The "Finale" of Elie Wiesel's Memoirs
And the Sea Is Never Full
Review by Leonard Lehrman, January 2000 [not printed]
When Elie Wiesel speaks, his soul-searching humility and determination can be as awe-inspiring as anyone since Martin Luther King.
Two years ago, the first volume of his memoirs, subtitled "All Rivers Run to the Sea," promised many "stories... yet to tell." The sequel, titled And the Sea Is Never Full : Memoirs, 1969-, has just appeared in English, having been first published in French in 1996, though presumably without the final chapter, "And Yet," which deals with thoughts on turning 70 years old. (Wiesel was born in 1928.) The publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, calls it "a magnificent finale." Let's hope not. Half a century remains, after all, "biz hundert-zwanzig"....
Since Wiesel's power and influence as a world figure have increased over the last thirty years (notwithstanding his protests that "the word 'power' fits me as a tuxedo might a kangaroo"), the new volume has more excerpts from position papers than stories. But there are still gems to treasure here, like the beautiful tale of how the homely Moses Mendelssohn succeeded in persuading his promised bride to go through with their nuptial vows.
There are also thought-provoking epiphanies, like this one, based actually on a passage (unattributed) from the New Testament: "I cling to the notion that in the beginning there was the word; and that the word is the story of man, and that man is the story of God. If praying is an act of faith in God, then writing is a token of trust in man."
And there are wonderful applications of the Talmud: "Silence easily becomes acquiescence." And in answer to the Soviet Attorney General's wanting to know why he wants to speak to him alone: "In order to explain to you why we need to be alone."
Christians should read this book, if only to be reminded, as Wiesel told an audience in Stockholm's cathedral: "You must understand that the Jew that I am cannot look upon the cross as you do. For you, it represents mercy and love. For us, it evokes terror and persecution."
The English translation, by his wife Marion, is fluid and fluent, only occasionally awkward: e.g., the phrase "not only capable but determined to wound and kill" should have read "not only capable of wounding and killing but determined to do so."
Other shortcomings are a bit less forgiveable: Wiesel, a former choir-director (among other professions) is reputed to have been the first to have sung ("Ani Maamin") as part of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, and he appreciatively mentions celebrity musicians Ivry Gitlis and Lukas Foss performing (the former in "a new composition") at important occasions he has attended, though he unfortunately fails to mention the names of the composers whose music was played.
He goes out of his way to help Henry Kissinger re-furbish his credentials as a man of peace, yet has nothing nice to say about George McGovern and the latter's futile attempt to oust Richard Nixon electorally in 1972 and thus bring an earlier end to the Vietnam War. He decries and pities Simon Wiesenthal's "jealousy" of him, yet does not seem to find the unfinished business between them something that should be of concern to him. He laments that there are "too many Holocaust scholars," so "Jewish survivors no longer dare to speak up," and mentions Stephen Spielberg only once, in passing, with no reference to Spielberg's foundation's efforts to solve this problem.
The account of his friendship with Cardinal Lustiger, the Archbishop of Paris whose family background was Jewish, is stimulating and enlightening. The even longer account of the friendship he had, and terminated (in the light of previously-unrevealed relationships with the Vichy government), with French President François Mitterand is sad. One senses that not only Mitterand's stubbornness was to blame for its demise.
Finally, one cannot pass over the regrettably sloppy misquotation of Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous homily. On p. 219 (unindexed), it appears as follows:
"When they came to look for the Catholics, I said nothing, since I am not a Catholic. Then they came to look for the trade-unionists; I said nothing since I am not a trade-unionist; then they came for the Jews, and not being a Jew, I said nothing. In the end, when they came to take me away, there was no one left to raise his voice."
One can argue, as D.D. Guttenplan does in the latest Atlantic Monthly, citing Peter Novick's book The Holocaust in American Life, that this formulation, which omits any mention of Communists or Socialists (who were the first victims of the Nazis, and are included in most published versions of Niemöller's statement), is a deliberate distortion, stemming from the "ideological retooling" of the Cold War. The fact is, Niemöller told this homily over 200 times and there is no definitive text--a 1968 version appearing in the Congressional Record also omits mention of anyone but the Jews, the Catholics, and the unions (in that order). But at least that version mentions them in historically correct order. Wiesel's ordering is simply inaccurate historically. Perhaps he will correct it in subsequent printings.
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