What Is Elie Wiesel's Legacy? Noted Jewish Writers Weigh In

A Haaretz tribute to the incomparable, pioneering writer of human experience who passed away this week, and who taught the world so much about the cruelty and dignity of mankind.

Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel attending a symposium of Jewish-Hungarian solidarity in Budapest, December 9, 2009.
Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Elie Wiesel filled many roles in his life. Yet, throughout his life, he considered himself first and foremost to be a writer of human experience. In his memory, Haaretz turned to several noted Jewish authors in Israel and abroad, and asked them: How has his writing affected you? And, as a writer, what legacy has he bequeathed to you?

Nadine Epstein is editor and executive publisher of Moment, the U.S.-based bimonthly magazine that Elie Wiesel, together with Leonard Fein, founded in 1975 as a “forum for diverse views on Jewish culture, politics and religion.”

Epstein reflects on the impact that Wiesel’s novel, “Night” (first published in French in 1958, and in English in 1960) had on her life and “on the lives of so many young people, then and now. I have met young people from all over the world who, through Wiesel’s ability to communicate his experience, have learned about the Holocaust and about both human cruelty and dignity.

“Indeed," Epstein adds, "Wiesel was so sure of his mission to keep memory based on experience alive that he gave birth to a genre, a Zeitgeist. He was a pioneer of this process. He found his own way to write his memories, and he encouraged others to find their way. He wrote of real events, but he was not writing history ... It is thanks to Wiesel that today we value memory as a genre.”

Wiesel also wrote, she says, “because of his own internal conflicts, especially about Judaism and theology. He used his writing to come to peace with his own internal conflicts, especially about Judaism and theology. He never resolved these conflicts, perhaps he did not believe, after the Holocaust, that they could ever be resolved. Yet he came to live in peace with those conflicts.”

Israeli writer Michal Govrin – the award-winning author of 10 books of poetry and fiction, whose work has been anthologized in a collection, “Hold On to the Sun” (2010) – says that Wiesel “left us the responsibility to continue to hold the memories.”

In a most profound way, Govrin adds, Wiesel has left us to deal with the meaning of being a Jew after the Holocaust. “He asked, ‘Who is a Jew? What is a Jew?’ Because if they try to exterminate you because you are a Jew, then what is the meaning of your Jewishness? What is the meaning of being a human being, if they tried to erase you?”

For Wiesel, one meaning was remembering. “Each survivor has a voice that tells us to continue to remember, and each of us remembers differently. But Wiesel’s death puts all of us who come after him at a crossroad. We, who did not experience the Holocaust, cannot remember. We cannot recreate the experience for others, we cannot create representations of the Holocaust.

"We can only transmit memory, and we will have to find our way to do this. We must, so that the memory of the Holocaust will have meaning for the present and the future, and not only for the past.

“This is the legacy that Elie Wiesel left us, and it is a heavy, heavy legacy,” Govrin concludes.

Ayelet Waldman, best-selling Israeli-American novelist and essayist, in May 2014 in Jerusalem.
Emil Salman

A. B. Yehoshua, the renowned "elder statesman" of Israeli literature, says that Wiesel “set the first spark that lit the fire of writing about the Holocaust, burning deep in Jewish literature in Israel and abroad.

“He was a true emissary of his experience and the experience of the Holocaust," Yehoshua says. "And that was a tremendous achievement for his time, because no one wanted to read him. Like a prophet, he went from town to town, making himself heard even when no one wanted to hear him.”

Yehoshua reveals that he was “angry at Wiesel because he didn’t live here in Israel, and it is only here in Israel that one can live a full Jewish experience. But Elie Wiesel was a kind and gentle man ... and he was very hurt by cynical comments that he was making ‘Shoah-business.’ He, the most famous Jew in the world, a man whose very being was Jewish, could not live here. We in Israel should think what that means for our society.”

"Yet, even though Wiesel was such a gentle man,” Yehoshua continues, “he was a man of great courage. He stood up to presidents and world leaders. He condemned and denounced injustice. He set an example for us all.

Honoring experiences

Ayelet Waldman, best-selling Israeli-American novelist and essayist, says that Wiesel “affected my writing in a most profound way.”

First, she says, “it was Wiesel that taught me about the Holocaust. Like many teenage girls, I was obsessed with the Holocaust, and I read 'Night' at that point in my life – it was the tale of someone who was my age ... Wiesel had the ability to write his experience in a way that did not turn me into a voyeur and somehow made the incomprehensible accessible.”

At the same time, she continues, “he taught me the limits of what I can write ... If you are not Primo Levi or Elie Wiesel, how do you write about these experiences, without being exploitative? How can you write with authenticity? That does not mean that we cannot write about things we have not experienced ourselves, but it does mean that we must never exploit our ability to write to trivialize an experience we do not know.”

She faced these issues, Waldman says, when writing her best-selling book, “Love and Treasure,” a tale based on the Hungarian Gold Train in World War II. “There were scenes that I wrote ... that I had to take out because Wiesel’s writing challenged me to find a way to write to honor an experience, not to exploit it.

Waldman has also been influenced and inspired by Wiesel’s stands on human atrocities perpetrated, for example, in Rwanda and Bosnia.

“As writers, we scramble to write in a way that will do justice to the magnitude of the Holocaust or other atrocities. Yet we know that there is no way we can really do them justice. Wiesel’s legacy is that we most know and accept this, and that we must continue to write to honor those experiences.”

Israeli poet, writer, editor and lecturer Hava Pinhas Cohen, recalls when she first read “Night.” “As an Israeli-born teenager, the daughter of a family who fled Europe, this was the first time that I could begin to understand what it meant to be a Jew abroad. My family never spoke about what they had gone through. When I read Wiesel ... I felt the hatred that Jews had experienced. I felt his helplessness, his vulnerability, his most primordial feelings of persecution – these were new experiences to me, growing up here, and they made me much more humble.

“As a writer, Wiesel didn’t write about – he wrote the experience itself. I learned that the role of literature, and my responsibility as a writer, is to bring to readers the opportunity to identify with something they cannot experience. Indeed, that is the meaning of all art.”

Eliaz Cohen, a poet and peace activist from the Gush Etzion area of the West Bank, says that the world did not appreciate how great an author Wiesel was.

Cohen: “I spoke to him about the fact that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, and not the Nobel Prize for Literature. And he told me that he didn’t mind, because the goal of all literature is to be an emissary of the spirit of humanity.

“And he truly saw himself as an emissary of humanity, as a man of mission. In our days, terms like 'emissary' and 'mission' have a negative connotation, as if we are supposed to write only about ourselves.”

But Wiesel, says Cohen, knew better: He saw himself, he says, as “’the Watchman of the House of Israel’ (Ezekiel 33:7). He understood that his story was even more significant because it was part of a whole. He brought his own voice, yet knew that it echoed through the universe of voices that surrounded him.”

Cohen believes that Jewish writers in the Diaspora may be returning to find that voice, but that in Israel, “we have cut ourselves off, elevating our single experiences. The legacy of Elie Wiesel can bring us back to our mission as writers. He understood, as we must, that each word he wrote was resting on the words written before and after him.”