Friday, September 07, 2007

Listening to Elie Wiesel

My daughter Chloe just began her college career at West Texas A&M University. Convocation ceremonies were Thursday night. The honored guest and featured speaker was Holocaust survivor, teaching scholar, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

Here and there, I had seen so many references to Wiesel. But I really didn't know much about him or his story.

Chloe had read, and was reading again, Night, Wiesel's memoir about his Holocaust experiences. A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy for myself. I never knew.

From the back cover of the paperback edition of Night: "Born in the town of Sighet, Translyvania, Elie Wiesel was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home in 1944 to the Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. Night is the terrifying record of Elie Wiesel's memories of the death of this family, the death of his own innocence, and his despair as a deeply observant Jew confronting the absolute evil of man."

No, the book is not a pick-me-up kind of read. But I can't remember anything that was more gripping than this book. In one of the more memorable sections, Wiesel interrupts his description and reflects:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget the smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw
transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.


I will remember seeing and hearing him speak for a long time. Some of the more memorable parts of his speech:

He noted that "Romeo and Juliet" is always and everywhere interpreted as a great love story. It's not, he said. It should be understood as a story about the kinds of things that can and do happen when two groups of people hate each other.

He mentioned that people often ask him how he managed to survive what he went through. He says that the big question has not been his survival, but rather the maintenance of his sanity in the years that have followed. People who have experienced deep grief should get to hear that from time to time, so that they won't imagine that they are alone.

He said he's noticed that whenever a cause has gripped and moved him, it's turned on the suffering of children. I thought to myself, Mature people just sense that there's something uniquely terrible about a child or adolescent being tortured and terrified.

He ended with this story:

Once upon a time, there was a young man who decided that he would spend his life helping other people. He consulted scholars who were expert in the conditions around the world. He wanted to know, "What is the worst place in the world? Where is the quality of life the lowest?" He was told, and he moved there.

As expected, the people of that place were hateful and violent and mean. The young man would stand on the sidewalk every day and tell the people walking by that they should treat each other better, live better lives.

He was ridiculed and insulted.

Finally, one day a girl laughed at him and told him, "Nobody's listening to you. Nobody cares. Why do you keep going on and on with your speeches to people who are ignoring you?

He said, "I used to speak like this so that I could change them. Now I do it to keep them from changing me."


Jim Martin said...

When I read this little book, I found it haunting. There were a few sections that I read through twice.

The book is an important work. And--it was important for me to have to read this work and live with it.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks for your comment, Jim. Reading "Night" has led me to pick up a few other memoirs of the Holocaust. Riveting and depressing, they make me sad and angry. But like you, I think it's important for people to be aware of who we can be, what we're capable of doing.