The Time of the Uprooted

Elie Wiesel
  • Review
By – October 17, 2011

Six­ty years after the Shoah, our strug­gles with this sem­i­nal event are hard­ly over. Indeed, the more this immense tragedy recedes in time, the greater our need to under­stand it and its impli­ca­tions. We probe its dark recess­es search­ing for that ever elu­sive shard of meaning. 

Even as our fas­ci­na­tion increas­es, we inevitably con­tem­plate the Shoah from a dis­tance — tem­po­ral, cul­tur­al and per­spec­ti­val. Yet there is truth in the warn­ing dis­played in rear view mir­rors: objects are clos­er than they appear.” It may have tran­spired in the last cen­tu­ry, but it con­tin­ues to grip and torment. 

The process of reck­on­ing with the Holo­caust has gen­er­at­ed some seri­ous and pro­found reflec­tion. In addi­tion to the enor­mous body of his­tor­i­cal schol­ar­ship, the fic­tion­al and reflec­tive lit­er­a­ture on the sub­ject is impres­sive, and it includes some of the great writ­ing of our time — works rang­ing from the poet­ry of Char­lotte Del­bo and Paul Celan, to the nov­els and essays of Pri­mo Levi, Aharon Appelfeld, Eva Hoff­man, Ida Fink and Elie Wiesel, to name only a few of the most notable. Wiesel’s newest nov­el, The Time of the Uproot­ed, will find its right­ful place in this canon of fic­tion­al comtemplation. 

In recent years it has become com­mon to speak of the mem­o­ry” of the Holo­caust and to give this fac­ul­ty a priv­i­leged sta­tus. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly so as time moves us fur­ther away from the Holo­caust land­scape. The trustees of mem­o­ry are the sur­vivors. Mem­o­ry, in all its forms, how­ev­er, is slip­pery and illu­sive. There are the chal­lenges of repressed mem­o­ry, of trau­ma, the inevitable for­get­ful­ness and blur­ring, the defens­es erect­ed to allow a sense of nor­mal­cy to emerge. Elie Wiesel, in this haunt­ing, beau­ti­ful and sug­ges­tive nov­el, probes these themes with sub­tle­ty and skill. 

The nov­el fol­lows the life of Gamaliel Fried­man, who flees Czecho­slo­va­kia with his par­ents in 1939 for the appar­ent safe­ty of Hun­gary. This will ini­ti­ate a life of suf­fer­ing, loss, root­less­ness, hid­ing, iden­ti­ty dis­guis­es and despair. Five years lat­er, when the Nazis begin to deport the Hun­gar­i­an Jews to Auschwitz, Gamaliel’s par­ents, in des­per­a­tion, entrust him to a young Chris­t­ian cabaret singer named Ilon­ka. She becomes not only his pro­tec­tor, but sur­ro­gate moth­er. With his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty hid­den by this coura­geous woman, Gamaliel sur­vives the war, but in 1956, dur­ing the failed Hun­gar­i­an rev­o­lu­tion against Sovi­et com­mu­nism, he leaves Budapest, painful­ly part­ing from Ilon­ka. Orphaned once again, he set­tles in Vien­na, Paris, and final­ly, after sev­er­al failed rela­tion­ships and a dis­as­trous mar­riage, in New York, where he works as a ghost­writer, liv­ing and writ­ing the lives of others. 

Gamaliel, like most refugees, is always the out­sider, nev­er at home. Hap­pi­ness for him is a moment’s rest. Love nev­er end­ing is the blink of an eye.” Even­tu­al­ly he falls in with a group of refugees: Bolek, a sur­vivor of the War­saw Ghet­to, Diego, a Span­ish Civ­il War vet­er­an, Yasha, a vic­tim of the Gulags, Gad, a for­mer Israeli intel­li­gence agent, and Rab­bi Zusya, a Hasid, who reminds him that hope and faith, even God, can be found in the most ordi­nary of life’s expe­ri­ences. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out a crit­i­cal­ly injured and dis­fig­ured Hun­gar­i­an woman who is not com­mu­ni­cat­ing, he is forced to con­front direct­ly the mem­o­ries of lost loved ones and begins a process of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the past that may allow him to live more ful­ly in the future. 

This beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten and intro­spec­tive nov­el is engag­ing and mul­ti-lay­ered. There are no sim­ple answers offered to how to con­front the Holo­caust abyss. The read­er is left to strug­gle with the ques­tions that course through the lives of the char­ac­ters in the nov­el and like them must still seek that ever-illu­sive equilibrium.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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