For today’s Salon, I wanted to take a few moments of remembrance in honor of Holocaust survivor, author, teacher, Nobel Prize winner and humanitarian Elie Wiesel, who died yesterday at age 87. As the New York Times wrote, Mr. Wiesel’s work “seared the memory of the Holocaust on the world’s conscience.” (New York Times, 7/2/2016) He gave voice to those whose voices were silenced through his eloquent words and prolific writing, including 60 books, according to his foundation’s website.
The best known of his writings, of course, is Night, his first book and an autobiographical account of the horrors of the Holocaust. Translated from French in 1960, Night was published after many rejections. As is the case with many courageous voices who dare to break the silence of things we don’t want to acknowledge or speak of, the world was not ready to hear what Elie Wiesel had to say about millions of people killed.
I am embarrassed to say I haven’t read Night. I’m thinking I need to remedy that, and soon.
Today I want to highlight Open Heart, Elie Wiesel’s last book — published in 2012 — and a gorgeous reflection on mortality and the end of life. Written when he was 82 and facing open heart surgery (hence the title, which has more than one meaning here) Elie Wiesel is fully aware of the ironies of facing death as a teenager in the concentration camps and, much later, as an octogenarian. (“Long ago, over there, death lay in wait for us at every moment, but it is now, eternities later, that it shall have its way. I feel it.”)
As I wrote in my review of Open Heart, this short memoir (you can read it in one sitting; it took me about an hour) ends optimistically. This from a man who has seen firsthand the worst atrocities of this world. Who knows of loss from the deaths of loved ones and of the resilience demanded from personal betrayal and theft (upon the recommendation of a synagogue member, Mr. Wiesel and his wife invested their savings and that of their humanitarian foundation with Bernie Madoff, losing millions.)
He writes these words, “ a credo that defines my path”:
I belong 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.
Was it yesterday – or long ago – that we learned how human beings have been able to attain perfection in cruelty? That for the killers, the torturers, it is normal, thus human, to act inhumanely? Should one therefore turn away from humanity?
The answer, of course, is up to each of us. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves. Or not.
I know – I speak from experience – that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor. That one instant before dying, man is still immortal.
There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man. I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed and perverted by the enemies of mankind. And 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.”
Unbelievably, even at 82, Elie Wiesel was still wondering, still questioning whether he could have done more — he who used his life to give voice to those forever silenced, who challenged world leaders on their decisions.
“Have I performed my duty as a survivor? Have I transmitted all I was able to? Too much, perhaps? ….I feel the words [in Night] are not right and that I could have said it better…In my imagination, I turn the pages.”
You have, indeed, performed your duty as a survivor, Mr. Wiesel. Your words were heard and your eloquence has made us so much richer for the gift and wisdom of them. Your indelible imprint on this all too often fragile and flawed world has brought compassion, humanity, inspiration, and solace to countless people.
Rest well, Elie Wiesel. May you finally be at peace.
This is post #35 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project.