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July 5, 2016 8:24 am

Bernard-Henri Lévy: The Humble Nobility of Elie Wiesel

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The late Elie Wiesel. Photo: Wikipedia.

The late Elie Wiesel. Photo: Wikipedia.

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.

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 (rabbi, 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 poring over 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.

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.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of the founders of the “Nouveaux Philosophes” (New Philosophers) movement. His books include Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.

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  • A very good man. We could only with that genocide had ceased ad was not ongoing today. We never seem to learn.

  • Elie Wiesel not only witnessed Nazi Germany’s Holocaust on the Jews, but was a victim of a “Holocaust denier” in February 2007. And there is substantial evidence proving the historicity of the Nazi Holocaust:

  • Leonard Sherman

    A great light has gone out I knew Eli and Eli knew me I was touched by greatness
    Leonar Sherman.

  • Dani

    I do have a deep respect for some phylosophers, especially Jewish ones but anyone should know when is a good time to do something like critizising if a collegue was a good writeror not, if he was a good cout Jew or not. I would start cleaning my own front door before getting into the controvertial task of “helping” my neighbour with his.

  • I was so saddened to learn of the death of this great man. He had so much to teach the world, which is so out of control. It seems almost pointless that such a great man has left us. As he often said, the body is ashes but the spirit goes on forever. I so hope that his spirit is now with his family….God Bless You Eli Wiesel.

  • Jed Stampleman

    Could we as Jews do any better than to be a little like Elie Wiesel every day?

  • Michelle

    Brilliantly written!
    Elie Wiesel is an example of the true greatness of man embraced in humility.

  • rivka federgrun

    The Hasidim of Sighet were not clumsy. They were a dynamic
    and vibrant people who were followers
    of Sighet and Vishnitz Hasidim.Most of them worked during
    the day in various trades and learned in the evening.
    If he truly wanted to understand the Gemara, he could easily find many scholars to learn with him.
    There are still learned survivors from Sighet, and one of them is Itzchak Goldberg who resides in Israel.

  • Mayven

    Elie Wiesel…a humanist for mankind.

    Read this and again…

  • Thank you Bernard-Henri Lévy for this article, the historical bits and the intellectual commentary – all true of course, well written and informative – but for me there is something missing: The Real humanity of the man Eli Wiesel, his suffering in continuum, his humble pride in who he was, his opening doors for second and third etc. generation children of survivors, whom no one remembers or thinks about, to connect them with the legacy of their fathers, grandfathers and families.

    What is his own legacy? it is not that he was an exceptional writer, built bridges to organizations that will forever recall the horrors of the Holocaust, or the fact that he received a Nobel Prize… the honest truth is that his heart, mind and soul were open to all those who cried, those who suffered and those who could not overcome the horror of their existence,..then and now!…What is missing in this eulogy is his total and complete familiarity with a generation of his people that was so wounded, that their children could not ever live ‘normal’ lives; that no matter what they achieved after Auschwitz and Bergen Belsen, Buchenwald, Theresiestadt etc. ultimately never really mattered…momentarily yes, but essentially the only thing they connected with was the fact that they were SURVIVORS, just like him, just like Eli “ZL”….Some tried to forget, some tried to deny, some never spoke , other never shared, some gave testimony others shriveled up and rotted inside, the insidious pain wracking their consciousness and physicality…nothing wiped out the horror of what they had seen except death itself.

    Eli Wiesel comprehended my mothers ‘zl’ poetry…no one else did…he archived it…to him everyone was important when no one else cared…he understood the heart wrenching words of a tuberculosis ridden skeleton who had the first Jewish marriage in the kitchen of block 24 in Bergen Belsen on June 25 1945…He spoke for all of them, he understood all of them, he had a heart for all of them; he cried for all, he remembered all, he suffered for all, he comforted all, he lived for and through all of them and to understand his life, his dreams and nightmares, the depth of his commitment, one must come from where he came from and have lived what he lived…or lived with those who suffered his early fate.

    Second generation children are flawed, all of them…he understood…We have lost our ‘Voice’ as well…again we are orphaned…

    May Hashem grant you Eli Wiesel “ZL”, a special place of the greatest honor with the Sages and Martyrs of our people in the great Academy of the Heavens….reserved for the righteous…may your memory be for a blessing and may Moshiach wipe away the tears of your holy eyes and give you peace. Amen

  • Lia

    Thank you, Mr Lévy.