Avraham was faced with ten tests.
-Midrash Yalkut Shimoni Chapter 12
It is wrong to imagine the lives of survivors, to impose our own reading on their experiences, to try to tame the ineffable reality they describe. Yet they do describe their lives, and this creates a certain amount of room for us to consider: What do their lives mean for us today? This is an essential part of their witness. The following thoughts are intended to be read in that light.
After experiencing the unimaginable, Elie Wiesel eventually wrote of his experiences in Night. In his other books and activities, his teaching, his attempts to inspire a more compassionate American foreign policy, his constant work to stop and prevent whatever genocide was currently taking place, the Holocaust lurked, a shadow behind the words, behind the face and prophetic voice.
But the first temptation was silence.
The need to speak, to bear witness to his experiences was, for the survivor, countered almost perfectly by the impossibility of conveying those experiences. “How could we bear witness to what we had seen? And yet, how could we not?” This perplexity led a young Wiesel to choose silence for ten years, in which he did not write and did not speak of the events of what he would later call the Kingdom of Night. He spent those years poised on the knife’s edge, between the dangers of abdication and misrepresentation.
The temptation was to remainin silence, to melt away into the world, to leave the past behind. This is the silence of dissociation, of amnesia, of the fantasy that we can fully and truly begin again.
Fortunately for us, Wiesel overcame this temptation, writing And the World Remained Silent, an 846-page tome, which he then reduced, through what he would later describe as a sculptural process, to a little over 100 pages: Night. “Do you think the words I removed aren’t there?” he asked. “They are there. You can’t see them, but they are there.” Temptation is meant not to be overcome, but to be redeemed. The silence made its way into the book, and so was redeemed.
Once a survivor determines to write of his experience, the mind requires an explanation. This impulse led many theologians, Jewish and Christian alike, to reach for rationales for the Holocaust. It was a punishment for the Jews leaving their traditions behind and modernizing. It was a natural consequence of the Jews’ desire to join a community of nations that would forever despise them. It was the tragic result of the denial of their own national aspirations in the form of Zionism – had the Jews emigrated en masse to Israel, they would have survived. And so on.
The temptation of the survivor bearing witness is to explain. Elie Wiesel did not. He simply asked “Why?”
Wiesel writes in several places of the absence of violence by Jews in the aftermath of Liberation. Yes, there were examples here and there of acts of vengeance against Germans, Nazi officials, or neighbors who participated in their murder or forced exile. But these are statistically insignificant, and we would be justified were we to expect Jewish rage to shake the foundations of the world.
The first, longer version of Night included a brief reference to acts of revenge by Jewish men after Liberation. It has been argued that at first Elie Wiesel allowed himself to experience the rage of the Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, but that he later excised this feeling from Night and from his outlook.
I disagree; I think the rage stayed with him. But, being a mystic, he was able to transmute it into something redemptive. “Our revenge consisted of the lives we rebuilt after the War, the children and families we had, the businesses we created, the books we wrote. Every act of love and creation was an act of defiance. Hitler would not claim the victory, we would, by loving our children and building a new generation.”
But this was no easy task. Wiesel describes, primarily in his novel The Accident, the death wish that followed him after Liberation. Survivor’s guilt, the absurdity of existence, the terrible loss of mother and sister, then father – it was as if, he said, the mask of the universe had been removed, he had come face to face with the abyss, and it did not care at all about human existence. How was he to go on? How can one choose life after that?
The temptation to despair was not overcome all at once. It was wrestled with daily, and in the choices he made to choose life. “We do not let our enemies define us. We are the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We choose life.”
To choose life for oneself, and to have children, it is still possible to fall into solipsism. It is possible to orient oneself, especially if one has survived, around the hedonic principle, seeking pleasure and worldly success. Who could dare criticize such a choice?
VI. Loss of Faith
VII. Passive Faith
This is equally problematic. The acceptance of a God who allowed Auschwitz, the rationalizing infinite suffering, the defense of a fraying theology – others fell into this trap. Wiesel did not.
He demanded an accounting, though he knew he would never get it. He shouted, he argued, he proclaimed that, even were God Himself to come answer for His sins and explain the reasons for the Holocaust, Wiesel would not accept it.
When asked, “What do you expect to happen when you die?” he answered, “I don’t know, but I know one thing. I will ask God a question. The question will be: Why?”
The survivor who battles with God may still become meek in the face of human cruelty. He may descend into naïveté, or, seeing with great clarity the moral failings of people and the nations they produce, might retreat. Hasn’t he suffered enough? Must he fight yet more battles? Hasn’t he earned some rest?
Wiesel’s answer was that we are here to fight, and that we do not get to rest until our final breath. Not only didn’t he rest – he didn’t sleep well because he knew too much. He knew that millions were going hungry each day. He knew that tens of thousands were being slaughtered in Cambodia, then Yugoslavia, then Rwanda, then Darfur…. And because he knew, he could not remain silent. He couldn’t live with himself if his inaction played even a tiny role in the harms we humans do to one another. He yelled louder.
IX. Particularism and Universalism
The Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish cataclysm. “Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims”, for the very fact of their being Jewish. The enemy didn’t want Jews to convert, or migrate, or give up their material wealth. The enemy wanted them dead and gone, every last one of them. The Nazis wanted a Museum of Judaism to be the last remnant of Jewish civilization. They wanted to replace millions of complex human beings to piles of shoes.
It would be understandable for a survivor of such a Jewish calamity to consistently choose Jewish causes, and to ignore all others.
It would be understandable for a survivor of such a Jewish calamity to consistently choose universal causes, to create as much distance as possible between the traumatized self and Judaism.
Wiesel overcame this temptation, holding the tension between particular and universal, and more: teaching us that the two principles augment one another. “The more Jewish I am, the more human I am.” The choice between your tribe and general human causes is always a false one, and if they ask you to leave your identity behind when you sign up for the great march to human progress, something is wrong.
X. The End of History
In Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus descends from the cross, marries Mary Magdalene, and they have a child. The last temptation of Elie Wiesel was the exact opposite – it was to end his lineage, to never have a child.
Yes, Wiesel had chosen life, had decided to go on. But did that mean he must impose his choice on others, on another? Would he, in other words, have children? How could he bring new life into such a world?
For a time, he was convinced that he would not. But his teachers persuaded him to reconsider, and he met a woman, a survivor, elegant, brilliant, and a powerful activist in her own right. They married, and their son was born, and became the great joy of Wiesel’s life.
He did not stop there. He chose to teach, to raise up students over four decades. He chose to work ceaselessly to persuade leaders to adopt compassionate policies, to make peace, to care for the oppressed. He chose to invest in a human, a more human future.
Each of us in our own way faces the same tests, the same temptations. The world cannot afford for us to despair, or to choose selfishness, or to celebrate revenge. The world needs our hope, and in order to hope, we must choose hope, then find the strength to nourish it. The extent to which we succeed will define our future.