Book review: A call to action

Journalist and child of Holocaust survivors Howard Reich shares his final conversations with Elie Wiesel.

By GLENN C. ALTSCHULER
June 20, 2019 12:50
4 minute read.
Book review: A call to action

NOBLE LAUREATE Elie Wiesel speaks at the United Nations in 2006.. (photo credit: CHIP EAST / REUTERS)

 
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You must know “that all of us have our ghosts,” a Holocaust survivor tells his wife in Elie Wiesel’s novel The Gates of the Forest. “They’ll continue to haunt us, but we must fight them. The struggle to survive will begin here, in this room, where we are sitting. Whether or not the Messiah comes doesn’t matter; we’ll manage without him. It is because it is too late that we are commanded to hope.”

An iconic author and human rights advocate, Wiesel saw pessimism as a provocation, a call to action, an imperative to wring hope from a forbidding and forlorn reality. “The only thing to try to do is protest,” Wiesel insisted. “Sometimes I say I’ve done nothing else.”
In The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel, Howard Reich, the art critic for the Chicago Tribune, whose father was in Buchenwald at the same time as Wiesel, synthesizes conversations he had with the Nobel laureate during the last four years of his life. Originating in Reich’s struggle, similar no doubt to that of many second-generation Holocaust survivors, to understand experiences his parents never spoke about, their colloquy addresses Jewish identity, guilt, morality and memory.
The questions Reich asks Wiesel will be familiar to anyone interested in the meaning of the Holocaust. Why do they hate us? How did our parents stay sane? How do we speak of this? Can we forgive? How shall we regard Israel?

Wiesel’s responses to these questions are no less relevant because they, too, are familiar. In contrast to Reich, who thinks his parents, who never talked about the Holocaust, worked hard into old age “to keep terrible memories at bay,” concluding that silence was safer and their very survival was meaningful enough, Wiesel maintained that running away from the past “is impossible and unworthy.” And survivors have a sacred duty to bear witness to traumas and tragedies they would have given everything to have prevented. Permeating Jewish existence, Wiesel emphasizes, memory “has its own mystery and its own mysterious power.”

“Anyone who listens to a witness becomes one,” Wiesel tells Reich. Memory can compel action and change the future.
Acknowledging that his generation had every reason to abandon religion, Wiesel decided as well “to believe in God in spite of God” and remain “inside” the Judaism of his ancestors. Faith is for the benefit of the faithful, not the benefit of God: “You’re born a Jew, be a Jew. Be who you are.”

For reasons easy to understand, Reich rarely challenges Wiesel. And so, he misses opportunities to ask questions about questionable claims. Reich lets stand, for example, Wiesel’s assertion that journalists ignored or soft-pedaled stories about Nazi genocide because they did not grasp the scope of it; sensed readers did not want to hear bleak news; and, perhaps most important, because of antisemitism. “They didn’t feel it was a story. Jews are suffering. What else is new?”

In one conversation, Wiesel maintained that guilt had no legitimate place in the consciousness of survivors. “Sadness, yes. But guilt? What guilt?” In another session, however, he acknowledged that “if the Germans had, let’s say, a quota, they had to clear 100 people, then so those who survived should feel guilty because they were not chosen? It’s absurd. But even an absurd reality has certain weight.”

Although he had “always assumed psychiatrists knew a great deal,” Reich seems to defer as well to Wiesel’s characterization of the relationship between experience and knowledge. The best psychologists in the world, Wiesel insisted, “know nothing compared to what a 15-year-old knows – knew – when he left from Auschwitz.” Nor could the words of survivors help therapists comprehend what had happened in the extermination camps.

Survivors, “who knew more about life and about everything” than anyone else, Wiesel added, looked at their teachers and asked “What do you know about mankind?... You know nothing.” No professionals, he implies, could help survivors deal with the memories burned in their psyches.

Reich met with Wiesel in Florida in the winter of 2016. They discussed the refusal of Arthur Rubinstein, the great pianist, whose parents were murdered in Lodz, to perform in Germany. The conversation, Reich recalls, felt like one in a long series of profound experiences he “wrongly assumed would continue uninterrupted for years to come.” It was not to be. Elie Wiesel died on July 2, 2016. Reich instantly recalled the lament of John O’Hara at news of George Gershwin’s death: “I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”

The Art of Inventing Hope can help us remember, learn from, and perhaps argue with, the world’s most revered Holocaust survivor and enlist him in living our lives, in these challenging times, inspired by a man who found cause for hope even in “the most heinous place humanity has known.”

The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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