An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
Our society has stereotypes of both atheists and religious people; Wiesel sounds more like a Charles Williams character: "Asked if he were a pessimist or an optimist, he replied that he was an optimist and hated it."
❧ Full name: Elie (originally Eliezer) Wiesel [ĕl-ē vē-zĕl; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: 1928-2016
❧ Areas active: Romania, Hungary, Poland, France, the United States, Israel
❧ Original languages of writing: Yiddish, French, English
❧ Exemplary or important works: Night; The Trial of God
Three members of our Author Bank lived into the twenty-first century—all of whom had to confront the unprecedented inhumanity of the twentieth. One was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet World War II veteran who abandoned Communism for Russian Orthodoxy, and spent eleven years in the Gulag as a political dissident. Another was Black novelist Toni Morrison: born during the Great Depression, she lived and worked through the civil rights movement, including the murders of Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Huey Newton. The third was today’s subject, Elie Wiesel. He was born at the tail end of the Roaring Twenties, in the Kingdom of Romania (as it then was); the inhumanity with which he gained such an unenviable intimacy was, possibly, the most ghastly in recorded history.
At the time, most people didn’t call this inhumanity anything in particular. Those who genuinely knew nothing about it were naturally in no position to name it; among those who didn’t want to know about it, naming it would have been rude. Those who both knew and wanted to know about it mostly used an administrative euphemism: “the final solution to the Jewish question“; those who couldn’t help knowing about it, if they escaped, called it ה-שואה (ha-shoah), “the disaster.” We call it the Holocaust.§ There are a few others in our canon—Arendt, for example—who had brushes with it; Wiesel got it tattooed into his arm. For the final year of the war, his family were in the black heart of the thing, first at Auschwitz and then at Buchenwald.
Most concentration camps were primarily sources of slave labor*: the prisoners were not necessarily sent there to die, it just didn’t matter if they did. Auschwitz was one of the six extermination camps proper, where it mattered very much. It was there that Wiesel’s mother and younger sister were separated from him and his father, and murdered within hours of their arrival. The males were sent on to Buchenwald, which was “just” a slave camp—albeit one with the distinction of being prey to Die Hexe von Buchenwald, “the Witch of Buchenwald,” about whom the less said the better.† Wiesel’s father died there, three months before the camp was liberated by the Allies.
So too, for a time or in a sense, did Wiesel’s Jewish faith. It’s clear from remarks he made later in life that he continued or resumed religious practice; indeed, he had links to the Vizhnitzers, one of the most prominent Hasidic dynasties.‡ Nevertheless, when Wiesel finally broke his strictly-maintained silence about his experiences (thanks in part to the influence of the devout Catholic and staunch antifascist writer François Mauriac, who became a personal friend), what he produced was the memoir Night; it was first published in French in 1958, and appeared in English translation in 1960. The following is an excerpt.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night … Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul … Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.
It has been said—and it is, in all likelihood, fact—that it was Elie Wiesel who gave the modern meaning to the term “the Holocaust.”§ Nor was Night his only work that directly depicted concentration-camp conditions, both material and psychological. During his stint at Auschwitz, the teenage Wiesel had witnessed three rabbis staging a mock trial of the Almighty; they accused Him of criminal negligence for letting his children be massacred, and the unanimous verdict was “guilty.” In 1976, he published a play that was a lightly fictionalized version of this debate, titling it The Trial of God. Fittingly, the play is set immediately after a pogrom that takes place right before the festal holiday of Purim (which to commemorates an averted pogrom, related in the book of Esther).
Wiesel’s seemingly unrelieved doubt and darkness, his cry of agony over being abandoned—these things seem to be the very spirit of twentieth-century culture, insofar as one can safely discern the spirit of a century at such close range. And yet, the name Israel is glossed in the Torah as “he wrestles with God.” In Wiesel’s own words, though he had anger over what had happened, he did not have hatred on account of it; readers of Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place may recognize, beneath the exceedingly different idioms of the Dutch Reformed woman and the Romanian Hasidic man, the same mysterious movement from anguish to mercy. Far from his subsequent career being a sixty-year exercise in public self-pity, he became an active advocate for the disadvantaged in many countries, notably the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka and the Black majority in South Africa (where apartheid had not yet been overtuned), as well as a spokesman against denial of the Armenian genocide. One of his biographers related how the historical “trial of God” in the concentration camp actually concluded:
Evidence was gathered … which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation … After what Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence”, the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers”, and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.
Or, more simply, from an interview Wiesel gave in 1978:
I rarely speak about God. To God, yes. … I shout at Him. But open discourse about the qualities of God, about the problems that God imposes, theodicy, no. And yet He is there, in silence …
*Hence the mocking lie posted over the gates of many concentration camps, Auschwitz included: Arbeit Macht Frei, or roughly, “Work Will Set You Free.”
†We need not pollute our readers’ nightmares with her atrocities (reputed or confirmed); they rank with the experiments of Mengele. Suffice it to say, “the Witch of Buchenwald” was easily the kindest pet name the inmates had for her.
‡Hasidic dynasties are tricky to explain; they are a little like micro-ethnicities. Hasidism is a form of Jewish popular mysticism, which arose in modern Ukraine in the eighteenth century. Some especially wise and charismatic Hasidic rabbis naturally became leaders in the movement; those who passed that leadership on along hereditary lines became the founders of dynasties or courts, consisting of their own extended families and others who followed their teaching and way of life.
§Or the חורבן (khurban), “destruction,” in Yiddish, the common language of Eastern European Jews (who formed the largest proportion of the victims). Holocaust is not a usual Jewish term for this event. The term was applied because it had become an increasingly common term for mass killings since the nineteenth century. However, some authorities consider this usage to be in peculiarly bad taste, and they have a point: originally, and to this day in some academic contexts, the term holocaust meant “burnt offering.” Especially considering that Christian pretexts (some of them lifted from the Bible) have been and occasionally still are used to disguise, excuse, or even promote anti-Semitism, to name an attempted genocide of the Jewish people with a term that also denotes a sacrifice to God that has rubrics in the Torah—well, to put it mildly, this brings in several kinds of worrying suggestions! Some authors, including non-Jews, therefore call this event “the Shoah” instead. However, the term Holocaust remains in use and is not discouraged by style manuals, to the present author’s best knowledge.
Gabriel Blanchard is an uncle of seven nephews; he studied Classics at College Park, and serves as CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you’d like to read more about our Author Bank and the philosophy that informs it, you might like this essay from one of our top-scoring students on Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward, or this discussion of the value of a classically-minded curriculum, a topic dear to Morrison’s heart. Or, if you’d rather look more closely at the writers themselves, check out more of our bios—we have brief intros to semi-legendary sage Confucius, humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, founding father James Madison, cunning fantasist Jorge Luis Borges, and many more. Thanks for reading!
Published on 18th September, 2023. Page image of the Concentration Camp Victims Memorial in the museum of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust (source). In this photo, the following names can be distinguished: Auschwitz (or Oświęcim), Bełzec, Chełmno, Majdanek, and Treblinka, all located in Poland; Belsen and Dachau, Germany; Lviv, now in Ukraine, then part of Poland; and Mauthausen, Austria. This list comprises less than half the major camps, but includes five of the extermination camps. (Around eleven million people were sentenced to extermination camps. When the Allies liberated them, around two thousand inmates were still alive, with all the extermination camps put together.)