“All rivers run to the sea,” says Ecclesiastes, “and the sea is never full.” Elie Wiesel took the title of his first volume of memoirs from that biblical verse’s initial phrase. Tous les fleuves vont à la mer (1994; All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995) ended where its sequel begins, with his marriage to Marion Erster Rose in Jerusalem on April 2, 1969. On June 6, 1972, their son Elisha was born. Both events, life-changing and joyful ones for Wiesel, figure prominently in his second volume, which also takes its title from Ecclesiastes. That title theme—the sea is never full—identifies the rhythm that governs this autobiography: Wiesel’s memoirs contain amazing success stories, but each is linked to twentieth century darkness, to a labyrinth of heartbreaking memories that breed unanswerable questions. Exploring those tensions in compelling ways, Wiesel’s memoirs provide moral guidance at the dawn of a new century.
Wiesel’s life brims with accomplishment: more than thirty widely read books, distinguished professorships, literary awards, and honorary degrees, the confidence of political leaders, the Nobel Peace Prize. His parents, Shlomo and Sarah, had the more modest dream that he would become a rosh yeshiva, the leader of a Jewish school where the Talmud is studied. Assaulted by Nazi Germany’s fanatical anti-Semitism, the world of Eastern European Jewry that spawned their hope no longer exists. Nevertheless, Wiesel fulfilled a version of his parents’ longing; few persons have done more to encourage the post-Holocaust study of Jewish texts and traditions. At the time of his birth in 1928, however, it could scarcely have been imagined that events would take him from his humble origins in Sighet, Romania, to the international acclaim that he achieved seventy years later. Yet—that theme is among Wiesel’s favorites—the sea is never full, for the events that took Wiesel to fame include what he calls “the Event”—the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s attempt to annihilate the Jewish people.
Hasidism, Wiesel’s best-loved Jewish tradition, emphasizes the celebration of life’s goodness. It also recognizes what Wiesel understands profoundly; namely, that life’s preciousness must be acclaimed in spite of the forces of hate, injustice, indifference, and violence that push humanity to the brink of hopelessness and despair. So the sea is never full. However much Wiesel has done, whatever his successes may be, he cannot forget that his status in the high-powered worlds of New York and Washington, Paris and Moscow, Oslo and Jerusalem, is not so far removed from the boyhood home that he shared with his older sisters, Bea and Hilda (they, too, survived the Holocaust), or from Auschwitz, where the Germans murdered his mother and his little sister Tziporah, or from Buchenwald, where American troops liberated Wiesel but not before his father perished there.
Wiesel works to sustain memory. “I am afraid of forgetting,” he writes, and thus a single photograph hangs above his writing desk. “It shows my parents’ home in Sighet,” he explains. “When I look up, that is what I see. And it seems to be telling me: Do not forget where you came from.’” In one of the book’s most moving episodes, Wiesel describes a journey in July, 1995. He takes his son Elisha and his nephew Steve Jackson to see where their grandparents lived in Sighet and then guides them on the memory path to Auschwitz. Grief and joy, loss and promise mix and mingle. “Ours is the tree of an old Jewish family whose roots touch those of Rashi and King David,” Wiesel recalls. “And look: Its branches refuse to wither.” That refusal comes in spite of what memory recalls. Wiesel brings Elisha and Steve to Birkenau, the killing center at Auschwitz. It was in Birkenau, 1944, that Wiesel discovered what he calls “evil that saps all joy.” Nevertheless, he testifies, the sapping, let alone the elimination, of joy must not have the last word.
Above all, “death is never a solution,” a point that Wiesel registers as he contemplates the apparent suicide of Primo Levi, another Holocaust survivor who became a brilliant writer. Although Wiesel says that he understands Levi’s ending, Wiesel’s memoir seems to rule out suicide as an option for him. Instead, his life stays charged with energy that shows little sign of waning. True, he travels less enthusiastically. Yes, he guards his writing time more jealously. Although time is not on his side, he still envisions books to write; he alludes to works-in- progress, a study of his teachers and a novel about judges. He speaks of doors still to be opened, secrets yet to be discovered, questions that have not been fully pursued, among them why he remained so reluctant to talk with his sisters about their Holocaust experiences or to speak more explicitly, more often, about the Event itself.
These unfinished and perhaps unending quests often revolve around Wiesel’s father, whose presence surrounds the book. Frequently, that presence emerges in italicized meditations—often they involve dreams—in which Wiesel’s father appears to him. The two hold silent conversations, which raise more questions than they answer. The questions usually intensify Wiesel’s uneasiness about whether he is living up to his own imperative: “For the dead and the...
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