Somewhere a Master

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

All the writing of Elie Wiesel has been in response to the cancellation of meaning and coherence by his boyhood experience in the concentration camps, depicted in his first novel, La Nuit (1958; Night, 1960). Somewhere a Master is another step in his attempt to reconstruct a world compatible with human life and values. It continues the investigation begun in Célébration hassidique (1972; Souls on Fire, 1972) of the lives of past Masters of Hasidic Judaism, finding in them both clues to their greatness and strategies for survival in a world beset by similar problems.

Wiesel’s method is that of the Hasidic Masters themselves—storytelling. He tells stories about them and recounts stories which they told, both to pay homage and to explore for truths that transcend the merely rational. For readers unfamiliar with Hasidism, he provides a chart of the leaders of the movement, a map, a synchronology detailing parallel events in the larger world, and a helpful glossary. This added material and four of the nine portraits were published earlier as Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle Against Melancholy (1978).

Somewhere a Master operates simultaneously on three levels. In focusing on the lives and works of nine Hasidic leaders, it also continues the story of Wiesel’s own quest for a reason for being, and, at the same time, speaks to the acute needs of the contemporary world. In his further chronicling of Hasidism, Wiesel participates in the sacred act of passing on the tradition. The questions asked by the Masters, he observes, were those which Moses asked and are the ones which contemporary readers must ask to make them and the struggle they imply their own. Wiesel continues the portrayal of the Hasidic vision of life begun in Souls on Fire, one marked by hope, gaiety, a sense of self-worth, oneness with God and others, and affirmation of this life despite pain.

In this vision of life, Wiesel finds solace and hope for himself. “A Hasidic Story,” he writes, “is about Hasidim more than about their Masters; it is about those who retell it as much as about those who experienced it long ago, in a time of both physical and spiritual hunger and solitude.” Wiesel, then, knows he is telling stories about and for himself, and the intensity with which he probes these wise men of the past is a clue to his own need for wisdom in the present.

In depicting the violence, injustice, and deprivation that faced the Jews of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “a time of both physical and spiritual hunger and solitude,” Wiesel also depicts the malaise which today afflicts Jew and non-Jew alike. Pervading the book is the quintessential symbol for that malaise—the Holocaust. Two great Masters stopped long ago in the small town of Oushpitsin. Overcome by inexplicable terror in the middle of the night, they fled. Oushpitsin’s modern name: Auschwitz. Sassov in the Ukraine received its first Jewish settlers in the sixteenth century, and Moshe-Leib of Sassov immortalized the name. Today, there are no Jews in Sassov; all perished in the Belzec and Zlotchov camps.

Behind all these stories, then, is the sense that something wonderful has been virtually erased from the earth, something mankind cannot afford to lose. In piecing together these sketches, Wiesel is sifting the fragmented remains of a tradition that offered to its followers what Wiesel believes he needs, and, by implication, what all people need in the post-Holocaust world. The plea of a young man to Rebbe Pinhas of Koretz with which the book begins is the plea of many men and women today:“Help me master,” he said. “I need your advice, I need your support. My distress is unbearable; make it disappear. The world around me, the world inside me, are filled with turmoil and sadness. Men are not human, life is not sacred. Words are empty—empty of truth, empty of faith. So strong are my doubts that I no longer know who I am—nor do I care to know. What am I to do, Rebbe? Tell me, what am I to do?”

Each of the Masters contributes in response to this desperate plea. They do not offer answers, per se, so much as they model in their lives and the stories they tell a response to life that asserts its meaningfulness and even its possibilities for joy. One can discover in each of the Masters a particular emphasis that contributes to the overall Hasidic celebration of life. Pinhas of Koretz, for example, stressed the importance of each individual in a world which told poor Jews they were worthless. They were as valuable, even if ignorant, as the most learned religious leader. Wolfe of Zbarazh added that God not only valued them but also needed them, for each had a unique contribution to make in bringing God...

(The entire section is 1959 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Booklist. LXXIX, September 15, 1982, p. 76.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, August 13, 1982, p. 62.