by iampunha | 9/30/2008 08:00:00 AM
Shlomo and Sarah already have two girls, Hilda and Beatrice (Bea).

For Schlomo, life is about his two daughters, yes, but his community, as well, and his shop, where Sarah also works.

But Sarah was also pregnant -- very pregnant. And 80 years ago today, she gives birth to baby Eliezer, Schlomo's first and only son. The family will grow to six with the birth of Tzipora in 1937, but for those first nine years, Eliezer is the baby of the family.

But his parents do not treat him as one. Schlomo works very hard at the family store and in the community, spending significant time with his son only on the Sabbath. Eliezer too works hard, learning languages and studying his culture and its history, urged on by his father to learn the present and his mother to learn the past and the faith.

What had been at least a moderately stable family life descends, at first slowly, into survival. Their town, in the Transylvania region of Romania, is ceded first to Hungary when Tzipora is 3, then back to Romania four years later.

For Tzipora, Schlomo and Sarah, and for the millions more we wait to meet, should we be so lucky.

And then Eliezer is tattooed for transport to Auschwitz.

All the study Eliezer has done, all the devotion to books and his faith, will now undergo the ultimate test. For the 15-year-old, it will be a struggle to keep his body alive, but also to keep his mind alive.

Ironically, it is perhaps because of this death sentence that the teenager survives that year, let alone what is to come:

After six months of intensive study, repetition of incantations, and ascetic exercises, the oldest of the three students [studying the Kabala with a Kabalist], Yiddele, fell inexplicably ill. He lost his power of speech, his will to live, and subsided into what seemed to be a near-catatonic state. Psychologists and neurologists were consulted, prayers were said, but to no avail. Yiddele never recovered. After another interval, the second student, Sruli, fell ill, with similar symptoms.


[Eliezer] says that he was sure that had the Germans not entered Sighet [his hometown, where he lived] the following spring in 1944, he would have suffered the same fate as his two comrades. "Thus it was the killers who 'saved' me," he says now with deep irony. "Woe unto me, it is to them that I owe the fact that I was spared."

The young scholar is transported from a life of schoolbooks and learning languages (Yiddish, Hungarian, Romanian and German) with a father not often present in the home and even less often sentimental or loving, to a life with his father.

And, now surrounded by fellow Jews and the threat of slow and painful death, only his father.

Schlomo and his only son are soon separated from Sarah and the girls. They will never see Sarah or Tzipora again.

Now transported from a potentially dangerous religious setting to a "just live" setting, Elie was an adolescent with the hormones of an adolescent, but also finally alone with his father, but also now being punished for being a Jew.

The starvation, the disease, the fetid conditions, ... but the prayers before meals.

The murder, the gas, the unannounced executions, ... but the survival.

The hate, the tattoos, the scapegoating, ... but the trial of God, just to humanize the people being treated as animals:

For many Jews in Auschwitz that thought came to them in blinding rushes, not as piety (God suffering as a human being), nor as a poetic reflection of man's inhumanity to man. Wiesel found himself the youngest witness to an amazing "trial" one evening in which three fellow concentration camp inmates, rabbinical scholars, actually "sued"—to use Wiesel's own words—God. They asked Him to answer why He had allowed such indescribable suffering to happen to His own people. Later, Wiesel developed this profound and anguished questioning into a play, The Trial of God, which transposes the "trial" he himself witnessed to a Jewish community in Shamgorod, the Ukraine, after an actual pogrom in 1649.

The trial of God, and then the prayers to God after the trial, as that book attests:

"Yes, we practiced religion even in a death camp," he wrote. "I said my prayers every day."

The prayers continued through 1944, even as his father, Schlomo, descended further into death with every passing, bitterly cold day. Dysentery, forced marches, starvation and marches West, away from the front, where the Nazis were losing.

And on January 29, 1945, eight months, one week and six days after deportation to Auschwitz began, Schlomo Wiesel died from "dystentery, starvation, and exhaustion" and was burned in a crematorium:

He and Elie had somehow stuck together for the seven months they had been in Auschwitz and had even survived the nightmarish evacuation to the West. But though he was seriously ill, the medical staff considered him too far gone to bother trying to keep alive. Even in his last few hours, animal-like neighbors on the boarded bunks stole from him the last crumbs of bread and soup. At night he was still barely alive, but by dawn, when Wiesel awoke he had died and they already had dragged his body away. "I did not weep," Wiesel wrote in Night, "and it painted me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears."

And 16-year-old Elie Wiesel was alone.

A few months later, he was free. Buchenwald was free.

He was, as many Jews who had survived the Holocaust, a child with both parents dead. So he went where one might expect: an orphanage.

A chance photograph of Wiesel with other young orphans in a French newspaper brought him back into contact with his sisters. His eldest sister, Hilda, who had married another camp survivor, had moved to Paris to live. She had seen Elie's picture in a newspaper article about the orphans and contacted the orphanage director. The following day she and Elie met in Paris and embraced in mutual anguish. She told him that Bea, Elie's other sister, was also alive, but was living in a Displaced Person's Camp in Kassel, Germany.

The rest of the journey from there to here is long. From how much Wiesel struggled in his youth, and from the damage done to him in the Holocaust, one might well expect that.

Throughout these struggles, Wiesel's focus has been humanity, his education and the education of those around him. He enrolled in the Sorbonne. He worked as a journalist.

As a journalist, a stage in Wiesel's life developed that has since taken the world by storm:

One day, providentially, as he thought, he attended a reception at the Israeli Embassy in Paris and ran into France's most recent Nobel laureate for literature, François Mauriac. At last, Wiesel thought to himself, a chance to get to Mendès-France. Mauriac and he were known to be very close. Affably, Mauriac agreed to an interview with the young reporter and set a day and a time. A devout Roman Catholic whose behavior during the German occupation had been impeccable, he was used to being interviewed on his past, on literature, and on events in contemporary French political life. He was an expert on this too. He didn't know that Wiesel only wanted to use him as a slingshot to get to Mendès-France.

Wiesel showed up nervous and chain-smoking at the appointed time at Mauriac's Paris apartment. The older man was gracious and quickly put Wiesel at his ease. Instead of sitting back to receive the reporter's questions, through, he began to speak with even greater passion about his favorite topic, Jesus Christ. He spoke warmly about his feelings toward Israel, toward the Jews in general, a people, he said who had been martyrs throughout history. For Mauriac, Wiesel noticed with some irritation, it was as though everything in creation had some connection to Jesus.

"Every reference led back to him," Wiesel wrote in one of his earliest accounts of the meeting. "Jerusalem? The eternal city," Wiesel describes Mauriac as continuing, "where Jesus turned his disciples into apostles. The Bible? The Old Testament, which thanks to Jesus of Nazareth, succeeded in enriching itself with a New Testament. Mendez-France? A Jew both brave and hated, not unlike Jesus a long time ago. ..." As for Jesus, Wiesel wrote later, "when [Mauriac] spoke his name, his smile seemed to turn inward. Once started, he had no wish to change the subject."

The monologue, however eloquent and fascinating it was, finally triggered something off in Wiesel. All of his anger at Christian anti-Semitism over the centuries, his own accumulated grief from Sighet, Auschwitz, and Buchenwald, suddenly boiled over. He closed his notebook and stood up angrily. "Sir," he said to the still-seated Mauriac,

You speak of Christ. Christians love to speak of him. The passion of Christ, the agony of Christ, the death of Christ. In your religion, that is all you speak of. Well, I want you to know that ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six million times more, than Christ on the cross. And we don't speak about them. Can you understand that, sir? We don't speak about them.

Mauriac went pale. He said nothing, but still seated on the sofa with a woolen blanket around him, he gazed back at Wiesel, as if expecting to hear more. But Wiesel was already on the way out, closing the apartment door after him and pressing the buzzer for the elevator.

The door behind him quietly opened again, and there was Mauriac, gently taking Wiesel's arm and asking him to come back into the apartment once more. After they had both sat down without saying anything else, Muriac began to weep, still looking at Wiesel, but engulfed in grief. For a long time the tears simply streamed down his face. Wiesel began to feel remorse for his own rudeness and harshness.

Wiesel wanted to apologize, but Mauriac wouldn't let him. Instead, he wanted to know everything about Wiesel's experience, his parents, the trains, the camps. He asked why Wiesel had not written all of this down. Wiesel told him about his vow to remain silent for ten years. Mauriac wanted to know about this too. Then, escorting him back to the elevator, he told the much younger man, "I think that you are wrong. You are wrong not to speak. ... Listen to the old man that I am: one must speak out—one must also speak out."


"The fact is that, practically, I owe Francois Mauriac my career," Wiesel has said. "He was a Christian, and we were very close friends. Had it not been for Mauriac, I would have become or remained an obscure writer, a journalist." "I owe him a lot," Wiesel freely admits about Mauriac. "I don't know how I would have fared without Mauriac. He kept a watchful eye on my literary efforts." Very specifically, it was to Mauriac that Wiesel first sent the manuscript of Night in its first French edition (La Nuit), a year after their first meeting. It was to become the launching pad of Wiesel's rapid rise to international fame as a writer.

Since the late 1950s, and particularly since the 1960s, words have flowed out of Elie Wiesel like water flowing to the sea. As with many fellow survivors, what had been a time of deeply conflicted emotions (to put it, frankly, embarrassingly mildly) with God, combined with the physical, emotional and psychological realities of the Holocaust, have given us a man who could very easily have become permanently lost at any point before his road to personal satisfaction became a highway of information from which he has, and gratefully so for humanity, never exited.

Elie Wiesel Goes Home

Night (warning: graphic)

Elie Wiesel won. He won, and we have won because of him.

And today's winner celebrates his 80th birthday today.

May the lessons of today inform the decisions of tomorrow.

And may there be peace in his, and your, heart.