Sunday, July 31, 2016

ELI WEISEL: Plight of a Gentle Jew

When Eli Weisel died on July 2, it was astonishing to discover he lived to be 87-years-old.  By all probability, he should have been dead in 1944.  I also felt some shame as I had not read or thought about the author and holocaust survivor in quite a few years.  I had read Night when I was in college and was jarred by almost every sentence in the memoir.  In this book barely more than 100 pages long, Weisel speaks about his recollections of Auschwitz.  Much more personally, he speaks about the death of his mother and sister and, at greater length, the murder of his father that he was present to witness.

Night is not merely a depiction of the horrors or Auschwitz.  Weisel devotes much of the book towards how his experienced impacted his religious beliefs.  Some of the most moving pages of Night take place in the years before Weisel even knew Auschwitz existed.  During his early teenage years, Weisel sought instruction on the Cabal, and was mentored by an eccentric teacher who prayed chiefly in order to learn how to pray.  Weisel sought such instruction because – deeply sensitive as he was – he knew that the organized Jewish faith was not enough to satisfy his mystical cravings.  

It was this same teacher, by the way, who was first to warn the small community about the manner in which Jews were treated in Nazi-occupied territory.  A firsthand observer of a slaughter of Jews at the hands of the Nazis, Weisel’s teacher faced mockery in his community who thought he was mad.  No one knew how truthfully he spoke until the trains entered Auschwitz. And it was what Weisel saw at Auschwitz that made him declare: “Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.  Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.  Never.”

While struggling with my own religious beliefs during my college years, this was in great deal a pose to demonstrate my intellectual independence.  Weisel struggled because of his inability to come to terms with what he saw in the Nazi concentration camps.  If one ended with what Weisel communicated in Night, you would assume Weisel no longer believed in God.  Yet whatever happened in the intervening years, Weisel later stated that belief in God was a continual necessity for otherwise one would cease to exist.

I do not feel I am in the position to question anyone who had seen such things regarding his inability to believe in God, nor his finding religious significance in what he had seen.  So I spent years trying to reconcile the Weisel making his statement about the death of God and his later statements about his belief.

Weisel did engage in political controversy long after he became famous as a writer.  He was a strong advocate of Israel and thought such a nation entirely necessary because of the manner that so many countries abandoned the Jews before and during World War II.  He begged President Ronald Reagan to not visit the Bitburg cemetery in 1985 because buried there were members of the SS.   Reagan did visit the cemetery after making the statement that the Nazi officers buried there were also victims.  However, Reagan did change his itinerary by also visiting the Bergen-Belsen concentration site.  Weisel was also firmly opposed to providing Iran any sort of opportunity to develop nuclear devices.

Disagreeing with Weisel over such issues proves almost as difficult as disagreeing with him over his statements about religious beliefs.  The problem in confronting Weisel is that you had in one man a holocaust survivor plagued by guilt, an author and intellectual, whose ideas sometimes appeared to be contradictory, and a decent man who was a truly deserving award winner of the Nobel Prize.

With his passing, we are coming towards the end of holocaust survivors who can speak about their experiences.  Sadly, such lessons do not appear adequately learned by most of us, and we may be in danger of raising a new generation who thinks little more about the lessons of the holocaust than they will about the Spanish Inquisition – which they already probably know little to nothing about.

I wish I had come across Night in some other setting than a college class.  It is a book that more individuals should seek to read on their own in the privacy of their homes where the lessons can be truly absorbed.

July 31, 2016

© Robert S. Miller 2016