Google Translate

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Elie Wiesel: ‘So Much Cruelty’, Is What He Wrote About...

Elie Wiesel, a distinguished Professor of Judaic studies, journalist and a writer, who found meaning in remembering all that he had experienced in Hitler’s death camps and etching it on human minds, died his own natural death on July 2, aged 87.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel—whom the Norwegian Nobel Committee called a “messenger to mankind”—believing it as his “moral obligation” to “record the ordeal … [he] endured as an adolescent, at an age when one’s knowledge of death and evil should be limited to what one discovers in literature”, in Hitler’s concentration camps, scribbled his memories after remaining silent for 10 years in Yiddish spreading over 800 pages.

In 1960, it came out as Night in English, of course, in a very shortened form—hardly about 100 pages. Though initially it was overlooked, as years passed by it became the most widely read book, for it narrated the sufferings of Elie Wiesel’s soul along with the sufferings of others in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps of the Nazi German in a penetrating and powerful voice.

Elie Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, a small town in Transylvania, Romania. Their’s was an orthodox Jewish family. His father, Shlomo, a shopkeeper, was more involved with the welfare of others than his own kin and obviously, the Jewish community held him in high esteem. As a teenager, Wiesel distinguished himself by studying traditional Jewish texts such as the Torah, the Talmud, and even Cabbala, the esoteric Jewish mysticism under the tutelage of Moishe the Beadle of his native Sighet.

It is Moishe who trained Elie in raising probing, seeking, enquiring questions to get to the truth at a very young age by impressing on him “that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer”; “Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him”, and that he “pray[s] to the God within me [him] that He will give me [him] the strength to ask Him the right questions”. And it is perhaps this questioning attitude that bailed him out of his struggle to come to terms with “his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler’s death camps,” besides enabling him to undertake in his later life “practical work in the cause of peace” for humanity.

In May of 1944, when Wiesel was 15, his family and many Jewish inhabitants of the Sighet were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland by packing them in sealed cattle cars, 80 persons in each one. On arrival at Birkenau, the gateway to Auschwitz, in near exhaustion after a nightmarish journey, men and women were separated to walk in two different directions. The book, Night, says that “eight simple, short words” of an SS—“Men to the left! Women to the right!” separated Elie from his mother and young sister of seven-year-old once for all.

Later, the men were submitted to ‘selections’—the process of evaluating whether one should be killed immediately or put to work—from which Elie and his father could luckily pass through. As they are thus being brought to barracks, Elie and the rest stumbled upon open-pit furnaces into which trucks were unloading their hold of small children and seeing them being thrown into the flames with his own eyes, Elie’s Moishe-trained-mind questioned him: “Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent?”

On their march as the people around him began reciting Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, Elie wondered if ever in the past Jewish people recited Kaddish for themselves. Hearing his father whispering, “Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba… May His name be celebrated and sanctified…” Elie, as his anger was shooting up, for the first time questions himself: “Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?” Perhaps, it is the beginning of his struggle with his ‘faith’ that he learnt back home.

As they continued their march towards the pits as close as to two steps away, the same Elie says that he had whispered the words, “Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba … May His name be exalted and sanctified…” That was the struggle that he was undergoing with ‘faith’. As they almost came face-to-face with the Angel of Death … they were ordered to turn left and thus delivered to prisoners’ barracks. On reaching barracks, Elie says, “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night, seven times sealed.... Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget these things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.” How horrendous could have been the first night’s experience in the camp that the young heart tossed so violently between no God and God! The inhumanity of the camp must have been so intense that it could simply turn his faith upside down in no time. It tossed him into a duvidha: neither able to forget the disgust of ‘that night’, nor could he reject his God.

Later, they were all stripped, shaved, disinfected—all under raining blows from the officers—and yet they were all said to have been “filled with joy—yes, joy: Thank God! You are still alive!” As the watching darkness fading through the bluish skylights in the roof, Elie says, he was no longer afraid. Indeed, his description of the state of mind of himself, for that matter whole of the camp is heartwrenching to read: “our senses were numbed, everything was fading into a fog. We no longer clung to anything… In one terrifying moment of lucidity, I thought of us as damned souls wandering through the void, souls condemned to wander through space until the end of time, seeking redemption, seeking oblivion, without any hope of finding either.”

One can well gauge how inhumanly they must have been treated in the camp by virtue of
which they all had lost their very streak of humanity from the following two incidents: i) an SS officer looking at the inmates of the camp as one would a pack of leprous dogs clinging to life, said: “remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or crematorium—the choice is yours.” ii) At another occasion, when Elie’s father, suffering from a sudden colic attack, asked the in charge Gypsy politely, “excuse me…Could you tell me where the toilets are located?” the said Gypsy staring at him for a long time, and as though suddenly woke up from a deep sleep, slapped him with such force that he fell down and then crawled back to his place on all his fours. And Elie says that seeing it, all that he could do was to question himself thus: “What had happened to me? My father had just been struck… only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminal’s flesh… Had I changed that much? So fast? ...” What a haplessness!

The prisoners were even forced to watch the hanging of fellow prisoners in the camp’s open yard. Once they even hanged a young boy accusing him of collaborating against the Nazis, which Elie describes thus: “the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing. And so he remained for more than half an hour. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard… ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where —hanging here from this gallows…’” It so clearly shows how Elie’s faith in God is getting strangulated. Or, his own innocent childhood!

As the Jewish year was coming to an end, ten thousand men including the Kapos—the bureaucrats in the service of death—had assembled in the open yard to offer benediction. As they all hailed in one voice, “Blessed be the Almighty…. Blessed be God’s name…” Elie’s questioning mind revolted thus: “Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? … Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?” Anguished prayer of the tormented young heart!

The rebelled mind of Elie, instead of joining the solemn service for a deaf God, assured itself thus: “I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament… I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.” The anguished young heart must have seen comfort in being a stranger, perhaps.

This ill-founded comfort, however, didn’t last for long. For, Elie watching the deterioration of human values so badly among the prisoners, that too, so quickly, and getting alarmed by the fact of young sons disowning their own fathers just to get rid of their burden, to get freed from their encumbrance, all in the anxiety of preserving themselves, prays thus: “Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done.” This turning of him to God once again makes amply clear that young Elie by then had become quite aware that the cruelty experienced in concentration camps can make one lose the perspective of life and fearing that under its influence he might as well do that which is not expected of an unmutilated soul—no longer considers himself “master of nature, master of the world”—turns to God, perhaps. As I read this duvidha of Elie—tossing of his heart between faith and no-faith, between God and no-God as is reflected in his utterance: “And in spite of myself, a prayer formed inside me, a prayer to this God in whom I no longer believed”—frequently as I flipped through the pages, I am but to wonder: that more than the cruelty inflicted by the Nazis, it is this duvidha that must have pierced his young heart more.
It is this longing to keep his bondage with his father secured is what perhaps gave a meaning to his struggle to survive in the camp. This spirit is palpable in his behavior when noticing his father not moving and taking for granted him as dead as the neighbors were about to throw him out, Elie falling on his body and rubbing his hands, cries: “Father! Father! Wake up. They’re going to throw you outside…” Yet as the two grave diggers grabbing Elie away by his neck, yelled at him, “Leave him alone. Can’t you see that he’s dead?” Elie retorts so pathetically thus: “No! He is not dead! Not yet!” Notice, how nonchalantly Elie cried, “Not yet!” That is the state of mind to which the prisoners had fallen to!

As a week passed by, the same Elie, listening to a blockalteste, who said: “Listen to me kid. Don’t forget you are in a concentration camp. In this place, every man for himself, … there is no such thing as father, brother, friend… Let me give you good advice: stop giving your ration of bread and soup to your old father…In fact, you should be getting his rations…” for a second Elie thinks he was right. But immediately felt guilty at the very thought and ran out to fetch soup for his father. But his father, refusing soup pleaded for water. Indeed his father implored at him, “My son, water… I am burning up…My insides…” but poor Elie, in his anxiety to secure him, insisted, “Don’t drink water, eat the soup.” Yet his father continued to call him: “water…”. Amidst the ruling silence, his father’s groaning obviously disturbed the in charge officer. He, coming closer gave his father a blow to the head. Fearing a blow over his head, Elie remained silent although his father once more groaned, “Eliezer…” Silently leaning over his father, looking at him, etching his bloody broken face in his mind for over an hour, he silently climbed into his bunk to sleep. Next morning as he woke up he found another person sleeping on his father’s cot. He wondered: they must have taken him away before daybreak…taken him to the crematorium… perhaps he was still breathing… no prayers were said over his tomb, no candle was lit…deep inside me I must have found something like: Free at last!...

That was on January 29, 1945. Later he stayed there until April 11. Elie didn’t want to
describe that part of life, for “it no longer mattered” for him. He confessed: since my father’s death, nothing mattered to me anymore. Obviously!

And Elie finally winds up his book (Kingdom of Night) summing up his suffering in the Holocaust thus:
"One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.

The look in his eyes, as he gazed at me has never left me.”

Indeed, that’s what I too felt when I saw his sad lined face and brooding eyes in the last page of the Economist ( he is physically alive but essentially dead).

Believing that he had a “moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory”, Elie, after being liberated from Buchenwald in 1945 by advancing Allied troops, studied at the Sorbonne and then becoming journalist, wrote as many as 57 books including the trilogy of Night, Dawn and Day—all ramming the horrors of Holocaust home. Apart from writing books, he was also associated with the establishment of Holocaust Memorial Museums in Washington and Jerusalem. Thus, preserving the memory of the horrors of Holocaust, Elie ensured that no one becomes an ‘accomplice’ to Nazi’s crimes.

Elie advocated that “we must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Accordingly, he pursued human rights wherever they are threatened—be it in Cambodia, Bosnia, South Africa, Chile, Rwanda. There are of course, critics, who accused Elie of sacralising the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and projecting Auschwitz as a unique event that transcends history.

Elie, the survivor of Holocaust, who insisted in his later life that “…to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”, carrying the burden of the melancholy, the melancholy of being haunted by innumerable unanswerable questions all through his life—“Did I write it so as not to get mad or, on the contrary to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?”; Let us remember, … the children of Auschwitz… they suffered alone, they lived alone, but they did not die alone, for something in all of us died with them—had breathed his last on July 2 and, to say in his own words, became “Free at last!”


Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Recent Posts

Recent Posts Widget