Title: Elie Wiesel: Confronting The Silence
By Joseph Berger
Yale University Press
Dr. George Berkeley, an Anglican Bishop and philosopher in the 1600s, famously asked, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
As the dinner chairman at a Mesivta of Miami Beach dinner in the late 1970s, I introduced Elie Wiesel, who had graciously agreed to speak, by paraphrasing this famous quote: “If there was no Elie Wiesel, would the world have known about the Holocaust?”
This comprehensive biography of Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel, written by Joseph Berger, is an eye-opener. Wiesel was a very private person despite his international fame. Nevertheless, the author has succeeded in plumbing the depths of his subject in a wholly fascinating telling of Wiesel’s near-death beside his father who died in Buchenwald after their death march from Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the traumatic murder and loss of his mother and sister Tzipora in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In March 1945, Wiesel was liberated by the Americans led by General George Patton. His liberation led to his religious ambiguity and loss of innocence, followed by his slow and steady rise to the pinnacle of esteem and worldwide recognition.
Interwoven in this biography are the political, religious, historical, and cultural background events marking Wiesel’s extraordinary life trajectory, which the author expertly and entertainingly describes with his reporter’s eye. Many of these stories, which are surely remembered by most Jewish Press readers, formed the persona of Wiesel. His public and private life are expertly embroidered by the author as he describes Wiesel’s personal experiences and doubts, including his lifelong unshaken belief in G-d, whom he paradoxically questioned repeatedly, coupled with his life as a bocher/bachelor in Paris, working as an international reporter for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot.
The book covers Wiesel’s very happily married life with his French-born wife and business manager Marion, and their beloved son, Elisha, while living and writing in Paris, and later teaching as a professor in Boston. He describes how Weisel became the unofficial spokesman for the downtrodden and persecuted peoples of the world, while also belonging to the international cultural elite in New York, where he lived until his passing in 2016 at the age of 87.
Joseph Berger did not sit down with Wiesel to interview him for this biography. Yet Berger spoke with him briefly a few times during key moments in Wiesel’s public life, such as when it was announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Berger covered this story for the New York Times as its leading regional reporter who wrote frequently on Jewish and religious news. Ironically, Berger reports that Wiesel was surprised when he learned he had been awarded the peace prize, as he had wished to be awarded, if at all, the Nobel Prize for literature.
Berger apparently researched Wiesel’s life by reading and analyzing many of his novels and deeply personal and penetrating essays, which he concluded were autobiographical in nature. Berger also spoke at length with Wiesel’s wife Marion and son Elisha, as well as with a host of Wiesel’s contemporary authors, artists, lifelong friends, other Holocaust survivors, famous intellectuals like Leon Wieseltier and Professor Thane Rosenbaum, and Wiesel’s fellow camp survivors.
Wiesel was born in Sighet, Rumania/Hungary in 1928 into a very frum household, attending cheder and being immersed in the Gemara. In June 1944, when he was a teenager, he was deported with his parents and sisters to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his mother and younger sister, Tzipora, were gassed by the Germans, and whose deaths he mourned daily. Berger describes Wiesel’s liberation from Buchenwald after surviving the notorious death march to Buchenwald together with his father Shlomo, where his father perished from exhaustion and pneumonia shortly before the camp was liberated by General George Patton and the American army. He later discovered that his older sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, had survived, and they were ultimately reunited.
Berger then delves into Wiesel’s personal life in Paris and follows him to the United States where he was a professor at Boston University, and lived his last days in New York, where he died surrounded by his lifelong friends and immediate family.
Interwoven during these tumultuous decades of his life are Wiesel’s experiences as a reporter and renowned author of his worldwide bestseller Night, in which he describes, in simple Hemingway style, his life together with his father in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and then his final days and nights in Buchenwald, lying side by side in their “bed.” Berger discloses that Night, which comprises some 250 pages, was whittled down from its original 800-page manuscript by Wiesel’s publisher in Argentina, and only became world-famous some 20 years after it was first published in 1957.
This biography recounts Wiesel’s famous (some would characterize as infamous) confrontation with President Reagan, a wildly popular president, in which Wiesel sternly and publicly lectured Reagan not to visit the SS cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, but instead to visit Bergen-Belsen. This confrontation was “torture” for Wiesel, Elisha told Berger, as “he loved America so much for its liberty, freedom, and the wonderful life he had lived here, but he felt it his duty to the murdered Jews to give our President the mussar he deserved.” Berger relates how Reagan accepted this mussar in a most gracious manner.
However, once Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was a welcome speaker everywhere in the world, with a “bully pulpit” to condemn abuse not only against Jews, but against all the downtrodden peoples of the earth. He became known as the universal conscience of the world.
The author describes certain critical as well as life-changing events which happened to Wiesel, giving the reader a more nuanced and intimate understanding of the real Elie Wiesel. In Auschwitz, for example, Wiesel rebelled and ate a bit of food on Yom Kippur although many other prisoners fasted, but soon after, he and his father waited in line with other prisoners to lay tefillin which had been smuggled into the camp by a gentile kapo, who was bribed with some bread by a Jewish prisoner.
In June 1945, after Buchenwald was liberated, Wiesel was taken by train with another 426 orphans to the city of Ecouis, France, after President Charles de Gaulle arranged for these orphans – who were denied entry to Palestine by the British under Arab pressure, and with no visas to the United States forthcoming, and their former homes occupied by Jew-hating locals – to come to France. They all were housed, fed, and educated by the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1912, which had hidden hundreds of Jewish children from the Nazis, and was funded by the American-Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Thus, religious activities and seforim were made available to these orphaned boys.
Wiesel became very close with another survivor, R’ Menashe Klein, as they learned Gemara together and developed a lifelong friendship and association, with Wiesel’s foundation supporting Rabbi Klein’s yeshiva in Israel to this day.
While Elie’s religious observance, in the author’s words, “flagged,” nevertheless, he ultimately returned to Yiddishkeit and quipped, “If I have problems with G-d, why should I take it out on the Sabbath? I recovered my religious fervor as a way of closing the parentheses on my recent past. Most of all I needed to find my way again guided by one certainty. However much the world has changed, the Talmud’s universe was still the same. No enemy could silence the disputes between Shamai and Hillel, Abbaye and Rava.”
The strictly kosher boys, numbering about one hundred, were moved to the town of Ambloy under the guidance of a Mrs. Hemmendinger, who learned Yiddish to communicate with these teenagers. There she introduced them to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and Wiesel was exposed to Hegel, Spinoza, Kant, and Marx. He learned to speak, read, and write French fluently, and all his books and writings were written in French, and then translated into English by others, including his wife, Marion.
In his book All Rivers Run To The Sea, Wiesel described his sexual awakening in France and said in defense, “I am a human being too.” Yet he told the author, “As always, when I transgressed the rules of my own making, a shiver ran through me. What if my father saw me now?”
As a cub reporter in Paris, he covered the Irgun’s Altalena ship bearing arms to fight the British, which was shelled under the orders of Ben-Gurion, who decried the Irgun’s refusal to join the unified Israel Defense Forces (Hagana). Wiesel described this murder of Jewish fighters as treasonous as a reporter from the Irgun paper called Zion In Kampf.
While he served as a translator for the repatriation negotiations between Germany and the World Jewish Congress headed by Nachum Goldmann, some of the negotiators wished to end a session by saying kaddish to memorialize the six million Jews. Goldmann was overheard by Wiesel saying, “Which is more profitable for Israel? Kaddish or German financial assistance?” Wiesel resigned as interpreter and reported to the world Goldmann’s statement, which caused a scandal in Israel. Later on, Goldmann told Wiesel, “Write your Nobel books, and chassidic tales, but don’t mix into politics. It is not for you.”
This biography is very thoroughly researched and is the only book I have encountered which does justice to its subject – a truly daunting accomplishment.