Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel: “This is where my home was, this is where I spent my childhood, this is where I learnt my first words.”

Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet, in 1930. He survived the Holocaust (he was deported from Northern Transylvania, temporarily occupied by the Hungarian Fascists) and settled in the US. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

He authored numerous books of literature and on Judaic philosophy, translated in many countries, including “La Nuit” (“Night”, “Editions du Minuit”, 1958), “La Ville de la chance” (“The Town Beyond the Wall”, “Editions du Seuil”, 1962, awarded the “Rivarol” Prize in 1964), “Le Mendiant de Jérusalem” (“A Beggar in Jerusalem”, “Editions du Seuil”, 1968, awarded the “Médicis” Prize in 1968), “Célébration Hassidique” (“Five Biblical Portraits”, “Editions du Seuil”, 1972), “Le Cinquième fils” (“The Fifth Son”, “Editions Grasset”, 1983), “L’Oublié” (“The Forgotten”, “Editions du Seuil”, 1989) etc.

It all started with a telephone ringing several times, as I was trying to contact the manager of the “Elie Wiesel” Memorial House, still in preparation. No, I am mistaken. I started to become (mentally) close with Elie Wiesel again at the end of summer, in Brasov. He was the man I would listen to at the synagogue in his native town, accompany on the streets of Sighet, watch praying at the grave of his grandfather (whose name he bears), in the Jewish cemetery of that same Transylvanian town. In Brasov, I was attending the first edition of a festival of the Jewish youth choirs in Romania. The choir from Sighet was announced. It was a small choir, it is true, but those young people singing in Yiddish and Hebrew songs that their fellow-townsman and coreligionist, a Nobel Prize laureate today, had once learnt, made me think of a fragment from one of Nelly Sachs’ poems:

“Somebody will come one day

to add the green of a spring bud

to the praying vestment”.

Elie said the psalms in the synagogue where all the Wiesels that came before him had prayed. He recited the Kadish in their memory, in the memory of an entire community, of all the communities turned into smoke in Auschwitz. “A Jew must never part with his community”. This is what his father said when Maria, their maid, penetrated the ghetto, risking her life, one day before they were to be deported, offering them the salvation of a hideout that she was the only one to know.

This was also the answer of the last rabbi of Dej, and of Ianusz Korczak… I don’t know if Elie Wiesel gets our magazine. If he did, he would now find out that Moses, the sochet he talked to in 1964 (when he came to Romania with a team from the NBC to make a documentary film on the Jews of Sighet) was not the last Hassid, like he thought. That this sochet’s wish – “help us repair the roof of the synagogue that is still open here – is translated today through renovations. The renovations of the synagogue in Alba Iulia, of the temple in Tg. Mures, of the temple in Brasov… That the Israelis born in Tecuci didn’t hesitate either when it came to repairing the cemetery where their beloved lie, in their native town. That the Deportees’ Monument in Dej was renovated too… But Elie Wiesel, the one I met in 1984, when he had come for the commemoration of 40 years from the deportation of the Jews in Northern Transylvania, only saw that present, of the toughest years of Ceausescu’s regime. He thought it was a miracle that we asserted ourselves as Jews. That we “help” (he was referring to the resuming, thanks to Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen, of the partnership with the “Joint”) “our brothers and sisters to remain what they are.”

He was walking on the streets of Sighet watching a group of children with their schoolbags on their back. He was then aged 54; a man who had reached full adulthood. I caught glimpse of some tears in his eyes. “This is a form of freedom too”, he replied my unspoken question, “that you, the post-Holocaust generations, cannot understand: the freedom, the strength to cry. You should know that there was no crying in the camps. I am doing it now for my first teacher, Batizer rebe. Look at the children: they show us the alphabet, the beginning and the end of all things… God created the world with the 22 letters of the alphabet. Take care of them and they will take care of you. Come to think of it, the old teacher wasn’t that old after all…”

“What draws you to Sighet?”

“This is where my home was, this is where I spent my childhood, this is where I learnt my first words… When I first came to Sighet, it was night. The town was asleep. The house that used to be ours was asleep too. It hasn’t changed. The same vault, the same garden, the same fountain. Strangers now live in it. On the wall, above the bed, the photo of the old scholar Rabbi Israel of Vijnita used to hang. The nail is still there…”

We get to the Jewish cemetery. We enter. When we get to the grave of Eliezer Wiesel (his grandfather, whose name he bears), we draw back a few meters. What lies beyond the “El Male Rahamin” that he utters? What does he feel for the only man in his family who stayed to rest for eternity in his native town? He met him indirectly, through the stories his grandmother, Nisel, used to tell him. He shared with us some of them.

“From dawn till dusk, my grandfather was absorbed in his sacred books. ‘I sometimes wondered if he even saw me’, Grandma Nisel used to say. ‘What about you, Grandma? Did you look at him, did you see him?’ ‘All the time. I would make sure he didn’t miss anything. That his shirt wasn’t torn. That his caftan didn’t need fixing and that some sock didn’t need mending. Spending the Sabbath with him was Heaven on Earth…’.”

Who says love is the opposite of eternity? I know that crying is a private thing. If he cried now, when he knows everyone is watching, it would mean that he wouldn’t be too far from giving a performance. So he doesn’t do it. He is probably wondering if he is worthy of his grandfather’s name. Elie stood alone in the world of murder, of cruelty. Now he stands alone before this grave, with his father, mother and Tipuca (the youngest sister) only coming to him in his dream. Is history a great carnage? A theater of the absurd, that makes us all buffoons and madmen? His mentioning Moise der Mesighener (the town’s lunatic) at the synagogue gathering, entitles me to believe to that he carries on with this idea: a diagnosis of the world of 1984? But only of this world? “I wonder who is insane: is he the one who’s insane? No, the world is insane! [...] We speak against hatred. We write against hatred. We write against fanaticism. And, especially, we are against indifference [...]. Fanaticism leads to anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism is a danger not only for the Jewish people.”

He has lived and we all have lived through so many things since then! The Nobel Prize, the academic debut, the involvement in the founding of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, in the anti-apartheid fight in South Africa, in denouncing the crimes against humankind occurred during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia – from his personal perspective. The fall of the Iron Curtain, the Gulf War, the terrorist attack on September 11th in America – from a collective perspective. It is true, experience cannot be communicated. To cry – said the “maharal” in Prague – is to sow. To laugh is to reap. Would writing be the only human activity that combines these two?

Looking at those young Jews of Sighet from the festival, singing in Hebrew, but also in Yiddish, a language so dear to Elie Wiesel, I think of how much truth lies in the saying that “impossible” is not a Jewish word. The foreseeing Wiesel was not able, however, to imagine such a festival in Romania, nor the opening of a memorial house that would reconstitute a universe that he deemed forever lost the moment when the Jewish homes were deserted, the shutters were drawn and the doors were nailed shut. The spirit of the real inter-ethnicity in which he grew up, which had a linguistic materialization (“at home, we would speak Yiddish, Romanian, Hungarian and German alike”) and a human one (he never forgot he act of a non-Jewish mate who risked his life entering the ghetto and helping him carry a radio set of his father’s to a friend), is also reflected by his multiple spiritual affiliations. He is a Romanian-born Jewish writer in Yiddish and French who lives in the US. He was first translated into English, then in many other languages, including Romanian.

Elie Wiesel is aware of the Great Mechanism, which is not one and the same thing with the Circle of Fortune. This Great Mechanism lacks both transcendental forces and the absolute. Some create it and becomes its victims. Some think they create it and also become its victims. Most of the people don’t create it at all, nor do they live with such an illusion, but also become its victims. He opposes this implacable Mechanism the gardens of Sighet from the time of his intellectual formation. There, the wise men of the Talmud still write; there, at the light of the candles, legends of the Midrash are still created; there, in the forests, Rabbi Ithak Luria’s violin still dreams…

Iulia Deleanu