Elie Wiesel: God’s Loving Witness
Writing about Elie Wiesel is not only to speak about Elie, but it is also to write about the horrors of the Holocaust, how to remember, how to speak about the painful questions of faith, theodicy, our faith in our fellow humans, and our obligations to speak out against injustice. To talk about Elie Wiesel is to speak about the two greatest evils of all–silence and indifference.
While we may take what Weisel did with his writing for granted, we need to acknowledge how difficult such a task is. No less than 18(!) Jewish Holocaust survivors have died by suicide either during or following their taking on writing on what they had been through. Being able to write and speak about the horrors of the Holocaust was in and of itself a dangerous thing we cannot take for granted.
Wiesel’s friend Yechiel Di-Nur who wrote under the pen name Katzetnick (meaning a prisoner of the camp), got up to speak in the Eichmann trial and fainted while testifying. In a way, his fainting had shaken up the world to the horrors of the Holocaust far more than his testimony itself. DiNur didn’t just faint. Despite being fully functional before the trial, he suddenly could no longer function. It took doctors and the hospital seven months to get him back to functioning. We cannot take what Elie did for granted. These writers were not simple writers; they were witnesses making an active testimony, they were mourners for a world that was, and they were prosecutors of the vicious monsters who committed the greatest crime against humanity in human history.
Wiesel, Abba Kovner, Katzetnik, and other Holocaust writers were not authors; they were not writers. They knew that in their work, they were bearing witness–they were testifying. It is a unique outlook inspired by Jewish tradition. In Parshat Ha’azinu we read: “Ve’at kitvu lachem…lemaan tiheye le’ed” and now write this song [the Torah] so that it can be a witness.” In Wiesel’s writing, he did not simply tell a story. When his stories were real, they were a testimony. When he wrote fiction, those were stories evoking some of the most difficult moral and theological questions our people have ever had. As the opinions of some rabbis say about Job, he was there to teach us a lesson. Elie did not only give voice to the six million we lost, but he also validated the experiences of more than 3.5 million Jews who survived the Holocaust.
Like Moishe the Beadle in Wiesel’s first chapter of Night, who comes to the town of Seagate and warns members of the town of the mass shootings and mass graves taking place across the border in Poland just to be mocked and disbelieved, too many survivors were disbelieved and disrespected, adding a second level to the unthinkable trauma they had been through already. Elie was their voice. And their validation. He was the witness, the comforter, the theologian, the psychotherapist, and the moral prosecutor all at once.
A story that captures the essence of the dichotomy of Holocaust remembrance and makes us appreciate the sacrifices of those who have done so much for the sake of Holocaust memory is shared by Weisel himself. The night before deportation, young Elie took a golden watch that he received from his father, went in the dark of night to a specific location in his backyard, and buried it deep in the ground. Decades later, after the Holocaust, the death, the suffering, and the survival, Wiesel came to visit his town of Seagate. In the dark of the night, he went to his old home. Trembling in the dark, he goes and begins digging. He finds the golden watch, takes it out with the dirk and rust that are on it, freezes, puts it back in the same spot, covers it over, and returns to his hotel. The return of this watch is the embodiment of what so many Holocaust survivors had been through. The need to connect with the treasures and heritage of old while needing to bury so much of it behind.
So who was Elie Weisel, and why does he mean so much to who we are as a people?
Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 to a very religious Hassidic family in Seagate, to Elisha and Sarah Weisel. His parents owned a small shop; his mother encouraged Elie to pursue Torah and Chassidic studies, while his father also pushed him to broaden his education as well with Hebrew and literature. In 1940 the Germans came in, but due to Hungary’s alliance with Germany, not much was done to the Jews of Seagate. In April 1944 when Wiesel was with the rest of the Jews in the town to a ghetto and soon thereafter to Auschwitz. Wiesel’s mother and sister were killed within 2 hours of arrival in Auschwitz. After several months in Auschwitz, as the Red Army neared, Wiesel and his father were marched on the Death Marches to Buchenwald, where his father died after a few days. Wiesel spent the last three months of the war in Buchenwald, where he was later liberated by the US Army and appeared in one of the famous images of liberation.
One thing that is central both to Wiesel’s Holocaust experience and to the rest of his life was his father. The fact that his father was a community leader, someone who was at the center of the Jewish community, showed leadership, visited the sick, the prisons, and the hospitals, and more had a huge impact on Elie. The fact that they went through almost the entire Holocaust together until his father died days before liberation can be seen throughout Elie’s life.
Sitting in the home of Rabbi Gershon Jacobson, the editor of the Algemeiner Journal, in Jacobson’s home, Wiesel was asked what the most humiliating moment he experienced in Auschwitz was. Jacobson’s son Rabbi Yosef Jacobson recalls sitting in the kitchen listening to the interview, which took place in the living room, and said he remembers it to this day.
He said Elie Wiesel began crying, something he never saw him do.
“It was the end of a day in Auschwitz when we came back from a day of work. They were broken, tired, and starved. As they walked back, they gave them a small piece that looked like bread. At the time, I took the bread and soup and put them in my mouth. My father and I continue walking to the barrack. And he tells his father he suddenly had a desire and a yearning that his father would die right there and he could take his portion of food. He turns to his father and says: “This is what the Germans did to us; a child who is 14 and loves his father can only dream of his father dying for a piece of bread.”
Once WWII ended, Elie was taken to an orphanage in France where he was educated and went to Surbon university, where he learned from the very mystical and mysterious “Mr. Shoshani,” who was also the teacher of Emanuel Levinas and several other great scholars.
Wiesel’s first job was working as a journalist for the Israeli newspaper Yidiot Achronot, and he decided the horrors of the Holocaust were too difficult for them to be committed to writing. His friend and Nobel laureate François Mauriac convinced him to write down his experiences, and he did. He first wrote his book “Night” in Yiddish under the name “Un Der Velt Hut Geshvigen”–and the world remained silent” in 1954. The book was originally rejected by more than two dozen publishers but was eventually translated into French. The book became world famous, was translated into 34 languages, and sold tens of millions of copies.
In 1956 Wiesel arrived in New York, where he was hit by a taxi in a terrible accident and was bed bound for more than a year. He worked as a journalist and a writer and was eventually was naturalized as a US citizen.
Ted Comet, a lifelong friend of Wiesel who traveled from Yeshiva University in New York to France and had known Wiesel since 1946, said: “If you were to ask Elie “What do you do? What do you really do? he would probably answer with a rueful smile,” I am a Maggid – just a teller of tales.”
Ted Comet invited Wiesel to speak for the UJA General Assembly in 1970, where Wiesel said: “How were we able to survive? Furthermore, why would we even want to survive? We were impelled by the need to tell the story, for we felt that if you knew, you would act. If we had known then what we know now, that you knew and did not act, we would not have been able to Survive.” Weisel’s primary message was always: “Zachor–Remember.”
Elie became the living embodiment of both speaking about the Holocaust and preaching the biggest lesson to be drawn from it–the war against indifference. Wiesel famously said: “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”
This ability to be a moral voice, Comet said, was the key to Wiesel speaking out in the face of the most powerful of all and his ability to speak up to 4 American presidents–
In 1978 President Jimmy Carter established the Holocaust Memorial Council and asked Wiesel to agree to lead it. At first, Wiesel refused. They had a strong disagreement. Wiesel believed that the Holocaust was an event unique to Jewish history and refused to make the Holocaust museum in DC a general moral institution to all those persecuted by the nazis. Sure, there were many persecuted by the Nazis. Yet there was nothing and no one more central to the hate of the nazis than the Jews, nor was there a group that suffered so aggressively. Eventually, President Carter agreed to this position, and the museum was built the way Wiesel envisioned it, with a section devoted to other groups persecuted during the Holocaust.
In 1985 President Reagan was scheduled to visit Germany to mark 40 years to the end of WWII. On this visit, Reagan, with the invite of German president Helmut Kohl, Reagan was supposed to visit the Bitburg German cemetery, where there were also SS officers buried. He made no plans to visit a concentration camp. The American Jewish community spoke forcefully against it. When Wiesel received the congressional medal, he turned to Reagan and, with no qualms, spoke out forcefully against the visit. Reagan shortened the visit and added a visit to Bergen Belsen to his visit.
In 1995 as Bosnian Muslims were being massacred and war crimes were committed by Bosnian president Slobodan Milošević, Wiesel spoke out forcefully, asking President Clinton to send in the troops. Wiesel’s pressure was what helped the sides reach the Dayton peace accords.
What was outstanding about Wiesel’s writing about the Holocaust was that it was inextricable from his relationship with God. Even throughout his first book, Night, his questions about faith, prayer, and the role of the Jewish people are peppered throughout the book. Like with Einstein, the question of Wiesel and religion are radically different when talking about it as a Jew vs. talking about it as a gentile. In fact, Wiesel’s questions about faith about, providence, and theodicy are almost exclusively Jewish questions. His questions are not just questions about how a just God can look at innocent children being sent to the gas chambers and do nothing; it is primarily about us saying: “Ahava Rabba Ahavtanu–you have loved us a great deal of love.” It is about us saying, “Ata Bechartanu” you are the one who chose us.
As my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Joseph Polak, who knew Wiesel for decades and had a weekly Chavruta with him, said: “Elie had a traumatic relationship with God. Elie would put on Tefillin every day and observed every Shabbat”. “Elie, The capacity to stare the Holocaust in the face and talk about it and talk to the world about it, and the orthodox community knew they had to reckon with his voice.”
There was hardly a passage in the Torah, from the Akeda–the binding of Isaac–to the relationship of David with Saul that Elie did not examine through the eyes of the Holocaust. The legitimacy of his questions and the knowledge that his questions were valid led him to become a very respected voice in the Jewish community.
Wiesel enjoyed relationships with some of the greatest rabbis of his generation. Some were a testimony to his past, but some were a testimony to who he had become. Wiesel was a close friend of David Wiess Halivni of JTS and Hasidic great Halachist Rabbi Menashe Klein. As my friend Rabbi Polak told me, Elie would not go into Shabbat once without speaking to his friend Rabbi Menashe Klein.
Weisel was also close with Rabbi Amital, founder of the Yeshiva in Gush Etzion, whose mother was from Seagate. This relationship exemplified so much of his relationship with religion. Visiting the Yeshiva in front of all the students and rabbis, Weisel got up and spoke out very directly against Rabbi Amital’s theological approach to the Holocaust. He does so respectfully, to the point, and in a way that has to be taken seriously. Even as he did that, he did so respectfully. Watching the video online, I thought to myself, that is the essence of who Elie was; he was able to look religion, religious people, and anyone in the world right in the eye, tell them how sharply he disagreed, and yet somehow you knew it came from a place of love, and pain. You knew that his pain was not only his own pain, but it was the pain of millions to who we owe these answers, and we must never ignore it. He could stand in the heart of a Yeshiva and cry out with his voice: “how can we say asher bachar banu–who had chosen us.”
Another relationship Wiesel had was with Rabbi Menachem Mendel Scheirson. First, he was brought by Rabbi Gershon Jacobson of the Algemeiner to a farbrengen, and then they met, sometimes for 7 hours straight.
The story has it that after their first meeting, the Rebbe asked Elie if there was anything he could do for him. Wiesel said no and turned around. He then turned back and said:
“Dear Rebbe, I didn’t cry since I saw my father die. Please help me cry again.” The Rebbe told him he would help him cry again, but first, he needed to learn how to sing.”
The Rebbe wrote him a letter in 1965 urging him to get married as a way of rebuilding his life after the war. Wiesel got married later, in 1969, and was a loving husband and father.
Weisel’s focus on the theology of the Holocaust and what it means to be a person of faith after experiencing the most horrific of atrocities shaped his thinking on Jewish topics in the years to come. He viewed much of Jewish text and theology through the prism of the Holocaust. One of the sections of the Torah he focused on most was the story of Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac—the Akeda. Weisel saw the Akeda as a double-sided test—God is testing Abraham, and Abraham is testing God. Weisel notes that Abraham tells his servants he and Isaac will return, and so in a way, he himself is testing God. In Wiesel’s mind, Abraham was testing God to see if he would have him carry out the original commandment; Abraham believed God wouldn’t.
When speaking of the city of Sedom, Abraham prayed for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God said that if there were ten righteous people there, the city would never have been destroyed; Weisel could not help but ask why there was no one who prayed for his generation and the Jews of Europe. Why was the righteousness of the Jews of Europe not enough to save them from the horrors of the Holocaust?
Speaking of the tragic story of Abraham’s wife, Hagar, and her son Ishmael and their expulsion from the house of Abraham reminded Weisel of the Jewish experience of being expelled. Hagar was expelled from one place, and it defined her. She had only one enemy, and yet we were expelled from so many people with so many enemies.
Weisel was also fascinated by the story of Aharon and the tragic death of his two sons at a young age (Leviticus chapter 16); Elie spoke about the piercing power of silence in Aharon’s response and the ability to be a silent witness. Weisel also commented often on the liturgy of the Ten martyrs and martyrdom in the history of our people. These topics captured his mind and soul because of what he had been through, what he saw, and what he never stopped thinking about.
Yoel Rappel, director of the Wiesel Archive at Boston University, shared some of the following in Makor Rishon: Wiesel never underestimated religion. On April 1945, as Buchenwald was liberated, the first thing people did was to stand together and say Kaddish. Despite Weisel’s struggles with religion, it was an essential part of who he was.
When it came to Passover, Weisel wrote a whole Haggadah filled with his thought-provoking ideas. One of the thoughts he shared was that we begin on such a grand note of liberation and peoplehood and end on such a petty note of the Chad Gadaya. Elie said it was to show how everything is a cause and effect and a chain reaction.
Despite the centrality of the Holocaust to his legacy, when asked what he would like to be remembered for, he said his advocacy for Russian Jewry. Elie dedicated a whole hour every day to the cause of Russian Jewry. Making sure he was not silent about the fate of other Jews and advocating for their freedom was always very important to him.
In 1986, when Weisel received the Nobel Prize for his work, he received a letter from Abba Kovner, a great Israeli writer and one of the famous Vilna partisans who fought the Nazis. The letter captures the essence of Wiesel’s Nobel.
“Among the many Jews who received the Nobel Prize over the years, I do not believe there is even one who received it on a uniquely Jewish (“Glatt Jewish”) topic. Scientists and Nobel Laureates of various fields, even if they are authors and poets, owe half of the prize, at least, to He who, in his kindness, gives to his chosen ones and gives sparkles of born talent to human beings. The rest is also caused by luck.
A Jew who had the misfortune to be born in the 20th century and took the liberty of surviving the Holocaust, to an obligation of bearing testimony [to the Holocaust] for the rest of his life, has forced the entire world to recognize the impact of the Jewish experience and its uniqueness in humanity’s collective memory.
In giving a Nobel Prize to Elie Weisel, there is an international recognition of the universal singularity of the message of the Jewish Holocaust…not as an obsession with the dead and not cultivating eternal ethnic hate, but rather as a pedagogical obligation to education to courage and to distinguish between good and bad; an eternal value for all generations.
In addressing the question of where God was during the Holocaust, there were some answers Weisel could not tolerate. When speaking in Yeshivat Gush Etzion, in the presence of Rabbi Amital, he spoke out forcefully against those who say that the Holocaust was the price we paid for the establishment of the state of Israel and that the state of Israel. Is it possible to say that a million and a half innocent Jewish children died so we can have a state?! How can anyone say that so many innocent Jews would die to achieve statehood, important though it may be. Weisel strongly rejected any kind of idea that rationalized what had been done to our people during the Holocaust.
Weisel was not only a master of speaking and writing but also a master of kindness. During the Eichmann trial, Weisel wrote a book that would be very popular, addressing the trial and Eichmann’s monstrosity. Despite all the work that he put into it when Weisel heard that Israeli author Chaim Guri was almost ready to publish an identical book, Weisel archived his own book to give an Israeli author a bigger opportunity to sell his own book. (told by Joel Rappel, who manages the Elie Wiesel archives at Boston University). Whenever he could, Weisel would use his connections in America to give more opportunities and make more connections for Israeli authors that did not have the same kind of opportunities he had.
Despite his many theological struggles with God and faith, Weisel never stopped believing. As my friend Rabbi Polak said: “there was not a day Elie did not put on Tefillin, and there was not a Shabbat that he did not make Kiddush. In 1997, in his later years, Weisel famously wrote a “letter to God” in the New York Times. It read:
“Master of the Universe, let us make up. It is time. How long can we go on being angry?
More than 50 years have passed since the nightmare was lifted. Many things, good and less good, have since happened to those who survived it. They learned to build on ruins. Family life was re-created. Children were born, and friendships struck. They learned to have faith in their surroundings, even in their fellow men and women. Gratitude has replaced bitterness in their hearts. No one is as capable of thankfulness as they are. Thankful to anyone willing to hear their tales and become their ally in the battle against apathy and forgetfulness. For them, every moment is grace.
….In my testimony, I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow, if not enable, the killer day after day, night after night, to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty. Their established culpability is irrelevant to my “problem” with you, Master of the Universe. In my childhood, I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from you.”
Weisel bestowed to the world the war against indifference, the commitment to remember what was lost, and the ability to recognize the complexity of faith, even in the fast of the most crushing of tragedies.