In his seminal Faith After the Holocaust, Eliezer Berkovitz argued that only those who experienced the Holocaust can authentically respond to it; only those who were there may properly express what he characterized as “authentic rebellion” or “authentic faith.”
Elie Wiesel was there. And he expressed both.
This column not going to be about Wiesel’s biography and life’s work, which are already well known and in the wake of his passing well-covered by hundreds, if not thousands, of obituaries and articles. Suffice it to say he is best known as a Holocaust survivor who, as unofficial spokesman for Jewish Holocaust survivors, dedicated his life to implanting the Holocaust into the world’s consciousness and keeping the memory of the Six Million alive.
Rather, we will attempt to highlight Wiesel’s philosophical and theological voyage – his journey from rebellion against belief in God because of the Holocaust to his embrace of faith in God notwithstanding the Holocaust.
This transition may perhaps best be demonstrated through a comparison of Wiesel’s black despair and anger at God in the very bitter Night, his first book, with his ultimate acceptance of the eternity of the Jewish people as a manifestation of Jewish faith in God, as expressed in Ani Maamin, his lesser-known masterpiece.
Night, which establishes the basis for all Wiesel’s subsequent work, is a dark memoir based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He describes his loss of faith arising out of the ashes of the crematoria and, in one of the rawest and most often quoted paragraphs of the book, he concludes:
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.
The story of Wiesel’s Ani Maamin, however, begins with the great codifier of Torah law and Jewish philosophy, Maimonides (the Rambam), who compiled the Shloshah Assar Ikkarim, or the Thirteen Fundamental Principles of the Jewish faith, which he characterized in his Mishnah commentary as “the fundamental truths of our religion and its very foundations.” The Principles include belief in the existence of God as the perfect Creator who is absolutely unique, non-corporeal, eternal, and omniscient; a God who alone must be worshipped and who communicates with man through prophecy and who created a Torah that is divine and immutable and a just system of reward and punishment. The final two principles are the belief in the arrival of the Messiah and in the resurrection of the dead.
Many Jews recite each of the Thirteen Principles beginning with the words Ani Maamin – or “I believe (with a perfect faith…),” a formulation that constitutes the basis of Wiesel’s cantata, Ani Maamin: A Song Lost and Found Again. Written as a poem to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Wiesel emphasizes the Twelfth Principle – the coming of the Messiah and of the Messianic Age – and dramatically frames that belief against the devastating historical reality of the Holocaust.
After writing the poem, Wiesel presented it to composer Darius Milhaud, who wrote the music. He actually met with Milhaud only once, when he went to Geneva to see him and sang the chassidic version of “Ani Maamin” to him because Milhaud, the descendant of a Sephardic family, had never heard the chassidic rendition of the famous song. The completed work was performed in Carnegie Hall in November 1973.Saul Jay Singer