The Saintliness of Elie Wiesel

His lesson: The beast that sleeps in man must not divert us from a holy task.

Elie Wiesel.
Michal Fattal

It begins in a world now gone, lying at the borders of Ruthenia, Bukovina and Galicia, forgotten places that were the glory of the Habsburg Empire and of European Judaism, a world of which nothing remains 70 years later, except ruined palaces, empty Baroque churches, and synagogues leveled and never rebuilt.

This lost world, rid of its Jews and stripped of its achievements, has lost one of its last witnesses.

That witness’s name was Elie Wiesel.

He lived many more years than did the obliterated people of his brothers.

But from that obliteration he fashioned a second birth. Working with the shadows and flames of their humble destinies, he devoted his life, in fear and trembling, to bringing about a resurrection.

For me that is what stands out in the life of the author of “Night” and “Messengers of God.”

Elie Wiesel rubbed elbows with the greatest of the great in this world.

He garnered the same vast, worldwide, enduringly iconic admiration as Yehudi Menuhin.

But what stands out for me is that he never stopped being that yehudi, that ordinary Jew, that survivor whose heart would pound as he passed through customs in New York or Paris.

What stands out equally starkly is that he set himself just one task, a task impossible and categorical. That lifelong task, for the accomplishment of which he had only his tongue, and not even his native tongue at that but the one he learned in an orphanage for deported children, the language he learned at age 15, the French language that he made his violin – that task, then, the task that he had set for himself, was to become the living tomb, the cenotaph, of the beggars of Sighet, of the comically clumsy ghetto Hasidim, and of the countless campmates who had, in the face of the silence of God, chanted the Kaddish (mourner’s prayer) for their own passing. Countless lives reduced to ash and smoke, sloughed into dust or filmy memory, lives of which there would have remained, without Wiesel, no name or trace.

I do not know if Elie Wiesel was a “great” writer.

But I am convinced that he, like Benny Lévy, another friend, believed that a Jew of his ilk does not come into the world to pursue literature as a profession.

His work has neither the inaccessible sublimity of Kafka, the paradoxically lofty power of Proust, nor, perhaps, the laconic grace of Paul Celan, who wrote that, in the country they shared, one finds nothing but books and men.

But he is one of the few to have spoken the unspeakable about the camps.

He shares with Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz – how many others? – the terrible privilege of having felt six million shadows pressing against his frail silhouette in an effort to gain their almost imperceptible place in the great book of the dead.

His other great virtue, perhaps, is having ensured, through his work and henceforth in the minds of those inspired by that work, that the dark memory of that exception that was the Holocaust will not exclude – indeed, that the Holocaust requires – ardent solidarity with all of the victims of all other genocides.

I picture Wiesel in 1979 on the Cambodian border, where I met him for the first time, his familiar mop of hair a jet black wing hovering over his lean, handsome head. He was the first person I heard theorize on the sad imbecility of those who engage in competitive victimhood, those who insist that we have to choose our own dead – Jews or Khmer, the martyrs of this genocide or that.

I picture him seven years later in Oslo, where I had accompanied him to receive the Nobel Prize that he had wanted so much. At one point his face suddenly darkened as if overtaken by an unexplained anxiety. In his expression – which could pass in a moment from joy, gaiety and the sparkle of the eternal child flashing with intelligence and mischief, to the infinite sadness of one who has witnessed too much and will never recover from having seen the worst that man can do to man – the sadness now very clearly seemed to have won.

“The Nobel Prize,” he mused, “from now on I’ll be a Nobel prizewinner, but there is only one title that matters, which is Rebbe (teacher), and I know that I am not one. I know that I am and will always be no more than the Rebbe’s student.”

And then there was Wiesel’s last meeting with François Mitterrand, the Sphinx, the Machiavelli of the Elysée Palace. In their previous encounters, the villager from Sighet and the bourgeois from the Charentes had spoken, icon to icon, engaging in a long and deep exchange that, I believe, may have kindled some mutual affection.

Wiesel had the feeling of rediscovering, under the president’s power, something of the priestly unctuousness of that other François, François Mauriac, who had taken him under his wing on his return from Auschwitz and with whom he felt he had worked well in reducing the thousand-year-old misunderstanding between Jews and Christians.

But then, in this last meeting, he learned, bit by bit, that Mitterrand the Marist prince had blithely gone off to play golf on the day that his loyal lieutenant, Pierre Bérégovoy, committed suicide and that Mitterrand had continued, to the very last, to see and defend René Bousquet, head of the Vichy police and denouncer of Jews. Did he imagine then that he had been deceived? Duped? Co-opted? What was the game in which he had been set up to play the fall guy?

He had known court Jews. And now he had been consecrated as an official Jew. What had he forgotten of the chilling maxim from the Ethics of the Fathers: “Seek not undue intimacy with the ruling power”? The fathers knew that the temptation of being an official Jew is a delusion and a trap.

The greatness of Elie Wiesel, in truth, was to have remained to the end and under all circumstances one of those humble Jews that he considered to be the crown of humanity.

His nobility lay in never turning his back on the lesson of the Rebbe of Vizhnitz, a lesson that would not permit him ever to forget, even after he had donned the robe of the man of letters, that he bore the burden of those of his brothers, adorned in caftan and fur hat, who had wanted to be as elegant as the Polish nobles who pogromized them.

And I believe that not a day passed in Wiesel’s long life as a celebrated intellectual – covered in honors and laurels, consulted by the likes of Clinton, Bush and Obama – without spending at least an hour before a page of the Talmud or the Zohar knowing that initially he would understand nothing of what he read, no matter how much he poured into it the strength of his mind and body, but that this was the price of the only true celebration.

Just as his people had done in Sighet, believing that one day the Messiah would come.

Just as we do today when we grasp that neither Cambodia, nor Darfur, nor the massacres in Syria, nor the need, anywhere on the planet, to drive out the beast that sleeps in man – that none of these must divert us from the holy task of saving what we can of memory, meaning and hope.

That is the lesson of Elie Wiesel.

That is how, having left the land of men and books to speak to his waiting brothers in Manhattan and Paris, Elie Wiesel became one of the consciences of a time haunted, now more than ever, by crime, distraction and forgetfulness.

Published in conjunction with Project Syndicate.