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The Humble Nobility of Elie Wiesel

PARIS – It begins in a world now gone, lying at the borders of Ruthenia, Bukovina, and Galicia, forgotten places that were the glory of the Habsburg Empire and of European Judaism. Seventy years later, all that remains of this world are ruined palaces, empty Baroque churches, and synagogues leveled and never rebuilt. And now it has lost one of its last witnesses: Elie Wiesel.

Wiesel survived the obliteration of this world, and from it fashioned a second birth, devoting his life, in fear and trembling, to resurrecting those who perished. That, for me, is what stands out in the life of the author of Night and Messengers of God.

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In the years after 1945, Wiesel rubbed elbows with the greatest of the great. He garnered the same vast, worldwide, enduring admiration as Yehudi Menuhin. But he never stopped being that yehudi, that ordinary Jew, that survivor whose heart would pound as he passed through customs in New York or Paris.

Wiesel set himself one task, at once impossible and categorical: to become the living tomb, the cenotaph, of the beggars of Sighet, of the comically clumsy ghetto Hasidim, and of the countless campmates who had, in the face of God’s silence, chanted the Kaddish for their own passing. For this, he had only his tongue, and not even his native tongue, but the French that he learned in an orphanage for deported children at age 15 – and later turned into his violin. Without Wiesel, there would have remained no trace of countless lives reduced to ash and smoke.

I do not know if Wiesel was a “great” writer. But I am convinced that he, like Benny Lévy, another friend, believed that a Jew of his type does not come into the world to pursue literature as a profession.

Wiesel’s work has neither the inaccessible sublimity of Kafka, nor the paradoxically lofty power of Proust. It perhaps lacks the laconic grace of Paul Celan, who wrote that, in the country they shared, one finds nothing but books and men.

But he is one of the few to have spoken the unspeakable about the camps. He shares with Primo Levi and Imre Kertész – how many others? – the terrible privilege of having felt six million shadows pressing against his frail silhouette, in an effort to gain their almost imperceptible place in the great book of the dead.

His other great virtue, perhaps, is having ensured, through his work and henceforth in the minds of those inspired by it, that the dark memory of that exception that was the Holocaust will not exclude – indeed, that the Holocaust requires – ardent solidarity with the victims of all other genocides.

I picture Wiesel in 1979 on the Cambodian border, where I met him for the first time, his familiar mop of hair a jet-black wing hovering over his lean, handsome head. He was the first person I heard theorize on the sad imbecility of those who engage in competitive victimhood, those who insist that we have to choose our own dead – Jews or Khmer, the martyrs of this genocide or that.

I picture him seven years later in Oslo, where I accompanied him to receive the Nobel Prize that he wanted so much. At one point his face suddenly darkened as if overtaken by an unexplained anxiety. In his expression – which could change in a moment from joy, gaiety, and mischievous intelligence to the infinite sadness of one who will never recover from having seen the worst that humans can do – the sadness clearly seemed to have won.

“The Nobel Prize,” he mused, “from now on I’ll be a Nobel prizewinner, but there is only one title that matters, which is Rebbe (teacher), and I know that I am not one. I know that I am and will always be no more than the Rebbe’s student.”

Then there was Wiesel’s last meeting with François Mitterrand, the Sphinx, the Machiavelli of the Élysée Palace. In their previous encounters, the villager from Sighet and the bourgeois from the Charentes had engaged, icon to icon, in long and deep exchanges that, I believe, may have kindled some mutual affection. Wiesel had the feeling of rediscovering, under the president’s power, something of the priestly concern of Mitterrand’s namesake, François Mauriac, who had taken Wiesel under his wing on his return from Auschwitz and with whom he felt he had helped to mitigate the thousand-year-old strains between Jews and Christians.

But, then, in this last meeting, Wiesel learned, bit by bit, that Mitterrand the Marist prince had blithely gone off to play golf the day his loyal lieutenant, Pierre Bérégovoy, committed suicide, and that Mitterrand had continued, to the very last, to defend René Bousquet, head of the Vichy police and denouncer of Jews. Had Wiesel been deceived or co-opted? He had known court Jews. And now he had been consecrated as an official Jew, seeming to have forgotten the chilling maxim from Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”): “Seek not undue intimacy with the ruling power.” The fathers knew that the temptation of such consecration is a delusion and a trap.

Wiesel’s greatness was to have remained, under all circumstances, one of those humble Jews whom he considered the crown of humanity. His nobility consisted in never forgetting the lesson of the Rebbe of Vizhnitz, even after he had donned the robe of the man of letters, that he bore the burden of those, adorned in caftan and fur hat, who had wanted to be as elegant as the Polish nobles who led the pogroms against them.

And I believe that not a day passed in Wiesel’s long life as a celebrated intellectual, honored by great universities and consulted by presidents, without spending at least an hour before a page of the Talmud or the Zohar knowing that initially he would understand nothing of what he read, but that this was the price of the only true celebration.

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This was just what his people had done in Sighet, believing that one day the Messiah would come. And it is what we do today when we grasp that neither Cambodia, nor Darfur, nor the massacres in Syria, nor the need, anywhere on the planet, to drive out the beast that sleeps in man should divert us from the sacred task of saving what we can of memory, meaning, and hope.

That is the lesson of Elie Wiesel. May it guide us through a time haunted, more than ever, by crime, distraction, and forgetfulness.