The Compelling Doubleness of Elie Wiesel

In June of 1945, Elie Wiesel was one of Buchenwald’s 400 or so surviving orphans recuperating at the Children’s Rescue Society’s château at Écouis. He was 16 years old and he was starting a diary. In his memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea (1994), he recalls the opening passage: “After the war, by the grace of God, blessed be His name, here I am in France. Far away. Alone. This morning I put on my own tefillin for the first time in a long time.” Just weeks after liberation, he was beginning a life of writing that was fused to his previous relationship to God, as if he could pick up where he had left off, before the near-total destruction of the world as he had known it. He had just experienced his first suicidal crisis, a miasma filled with the dead who called to him without stopping, but he put it out of his mind, acting as if nothing had changed. He needed time to adjust to a very deep split that had come to exist inside of him; it would become the core driving force and the central mission in his life. He knew he would eventually write down the memories of what had happened to him in the ghettos, on the sealed cattle car and in the camps, and this would include the radical but invisible transformation within. However, in the meantime he was waiting until he had what he called the tools and knowledge to break the silence.

Wiesel wasn’t unique in his return to piety. From Buchenwald, about a hundred of the children and adolescent survivors came from religious families and chose to remain observant; several eventually made careers as profound scholars of Jewish commentary. But Wiesel had an eclectic mind. He was learning French, a language he hadn’t known existed before the war. He was reading literature, though he’d never before read a novel. He became interested in world events and in women, who are almost universally beautiful in his books, where you sense a leftover shyness of the boy from the provinces, afflicted by migraines, pampered by his mother and obsessed by God.

Eventually he enrolled at the Sorbonne and studied philosophy, European novels, the existentialists, the literature of suffering, Christianity, “oriental religions” and psychology that was taught at Hôpital Sainte Anne, a hospital for the insane. His modern European education was being grafted to the backbone of his childhood in the Romanian town of Sighet: his studies of scriptures and Talmud, and his early ventures into the mysteries of Kabbalah. He was especially drawn to the work of Dostoevsky, one might guess, because Dostoevsky was a devout believer but also because of his doubleness, which must have aroused memories of the teachings of Chasidism in which the material world was understood as a screen that stood in front of a deeper reality. Dostoevsky’s doubleness, the divided personalities or souls of his narrators, also validated the contradiction of faith and the rage that had taken residence inside of Wiesel, and which he was just beginning to get used to. If he was straddling opposing worlds, he managed with seeming ease to resolve the contradictions: in a short amount of time he had become a journalist and a foreign correspondent, he travelled and became more worldly. He even interviewed Walt Disney at the Cannes Film Festival.

In 1954, Wiesel took an assignment in Brazil for the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth while he was entangled in a romance with a moody and unpredictable young woman (he says she had “an awful personality”) whom he had met at the home for Jewish orphans at Versailles. Onboard a passenger ship, struggling to reconcile tumultuous feelings and frightened by his obligations, something happened to an inner wall that had previously blocked him from writing about the war. In his cramped cabin, he found the memories flooding in and by the time he reached Brazil he had written 862 pages, a personal memoir of the war years that he has called his testimony. Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Stood Silent) was published in Yiddish in Argentina in 1956, number 117 in a series of survivor testimonies.

Un di velt hot geshvign was abridged, cut down to 253 pages, for its original Yiddish audience, mostly other survivors who had once lived in Poland but settled abroad after the war. The text was shortened again when Wiesel rewrote it in French and turned it into La Nuit (1958). In the process, it underwent important transformations that were both substantive and artistic. It’s been pointed out before that even the shift from the title And the World Stood Silent to Night represents a radical change in focus (the less aggressive title made the subject more approachable for a general audience). Wiesel called La Nuit a testimony, autobiography and memoir and it truly is a hybrid form. Although it presents a concise and devastating description of what happened to Wiesel and his family between 1941 and 1945, it opens like a Sholem Aleichem story, beginning with an eccentric village character, Moishe the Beadle, and ends with an existential scene as the adolescent narrator Eliezer looks into a mirror to see the face of a corpse. Wiesel was writing in a language he had learned from books, but the author’s intelligence comes through in the clarity and the articulate simplicity of the prose. The remembered details have become canonical, like the image of Mrs. Schächter who went mad from the heat and thirst in the rail car, crying out, “Fire! I see a fire! I see a fire!” with her ten-year-old son whimpering at her side: “It’s nothing, Mother! There’s nothing there…” Throughout the text Wiesel traces the alterations and reversals that take place in his own relationship to his father and then his relationship to God. The shape-shifting nature of his faith attracted François Mauriac to write his florid foreword and, when the non-survivor audience was ready to listen or read, it drew legions of astounded readers who wanted and needed to know, How is it possible to continue to believe?” The material of Night, the scenes of Sighet and its ghetto, Auschwitz and Buchenwald, became Wiesel’s memory palace that he would delve through in other books, fifty-seven of them, for the rest of his life. It’s there in the suicidal tendencies of the narrator of The Accident which was published in 1961 and as late as 2012 in Open Heart when Wiesel lays out the dichotomy once again: “For me it is as impossible to accept Auschwitz with God as without God.”

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