Elie Wiesel: An Extra­or­di­nary Life and Legacy

  • Review
By – November 5, 2019

Since Elie Wiesel’s pass­ing in 2016, the lit­er­ary world has pro­duced a num­ber of beau­ti­ful tes­ti­mo­ni­als to his extra­or­di­nary life. Most notable among these endeav­ours is Wit­ness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Class­room by Ariel Burg­er, which chron­i­cles how Burg­er went from for­mer stu­dent to Wiesel’s teach­ing assis­tant, and the lessons he learned along the way. In recent months, two addi­tion­al projects have sought to fur­ther these con­ver­sa­tions, pre­serv­ing Wiesel’s mem­o­ry through the impact he had on those who knew him.

The Art of Invent­ing Hope by Howard Reich is a beau­ti­ful reflec­tion on Wiesel’s wis­dom, told through the eyes of one of Chicago’s lead­ing arts crit­ics. Reich was raised in a home where the Holo­caust was pal­pa­ble. His par­ents were sur­vivors and the Shoah’spresence loomed over them, rais­ing ques­tions for Reich that no one in his house­hold was equipped to answer. Even­tu­al­ly, Reich was cho­sen to inter­view Wiesel who was cho­sen for the Chica­go Tribune’s Lit­er­ary Award, and this encounter kicked off a years-long friendship.

Read­ing The Art of Invent­ing Hope, one is struck by the hunger in Reich’s ques­tion­ing. Wiesel, who appears with his char­ac­ter­is­tic humil­i­ty and open­ness, engages with each of Reich’s queries with com­pas­sion and grav­i­ty. Though this is not the first time he has been asked ques­tions con­cern­ing hope, faith, wit­ness­ings, and for­give­ness, Wiesel’s answers appear spon­ta­neous rather than rehearsed. It is as if they are col­ored by the wis­dom of a life­time of col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence, but they are thought about anew each time he encoun­ters a question.

One of the things that makes Reich’s work so pow­er­ful is that he cou­ples his inter­views with Wiesel with oth­er impor­tant por­traits from his own life. His par­ents loom large and it feels as though their sto­ry mat­ters as much as Wiesel’s own. Like­wise, Reich writes deeply about his own strug­gles. Whether it’s the place of Israel in a post-Holo­caust world or whether, as a music crit­ic, he is allowed to enjoy Nazi era com­posers. Wiesel becomes a life­line for Reich, an expert who can help him refine these uni­ver­sal ques­tions. Reich knows his read­ers have sim­i­lar strug­gles and the book reads like he is invit­ing them into the room to engage in con­ver­sa­tion with him and Wiesel.

On the sur­face, Reich’s bookis almost the oppo­site of Moment Mag­a­zines, Elie Wiesel: An Extra­or­di­nary Life and Lega­cy, edit­ed by Nadine Epstein. How­ev­er, the two share more in com­mon than would first appear. Where Reich choos­es to high­light one person’s per­spec­tive on Wiesel, Moment Mag­a­zine includes reflec­tions about Wiesel’s lega­cy by dozens of his friends, dis­ci­ples, and fam­i­ly. Where Reich choos­es to probe indi­vid­ual ques­tions over whole chap­ters, Epstein choos­es to paint an image of Wiesel in broad strokes. The book reads like a series of sketch­es, and although some of these give us an image of Wiesel as a per­son, many instead focus on what his lega­cy means to the world.

What these two books do share, how­ev­er, is an under­stand­ing that Wiesel’s lega­cy is best encoun­tered through his words — writ­ten and spo­ken. In addi­tion to the tes­ti­mo­ni­als, which make up the bulk of the work, Epstein choos­es to include a time­line of Wiesel’s life as well as nine pow­er­ful pieces from his oeu­vre. Though she could have cho­sen to quote from Night or his oth­er books, she instead decides that his speech­es best con­vey his prophet­ic nature. In a way, the lay­out of the book serves its pur­pose best. First, one learns of Wiesel’s impact and then we expe­ri­ence his pow­er first­hand, read­ing his works, feel­ing his pas­sion and see­ing why peo­ple hold him as a teacher of hard truths.

Epstein fol­lows these tran­scripts with a series of inter­views with teens who each reflect on what read­ing Night has meant to them. Unlike the ear­li­er tes­ti­mo­ni­als, these young read­ers only know Wiesel through his writ­ing. Instead of reflect­ing on the per­son he was, they reflect back on how he, even gone from this world, might still have a hand in shap­ing our present. One boy from New Mex­i­co, Adan Armi­jo, spoke about the fact that Night made him want to be a lawyer to help those less for­tu­nate con­clud­ing, Night gave me the courage to want to become some­thing more than myself.”

Both books affirm a truth that Wiesel often acknowl­edged: we hon­or those long gone through tes­ti­mo­ni­al. In a heart­felt con­ver­sa­tion with Reich, Wiesel observed that pass­ing down words can give us agency when reflect­ing on a dark past. He writes, Words can some­times, in moments of grace, attain the qual­i­ty of deeds.” Per­haps, this is part of his appeal and the rea­son so much is being writ­ten about him after his pass­ing. Recent gen­er­a­tions can­not know even a mod­icum of his suf­fer­ing, but by con­vey­ing his words, they can stand along­side his past for even a short while. Speak­ing to Reich, Wiesel explained, sur­vivors are wit­ness­es, but any­one who lis­tens to a wit­ness becomes one.”

Because Wiesel is so forth­right with his tes­ti­mo­ny, he becomes the emblem­at­ic sur­vivor. As author Iriv­ing Abra­ham­son once observed about Night, “[it is] a short book that con­tains a whole world that exist­ed once and that was destroyed.” Both books explain that Wiesel too often los­es his sense of per­son­hood behind his mis­sion. He stops being Elie and instead becomes a stand-in for every expe­ri­ence dur­ing the Holo­caust. Indeed, he is a whole world. He is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly the fam­i­ly we nev­er had a chance to meet, the par­ent who has locked his past inside, the grand­fa­ther who died before we could ask him all of our ques­tions. This might be why so many of these types of books are being writ­ten about Wiesel; when the world lost him, they lost an impor­tant con­nec­tion to their own history.

Thank­ful­ly, one walks away from both books with a good idea of who Elie Wiesel is. We learn about his melan­choly eyes, his deter­mined will, even his strug­gles with tech­nol­o­gy. But, as his son Elisha reflect­ed in his piece for Moment Mag­a­zine, it is his writ­ing that gives us the best pic­ture of Wiesel: I can pick up a book from my bed­side and I can hear him speak. I think that is true in a larg­er sense as well in terms of his lega­cy. If peo­ple want to know what my father thought of some­thing, they should read his books and reread his speeches…His lega­cy is read­i­ly avail­able to any­one who wants to know it.” Both books add to the can­non of Wiesel’s thoughts. Every con­ver­sa­tion repro­duced, every anec­dote con­veyed, brings into sharp­er focus his life and teach­ings and allows an addi­tion­al piece of him to live on in perpetuity.

Rab­bi Marc Katz is the Rab­bi at Tem­ple Ner Tamid in Bloom­field, NJ. He is author of the book The Heart of Lone­li­ness: How Jew­ish Wis­dom Can Help You Cope and Find Com­fort (Turn­er Pub­lish­ing), which was cho­sen as a final­ist for the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award.

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