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19. Améry, Levi, Wiesel: The Futility of Holocaust Testimony

Edited by Steven T Katz and Alan Rosen Indiana University Press ePub

THE FUTILITY OF HOLOCAUST TESTIMONY

ALVIN H. ROSENFELD

THE OBLIGATION TO record and remember is a constant in the literature of testimony and, more than anything else, defines its character and purpose. Jews suffering under the Nazi siege, lacking significant arms and allies, sought recourse in the only form of resistance available to most of them: the written word. They knew it would not save lives, but believed it would assure that those going to their deaths would not be forgotten.

Were they right? A close reading of Jean Améry, Primo Levi, and Elie Wiesel shows a significant strain of authorial doubt regarding the efficacy of Holocaust testimony. All three have given us exceptionally important work about the Nazi crimes against the Jews. At the end of their careers, however, Améry and Levi came to believe their writings lacked decisive effect, if not, indeed, were fated to fail altogether. While sometimes recording similar moments of doubt, Wiesel, by contrast, has avoided becoming ultimately despondent. What has kept him from succumbing to the sense of futility that oppressed Améry and Levi and has enabled him to continue writing into his eightieth year? These are some of the questions I want to raise and try to answer in this essay.

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1. Alone with God: Wiesel's Writings on the Bible

Edited by Steven T Katz and Alan Rosen Indiana University Press ePub

WIESEL'S WRITINGS ON THE BIBLE

JOEL ROSENBERG

BETWEEN 1976 AND 2004, Elie Wiesel published four books devoted partly or wholly to biblical retellings: Messengers of God in 1976, Five Biblical Portraits in 1981, Sages and Dreamers in 1991, and Wise Men and Their Tales in 2004.1 While, properly speaking, impossible to view in isolation from his other output of this period, this material in fact forms a meaningful chapter in the history of Jewish biblical interpretation, in addition to being writing that touches the soul. Around the time the last book was published, Wiesel, along with Harvard-based biblical scholar Frank Moore Cross Jr., participated in a joint interview for Biblical Archaeology Review conducted by its editor, Hershel Shanks.2 Cross was the quintessence of the historical-critical scholar, immersed in ancient Near Eastern epigraphy and Northwest Semitic pagan poetry, committed to archaeological research and scientific historical method. Here counterposed to him, as it were, was the Jewish storyteller, still bearing within himself the yeshiva bokher: the perspective of the Eastern European Jewish village—suspicious of “biblical criticism,” steeped in the rabbinic worldview, and cherishing the naive vision of childhood. (Wiesel's upbringing and education were in fact more complex than this profile implies, but I'll let this conception prevail for now.) “I'm interested,” said Wiesel in the interview, “in [the Bible's] layers of meaning, but my relation to it is much more an emotional one. It's been my passion almost from my youth. I want to go back to the child I used to be, and to read with the same naiveté.”3 Cross, for his part, spoke of the rabbinic realm, what he called “late Judaism,” as a place where “you can't even swing a cat without hitting three demons and two spirits.” (In this respect, I should add, he found it similar in outlook to the New Testament.)4

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6. Reflections on Wiesel's Hasidic Tales

Edited by Steven T Katz and Alan Rosen Indiana University Press ePub

STEVEN T. KATZ

THE HASIDIC TALE IS both a central aspect of the history and spirituality of Hasidism and a feature of modern efforts to reinterpret traditional Judaism for modern men and women. Within the world of Hasidism, from the earliest period of the movement, tales have been a central method of communicating hasidic teachings to the Jewish masses. R. Yaakov Yosef of Polnoyye, secretary to the founder of the movement, R. Israel Ben Eliezer, better known as the Baal Shem Tov, already tells us in his Toldot Yaakov Yosef, the first hasidic book, published in 1781, twenty-one years after the death of the founder in 1760:

“And there are yihudim in all material speech and stories, and also, as I heard from my master [the Baal Shem Tov], he engaged in yihudim between himself and ahotah dematronita [the Divine Presence] by means of material [or: mundane] stories, and he explained the reason…. This rabbi also said that by speaking with the masses he draws himself closer to ahotah dematronita, by means of material stories, and he explained the reason…. This rabbi also said that by speaking with the masses he draws himself closer to them, and draws them closer to the Torah and the commandments.” And further: “There are people who engage in prayer even when [seemingly] speaking of material matters with their fellows.”1

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5. Wiesel in the Context of Neo-Hasidism

Edited by Steven T Katz and Alan Rosen Indiana University Press ePub

ARTHUR GREEN

IN PLACING ELIE WIESEL'S work in the context of “neo-Hasidism,” I use that term in its very broadest sense.1 Neo-Hasidism here refers to the notion that Hasidism has a message wider than the borders of the traditional hasidic community, that Jews and others who do not live the lives of Hasidim and who have no intention of doing so might still be spiritually nourished by the stories, teachings, music of Hasidism—indeed by the telling of the narrative of hasidic history itself. In addition to the role the living hasidic community has played—and continues to play, far beyond onetime expectations—in the life of the Jewish people, there is a second influence of Hasidism that is relevant to us here. That is the story of the image of Hasidism and the tremendous role it has had in the religious, artistic, and intellectual creativity of non-hasidic Jews throughout the twentieth century, reflected in literature (one need only think of Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Isaac Bashevis Singer, the two most important knowledgeably Jewish authors of the century), but also in religious thought, music, dance, theater, film, and painting. I take all of this as part of neo-Hasidism, that is to say, Hasidism for non-Hasidim.

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24. Conscience

Edited by Steven T Katz and Alan Rosen Indiana University Press ePub

IRWIN COTLER

ELIE WIESEL HAS COME to embody conscience, not only for Jews but for humanity as a whole. Indeed, when the Nobel Committee awarded Wiesel the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, the choice was greeted with international acclaim, for it is difficult to imagine any citizen in the world who has so commanded the respect and attention of political leaders and the people themselves. One suspects that, if the Nobel Committee had awarded Wiesel the Nobel Prize for literature, the acclaim would have been no less.

Wiesel writes, as the title of one of his books suggests, as a “Soul on Fire.” That flame not only has animated the literary imagination, it has ignited the struggle for peace and human rights worldwide. His eloquence is all the more remarkable because, as he puts it, the Holocaust is beyond vocabulary. In matters such as these, language mocks reality. Yet the man who argues that Auschwitz and Birkenau are beyond communication and comprehension has conveyed not only the particularity of the horror but also the universality of its lessons.

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