A Proud Witness, Not a Judge
AUFBAU 64:2 Jan. 16, 1998 p14
[original title: All Rivers Run to the Sea Memoirs of Elie Wiesel
A Proud, Not Arrogant
Witness, Not Judge]
Copyright by Leonard Lehrman & AUFBAU
Jan. 10, 1998 985 words
Elie Wiesel: "All Rivers Run to the Sea". Memoirs. Alfred Knopf, New York, 432 pp. (including glossary and index) ISBN 0-679-43917-1.
They came out in 1994 in French, two years ago in English, and have gone through several printings, but the first volume of Elie Wiesel's Memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea (New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 432p., including glossary and index), is still fresh with insights and nuggets of wisdom worth cherishing and reflecting on.
Born in 1928 in a shtetl known as Sighet which was at various times part of Romania or Hungary, Wiesel survived thirteen months in Auschwitz and Buchenwald (losing both his parents and one of his three sisters), then went on to a career as journalist, choir conductor(!), critic, translator/interpreter, poet/philosopher, playwright/storyteller/memoirist, adviser to statesmen, and in 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner. That year, the year he spoke truth to power by publicly advising President Reagan not to visit the SS-cemetery in Bitburg because "That is not your place; your place, Mr. President, is with the victims," he also spoke to a group of German students in Berlin. He talked of having visited that city only once before, in 1964, and of having left in terror, imagining his former torturers on every street corner.
But now he was back, ready to try to make peace with a new generation.
I was there. The words he spoke, and the tone in which he spoke them, are as vivid in my memory today as if it were yesterday. He told the students: "I think that if you consider what your parents and grandparents did to me, and my family, and all those millions of Jewish families, then you must have a problem. And if you don't think that you have a problem, then you must really have a problem!"
In his book he alludes to that meeting, but only briefly, in a flashforward, on p. 214, quoting the students' question of him: "Do you forgive us?" I remember that his response was that the younger generation, born after 1945, should not feel guilt, but rather responsibility, for seeing to it that nothing like the Holocaust shall ever recur. In his book he speaks of forgiveness on an individual basis, but not on a collective one, which, in the name of the dead, "no one could grant... It must be noted that in any case, the German people never asked it of us."
Two pages earlier the book also contains a poignant dialogue on "How much is a life worth?" regarding the question of German reparations to Israel. The ethical dilemma is not solved.
Ethics are a major concern to this memoirist, as he quotes Heine and takes on Hannah Arendt and Alfred Kazin. Ruefully he notes that "every nasty review [I wrote] earned me winks and compliments from my colleagues, whereas praise brought pleasure only to the recipients. Even the angels in heaven are afflicted by jealousy, the Midrash tells us." (p. 350)
Proud of his heritage ("I come from somewhere and... while I am but a branch, the trunk is sturdy, and the treetop stirs the clouds" (p.5-6)), yet Wiesel is not arrogant. He is a witness, not a judge. Missed chances, such as the opportunity to work on a book with Marc Chagall, are freely admitted with regret. So are lacunae of knowledge: for all he learned from his mentors Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel, he could never understand why those two sages, living in the same Manhattan apartment building, were not on speaking terms with each other.
There are heartrending descriptions of malicious deceptions, such as that of a rich Jewish magnate identified only as "Oscar"; hilarious incidents of being caught in the act of inventing nonsensical translations and tour-guide stories; and epiphanies on memory, Yiddish, and what it means to be a refugee, from which status he was rescued "when I needed a passport"--not by France, where he had chosen to live and write, but by the U.S., where he now makes his home.
"Memory is a passion no less powerful or pervasive than love. What does it mean to remember? It is to live in more than one world, to prevent the past from fading and to call upon the future to illuminate it. It is to revive fragments of existence, to rescue lost beings, to cast harsh light on faces and events, to drive back the sands that cover the surface of things, to combat oblivion and to reject death." (p. 150)
"There are songs that can be sung only in Yiddish, prayers that only Jewish grandmothers can murmur at dusk, stories whose charm and secret, sadness and nostalgia, can be conveyed in Yiddish alone. I love Yiddish because it has been with me from the cradle. It was in Yiddish that I spoke my first words and expressed my first fears. It is a bridge to my childhood years. As they used to say, God writes in Hebrew and listens in Yiddish.
I need Yiddish to laugh and cry, to celebrate and express regret, to delve into my memories anew. Is there a better language for evoking the past, with all its horror? Without Yiddish the literature of the Holocaust would have no soul." (p. 292)
"The refugee's time is measured in visas, his biography in stamps on his documents. Though he has done nothing illegal, he is sure he is being followed. He begs everyone's pardon. Sorry for disturbing you, for bothering you, for breathing. How well I understood Socrates, who preferred death to exile. In the twentieth century there is nothing romantic about the life of the exile, be he a stateless person or a political refugee. I know whereof I speak. I was stateless, and therefore defenseless." (pp. 300-301)
But best of all, the memoir only goes up to his marriage in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1969, at age 40, and hints at the "stories... yet to tell."
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