'I am a living eyewitness'
The best-known scene in Elie Wiesel's book "Night" is apparently that of the execution. Three prisoners, two of them adults and the third a little boy, were hanged at the Buna camp in Auschwitz after being implicated by the Gestapo in the discovery of a weapons cache. The adults died immediately. But the little boy, who did not weigh much, hovered between life and death for more than half an hour.
"Where is God?" someone standing behind Wiesel asked, and Wiesel relates in the book that a voice from inside him replied: "Here, He is. He is hanging here on the gallows." More than eight million copies of "Night" were sold in the United States alone. Oprah Winfrey chose it for her Book Club, and articles appeared saying the hanging scene never happened in reality, or that there was no child there. The leading questioner of the scene's veracity was Prof. Raoul Hilberg, one of the world's preeminent Holocaust scholars. Hilberg told Haaretz correspondent Daphna Berman last month that he was convinced the hanging had taken place but that "I don't know whether there was a child there."
Hilberg bases his claim, inter alia, on the testimony in the Auschwitz archives naming the three persons hanged but does not mention that one was a child. In Hilberg's opinion, the question of whether there was a child among them is of great significance to Christian readers because the scene in which two adults and a child are hanged represents for them the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In an interview I had with Wiesel a month ago ?(Haaretz, June 9, 2006?), Wiesel said that "everything written in 'Night' is factual. Even the silence between the words is factual. God forbid, everything in this book is true." He added that he had met the brother of the boy who was hanged in the United States.
Subsequently, Rabbi Dov Edelstein, a survivor of Auschwitz, contacted Haaretz. "I was present at the hanging of the two adults and the boy," he says.
Edelstein, a Conservative rabbi, is now a pensioner who lives at Alfei Menashe and is a member of the Hod Vehadar Conservative congregation in Kfar Sava. He had been the rabbi of Conservative congregations in Michigan, Wisconsin and Georgia. He says: "I remember the exact details. There is no doubt about this. I am a living eyewitness. The story is absolutely true."
In the article, I mentioned that the number tatooed on Wiesel's arm is A-77133. Edelstein notes that "there are 155 numbers between his number and mine." He says: "Every day when we returned from work, the minute we returned, everyone went to his own block. On that particular day they told us no one was to go away. We went to the Appelplatz, the huge roll-call square in the center of the camp. In the middle of the Appelplatz was a structure with three wooden posts that resembled the goals on a football field. I saw it and didn't understand what it was.
"We waited and waited and meanwhile the orchestra played," he recalls. "Suddenly I saw three figures approaching under a heavily armed SS guard. They brought them to the three strange structures that I couldn't identify and then there was a ceremony. We had to put our hats on and take them off." Edelstein says that "the Nazis told us what the three had done. They had stolen explosive materials from work and blown up the crematoria at Birkenau. I think they even killed some SS men," he adds. "I was a youngster then, about 16-plus. It was the first time I had seen a hanging, and it was extremely shocking to see the young boy being hanged. After that, I saw a great many." Edelstein does not remember how long the boy remained alive.
The holy violin
A very mystical scene in "Night" takes place toward the conclusion of World War II, during the death march that set out from Auschwitz. At night, in a place called Gleiwitz, Juliek, one of the members of the camp's orchestra, pulled out his violin and played a fragment of a concerto by Beethoven:
"The sound of the violin in this dark shed, where the dead were heaped on the living...How could I forget that concert given to an audience of dying and dead men?" Since then, Wiesel writes, he always thinks of the death march when he hears a Beethoven concerto.
The violin scene has also been doubted. In this case, the question is whether someone would have been bothered to take with him such an awkward and heavy instrument as a violin in the horrific conditions of the death march. Edelstein says of the death march: "We walked on foot all night and people fell down dead. Anyone who couldn't walk was shot. Simply got a bullet. The way was strewn with body after body." He continues: "The story about the violin sounds possible to me. The orchestra used to play for us every day. For a member of the orchestra, the violin was more than holy, it was the greatest treasure in the world. It had saved his life when he was in the camp. He had stayed alive by virtue of the violin. It created a deep emotional bond."
Edelstein says that in the commotion that existed on the day they left for the death march, it was reasonably possible to have been able to secretly remove a violin from the camp.
The survivors of the death march were taken on the train for 10 days from Poland until they reached Germany. They got no food and lived merely off snow. They looked like skeletons and Wiesel relates that the residents of the German villages through which they passed stared at them in astonishment. From time to time, the train would stop so that the bodies of the dead could be thrown from the wagons.
Battles for bread
One day, when they stopped, a German laborer pulled a piece of bread from his bundle and threw it in the direction of the train. Wiesel tells how in that wagon people began attacking each other like wild dogs, tearing each other apart and biting each other. The laborers gathered round and suddenly started throwing pieces of bread into the different wagons, he says. These onlookers watched as "the skeletons" began literally killing one another just to get a piece of bread.
Wiesel recalls how an old man crawled out of the wagon on all fours with a piece of bread in his hand. His son attacked him and took the food away from him. Two other people fell on the son and when the tumult was over, the father and son were dead.
Edelstein, who does not know Wiesel personally, also was in one of the wagons. "Wiesel believes the laborers threw the bread because they wanted to have fun and see how the Jews would fight over it. I don't agree with him at all," he says. "I remember the faces of the laborers. They appeared to be in shock and were at their wits' end; they were people who had never seen such a sight in their lives. There was rationing at the time, and this was their daily ration of bread. You wouldn't throw away bread like that. I was surprised at Wiesel for seeing them in such a negative light."
Ten thousand prisoners, including "kapos" and commanders of the blocks, participated in the Rosh Hashanah prayer service, held in the Buna forced labor camp at Auschwitz in 1944, Wiesel relates in "Night." The hazan chanted "Blessed be the name of the Eternal," and the crowd responded with the benediction. This for Wiesel was not a prayer service like any other. "Why, but why should I bless Him?" he asks in the book. "In every fiber of my body I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematoria working night and day, on the Sabbath and on feast days?" On that day, Wiesel relates, "I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God was the accused... We stayed for a long time at the assembly place. No one dared to drag himself away from this mirage. Then it was time to go to bed and slowly the prisoners made their way to their blocks. I heard people wishing one another a Happy New Year!"
Was there a prayer?
Edelstein confirms the scene of the hanging but is totally in disagreement over that of the prayer service and the possibility that 10,000 people would gather in Auschwitz openly to hold a forbidden prayer service.
"Even the imagination cannot conceive of such a service," he says. "I wonder what could have happened to Wiesel that he would write such a thing. It's simply hallucinatory. He must have been dreaming."
Edelstein who also wrote a book about his experiences in the Holocaust, cites the opposite kind of example. On the eve of Yom Kippur, when the Kol Nidrei prayer is recited, he says, "we got together with the utmost secrecy, and quietly, in whispers, recited our prayers."