Elie Wiesel’s Prophetic Witness (1928-2016)

Elie Wiesel died last week, and the world has lost a portion of its moral ballast. Born in 1928 in Sighet, a Carpathian mountain town in the then Kingdom of Romania, Wiesel was deported, at fifteen, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest, and most infamous, work and extermination facility in the Nazi concentration camp system. There, the beasts took nearly everything they could from him: most of his family, including his younger sister Tzipora and his mother Sarah, taken in the first selection at Birkenau; and, later, his father Shlomo; they even tried to exterminate his name, stamping him with a new identity: A-7713. On that last count, the Nazis failed. Elie Wiesel never forgot who he was.

In the years following the end of WWII, Wiesel’s public persona would come to be called many things, among them: survivor, essayist, scholar, thinker, novelist, playwright, professor, activist, Nobel laureate, wandering maggid, messenger to mankind, ambassador to the human condition, and prophet. Perhaps, above all, a prophet.

In his great work The Prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes a prophet as one who is breathless with impatience at injustice, who considers every inequity a kind of moral disaster, and as one who is bowed and stunned at humanity’s fierce and selfish greed. “Prophecy,” writes Heschel, “is the voice that God has lent to silent agony.” In the prophet’s words, God rages on behalf of the plundered. Wiesel bears this out in his own fifty-some-odd literary works and his uncountable public lectures; he proves himself such a crossing point of God and man. Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, a holocaust scholar, in his own obituary words, suggests that Wiesel was “the heir of Jeremiah with his message of rebuke, but also of Isaiah with his words of consolation, the embodiment of Ezekiel’s dry bones that have come to life again, the anguished Job of Auschwitz, questioning God and most deeply God’s creation.”

As a prophet, Wiesel’s message was relatively simple: Remember the holocaust, do not let my past become your future. Speaking about his most famous work, Night, he said, “I wrote it for the other survivors who found it difficult to speak.” But he didn’t intend to be simply the proxy for other survivors. For Wiesel, surviving carried with it a responsibility. “Look,” he insisted to fellow victims, “we have to tell the story the best we can.” Witness, then, became a moral mission. To this burden of witness, however, Wiesel didn’t necessarily add additional conditions. There was never any “guarantee of success”, he admitted, “just a guarantee of effort.” Moreover, the witness didn’t necessarily have to provide profound insights. Rather, to witness after Auschwitz very often simply meant having the courage to ask the necessary questions – of human being, of our neighbors, of our God. Wiesel’s was a very Jewish kind of witness – As the story of Jacob and the angel reveals: Israel – the name of the Jewish people – means to struggle with God, to wrestle. Grafted in to this tradition, Christians too can take solace in this kind of witness.

This notion of witness is crucial. Our world is awash in falsehood and to tell the truth about things is a power antidote upon which much depends. Wiesel’s Night opens with a description of the slow fascist takeover of Wiesel’s childhood town. As late as 1944, following every new anti-Jewish decree, following every new insult, the Jews of Sighet believed that the worst had past. In reality, as the historical testimony makes plain, even as the Sighet Jews were acclimatizing to increased repression, the Auschwitz-Birkenau lager was being made ready to receive them: a new railway spur was built to allow transports to enter directly into the Birkenau camp, the crematoria chimneys were reinforced, the furnaces relined, and the ranks of the Sonderkommando greatly increased. “The Germans were already in the town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict had already been pronounced,” Wiesel laments, “yet the Jews of Sighet continued to smile. It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion.”

Against illusion, Wiesel bore witness to true things. He recognized that any effort toward justice, or, for the faithful, to more perfectly reflect the image of God, whether as individuals or as a society, will be scuttled if we stand idly by and do nothing while another image of God is annihilated by the conditions of life or willful malevolence. This is why Wiesel affirmed that love’s true opposite is not hatred, but rather indifference. In the face of evil, he insisted:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.

The prophets, of course, always only enjoyed a rather mixed success. In the end, Wiesel, even with his modest goal of compelling an active memory of the holocaust and basic human injustice, in some ways might have been seen to have failed. However much he railed against the human condition, it has obdurately stayed the same. But there’s cause to refuse this assessment. In his novel The Oath, Wiesel recognizes in the theme of witness the limits of what could be expected to be achieved. The witness, Wiesel tells us, does not tell his tale in order to save the world – but, simply, to save a single soul. If nothing else has, the great parade of mortuary tributes testifies that Wiesel has nudged souls severally, one by one by one. This seemed supremely doable. While Wiesel, more than most, had reason to doubt humanity, he could never quite shake his faith in human beings, a point proved by his approval of Albert Camus’ observation that “there is more to celebrate than to denigrate in man”.

Even if, in the end, a single human soul proved unreachable, Wiesel’s own prophetic soul would doubtless have remained undeterred. Prophetic witness, Wiesel would have said, is, in the end, its own positive good. To understand this, I close with a story he told:

One day a Tzadik came to Sodom; He knew what Sodom was, so he came to save it from sin, from destruction. He preached to the people. “Please do not be murderers, do not be thieves. Do not be silent and do not be indifferent.” He went on preaching day after day, maybe even picketing. But no one listened. He was not discouraged. He went on preaching for years. Finally someone asked him, “Rabbi, why do you do that? Don’t you see it is no use?” He said, “I know it is of no use, but I must. And I will tell you why: in the beginning I thought I had to protest and to shout in order to change them. I have given up this hope. Now I know I must picket and scream and shout so that they should not change me.”

We are fast, too fast, coming upon that time when there will be no more survivors to be continue their witness of the lagers. Christians should see in that fact not only an occasion for sorrow but a mandate as well: those of us who remain behind must become 2nd generation witnesses – we must cultivate the same breathless impatience at the injustice in the world and to let it thrust a burden upon our own souls. And we must act – and shout – for the world’s sake as well as our own.