Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Abandoned by God, Betrayed by Mankind
Despite all he has seen, Elie Wiesel refuses to give up on faith or altruism.
29 January 2013

Open Heart, by Elie Wiesel (Knopf, 96 pp., $20)

Elie Wiesel has every reason to see the glass as half-empty. At 15, along with his unworldly father, mother, and sisters, he was taken from Sighet, Romania and sent to the death camps. Somehow, Elie survived Auschwitz—only to be assigned to Buchenwald. When the Allies liberated its prisoners in 1945, the traumatized orphan was taken to Paris, where he grew to young manhood, rootless and despondent.

He eked out a living as a journalist and wrote a fictive memoir of his experiences called Night. François Mauriac, a Catholic intellectual, was so moved by its narrative of Jewish agony that he found Wiesel a publisher. Despite this backing, Wiesel was denied French citizenship and emigrated to the U.S., where he came to feel at home. Settling into a small Manhattan studio, he resumed his promising literary career.

Just as Wiesel started to catch on as a writer, he was struck by a taxi and spent more than three months in a hospital. Recognition finally came a few years later. Night was reappraised by European and American critics and then by the public. More books followed—novels, histories, biblical exegeses—and his reputation burgeoned. In 1969, he married Marion Rose, an attractive, European-born intellectual; three years later, they became the parents of a son, Shlomo Elisha, named for Elie’s father. Wiesel continued to write a book every year or two; more than a dozen became international bestsellers. All the while, he lectured at colleges and high schools, ultimately signing on as a professor at Boston University. He came to be widely regarded as the voice and face of the 6 million Jews slain in the Holocaust. In 1986, he won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even then, Wiesel was criticized for not saying enough, or for saying too much, or for exaggerating Nazi crimes. Indeed, in 2007, he was attacked in a Los Angeles elevator by a deranged Holocaust denier. And misfortune was not through with him. He and Marion established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for the Humanities to fund scholarships and charitable organizations. On the advice of friends, the Wiesels invested all their savings—business and personal—with a financier who promised a 12 percent annual return. His name: Bernard Madoff.

Post-scandal, the Wiesels began to repair the catastrophic fiscal damage. That was when another blow descended. Fleeting pains led Elie to consult a physician, who had more bad news: the patient would need a quintuple coronary bypass. Last year’s ordeal of suffering and recovery is the subject of Open Heart.

A lesser author would have anatomized his list of woes—emotional, physical, and monetary. Or he would have presented a laundry list of his blessings—royalties, a devoted wife (and translator), grandchildren. He mentions these in some detail, but the essential theme of Wiesel’s 57th book is the role of theology in a secular age. If he were allowed one question to God, asks an interviewer, what would it be? Wiesel answers with one syllable: “Why?” The survivor belongs, he continues, “to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind.” And yet, “I believe that we must not give up on either.”

In essence, this means that as a Jew who has seen the worst that history has to offer—and who notes the genocidal acts that go on unabated in Africa and the Middle East—Wiesel still sees the glass as half-full. And as a writer who saw how the perversion of language could contribute to genocide, he still believes in the power of prose and poetry to redeem humanity despite its inhumanity. “I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.” The author’s choice manifests itself on every page.

Here is a generous man in a parsimonious epoch. Elie Wiesel’s small book could be read as a summing up or as part of a continuum that still has a way to go. The first might advance his reputation as a moral force bridging the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The second might advance the world.

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