02 July 2016

Elie Wiesel R.I.P.

I took a wonderful bike ride today. But I can't write about it. Instead, I must discuss someone I don't merely admire or idolize.  Instead, he is someone of whom I am completely sure that the world is better--or, at least, not as bad as it could have been--because he was in it. 

Thirty years ago, on the Third of July--the day before US Independence Day--I was in a San Francisco hotel room.  A  Thursday, it was--in essence, if not in fact-- the beginning of a holiday weekend.  It also marked one of the strangest--almost to the point of being surreal--coming-togethers of people who, perhaps, should not have been on the same planet, let alone the same podium.  I watched it on television.

That day, the opening ceremonies of the Statue of Liberty's centenary began.  At the foot of the Statue, President Reagan awarded  something that no one ever received before, or has received since:  the Medal of Liberty.  Twelve naturalized (born in other countries) American citizens received it.  

I must admit that I learned something that day:  Bob Hope, one of the medal's recipients, was born in England.  It wasn't so strange to see him with the President.  It also wasn't so unusual to see another recipient--Henry Kissinger (born in Germany)--on the same stage with them.  I didn't even find it so odd that Irving Berlin (Russia) also received the medal:  As great a songwriter as the man was, his ouevre includes stuff like "God Bless America" and "White Christmas".

Now, when the award went to Itzhak Perlman (Israel), Albert Sabin (Russia) and I.M. Pei (China), I thought it was venturing into another sub-species of the human race.  I admire all of them, and have no quibble with any award they might ever have received.  We've all benefited from Sabin's work; I have listened to Perlman (live as well as on recording) and think that Pei's "Glass Pyramid" actually makes the Louvre courtyard look better. (Yes, I've seen it without.)

When things got really weird, though, was when Elie Wiesel (Romania) got the award.  Again, I have no issue with his receiving it, or anything else he's been awarded in his life.  To merely say that he is a great writer is an insult--almost libel, really--against the man.  His work is nothing like the sort that is celebrated by fashionable people for whom whatever they reading is like one of this season's "must-have" accessories.  People like them don't think you're hip or witty if you quote him at their parties.  (Then again, if you are reading his work, you're probably not going to such parties.)  Reading him also doesn't make you feel better about yourself:  It just makes you more of a human being.

And what did he write about?  Mostly, about people's inhumanity to each other. Perhaps that's not surprising when you realize that at age 15, he and his family ended up in Auschwitz.  Later, he was moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp, from which he was freed.  Of his family, only two of his sisters survived.

Elie Wiesel became Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council in 1980. Here, he speaks at a ceremony held during the Tribute to Holocaust Survivors, one of the Museum's tenth anniversary events. Flags of US Army liberating divisions form the backdrop to the ceremony. Washington, DC, November 2003.
Elie Wiesel speaking at a Tribute to Holocaust Survivors in 2003.  From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But his message was not one of depression or despair.  Nor was it a "We Shall Overcome" kind of optimism.  Instead, it was one of simple honesty, about what he experienced as well as his role--and limitations--as a survivor and witness:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never."

There is, to my eye, not an iota of self-pity in those words.  Rather, it is a statement of his job, his mission, as it were:  one that he never could have chosen.  And, as I read in some of his other writings, the mission that found him is also gave him an almost overwhelming humility--borne of survivor's guilt, perhaps--about his work.  He said there was no language for the horrors he witnessed, but he did his best to describe them.  And those who perished--whether in the Holocaust or unjustly in any and all kinds of other tragedies--cannot speak for themselves.  He wondered whether he had any right, let alone the language, to give voice (rather than speak for) them, but he had no other choice.

Even though he was given the tablet, the torch or whatever you want to call it, his writings are never preachy, sanctimonious or self-important.  They were, as he said, testimony. Sometimes he called for nothig ore than simple decency from one human being to another. What a concept, eh?

Whatever I drank the night before (I don't remember exactly what, but I drank more than enough) couldn't have induced, in me, a hallucination anywhere near as bizarre as seeing Elie Wiesel on the same stage, getting the same award, as Henry Kissinger.

Then again, it wouldn't be the only time something so strange happened.  Later that year, Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize.  Thirteen years earlier, Henry Kissinger--who orchestrated the illegal bombing of Cambodia, the assasination of Salvador Allende and the invasion of Cyprus--also won the Prize.  (To think that Hilary Clinton cited him as her role-model when she was Secretary of State!)  And, of course, Barack Obama--who, barring something miraculous, will become the first US President to lead the country through two terms of continuous war and, by the way, ordered air strikes on Syria--also won the Prize in 2008.

Kissinger, at age 93, is still getting awards and accolades and fat speaking fees.  Barack is, of course, still in office.  But Wiesel died today, at age 87.  I don't know what comes after this life, but it can't be justice if he is going to the same place as Ronald Reagan or wherever Henry Kissinger will end up.

Interesting Fact:  Weisel did all of his writing in French, the language in which he did most of his reading.  After being rescued, he was taken to a French orphanage and attended a French school--where, he said, he received his first secular education.  (Everything he read before his internment, he said, had to do with his religion.)  Some of the English translations were done by his wife.

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