Baring his heart and soul

Interwoven with Elie Wiesel’s experience of undergoing heart surgery and the period of his recovery is his meditation on life and death

elie wiesel 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
elie wiesel 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Through his talent with the written word, Elie Wiesel bared the stark truth about the horrors of the Holocaust to the world years before most other writers even tried. Now he has written an account of a different sort of ordeal.
Open Heart is a slim book, only 79 pages – a short memoir for a man who has published some 50 fiction and nonfiction books. While the title refers to Wiesel’s opening his heart to the reader, it also has a more literal implication: the open-heart surgery that the author underwent in 2011 at the age of 82.
On June 16 of that year, his doctor told him that the source of the pain he was experiencing was neither his stomach nor his esophagus, as he had presumed, but his heart. Wiesel was sent to the hospital right away, where he discovered that he needed immediate open-heart surgery. All of this happened so quickly that he had no time to think or prepare himself emotionally.
Although his wife reassured him that the surgeon doing the procedure was world-renowned and that his doctors were optimistic as to the success of the surgery, he was afraid. While being wheeled into the operating room, he recalls, he looked at his wife, Marion, and his son, Elisha; he could not help but wonder if he would ever see them again. Thoughts and images flashed through his mind about Marion, how they had met, how much he loved her, scenes from their life together. In the seconds before he fell asleep on the operating table he saw his little sister Tsipuka and his mother as he had seen them for the last time in the concentration camp before they were taken away. He saw his father, who had been with him in the camp, whom he had tried to protect and who had protected him. Soon, he thought, he would see his father again.
“Absurd, is it not?” writes Wiesel.
“Long ago, over there, death lay in wait for us at every moment, but it is now, eternities later, that it shall have its way. I feel it.”
He recounts that he suddenly realized that whenever he had thought of death in the past, he had not been frightened, but he was now as he faced the possibility that once he fell asleep, he would never wake up. He did not feel ready for the end. He had so many things he wanted to achieve, projects to complete, challenges to face. He wanted to write, to teach, to learn. He wanted to be there for his grandson Elijah’s bar mitzva (Elijah was five at the time) and maybe even for his granddaughter Shira’s bat mitzva.
AS WE know from the fact that this book exists, Wiesel did indeed wake up and continue to write. Open Heart is a memoir of his experience before and after his surgery, but it is much more. Interwoven with the experience of facing such a serious procedure and the period of his recovery is Wiesel’s meditation on life and death, his family, his writing, his teaching, and his faith in God and commitment to traditional Judaism.
As he recuperates, many thoughts go through his mind: His great love for Elisha, and how his son has given him so much purpose and joy in his life; and now that Elisha is a father himself, how there is no end to the joy he experiences when spending time with his small grandchildren.
He contemplates the trauma he suffered as a youth and his commitment to telling the world about what he repeatedly calls “The Event.” He ponders death, still a mystery even though he has faced it so many times. He feels the need to search his soul, and asks himself if he has performed his duty as a Holocaust survivor.
“Have I transmitted all I was able to?” he asks. “Too much perhaps?” In his mind, he goes over the books he has written one by one, their themes and the messages he was trying to get across.
“Is one ever ready?” he wonders.
“Some of the ancient Greek philosophers, as well as some Hasidic masters, claimed to have spent their lifetime preparing for death. Well, the Jewish tradition, which is my own, counsels another way: We sanctify life, not death. ‘Ubakharta bakhaim,’ says Scripture: ‘You shall choose life’ and the living.
With the promise to live a better, more moral, and more humane life.
That is what man’s efforts should be directed to.”
Coming from a man who suffered and lost so much in his youth, yet has still managed to “open his heart” with his pen in ways that have left a lasting impression on millions of readers all over the world, Wiesel’s ability to find hope and strength even in the most frightening of circumstances shines through every word he writes. If a memoir of this length and style had been written by a lesser-known author, it might not have received a great deal of attention. But Wiesel’s memoir compels our attention.
Open Heart is the author’s honest and frank expression of his fear as he contends with the one thing each one of us will ultimately have to face – death. At the same time, it is an expression of his faith. Despite the horrors of his past, despite the capacity of the human race, even today, to commit unbelievable acts of cruelty toward their fellow human beings, Wiesel believes in the innate goodness of man. He maintains faith in God even though he questions Him. He believes in life and continues to write. It is worth our while to continue to read his work.