Elie Wiesel: His Significance, Accomplishments, and a Personal Reminiscence

Elie Wiesel: His Significance, Accomplishments, and a Personal Reminiscence
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Wiesel's Significance

It is not too much to say that Elie Wiesel, among his other important contributions, is the father of modern Jewish Studies. At a time when discussion of the Holocaust was often avoided if not suppressed and when The Diary of Anne Frank was read as a growing up story, Wiesel's Night (1960) spoke eloquently and succinctly about what happened in the concentration camps, especially Auschwitz. Notwithstanding the Nuremberg trials and Margaret Bourke-White's gruesome pictures in Life magazine of the liberation of Buchenwald in April 1945, the US tended to forget that as onlookers to Hitler's effort to eliminate Jews from Europe, the US was tacitly complicit in what happened.

It took a while for Wiesel's book (selling only a few thousand copies in its first few years) to make an impact because it appeared when 1) Europe wanted to forget the Nazi epidemic and Hitler's effort to obliterate the Jewish people and 2) the US wanted to put aside the question of whether it could have done more to prevent the murder of 6 millions Jews. Neither politicians who knew more than they acknowledged nor the media--notably the New York Times--did what needed to be done, and it was long after Night that some of what could and should have been done to save Jews was acknowledged. It might be noted that the 1978 miniseries Holocaust also accentuated interest in the Holocaust and later, Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993) greatly increased awareness of what happened to Jews in Europe in the late 1930s and first half of the 1940s.

Wiesel's Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 was a belated way for the Western intellectual and political community to pay homage to those millions who died in the camps as well as to those who survived.

Night

While Wiesel wrote many books, it is Night by which he is best known. What is special about Wiesel's memoir? Its brevity heightens moments of significance without the careful linking of events we find in realistic novels. Steeped as a boy in the Jewish Bible, it is not surprising that Wiesel uses the Bible as a model in choosing to focus on crucial representative incidents that teach a lesson while giving little attention to transitions or the intricacies of the human psyche. His voice, too, takes something from the Bible's books of the prophets.

As a retrospective teller recalling what happened after a ten year hiatus, Wiesel takes as his role that of a passionate witness who takes on the ethical responsibility to describe what he has seen and to share his unimaginable experience with his audience. In part, he wants to call attention to the moral darkness that descended on Europe so that it will not happen again.

Wiesel's spare, laconic telling--this is what you need to know, no more, no less--conflicts with the elaborate, sometimes long-winded yet evasive explanations for the Holocaust that were in vogue in the 1950s and early 1960s. Stark imagery, such as that with which he describes as a work detail--"we were so many dried up trees in the heart of the desert"-- is all the more effective for its rough-hewn efficiency (35; page numbers refer to the original 1960 Hill and Wang edition). Or when he recalls that after seeing the hanging of a young boy: "That night the soup tasted of corpses" (62).

Wiesel uses the concept of night as a nullification of light and reason, as a historical disruption, and as an obliteration of his personal religious faith: "The days were like nights, and the nights left the dregs of their darkness in our souls" (60). Antithetical to light and its association with understanding--think of the European Enlightenment--as well as with his faith in God and his belief in community wisdom, night is the dominant image around which Wiesel organizes his narrative. The narrator associates fire (we think of the crematoriums) and death with night.

Night is not only the loss of faith for the fifteen year old Elie, educated in the Hasidic tradition in the small city of Sighet, but also moral night where traditional ideas about human behavior no longer exist.. The recurring words "night." "never," and "empty" address the unspeakable that has undermined everything Elie has known in terms of material comfort, family and community bonds, and simple faith.

As if to represent the teller's struggle to stay alive--indeed, to survive in the face of hunger and terror--the unnumbered and untitled chapters become shorter and shorter. That the narrator sometimes jumps forward to the time of writing or the period after he leaves the camps implies that he is momentarily suppressing the horrors of his narrative.

My Reminiscence

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I was fortunate to know Elie--which he let people who knew him call him-- reasonably well. He was not only a charismatic lecturer, but he was also a gifted teacher who excelled in the give-and-take discussion that followed his lectures. Whether answering questions after his powerful and passionate lectures, which combined his memory of the Holocaust with moral fervor about humanity's responsibilities, or more informal dialogue when meeting with students, he always made the people he met, and especially students feel that they were important. He had infinite patience and a gracious, welcoming manner which made those in his presence feel comfortable. Despite his commanding public presence he was rather shy.

I first wrote about Wiesel, mostly focusing on Night, in an academic journal in 1998 and revised that for my chapter on Wiesel in my book, Imagining the Holocaust (1999). We had met on his fall, 1999, visit to Cornell, not so long after he had read and liked my book.

From the podium during his 1999 appearance here, I was happily surprised to hear him mention "my special friend Daniel Schwarz." He also wanted to spend some time with me. He did the same thing during his final Cornell visit in 2010 when he was 82. Then he wanted me to accompany him the entire day, saying I was the only person he knew here and that he was comfortable with me. He also wanted to see my wife, Marcia, whom he remembered and whom invited to join us at the final dinner given by the lecture sponsors. He confided that, while he was well paid for the day's appearance, were it not for losing money in the Madoff scandal, he would not longer be doing college appearances.

Some months passed after his 1999 visit when I received a letter from him. He objected to a few sentences of my discussion of Night in my book, notably those that spoke of his "transforming his nominalistic memoir into novelistic form" by his selection and arrangement of his material. He also objected to my pointing out that the young Elie, born in 1928, could not have been 15 throughout the 1944-45 period. I was not sure but I sensed that someone had convinced him that my using the word "novelistic' compromised his testimony. (Possibly someone had heard me talking about the book on Len Lopate's New York and Company or some other venue.) But what I was focusing on was the artistry in shaping more than 800 pages of the original manuscript into the spare, sparse 116 pages in the original English edition of Night.

A correspondence ensued. Always courteous, collegial and restrained, Wiesel was most worried that any questioning of his witnessing--even use of the word "novelistic"--would give credence to Holocaust deniers. I patiently responded that my discussing how he gave artistic shape to his memory did not question Night's authenticity or his truthfulness. In a November 30, 1999, letter to him I wrote:

The point of my book is to argue for the importance of imagination in transmuting fact into literature and to argue that acts of imagination are more powerful and compelling than simple statements of facts. We imagine through art. I argue, too, that there is always a difference between what happened and how we remember what happened, and a difference between how we remember and how we tell an event.

But I did change a very few words in the paperback of Imagining the Holocaust that appeared a year or so later. In his next edition of Night (2006), Wiesel made clear that Elie was 16 by the time the narrative of Night ended.

After this exchange, I was somewhat concerned that our friendship would lapse, but I heard from some sources that he still was mentioning me and my book in a positive way. A few years later I was interviewed at his suggestion for a PBS film on Wiesel, First Person Singular (2002), which has been rebroadcast a number of times. More importantly, as his 2010 visit to Cornell made clear, my friendship endured with this man whom I greatly admired.

Daniel R.. Schwarz is author of Imagining the Holocaust (1999).

He is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University where he has won Cornell's major teaching prizes. His book on the undergraduate experience entitled How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning. (2016) has been published by Wiley (Hardback: ISBN 9781118974841; Paperback: ISBN 9781118974858; ebook: ISBN 9781118974810).

He is the author of Reading the European Novel to 1900 (2014) and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press), which appeared in an updated 2014 new paperback edition.

He blogs on higher education and the media for the Huffington Post. He can be reached at drs6@cornell.edu and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes.

More about Daniel R. Schwarz.

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