article, what he now calls a “fictional commentary.” Its focus was the sinking of the ship Altalena—carrying arms and volunteers gathered in France by the Irgun for Israel's War of Independence—on Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's orders. Thus, from the very outset of his writing career Wiesel was a parabolist of history, a converter of history into meaningful story. In the light of his raconteur's instincts, and his self-perception as someone caught between memory of the terrible past and the actual unfolding of contemporary events, his pursuit of the form is perfectly logical.

In Wiesel's approach to history and to the fate of the Altalena lie the seeds of his complicated and ambivalent relationship to Israel. He seems to have witnessed in the miracle of Israel's birth the simultaneous sowing of the seeds of self-destruction. Heartbroken once by the Holocaust, and again by the spectacle of Jewish fratricide, he turned hungrily to Malraux and Mauriac, Valéry and Bernanos, Camus and Sartre.

When Wiesel traveled to Israel in the summer of 1949, he was devastated by the treatment of Holocaust survivors. School-children, for instance, repeating what they heard at home, called their immigrant classmates “little ‘soap cakes.’” His massive identification with the still suffering victims appears to have made him constitutively incapable of identifying with the new nation as victorious. Although he clung fiercely as ever to his love of Israel and the Jewish people, he would become a man apart in the world.

Eager to return to Paris, Wiesel landed a job as correspondent for Yediot Achronot, at that point “the smallest and poorest of Israel's daily papers.” He paints a humorous portrait of himself as a neophyte journalist who is a bumbling nudnik around women and always just misses the big scoop. “Monsieur Jouvet,” he asked the famous actor during an unintentionally brief dressing-room interview, “what do you do when you're not being Louis Jouvet?” The reply: “I call him to show you the door, young man.”

In one especially noteworthy case, however, an interview with a great man paid off. The devout Catholic novelist and essayist François Mauriac saw in Wiesel another Jew on the cross, a martyr-spokesman for humankind. He took Wiesel's reworked memoir of the Holocaust, Un di Velt hot geschwign (“And the World Was Silent”) and gave it to his publisher. Wiesel does not describe the transformation of his angry 800 page Yiddish manuscript into a 149-page French-language parable of torment, but it seems clear that Mauriac's vision of him as an archetype of the abandoned and the sacrificed helped shape what became the century's classic martyrological testament, Night.

In his role as emblematic survivor, Wiesel has always appeared to float benevolently above the fray of politics and personal animosities. He has spoken out forcefully against nuclear madness (in the event of nuclear war, “we are all Jews,” he famously declared), and passionately on behalf of children in Biafra. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 as a voice for the world's victims, and has carried this mantle with dignity. Indeed, two of his greatest moments came in public appeals to American Presidents. One was to Ronald Reagan, begging him to stay away from Bitburg (“This place is not your place, Mr. President.”); the other was made during the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., when he turned to President Clinton and demanded that something be done to stop the genocide of Bosnian Muslims.

As we find in these pages, though, Wiesel's skin is about as thin as anyone else's. It should not be surprising to discover this icon of equanimity settling a few scores, yet I still wish he had left out the petty grievances that mar his memoir—just as early in the narrative he prudently forswears recounting episodes “that might embarrass friends.” Yael Dayan's ungenerous treatment of him over the years not-withstanding, it was unnecessary to dismiss her as someone who “fortunately … abandoned literature for politics, where she made many enemies and was not taken seriously.” Nor did I need to hear Wiesel describe Alfred Kazin's writing as “vile,” and the writer as a “bitter man who has aged so badly. …” In such instances the memoirist is all too human, but less protective of his own dignity than he has been of others'.

The dropping of names, on the other hand, does not bother me in the least. When he came to New York to make his career as an eyewitness to history, it was also his job as a reporter to know the movers and shakers, the powerful and rich. That in time Presidents would turn to Wiesel for his stamp of moral authority is one of the incongruities of our mass media age. Nonetheless, unlike the New York magazine reviewer who concluded that Wiesel's chronicle presents the “disturbing spectacle” of “a genuinely righteous man who is as zealous in marketing his righteousness as in living up to it,” I am not disturbed. If he addressed his meteoric climb without embarrassment or avoided questioning the appropriateness and terrible irony of feeding on the very memory he holds so sacred, then I might have taken offense. But the paradox of his being a commercially successful moral conscience of the world is not lost on him.

Rather than taking Wiesel to task for his part in nourishing our culture's voracious appetite for celebrity victims, we need to ask whether it is possible today to speak out effectively on behalf of the world's oppressed without having a gift for public relations. After all, had every witness obeyed our society's squeamish laws of decorum and taste, the Holocaust might have remained an untold story altogether.

Ora Avni (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Avni, Ora. “Beyond Psychoanalysis: Elie Wiesel's Night in Historical Perspective.” In Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and “the Jewish Question” in France, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman, pp. 203-18. New York: Routledge, 1995.

[In the following essay, Avni addresses the impact of and reaction to Holocaust narratives by discussing the opening section of Wiesel's Night.]

Night is the story of a young boy's journey through hell, as he is taken first to a ghetto, and then to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It is a story of survival and of death: survival of the young narrator himself, but death of the world as he knew it.1 It is therefore a negative Bildungsroman, in which the character does not end up, as expected, fit for life in society, but on the contrary, a living dead, unfit for life as defined by his community.

Its opening focuses not so much on the boy, however, as on a foreigner, Moshe the Beadle, a wretched yet good-natured and lovable dreamer, versed in Jewish mysticism. When the town's foreign Jews are deported by the Nazis to an unknown destination, he leaves with them; but he comes back. Having miraculously survived the murder of his convoy, he hurries back to warn the others. No longer singing, humming, or praying, he plods from door to door, desperately repeating the same stories of calm and dispassionate killings. But, despite his unrelenting efforts, “people refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them” (p. 4).

Like Moshe the Beadle, the first survivors who told their stories either to other Jews or to the world were usually met with disbelief. When the first escapees from Ponar's killing grounds tried to warn the Vilna ghetto that they were not sent to work but to be murdered, not only did the Jews not believe them, but they accused the survivors of demoralizing the ghetto, and demanded that they stop spreading such stories.2 Similarly, when Jan Karski, the courier of the Polish government-in-exile who had smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto so that he could report the Nazi's atrocities as an eyewitness, made his report to Justice Felix Frankfurter, the latter simply said, “I don't believe you.” Asked to explain, he added, “I did not say that this young man is lying. I said I cannot believe him. There is a difference.”3 How are we to understand this disbelief? What are its causes and effects, and above all, what lesson can we learn from it?


In this episode, the actual tales of Nazi atrocities occupy only a fraction of the narrative. Most of the section deals with Moshe the Beadle's easy manners and deep faith before his ordeal, and his desperate and obsessive storytelling after his return. This section mirrors the narrator's account in reverse: while the boy's account of his adventure is the actual story of death and survival with no “before” or “after,” the opening section calls our attention precisely to the difference between “before” and “after,” when after means both after the event and after the telling of the event. It thus steers us towards the scene of narration (all but absent from the main story of the boy's experience), that is, not only what actually and factually happened, but how it affects those who come in contact with the story of what happened. In so doing, it moves us towards the scene of narration of all Shoah narratives, towards the effects these narratives had and still have on their readers and listeners, and, in turn, towards the narrator's reaction to these effects. We may thus say that the opening episode of Night stages the performing or performative aspects of survivors' narratives, their effectiveness, and the consequences they may entail.

We must also note that Moshe the Beadle's narrative does not only open the boy's narrative as it first appears, but frames it on both ends: once the reader is aware of the consequences of telling such a story, he or she extends this awareness to the story told by the boy. The opening episode thus invites the reader to read beyond the abrupt end of Night, all the way to the moment absent from Night proper, when the newly freed boy tells his own tale of survival: will this story, too, meet with hostility, disbelief, and denial? (And who better than the reader knows that the boy did eventually tell his story, and that this tale constitutes the very text he or she is reading?) The scene of narration of the opening episode thus prefigures the scene of reading of Night. It is a pessimistic mise en abyme of the novel's scene of reading; as such, it warns the reader of the consequences of disbelief no less than it warns the town folks.

Shoah narratives have given rise to a host of false problems. Faced with the horror of the Shoah and the suffering of its survivors, some have felt overwhelmed and, overcome with a sense of simple human decency, have questioned their right to examine an extreme experience in which they had no part.4 These scruples are, I think, misplaced: no one questions the right, or even the need of survivors to sort out their experience, or to bear witness. We readily concede survivors' wish and right to bear witness, to leave a historical account of their ordeal for posterity. But what about this posterity (ourselves), what about the recipients of those narratives? We—the latecomers to the experience of the Shoah—shall never be able to fully grasp the abysmal suffering and despair of the survivors. And yet, not only do we share with them a scene of narration, but our participation in this scene of narration may have become the organizing principle of our lives and our own historical imperative. How, then, are we going to face up to this task? Like the town folks, we have gone through disbelief and denial. But today, two generations later, we have rediscovered the Shoah, as the numerous publications on the subject will attest (some even claim that we have trivialized the Shoah with excessive verbiage). How, then, are we to dispose of the knowledge conveyed by survivors' narratives? How can we integrate the lesson of their testimonies in our historical project—at least, if ours is a project in which there is no room for racial discrimination, genocide, acquiescence to evil, passive participation in mass murder; a project in which “get involved” has come to replace “look the other way”?

Wiesel often mentions Moshe the Beadle in other works. Invariably he insists on Moshe's need to commune with the town folks. In One Generation After, for example, Wiesel writes that upon his return, Moshe:

was unrecognizable: gone were his gentleness, his shyness. Impatient, irascible, he now wore the mysterious face of a messenger pursued by those whose message he carried. He who used to stutter whenever he had to say a single word, suddenly began to speak. He talked and talked without pity for either his listeners or himself … he alone survived. Why? So that he could come back to his town and tell the tale. And that is why he never stopped talking. But his audiences, weary and naïve, would not, could not believe. People said: Poor beadle, he has lost his mind. Finally he understood; and fell silent. Only his burning eyes reveal the impotent rage inside him. His muteness bordered on madness.5

On the one hand, Moshe's distress is undoubtedly Wiesel's. Like Moshe, Wiesel came back; like Moshe, he told his story; and like Moshe, he told it again and again. It is therefore not merely a question of informing others (for information purposes, once the story is told, one need not tell it again). Like Moshe, Wiesel clearly does not set out to impart information only, but to tell the tale, that is, to share a scene of narration with a community of readers. This explains why, while the Shoah is in fact the subject of all his texts, Wiesel, wiser than Moshe, never recounted his actual experience in the death camps again. Like the opening episode of Night, his other works deal with “before” and “after”: before, as a premonition of things to come; after, as a call for latecomers to see themselves accountable for living in a post-Shoah world. The opening episode thus encapsulates Wiesel's life project, in that it invites us to reflect not only on the nature of the Shoah itself, but first, on living historically (that is, on living in a world of which the Shoah is part), and second, on transmitting this history from one person and one generation to the other.

I suggest therefore that we read the first episode for its exemplary value, as a beacon guiding our reading from the horror of the past to the imperatives of the present, all the while illuminating the Charybdis and Scylla of Shoah narratives: excessive distrust, as well as easy empathy; resentment of those who cannot let bygones be bygones, as well as a morbid and voyeuristic obsession with Shoah details; impatience with survivors' pain, as well as glib recognition of the alienating effect of the survivors' experience that frees us from partaking in their burden; an excessively inclusive approach that leads to an undiscriminating identification with Shoah participants (“We are all German Jews” of Cohn-Bendit), as well as excessive exclusiveness that frees all non-Jews (or even post-Shoah Jews) from deeming the Shoah experience relevant to one's being-in-the-world today; trivializing the Shoah with a host of comparisons, as well as insisting on its uniqueness so much that it becomes alien and irrelevant to our reality.

To what, then, does this episode owe its exemplary value? Why has Moshe, the ultimate Shoah survivor-narrator, come back? Why does he feel compelled to endlessly repeat his story? Why does he no longer pray? On the other hand, why are his listeners so recalcitrant? Why do they not believe him? Why do they accuse him of madness or of ulterior motives? Why do they all but gag him? That this episode illustrates widespread attitudes towards all accounts of Nazi atrocities and Jewish victimization is unquestionable. We shall therefore focus on the self-positioning of the subject (teller or listener, knowledgeable or uninformed) in the face of accounts of the Shoah, be it at the dinner table, in the classroom, on the psychoanalyst's couch, in academe, or in the morning paper. It is at once a positioning vis-à-vis one's self, one's interlocutors, and one's community.


Attempts to account for failed communication of survivors' experience follow roughly two major lines, the first psychotherapeutic, the second cognitive.6 Among the first, we can cite collections of case studies of survivors who went through some form of extended therapy and, perhaps more interestingly for our purpose, of similar case studies of their children. The problems may vary from case to case, but certain themes prevail: denial, fear, survivor's guilt, psychic numbing, derealization, depersonalization, paranoid attitudes, shock, identification either with a lost loved one or with the perpetrators, inability to mourn. These analyses are predicated on a strong belief in the healing virtue of therapy and in its ability to resolve the post-Shoah anxieties. In a now-classic collection of such case studies, the writer-editors state:

Elie Wiesel has repeatedly stated that survivors of the Holocaust live in a nightmare world that can never be understood. Although his opinion has its stark and bitter truth, we believe that the nightmare can be dispelled; that, through words, analysis can penetrate the shadowy inner world of the patient, which operates in metaphor, and, by illuminating it, diminish pain, and heal. Furthermore, analysis can demonstrate how the tragedy of one generation may be transmitted to the next, and then break the chain of suffering.7

I doubt that healing the victims or their children will heal the wound inflicted on our vision of man and society. The Shoah has shaken our vision of man so profoundly that, half a century later, we are still grappling with its aftermath, with our urgent albeit terrifying need for a radical reevaluation of our concept of man-in-the-world. And, as the reluctance to believe the stories or even to listen to them shows, this reevaluation does not befall only those who were the subjects of the event or their children (victims, perpetrators, or even bystanders). It extends to an entire generation. As Terence des Pres rightly notes, “the self's sense of itself is different now, and what has made the difference, both as cause and continuing condition, is simply knowing that the Holocaust occurred.”8 There is no denying that this “difference” may take the various forms inventoried by psychoanalysts—but it would be a mistake to reduce the aftermath of the Shoah to those forms alone.9

I shall therefore focus on approaches that do not regard the survivor in the privacy and intimacy of his or her personal experience only, but contextualize this experience in a community (and its modes of representation), in a narrative, and in a multi-generational culture. Now, since clinical therapy deals mostly with individuals, few therapists have adopted this path, and even fewer have done so with either rigor or consistency. Among the most interesting, and the most representative of the strengths and the limitations of individual therapy, I shall briefly mention two essays, one by Dori Laub and Nanette Auerhann, and the other by Martin Wangh.

Laub and Auerhann10 focus on the second generation—but on children of people not directly affected by the Shoah, Jews and non-Jews alike. They make two points: The first is that the Shoah has provided a handy metaphor, a linguistic mold subsequently used by patients to couch their non-Shoah related hostilities and violence. The second point goes further, in that it suggests that the patient cannot help but notice that his so-called metaphor is in fact quite literal: it denotes a past reality. This unavoidable literalization of the metaphor then grafts an external referent onto an internal conflict. Furthermore, in using such a metaphor, the patient (who is after all the author of the fantasized violence) finds himself identified with the Nazi perpetrators and, consequently, guilty of much more serious crimes than he would have been, had he used a more literal language to describe his limited experience.

We may wish to infer from these two points that the cumulative effect of Shoah narratives, its historic and referential effect on the representations by which a community defines itself, is such that not only would it determine the linguistic and cognitive tools available to the patient, but, going beyond the patient's personal experience, it would impose on his experience a different referent which it would force him to appropriate, thus invading the space of his subjectivity and robbing him of what was previously his own experience or fantasy. The patient would thus be projected outside his own life narrative into a different one, shared by his community; but one in which he would play a role at which he balks (since it exceeds his fantasies) and, more importantly, into one in which he could no longer recognize himself or his fantasy. Ultimately, the Shoah metaphor would become a wedge driven into the relationships that constitute the conscious self, threatening to split the neatly bundled relationships on which the self is built: first, between the patient and his community, and second, within the subject himself, by substituting the Shoah narrative (and its terrifying effects) for the patient's experience (or fantasy) of limited violence.

At this point however, that is, at the point in which they might have drawn the conclusions I have just suggested regarding the relationship between the individual and the historico-cognitive and linguistic molds through which that individual lives his inner experience and couches its expression, the authors stop short of examining the social and philosophical implications of their analysis and, shunning generalizations that might take them beyond the four walls of their offices and the pragmatics of their trade, prudently withdraw to the safety of their clinical experience:

Our point of view is in no way intended to replace the centrality of psychic reality or of psychosexual developmental themes. Rather, our purpose is to supplement them by acknowledging the significance and permanence of the permeating metaphors and images in which these themes are couched and take shape in the post-Holocaust era. It is to appreciate, too, the extent to which reality may confirm fantasy and to recognize that whenever fantasy is given reality reference, an acknowledgment of the reality is required before one can analyze its use as defense. If such acknowledgment does not take place—that is, if profound, conflict-laden perceptions of the patient are ignored or regarded as fantasy only—then the patient will feel that his sense of reality is assaulted. He will need to protect himself from feeling crazy by closing off communication and insight all together.

(p. 164; italics mine)

The individuated cognitive approach suggested here—unorthodox as it may be from a strictly Freudian viewpoint—still falls short of addressing the collective dimension of the problem: “acknowledging” in the privacy of one's confrontation with one's self or one's analyst hardly suffices when the root of the problem is not the self but the dynamics between the self (already partly constructed through its interaction with others) and its community (or its community's narratives).11

Wangh's essay goes Laub and Auerhann one better, in that it does not stop at patients in treatment, but attempts to sketch a broader social pattern.12 Like Laub and Auerhann, Wangh does not limit his study to Shoah survivors: since Nazi atrocities are public knowledge, since they constitute a chapter of our shared stories and history, since, today, we have to integrate that knowledge into this shared history in and by which we define our social and ethical selves, the conflicts of those who were directly affected and of those who were not “differ only in magnitude” (p. 198). Like Laub and Auerhann again, Wangh points out that the past pervades the present, and that, unless its effects are properly worked through, it may surreptitiously confuse present stimuli with the past trauma. Eventually, writes Wangh, “crises may spring from judgments that were correct for past experience but which, applied in the here and now, impede clear sight of present reality” (p. 202).

Unlike Laub and Auerhann, however, Wangh does not stop at case studies, at patients in need of a cure. The kind of “working through” he recommends does not befall a few deviant individuals only, prime candidates for the analyst's couch.13 It applies to a whole culture: the Shoah was an event of such magnitude that we all need to work through the shattering of our values and our world. The task is difficult, however, since the intensity of the trauma is such that any subsequent violence is perceived and reacted to in terms of the past, as if it were a reenactment of the initial horror. Hence, whereas the passing of time is normally beneficial, in this case, the present's misperceptions perpetuate the lingering pain of the past and exacerbate all-too-real anxieties. If working through is the solution to this catch-22, what, then, should this working through consist of?

In comparison to the complexity of his analysis, Wangh's solution is surprisingly simple:

For any kind of curative relief that aims at keeping a rational stance in an irrational world, the sensitizing past trauma together with the stimulating present-day residue have to be simultaneously lifted into full consciousness, and separated out from each other.

(p. 203)

In other words, he adds a pragmatic, quasi-behaviorist twist to the cognitive approach advocated by Laub and Auerhann: once we become aware of the pervasiveness of the past, we should be able to keep past- and present-related affects distinct, and to impose some order on our chaotic world. Therapy is, of course, privileged ground for the recommended “lifting into full consciousness” and “separation” of the intertwined time sequences, but it is not the only one. The classroom is another: “The nexus of past-present sequences, their facts and affects, should be taught as a basic sociological principle from every cathedra in history, philosophy, and political science and conveyed from every pulpit (p. 203). Eventually, this teaching would thus reach everyone: “the psychohistorian hopes that such knowledge of, and alertness to, this intertwining circuitry [of past and present] can help the social scientist, the people at large and thence the decision-making politician to obtain self-understanding and thus get a clearer vision of present day reality” (ibid).

I find it surprising that, having convincingly demonstrated the psychoanalytic intertwining of the time sequences, and having given pointed examples illustrating the grasp of the past on the present, Wangh concludes with such a positivist invitation to sort them out. Is it so simple? I doubt that one can put the past to rest simply by labelling it “past.” We can no more know the past without seeing it through all the subsequent experiences of our life (all the subsequent “presents”), than we can know the present without submitting it to the lessons of the past: if we did not know from past experience that the sun would rise in the morning, we might be terrified anew by its disappearance every night. The solution is therefore not to separate out the past from the present. Past and present are irremediably intertwined. Whereas Wangh recommends an excessive and unrealistic analysis, what we need is a synthesis, that is, a balanced integration of past and present, one that projects the lesson of the past on the present, without obfuscating this present. This too, of course, may sound like wishful thinking, but a synthetic approach has at least the advantage of reflecting normal (that is, sometimes successful) processes of assimilation of past into present and vice versa—including all cognitive learning processes—and thus has a better chance of identifying the difficulty when these processes are hampered.


Our critique of the psychoanalytic approach relies on our view of the subject's self-positioning in history, at once in the privacy of his inner world, in the limited exchange set with one's interlocutor (say, a therapist), and mostly, in the larger context of stories we tell ourselves versus stories into which we are born. The exemplary value of Night's opening episode hinges upon its containing the narrative of the boy, and by extension of any survivor, within the problems raised by this self-positioning.

Prior to his own encounter with Nazism, the boy asks Moshe: “Why are you so anxious that people should believe what you say? In your place, I shouldn't care whether they believe me or not …” (p. 5). Indeed, in comparison with the ordeal from which he has just escaped, there seems to be little reason for Moshe's present distress. What, then, hangs upon the credibility of his story? Why do the town people refuse to listen to the beadle? What effect does their reaction have on the project that brought him back to town? Somehow tentatively, Moshe answers the boy's query:

“You don't understand,” he said in despair. “You can't understand. I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. Where did I get the strength from? I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So that you could prepare yourselves while there was still time. To live? I don't attach any importance to my life any more. I'm alone. No, I wanted to come back, and to warn you. And see how it is, no one will listen to me. …”

Moshe's anguished insistence on being heard undoubtedly illustrates the well-known recourse to narrative in order to impose coherence on an incoherent experience (a commonplace of literary criticism), to work through a trauma (a commonplace of psychoanalysis), the laudable drive to testify to a crime (a commonplace of Shoah narratives), or even the heroics of saving others (a commonplace of resistance literature). Although such readings of Night are certainly not irrelevant, I do not think that they do justice to the gripping urgency of his unwelcome and redundant narrative, unless we read the text literally: Moshe came back “to tell you the story.”

We must rule out simply imparting knowledge, since Moshe's undertaking clearly does not stop at communicating the story. A scenario in which the town folks gather around him to listen to his story, and then go on about their business would be absurd. In this case, to “believe” the story is to be affected by it. Moshe's story is therefore a speech act. Allow me an example to clarify this last point: Paul Revere tearing through the countryside and screaming “The British are coming!” His message was immediately understood. No one suspected him of either madness or excessive need of attention. Unlike Moshe and the town folks, and unlike Shoah survivors and ourselves, Paul Revere and his New Englanders lived in the same world, a world in which British might and probably would come; a world in which that would be a very bad thing indeed; and a world in which should they come, clear measures must be taken. If the story is to realize its illocutionary force, not only does it have to be integrated into its listeners' stock of “facts they know about their world,” but it must also rely on a known formula (a convention) by which an individual reacts to such knowledge. For example, one has to know that if the British are coming, one is expected to arm oneself and prepare for resistance (a clean shave would be a highly inappropriate reaction to Paul Revere's message). Revere could therefore speedily spread his message while never dismounting his horse, and still secure its uptake. In short, to be a felicitous speech act, the story must affect its listeners in an expected, conventional manner (that is, following clear precedents). Until it does, its force is void.

Speech act theorists unanimously agree on the conventional aspect of a speech act, that is, on its reliance on a preexisting convention shared by the community of its listeners. But sometimes, such a precise convention does not exist. It has to be inferred and activated out of the stock of beliefs and conventions that both utterer and listeners find workable, plausible, and altogether acceptable. In invoking their shared beliefs, the felicitous speech act thus becomes a rallying point for the utterer and the listeners. It binds them together. A community is therefore as much the result of its speech acts as it is the necessary condition for their success. In other words, if, as he claims, Moshe came back to town in order to tell his story, and if indeed he is determined to secure the felicitous uptake of his narrative's illocutionary force, then this determination reveals yet another project, one that is even more exacting in that it affects his (and his fellow villagers') being-in-the-world: his return to town is also an attempt to reaffirm his ties to his community (its conventions, its values), to reintegrate into the human community of his past—a community whose integrity was put into question by the absurd, incomprehensible, and unassimilable killings he had witnessed.14 Through his encounter with Nazism, Moshe has witnessed not only the slaughter of a human cargo, but the demise of his notion of humanity—a notion, however, still shared by the town folks. As long as they hold on to this notion of humanity to which he can no longer adhere, he is, ipso facto, a freak. Coming back to town to tell his story to a receptive audience is therefore Moshe's way back to normalcy, back to humanity. Only by having a community integrate his dehumanizing experience into the narratives of self-representation that it shares and infer a new code of behavior based on the information he is imparting, only by becoming part of this community's history, can Moshe hope to reclaim his lost humanity (the question remains, as we shall see, at what price to that community). It is therefore not a question of privately telling the story (to oneself, to one's editor or to one's analyst) as of having others—a whole community—claim it, appropriate it, and react (properly) to it.

The closing scene of Night echoes this concern. Upon his liberation by American troops, the narrator first rushes to a mirror to look at himself. Is he still himself? Can the mirror show him unchanged since the last time he looked at himself in the mirror, before he was taken out of his village? Can he reintegrate into himself? Will the mirror allow him to bridge over pain and time, and reach the cathartic recognition that will bracket out the horror of the death camps and open the way for a “normal” life; or will it, on the contrary, irreparably clinch his alienation not only from the world but from the supposed intimacy of his self-knowledge? Like Moshe then, the boy leaves it to a third party (a willing community or a mirror) to mediate between his present and past selves, and cancel out the alienating effect of his brush with inhumanity. Just like the town folks, however, the mirror does not cooperate. Instead of the familiar face that would have reconciled him with his former self (and consequently, with a pre-Shoah world), his reflection seals his alienation: “From the depth of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me” (p. 109).

Night is the story of a repeated dying, at once the death of man and of the idea of man. The final recognition never obtains. Instead, the subject is propelled out of himself, out of humanity, out of the world as he knew it. It is a double failure: both Moshe and the boy fail to recover their selves' integrity and to reintegrate into the community of the living; both fail to assimilate the traces left by their experience (either in a narrative or in a physiognomy) into a coherent picture to be accepted by the other(s) they so wish to reach.15 But the story goes on: Night is a first-person narrative. Like Moshe, the boy will try again to reintegrate the human community, this time, by telling his story (and many others). Like all survivors' narratives, Night is thus yet another plodding from door to door to solicit listeners, so as to reclaim one's ties to the community of the living by inscribing oneself into its shared narratives.


Night's opening episode thus raises two major questions, stretched over the two ends of the communication process: Why did Moshe so desperately need to be listened to; and why do the town folks obtusely refuse to take in his story (at the risk of their lives)? Clearly, something crucial must be at stake for both parties, something that defies storytelling, “lifting to consciousness,” or literalized metaphors. Whether we address the question from one end of the scene of narration or from the other, I suggest that the answer is one and the same.

We may approach it through two often-overlooked truisms: on the one hand, whatever horrible trauma an individual may have experienced, he or she remains an individual, no more, no less. That person will retain and exercise all or any of the psychological and psychoanalytic processes by which one normally sorts out experiences or fantasies. So much for the idiosyncratic treatment of psychic traces, however, since, as we have seen, no individual lives in a vacuum. Our second truism is, therefore, that we live in society, that is, we are born into a world in which our options are predetermined and limited: we are born into an already existing language, into social, ethical and legal codes; we are born into a world rife with events, narratives, histories—in short, memories—which are as constitutive of our selves as are our fantasies or experiences. Moreover, as education and the media have tightened their grip on our lives, societies have become increasingly permeable to each other; we share more stories, more myths, more histories than ever before. And as Robinson Crusoe illustrates, should we try to escape to a desert island, these social norms are so deeply imprinted on us that we necessarily reproduce the absent society within ourselves and our solitude.

The two truisms I am describing underlie Saussure's well-known distinction between langue and parole. On the one hand, I am free to choose my expression, my words, my metaphors. Each of my utterances indisputably reflects my free will and psychological profile. On the other hand, however, langue is the limit of my personal freedom and expression, since whatever I say will be governed by and limited to what is accepted by the community, that is, determined by the usage of that langue. A private language is no language. I am not free to rename objects, for example; nor am I free to change syntax. Or, rather, I am free to do so only within the limits of communicability: despite irregularities and agrammaticalities, I have to retain enough of the lexical and syntactical rules in place in my community to ensure communication. Furthermore, unless my interlocutors plug their ears or turn away from me (which is exactly what the town folks did), my sentence will bridge my subjectivity and theirs: no longer mine alone, it will have become the object of our shared attention. “My” expression is therefore never mine alone. It is “ours.” It connects and binds me, first, to my immediate interlocutor, of course, but more importantly, to the community for and in which my language and my utterance are intelligible. Every sentence I utter confirms this bond, just as any historical narrative would confirm my historical bond with my community, and would transform “my” narrative into “our” narrative.

Now, the dynamics of Night's opening episode may be clearer: Moshe and the town folks occupy two opposite ends of a transaction. Moshe wants the community to assimilate his story, to take it in and learn its lesson, in the hope that it will allow him a way out of the unbearable solitude into which his experience has cast him, and bridge over the tear that his encounter with the dispassionate force of evil has introduced in his life. In other words, he wants the agrammaticality of his experience, his odd and deviant parole, to become part of their langue. The town folk, however, do not want to take up this horror, to make it theirs, to make this story the rallying point between themselves and the narrator, since if they did, his burden would become theirs: it would then behoove them to mend the tear, and to assimilate an unassimilable experience (an experience that is not, but would become, theirs, should they be forced into a shared scene of narration with Moshe). To integrate Moshe's parole into their langue would demand such an extensive review of the rules of the langue by which they live that it could put its very structure and coherence in question. They would rather risk their lives than tamper with their cognitive framework. Moshe's compulsion can thus be understood only within the dynamics of his interaction with his community, just as the denial of each member of the community can only be understood as an attempt to maintain the integrity of this community.16

It is in this respect that psychotherapeutic approaches are the most vulnerable to criticism: by treating the individual who steps into a therapist's office as if the problem were contained in him or her, as if this trauma was merely personal (like any other trauma), as if it did not partake in a whole culture's convulsion and the ensuing need for a cognitive overhaul on a scale unmatched in world history, the therapeutic practice (especially psychoanalysis) risks taking part in yet another variant of the generalized denial illustrated by the town folks. In accepting an individual for treatment, a therapist implicitly recognizes that the burden of dealing with the Shoah's legacy falls upon this individual—otherwise, why should he or she be treated in private? Consequently, this therapist (and his ailing and trusting patient) releases the community (and the historical consciousness of each “normal” individual in this community) from having to alter its shared narratives and representations and from integrating the incompatible lesson (our capacity for indifference, cowardice, stupidity, moral detachment, cruelty, and so on) into its historical project.17


It has often been said that Night is the gloomy story of a loss for which no solace, no solution is offered. Indeed, “Elie Wiesel has repeatedly stated that survivors of the Holocaust live in a nightmare world that can never be understood. …” (see No. 9). But it should also be noted that, although Night is the only novel in which he dealt directly and explicitly with his experience of the Shoah, Wiesel's whole life has been dedicated to its ensuing moral and historical imperatives. Moshe the Beadle (Wiesel's spokesman) thus offers a critique of facile answers to post-Shoah difficulties—narrowly individualized answers that, despite their limited usefulness, nonetheless overlook the collective dimension and its impact on the individual's self-positioning. Excessive separateness of past and present is yet another form of repression, another defense mechanism. The historical imperative today is not to “sort out” but, on the contrary, to find a way of taking in the reality of industrialized killing, knowing fully that this reality contradicts every aspect of our historical project, everything we would like to believe about ourselves. To date, we have not resolved this incongruity. If we are to deal with the legacy of the Shoah, we must make room in our project for the disturbing truths of the Shoah. Our historical imperative is to go beyond this contradiction and to integrate the lesson of the Shoah into the coherence of the stories and histories by which we define our sociohistorical project (by “project” I mean the future we wish upon ourselves as a society, and according to which we shape our present perception and representations of ourselves18). None of us, therefore, escapes the need to “deal” with the Shoah; but none of us can do it alone, or be led to believe that he or she can.

Yes, we want to “heal.” Society wants to heal; history wants to heal. But no, a simple “life goes on,” “tell your story,” “come to terms with your pain,” or “sort out your ghosts” will not do. It will not do, because the problem lies not in the individual—survivor or not—but in his or her interaction with society, and more precisely, in his or her relationship to the narratives and values by which this community defines and represents itself. It would be more optimistic, indeed, to think that each hurting person could solve his or her problem privately, with or without a therapist's help, so that the sum of the healed parts will eventually bring about a newly healed whole. Although there is some undeniable value (and sometimes even a measure of success) in attempting to help each part, in attempting to alleviate individual suffering so as to restore a semblance of normalcy (but precisely, “normalcy” is hurting; it is no longer normal), neither “healing” nor “breaking the chain of suffering” will ensue. The Shoah legacy remains a case in which the whole does not amount to the neat sum of its parts. A “successful” analysis will still leave the patient to deal with the integration of the lesson of the Shoah into the project he or she shares with his or her community. On the whole, despite the laudable optimism of its practitioners, psychotherapy cannot heal the historical, shared dimension of this wound. History is not psychotherapy's proper field of application. This misconception is a moving and tragic testimony to the urge of therapists themselves to wrestle with the evil of the past, and negate the nefarious effects of the Shoah; but it misses the historical imperative of our times.19


  1. Wiesel, Elie, Night, trans. Stella Rodway (New York: Bantam Books, 1982). Page references will appear in the text.

  2. Similar accounts of disbelief abound in survivors' testimonies.

  3. Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981; New York: Penguin, 1982), pp. 3,237. Half a century later, although the Shoah is one of the best documented episodes of recent history, negationists can still harness a similarly deep-seated reluctance to believe these narratives to their effort to deny the genocide.

  4. Henry Raczymow, to cite one of many examples, asks “What right does one have to speak if, as in my case, one has been neither victim, nor survivor, nor witness of the event?” Henry Raczymow, “La mémoire trouée,”Pardès, 3 (1986). Cited by Ellen Fine, “The Absent Memory: The Act of Writing in Post-Holocaust French Literature,” Writing and the Holocaust, Berel, Lang ed. (New York: Homes & Meier, 1988), p. 51.

  5. Elie Wiesel, One Generation After, trans. Lily Edelman and Elie Wiesel (New York: Random House, 1965), pp. 19-20. See also L'oublié (Paris: Seuil, 1989), pp. 152-155, ending with “They felt sorry for him, they avoided him, they thought he was crazy.” (translation mine).

  6. I deal with cognitive approaches in another essay.

  7. Martin S. Bergman and Milton E. Jucovy, eds., Generations of the Holocaust (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1982), p. 119 (italics mine). See also, Randolph L. Braham, ed. The Psychological Perspectives of the Holocaust and of its Aftermath (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); Steven A. Luel and Paul Marcus, eds., Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Holocaust: Selected Essays (New York: Holocaust Awareness Institute Center for Judaic Studies, Univ. of Denver, 1984); Robert M. Prince, The Legacy of the Holocaust: Psychological Themes in the Second Generation (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985).

  8. Terrence Des Pres, “The Dreaming Back,” Centerpoint, 4, No. 1 (Fall, 1980), p. 13; quoted by Steven A. Luel, “Living with the Holocaust: Thoughts on Revitalization,” in Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Holocaust, p. 169.

  9. See also my “Narrative Subject, Historic Subject: ‘Shoah’ and ‘La place de l'étoile,’” Poetics Today, 12:3, (Fall, 1991), pp. 495-516.

  10. Dori Laub and Nanette Auerhann, “Reverberations of Genocide: Its Expression in the Conscious and Unconscious of Post-Holocaust Generations,” Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Holocaust: Selected Essays,op. cit.

  11. It must be noted here that, in a complete turn about, Dori Laub's recent work insists heavily on the collective dimension of Shoah traumatism.

  12. Martin Wangh, “On Obstacles to the Working-Through of the Nazi Holocaust Experience and on the Consequences of failing to do so,” in Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Holocaust, op. cit.

  13. See Wangh: “While ‘working through’ is a term coined specifically for the process of overcoming resistance in the quiet stability of the psychoanalytic situation, the insights that emerge from it may occur during ordinary life as well, at least in regard to ‘normal traumatization,’ in ‘normal’ development during a ‘normal’ life span” (p. 200).

  14. Psychoanalytic studies of survivors focus on the shattered universe of the survivor himself—not on the threat the survivor's experience represents for society's integrity. I shall not dispute the past and present suffering of the survivors and the need to alleviate it. No healing can be complete, however, unless the collective sociohistorical dimension is addressed. Well-meaning therapists who ignore this dimension risk contributing to the survivor's suffering and perpetuating it.

  15. Primo Levi, for example, tells the same story in an anticipatory mode, as the worst nightmare of prisoners in death camps: “Almost all the survivors, orally or in their written memoirs, remember a dream which frequently recurred during the nights of imprisonment, varied in its detail but uniform in its substance: they had returned home and with passion and relief were describing their past sufferings, addressing themselves to a loved one, and were not believed, indeed were not even listened to. In the most typical (and cruelest) form, the interlocutors turned and left in silence. …” The Drowned and the Saved, trans. Raymond Rosenthal (New York: Summit Books, 1986), p. 12.

  16. Cf. Terrence Des Pres: “The survivor, then, is a disturber of the peace. He is a runner of the blockade men erect against knowledge of ‘unspeakable’ things. About these he aims to speak, and in so doing he undermines, without intending to, the validity of existing norms. He is a genuine transgressor, and here he is made to feel real guilt. The world to which he appeals does not admit him, and since he has looked to this world as the source of moral order, he begins to doubt himself.” Terrence Des Pres, The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 42-43.

  17. The term “reintegration into society” used by psychoanalysts is revealing. It implies that society itself has not changed (nor does it need to change): the patient is the one who has stepped out of the norms of society and who now has to undo the effect of the time spent outside those norms in order to “reintegrate.”

  18. Wiesel asks the exact same question in different terms: “How do you tell children, big and small, that society could lose its mind and start murdering its own soul? How do you unveil horrors without offering at the same time some measure of hope?” “The Holocaust: Three Views.” ADL Bulletin, November 1977, p. 6. Cited in Generations of the Holocaust, p. 3. Indeed, child-rearing epitomizes what I intend by our project: it includes the values we teach our children, the future we wish for them and for which we try to prepare them, the self-positioning vis-à-vis society and history that we try to encourage in them. What we tell our children is, I think, our ultimate test.

  19. It should be noted that many therapists deeply committed to the treatment of survivors and their children are, themselves, either survivors or children of survivors.

Carol Danks (essay date May-June 1996)

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SOURCE: Danks, Carol. “Using the Literature of Elie Wiesel and Selected Poetry to Teach the Holocaust in the Secondary School History Classroom.” Social Studies 87, no. 3 (May-June 1996): 101-05.

[In the following essay, Danks recommends Night as a tool to teach high school students about the Holocaust, contending that the work exposes students to such multiple realms as historical, geographical, and personal relations and development.]

“Our entry into the world of the Holocaust thus depends on who tells the tale—and how,” says Lawrence Langer in his Versions of Survival (Langer 1982, 5). Although Langer is specifically referring to survivor accounts and the relationship between events and memory, his statement also relates to teaching about the Holocaust. How we as teachers help students deal with the world of the Holocaust depends, in part, on our decisions about who “tells the tale” and how.

Secondary history textbooks have a reputation among many students for being dry statements of facts, held together with string rather than the sinew of living human beings. These same textbooks generally devote very little space to the events of the Holocaust. This absence creates a challenge for teachers who want to help students begin to grasp the important events and reactions to this dark period of human history. One of the most effective ways to teach the history of the Holocaust is through its literature.

Because “who tells the tale—and how” is of vital importance in approaching these events, we need guidelines to help us select and use the literature we will teach. The literature needs to be accurate in both historical facts and perspective, authentic in the voices it portrays, approachable in form for students, and practical in length for the time constraints of the classroom. As we use this literature with students, less is more. Have students read one autobiography or poem, and give them time to think and write what they have learned and how they reacted to the new knowledge. Focus on literature in which the author presents his or her experiences as a young person; students can relate more easily to these accounts. Emphasize nonfiction. Although fictional accounts that accurately portray these events and the characters' reactions to them do exist, the events of the Holocaust are so unbelievable that there is the chance that fictional accounts will be seen by students as “not true.” A teacher's focus on nonfiction may help students grasp more clearly the reality and enormity of the Holocaust.


One literary work that presents accurate historical information, has an authentic narrative voice, seems approachable to students, and can be taught in limited classroom time is Elie Wiesel's Night. This autobiographical account presents Wiesel's personal journey into the night of the Holocaust when he was between twelve and sixteen years of age. According to Langer, “Wiesel transforms history into legend by imposing words on the silence” (Langer 1982, 151).

When we teachers bring literary works into the history classroom, do we present the historical facts and then read the literature or vice versa? Certainly, students must be made aware of the historical context from which literature springs, but with Night, a positive learning experience can be created if students read the book before discussing the historical facts. Students' questions, as they read the account, can lend direction to the discussions. By experiencing these events through the literature, students can process the facts as they are held together by the sinews and lifeblood of real human beings and place them in a meaningful context for learning.

Night presents at least four journeys: a geographical one, a historical one, Wiesel's relationship with his father, and Wiesel's own journey with his personal faith. Ultimately, this is a story of survival, but survival in a world filled with what Langer calls “choiceless choice[s], where crucial decisions did not reflect options between life and death but between one form of abnormal response and another, both imposed by a situation that was in no way of the victim's own choosing” (Langer 1982, 72). Literature can create the personal reality of these situations and decisions and draw students into that world.

For Wiesel and his readers, the geographical journey begins in 1941 in the Transylvanian village of Sighet where he and his family lived peacefully with other Hasidic Jews. Then, in 1944, came the ghettoization of the Jews in Sighet, followed by their deportation in cattle cars to Birkenau. The next stops on this forced journey were three weeks in Auschwitz and then a four-hour march to Buna, a work camp where Wiesel spent the most time. As the Russians approached, he had to march in the snow to the Gleiwitz camp, where they stayed for three days before being taken in cattle cars to Buchenwald. Fifteen year-old Wiesel was liberated on April 11, 1945.

The historical journey moves chronologically from the vibrant, meaningful Jewish life before the war, to the strangulation of the ghettos and camps, and ultimately the arrival of liberation. Because students encounter the historical facts through the impact of these events on real humans, the facts gain life, meaning, and connection, rather than remaining on the pages of a history book. Wiesel's account relays the emotional and intellectual disbelief of the victims who, in writer Charlotte Delbo's words, “expect the worst—they do not expect the unthinkable” (Delbo 1993, 60). Night raises issues of resistance and flight and shows some of the intergenerational conflict over questions of how to behave. It creates a human connection to events, personalizes the impersonal historical data, creates a sense of response from the reader, and reduces the students' tendencies to dismiss information and events as generally meaningless because they have no significant context in which to place—and process—the data.

Wiesel's relationship with his father provides a painful look into human responses in times of great stress. Even though the Jewish community in Sighet held Wiesel's father in highest esteem, “there was never any display of emotion, even at home” (Wiesel 1988, 14). The young boy first saw his father weep as the family was forced into the little ghetto. Upon entering Birkenau, Wiesel lost his mother and sister and had only “one thought—not to lose him [his father]. Not to be left alone” (39). Then, as the older man suffered from starvation and overwork and illness, Wiesel became immune to acting in his father's defense. Feeling anger toward the guard, Wiesel watched his father being beaten but said nothing. The psychological and emotional tolls of his experiences caused Wiesel later not only to watch his father being beaten but also to feel anger “not against the Kapo, but against my father. I was angry with him, for not knowing how to avoid Idek's [the Kapo] outbreak” (62).

Nonetheless, the bond between father and son held tight. On the march to Gliewitz, it was Wiesel's concern for his father that kept him going, but it was his father who shook him to rouse him from the torpor of fatigue and hunger. Finally, in Buchenwald, Wiesel faced the shameful fact of nearly abandoning his father—“this dead weight” (Wiesel 1988, 111)—who prevented Wiesel from focusing all his strength on his own survival. In his father's last hours, an officer delivered a violent blow to his head, and again, Wiesel “did not move. I was afraid. My body was afraid of also receiving a blow” (116). At his father's death, not only were there no prayers or candles, but there were no tears. Parent-child relationships are an important part of young people's lives, and Wiesel's chronicle provides a glimpse into relationships stretched to their utmost because of factors completely outside the individual's control.

Wiesel's personal spiritual journey also exemplifies the enormous stresses the Holocaust placed on individuals. Early in his life, long before he was considered mature enough, this very religious young boy wanted to study the mystical books. His belief in God and God's justice was unwavering. However, as he watched life become filled with pain, atrocities, and death, his faith began to waver, and he doubted “His absolute justice” (Wiesel 1988, 53). When he witnessed the hanging of a small child, Wiesel seemed to doubt God's existence, yet he continued to address—and even rail against—God. Strong feelings continued within Wiesel as he felt “terribly alone” (75) and failed to understand what he perceived as God's silence in the face of the assaults on his life. The extraordinary circumstances of Wiesel's ghetto and camp experiences took him on a journey that profoundly shook, but did not destroy, his faith. Regardless of our students' personal faith, or lack of it. Wiesel's experiences graphically show the powerful impact of the Holocaust on one person's beliefs.

My students' responses indicate the power of using Night in the classroom. For Emily, one of my English students, reading Night was an effective way to learn about history. She said, “Other than knowing that Jews were tortured in Nazi death camps in Germany in the 1940s, I knew very little about the Holocaust. And this is like a whole new part of history that I am learning about, and I am excited to learn more and discuss why some of these things happened.” For Dan, another student, Night was a most effective means of learning about the Holocaust. He wrote, “If we must read about this devastating period, then the piece Night is the most suitable. It bares the horrors of humanity's most pitiful moments, an honest telling of an unmentionable tale.”


Before teachers assign the reading of Night to their students, I would suggest that the students respond to the following questions:

What is important to you as a young person?

What kinds of things do you do as a teenager?

What dangers do you face as a teenager?

Having thought about their own lives, students are ready to read about Wiesel's experiences and put them into perspective.

Students who write their personal responses to the material they are reading must think about what they have read, mull over any questions they may have about the material, and connect personally with the story. Teacher-directed questions, such as the following, will elicit responses from the students:

What questions were raised for you, as you read this book?

What historical events are referred to?

What changes did you observe in the Jews as they lived through these events?

What did you learn about Wiesel and his father?

What changes did you find in Wiesel's attitude and relationship toward his God?

What personal reactions do you have to what you have learned?

Provide class time for students to write their responses and to share them with their classmates. After sharing their ideas, the students might comment in writing on each other's papers. This helps to promote focused conversation among the students and often provides direction for class discussion.

For other class activities after the reading of Night, the students might undertake some of the following:

• Create a time line on which they chart significant historical events in Wiesel's experiences. This activity can help students recognize the steady tightening of the Nazi noose and bring major historical events into focus.

• Produce a map that charts Wiesel's movement from Sighet, his Transylvanian boyhood village, through the various camps and finally to Buchenwald. Students would work with geographical information and also gain some concept of the distances that Wiesel was forced to travel in boxcars and on foot.

• List the psychological, emotional, and physical means used by the Nazis to control the Jews. This information can help students understand the issues of power and powerlessness that were pervasive and so important during the Holocaust. How did this imbalance of power force the Jews into having to make “choiceless choices”? What impact might this imbalance of power have on the outlooks and actions of both the powerful and the powerless?

• Cite both the physical and spiritual resistance employed by the Jews. It is important that students understand that in a world in which the Nazis' major goal was for all Jews to die, simply to remain alive was an act of resistance. Juliek's playing the violin when it was forbidden created a means of spiritual resistance both for the musician and those who listened.

• Find examples of ways that the Nazis used language to control others. Words and phrases such as “selection,” “deportation,” and “final solution” take on very different meanings within the context of the Holocaust. Language is a powerful tool, and, unfortunately, the Nazis knew how to use it very effectively.

Through mini-research projects, students can explore the concepts, events, places, and individuals they encounter in their reading. Students could present their research orally to the class, along with a poster illustrating their findings.

By reading and responding to Night, students will have the opportunity to confront questions that are paramount in history classes, questions not only about what happened and why but also about whether or not the events are likely to be repeated. Another of my students, Joanie, pondered these questions while she was reading Night: “I can see why many people don't believe the Holocaust ever happened. Who would want to believe that human beings could do such inhumane deeds? What drove Hitler to lead this massacre? Will it happen again or can we as humans learn from our mistakes? Or will it ever happen to me?” Her questions convey a sense of personal connection to these historical events and provided a very effective vehicle for class discussion.


Teachers who use Night in their classrooms must be alert to the importance of not leaving their students with Wiesel's vision of himself at the end of Night, a vision in which he sees himself as a corpse. Wiesel wrote Night between 1955 and 1960 and followed that with two short novels, using a first-person narrator. The endings of Dawn and The Accident are significant because they show the narrator's movement from a corpse-like figure to one at least of living form. In Dawn, the narrator sees a “tattered fragment of darkness, hanging in midair, [on] the other side of the window.” He realizes that the fragment has a face and “looking at it, I understood the reason for my fear. The face was my own” (Wiesel 1988, 204). At the end of The Accident, as the narrator looks at a portrait of himself, he says: “I was there, facing me. … My eyes were a beating red, like Soutine's. They belonged to a man who had seen God commit the most unforgivable crime: to kill without a reason” (314). Students need to be aware that Elie Wiesel, having endured the horrors of the Holocaust, is using words as his weapon against all of its inhumanities, that he is a productive citizen who stands as a witness to the ultimate failure of the Final Solution, and that the world recognized his contributions to peace by conferring upon him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He has moved through death and come to a recognition of himself as one who must face those unforgivable crimes.

A follow-up literary work that completes Wiesel's historical journey, “Return to the Town beyond the Wall,” relates his experiences upon returning to Sighet in Transylvania more than twenty years after being forced to leave (Wiesel 1968, 210-17). Intending to spend a week, he discovered after only twenty-four hours that the place was unbearable. Written ten years after Night, this short piece lets students hear Wiesel's voice as an older adult who has no answers and no boyhood town, but does have a tangible, meaningful connection to his early, life through a literal and figurative Bar Mitzvah watch.

Students could easily read this piece during a class session or as homework. After reading about Wiesel's return, the class might generate a discussion on topics such as the following:

• What happened to Jewish goods and property after the ghettoizations and deportations?

• Why did no Jews return to live in Sighet (and numerous other cities and towns)?

• How do survivors cope with the memories of the dislocating, brutalizing, and dehumanizing events that occurred during the Holocaust?

This short autobiographical work forces the reader to confront these and other important historical questions.


Poetry filters human experience, making the particular both specific and inclusive. Poetry that comes from Holocaust experiences can provide another way of incorporating literature into the history classroom. From a very practical standpoint, poetry is easy to include in tight time frames. It can be read as homework or read together in class; in any event, the poetry should be read aloud so students can hear the voice of the poet. In addition, historical underpinnings are given flesh and become human. To incorporate these data into our students' lives, we must find the means to give them relevance and personal connection.

The poetry and drawings of the children who were in the ghetto and the camp at Terezin in Czechoslovakia vividly recreate the experiences of those young people. The poems in I Never Saw Another Butterfly can be read aloud together in class and provide a catalyst for discussion about the historical town of Terezin and the model ghetto and camp established there by the Nazis. The images of trains rolling over foreheads, of butterflies no longer existing in the camp, and of young voices crying out for humane treatment and life create personal connections between students and those authors. The poems can also be used to impress upon students that the tentacles of the Final Solution reached out to entrap all Jews, including young children. The poems will raise questions about the Nazis' intentions and purposes.

The poetry of survivor Dan Pagis is quite approachable for young people. He often refers more obliquely than directly to Holocaust experiences, but the power of his work is undeniable. “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car” (Pagis 1995, 588) is a very short, almost cryptic, poem that draws on the story of Cain murdering his brother Abel and stops in mid-thought. The title immediately forces readers to connect this ancient act of fratricide with the Holocaust. The poem also presents an opportunity for discussion of the railway system and its efficient use to transport both human and non-human cargo in the implementation of the Final Solution.

Another of Pagis's poems entitled “Europe, Late” (Pagis 1995, 587) creates a beautiful picture of life in mid-1939, a life filled with violins, parties, and dancing. The narrator in this short poem assures the woman he is addressing that “everything will be all right. … No, it could never happen here.” Yet, here also, the final thought is cut off as the narrator says “you'll see—it could”. The narrator's assurance now seems uncertain to the reader, who is not privy to the remainder of the narrator's words. Wiesel himself did not believe that such things could happen, even when faced with the first-hand account of Moche the Beadle. This all-too-common response finds eloquent voice in Pagis's poem and could prompt students to discuss why people were so reluctant to believe even the horrible accounts of eyewitnesses.

The poetry of survivor and Nobel Laureate Nelly Sachs also can be used effectively in the high school classroom. “O the Night of the Weeping Children!” (Sachs 1995, 638), raises the issue of children being taken away, being “branded for death!” The safety of mothers has been replaced by “[t]errible nursemaids” whose presence creates panic. In addition to connecting directly with readers who are still somewhat sheltered by mothers or fathers, this poem raises issues about why the Nazis felt threatened by children, why they targeted them for death almost from the moment they arrived in the camps.

Sachs's poem “You Onlookers” (Sachs 1995, 641) directly addresses the issue of bystanders, those who saw but did nothing to try to stop the murderous events. A series of questions to those “[w]hose eyes watched the killing” moves the poem forward. Students need to understand that the events of the Holocaust occurred not just because of what certain people did but also because of what most people did not do; that being aware of evil and doing nothing is, in effect, choosing to perpetuate that evil. The issue of the bystander is a complicated one with no easy responses. Non-Jews often were severely punished for helping Jews, and the risks were great, but students need to grapple with the issue of following orders under any circumstances. On the other hand, many people sympathized with the Nazi actions against the Jews; students need to think about why that was the case.


A person's learning about and experiencing historical events through the voices of people who were there, the transformation of those events through the emotional and intellectual revisioning of them by the individual, and the reader's vicarious joining in the experiences through the personal connections established with the narrator become possible through literature. Literature can provide an avenue for understanding the historical concepts and events of any time period but especially those of the Holocaust.

Works Cited

Delbo, C. 1993. Arrivals, Departures. In Different Voices: Women and the Holocaust, edited by C. Rittner and J. K. Roth. New York: Paragon House.

Langer, L. 1982. Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pagis, D. 1995. Europe, Late. In Art from the Ashes A Holocaust Anthology, edited by L. Langer. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1995. Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway-Car. In Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, edited by L. Langer. New York: Oxford University Press.

Sachs, N. 1995. O The Night of the Weeping Children. In Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, edited by L. Langer. (638) New York: Oxford University Press.

———. 1995. You Onlookers. In Art from the Ashes: A Holocaust Anthology, edited by L. Langer. (641) New York: Oxford University Press.

Volavkova, H. (Ed.). 1993. I Never Saw Another Butterfly, Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944. New York: Schocken Books.

Wiesel, E. 1988. The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, The Accident. New York: Noonday Press.

———. 1968. “Return to the Town beyond the Wall.” In Across Time and Space, edited by M. Marenof. Detroit: Dot Publications.

Elie Wiesel and Tikkun (interview date July-August 1999)

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SOURCE: Wiesel, Elie, and Tikkun. “An Interview with Elie Wiesel.” Tikkun 14, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 33-5.

[In the following interview, Wiesel discusses the political situation in Kosovo and the moral responsibilities of the United States in regional conflicts.]

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Boston University Professor Elie Wiesel has worked on behalf of oppressed people for much of his adult life. His more than forty books include A Beggar in Jerusalem,The Testament and The Fifth Son. The English translation of the second volume of his memoirs, Et la mer n'est pas remplie, will be published by Knopf in the fall of 1999.

[Tikkun]: How ought we to be reacting to the situation in Kosovo?

[Wiesel]: We should be reacting morally. A Jewish approach ought to be a moral approach—particularly when other people suffer. The only moral path is to show compassion and take the side of the victims.

We know who the victims are in Kosovo—and also who the victimizers are. We've known for many years about Milosevic and his capacity for evil. The Jewish community should mobilize themselves and help the victims who are now in Macedonia or Albania.

I don't think we should allow Milosevic to have his way and create a Kosovo free of ethnic Albanians. So the intervention on the part of other countries is proper-it is the moral thing to do.

Some critics believe that the moral case is not clear because the United States is bombing innocent civilians, so there is moral culpability on both sides.

But what is their alternative? Not to do anything?

In this situation, NATO tried negotiations and compromises with Milosevic for many years. They tried every form of negotiation, reason, nonviolent approaches, and nothing seemed capable of deterring him from his determination to do ethnic cleansing. So, in that situation, were we supposed to do nothing and let Milosevic continue? That would have been the height of immorality.

I'm not for war and I'm certainly not for killing civilians or civilians who wear uniforms. But Milosevic was planning ethnic cleansing and had begun to do it before the bombing began, and then used the bombing as his excuse to immediately escalate a process that he had already intended to complete—that was his ideology.

As it turned out, we may not have been able to stop him. But to do nothing would have been to signal to the victims that we did not care. At least by our involvement we showed that there are people in this world who do care about the victims, and that is itself a significant message to be sending.

I know there have been civilian casualties. I wish NATO had better precision in its bombing and a better map of Belgrade. I wish the bombs would only fall on military equipment and not on people. But who am I to give advice to military people? I've never seen a tank from inside!

What about the argument that says that this couldn't be a morally-motivated intervention, because the United States routinely ignores the actions of its own allies when they are engaged in ethnic cleansing, as in the case of recent actions by the Turkish government against the Kurds? So if the United States is involved in Kosovo, it must be because of U.S. interests, not a commitment to human rights! That's how the argument goes.

The only interest the United States has in Kosovo is a moral interest—there are no other interests. Of course, I don't know what goes on inside the minds of our leaders. But my perception is that this time it's only a moral consideration.

Now, in terms of our failure to intervene elsewhere—I believe we should have intervened. We should have intervened when Iraq was allowed to gas its own citizens—over thirty thousand Kurds gassed by Saddam Hussein in 1988, and we said nothing. That was morally irresponsible on our part. We could have stopped the massacres in Rwanda—why didn't we? Maybe because we didn't do it then, we are doing it now. There is a kind of regret or remorse that has set into the minds of our decision-makers.

So should the United States be involved in intervening in every case in the world where there is ethnic cleansing?

I say “YES”—we are the only superpower in the world. I think a superpower is “super” not only when it has more weapons than others, but when it has more moral principles. In order for us to show principles, we must do something morally appropriate with our power. We should have enough military, economic, and moral power to say “stop it” to countries which may be engaged in mass murder.

Do we have any moral obligation to work through the United Nations in these kinds of circumstances?

We should try, but the United Nations' structure does not always provide a way for us to do that. We have to go through the Security Council, and there the five major powers have a veto. And what can you do if you bring a moral issue for intervention against genocide to the UN and Russia or China veto it? Does that mean that we are no longer morally obligated to intervene? I don't think so. I think we should intervene even if we can't get UN backing in some instances. We should intervene against the loss of human life.

In 1993 you turned to President Clinton at the ceremony opening the Holocaust Museum and you asked him not to abandon the people of Bosnia. Since then the ethnic cleansing has spread. How do you feel about what has happened since?

I met with him afterwards and he spoke with me and promised to do something. It took him some time because he needed Senate approval, but he did eventually send military people. And now, finally, in Kosovo he is taking a moral stance. Is it too late? It's never too late, but it's late and could have come earlier. Once you link your decision to that of a huge group of countries [in NATO], it takes time. But in both instances I think he has acted morally.

The settlement in Bosnia led Clinton to reconfirm Milosevic in power.

If the only way at that point to bring peace to Bosnia was to work through Milosevic, then he had to be worked with. I believe he is a mass murderer and should be tried for crimes against humanity. But if saving lives requires dealing with him, we should.

As a Jew, I learned from my tradition: first, save lives. If to save lives you have to deal with Milosevic, do it. But then, indict him and eventually find a way to bring him to justice. I am not ready to forget what he has done in Bosnia and Kosovo.

You didn't sign the ad in the New York Times calling for ground troops.

I don't know what's best from the standpoint of military strategy. What I do know is this: we have to stop the injustice.

Is there a special role for American Jews to play in all this?

Jews must be on the side of victims. Superficially, you might think, “Why should we Jews care about Muslims? After all, in some circumstances Muslims have been the enemies of Israel.” Well, first of all, some Muslims have been our enemies, but not all. But secondly, in this case, the Muslims are victims and Jews must be on their side, whether that means giving political support to the president or money to the charitable organizations that are providing food, medicine, and shelter for the refugees.

Yet Jewish sensitivity to those who are victims has not always extended to those Palestinians who have become victims of Israeli policies.

There were reasons in the past to see some Palestinians as victims. There is no doubt about it. But now at this moment, after Oslo and after Barak's victory, we should not think in those terms. We should be more hopeful. Israel is fed up with war, and this vote for Barak proves it. Now, I hope he establishes a national unity government and takes the good elements of Likud into his government.

A national unity government in the 1980s, supposedly set up with the intent of creating the legitimacy for peace, actually became so paralyzed that it accomplished nothing.

There are good elements in the Likud who could be part of it. David Levi was a leader of Likud and he joined with Barak in this election. If Barak wants to do something dramatic he may need that kind of backing that a national unity government would give him.

What do you see as the major task for tikkun olam in the coming millennium?

Tikkun should always start at home. We should do our own tikkun on ourselves and then go for tikkun olam.

My main concern for the next century is fanaticism. The group that grows fastest everywhere are fanatics—even with us (Baruch Goldstein, Amir, etc.). We need to unmask, disarm, and vanquish fanaticism.

To return to Kosovo, if we cannot succeed in giving Kosovars a real return to their own country with full protection and national sovereignty, the entire intervention may generate cynicism that would prevent any future interventions even in situations where morality demands such.

Kosovars won't return to Kosovo until they are assured of real protection. They've seen their neighbors become killers. There has to be an international force to protect them.

What do you think of the moral stance of a country that says, in effect, “We will bomb on behalf of the Kosovars, but we will not shed American blood because it is too valuable to waste in this circumstance.”

I don't think anyone says it as bluntly as that. Using ground troops seems to mean a lot of casualties. That the United States wants to try to cripple Milosevic's military while keeping casualties at a minimum is a good thing.

I think the skepticism about America comes mostly from people born after World War II. I was born before it. In this century, America has been in two world wars and the country was totally behind those two wars. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were killed and many more were maimed. When Americans are convinced that the enterprise is a moral one, they don't say that our blood is more valuable than their blood. I think that many Americans believe that when a war is just, sacrifices are necessary.

I go all around this country. I rarely encounter skepticism about the morality of our intervention in Kosovo. Certainly many Jews remember that we should have intervened earlier in the 1930s, and had we done so we might have prevented the Second World War with all the sacrifices that it entailed.

Alvin Rosenfeld (review date 13 December 1999)

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SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Alvin. “A Commitment to Memory.” New Leader 82, no. 15 (13 December 1999): 24-5.

[In the following review, Rosenfeld emphasizes the role of memory in And the Sea is Never Full.]

In this second installment [And the Sea is Never Full] of Elie Wiesel's memoirs, following All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995), memory extends beyond the personal to matters of history, politics, ethics, and religion. So while this is a book of often vivid autobiographical reflection, it is also something more—an anguished probing of the links between memory and traumatic event, memory and justice, memory and the quest for a common morality.

Readers of Wiesel's previous works will have no trouble recognizing the source of his intense commitment to the preservation and transmission of memory. From the publication in 1958 of his first book, Night, Wiesel has taken upon himself the sorrowful burden of being a moral witness to the past. His own early years were shaped by the catastrophe of Nazi Germany, which tore apart the traditional Jewish world he was born into, destroyed much of his family and community, and threw into crisis everything that once gave meaning to his life.

Wiesel knows from brutal personal experience that the trauma triggered by this murderous era is hardly over, and in his many books and public speeches he has shown an uncommon, indeed some would say obsessive, devotion to chronicling, questioning, and combating the destructiveness of human behavior at its most extreme. For understandable reasons, the fate of the Jews has been at the center of his attention, but he has also exerted himself energetically on behalf of other peoples who have been marginalized, excluded and oppressed. Thus, although the imperatives of memory have compelled him to become the kind of writer he is, they have at the same time prompted him to take a determined stand against many different kinds of injustice.

On the whole, Wiesel has been remarkably effective. It is no exaggeration to see him as one of the major spiritual teachers of his generation and a prominent part of its public conscience. What is astonishing is that he has succeeded in projecting his quiet, commanding voice outside of major institutional frameworks. Apart from being a humanities professor at Boston University, he has stood alone, unaffiliated in any formal sense with the established political and cultural centers of power. Yet he has been a highly influential figure, a fact attested to by his receiving such prestigious awards as the Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal and the French Legion of Honor.

And the Sea Is Never Full illustrates Wiesel's reach, but does not explain it. Instead, the chapters here offer comments on the author's many previous books; describe his numerous interventions on behalf of the beleaguered in places like the former Soviet Union, Cambodia, Nicaragua, South Africa, and Bosnia; and show him in close engagement with the political and cultural elites in this country, France, Poland, Russia, Israel, and elsewhere. They do not tell us what has enabled him to travel the unlikely road from Sighet, his provincial hometown in the Carpathians, to the White House, the Elysée Palace, and the Royal Palace of Oslo. He denies being political (“the word ‘power’ fits me as a tuxedo might a kangaroo”), but as his career amply demonstrates, he has been and is on intimate terms with many who are.

Wiesel is planning a separate volume, tentatively titled My Masters and My Friends, that may speak more directly and personally about his ascendancy. Meanwhile, And the Sea Is Never Full sheds light on several controversies he has been involved in. Especially interesting are the accounts of his rocky relationship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; his disagreements with Ronald Reagan and some White House aides about the President's 1985 visit to the German military cemetery in Bitburg, where S.S. soldiers are buried; and his once close but ultimately disappointing associations with François Mitterrand, Lech Walesa-Simon Wiesenthal, and others.

Officially opened in April 1993, the Holocaust Museum is already a highly effective educational institution. But like other institutions in our nation's capital, it is vulnerable to political pressures of various kinds. In Wiesel's telling, a conceptual question of primary importance has confronted the shapers of the museum's mandate from the start: Is it to memorialize the roughly 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust, or is it to extend beyond the specificity of the Jewish devastation and embrace the sufferings of other victim populations? The very definition of what the Holocaust was depends on how one answers this question. Wiesel's answer—“the Holocaust is a Jewish tragedy with universal implications”—seems unobjectionable to many, but not to all. It did not sit well, for example, with Jimmy Carter—who in 1978 appointed the author chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust—and others in the nation's capital.

For reasons he clearly sets forth, Wiesel ultimately gave up his role as one of the guiding spirits behind the Holocaust Museum. Today, he admits, he has “less and less confidence in museums as sanctuaries of memory.” The Washington museum is “undeniably impressive,” he says, but he writes about it with marked ambivalence: “By trying to illustrate too much, reveal too much by contrived means, it all becomes too facile. … Who knows, perhaps the museum had been a mistake after all.” Coming from Elie Wiesel, these reservations are troubling.

As a custodian of the memory of the Holocaust, he has also clashed with individuals. One of his adversaries is Simon Wiesenthal, and the rehearsal here of Wiesel's long-standing dispute with the famous Austrian Jewish Nazi hunter, which is both personal and conceptual, in uncharacteristically caustic. A chapter on his estrangement from François Mitterrand, over issues related to the French President's concealment of a Vichy past and continuing loyalty to former officials of Marshal Petain's regime, is particularly bitter. In both cases, the insistence that memory not be compromised or betrayed is at the heart of Wiesel's complaint.

Beyond such matters, what gives this volume its occasional rueful tone is a private grief carried from the author's boyhood that remains unassuaged to this day. Wiesel's achievements have been many, but a continuing anguish about the past nags at him. Notwithstanding the more than 40 books he has written and the hundreds of lectures he has given, he lives with a sense of not yet having done enough about the things that matter most to him. Life has little meaning for him apart from the primacy of memory and justice, but despite decades of dedicated work in their service, he feels that on some basic level he has failed.

His considerable accomplishments prove otherwise. And yet this second volume of memoirs ends, as did the first, on a note of melancholy rooted in recollections of his murdered family. Throughout the two books, dream sequences about his dead father continually intrude upon the linear flow of Wiesel's narrative and tell him that he has not yet left “the Kingdom of Night. Or rather; it refuses to let us go. It is inside us. The dead are inside us, They observe us, guide us. … They are judging us.” This is a harsh judgment, particularly for someone who has given so much of himself to honor both the living and the dead.

Carole J. Lambert (review date summer 2001)

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SOURCE: Lambert, Carole J. Review of And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969-, by Elie Wiesel. Southern Humanities Review 35, no. 3 (summer 2001): 301-04.

[In the following favorable review of And the Sea Is Never Full, Lambert maintains that Wiesel “succeeds in humbly but honestly presenting himself as, indeed, a survivor who has circumnavigated both the camps and world political intrigues with his values intact and his wisdom ready to be shared with others.”]

It is very difficult for a novelist, biographer, or memoirist to portray a genuinely good person in an interesting way. Denied the shocking marital infidelities and political scandals that create best-selling “pathography,” this beneficent protagonist's evolution from childlike innocence to sophisticated integrity, seasoned by bitter months in concentration camps, should not be a bestseller. Nevertheless, Elie Wiesel succeeds in humbly but honestly presenting himself as, indeed, a survivor who has circumnavigated both the camps and world political intrigues with his values intact and his wisdom ready to be shared with others.

A sequel to Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea,And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969- begins in Jerusalem with Wiesel's marriage at age forty to the beautiful, gifted Marion, followed by increasing commitment to Jewish political causes and broader human rights issues beyond the Jewish community. A quiet man who prefers his daily study of the Talmud and other holy books to intense political interactions, Wiesel has acted upon an early resolve never to turn into a “spectator,” the figure presented so graphically in his The Town beyond the Wall, the unmoved voyeur who watches from his second floor window the Jews in the courtyard being marched off to freight cars bound for Nazi extermination camps. Wiesel has committed himself to helping victims, particularly innocent children, and to never forgetting or allowing the public to forget those courageous persons who did not survive the Holocaust.

His journey from newspaper correspondent to Nobel Peace Prize recipient in 1986 and up to the present is peopled by both those who lacked fame and the famous: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, the Clintons, Golda Meir, Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Mikhail Gorbachev, François Mitterrand, and Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. Historians will profit from reading his anecdotes and reproductions of conversation with many of these renowned figures. For those who enjoy reading about events occurring in famous places, the itinerant Wiesel traverses the globe frequently: Oslo, Stockholm, the former Yugoslavia, Vienna, Auschwitz, Sighet (his precious hometown), Washington, New York, and Boston, where he is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor at Boston University. I found his stories about these people and places to be fascinating, but I was even more intrigued by how he has kept his personal integrity while hobnobbing with powerful people in diverse locations—which often presents a temptation to betray one's publicly proclaimed values.

Wiesel appears to maintain his integrity by adhering to the same values in both the public and private domains of his life. His private study in his high-rise apartment home in New York City is dominated by a picture of his little home in Sighet, Romania (formerly Hungary), where he was born, raised, and enjoyed some of the happiest years of his life before his and his family's deportation in May of 1944. He repeatedly admits in his Memoirs that with each new honor awarded him (the Congressional Gold Medal, the Nobel Peace Prize, numerous honorary doctorates), he turns his eyes back to this picture and to thoughts of his humble beginnings. He still marvels at how his life has turned out, as do his readers. No doubt this remembrance of his happy but, he now admits, impoverished childhood helps him to avoid the egotism found in so many internationally renowned leaders.

Wiesel might also reject being called a “leader.” He takes healthy pride in representing no one but himself when he negotiates with the politically powerful, seeking a just peace or sanctuary for the victimized. He hates being politically used by any particular group that tries to claim him. For example, deeply disturbed by the political tensions incurred during his service as chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Council and unable, after many months of effort, to resolve them, Wiesel shocked the White House and his Council by simply resigning. The perquisites of power and money do not tempt him; he views his “leadership” in a novel way: “The role of ‘soul matchmaker’ suits me. I find it exciting to watch men and women of every background gathered around a table exchanging ideas, learning from one another just what it is that makes each of us unique. And sharing one goal: to make people understand why and how they must live together on this bedeviled planet.”

Accompanying this “soul matchmaker” role is a strong resolve never to humiliate anyone, particularly a friend. His love for his family—his wife and son, his sisters and their children, and particularly his beloved dead—is communicated consistently in both volumes of Memoirs. This compassion for others extends even to those whom he has not met personally or does not know well, such as Russian Jews and political dissidents. He provides detailed explanations of behind-the-scenes negotiations with top Russian leaders to gain their liberation.

Lest this text sound too much like hagiography, I should note that it is well seasoned with Wiesel's personal confessions of weaknesses and failings—meetings with poor results, trips that proved less fruitful than expected, and even an acknowledgment of administrative ineptness: “I am a poor manager, a bad administrator. I have problems giving orders, and I am incapable of hurting anyone, even in the name of supposedly sacred aims. I don't like firing people. I abhor reprimanding, punishing. I would rather write, study, and teach than ‘preside.’” Clearly, this is an unusual international figure.

Elie Wiesel donated all of his Nobel Prize money to establish the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which holds international conferences for young people, sophisticated diplomats, and gifted Nobel Prize recipients, all with the aim of eradicating hate and fanaticism while promoting justice and peace. Its goals are consistent with the lifelong values of its founder.

Wiesel's style, reflecting the integrity of his life, is simple, uncluttered, straightforward, and very readable, obviously the literary reflection of a man who knows himself and his life well and is drawing on an excellent memory plus the diaries, journals, speeches, and letters of a lifetime. The style seduces the reader into acknowledging that a sincere voice is speaking; the content verifies this supposition. The titles of both volumes of Memoirs are drawn from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes (1:7), but they might well have been called simply The Anatomy of a Good Man.


Elie Wiesel World Literature Analysis


Wiesel, Elie (Vol. 3)