Has it ever happened to you that you discover a new author, and on the very day you finish reading his book, he dies? It makes you wonder if it means anything in particular.
The name Elie Wiesel did not mean much to me until a month ago. I could have told you he was a famous Holocaust survivor, nothing more. My first encounter with his work was in Auschwitz on June 14, two weeks before he died. I was visiting Krakow, and had signed up for the day tour of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
A numbing experience
I spent the morning absorbing the grisly history of the Auschwitz concentration camp. As storm clouds gathered overhead, we walked in and out of barracks, prison cells, and courtyards where, the guide told us, women and children had been starved to death, or beaten to death, or lined up and shot, or set upon each other in numberless innovations of cruelty. It was a numbing experience. I struggled to grasp the reality of what my eyes saw: masses of human hair, mounds of shoes and suitcases, saucepans, mugs, and chipped pieces of cutlery, the bare walls of what I was told was the gas chamber, piles of Zyklon-B canisters that held the gas used in the gas chamber, ruins of crematoria that once had a combined ‘capacity’ of 4,576 corpses a day — the stream of images seemed to pass me by at one remove, as if we were in an immersive reality video about life in a parallel universe.
At noon, the tour group dispersed for a half-hour lunch break. I headed for the museum café and bought myself a cheese sandwich. Unlike other museums, the one in Auschwitz does not sell souvenirs. No crematorium-shaped fridge magnets. No cattle car key chains. No blue-striped prisoner uniforms. But they sold books. I picked up, almost at random, Elie Wiesel’s Night , a memoir of life in Auschwitz as a 15-year-old inmate.
It began to drizzle. I found shelter in the parking lot where we had to wait for the bus that would take us to Birkenau, 3 km away. I opened the book and began to read, “Did I write it so as not to go 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?”
As I read, the images and words of that morning began to crystallise out of the semantic fog that had shrouded them. The more vague his writing, the more meaning they seemed to pack. The guide had said that when inmates arrived at the camp, all their belongings were taken away from them. Wiesel writes, “The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were now left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally, our illusions.”
What these “beloved objects” were, Wiesel does not tell us. But his words convey a more important truth — that they were illusions. None of the Jews on the train to Auschwitz had any idea what awaited them. That is why they carried suitcases full of “beloved objects”, piles of which I had seen on display earlier in the day.
It wasn’t easy for me to read Night , and I did not finish it until two weeks later. What remained with me was Wiesel’s first impressions of Auschwitz. This is the passage I was copying into my diary on July 2. It contains little physical detail, but is all the more powerful for it.
“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 that smoke…Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.”
The survivor narrative
Wiesel’s special genius as a chronicler of the Holocaust lay not in his ability to invoke the particular horrors of Auschwitz but in his gift for rendering the survivor narrative as a transformative religious experience. His moral response to the unimaginable depravity of man was to bear witness. The purpose of writing, too, was to bear witness. And the reader, by reading, becomes a witness in turn, and that is how, he believed, evil is defeated — by fortifying memory against the forces of forgetting.
Yet Wiesel’s legacy is more ambiguous than it would appear. His critics have accused him of sacralising the Jewish experience of the Holocaust and presenting Auschwitz as a unique event that transcends history. These are serious charges, and not without merit. Treating the Holocaust as outside the realm of ordinary human experience blinds us to those elements of our civilisation that do carry the germs of Holocaust, and are capable of causing an outbreak when the historical climate is propitious.
Another problem is the implicit Eurocentrism. For us postcolonials, isn’t it more important to get the white man to own up to the ‘Holocausts’ visited upon every continent that wasn’t Europe? Why should the intra-European Jewish Holocaust concern us more than the genocidal depredations of colonialism and slavery concern the Jews of today? Maybe these questions are moot in a globalised world, maybe not. Wiesel’s lasting achievement was to help create the space where they can be posed at all.
He did it by making the world listen to the stories of Holocaust survivors at a time when it was not ready to do so. When Night came out in 1956, it sold less than 1,000 copies. It went on to sell over 40 million. Wiesel’s intervention was instrumental in entrenching the Holocaust as the pre-eminent morality tale of the 20th century — an inspirational tale in which good triumphs over evil, and the weak over the strong. The form of this triumph is survival, and its armour, remembrance.