Elie Wiesel, my man for all seasons: First yahrzeit
Elie Wiesel, my man for all seasons: First yahrzeit

The Present Tense

In our Jewish tradition, the first yahrzeit, the memorable date of passing, of Elie Wiesel was on Sivan 26th which this year was on June 20th. In the secular calendar, the first anniversary of the great writer’s passing fell on July 2, 2017. 

My husband Michael was surprised when I mentioned to him that it is the first yahrzeit of Elie. “How come? Already? So quickly? It feels that it had happened just so very recently”, - Michael said, a bit baffled. “Yes, it does feel this way”, - I replied. In truth, I still am in denial of the fact of Wiesel’s passing. Not an intellectual denial, but an emotional one. 

I do not feel that this man is not among us. I still feel his pain, feel it outpouring from his books; I also am completely in-tune with his questions which have no answers. I can hear his voice, see his eyes with that unique look.  And of course, that disarming smile. The smile which assures you that this world is still the right place to be despite all the horrors committed against innocent people by the ones who were supposed to have had some It feels strange and misplaced to speak about Elie in the past tense.
human inclinations, too.

It feels strange and misplaced to speak about Elie in the past tense. When Norman Lebrecht wrote his fantastic Why Mahler? book, he decided to set it in present tense, evoking quite a shower of criticism from a conventional reviewers who simply did not get the author’s point, or rather his sense of time. Absolutely justly, Lebrecht felt the hero of his book, Gustav Mahler, one of the most dramatic figures in the modern world of culture, was his contemporary. I am in full solidarity with Norman on his choice, and indeed, his so very special, the one of a kind book on Mahler would lose half of its magnetism would it be set in ‘ an accurate’, from the point of view of conventional reviewers, past tense. The point here is not grammatic. The point is on one’s sense of a person, of time, and of drama around us. 

I have the same sensation with regard to Raoul Wallenberg. I just feel him as my contemporary ever since I was in my late 20s. And this feeling is subconsious one, to a serious degree. 

Maybe, with the years passing on, I will be able to perceive Elie Wiesel in a way that would enable me to write and to think about him in past tense, but it certainly is not happening now, a year since his precious soul left This World.

I often think about what made Wiesel such universal phenomenon There were many well-known survivors, many of them writers, artists, actors, musicians, some public figures, but hardly anyone among them ha.d been so non-divisive and so universally respected and loved as Wiesel. Did he try to please various parties? He did not. Was he changing his views in order to be compatible to a variety of affiliations? No, that was not the case either.

I think that the Wiesel’s secret for being loved and respected universally was his ultimate modesty. We all love modest people because they give us room for our own existential world. In the case of Elie Wiesel, there was a truly rare phenomenon: being a completely introverted person, he was still perceived by many of us as a relative, and often as a close relative. I do not know any other case like that except another human giant, Leonard Cohen. Leonard was much more vivid and animated though, due to both his profession and his biography.

There is also another question that arises here: there are so many books on the Holocaust and the Second World War, so many personal accounts. Why it is that the Wiesel’s books took such a grip of so many hearts? I think, it is because of the combination of two factors: Wiesel’s crystal honesty was narrated in his customary undertone. At the moment of horror a man speaks to himself, whispering.  Speaking to himself, Elie Wiesel healed so many. And evoked so many others. 

That writer respected his readers per definition; he did not lie to us. His and his family’s experience existed in Elie Wiesel’s life in its present tense always. He felt them alive and their being next to him, as we all do feel our parents, grandparents  and siblings alive - it does not matter how many years since their passing. Such is the nature of human existence.

How to speak the unspeakable?

After reading practically everything that Wiesel ever wrote, all his books of  documentary prose, his memoirs, novels, essays, his books on prolific Jewish personalities and heroes, this main question occupies my mind for years: how on earth does one speak the unspeakable?  

I am not surprised at all that for more than ten years, until he turned almost 30, Wiesel did not talk about his Holocaust experience and tried to avoid the subject in general by all means. 

My grandfather being far more mature man than young Elie who was just 17 when the Second World War was over, never spoke about his experience in the Stalin prison, already after the war, during fierce anti-Semitic purges in the 1950s in the Soviet Union. 

The silence of the Holocaust survivors is a very well-known phenomenon. In the case of Wiesel, however, it was not silence for life. As he matured, he fell compelled to write it all down writing frantically aboard while sailing to Argentina in early 1950s. The first version of Night is 900 pages, it does exist in Yiddish, and in my opinion, this book written under the title And the World Has Remained Silent has to be translated into English, if that has not happened. We owe Elie that much.

There is no question about the direct connection between the size of the classic version of Night and the effect of that - probably the most important book - on the Holocaust. The super-concise, quasi-distilled prose of Night has its sensational, bombshell-like impact on readers to a serious extent because it is so screamingly laconic. 

But in order to examine the process in general, in order to know what Elie Wiesel wanted to say in the first place when he decided to do so, it would be very important, and truly necessary, in my opinion, to publish the first edition of Night, those 900 pages in English and the other languages, as well.

Thinking back on the circumstances in which 17-year old Elie found himself after the liberation from Buchenwald, I try to analyse his way of becoming the Reminder. 

I try to put together those bits of the picture which are still puzzling me: you are witnessing the things which are beyond your capacity to perceive, both regarding your immediate family, your friends, acquaintances, neighbours, and people in general; you are shocked by the cruelty, sadism and crimes around you to the bone; you are victimized repeatedly, in myriads of sorts and ways, daily and nightly, for quite a long time.

You are brutally and abruptly forced into livid hell which stays with you forever. A teenager, not a small child anymore, you witness the horrible murder of your beloved little sister, helpless, beautiful, innocent child, and you are unable to do a thing about it, even to scream. 

In our family, my young aunt Minna who was just 18 had been murdered by the Nazis in Ukraine in August 1941, and the helplessness of the rest of my family, especially my grandmother, to do something to save her younger sister overshadowed her life until the end of it. 

After the Shoah, 17-year old Elie Wiesel was alone in the world. How does one get up and out of that abyss? How to live with all those nightmares, more real than day-light realities?
My husband’s aunt had been murdered at the same time and place by the Nazis and their Ukrainian eager collaborators with her entire family, including two small sons, boys aged three and five, and Michael’s family, his surviving grandmother, mother and aunt were tormented by their daughter and sister’s destiny for the rest of their lives. 

This kind of pain, and this kind of partially irrational but still very powerful feeling of guilt for not being able to save the loved ones, stays with us for good. This feeling has no statute of limitations.

Coming back to the experience of Elie Wiesel - you lived through an ultimate horror. You lost your mother, murdered practically in front of your eyes. You saw your beautiful eight year old little sister being thrown into the flames, literally. You witnessed your beloved father dying, emaciated by terrible hunger and disease, beaten and molested in his last hour in front of you, with you kept away from him on purpose by the beasts in your barrack in the camp, not the German ones, but Poles and Ukrainians, and you cannot overcome the thugs and get close to your dying father who is tearfully calling for you, and this is going on for hours.

Now, how-one-is-able-to-live after all this, being seventeen at the moment of getting this outcome of human experience in a pace of time compressed by non-stopping horror? I have no answer to that question. 

What to do with your life, whose adolescence has been spent in the Nazi camps, and who is still quite young, as a young tree, to be able to withstand the horrific pressure of the nightmare-like yesterday that never ends?    

I was not surprised to learn and understand from Elie Wiesel’s tormenting and beautiful books on his several suicide attempts. Yes, it comes against our Jewish tradition, and Elie of many people did know that tradition by heart and lived it with devotion and understanding. But  you do sympathise completely to his palpable inability to live without all those dear ones who were taken from him by animal-like criminals. All of his loved ones suffered so much, they did not just pass away in their sleep. This also affects one’s psyche day and night, perpetually. 

After the Shoah, 17-year old Elie Wiesel was alone in the world. How does one get up and out of that abyss? How to live with all those nightmares, more real than day-light realities?

When reading in several of Wiesel’s books about his almost unpreventable semi-conscious desire to get closer and closer to the huge space of an ocean from shipboard, you understand that an overwhelming attraction of bottomless sea could be seen by him at the time as a calming answer or comforting space with no answers needed any longer. 

And then, in Day you are smashed realizing that in throwing himself under the taxi in New York, the young hero had no strength, no will, any physical and metaphysical possibility to live; to continue his existence in this world being so tragically and totally orphaned. 

You start to realize that contrary to the general belief that with the maturing of a person, the tragedy of an orphan is eased, that no, it is not like that , it is being immersed into that unbounded sea of restrained and dignified but pulsating desperately pure pain of the orphan who is 20, and then 25, and then 30, while reading Wiesel’s books. 

The contrast of a huge city as New York, so ever busy, with a desperately lonely soul, wounded and orphaned, hanging in a blackened space around it, only makes this pain sharper.

And here he was alone in that post-Second World War world, the world which was frantically busy and rather cold at the same time. It is important to realisz that the horrors of the war, as it happened, did not ignite much compassion in Europe, or in the USA or anywhere else, actually. In that cold and busy world, there was that poor, hungry, tormented Jewish man who was inclining to jump into the bottomless ocean rather than to lead a happy life.

He did not know how to get married. He just could not. He had some relationships, naturally, but he just could not start a family. That part of the Elie’s inside world froze and he was sure that it was for good.

But so very luckily, he was still going to his small and modest shul (synagogue) in New York, the address of which he guarded from the journalists till almost the end of his life. One guards in this way something which is especially dear to him. 

And then, in the early 1960s,  he decided to visit Rebbe Schneerson. When more than a half of a century later I saw the footage of Elie Wiesel remembering that meeting, I could see it non-stop, because of the way Wiesel talked about the Rebbe, because of his eyes, and that smile of an introvert child who had been happy for a moment and grateful for that forever.

As we know, the Rebbe, who knew about the Wiesel’s grandfather, an important hassidic Rabbi in Romania, and who took a special interest in the orphaned young writer, it was that giant of man, Menachem Mendel Schneerson who managed to convince Elie, against all odds, to get married and to start a family. 

We know how happy the Rebbe was when Elie and Marion wed in Jerusalem. And we know that Elie Wiesel put so much meaning in the Rebbe’s role in his family’s very origin that he believed that the bouquet which the Rebbe sent on the day of their chuppah was the most beautiful bouquet in their entire life.

Having Love Back

Wiesel married his wife of 47 years when he was 41, rather late. From that moment onward, his life was happier, especially with the birth of his only son Elisha who looks so remarkably like Wiesel’s father after whom he is named.

The land and country of Israel was a magnet of love in Wiesel's life. Elie went to Israel on his first opportunity, soon after the war, in 1949, being very young, just 19 . Reading his description of his and the other peoples’ feelings aboard that small ship sailing for Haifa, so soon after the end of the war, Jews who survived the hell of the Shoah and were' anticipating their first encounter with the land and the country which is the centre of the universe for many of us, one has a very strong sensation of being aboard that ship physically, and the distanceof time disappears again, as always happens in Wiesel’s books.

The same feeling is felt by those of us who who read the first encounter of young journalist Wiesel with the Kotel, the Western Wall. It is like the most sacred things enrooted in him  - and us  - going back generations, were materialized in a dream-like way, made of another kind of substance. The one which keeps you on the ground, preventing you from jumping into the dark whirl of an ocean, saving you from your desperate nights.

Israel became a source and subject of love which started to return to young survivor Wiesel from his first visit there. His love for Israel was unconditional, as real love can only be. His pride in Israel was a source of motivation for his work, and his inspiration for life. He kept that beautiful and so meaningful for him tradition of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday of giving the Torah to the Jewish nation, in Israel, among his friends, and he was so happy not sleeping that special night, reading and learning the Torah at the synagogue in Israel along with his dear friends there.

It made a lot of sense for Elie, because his family was taken by the Nazis to Auschwitz precisely on Shavuot, and the uplifting and inspiring holiday of receiving the Torah had become the blackest mark of his and his family’s life since he was 15. How and where to try to erase that blackness, if not in the Jewish state, among the friends, many of them survivors, honouring the memory of his parents, grandparents and his little sister?..

Similarly to Leonard Cohen, Wiesel supported the IDF with all his heart, and like Leonard, he wanted so much to get enlisted into the Israeli army. But they both were kept safe by the IDF commanders who knew that it would be better not to subject them to any risks.

Life Returned

And then, Elie became jolly. He was smiling and he was laughing. He was singing and he was dancing. The fountain of love opened inside him pulsating till the end of his life. What had happened?

He w,ent to the Soviet Union and met with the Jewish people there. The first time Wiesel went to Moscow in 1965. It was love from the first glance between him and his brethren there, and that love was mutual. The 37-years old writer saw the people so very close to him, stoic, modest, aspiring in their hearts, avid readers and thinkers, people living under constant pressure. 

Indeed, we did live in a way I would barely believe myself later relating the details which sound so Orwellian but which were our daily life. We did not know any other. 

What’s more, we knew for sure that there would be no other life for us encaged inside the USSR. That knowledge defined so many people’s mentality and mode of behaviour in the Soviet Union.

When my husband and I met with Elie Wiesel in Helsinki just over two decades after he came to see the Soviet Jews for the first time, we were surprised and humbled by his warmth, respect and interest towards us. 

Although there were other precious meetings with Elie, in New York and the other places, during the years that followed, we both still remember our first meeting with him, as if it happened just yesterday. 

It is due to that genuine, warm fraternity that he was so generously radiating towards us that a special bond formed between us and the great writer in no time; the bond which is the one of our treasures in life.

How did he reach both outcomes in his creations? Because he had the guts to speak his heart out, and this language is both highly individual and vastly universal.  
And he did help. To end the siege of the Soviet Jewry became Wiesel’s priority  tackled tirelessly and successfully. His impact on the eventual liberation of the Soviet Jewry can not be underestimated, and he did it with love. 

The attitude that Soviet Jewry had towards Elie during more than 30 years, from his first visit to the Moscow Choral Synagogue until the collapse of the USSR and the Elie’s visit just literally on that very moment in 1989, has always been very special. 

There was no one who had been so much loved by many people among Soviet Jewry, ultimately loved without any expectations, any agenda at all, as Elie. People there knew that Wiesel was family. The family. The one that he lost, perhaps?

In any case, in my reading of Wiesel’s life, it was his very destiny-like acquaintance with the Soviet Jewry that made it possible for him to return to life, to start to feel its colours, to remember his disappeared laughter, to feel compassion. The people whom Elie met in Moscow and the other places in the Soviet Union, embraced him with instant, natural family-like aura which he had lost, he thought, forever.

Elie and the Jews of Silence as he named them, did remember each other mutually for long time, despite the pauses in Wiesel’s visits to the Soviet Union. In my understanding, this was his return to life, which had happened shortly before his marriage. Those three major happenings - Elie’s visit and his connection to the Rebbe, his bond with Soviet Jewry, and his marriage form his line of return of his ability to live again. to survive the Survival.

Striving for the Answer

I always thought that Wiesel’s Night is the ultimate book on the Holocaust. I am convinced that as the book has imprinted the Shoah into the minds and hearts of the millions, the film could have this pivotal role, too.  

With the role and place of cinema in the modern world, its effect would be colossal. I quite aware of Wiesel’s categorical refusal to make amovie from his Night; with his utter disbelief in the possibility of his book to be transformed into a film. 

I also know about his conviction of the impossibility ‘to show’ the Holocaust  in general, believing that to describe the Holocaust is a mission impossible.

He also was convinced that Khurban, Whirling Destruction, as he preferred to call it, and as the Holocaust survivors actually called it during the years after the Catastrophe, just cannot be explained.

I can see the point in the Wiesel’s conviction. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, we are sitting with a deaa r friend, highly educated diplomat whose graduation work was on Paul Celan and who tirelessly works during all her long distinguished international career to make sure that the Holocaust remembrance is alive n any country she is posted, from the US to Finland. 

My friend says: “I am thinking about it my entire life since my youth, and am lost for answer still. How on earth the Nazism did succeed to the degree we know? How did the ideology of inflamed nationalism transform  into a massive bestiality?”  

At the very same time, my other friends, two professors of history, were debating the issue of the expectations of the local population of Europe, including the Jewish residents there, on the eve of the war, of the Nazis to behave according to the known culture and education . “How on earth could our predecessors be so utterly naive?” – asked the first professor. – “But how  could that truly cultured and education nation turn into such sadists in no time?”, – asked the second one.  And both were lost for answers, the same as Elie Wiesel.

I know the position of the Rebbe Schneerson on the issue , as he was asked about it by many troubled souls, including Elie Wiesel. 

The Rebbe was personally affected by the Holocaust deeply and painfully, too. His younger brother DovBer, completely helpless and on his own, had been murdered by the Nazis in Dnepropetrovsk, the city in which my grand-aunt young Minna with her immediate family, and my husband’s aunt Chalah with her small children had been murdered too, at the same time. The Rebbe’s father died of hunger in exile in Kazakhstan in 1944 and his mother who was with her husband in exile, never recovered from that horrible experience. But the Rebbe kept his personal pain to himself while tirelessly healing others' wounds, as he did for many years for Elie Wiesel. 

When you see the footage of the Rebbe’s meetings with Wiesel, you are impressed by the Rebbe’s reaction on seeing Wiesel every time. The Rebbe looked on Wiesel as on his own son or grandson, his feelings are palpable; and Wiesel’s smile every time when he sees Rebbe is the  smile when one sees his beloved uncle.  The Rebbe spoke with Elie in a way which was neither formal, or distant, it was a family talk. I will always remember how the Rebbe was minding Wiesel ‘not to be angry in his books, "because you are affecting so many of your readers that way”. The Rebbe read what was in the Elie’s books and went straight into Wiesel’s heart. What could be more merciful than that?..

But I, I am still looking for the answer.. The whole truth has not been said and become the public domain, not on the pre-Second World War development, nor on the situation after it. This maimed, distorted in many ways the picture of the happenings which led to the Holocaust and which became its continuation for several decades after 1945, precludes us from getting the answer which Elie Wiesel felt impossible to get. But I still think that the effort is iworth a try . 

Wiesel felt himself to be comped to examine the understanding about the Khurban, the Whirl of Destruction, one generation after. He authored a brilliant self-research and self-portrait on that called simply, One Generation After.  

Three generations after, there are  people who are still devoted to that search, brilliant historians and honest, brave men, deep-looking cinematographers, still looking for the answer.  

Three generations after, I am still looking for the answer, too. You just cannot explain your absorption with this subject when you are asked about it. I only know that you need to walk you own way to realise the phenomenon of the Shoah. I think that each of us, the people who are devoted to the theme, do have our own, very personal understanding of it. You have to place it in your heart, in your world. And yes, it is impossible to place it to your mind because it does not go there. 

But there is a compass of your emotional world which always moves its arrow  towards the Shoah pole, every time the theme is evoked in many of its variations.  This compass commands your occupation and your involvement. This compass is leading you, and you know the arrow has oriented you in your world.  

Elie Wiesel’s honesty in relating the Khurban’s shock to the world stays as the beacon of truth. It also stays as an unparalleled sample of humanism, after the tragedy he and our people lived through,  and the trauma which he and the other survivors were living with the rest of their lives. 

How that utter, shattering, devastating suffering melted into that unforgettable Elie smile? For that, I have no answer, and I know that there is none. So, I perceive it as a mercy of the Creator and as a miracle. To show to the Nazi and pro-Nazi beasts of all sorts the answer to their bestial effort,  the Holocaust has become a source of many miracles, as we know. Wiesel’s smile was one of them.

But the knowledge which he produced for mankind on the Shoah and on human beings is not a miracle.  This is the fruit of the hardest labour possible, and this is a revelation. 

It is revelation because the first-hand knowledge and unbearable personal experience were processed through his innocent, good soul, and it was told modestly, unpretentiously, honestly, with a rare sincerity. 

Elie used to say when people were astounded by the degree of honesty that they found in his books: “Why write if not to tell the truth?..” He saw things this way. To be honest and sincere in literature is a very demanding task. To do so on the subject of Khurban is almost mission impossible because you are living it all again and again. But from some certain moment, Wiesel knew that it would be his path, and he went through it with outstanding devotion. He thought that he was not courageous enough. But in sharing his and our people’s pain and truth, he was heroic. 

There is a quiet love and there is a quiet suffering. In the case of Elie Wiesel, his suffering had become quiet because a voice had gone from the man who was shocked by what he had been through. Was he telling the story on behalf of all the victims of the Shoah and survivors? Absolutely. Was he talking to us privately so that we see a person behind his every word? Definitely. 

How did he reach both outcomes in his creations? Because he had the guts to speak his heart out, and this language is both highly individual and vastly universal.      

In speaking the depth of a wounded heart out to the world, and the outstanding courage of doing it; in devotion to his family and his brethren, I see the life-long work of the haunted Jewish youth from a small Romanian town as coming from the remarkable man who was loved by the Creator. My man for all seasons, Elie Wiesel. 

Dr Inna Rogatchi is the writer, scholar, film-maker and fine art photographer in whose work the Holocaust is having an essential place. She the author of The Lessons of Survival, the internationally acclaimed film on Simon Wiesenthal - , http://www.rogatchifilms.org/lessons-of-survival/ 
Her project Shining Souls. Champions of Humanity is on the international tour after its premiere at the European Parliament. Her forthcoming book is on the legacy of Post-Holocaust. She also president of The Rogatchi Foundation, public figure and philanthropist. More about Inna Rogatchi, her work and activities at The Rogatchi Foundation - www.rogatchifoundation.org, Rogatchi Films - www.rogatchifilms.org, and The Rogatchi Art Gallery - www.rogatchigallery.org