This story begins 18 years ago, in 2000, when the first part of Elie Wiesel’s autobiography, “All Rivers Run to the Sea,” was published in Hebrew (by Yedioth Books). I initiated the publication of the book as a gesture of friendship and admiration, and at the publisher’s request I agreed to edit it, and mainly to ensure the accuracy of the historical details.
At the time there was no mention of publishing a series of the works of Eli Wiesel in Hebrew, which came up later and eventually led to the publication of 14 books, beginning in 2005. At the time it never occurred to me that eight years later I would receive a personal invitation from Wiesel to serve as the founder and director of his archive project at Boston University.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I had read the autobiography three times, and with every reading new questions arose, most of which I discussed directly with Wiesel. Our friendship, which began in 1983, was close and ongoing, maintained by phone and by fax, and of course in face-to-face meetings whenever he came to visit Israel or I came to New York.
Visiting Israel was of great importance, because a large part of Wiesel’s history during the first 25 years after the Holocaust is very closely tied to the State of Israel. Although he never lived in Israel for more than three consecutive months, from the end of 1949 until 1972 he served as the senior foreign correspondent of the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, first in France and from 1956 in the United States.
From his parents’ home in the city of Sighet (today in Romania) he had a good knowledge of Hebrew – reading, writing and speaking – as well as Yiddish. He often said to me personally, and of course to those in the later years who wanted to write about him, that anyone who doesn’t speak and read Hebrew would find it difficult to understand who he was during the most important years in his life, the Holocaust and the years immediately following. In those years most of his writing was in Hebrew or Yiddish. With his outright encouragement, both overt and covert, during the years when I worked in his archive in the Boston University Archives, I read all the texts he had written in Hebrew up to 1995 (few papers from the last 20 years of his life were deposited in the archive, most of them remained in his possession), which he wanted to preserve for future generations.The mystery
“Shushani” – wrote Wiesel in his book (“All Rivers Run to the Sea,” page 150) “led me surreptitiously to a subject that had always fascinated me: asceticism, the lure and quest for suffering, the will to suffer so as to infuse one’s own suffering and that of others with meaning. We talked of the ascetic and his self, enriched or mutilated by suffering, the relation between suffering and truth, suffering and redemption, suffering and spiritual purity, suffering as a gateway to the sacred, the prophetic, rabbinical, mystical point of view. Was it necessary, even indispensable, to punish the body in order to allow the soul to soar to new heights? Why was the nazir (ascetic) considered a sinner in Scripture? Why was he compelled to bring a sacrifice to the Temple? How to understand the variety of ascetics?” (p. 150).
These difficult and complex questions, and many others, preoccupied young Wiesel, who only a year and a half earlier had been released from the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where he arrived on the Death March, after surviving Auschwitz-Birkenau-Buna.
And he continues: “I took copious notes and then began to write, pages and pages. Maybe someday it would make a book. Why not. I had wanted to write since childhood. In Sighet I often went to the offices of the Jewish community to write a page of Bible commentary on the only available Hebrew typewriter.”
I had an important question after reading this passage, like others in his book, during my work in the archive: Where are the pages he wrote? Wiesel was known for meticulously saving almost every piece of paper on which he wrote, whether an original or a copy. I asked him to tell me whether anything remained of those “pages and pages” about which he had written.
I had a special reason for searching for those pages, just as I searched for two other manuscripts. The first, which I’m still trying to find, is the long, 870-page original manuscript of the book “Night.” I have some theories – in the event that it exists – as to where it is likely to be, and hope to find it eventually; I also looked for, and found, the original Hebrew manuscript of “Night.” I had seen a photograph of its first page already on my first day at the university, in a window dedicated to the Elie Wiesel Archive. This manuscript has been a subject of discussion in the past, and in the past two years it has often been mentioned in the research about “Night.”
The first question was: Is it possible that Wiesel, a 19-year-old Holocaust survivor, who was living in the shadow of the terrible events he had witnessed, wrote his first book already then? When he writes in his autobiography about the summer camp where he was a counselor in 1947, he says “Early every morning I worked on ‘my book’ on asceticism” (p. 152). The fact that he wrote “my book“ in quotes makes it clear that he isn’t talking about a published book, but about a small or large collection of pages that were supposed to constitute, in the opinion of their writer, a complete or partial basis for the manuscript of an entire book.
I found evidence of his writing talent, already then, in the Yiddish newspaper published by Revisionist circles in Paris in those years, called “Zion in Kampf” (Zion in Struggle) edited by journalist Joseph Krost. In his autobiography he writes of his attempts to be hired by a Hebrew or Yiddish Jewish newspaper, and about articles he wrote for Zion in Kampf, but he focuses primarily on one of them, a piece he wrote about the “Altalena” affair (on June 20, 1948, the Altalena, a cargo ship carrying arms for the right-wing paramilitary Irgun, was shelled near Tel Aviv by the newly formed Israel Defense Forces).
When I asked, he replied that he had written and published eight articles, each about 1,500-2,000 words long. I tried to find them. In the archive at the Jabotinsky Insitute, headed by Amira Stern, I managed to find “only” three of the articles written by the young Wiesel in 1947. Three is not eight, and therefore the search had to continue. During a meticulous search of the treasures of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem all the issues of Zion in Kampf were found, and by leafing through page after page in all the issues, we also found the five missing articles.
Without getting into the contents of the articles, which are written in Yiddish, already at first glance Wiesel’s writing talent is evident. For example, for Hanukkah he wrote a long article about the Hasmonean Revolt, for Shavuot he wrote about “Baruch Spinoza,” choosing topics without being committed to any specific political outlook. Eight comprehensive articles in one year (1947), when he was preoccupied with studies and working for his daily survival, were proof of talent and knowledge. But where are the “pages and pages” that he wrote about asceticism?The search
The Elie Wiesel Archive contains over 330 cardboard boxes overflowing with his papers. There is a total of over one million documents in the archive, including letters, manuscripts, newspaper clippings, notes, sources for books and more. This entire huge treasury had to be examined thoroughly in an attempt to find the pages that he wrote in 1947 about asceticism.
Due to the fact that when I first started working in the archive I had already sorted, together with volunteers, all the documents according to the language in which they were written, the search for the pages about asceticism was limited to the documents in Hebrew or Yiddish. There was a simple reason for the need to search in both languages: Wiesel’s secretaries at the university, who handled his papers starting in 1976 when he began teaching in Boston, did not distinguish between texts in Hebrew and in Yiddish, because they use the same alphabet.
So there was no choice but to thoroughly check several dozen cartons. But as opposed to the Hebrew manuscript of “Night,” which I found, the “pages and pages” about asceticism were not found. At that point I should have given up and told myself that in the course of the 60 years since 1947 the pages had probably been lost. But I decided to continue the search, because of something that Wiesel had told me during one of our meetings: “What’s here is not my entire archive. I handed over everything in my possession. You should know that during the years when I wandered among small apartments, in France and in New York, I left many documents with friends, and you should talk to them.”
That was already a major task and almost impossible in those days. Still I decided not to give up, I had to give it a try, and that’s why I decided to check all the rooms in the university where Wiesel’s material was kept. That’s how I came to a closed room that was opened only rarely, which contained a collection of books by Wiesel in several languages, papers written under his tutelage, recordings of his lectures and various papers. I went to examine the contents of a room on the fifth floor in the Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies building, which I believe was opened no more than five or six times a year. In the dark room, in which all the shelves were crammed with material, I examined file after file, document after document, until by chance, as is true of every discovery, I found a disorganized collection of papers entitled “Asceticism.”
Although the pages were numbered, the text was written in small script, which became progressively smaller in the course of the 22 pages. For example, on the first pages there are 250 words per page, while on the final pages there are over 700 words per page. It’s self-understood that the conditions dictate the form of the text and the ease of reading, which is quite feasible on the first pages and very difficult on the last ones.
It would be no exaggeration to say that the text totals about 12,000 words. A respectable total, three printed galleys, for a 19-year-old writer who only two years earlier had emerged from the Buchenwald camp depressed and very ill. At Wiesel’s request I immediately photocopied two copies of the full text, placing the original in his archive. A full photocopy of the manuscript was sent to Wiesel in New York, while the second copy was added to the various papers that were kept in his office at the university. I can confidently assert that with the exception of the author, I was the only one who read the entire text.Asceticism
While reading the manuscript about asceticism, which is written partly in Yiddish, I wrote lists to myself and even copied passages that formed a basis for various questions that I asked Wiesel. For the six years when I worked at the Elie Wiesel Archive we had long meetings on a regular basis, which were recorded in writing, and during which I asked Wiesel hundreds of questions pertaining to the papers found in the archive. The full record of those meetings was of course left in the archive, as an integral part of the materials deposited there.
Wiesel demanded that all our conversations be conducted in Hebrew, and only when there was a third participant did we speak English. Obviously the “Asceticism” manuscript was a subject we discussed at length, because I wanted to understand why a young Jewish boy searching for his identity was so interested in asceticism. Was he considering adopting an ascetic lifestyle?
What is asceticism? “A. a renunciation of willpower. B. a renunciation of the power of imagination. C. a renunciation of the power of awareness.” That is how Wiesel begins the manuscript, and later he writes “not a rejection of life, only the purity of life is asceticism.“ Reading the text that was written many years ago reveals Wiesel’s knowledge of the Bible, in general, and of the identity and personality of biblical figures, in particular, an expertise that in later years would be the basis of six of his books about figures from the Bible and the Oral Law, books that were published in Hebrew as well.
Dozens of figures, both familiar and unknown, are mentioned in the manuscript: Samson, the prophet Samuel, the prophetess Deborah, the prophet Elijah, the prophet Amos, the prophet Isaiah and many others. There are distinctions between a nazir who adopts the way of life for a month, one who adopts it for a specific period of time and one who makes a lifelong commitment. Another subject examined in the book is the distinctions between an ascetic nazir and one who does not accept an ascetic lifestyle. With great expertise Wiesel juggles among various figures and various periods in order to create as broad a picture as possible about the place of asceticism and its influence on Jewish life during the First and Second Temple periods.
The interest in asceticism continued to preoccupy Wiesel for many years to come. In the first passage of the chapter “Traveling” in his autobiography he writes: “I had long dreamed of visiting India, drawn to it by a desire not to meet maharajahs but sages, yogis and ascetics, for I had never abandoned my project of the Shushani years, my study of Jewish asceticism. Why not compare it to Hindu asceticism, contrasting the Jewish idea of redemption with the Hindu concept of Nirvana” (p. 223).
He later told me that in the doctoral thesis that he planned to write at the Sorbonne, where he was studying, he wanted to dedicate a chapter to a comparison among Jewish, Christian and Hindu asceticism. In his memoirs from his visit to India in 1953 he wrote: “The beggar-monks who roamed in processions from place to place reminded of the wandering righteous” (p. 225).
Elie Wiesel saved the manuscript of “Asceticism,” which, as he himself said, he considered his first written work. There was still a long way to go from the manuscript to a book, but the content attests to a young Jew who was thinking, deliberating, struggling with his own identity as a person and as a member of the Jewish people, 6 million of whom were destroyed in the days and years to which he had been a witness.
His pride in his manuscript during those years is revealed in a letter he sent to a friend in Mandatory Palestine. Several months after Wiesel’s death, a very well-known public figure turned to me and gave me a photocopy of a letter his father had received from Elie Wiesel in 1947. The two spent the last months of the war in Buchenwald and stayed in close contact, even after Wiesel remained in France and his friend immigrated to Israel and joined the army that was fighting for Israel’s independence.
In a letter sent on September 23, 1947 to a Haifa address, Wiesel writes that he is “working like crazy,” adding “Have I told you yet that I want to publish some books?” The 19-year-old Wiesel notes that he has already completed one book. He was very naïve, but the urge to write, which gave rise to the manuscript “Asceticism,” was stronger than anything else. It is something to contemplate as we mark the 90th anniversary of Elie Wiesel’s birth. Dr. Joel Rappel is founder and director of Elie Wiesel Archive (2009-2015) at Boston University.
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