We’ve lost a righteous man. His name was Eli Wiesel. You may know him only as the author of Night, an account of his life in Auschwitz, from the age of 14 ½ to age 16. I personally believe that he may have been a lamed vavnik. Yes, I know that am straying into dangerous territory here, but this is a legend, not religious teaching exactly.
The story goes that, in each generation, there are thirty-six righteous men. These individuals, called the lamed vavnikim, wear the mantle of world justice on their shoulders. According to the legend, these men quietly and set the world to rights just as Christian saints might have done. There can never be less than thirty-six of these men (and, I hope, women) because then the balance of the world is thrown off. Accordingly, with Elie Wiesel’s death, on July 2, someone gave birth to a new person with the destiny to be righteous and to make sure that the world turns rightfully on its axis. It is something like the Supreme Court, I guess. It never works as well when a member of the “court” of justice is missing from the bench.
If ever there was a time when we needed every righteous man and woman to speak out, it is now.
Eli Wiesel was a young boy in Transylvania when the Nazis took him and his family. He came from a scholarly family, a very devout family in which his grandfather was an esteemed rabbi. In the camps, Wiesel lost his mother and one of his sisters. He also lost his father. In fact, he witnessed the beating that killed his father just weeks before liberation. His trauma was magnified when he watched his father beaten to death before his eyes. His father’s last word was, “Elie”.
After the war, Wiesel had two options: he could witness to the horror and brutality of the Nazis against eleven million innocent people, not all Jews; or he could speak up. He could bear witness so that the world would not be allowed to forget the atrocities of the era and, specifically, of the camps.
In his book, Night, he explains his calling this way:
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
So Wiesel spoke of his experiences, but not for a decade. When I read this, I heard my father saying about his life in Russia, “It was so terrible you don’t want to know.”
Wiesel lived in France, and finally settled in New York, like millions of other immigrants. Like most refugees, his love of this country was sincere. His dedication to the larger world community was even bigger. Through every genocide, he gave witness to man’s inhumanity to man. From the plight of Soviet Jews in the seventies, to the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Wiesel was the storyteller who shared his personal tragedy to focus the spotlight on newer atrocities.
He started a foundation, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, and was instrumental in building the Holocaust Museum as part of the Smithsonian complex in Washington, D.C. If you have never visited there, put it on your bucket list. You cannot leave that place that speaks of the viciousness of the Shoah unchanged. It is impossible to leave, dry-eyed.
Along the way, Wiesel wrote a trilogy of books the centerpiece of which was Night. For a decade, he had refused to write on the subject of his captivity, but in 1955, he did. The slim book was translated into English in 1960. While reviewers favored the book, the public did not. Perhaps it was too soon to discuss the war. Captives suppressed their memories. Liberators had PTSD nightmares about the bodies stacked in pits, not yet burned, and skeletal survivors wandering empty-eyed around the camps with nowhere else to go.
Then in 2006, Oprah Winfrey included it in her highly successful book club. Affiliation with Oprah, in those days, was a guarantee of literary success and the magic formula worked for Wiesel. His story spread, worldwide. Along with Anne Frank’s diary, his story became a fixture on high school reading lists. His story has been translated into thirty languages.
He won many awards for surviving and speaking, most notably the Nobel Peace Prize.
It is a tradition, in many cultures, to honor storytellers above all others. Not only are they the keepers of tribal tradition, but they impart wisdom to future generations. In the African tradition, a griot (storyteller) is often seen as a leader of his or her society, and often served as an advisor to the king. In the American Southwest, Native Americans regarded storytellers as persons of high esteem, the keeper of legends of the heroes and heroes of the tribe, along with moral tales, and creation tales. My favorite place in Santa Fe, New Mexico is the Wheelwright where the tradition of stories continues, even today.
We honor contemporary storytellers when we give out Oscars, but the loss of the human voice and the speaker’s experiences makes this a different art form for me. Often the stories told on the screen do not measure up to the book from which they came. There are even printed T-shirts that sum up the experience; “The movie is never as good as the book”.
The philosopher George Santayana has a famous quote, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Ely Wiesel kept his story, the story of the millions of Nazi victims, alive for seventy years. Now he is gone and other survivors are at the end of their time on earth. Soon the actual witnesses will not be here to jog our memories, to repeat the story of the genocide that was the template for most modern genocides.
There will be people who grew up with survivors as parents or neighbors. I grew up in a neighborhood surrounded by people who covered tattoos with long shirts, even in the summer. These Boomer children were the replacement children, the biological imperative by their parents to continue the line despite what happened in the past. There is actually a psychological syndrome called Child Survivor Syndrome, a kind of transference of feelings of guilt from generation to generation.
The problem is that the stories of the late thirties and early forties are fading much like the fourth carbon copy of a typewritten script. In addition, as Santayana predicted, we are forgetting history much too quickly. In our own country and in other countries around the world, the spectrum of “otherness” has risen again. We turn from people in need. We isolate those who look or pray differently than we do. We kill people based on their race, religion or sexual orientation. I would argue that this vile part of humanity never goes away. It goes undercover then returns whenever the moist climate of hatred is right. Just as in the late twenties and early thirties in Germany, people believe that a gifted culture such as ours will not tolerate another Holocaust. Sadly, I disagree. We are clearly at the tipping point right now.
The sad thing is that, this week, we lost a Righteous Man, someone whose voice spoke for the victims and reminded us of the responsibilities of civilization and humanity. Apparently, in his last years, Wiesel was saddened by the end of his life and testimony. “I do believe that to listen to a witness is to become a witness in turn. So, look, my generation has become a witness, has been a witness, and now the question, of course is – very often, I think about this – one day the last survivor will be gone. I don’t want to be that one. Because the idea to be the last, with all the memories, and all the spoken and unspoken ideas, and words, I don’t want to be that one.”
Elie Wiesel shattered the silence surrounding the Holocaust. Moreover, he spoke for victims everywhere. With his death, the voice of three generations has died. Who will be the next righteous voice to silence the bigots, the haters, and the killers? Who will continue to tell the tale so that Elie Wiesel, who some called the Conscience of the World, will pick up the heavy, heavy cloak of justice in this troubled world?