A Sage’s Passing: Elie Wiesel (1928-2016)
There are many sad things about Elie Wiesel’s passing, foremost being his passing itself. Whilst I cannot claim to have known him in a personal manner, he never once, in any of his memoirs or interviews, gave the impression that there was anything he cared more about than mankind’s well-being. Even after the horrors he endured and after witnessing the bare savagery that man is capable of, he didn’t let his faith in man slip away. Perhaps not faith in man so much as faith in what man can be. There was more than enough reason for him to pass on that faith, but he never did. His life truly is a monument to the fact that the storms of sorrow and horror that so often blow through the world cannot snuff out wisdom, tenderness, and courage, which to my mind, are the divine elements that composed the fabric of Wiesel’s soul.
But there is another thing to grieve with Wiesel’s passing, and that is just how little his death has been acknowledged. Before I make it sound like he passed without any notice, I direct you to these loving tributes to him courtesy of National Review’s Jay Nordlinger and Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. There are similar pieces in The Atlantic and many news sources have devoted some time to writing about him.
What’s sad is not that his death hasn’t been reported; it has. What’s sad is how little people are talking about it, if they talk about it at all. Those who knew him are undoubtedly talking about him, but what of everyone else?
What makes the lack of talk so piercing is that it is such a dreadful twist to the end of his life. Wiesel, who adored the act of remembering, devoted his life to ensuring that man’s crimes and his achievements are never forgotten. In his own words, “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, not future.” And yet, his passing has gone virtually unnoticed. This is the bitterest sort of irony.
While I can’t say for sure if this is the reason, I do have a theory (shoddy though it is) as to why there isn’t more talk about him and his work. Elie Wiesel was a teacher, lecturer, and human rights activist. But the reason most people will remember him is for his autobiographical account of his survival in Auschwitz and Birkenau, Night. It is read and taught in myriad high schools and universities; book clubs assign it; history buffs read it; and even through word of mouth, it manages to make its rounds. While there may not be many people who remember who wrote it, they will undoubtedly be able to tell you if they’ve read Night or not. Just from personal experience, I have yet to meet a person who read Night and said it didn’t leave an impression. I haven’t even heard someone say they disliked it.
This, however, is where the trouble starts. Night is such a remarkable book, so gripping, absorbing, and true that one can’t imagine anything ever topping it. Surely the author devoted the entirety of his afflatus to producing such a magisterial work. But he didn’t. In fact, he published over 30 books, in addition to countless essays and articles. Inspired in large part by his mentor Francois Mauriac (the Nobel Laureate who encouraged him to write Night) and his Hassidic grandfather, Wiesel wrote a number of deeply spiritual and haunting books; some of them, to my mind at least, are as good as the book that put his name on the map.
Take Day (previously titled The Accident). It is the story of a nameless young man who survived the Holocaust. His girlfriend, Katharine, is completely devoted to him and wants them both to share a life. But the horrors he’s experienced cannot allow him to fully open himself up to her. One day, he attempts suicide and awakens a few days later in a hospital bed. It is only at that moment, between life and death, that he discovers that Katharine’s love is a choice that will alter the whole of his being. Should he accept it, he will return to the land of the living, but will have to live with a woman who will never fully know him. To deny her love is to die and succumb to the agony he carries with him on a daily basis, but he will be reunited with those he lost in mankind’s darkest hour.
There is also The Sonderberg Case. It tells the story of Yedidiah, a young journalist living in New York (many of Wiesel’s characters were, to some degree, a representation of Wiesel himself). He learns that a young German fellow, Werner Sonderberg, is being accused of having murdered his own grandfather. Yedidiah is tasked with recording the events of the trial for his paper. On the day the judge asks Sonderberg how he pleads, Sonderberg stands up and declares, “Not guilty… and guilty.”
I shall leave one more recommendation. The Judges is the closest that Wiesel got to writing a thriller, though it is filled with all the philosophy and spiritual depth that was so characteristic of his entire body of work. A plane is forced down in a blizzard, and five of the passengers decide to take refuge in a small cottage a few miles from where they landed. The owner of the home, who simply calls himself the Judge, takes them in, offers them tea and a warm hearth. But then things take a turn for the bizarre as the Judge begins to ask them all personal questions. Very personal questions. When they ask him to stop, he reveals that he intends to kill one of them before the end of the night; the one who is least worthy of living. He will, however, allow them to decide which one of them it should be.
While I thoroughly enjoyed each of these books (among others I’ve read and not mentioned) I concede that they are of the love it or hate it variety. Night is so widely read because it is part history, part poetry, part spiritual drama. It is also told in very simple, blunt prose and the storyline never goes off on any tangents. In other words, anyone can read it and understand it.
The same cannot be said about any of his other works. Wiesel, who also loved the Jewish sages of antiquity and the rich Jewish history of the Old Testament, wrote in a way that makes one wonder if he was attempting to capture the whole of humanity in his work. To read his books is to marvel at a man who could so effortlessly weave together poetry, wisdom, the past, present, and future, evil, righteousness, beauty and wonder into a rich story of Biblical proportions. Like the sages he so admired, Wiesel was more wizard than mere storyteller. In reading his work, one is catapulted into the maelstrom that is man and his being, and how his search for God and meaning mirrors God’s search for the divine in His creation.
Like I said, Stephen King this is not. James Patterson this is not. While I find Wiesel’s work to be wondrous, I would by no means recommend it to those who prefer tight, fast-paced novels that excite, frighten, and entertain. This is work that demands slow, deliberate reading if one is to see the full scope of the storytelling (I do, however, fully recommend Night to anyone who hasn’t read it).
Given that his work isn’t for everyone, I can easily see why his books aren’t flying off the shelves; why online personalities aren’t making video tributes to him; why his passing isn’t being reported on E! News. Perhaps that’s the way it should be though. Wiesel never saw himself as a victim, but as a survivor. He didn’t live a loud, boisterous life. To listen to him speak in interviews and to read his work, one gets the impression he was content with having lived long enough to earn the affections of a woman, to experience the trials and joys of parenthood, to tell his story and the stories of other survivors, and to see his beloved Israel rise again.
His work, then, did not hit the shelves with a neon sign which demanded that each and every passerby pick up a copy. Rather, his books sit quietly on shelves, passed by most. But every once in a while, someone will pick one up and discover that Wiesel was like one of his beloved “madmen,” one who could understand, and criticize while understanding. One who stood in front of the innocent and defended them from the wicked. One who could always find the grace to rejoice in the glories of life itself.
And now he’s left us. Those of us who never had the chance to speak to him or listen to him in person will no longer have that chance (at least not in this life). But I don’t think that one need speak to him if all one wishes is to take a glimpse into his life and loves. His work speaks for him. And being that he devoted his life to maintaining what he called “the kingdom of memory,” it seems appropriate to remember him in turn, even if it is in my own feeble capacity.
What do you think? Leave a comment.