Elie Wiesel, and the Holocaust in Jewish Literature

The Holocaust as part of the life stories of ‘wise men.’

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel participates in a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill in 2015 (photo credit: GARY CAMERON/REUTERS)
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel participates in a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill in 2015
(photo credit: GARY CAMERON/REUTERS)
“To forget nothing, to efface nothing; that is the obsession of survivors; to plead for the dead, to defend their memory and honor…. To resist this tide survivors – and they are becoming ever fewer – have only words, poor ineffectual words, with which to defend the dead. So some of us weave these words into tales, stories, and pleas for memory and decency. It is all we can do, for the living, and for the dead.”
(Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea). 
Three times a year for 50 years (1964-2014), Elie Wiesel would ascend the podium at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan to deliver a lecture about one of the central historical figures of the Jewish people. In these lectures, the personas, ideas, deeds, and creations of 150 personalities from the Bible, Talmud and the world of Hassidism came to life and became part of contemporary Judaism
These lectures/meetings, which Wiesel titled, “Think Higher and Feel Deeper,” were each attended by an audience of 1,200, who bought their tickets a year in advance and who crowded the hall for each lecture.
I personally attended more than thirty of the parallel lectures that Wiesel delivered at Boston University over the course of the 36 years that he taught there (1976-2012), and I can attest to the utter silence in the main university auditorium while Wiesel was speaking – despite the fact that over 2,500 people were in attendance. The audience was hypnotized and enthralled by every sentence of his lectures.
A poster advertising a lecture by Elie Wiesel at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan (Photo Credit: Courtesy Boston University)A poster advertising a lecture by Elie Wiesel at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan (Photo Credit: Courtesy Boston University)

A poster advertising a lecture by Elie Wiesel at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan (Photo Credit: Courtesy Boston University)A poster advertising a lecture by Elie Wiesel at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan (Photo Credit: Courtesy Boston University)
In my opinion, Wiesel’s greatest contribution to the Jewish literary canon – alongside his Night – are the books in which he compiled the texts of these lectures. These are his primary legacy to culture in general, and to Jewish culture in particular. In this article, I will focus on a central, yet partially hidden element that runs through Wiesel’s lectures and books. 
At first glance, there does not seem to be much common between the forefather Isaac, the Tanna Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, and the Hasidic leader Rabbi Israel of Rizhin in terms of identity, philosophy, or activity. Indeed, over 3,000 years elapsed between the time of Isaac and Rabbi Israel of Rizhin, 140 generations; between Isaac and Rabbi Hananiah, over 2,000 years elapsed, eighty generations. Where could these three fascinating personalities – who were so different and who lived at such different times – be brought together? I know of only one answer – in the lectures of Elie Wiesel. In this article, I will demonstrate how Wiesel drew connections between personalities who lived thousands of years apart and who differed in both way of life and worldview.
When I asked Wiesel how he constructed his portrayal of the figures he discussed, he responded:
I retain only the appropriate degree of creative freedom. It is unacceptable to misrepresent the personalities or do injustice to the identities, as they are presented in the Jewish sources. Whenever there is a disagreement among scholars or commentators, I bring it as part of the story. The reader has the right to identify with one view or another, although I do not conceal my personal view.
Over the course of my work with Wiesel, I asked him a number of times if he felt that he had written as much as he wanted to about the Holocaust and his own experiences during that period. The first time I asked him, he answered, “No one has yet written a book that truly describes what happened during the Holocaust.” When I expressed surprise at his answer, noting that his personal library contained over 10,000 different books on the topic, he explained, “There are no words in any language that can describe what a person endured during the Holocaust, even if he was in an extermination camp for only five minutes of his life. I wrote five or six books about the Holocaust and 50 that are not about the Holocaust, but I am considered a ‘Holocaust writer.’”
I asked my question a number of times because I found reference to the Holocaust in every one of Wiesel’s books, whether directly or obliquely; most of the times, it is an organic part of the story. The second time I asked the question, he responded, “A person cannot run away from his past and from his identity.” 
I asked the question yet again when I was editing the Hebrew series, “The Collected Writings of Elie Wiesel,” and he invited me and my wife to join him for a small celebration in his office to mark the publication of three thick volumes of his essays on Jewish personalities. This sub-series, titled The Jewish Soul, did not appear in the editions of Wiesel’s works in other languages. Each of the volumes – The Biblical Soul, The Talmudic Soul, and The Hasidic Soul – sold well in Israel, and Wiesel was pleased that his books had been made available to a wider audience. 
At that celebration, I asked Wiesel if he noticed a common denominator between all the personalities he discussed. His brief answer forms the basis for this article.
In an interview I conducted with Wiesel in 2014, he formulated his view carefully:
No one can run away from himself. The Holocaust, in all its horror, is part of me. It is part of my personal identity. How can one write about the Sacrifice of Isaac without mentioning the Holocaust? The same is true of the Ten Martyrs, as it is reflected, for example, in the story of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon. And the same is true of other personalities. It is impossible to do otherwise.
The Holocaust was part of Wiesel’s personal identity, and it is part of the identity of the personalities about whom he chose to speak and write. Some element of the Holocaust was part of the experience of the forefathers of the Jewish people, its scholars, and its leaders.

The Holocaust in the Bible

Biblical characters are the earliest personalities who receive Wiesel’s treatment through the lens of the Holocaust, its significance, and the events that transpired during it. He compares Noah’s behavior after the Flood to the behavior of Jewish prisoners after their liberation from Buchenwald in 1945:
Study the sequence of events following the Flood and you will have a clearer picture of Noah the men. What is the first thing he does after he leaves the ark? He builds an altar and offers a sacrifice to God. It’s right, It’s normal, it’s the proper thing to do; after all, he owes God his survival-he owes Him everything.
May I offer a personal memory? April 11, 1945; Buchenwald. Hungry, Hungry, emaciated, sick and weakened by fear and terror, Jewish inmates welcome their sudden freedom in a strange manner; they do not grab the food offered by their American liberators. Instead, they gather in circles and Daven (pray); their first act as free human beings was to say Kaddish, thus glorifying  and sanctifying God’s name.     
In discussing the destruction of Sodom, Wiesel notes at the end of his essay on “Lot’s Wife”: 
Our history is reflected in Lot’s story. Questions about him apply to us as well. Must I articulate them? Why did my contemporaries in Europe refuse to believe that death was near? Why did so many children fall victim to murderers? Where was divine justice? Why did one survive while so many others did not? Why did my generation lack intercessors. While even Sodom did not? These questions are troubling and eternal. The answers ?  I do not know them. 
The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and their attempt to find shelter in the desert remind Wiesel of the suffering of the Jews who sought shelter in Europe during the Holocaust:
This is the fate of the fugitive; he knows where he comes from, but not where he may go. In this respect, nothing had changed since then, in our time refugees do not know if they will find a place to rest and established roots. With this difference: the refugees of my generation did not even know where they come from; they come from so many countries persecuted by so many oppressors, tormented by so many destructive angels. Unlike us, Hagar had but one enemy – and had been exiled from only one place.  
The story of the Sacrifice of Isaac is related to the fate of Jews throughout the generations, as many Jews died as martyrs, in “sanctification of God’s name”:
Here is a story that contains Jewish destiny in its totality, just as the flame is contained in the single spark……We have known Jews who like Abraham, witnessed the death of their children, who like Isaac, lived in the Akeda in their flesh; and some who went mad when they saw their father disappear on the altar..
Wiesel’s writing is fluid and gripping, constructing a story that is essentially an original and new commentary, a different way of looking at a well-known personality, from the perspective of the 21st century and based on the experience of almost 4,000 years of history. 
The Sages teach that “there are seventy faces to the Torah” – the Torah can be interpreted in seventy different ways, such that there is hardly any perspective that is illegitimate. Anyone who claims that his interpretation and approach is the only correct one denies this central principle of pluralism in exegesis and Torah study. Are Wiesel’s interpretations legitimate approaches to understanding the texts? From his perspective, they certainly are. He would agree that his interpretation does not constitute a general approach to the Biblical text, but rather only to select parts, but addressing historical events in the course of Biblical exegesis has precedent in the commentaries of Rashi, Nachmanides, Malbim and many other commentators.
In his lectures and writings, Wiesel never cited the written sources that served as the foundation for each speech and chapter of his works. At first, I was very surprised by this method. For over ten years, I helped Wiesel, at his request, to find sources for his various lectures. After hearing the first lecture, which I had helped prepare to some extent, I asked him why he didn’t quote his sources. 
“I am insistent,” he responded, “that it be a riveting speech, and not a class. Most of the audience that you see in the hall will not come if I deliver the lecture as a class.” 
When I asked him if we should cite the sources in the Hebrew edited editions of his essays, his response was swift and sharp: “Please do not add anything. Leave the text as it is. I want the reader to read it quickly and digest the ideas, not for him to stop and look up the books of the commentators, Midrash, and Aggada.”
Thus, Wiesel explicitly articulated his hope that his exegesis of the Biblical texts would be accepted as legitimate, like any other commentary. I believe that this is indeed what happened, even while he was still alive; most of those who heard his lectures and read his books accepted his interpretations.
There are numerous other examples of Wiesel’s “Holocaust interpretations.” Thus, for example, he made a very significant and personal comment regarding the silence of Aaron, the brother of Moses, when faced with the terrible tragedy of the deaths of his two sons: And all that we, his distant disciples, can do is to join our silence to his. In this brief sentence, Wiesel reminds us of his earliest treatment of the world’s silence in the face of the destruction of European Jewry, his Yiddish book Und di Velt Hot Gesvign (And the World was Silent), which later became his famous book Night.
Wiesel wants us to learn an important lesson from Jeremiah the Prophet, who lived at the time immediately preceding the destruction of the first Temple:
There comes a time when one must look away from death and turn away from the dead; one must cling to life, which is made of minutes, not necessarily years, and surely not  centuries ; one must fight so as not to be overwhelmed by history but to act upon its concretely, simply, humanly. In the midst of national catastrophe, one must continue to teach and study, bake and sell bread, plant trees and count on the future. One must not wait for the tragedy to end before building or rebuilding life, one must do it in the very face of tragedy.  
Is there any greater expression of the connection between Jeremiah in Jerusalem at the time of the Destruction and Elie Wiesel in Birkenau? Does “to teach and study” in the midst of a national tragedy mean following the path taken by Wiesel and his friend Itzik Jaacobi, who would learn a page of Talmud together after every twelve-hour day of back-breaking labor in Auschwitz-Birkenau? And perhaps the image of “plant trees and count on the future” refers to the tree that grew in the middle of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the stump of which remains to this day – a tree that served as a symbol of faith in the future of the quarter million people who passed through the camp and the 65,000 people who were murdered there. 
MOSES HOLDS his staff at the Battle of Rephidim in this painting titled ‘Victory O Lord!’ (1871) by English painter John Everett Millais (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)MOSES HOLDS his staff at the Battle of Rephidim in this painting titled ‘Victory O Lord!’ (1871) by English painter John Everett Millais (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Holocaust in the Talmud

When I edited the three volumes of The Jewish Soul, I asked three of Wiesel’s friends in Israel – all premier Jewish Studies scholars who have been awarded the Israel Prize – to each write an introduction to one of the volumes. All three immediately agreed, considering it an opportunity to honor their friend. Historian Professor Avraham Grossman wrote the introduction to The Biblical Soul; Wiesel’s childhood friend from Sighet, Talmud scholar Professor David Weiss-Halivni, wrote the introduction to The Talmudic Soul; and another close friend, Professor Moshe Idel, a well-known authority on Kabbalah and Hassidism, wrote the introduction to The Hassidic Soul.
I made only one request of these scholars – that they address the way in which Wiesel incorporates the Holocaust in different chapters in each of the books.
Already in his opening lines, Prof. Weiss-Halivni, who in his later years has written extensively about the Holocaust, drew a connection between the Talmudic figures and the events of the Holocaust:
As one from his hometown, as his childhood friend, as his partner in the great suffering endured when the Jewish People was pillaged during the Holocaust – us and our city – I wonder if it is possible to find in these essays his past and his unique experiences, such that one who did not experience what we experienced would tell the same stories in a different manner, from a different worldview, from a different pain, or perhaps not out of pain at all. This idea came to me after I became convinced, long ago, that for one for whom the Holocaust is part of his experience, part of his existence, any serious thing that he does, no matter what its nature, will have some small element of the Holocaust’s influence in it, whether consciously or subconsciously. After the Holocaust, nothing is like what was before. Everything that happens is connected to that terrible suffering, whose influence is sensed in every significant event. The Holocaust must perforce be a dominating theme in the classic writings of the father o
f Holocaust memorial, even if their goal is not the same. 
In these lines, Prof. Weiss-Halivni succinctly and clearly expresses our premise in this article.
The greatest example of this in the Talmud is the description of the deaths of the Ten Martyrs, and in particular that of Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, whose story “exemplifies and brings to life the power of the Holocaust.” In Wiesel’s summary of his chapter on Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, he writes:
It is said that when the news of Rabbi Akiva’s tragic death reached Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradyon, he and his friends tore their clothes and began mourning their loss. And one sage exclaimed, the death of this sage and just man serves as a prediction of perilous times that are about to come upon us.
If the death of one man serves as an evil omen for humankind, what should one say about the death of six million men, women and children?  
Consider the internal reaction to these words on the part of the 1,200 attendees of Wiesel’s lecture in New York and the 2,500 listeners at Boston University. 
When history is part of reality, one is compelled to ask: Does history repeat itself? A historian will immediately respond that it does not, but he will add that it is nevertheless necessary to learn from history. 
In all of his lectures and in many of his essays, Wiesel emphasized that the Holocaust took place because the world was indifferent to the fate of the Jews and because the nations of the world refused to learn from the tragic events of the 1,900 years since the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jewish People. The concept of “indifference” is, in Wiesel’s worldview, the key concept to understand the events of the twentieth century.
When Wiesel was invited by US president Bill Clinton in April 1999 to speak at the White House to mark the end of the second millennium, Wiesel titled his lecture, “Indifference.” That lecture is now part of the curricula in schools throughout the US, Europe and Israel. 

The Holocaust in Hassidism

Elie Wiesel was a Hassid from the depths of his being. He was proud of his connection to the world of Hassidism, and particularly to Vizhnitz Hasidism. From the time that he arrived in the US, he developed a close relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, but he often emphasized that the deep bond between them should not be misinterpreted as indicating that he had become a Lubavitcher (Chabad) Hassid. Wiesel was greatly impressed with Chabad’s activities throughout the world and their outreach efforts to reach Jews distant from Jewish life and society. 
Wiesel’s writings about Hassidic leaders is warm and embracing, certainly not critical; it is rooted in his love for these remarkable personalities, for Hassidic teachings, and for Hassidic stories. Wiesel based his essays largely on the huge library of Hassidic lore, which includes hundreds of books written over the course of the past three hundred years, acknowledging that the stories he chose to recount are subjective and tell us more about the storytellers than about the subjects.
As a young boy, Wiesel heard many of these stories and learned Hassidic teachings from his grandfather, Reb Dovid Dodye, who served as the rabbi of Bichkev and also worked as a farmer. Wiesel respected his grandfather greatly, and he cites him lovingly in many of his essays about Hassidic leaders.
Wiesel also incorporates his own thoughts about the Hassidic stories and their context, providing a personal perspective as a Holocaust survivor. This element often serves as a continuation of the Hassidic story. A prominent example is his citation of Rabbi Israel of Rizhin, who explains why those in present generations cannot perform miracles like those of the Baal Shem Tov, due to decreased mystical abilities in subsequent generations:
When the great Israel Baal Shem Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was a custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted.
Later, his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place  in the forest and say: “Master of the universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished.
Still later, Moshe-Leib of Sassov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient”. It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.
Then it fell to Israel of Rizhin to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God : “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient”. And it was sufficient. 
It no longer is. The proof is that the threat has not been averted. Perhaps we are no longer able to tell the story. Could all of us be guilty? Even the survivors?  Especially the survivors?
Readers of Wiesel’s essays on Biblical, Talmudic, and Hassidic personalities cannot help but notice the prominence of the Holocaust in his writings – sometimes explicitly and sometimes obliquely, revealed only through deeper analysis. Wiesel himself addressed this point: “Even when I wrote about the Bible, about the Talmud, about the Middle Ages, or about Hassidism, there were always those who connected my writings to the Holocaust.”
In this article, we have shown that these writings are, in fact, clearly connected to the Holocaust. As Wiesel himself said, “A person cannot run away from his past and his identity.”
The author wrote his doctoral dissertation under Elie Wiesel’s direction, founded and ran the Elie Wiesel Archive at Boston University from 2008-2015 and edited the Hebrew edition of ‘The Complete Writings of Elie Wiesel.’ He dedicates this article to Prof. Michael Bernbaum, in gratitude and appreciation for his thoughts, ideas and conversations.