Elie Wiesel Wiesel, Elie(zer) (Vol. 5) - Essay

Wiesel, Elie(zer) (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wiesel, Elie(zer) 1928–

Born in Transylvania, "somewhere in the Carpathian mountains," Wiesel is now an American citizen writing "Jewish-inspired" novels in French. He and his family were sent to Auschwitz when Wiesel was fifteen; he emerged alone from Buchenwald when he was not quite seventeen, and he has spent his life trying to reconcile—in novels, stories, prose poems, and essays—the evil of Auschwitz and the apparent indifference of God. Whether Wiesel is an artist or simply a witness is of little importance; his fiction is probably the most powerful and passionate of all Holocaust writing. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Elie Wiesel's fourth book, The Town Beyond the Wall, marks a continuation of the anguished bitterness, born of the Nazi destruction of European Jewry, that characterized his earlier works….

The mood of the story is reminiscent of Kafka at his most depressed, of Samuel Beckett's "end of the world" dialogues, of that incredible Mexican novel of despair and brooding death, Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo. The central figure, the agonist, is Michael, a Jewish refugee from the Nazi holocaust….

[Much] of the story has been foreshadowed by the Kafkas and the Becketts of this century, men who are not in the least writing about anything like a Nazi or a Communist reign of terror. This passage about Michael's bleak life in Paris, for example, seems to pop right out of Kafka's wishfulfillment nightmare, Amerika: "One day the uncle in New York cut off his monthly money. He was angry, the uncle: his burst of charity was over."

And as for Michael's Hungarian imprisonment under the most mind-destroying circumstances, Wiesel appears to be translating Beckett's Malone Dies, Endgame, and Krapp's Last Tape into contemporary European geopolitical terms. Literary influences aside, however, The Town Beyond the Wall is moving and utterly absorbing….

Samuel I. Bellman, "The Agony Relived," in Congress Bi-Weekly, February 1, 1965, p. 14.

Part One of [The Oath] is entitled "The Old Man and the Child." Wiesel [here] underlines the "marriage" of two opposing forces, old age and childhood. We wait to see whether this relationship will lead to tears.

The first word of the section is "No." The old man does not want to speak of yesterdays; he prefers to remain silent forever. Of course, we are made to wonder about the secrets he holds, but we are even more puzzled by his strong denial of progress, of any tomorrows. He says: "There is no more tomorrow." He is at the end of the line; he is haunted by imminent (or past?) doom.

Before we can discover more about the old man—the entire novel is a series of unanswered questions—we are offered an italicized passage. The very presence of italics startles us—there is a hint of discontinuity between the certainty of the old man's denial and the wavy lines of speculation. Another person is obviously thinking, but his thoughts are more disturbing than the denial we have previously heard….

When the old man, who is named Azriel, speaks, he refuses to enlighten the stranger (and us) about Kolvillág. He wants to talk about everything else; and his unspoken words merely reinforce our desire to hear the forbidden secret. Wiesel shrewdly conveys the conflict between words and silence (one of his favorite themes). (p. 79)

Azriel has observed "scenes of apocalypse, nightmares begotten by sleeping corpses," but he is "sworn to silence." He cannot tell his story of survival, although he warns us darkly that "I am Kolvillág and I am going mad." It is ironic that he obsessively drops hints; he is a teasing storyteller or, better yet, a teasing story. He is being told—by some other storyteller. There is a sense of stories within stories, of words within words, worlds within worlds. Azriel understands the circularity of narration: "That is why you will not succeed in making me talk. I will circle around the story, I will not plunge into it. I'll beat around the bush. I'll say everything but the essential. For you see, I am not free. My voice is a prisoner." He recognizes that he is a "character" in some more complex story.

And as he listens to Azriel's unspoken words, the young man receives some message. He recognizes underlying truths. But he does not tell us what he learns. We are always in the middle of things, not able to strike through the masks of both men. (pp. 79-80)

Part two, entitled "The Child and the Madman," takes up more space than the earlier one; yet it concentrates upon a series of closely following events. Time narrows; "space" broadens. The effect is to create a dramatic focus, a concentrated description of destruction.

Wiesel changes his style. In place of jagged, unanswerable hints and incomplete omens, he sketches vividly the progress of apocalypse. A Gentile boy is missing; the friends and relatives turn to the "simple" explanation: the Jews have killed him! It is an old story—almost a cliché—but this quality enables Wiesel to dispense with lengthy, modernist interpretations of behavior and concentrate upon broad details. We may object to the stock characters, but we should realize that he wants us to see the "eternal return" of events. (p. 80)

Part three, "The Madman and the Book," may seem an anti-climax, but it partially resolves the tensions posed by all of the "separations" described earlier. It continues, at first, with the "ancient images of pogroms"—"smashed doors, shattered windows, broken dishes"—but it does not end with complete destruction. There is one survivor, Azriel, who miraculously escapes with the Book and, more significantly, with his remembered vision of the events. It is this remembered vision which contains the seeds of new life. There is a symbolic rebirth—although Moshe preached a new vision, he merely transmitted it to his disciple who, in effect, sees more—the end and … the beginning.

Wiesel does not stop here. The stories continue; the worlds increase. We read an italicized passage describing the present. Old Azriel and the young man stare at each other at dawn break. The young man, having just heard the story of Kolvillág, is transformed. He no longer wants to die; he also regards himself as some kind of survivor. He reawakens. (p. 81)

And yet there is another turn. After the two men depart on their separate journeys, there is another voice which proclaims in the italicized last words of the novel: "Azriel had returned to die in my stead, in Kolvillág." We are shocked. How can Azriel die in Kolvillág? How can death occur in a dead town? And how can Wiesel know the event will occur? The real and the unreal, life and the Book, author and character—those dualities we tend to separate clearly are suddenly clouded. We sense darkly that existence is, despite Moshe's glorious truths, a mingled story. Only a writer like Wiesel, unsure of his "life," can proclaim that he must try to define it day by day, line by line. Salvation is earned by irony, laughter, and symbol—by the ability to note dualities and to embrace none (or both) at the same time. Now we understand the repetition of "and" in the titles of the three sections. Wiesel wants us to be aware of continuities, parallels, inconclusions, perpetual beginnings. The Oath does not really end because its last words force us to reread it, to start once more, to recreate another pattern. (p. 82)

Irving Malin, "Worlds within Worlds," in Midstream (copyright © by The Theodor Herzl Foundation, Inc.), February, 1974, pp. 79-82.

The documentary nature of Night, with its overwhelming content of hideous facts, pre-empts one's response to all three stories [Night, Dawn, and The Accident]. If one were to assume that the other two were fiction and judge them only by what is written on the page, they might appear somewhat crudely handled; the central notion of a Lazarus unable to respond to life might seem too simplified and too superficially expressed; yet taken as the later writings of a child who actually endured the experience of Night, they become evidence rather than art and their over-emotional style (which in any case probably sounds better in French) reads as the true voice of a witness rather than as the material of a fiction. (p. 159)

John Spurling, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 1, 1974.

Elie Wiesel, journalist and novelist of the Holocaust, claims to owe his writing career to three years of imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps, starting at the age of fourteen. He relates in his quasi-autobiographical works that in the Hungarian shtetl of his early years he had been completely immersed in Talmudic studies (in the time-honored manner of intelligent Jewish boys), presumably preparing for life as a Talmudic scholar. His world was that of orthodox Judaism, governed in every detail by Jewish law, outside the mainstream of European culture.

To the young Wiesel the notion of an "absurd" universe would have been a completely alien one. Indeed, the world of orthodox Judaism would appear to allow no place in it for notions of the absurd in the contemporary, existential sense. For the traditional Jewish view holds that life's structure and meaning are fully explained and indeed derive from the divinely granted Torah. Yet, this view of Judaism, while accurate on the most basic level, is simplistic, ignoring, as it does, the well-established Jewish tradition of challenging God by questioning His ways. While Job is the most obvious (and perhaps the best) example to cite in this connection, it should not be forgotten that other prominent figures of the Old Testament, including Abraham, Moses, and Jeremiah, rebel against God and hold Him responsible for the injustice of the world.

As witness to the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel, remaining firmly within this Judaic tradition of protest, cries out against the destruction of European Jewry, against God's failure to intercede on behalf of His creatures. Wiesel's first five novels, in fact, can be meaningfully read as a sustained, developing revolt against God from within a Jewish context. Jewish tradition provides not only adequate precedents for such revolt, but the legal and moral sanction as well, in the unique covenant with God into which the Jewish people entered….

In effect, the covenant brings God and man into a moral partnership, with each of the two parties having a clearly defined responsibility to the other.

Against this background the reality of Auschwitz confronts the Jew with a dilemma, an "absurdity" which cannot be dismissed easily and which stubbornly refuses to dissipate of its own accord. [As Emil Fackenheim noted in God's Presence in History,] "In faithfulness to Judaism … [the] Jew must refuse to disconnect God from the holocaust." Since the Jewish God is "a God who is Lord of actual history, its external events included," it is an inescapable conclusion that "Auschwitz is not an accident … because of the fact that God is part of it."… The only possible response that remains within the framework of Judaism is denunciation of God and a demand that He fulfill His contractual obligation.

This is the religious and moral context within which Wiesel attempts to apprehend and assimilate the events of the Holocaust. It would appear to be an underlying purpose of Wiesel's creative efforts to reconcile Auschwitz with Judaism, to confront and perhaps wring meaning from the absurd, which emerges as the true antagonist in his fiction. In this respect Wiesel is on common ground with other Jewish writers of the Holocaust, notably André Schwarz-Bart and Nelly Sachs. (pp. 212-14)

In sharp distinction to Wiesel, for whom the absurd is the breakdown of the accustomed order in God's world, the dissolution of a long established relationship between man and God, for Camus no such order and relationship ever existed, since Camus is, quite simply, an atheist. Indeed, in the thinking of Camus the absence of a Higher Authority in the world seems to be connected with the roots of man's absurd condition, for Camus describes the absurd as arising from man's realization that he can have no direct knowledge of the world, that he can make no contact with absolute truths and values…. Camus concludes that "there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."

Wiesel too has seriously considered this problem in his novel, The Accident, whose protagonist-narrator is almost killed in an "accident" that is an apparent attempt at suicide. With this act Wiesel's rebellion against the God of Judaism, begun passionately in the setting of Nazi concentration camps in the autobiographical Night and continued on a more detached, philosophical plane in his second novel, Dawn, reaches a climax. For the sacredness of life, as God's gift to mankind, is basic to Judaism and in fact arguably the most basic tenet of the Jewish faith. In the Jewish view it is not for man to judge "whether life is or is not worth living"; only the God of Israel, as Creator and Giver of Life, is to determine when life is to end. In Wiesel's peculiarly Jewish context, therefore, the suicide attempt takes on added significance as a kind of ultimate defiance of God, explainable only on the basis of a recognition, in reaction to Auschwitz, that God encompasses evil as well as good, that in violating His covenant with man, God has not only withdrawn His protection but has left man free of the restraints of His laws and commandments.

Wiesel's hero has thus come to share the attitude which characterizes Camus' protagonist, Meursault, at the beginning of The Stranger—a sense of the absurdity of the world and the pointlessness of human existence. In contrast to Meursault, however, Wiesel's character is obsessed by the relationship of man and God…. Wiesel's survivor questions incessantly, though expecting no answers, aware that the existence of answers is itself in question. (pp. 214-16)

Like Meursault, the protagonist of The Accident refuses to deny the absurd; he avoids what Camus had termed "philosophical suicide," that is, the attitude of existential philosophies which a priori reject the idea that life has some transcendental meaning and then, by a sudden "leap of faith," find such meaning, abandon revolt, become reconciled…. The message of The Accident … is essentially the same as that conveyed by Meursault—that man, like Sisyphus, can find fulfillment (if not meaning) in confronting his fate with lucidity rather than denial, in not hesitating "to draw the inevitable conclusions from a fundamental absurdity," in struggle itself. Yet, in The Accident (as in The Stranger), lucidity is unaccompanied by meaningful action that might lead to such fulfillment for the protagonist. (pp. 216-17)

The passivity of the narrator of The Accident gives way to the positive action of Michael, protagonist of Wiesel's succeeding novel, The Town Beyond the Wall. Michael is also a survivor of the Nazi death camps and he too is obsessed by the memory of those who died. Yet his longing to return to the town in Hungary in which he was born and raised is the opposite of indifference; it is, in fact, a passion for clarity, a desire to confront and understand, within the limits of human possibility, the catastrophe which befell him, his family, the Jewish community. (p. 217)

Michael confronts the absurdity of the Holocaust by focusing upon the spectator,… [who] makes a telling point: "A few policemen—not more that ten—led you all to the slaughterhouse: why didn't you seize their arms?" (pp. 217-18)

We may conjecture that those unresisting Jews were awaiting until the end the intervention of God, who would save them as He had saved their ancestors fleeing from the Pharaoh, that they would rather face death than acknowledge the breakdown of the covenant, the indifference of the universe. This steadfast trust in God, in the face of impending disaster, places these victims of the Nazi extermination close in spirit to Father Paneloux of The Plague, who refuses to accept medical attention when he contracts the disease. The priest's death is thus as suicidal as are the deaths of Wiesel's Jewish victims. The underlying cause is the same in both cases—the inability or unwillingness to surrender faith, the inability to cope with an irreducible absurdity, the refusal to acknowledge the possibility of evil within God.

In contrast, Michael is able to make this acknowledgment and, in so doing, is freed to take positive action. (p. 218)

Moral madness reappears as an important force in Wiesel's succeeding novel, The Gates of the Forest. At the beginning of the work it is not Gregor, the young protagonist, but Gavriel, his philosopher-teacher, who displays moral madness in reacting to the horrors of the war: "I'm listening to the war and I'm laughing"… [and who] bursts suddenly into overwhelming laughter at the moment he is taken prisoner by the German soldiers…. [The] Hasidic Rebbe … advocates song, dance, prayer, and joy in the face of the Holocaust: "The man who goes singing to his death is the brother of the man who goes to death fighting"…. (p. 218-19)

The moral madman is closely linked in spirit to the "absurd man" in the sense of Camus; both are able to face the world's absurdity unflinchingly, with aversion, perhaps, but without denial…. The end result is the same in either case—that genuine confrontation with the absurd advocated in The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus' thoughts on the necessity of such confrontation is reflected in Pedro's message: "Remaining human—in spite of all temptations and humiliations—is the only way to hold your own against the Other"…. Michael stands in direct opposition to that divinely inspired passivity in the face of death displayed by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and by Father Paneloux, who feels that in fighting the plague he may well be thwarting the will of God.

In the same way that Father Paneloux's confrontation with the plague is overlaid with difficulties stemming from faith, Wiesel's confrontation with the absurd is complicated (as compared with that of Camus) by his adherence to Judaism. However, Paneloux's resolution of the problem through suicide is not the answer for Wiesel, who finds his solution instead in protest, not merely against absurdity, but against God Himself…. For him the object of protest against God is not nihilism, not denial of God, but the very opposite—the re-establishment of God's order in a world which has witnessed the destruction of order. Indeed, through Michael, Wiesel confesses his inability to repudiate God: "I want to blaspheme, and I can't quite manage it. I go up against Him, I shake my fist, I froth with rage, but it's still a way of telling Him that He's there, that He exists … that denial itself is an offering to His grandeur". (pp. 219-20)

Though Wiesel clings to God in the face of injustice, his position cannot be termed philosophical suicide, in the sense in which Camus understands that phrase. On the contrary, Wiesel is a perfect example of Camus' "absurd man," striving for clarity whatever the consequences, recognizing the complicity of God in the evil perpetrated by man, in spite of the shattering effect of such recognition…. Ivan Karamazov believes that without God all things are possible; Wiesel shares with us his discovery that all things are possible even with God and therein lies his unique contribution to our understanding of the human condition. (p. 220)

Josephine Knopp, "Wiesel and the Absurd," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 212-20.

"The Madness of God" belongs to the Joan of Arc genre. This is where an individual troubled by integrity and filled with immortal longings risks his or her life ("The Crucible")—or at least respectable position in the community ("An Enemy of the People")—in order to speak The Truth, angering the temporal establishment but pleasing the gods who sit in both heaven and the balcony. The particular galvanizing power of Wiesel's play is that the problem is real and contemporary: the political persecution of Jews in Russia….

"The Madness of God" is always interesting and occasionally quite moving. But too often the action and dialogue are predictable, probably because Wiesel has chosen to create spokesmen for political points of view rather than character. A legitimate choice only if the argument takes off and transcends….

"The Madness of God" is Jewish propaganda on behalf of our brethern in Russia. But in a curious and probably unintended way, I found the play speaking directly to American Jews about their own delinquent worship and belief. In both Russia and America we are witnessing the disintegration of an ethnic-religious tradition. But the greater pathos is on these shores. For it is here in America that we have willingly turned wine into grape juice….

"The Madness of God" may be propaganda, but it is mythic too. Because Jews are mythic. Because history has made them so.

Auschwitz and Israel. Death and resurrection.

Elie Wiesel's play asks if it will be death again.

Dan Isaac, "Turning Wine into Grape Juice," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), June 13, 1974, p. 87.

Wiesel, out of the horror of his own experience at Auschwitz and that of his entire generation, has wrestled with the Messianic problem in an autobiographical chronicle, half a dozen novels, and three books of essays. With infinite variety, the Messianic theme is raised, the question is asked, responses are sought. The strands of hope seem slender and often virtually invisible, but there always remains a willingness to persist in asking the questions. For if man often seems to be "hope turned to dust," he is also, amazingly, "dust turned to hope." On occasion, most notably perhaps at the conclusion of The Gates of the Forest, a hope is expressed that the Messiah is not one man, but can and must be present in all men, whose very presence in the world, singing, praying, crying and obdurately questioning, is somehow a sign that forsakenness is not the only world.

Ani Maamin is Wiesel's latest and most poignant pressing of the Messianic question. It is the libretto of a cantata, set to music by Darius Milhaud, and appears in the text in both French and English. The writing is in blank verse, spare and taut, and its very economy of line, apparent in both languages, contributes to the enormous anguish built up as the questions addressed to God assume an almost unbearable poignancy. Ani maamin beviat ha-Mashiah is one of Maimonides' thirteen articles of faith: "I believe in the coming of the Messiah." Wiesel sang the song as a young Hasidic Jew in Transylvania, and believed it. He heard it sung in the death camps and wondered how it could continue to be sung. How could one "believe in the coming of the Messiah" during and after the holocaust? So the song was "lost." Could it possibly be "found" again? The Book is Wiesel's exploration of that possibility. (pp. 384-85)

Robert McAfee Brown, "Eli[e] Wiesel's Song: Lost & Found Again," in Commonweal (copyright © 1974 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), July 12, 1974, pp. 384-86.

Elie Wiesel's first attempt at drama, Zalmen, or The Madness of God, is an energetic fusion of mystical longings and worldly, political insights. (p. 20)

The triumphs that … exist in the play are tenuous triumphs of existential choice and self-decision. The play is a call for self-assertion and struggle against passive defeat. But it is, at the same time, a realistic assessment of the Jewish situation in the Soviet Union. For, although Zalmen, in both a prologue and epilogue, informs us that this story is unreal, it nevertheless is a story of concrete potential.

Wiesel's ironies and paradoxes are multiple. Heroism may fail, prudence can become imprudent. Bureaucrats may act intelligently and thus become even more formidable. In the end, there is no choice but to pursue madness, if madness means a rejection of silence and acquiescence. It is in the eyes of the young that our madness is reflected in all its clarified saneness.

Wiesel's drama is poignant and resonant. It is at once a demand and insistent call on Jews and a powerful exploration of spiritual depths and the human condition. (p. 21)

Lawrence J. Epstein, "Wiesel's Drama of Survival," in Congress Monthly, April, 1975, pp. 20-1.