Just who was Elie Wiesel? Did we get him wrong?
By the time he died on July 2 of last year, Elie Wiesel had become what you might call a Jewish celebrity thinker. More well known as a celebrity than for his thinking. He would have turned 89 tomorrow.
He had become a living icon—a Symbol of Suffering, of Survivorhood, of piety under pressure. Adding his name to any given cause gave it a kind of instant gravitas. People gave him a kneejerk, default, reverential respect for who he was—for the aura of tragedy that seemed to radiate from his presence. He also seemed to serve as a shield against painfully explicit memory. A kind of anesthetic buffer for the pain of the Holocaust, a golem of grief sitting endless shiva on our behalf.
He earned that respect for the service he performed in the decades immediately after the war—when there were no Holocaust memorials on every street corner, no “Shoah package” in every middle-school curriculum—he became a one-man walking Holocaust museum, the person who demanded from the world remembrance and respect for all victims and survivors.
But no more. There was by the time he died a sense that he had passed his moment of real relevance. The time when he stood virtually alone as a public figure had passed. Now fewer paid attention to his stoic mien, his quietism. He was no Simon Wiesenthal who—until the moment of his death—devoted his entire being, with grim relentlessness, to the pursuit, capture, and punishment of Nazi collaborators wherever in the world they were hiding. Too controversial, people would think, the idea that Jews had a right to continue to demand justice rather than merely memory.
And so after a while the world paid Wiesel respect with a guilt-tinged Nobel Peace Prize and a “very special episode” of Oprah’s Book Club. And then didn’t want to hear any more from him.
Plus, thinking about the Holocaust and its literary avatars had moved on. The controversy over Primo Levi’s death, for instance, had taken on greater energy and urgency because Levi’s more-complicated thought captured more attention, more mystery, if not fame. Did Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, commit suicide by leaping over a bannister into the six-story stairwell of his apartment building? A suicide that could then be seen as the product of immitigable, unappeasable sorrow at the human nature he had struggled with in his books about the death camps ever since If This Is a Man? Or was it just an accidental trip and (fatal) fall to the first floor, all the more tragic, all the more an emblem of the cruelty of the universe—had he not been punished enough?—for not being deliberate?
Meanwhile, Wiesel glided through the Jewish world in shadowy black suits, eyes circled in gloomy Dantean darkness, the Man in Black, the Johnny Cash of the death camps. He did the work of grief for us, and we were grateful: As long as we could glimpse him and his cloud of gloom, we could check that box and go about our business.
Sometimes I’d see him at Jewish events; the most recent was a few years ago, at a panel at the YIVO Institute at which Philip Roth unexpectedly announced his retirement from writing. An event that raised Primo Levi questions, in part because it was Roth who brought Levi to the attention of Jewish intellectuals, and it was Roth who had sustained a provocative relationship with the argument over the Holocaust. Over which Jewish reaction was appropriate. How much more bitter, how much longer was it appropriate to remain enraged. The kind of inner debate Wiesel rarely aroused anymore.
That night, I thought back to the shock of recognition I felt in Jerusalem in the Hebrew University office of Yehuda Bauer, the great Israeli historian of the Holocaust. Bauer said something so heretical it slapped aside the line of theodicy peddled by mediocre rabbinical sermonizers in America whose philosophy—if you could even call it that—was best represented by Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People. The line most used was one Kushner seemed to have cribbed from Irving Greenberg’s influential essay “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” which argued for a “God in Struggle,” a God not all-powerful, but one who needed us, needed our help in his wrestling with evil in the universe and thus silently sat by during the slaughter. (This was, Norman Mailer told me once, “the one big idea” behind his fiction and nonfiction as well. He puts it in the mouth of every one of his protagonists from the fictional Sergius O’Shaughnessy to the real-life Gary Gilmore: God is weak and needs our help to hold off the devil. It is the groundwork of the entire literary movement now called “black humor.”)
In any case, Yehuda Bauer would have none of that temporizing. What do all the prayers say? God will reach out his mighty hand to save the Jews, not God will reach out his trembling, sclerotic limbs and wave goodbye to the six million dead.
You either had a God who was all-powerful and all-knowing or loving, Bauer told me. If he was all-powerful, the traditional God of the Seder prayers who always stepped in to save the Jews, and all-knowing, if he knew what was being done to “his” people and did nothing to stop the murder of a million—or was it a million and a half?—Jewish children—then he was not loving. “He was Satan,” Bauer said. If, on the other hand, he was loving but impotent, not powerful enough to save his people, Bauer said, he was “just a nebbish.” “I don’t need such a god,” he said, contempt dripping from his voice.
“Just a nebbish”! There was no mistaking the dismissive Jewish rage subsumed in that remark.
But now, decades later, it almost seems as though the lease has run out on the justifiability of such anger—and in no small part because of Wiesel. He made it possible to think we could make peace with such a God, to still say the prayers, to not think too deeply about what that meant; he symbolically saved us the trouble, erased the angst, allowed us to pretend we had forgotten the quarrel, to go back to worshipping the nebbish.
But then two months before he died something happened, under mysterious circumstances. A document surfaced, a 150-page manuscript, from Wiesel’s archives that made those who paid attention stop and wonder: What he was thinking all the time he was being sad on our behalf?
Do Jews still have a right to anger over the Shoah? Is it so strange a question to ask? After all, it’s been a long time. What good would it do, right? Wouldn’t it just upset the non-Jewish world that we’re not ready to move on? Those troublesome Jews. Everybody has their problems. What makes your anger so special?
Take a moment for a thought experiment about the legitimacy of continued anger.
Should the degree of your anger depend on the number of the victims? Six in your family vs. six million in Poland? Or should the key factor be the intentionality of the perpetrators—the rabid desire to inflict pain, suffering, and death to an entire outsider group, as opposed to merely carrying out orders?
And that anger, whatever it is, should we allow it to fade? Should it ever fade? Because of time alone? Because of “perspective”—the sense one gets as one gets older that this was but one episode in the vast pageant of horror that is human history? Is the horror of Jewish history special? In the 1960s novels were written whose sole focus was whether one should still be enraged enough at Volkswagen to never drive it. Should that feeling ever diminish? Why? Would that not be a kind of insult to the millions of victims? Or does persistence of Jewish rage become faintly unseemly?
And how enraged should one remain at reports of contemporary anti-Semitism, European pogroms, and the like? Should it continue to occupy a special place in the history of hatred? Even in the pogrom-studded history of Jews?
Does it become tiring to respond to reports that the Jews of Europe fear going out of their houses to Rosh Hashanah services?
Can one summon enough rage to keep up with every stabbing death?
Am I “the last angry man,” as the title of a 1960s novel has it?
One can feel like a Rothian fanatic, like that character in Operation Shylock, who calls himself Philip Roth and preaches to Jews in Israel that the true locus of Judaism is not some promised land, promised by the nebbish god, who he warns will keep his promise by delivering a second Holocaust (Roth’s most deeply prophetic and despairing novel).
And yet how is one supposed to feel? All those questions seem strange or strained. Not, I’d argue, because there is something fundamentally irrational about them, but because it’s agitating to ask them. Because the subject of Jewish rage is profoundly unsettling. Unsettling. Because there’s an unspoken assumption that Jews will be spared the wrath of non-Jews only if they “behave.”
Enter Elie Wiesel, who seemed to have come to comfortable terms with the cause of rage. Who has long been a model of deportment. Sad, sad—but quietly sad. Not a troublemaker. Not one to make the world look in the mirror and see the face of a murderer. How angry should one get, how long, how much should one care? Was Wiesel’s quietism a wise, self-protective coming to terms with a world that could just as well kill the Jews again?
Was Wiesel’s good behavior a painful realism—or one that represents a form of Holocaust denial? Speaking of which, denial—how much should we feel hurt, angry, enraged by denial, by this doubled-down scabrous rhetoric?
I think these are important questions, all too rarely asked, not easily answered; perhaps they are unanswerable. Perhaps that is the secret, subtle reason for Wiesel’s near universal acclaim: He gave the impression he had found an answer to these questions. That he found a dignified stance.
But I’m speaking here not just of anger at the perpetrators, most of them long dead, not just of anger at the world that stood silent, when not actively collaborating. But chiefly anger at God. The God to whom Jews pray and praise for His everlasting protectiveness of his Jewish supplicants. And the little-noticed fact was that it had always been there in Wiesel’s work, at least intermittently, in flashes. He is not remembered for it because—I think—we just don’t want to be summoned to it again. It was not what one thought of when one thought of Wiesel—as a diminishing number did. In his somber suits of dignified black, he gentrified the Holocaust. Telling us in an unspoken but clear way that it was OK to get beyond it, it would be better for everyone.
Just two months before he died, on May 1, 2016, the Israeli daily Haaretz published a shocking hint that Wiesel himself may not have bought into the somber Man of Constant Sorrow image gliding gloomily through the world muffling himself in a shroud of post-Shoah sorrow. Inarguably, there were decades when we needed that Elie Wiesel, the Elie Wiesel of grief. When we were grateful he helped shame the world into an ostensible show of caring. Before he got that Nobel Prize in 1986, and then in 2006, the ultimate accolade from Oprah.
Seriously, yes, there were movies. There was the problematic Schindler’s List (Christian hero saves Jews) and the horrible Life Is Beautiful. But Wiesel walked among us, a gaunt personification of what it was to visit hell and come back. And think deep thoughts about it all, but not too deeply disturbing. Quiet thoughts. And no one seemed to want to say the pope of post-Shoah piety had no robe. As Naomi Seidman, a scholar who writes about modern Jewish thinking, wrote, “Wiesel found the audience he wanted. But only, as it turns out, by suppressing the very existence of the desire [for anger and vengeance], by foregrounding the reticent and mournful Jew.”
The result has been an image of Wiesel that has inflected the literature about the Holocaust itself. “Myriad works of commentary on Wiesel [that] have seized upon this theme [of silence],” Seidman observed, “producing endless volumes on the existential and theological silences of his work, on the question of what has been called ‘the limits of representation.’ ”
If nothing can measure up to the horror of the death camps, better to be silent about them. This is so true, believe me. In the decade or so I spent writing Explaining Hitler, a book about the reductive essence of post-war attempts to “explain,” I had to wade through reams of academic ratiocination telling Jews they dare not ask “why,” led by that faux philosophe Claude Lanzmann, whose claim to profundity was so thin, so little examined. All that writing (except his writing) cannot do justice to the limitlessness of the horror of the death camps. All writing (except his writing) demonstrates “the limits of representation.”
And so yes, Wiesel’s quietism, sanctimony, became sanctified, the subject of endless tiresome sanctimony. You can see it in the pull quote in The New York Times obituary for Wiesel. In the midst of a nearly three-page spread, we find this:
LIVING THROUGH THE HELL OF AUSCHWITZ HE NEVER LOST FAITH.
NO! No, no no, no! That was how he came to be used—as an argument that one could reconcile unquestioned, faithful, Jewish religiosity with an enraged awareness of the silence and inaction of God. You could find moments or disruption of faith in the “official” version of Wiesel’s Night. You’d have to blind yourself to miss them. But so many have blinded themselves because it’s painful to see.
Seidman—and scholars like Harvard’s Ruth Wisse and critics such as Ruth Franklin—presciently argued there were more than a few moments when one could glimpse another Night, another Wiesel, not the Wiesel of quiet but the Wiesel of anger. The Wiesel of anger we stopped wanting to hear. And the anger of that one erupts in the Wiesel Haaretz presented, in a newly uncovered manuscript fragment that preceded his death by 60 days.
The headline on the May 1 Haaretz story: “Newly Unearthed Version of Elie Wiesel’s Seminal Work Is a Scathing Indictment of God.”
And a very curious story it is. Told by a lifelong close confidante and colleague of Wiesel, Dr. Joel Rappel, who worked with him for decades sorting out his estimated one million archival papers. It seems that earlier this year Dr. Rappel just happened to glimpse in a photograph of the archives in Boston University Library what looked like a version of Wiesel’s Night he’d never seen before.
This is the version Rappel described to Haaretz, which describes him this way:
Wiesel has known Rappel for decades. He was the one in 2009 who asked Rappel to organize and manage his archive, and it took Rappel—a historian and former Israel Radio staffer who specializes in researching the Land of Israel, the Jewish nation and Judaism—seven years to accomplish the complex task of classification and organization. He dedicated two-and-a-half of those years to detective work on locating Wiesel’s lost manuscript [of Night] Rappel’s interest in the archived work was spurred after a document on display in the [Boston] university library caught his eye. It was a photograph of a page in Hebrew in Wiesel’s handwriting, whose content reminded him [of Night].
“An alarm bell went off inside of me,” Rappel recalls. “Indeed, Wiesel wrote ‘Night’ in French [also Yiddish] and Gouri translated it into Hebrew, so I asked myself, ‘What is another Hebrew version of this book doing here?’ ” When he posed the question to Wiesel, the author answered, “There is something like that but I don’t know where it is. I would be very happy if you can find it.”
I must admit that it is difficult to keep track of the version of Night that have come under discussion, in four different languages—Yiddish, Hebrew, French and English and in apparently more than one version in each language, some in different versions, some printed, some handwritten. It’s destabilizing.
Nonetheless Rappel realized that he wouldn’t be able to rest until he found the manuscript from which the handwritten Hebrew manuscript from which that page was taken, but the task proved difficult. “Go find 100-plus pages among a million documents, which are still not organized like a real archive,” he says. By his account he combed through some 500 pages a day, looking for hints as to the location of the missing manuscript. After two-and-a-half years, when he was “completely despondent, but very much stuck with the will to succeed,” he was surprised to find a package of papers in Hebrew among other documents. When he examined it, he realized he had found what he was looking for.”
Some might find this million-page manuscript search and its culmination a month before the author’s death strange. But the passages Rappel quotes from the “lost” Wiesel manuscript comport with certain passages of the “official” version of Night. Passages in which Wiesel allowed a glimpse of those remnants of rage he felt. The difference appears to be in emphasis—where the flashes of rage that appear in Night become an unrelenting rage in the lost fragment, and transformed those remnants in the manuscript that survived into irredeemable anger against God. Not just anger at God for permitting it to happen, but a thirst for revenge against Germans, Poles, and yes, even Jews, for not taking the warnings against the oncoming horror of the Holocaust seriously. Not the solemn silently suffering Wiesel we had come to know—or at least remember—from Night.
You probably know the story Night tells: beginning with Wiesel as a boy in a small Jewish village in Transylvanian Hungary, in 1944, before Hitler and Himmler and Eichmann demanded of Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian dictator that he give up “his” Jews for transport to the death camps.
According to Wiesel, the elders in Wiesel’s village seemingly relied on the biblical promise of God’s redemption. It won’t happen to us; it won’t happen at all; the war will be over first; we should go quietly when they strip us of our lives, homes, and possessions and ship them to a ghetto railroad and then herd us into cattle cars for the dreaded journey to Auschwitz. It’s true, what could they do, but why cooperate in their murderous plans?
What follows in Night is an account of Wiesel’s life in Auschwitz, focusing on the experience of the boy and his father. An account that keeps getting worse, and then unimaginably, murderously worse. Ultimately, the young Wiesel is forced to watch as his father is beaten to death.
For our purposes here, it is worth looking into one incident as it is recounted in the “official” translation first published in 1960, and the original “original,” as Rappel calls it, in the newly unearthed manuscript.
The difference has been noted before by Ruth Wisse and Ruth Franklin. Here are some of the things Rappel reports finding in the “150-page manuscript” he just fortuitously saved from the million-plus documents unsorted in the archives:
“There is no longer a God in the heavens,” Wiesel’s [lost] manuscript reads, “and there is no longer man on the Earth below.”
“I stopped praying and didn’t speak about God. I was angry at him. I told myself, ‘He does not deserve us praying to him.’ And, really, does he hear prayers? … Why sanctify him? For what? For the suffering he rains on our heads? For Auschwitz and Birkenau? … This time we will not stand as the accused in court before the divine judge. This time we are the judges and he the accused. We are ready. There are a huge number of documents in our indictment file. They are living documents that will shake the foundations of justice.”
This is Elie Wiesel, the war crimes prosecutor, and God is in the dock. It was a part of a “special expanded Hebrew version” of Night, according to Rappel. One that Wiesel, before he completed his task, decided to shelve, placing it deep in his archive.
Thus, the archived book was buried for decades, awaiting the moment of its rediscovery.
There is more. This Wiesel not only wants to indict, to prosecute this God; He wants revenge.
From the Haaretz story:
The archived version of “Night” is hugely different to the published one. It contains entire sections that don’t appear in the finished book, as well as different versions of pieces that were included.
As well as the sharp criticism of God, the archived version also included harsh criticism of many Jews who either yielded to temptation or were tempted to believe that nothing bad would befall them. Wiesel settles accounts with those among his people who shut their eyes and ears to what was happening, and blames them for paving the Nazis’ way to committing their horrors. He calls them “false prophets.”
“Eternal optimists … it would not be an exaggeration on my part if I were to say that they greatly helped the genocidal nation to prepare the psychological background for the disaster,” he writes, adding: “In fact, the professional optimists meant to make the present easier, but in doing so they buried the future. It is almost certain that if we had known only a little of the truth—dozens of Jews or more would have successfully fled. We would have broken the sword of fate. We would have burned the murderers’ altar. We would have fled and hidden in the mountains with farmers.”
He also reserves criticism for the Jewish leadership in Palestine and globally. “We didn’t know a thing [in Europe], while they knew in the Land of Israel, and they knew in London, and they knew in New York. The world was silent and the Jewish world was silent. Why silent? Why did it not find it vital to inform us of what was going on in Germany? Why did they not warn us? Why? I also accuse the Jewish world and its leaders for not warning us, at least about the danger awaiting us in ambush so that we’d seek rescue routes.”
This will undoubtedly become controversial, but setting aside that aspect of the long-running argument, it will offer a new perspective on Elie Wiesel himself, who seemed to have made his peace with the elders of the Jewish world. Who in effect absolved them. So sad. I would argue there was ultimately nothing—nothing—that could be done to forestall Hitler’s relentless lust to kill them all.
He also describes at length his Christian-Hungarian neighbors, who joyously watched the Jews of his hometown being deported. “All the residents stood at the entrances of their homes, with faces filled with happiness at the misfortune they saw in their friends of yesterday walking and disappearing into the horizon—not for a day or two, but forever. Here I learned the true face of the Hungarian. It is the brutal face of an animal. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I were to say the Hungarians were more violent toward us than the Germans themselves. The Germans tended to shoot Jews.”
Wiesel also discusses the desire for revenge that arose in 1945. “At the end of the war, I refused to return to my hometown because I didn’t want to see any more the faces they revealed behind their disguises on that day of expulsion,” he writes. “However, from one perspective, I am sorry I didn’t return home, at least for a few days, in order to take revenge—to avenge the experts of hypocrisy, the inhabitants of my town. Then it would have been possible to take revenge!”
These harsh accusations were never renounced by the Wiesel of later years. They would have caused a “scandal” if the grave solemnity of the Golem of Grief were to shatter the glass of silence.
Revenge: The brilliant scholar and philosopher Berel Lang once wrote an essay about the explanation for the failure of Jews to “take revenge.” Certainly there were logistical reasons—the percentage of Jews left in Europe did not make it a practical proposition. (One virtue of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is that he made it such a ludicrous fantasy.) Perhaps the relentless Nazi hunting of Simon Wiesenthal could be construed as revenge. Though a better word for it might be “justice,” because revenge is a striking-out without due process and judicial legitimization, while Wiesenthal employed the painstaking legal processes of Interpol and other international police agencies to capture war criminals for punishment.
Lang makes the case that memory is a form of revenge. Making certain that the specificity of the unholy crimes of the Shoah are never forgotten, to the eternal shame of the criminals and the civilization that produced them.
I’m not sure that measures up to the anger embodied in the early version of Wiesel’s Night. Naomi Seidman argues that Wiesel deliberately removed the impulse to revenge from Night in order to make its reception more friendly to the rest of white European civilization—not a disturbance to polite company. She verges on ascribing to Wiesel an act of bad faith, knowing his book would receive more approbation if it didn’t include the spiky, awkward imprecation to revenge. No Oprah appearance for the man who wants revenge, no (implicit) forgiveness.
But the gentrification of Night can also be seen as something Wiesel took from his translator, the French Catholic existentialist François Mauriac. And there is no more dramatic instance of it than the treatment of the story of the hanged boy, a framing that transformed Wiesel’s account of Nazi cruelty into a parable of Christian transcendence and God’s Love.
I would call the way Mauriac reframed the story of “the hanged boy” a spiritual hijacking.
The “hanged boy” appears a third of the way through Night, when young Elie and his father have become regulars in the work-to-death battalions and along with others in their unit are forced to witness an excruciating execution by hanging of two men and a boy who broke some minor rules. “A young boy from Warsaw.” Here is Wisse’s translation of the original Yiddish manuscript, a translation I found in Ruth Franklin’s book A Thousand Darknesses.
Three men are to be hanged. They are to stand on chairs and heavy nooses hung from a gallows draped over their heads. At a certain point the chairs are kicked out from under them and they strangle to death. The beginning didn’t take long:
Both adults were already dead. The nooses had choked them at once. Instantly they expired. Their extended tongues were red as fire.
Only the slight Jewish child with the most dreamy eyes [who could that be an image of?] was still alive; his body weighed too little. Was too light [to die from strangulation with his own weight]. The noose didn’t “catch.” The slower death … took thirty-five minutes. And we saw him wobbling, swaying on the rope with his bluish red tongue extended, with a prayer on his gray-white lips, a prayer to God, to the Angel of Death ,to take pity on him to take his soul … liberation it from its death throes from the torment of the grave. When we saw him like that, the hanged child, many of us didn’t want to, couldn’t keep from crying.
—“Where is God?”
Something in me [Wiesel] wanted to answer: “here He is hanging on the gallows….”
This is an astonishingly radical line. The slow death of the boy was the death of God! This is not the voice of the ecumenical Elie Wiesel who makes it possible to envision post-Holocaust peace and resumption of worship. This is—take it or leave it—God is dead. His god, faith in God is dead. Brutally hanged to death. It may indeed be the very first incarnation of what was to be a postwar meme: the death of God.
In a passage describing a conversation a little while later on Rosh Hashanah, the New Year in which Jews are to be written or not to be written in the book of life, Wiesel wants to write God in the book of death:
Why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves. Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might … he had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna and so many other factories of death?
The entire post-Holocaust critique of God is there in the capital-H letters of that pained passage. God: He “created Auschwitz.” He “kept six crematoria working.” He “caused thousands of children to burn.” He is God. God is Hitler.
This is not the Elie Wiesel François Mauriac wanted to see. And so he did two things.
When Wiesel, then a journalist in Paris, came to Mauriac in the late 1950s with his manuscript to ask for recommendations about getting it published, Mauriac seduced him. In effect, he offered what Wiesel might not have realized was a Faustian bargain. “Yes, I’ll translate it and get it published and make sure the world pays attention. But I will denature, defang, diminish it by turning it into a Christian allegory that exalts my version of God. Not the god Wiesel depicted as Hitler but Mauriac’s “god of love.” He even exposes this shabby trick for us.
Here is what Mauriac wrote at the close of the five-page foreword to his translation of Night: “And I who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give [the young Wiesel] whose eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared on the face of hanged child. What did I say to him?
“Did I speak to him about that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world”?
That other Jew! Whose death made it all worthwhile, you know. Because “God is love.” Your God, maybe, Mauriac. Did the cross of Jesus really “conquer the world”? If so, why the Holocaust at all? Because somehow it was necessary to kill millions of Jews to fulfill Christian theology?
Mon dieu, François. In your backhanded, way this is an admission that you tried to take advantage of the wretched pain and anguish of young Wiesel to convert the abjectly sorrowful young man who believed he had been an abandoned by the God of his fathers. Convert him to your equally unfeeling God, Jesus, this supposed God of love who also had no problem observing the murder of a million children—or was it a million and a half—with satanic equanimity.
“Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his father [Wiesel’s father] had become a cornerstone for mine?”
Why yes, I think you did, you treacherous, mendacious sophist. You made it all about you, didn’t you, and saving a justification for your belief? The Holocaust was a major lift for your spirituality; those Jews died to invigorate your Christ worship.
And then Mauriac resorts to the phrase, to the theodicy, invoked by all such charlatans—including many contemporary Jewish rabbis—who attempt to excuse their God’s tolerance of evil: “[Did I explain] 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? … All is grace.”
Thanks for nothing, Frenchy. Yes, nobody, no one, no God to blame. Just “unfathomable mystery” a pillar of dust behind which the guilty charlatans hide their shame.
And yet this mendacious sophistry is what served to universalize, Christianize, Wiesel’s suffering. Transmute the blood of the Jews into new vitality for the myth of Christian redemption. Made him fit for Oprah’s Book Club. The male Anne Frank.
Mauriac’s Wiesel gave us a Holocaust for everyone. The Jews were Jesus suffering for all mankind. We owe them gratitude, but the real gratitude belong to Jesus. Rob Elie Wiesel of the source of his grief and give it to the other brother. And it worked. For a half century through what was called a “new translation” by Wiesel’s wife Wiesel kept Mauriac’s foreword in the book. It’s in there now. He validated Mauriac’s premise that the Holocaust was cause for spiritual renewal not just for Jews but for everyone. Jesus saves. Get over it Jews, get over yourself with your “crucified brother.”
I regret bringing up Anne Frank here. Poor Anne, a lovely unwitting victim of what seems like a syndrome, a paradigm into which survivors and victims of the death camps are fitted. A syndrome of the world’s horrid lust for normalization—for seizing the tragedy of an innocent Holocaust victim and recasting it as inspiration—a tribute to God and human nature, not an exemplum of their criminality. Another spiritual hijacking to avoid disturbing the Christian world, troubling Christian civilization about its crime. No need for anger, let’s look for the inspiration!
The case of Anne Frank is exemplary, only different from Elie Wiesel, of course, because he didn’t die in a death camp and thus become fodder for nitwit rabbis and other “thinkers” who want to make nice with the world, soothe the souls of their parishioners (and keep their jobs). Don’t want to let the murder of six million become an impediment, cause people to think the Jews had a case against those who collaborated in their killing. That Jews had cause to rethink their prayers to a silent God, a cause that threatened their peace of mind.
Oh no, Anne Frank’s case, her diary, proved the opposite. Anne Frank has been, in effect, reduced to a single mendacious paragraph. One she wrote while hiding in a “secret annex” from the SS scouring Amsterdam for Jews:
It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.
It’s not even clear she wrote this pablum about how good at heart “people” are. Some have said it may have been written by her father to make the diary of her experience more reader-friendly, not the indictment of the populace of Amsterdam, Germany, and indeed all of Europe, who collaborated in her death. Because of course shortly after the upbeat inspiring paragraph was written (or allegedly written) by the young girl, her “secret annex” hiding place was ratted out by Jew-hating neighbors eager to please the mass murderers working for Hitler. All of whom were “truly good of heart” of course. She was shipped off to Bergen-Belsen where she died of typhus or execution by the good-hearted death camp guards.
And yet the “takeaway” from Anne Frank’s diary that has assured it a place on school curricula, Holocaust museum walls, peppery books of inspirational quotes was the “good at heart line” because it conformed to what people want to believe about themselves. The self-comforting words Elie Wiesel provided.
To which Cynthia Ozick, perhaps the greatest Jewish writer of our time—who evidently had lost patience with the pablum that passed for inspiration—responded unequivocally in a 1997 New Yorker piece described by one observer thus:
“In her blistering condemnation of the Anne Frank industry in The New Yorker two months ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote that the mythic story has been “bowdlerized, distorted, transmuted, traduced, reduced; it has been infantilized, Americanized, homogenized, sentimentalized, falsified, kitschified, and, in fact, blatantly and arrogantly denied.” This—Ozick’s—is the Jewish anger Elie Wiesel sought to soothe.
But there’s more to the story.
It came to my attention when I sought to confirm the Haaretz story with the archivist in charge of the Wiesel papers at Boston University Library. He confirmed the essence of Rappel’s story but there were some curious and confusing differences in his account of the history of the “lost” fragment. See if you can keep track of the dizzying number of manuscripts in four languages that he provided me shortly before Wiesel’s death:
Dear Mr. Rosenbaum,
Thank you for clarifying what Dr. Rappel was referring to. I’ll try to clear up any confusion as best I can, though I’m not sure anyone knows the exact story, even Prof. Wiesel at this point…
The original book “And the World Remained Silent” (“Un di Velt Hot Geshvign”), published in Buenos Aires in 1956, was Wiesel’s first attempt to convey his own experience of the Holocaust (we have a rare copy of this volume; it was later serialized, in the original version, in the Yiddish “Forward” newspaper from April 15 to July 6, 1965). According to Wiesel’s memoirs, he wrote the book while traveling to Brazil on assignment from Yedioth Aharonoth. This is where it gets confusing, because Wiesel writes that: the original Yiddish MS was 862 pages; he lent the MS to an actor who was traveling with publisher Mark Turkov with the idea that the actor would show the MS to Turkov; the MS was never returned to Wiesel and it is (presumably) lost; and the MS was edited down considerably (by whom it isn’t clear) to the 254-page published version.
In 1955, Wiesel reworked “Un di Velt Hot Geshvign” from French into Yiddish, [I believe he means from Yiddish into French] making several changes in the process. François Mauriac (whose 1954 conversation with Wiesel had inspired him to write about his own Holocaust experiences) took this new French MS to his own publisher, who turned it down, claiming that it wouldn’t sell. Mauriac, who had already promised to write the introduction and promote the book, brought it to Jérôme Lindon, who published the book in 1958 after cutting the length considerably and asking Wiesel to change the title. Wiesel’s own Hebrew version of Night is a translation of this final version. Wiesel’s Hebrew translation of Night (from French) was never published; instead a Hebrew translation of the original French was published by Yediot Sfarim in 1958. I don’t know why Wiesel’s Hebrew translation was never used.
If I had to guess, I would say that Dr. Rappel is referring to Un di Velt Hot Geshvign as an angrier, more accusatory work than what became Night. Other scholars who have read the Yiddish work have remarked a similar difference, the most well-known being Naomi Seidman’s paper “The Scandal of Jewish Rage” from <Jewish Social Studies>, 1996….. The Hebrew translation of Night that we have in our holdings is Wiesel’s own translation of the smaller Night, not the larger Un di Velt Hot Geshvign.
Thank God for the scrupulous thoroughness of archivists. But this is insane isn’t it, the apparent multiplicity of versions of Night in four languages—Yiddish, Hebrew, French, English? The still virtually magical manifestation of the early version of Night, which may not be a version of Night at all but of a different book entirely—And the World Remained Silent.
A book that remained silent, one might say, for some six decades until days before Wiesel’s death just happens to surface in a leading Israeli daily.
Was this Wiesel’s true, final testament. The bare, unvarnished truth about the rage he suppressed for so much of his life. A cry from the grave not to see him as that New York Times pull quote did as the ever faithful devotee of the cruel deity who set the crematoria on fire.
Who, then, was Elie Wiesel? And what lesson(s) should we learn from what we find in the secret annex of his mind and heart?
How did he juggle the jostling waves of rage and sorrow within him? How do we judge the depth of his personal feelings the clash between rage and resignation? And—increasingly—the sense of responsibility he felt he had to manifest as, increasingly, a role model for fellow Survivors.
What did he owe the living and the dead? What do we? By making peace, by making “nice” too soon, are we, in effect, insulting the memory of the victims?
Is there a logarithm of grief and anger, of longing for peace, he was responsible for solving, having seen both sides of the terrible equation? Was he responsible for finding the correct solution to the logarithm that could do justice to those who were lost and to those who were seeking to find a way through the gloom of grief and the sorrow of memory to the God they had once worshipped? Or was that way forever foreclosed? How to balance the desire for revenge, for justice with the desire for a “normal” life not forever haunted by Hitler?
My view: There is no one answer. We needed different Elie Wiesels at different moments in our history.
And he was best at giving us a silent, pacifying paradigm Wiesel, the Wiesel of accommodation, when perhaps what we needed more at times was the Elie Wiesel of Anger.
The way Seidman puts it, the world, the state of the Jews, has suffered needlessly for the apparently too-eagerly-willing Jews not to take offense. To stop taking offense. Seidman offers a chilling thought experiment to play out the consequence of Wiesel’s Choice. She argues that the “sublimation” of the desire for revenge—even theoretical—was “Wiesel’s ticket into the literature of non-Jewish Europe.” She cites an open letter, “To a Young Palestinian Arab,” that Wiesel wrote, in which he “compares the Jewish response to their victimization with that of the Palestinians”:
We [survivors] consistently evoked our trials only to remind man of his need to be human, not his right to punish. On behalf of the dead we sought consolation, not retribution. Only to remind man of his right to punish [my ital]. On behalf of the dead we sought consolation not retribution.
In truth the lack of violence among these survivors warrants examination. Why deny it? There were numerous victims who, before dying, ordered him or her who would survive them to avenge their death […] And yet […] with rare exceptions the survivors forced themselves to sublimate their mandate for revenge.
“There is something disingenuous,” Seidman says, “about Wiesel’s description of the Jews as having ‘sublimated their mandate for revenge.’ This sublimation, after all, was Wiesel’s ticket into the literature into non-Jewish Europe.” There is something a bit cruel about Seidman’s characterization of Wiesel’s bargain as an opportunistic abandonment of sacred mission.
And yet what she portrays is an impossible choice for post-Holocaust Jews. One that sooner or later would have to be faced, the way Wiesel had to face it every moment of his life. Two Wiesels.
I know the instant I read about the massacre at Netanya, the bloody opening slaughter of the Second Intifada, the murder of dozens of Jewish children in 2002, that the moment had come for me. That I could never be at peace, never suppress the rage it provoked. And the more I thought about it, never again allow me to praise or pray to the God that condemned the Jewish people to incessant atrocities, never achieve the blessing of Wiesel’s quietus. Never cease to need the Wiesel of Anger.
You might well ask, “Why Netanya?” Was there something specific about that atrocity? I don’t think so. I think it was the cumulative effect of the failure of the world, of Jews, to express anger commensurate to the atrocity. An implicit normalization of the slaughter of Jews, the beginning of the “Jews are the real Nazis now,” the lies about “Jenin, Genocide” in response to the response. Jews alone have no right to defend their children. The beginning of the rhetoric of moral equivalence.
In regard to my own reconsideration of the Jewish rage that came with the revelation of Elie Wiesel’s “scandalous” secret rage: you might ask, “What good would it do?” I don’t have a good answer to that. Just don’t tell me to curb my anger. I think silence in the face of atrocity, acceptance, quietude is not a good answer.
Seidman doesn’t stop there: “What Mauriac gave Wiesel, in return for this pacifistic transformation, was the weight of his moral authority and the power of his literary stature.” The “dignity of suffering.”
Was it worth it? she asks. It is a question Wiesel must have asked himself.
It is a question for us as well.
You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.