All great tragedies happen twice. The first time, the world as we know it is swept up in a terrible catastrophe. The second, someone comes forward to tell us what has happened. If the messenger fails, both the tragedy and the story of it are forgotten. If, however, that person succeeds, then both the real and the recounted are remembered, and remembered as one.
To all of us, Elie Wiesel, who died last week at the age of 87, delivered the story of the systematic eradication of millions of European Jews. He called out the act for the undying atrocity that it is. He made sense of what made it possible, and he gave humanity to its masses of victims. He set down a testament bearing witness to its existence. More than any person, Elie Wiesel made sure the world knew the Holocaust happened.
More than any person, Elie Wiesel made sure the world knew the Holocaust happened.
In the years following World War II, there was a pervasive silence about the extent of what had happened to the Jews. Survivors were ambiguously labelled “displaced persons.” Victims were further victimized as they tried to return home. Some had no home to go to, and many fled. They went to South America, the United States and Israel, where they tried to build a new life, remaining largely silent about what they had endured.
American Jews struggled as well. Many lived with a deep sense of shame that more was not done to protect their families overseas. Yet they had fears of being seen as disloyal, en masse, especially in McCarthy's America. Anti-semitism was still widespread and acceptable. Instances like the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage cast a pall over American Jewish life, much the same as disconnected instances of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism inform prejudice against American Muslims today. As a result, many chose silence.
Our view of the Holocaust is so complete that this now hardly seems possible, but tragedies are characterized by disbelief, and the Holocaust was no exception. When confronted with accounts of the annihilation of the Warsaw ghetto during the war, Jewish Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter told his visitor, “Sir, I am not saying you are lying, I simply cannot believe what you are saying, the horrors you are describing.” That sentiment was a common one felt by many in the west for more than a decade after the end of World War II.
My father’s encounter with disbelief in Needham, Massachusetts, was no different. When his eighth grade teacher described the suffering endured by Europeans in post-war Europe, he asked specifically about whether the Jews had suffered disproportionately. It was 1956, and at the time, no universally accepted word even existed in America to describe the Holocaust.
The teacher answered his question by beating him in front of the class for daring to act like Jews were, “something special.”
In 1960, Elie Wiesel shattered this frozen silence by publishing the English translation of “Night,” a memoir of his experience as a victim of the Holocaust. His book was instantaneously recognized as a classic of modern writing and literature, but it was vastly more profound than those words can attest.
In the best possible sense, Jews are backward-looking people. We construct our joy in the present and our hopes for the future through our worship of the gift of life. That gift is built on a foundation of stories. Each time we add to the story of our past, we convey something that allows us to take another step honoring our inheritance in the world of the living.
Wiesel captured how each step of the Jews into the camps silenced that past, present and future, robbing subsequent generations of a birthright. In telling his own story, he reclaimed those steps and transformed an all-too-familiar tale of destruction into a narrative of life. In this way “Night” is the closest modern work to what we encounter in the books that form the Jewish canon, books that tell the story of the Jewish people’s trials from Egypt to Babylonia. Even for those of us who struggle with belief, it is impossible to ignore this fact when reading and re-reading “Night.”
In the best possible sense, Jews are backward-looking people. We construct our joy in the present and our hopes for the future through our worship of the gift of life.
After all, Jews are “the people of the book.” The book, and books in general, are how we express ourselves, how we celebrate ourselves, and how we transform a history at the edge of annihilation into a song of the resilient, a hymn of the just. This is why we fight to ensure that our writing is carried down at all costs, to each generation. We imbue those books with our living souls. We talk about them. We reinterpret them. We carry them in our minds and impart them to our children.
Six million of our souls went up over Europe during the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel returned to us one slim, howling tribute testifying to the fact of their existence. In subsequent works, he would acknowledge that this was not enough and never could be, but without it, we would have lost our connection to ourselves. We would have nothing except a monument of silence dedicated to two forgotten tragedies; a chasm between us and the millions of voices who now call to us from the other side of his harrowing, sorrowful tale.