Must we be reminded that, in the end, all works of literature, even despairing ones, constitute an appeal to life?
I didn’t want this tribute to center around Night. Elie Wiesel wrote so many other books and remained a staunch activist throughout his lifetime. He was a founding member of the Human Rights Foundation, whose president, Thor Halvorssen, reminds us that Wiesel “made it clear that inaction in the face of evil is unacceptable, and that to remain silent during human rights violations is the biggest sin of all.” , a bill to commemorate his life’s work was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The day he died, I was at the airport waiting for a plane to Toronto with my husband when my father called with the news. It was one of the few times I’ve heard my father cry. My husband and I were on our way to a funeral, to pay our respects to his aunt, who had passed away very suddenly.
I’m glad, my father said on the phone, that you will be with family.
For my father, a whole generation of sons and daughters whose parents witnessed and survived the Jewish Holocaust, Wiesel’s passing was like a death in the family.
* * *
I was eleven years old when Night, “a slim volume of terrifying power,” appeared on the syllabus in Hebrew School, and my father did not want me to read it alone. Our class was also assigned the short but devastatingly graphic film Night and Fog, and my father did not want me to watch it alone. He wanted to read Night and watch the film with me before our class covered the material. At the time, I didn’t understand his fears; in my hands, the book was indeed slim, and the film, I was told, ran just over half an hour. Compared to the Five Books of Moses, which we had only begun, and the countless other canonical texts of Tahakh, what kind of power could such texts, whether written or visual, hold?
Night was one of the first books I read on my own, without my father’s guidance or commentary. It was a book that, at that time, I felt I should read on my own. To this day, I don’t know from where this feeling of resistance came.
I knew, or thought I knew, what the Jewish Holocaust was. I knew the number six million and what it meant. I knew that my own grandmother had spent time in the camps and she “had never been right” after that. I knew that I had to love her carefully, though no one ever said this outright. I knew that many people had died, and I knew many had suffered to survive the cattle cars, the death marches, starvation. I had an inkling of why, despite his many social reforms, Franklin Roosevelt was not lauded in our household, as my father often said FDR kept this country closed to the Jews when he knew about the camps and the deportations. I had an inkling of the ideas of Communism, Fascism, Genocide. I knew what Anti-Semitism was, and prejudice, having experienced these from a very young age.
I did not, however, have any idea what it meant to lose everything— and survive.
I read Night in less than two days.
I read it alone.
A few months later, I’d listen to my teacher and classmates emotionally discuss the book and then Night and Fog, and I’d offer very few words. Quite a few students in fact said very little. I found it hard to explain why I’d felt the need to read it while my parents were not at home, working late into the night, and my brother had gone to sleep. That I could not put the book down until I reached Wiesel’s final words: “From the depth of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”
I remember feeling confused by these last two sentences, by the word corpse and the separation of me and him, first and third person. Did he die? Or rather: did someone die and was he lost forever? Whose words were these?
I stumbled into the bathroom to study my own face in the mirror, as a bird outside began its early morning. The sun was already coming up as I gazed at the features hollowed from lack of sleep, tear-stained, bloodshot, mouth agape. I tried to fill my mind with the song of the bird, with the faint sunlight, with friends and family and the oranges and grapefruit my father and I bought on some lonely feeder roadside stand a few days before, a small surprise for my mother. There were the gull skies of South Padre Island. There was my Aunt Nena’s home where I was always safe and warm. There was my father, on any given Rosh Hashanah morning, welcoming in the New Year and the years to come.
But none of it seemed quite as real, that early morning.
I don’t know how long I was standing there before my father found me. I watched him in the mirror, wiping the sleep, of which he never got enough, from his eyes. I watched his gaze focus and drift to my hand where I was still holding the book.
My father picked me up in his arms.
I told you to wait for me, my father said. I wanted to read it together.
The sun was streaming through the frosted-glass window. I heard my mother wake my brother. I knew we’d have to clear out of the bathroom, and set the weekday morning routine in order. I knew classes, homework, chores awaited me. I was glad for them. But they didn’t seem quite real. The bird outside didn’t seem quite real. And I wanted to believe its song and the arms of my father and another Rosh Hashanah was real, would be real, would be waiting even after he let go of me and I’d wash my face in the sink and the day would be the day, just another day.
But first I had to ask: Did Elie die? I referred my father to the last lines of the book.
My father smiled slightly and shook his head.
My father nodded.
Do you think he’s still suffering? I asked.
I remember my mother calling me from the kitchen. My mother, another world waiting. She did not wait long, though. And this she might not understand.
My father let her call once more, and then put me down. I washed my face and he waited. We walked out then. The day had begun. But before I went into my room to change, my father said to me: He might very well always hurt, but his living means hope.
* * *
Years ago in Jerusalem I learned this the hard way: don’t hold in grief.
In Toronto, I attended a funeral with people I didn’t know only five years ago—my husband’s family, his grandmother, his mother, his sister, and his extended family. In a single day, we went full circle from day to night, from the early morning funeral services to a late meal together. They are not Jewish, but spending over a week with them, I thought of Wiesel, of the kind of world he was, of the kind of world he wanted. These people, these once strangers, are my family now. I recite their names in the prayers that are my daily life. They are close to me as my own blood.
While I first read Night in solitude, I’ve now asked poets and writers to join me in paying tribute to Elie Wiesel; you can read their words below. There are times to be alone and there are times in which we must reach out to each other. Reading those we love is only one way to keep them alive. We must discuss their work with each other, and find ways to slip their words into our daily lives.
My own grandmother always said: honor the living; there’s only so much you can do for the dead. And I believe this, too. You never know who you will love in years to come. Let it out. In the worst of times, be with the grief of those you love. Hold them like you would your own blood. Maybe even at times tighter, more certain, less distant.
It’s a blessing, when just one more person is no longer stranger.
* * *
Towards the end of the war, when the Nazis realized they couldn’t win, they forced prisoners to dismantle the crematoria, they destroyed records, burned buildings and mass graves. The Nazis wanted not only to eradicate Jewish tradition, culture, religion from Europe but also wanted to destroy Jewish memory. Wiesel shows us the power of our voices, our stories, our testimony against the horrors of the world. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he says: “As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.” I know to honor Wiesel, I must be a witness, I must tell stories that we want to forget, I must see the past as part of the future.
Growing up near the heavily Jewish area of Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles in the 1980s, I would not infrequently see Holocaust survivors waiting for the bus, shopping for groceries, eating lunch at Canter’s deli. They were identifiable, of course, by the numbers on their arms, and their consistent presence always surprised me—how do you survive that kind of trauma and then go to Canter’s and have deli like humanity isn’t totally fucked?—but it was also a boon, that you can survive trauma and go on to enjoy a good sandwich. These survivors were also a reminder of my Jewishness, that although I felt very much a part of that most uniquely American city, if circumstances were different, I might well be an “other.” Elie Wiesel was, for all the world, a reminder of these things, and a reminder to stay vigilant against forgetting and against othering, and of the crucial need to voice the unsayable. He was also, for me, as a survivor of my own trauma, a comfort, an example that one can take suffering and turn it into good for the world, and, in this culture of easily digestible inspiring stories, a reminder that there are things that one does not get over – “I live in constant fear,” he said, decades after Auschwitz – and that it is not a failure to feel the lingering effects of unspeakable horrors. The only failure would be to forget.
Growing up the grandson of Holocaust survivors, my grandfather often visited my school and community centers to recount, in excruciating detail, life in the concentration camps. My grandmother, just twelve when the Nazis came for her, never uttered a word about the horrors she endured. Both responses always made perfect sense to me, for what can one say in the face of such human cruelty but everything and nothing? Elie Wiesel chose to speak, clearly and with great beauty, and for a life so scorched by others, he wrote first and foremost about gratitude. “A person can almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude,” he concluded. This past weekend, my older brother married a smart, wonderful woman under pink and grey skies. I wish my grandparents had been there to see it. While modern times often seem dead-set on testing the resolve of our gratitude, Mr. Wiesel’s life-work, perhaps, was to remind us how vital it is to remain grateful, not despite tragedy, but in the face of it.
I never imagined that one day I would be writing reflections in memory of Elie Wiesel. It simply did not seem possible. Wiesel loomed larger than life, and seemed somehow immortal. It seems almost immoral to write about him after his death, because, as he himself said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, “No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions.”
But this is the position that we are in. Elie Wiesel is no longer among the living. And I am completely unprepared to memorialize him.
Wiesel was, to many, the voice of the survivor generation. Night is, for many people, their introduction to the horrible history of the Shoah, a dystopian counterpart to the Diary of Anne Frank, which showed how normal things could be, even in the midst of the Nazi occupation.
It won’t be long until the remaining survivors join him wherever it is that we go when our time here is done, and all we will be left with are texts and testimonies.
No one is as capable of gratitude as one who has emerged from the kingdom of night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them. Our lives no longer belong to us alone; they belong to all those who need us desperately.
Even in death, Wiesel’s life will belong to us all. And while we can never speak for him, we can continue to let his own voice share moments of grace, from now until eternity.
The figures here are entirely suggestive, dressed as they are in ripped garments and tormented skin, ambiguous as fleeing birds. The pigments that created such chalk-white bones are alive, angry, and suffering. The paint spins away in pain from the force of the brush. If words were similarly consumed we would hear their meanings crackling, and the ink would arrive on the page in burnt parts and brown sheaves, so that it spoke “s cr ice” instead of “sacrifice”. Imagine the surprise of paleological man when he first saw his footprint drying in the mud or felt his hand pressed upon a wet cave wall, and recognized himself in the impress. In that accidental way, the history of the hand would begin. Why has mankind come at last to this altar in Hell? to escape from all concepts of self and survival, to pick and choose victims, to wash hands and reject issues, to have a touch of death in a ditch, to fly away in a scream of cloud.
—William H. Gass 2014 on Hafftka’s “The Selecting Hand”
All images used with permission from the artist.