Why Elie Wiesel Wasn’t a Holocaust Writer: A Personal Remembrance
By Andrés Spokoiny
The first books by Elie Wiesel that I read were not about the Holocaust; they were Spanish translations of his works about the Hasidic masters, given to me as a Bar Mitzvah present by Rabbi Marshall Meyer. In fact, for many years I didn’t even know that Elie Wiesel was associated with the Holocaust in any way.
It’s not surprising; in those years in Argentina, Wiesel’s poignant masterpiece about the Holocaust, Night, wasn’t really forbidden, but was frowned upon. The generals that were running little concentration camps of their own for political opponents didn’t look kindly at Holocaust historiography.
But maybe Rabbi Meyer, one of the main opponents to the military junta, knew exactly what he was doing. Having been captivated by Wiesel’s prose, I procured for myself a copy of La Noche and then Los Judios del Silencio about the plight of Soviet Jews. Those books changed my life and played an enormous role in creating in me a feeling of natural solidarity with every Jew that suffers and, by extension, with every human being in distress. Wiesel’s books gave me the blessing and the curse of feeling personally responsible for the future and the past of the Jewish People.
Years later, I had the opportunity to discuss all that with Elie Wiesel himself. He had been invited to Argentina by the new democratic government, and, by an incredible stroke of luck, I was asked to be his chaperone during part of the trip. Not one to miss an opportunity, I used my time with him to talk about everything from love to the Holocaust and from human rights to theology. He was incredibly patient, gracious, and probably amused by the young man with the funny accent and the million questions.
I went with him to meet Luis Moreno Ocampo, the man that had prosecuted the generals – currently prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. I witnessed fascinating discussions between the two men. They talked about the fact that all dictatorship feast on a feeling that most decent people have that there’s no punishment without crime. In the back of our mind, Ocampo said, we believe that if somebody is persecuted he must have done something wrong. Wiesel said that it takes long for people to discover that for some, merely existing is a crime. The political opponents murdered by the generals were seen as “guilty” of specific actions or ideas, he said, but during the Holocaust Jews were guilty of simply being.
Driving from one meeting to the next, with a police escort, he confessed that he’s still uneasy around people in uniform. “I’m terrified making a u-turn” he said, “although rationally I know it’s not the case, I feel that anybody in a uniform is out to kill me.”
He got serious, however, when I told him that for years I didn’t know he was a Holocaust writer. “I’m not,” he said flatly. “I wrote over 50 books and only one is about the Holocaust”. Probably, that was the most transformative idea I heard from him. Because what he was really saying is that although he suffered the unspeakable, he didn’t let the Holocaust define who he was. He refused to see himself as a victim. He didn’t even define himself as a survivor. “I define myself as a teacher,” he told me.
In that, Elie Wiesel was profoundly Jewish. Jews have suffered persecutions since our beginnings as a people, yet, at our best, we never saw ourselves as victims. Instead we were the Chosen People, the people with a positive mission towards the world, the people called to bear witness to the values of humanity and goodness.
In fact, Wiesel was the opposite of a victim. A victim is passive; she takes no responsibility because she’s at the mercy of others. Wiesel took a radically different approach; he felt it was his – and our – responsibility to change the world, to make it more human, more tolerant, and less violent. He was not a survivor, but a militant of memory; he was not an object, but a subject of his own history.
He understood that while the victim is self-absorbed, the responsible person defines his life based on the impact he has on others. He said “Look, if I were alone in the world, I would have the right to choose despair, solitude, and self-fulfillment. But I am not alone.” He understood that the message of the Jewish People is one of hope and future, and the horrific experiences he lived through only strengthened his commitment to make the world a better place, for Jews and for every human being. He understood that Jews are the canaries in the coal mine, and that what happened to us can and will happen to others if we let intolerance and hatred run amok. He became a defender of Jewish rights and an indefatigable advocate of Israel, because he understood that there can’t be freedom in a world in which Jews are persecuted or demonized.
As funders, there’s no better message to we can take from Wiesel’s momentous life than this: we exist for and through the hope we give to others. This is, after all, the essence of philanthropy: using generosity and kindness to create a better world. And for Jewish funders, Wiesel’s work – which combines a profound love of humanity with an unflinching commitment to the Jewish People – is doubly important. The JFN family was incredibly blessed to hear this message from Elie Wiesel himself, when he keynoted our 2009 conference.
When Elie Wiesel told me that he saw himself a teacher, I remembered a piece of Hebrew wordplay. The Hebrew word for teacher, “melamed,” is written exactly like the word “malmad,” which is used to describe a prod or a stinger. A good teacher, like Wiesel, challenges us. He stings us, and prods us to thought and action; he moves us and gives us the gift of dissatisfaction, the feeling that there are wrongs to right, wounds to heal, and realities to transform.
That’s the kind of teacher Elie Wiesel was for me, and for millions all over the world. May his memory be a blessing.
Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO of Jewish Funders Network.