And the Sea Is Never Full

by Elie Wiesel

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2179

“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 living, we must bear witness.”

His prose typically spare and lean, Wiesel favors a minimalist style that permits the silence created by what is not said to provoke thought that goes beyond the written or spoken word. And the Sea Is Never Fullcontains no observation more understated than the one expressed in a simple sentence that says: “I have lived a few lives.” One of them involves the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. That remarkable institution—it receives millions of visitors annually—bears Wiesel’s imprint in more ways than one. Not only are the words of his imperative, quoted above, inscribed on the museum’s walls, but also from 1979 to 1986 he oversaw the planning that led to the museum’s opening on April 19, 1993, the fiftieth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Wiesel recalls the museum’s birth pangs. They ranged from factional disputes and personal rivalries to crucial debates about “the specificity or universality of the Holocaust.” Wiesel’s position on that point has been unwavering: Far from being “just another event,” the Holocaust is unique, “the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery.” It is “a Jewish tragedy with universal implications,” which are best expressed by concentrating on the Event’s Jewish particularity. Wiesel did not win all the battles he fought during the museum’s creation, but without him, it would not exist. His feelings about this success include ambivalence. The museum, he thinks, tries “to illustrate too much.” He preferred “a more sober, more humble edifice, one that would suggest the unspoken, the silence, the secret,” and thereby leave visitors saying: “Now I know how little I know.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges that the museum is “undeniably impressive.” It plays, he affirms, “a pedagogical role of the first order.”

While Wiesel led the museum planning, his public impact emerged in two other notable ways. On April 19, 1985, he went to the White House to receive the rarely awarded Congressional Gold Medal. After Ronald Reagan bestowed it upon him, Wiesel appealed to the president: He must not go to the German military cemetery at Bitburg, where the dead include members of the SS, the elite who carried out Nazi Germany’s so-called final solution to the Jewish question. For some time, controversy had swirled about Reagan’s acceptance of Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s invitation to visit Germany on the fortieth anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. At the award ceremony, Wiesel said to Reagan, Bitburg “is not your place, Mr. President. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” Probably Wiesel’s retrospective judgment is an exaggeration—he thinks that his White House speech “touched a thousand times more people than I had with all my previous writings and speeches”—but even though it was unsuccessful, his plea to Reagan (it was shared with the White House in advance) became not only a media event but also a moral moment that made Wiesel more visible than ever.

Less than two years later, Wiesel’s stature as a defender of justice and human rights—his untiring support for oppressed Jews in the Soviet Union is only one example—was magnified by the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in Oslo, Norway, on December 9, 1986. Wiesel recalls listening to Egil Aarvik, the chair of the Nobel Committee. As he wondered silently whether Aarvik could really be speaking about him, Wiesel saw himself again in his parents’ house. His son at his side, Wiesel accepted the prize, but before he could deliver his response, he saw his father and relived, for a moment, his death in Buchenwald. His father’s last moments had included cries to which Wiesel could not respond because he would have been beaten to death. Wiesel’s memoirs make clear that his protests against injustice and indifference, his passion to be with those who suffer, his emphasis on friendship are all intensified by the memory of those cries, which “tore me apart” then and “tear me apart still.”

Early in this book, Wiesel remarks that “the introvert will yield to the extrovert.” The forecast proves correct as Wiesel writes at length about his encounters with influential figures around the globe. The list is as long as it is illustrious: Mikhail Gorbachev and Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Israeli leaders such as Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. Just as Israel and particularly Jerusalem hold a special place in Wiesel’s heart, which leads the media to keep waving “the Israel-Arab problem” and questions about Palestinians at him, France and especially Paris are also dear to him. France was his post-Holocaust haven. He writes in French. Parisian publishers get the first options on his books. For years, moreover, the French president François Mitterrand was among Wiesel’s best friends. Their friendship, however, did not last, for it eventually became apparent that Mitterrand had ties to the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the Nazi occupation of France and expedited the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz. The full extent of that story broke in 1994 with revelations of Mitterrand’s support of René Bousquet, the French chief of police who had organized the deportations of French Jewry. As Wiesel recalls Mitterrand’s death on January 9, 1996, he takes no joy in his passing or in the demise of their friendship. Both leave haunting questions summed up by “why?” That most human of questions is one that Wiesel asks again and again. He seeks to understand where it leads, especially when “why?” interrogates the God with whom he argues and against whom he protests in the tension of his post- Holocaust Jewish faith.

Another encounter with a French friend raises additional questions for Wiesel, among them, “What can I say to a converted Jew?” The converted Jew in question is not inconsequential. He is Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris. Not least because the Cardinal’s mother died at Auschwitz, Wiesel wonders about Lustiger’s Christian identity, for Wiesel cannot forget that the Holocaust took place in Christian Europe. Although it pains Wiesel that Lustiger calls himself a “fulfilled Jew,” they engage in sustained dialogue—a word and practice that Wiesel values—and their friendship grows. Lustiger’s Christianity remains robust, but he stops calling himself a “fulfilled Jew,” and his commitment to Jewish causes and to Israel deepens. Wiesel finds Lustiger’s presence disturbing, and not only because of his conversion. Lustiger, he says, is “an ally of all those who militate against fanaticism and injustice wherever they are found.” Against tough odds, both men create disturbances that make the world more humane. Built upon persisting and yet respected differences, their friendship endures.

Upon finishing this book, its readers understand that they have spent time with an exceptional storyteller. Whether the narratives are about contemporary political leaders, his beloved Hasidic teachers such as Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav, or the biblical figures he brings to life in books and lectures, Wiesel’s stories always highlight ethics. It is fitting, therefore, that these memoirs include a story about Adam, the Bible’s human father of us all, who provoked God to ask “Ayekha, where are you?” when Adam fled after eating the forbidden fruit. As Wiesel tells the story, God knew Adam’s whereabouts, but the story’s moral insight depends on the Hebrew word Ayekha, which means: “Where do you stand in this world? What is your place in history? What have you done with your life?” These are questions that Wiesel asks himself and his readers as well. His ways of doing so in And the Sea Is Never Full make this book significant, as humanity begins a century more full of promise and also of greater potential for destruction than any other.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (October 15, 1999): 394.

The New York Times, December 20, 1999, p. B10.

Publishers Weekly 246 (November 8, 1999): 53.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access