Remembering Elie Wiesel

A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.  ∼ Charles Peguy

It is not widely known among those who mourned the passing of Elie Wiesel, the world’s most famous Holocaust survivor who died July 2nd at age 87, that had it not been for Francois Mauriac, the great French Catholic author and Nobel laureate, they might never have heard of him at all. Because it was Mauriac who, in the teeth of its rejection by every printer in town, managed to find someone to publish Wiesel’s manuscript, thus catalyzing a career that would eventually capture the attention and admiration of the world. That manuscript became Night, his first book, a harrowing memoir of anguish and loss so awful as to cauterize the soul of anyone who reads it.

It happened after the end of the Second World War when Wiesel, then a young journalist on assignment with an Israeli newspaper, sat down to interview France’s foremost Catholic novelist. Who, in the course of their conversation, told him that of all the horrors witnessed during the dark days of Nazi occupation, the image that had seared his soul more than any other was that of the cattle cars leaving the Austerlitz train station in Paris filled with Jewish children bound for the Death Camps of the Third Reich. And it was not even with his own eyes that he had seen such things. It was his wife, who, deeply shaken by the experience, recounted the full horror of it to him.

At the time, says Mauriac, neither he nor his wife had the least intimation of what was going on. The exact nature and extent of Hitler’s extermination plans were not matters about which the world was encouraged to ask questions. “And who,” exclaims Mauriac,

could have imagined such things! But these lambs torn from their mothers, that was an outrage far beyond anything we would have thought possible. I believe that on that day, I first became aware of the mystery of the iniquity whose exposure marked the end of an era and beginning of another. The dream conceived by Western man in the eighteenth century, whose dawn he thought he had glimpsed in 1789, and which until August 2, 1914, had become stronger with the advent of the Enlightenment and scientific discoveries—that dream finally vanished before those trainloads of small children.

It was against the backdrop of that imploding dream of progress and the perfectibility of man that the two met. And when the older one told his young friend (for he had, says Mauriac, “won me over from the first moment”), how often that image would return to haunt him, the awful recollection of those hapless children wrenched from their mothers’ arms, he was taken aback by Wiesel’s response: “I was one of them.” That Wiesel himself, as a young boy, had been forced to look into the abyss, “to see his own mother, a beloved little sister, and most of his family … disappear in a furnace fueled by living creatures. As for his father,” Mauriac adds, freshly horrified by the realization, “the boy had to witness his martyrdom day after day and, finally, his agony and death.”

Is it any wonder that the child who grows up to tell the story of his own and his family’s journey to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, might perhaps have lost his own faith along the way? Can there be, asks Mauriac, anything worse than “the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly faces absolute evil?” We must try very hard, insists Mauriac, urging us to do our utmost to understand, “to imagine what goes on in his mind as his eyes watch rings of black smoke unfurl in the sky, smoke that emanates from the furnaces into which his little sister and his mother had been thrown after thousands of other victims.”

It is not something one manages ever to forget. Simply to move on is not an option any morally sentient being can take. “Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever,” Wiesel tells us. “Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.”  Not even, he assures us, if he were “condemned to live as long as God Himself.”  Nothing must be permitted to distract his attention from the sheer annihilating awfulness of it all, deflecting his determination, as it were, always to remember what happened. He feels himself compelled, in other words, to testify, to leave an account that says, yes, unspeakable evil took place here, but that by witnessing to it one has at least kept the enemy from a final victory, which would be to “allow his crimes to be erased from human memory.”

It was just this quality of his character, reports Mauriac, this fierce recalcitrance of soul, that made him so endearing.

It was then that I understood what had first appealed to me about this young Jew: the gaze of Lazarus risen from the dead yet still held captive in the somber regions into which he had strayed, stumbling over desecrated corpses. For him, Nietzsche’s cry articulated an almost physical reality: God is dead, the God of love, of gentleness and consolation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…vanished forever into the smoke of the human holocaust demanded by the Race, the most voracious of all the idols.

Forged thus from the fires of a Holocaust stoked in hatred and revenge, Wiesel’s message is put into words by a writer extremely wary of words. After all, how many authors are there who, over the course of the centuries, have prostituted their use? (Words, Wiesel would write years later, are like whores: they give themselves to anyone.) And yet the sum of all these words so carefully chiseled out of the darkness, has given us a book that remains to this day the most riveting of its kind. It is better than The Diary of Anne Frank and it cries out to be read anew in each generation. But not without the necessary cover letter provided by Monsieur Mauriac, whose moving Foreword rescues the book and its readers from despair.

What do I mean by that? Well, it all comes down to Christ. And the death of the “sad-eyed angel,” whose story lies at the heart of Night, reveals why. The child, scarcely a day older than Wiesel himself, had committed some trivial infraction and the Nazis decide to hang him for it. Only he will not die quickly because he is too light for the rope. So he dangles horribly in front of the entire camp, all the inmates having been conscripted to watch. Meanwhile, the young Wiesel hears a man call out, “Where is God? Where is God now?” And when, thirty minutes later, the grisly business is at last over, all the prisoners are made to file silently by the corpse. Again, Wiesel hears the same cry: “Where is God? Where is God now?” Only now, of course, he hears himself answer in a whisper that none can overhear: “Here he is, here is God.”

Wiesel’s point is a theological one, which is that both God and the child at the end of the rope are dead. Their fates fit into the same noose.   And thus there can be no hope attaching to either corpse; to suppose otherwise is to falsify the whole argument of the book. God and man perished together in the Holocaust.   We move in total darkness.

“And I, who believe that God is love,” asks Mauriac at the end of his Foreword to this, in some ways, unbearable book,

what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child?What did I say to him? Did I speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine? And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his childhood was lost?

Mauriac said none of these things. Instead he reached out to embrace him and to weep.

(Photo credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Regis Martin

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Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar's Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, also published by Emmaus Road, is called Witness to Wonder: The World of Catholic Sacrament. He resides in Steubenville, Ohio, with his wife and ten children.

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