Elie Wiesel started out life as a profoundly religious person. However his experiences, in the concentration camps during the second world war almost drove this love of God out of him. In fact for many years he claimed to dislike God, and believed that God did not care about his people anymore. However, in his Night trilogy, it can clearly be seen that he is still a Hasidic Jew, who may not worship the way he did in youth, yet continues to ask the right questions. He pursues God through his writings. Like his Hasidic master , and the Pharisee's before them, the search for God is in asking the right questions. Even if we can not know the answers here.
I will try to examine Mr. Wiesel's spiritual quest in the form of three of his books and from interviews of him that I have found. I will be using the books, Night which is autobiographical, Dawn, and Day (also translated The Accident) which are fictitious books, but that Elie says are about him and the questions he asks. Night is about his experiences in the concentration camps. Dawn is about Elisha a freedom fighter, who must execute a British Officer in Palestine during British occupation. And The Accident is about the time where Elie Wiesel was hit by a car in 1956 in New York and was in hospital and a wheel chair for nearly two years in recovery. I will try to prove from his writings and from his interviews that not only does he believe, but he has a deeply profound faith.
Growing up in a small Jewish community in Sighet, Romania, Elie was a deeply religious boy. "My childhood, really, was a childhood blessed with hope and love and faith and prayer." He goes on to say: "I spent most of my time talking to God more than to people." Also in his autobiographical book Night he states about his childhood: "I believed profoundly. During the day I studied the Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the temple." Thus we can see a deep, profound faith as a young boy and youth. Then at the age of 15 he and his family and all the Jews from his village were deported from their home to the concentration camps.
He first experienced hate against the local police who worked for the Nazi's in rounding up and deporting the Jews. "It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first of the faces of hell and death."
In this reguard, Wiesel was unlike Etty Hillesum who learned that hate was the real enemy and who took pity on her captors. Elie wallowed in his hate and let it grow, both towards men and God. "For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His Name? The eternal, Lord of the Universe, the all powerful and terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?" Again speaking of the death of his God, or his feelings for God, he states: "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
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 and turned all my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."
This night, and these experiences changed this young student of the Bible in profound ways that we could never understand and that even now he is working out in his writings. "I too had become a completely different person. The student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it." He was no longer a man of prayer. He became A-7713, and his only desire was not to be separated from his father, and to keep going day by day.
Then he became a man who questioned God, and God's role in regards to Israel:
"I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone - terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, Yet I felt myself to be stronger than the almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long. I stood amid that praying congregation, observing it like a stranger." He was separated from God, from man, from humane conditions and his faith appeared to fail him; yet he recognized that something was missing and even prayed as can be seen. "In the great depths of my heart, I felt a great void" and "and in spite of myself, a prayer raised in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed." He struggled with darkness and what seemed to be one dark event leading into another and another and another. "The last night in Buna. Yet another last night. The last night at home, the last night in the ghetto, the last night in the train, and, now, the last night in Buna. How much longer were our lives to be dragged out from one 'Last Night' to another?" After his release from the camps he spent two weeks on the verge of death from food poisoning. The book Night ends with this quote: "I wanted to see myself in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in His eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me." Thus we see a young man who can not believe in God at the end of this first book.
Next, I will look at Elie's spiritual questing through the character of Elisha in the book Dawn. In contrast to Night, Elisha recounts an encounter with a beggar, whom he perceived to be a messenger from God, as saying: "You mustn't be afraid of the dark,...Night is purer than day; it is better for thinking and for loving and dreaming. At night everything is more intense, more true." This character finds a strength in the darkness and tries to teach Elisha that he too can find this strength. The character Elisha states the following as his understanding of self prior to joining the freedom fighters "The study of philosophy attracted me because I wanted to understand the meaning of the events of which I had been the victim. In the concentration camps I had cried out in sorrow and anger against God and also against man, who seemed to have inherited only the cruelty of his creator. I was anxious to re-evaluate my revolt in an atmosphere of detachment, to view it in terms of the present. So many questions obsessed me, Where is God to be found? When is a man most truly a man? When he submits of when he refuses? Where does suffering lead him? To purification or to bestiality?"
Elie Wiesel who studied philosophy in Paris after the war pays special attention to the questions, in this and many of his other writings. This comes from his Hasidic training under Moshe the Beadle. "Moshe the Beadle believed that 'every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer' and that man raises himself towards God by the questions he asks Him. That is true Dialogue. Man asks God and God answers. We do not understand these answers because they come from the depths of the soul and they stay there until death. The true answers will only be found within yourself!" The questions asked in the previous quote are real ones Elie asks of himself, of others and of God.
Elisha is also kept together by the love he sees in the world around him, even if he at this time can not really experience it. That for Elie comes in time. "Their love was an essential part of my life. I needed to know that there was such a thing as love and that it brought smiles and joy in it's wake." Elie speaks openly about his sense of loss and aloneness through the words of Elisha: "I'd lost plenty of friends in my time; Sometimes I though of myself as a living graveyard. That was the real reason I followed Gad to Palestine and became a terrorist: I had no more friends to loose." The character then goes through some very intense mystical experiences on pages 166-178. This is recounted by Elie as being similar to his always sensing his Master present in times of trial to guide and help him. Also Elie has had similar such experiences: "I have the feeling, literally, physically, that one of them (Mother of grandfather) is behind my back, looking over my shoulder and reading what I'm writing. I'm terribly afraid of their judgement." He struggles with what he feels are roles people are forced into, and how that shapes them so much. This is almost a Pharisaic view of faith which stresses fate and God's providence working in our lives, whether humanity wants it or not. "What matters is the fact that each of them is playing a role which had been imposed upon him. The two roles are the extremities of the estate of man. The tragic thing is the imposition."
Fate and providence and the roles that we are forced into is also seen in the following quote: "He seated, I standing, the victim and the executioner. We were the first - of the last - men of creation; ... The lack of hate between executioner and victim, perhaps this is God... I felt neither hate nor anger nor pity; I liked him, that was all." At the end of this book one has a feeling that Elie has come to terms with God still being in existence but not yet willing to yield to the passion of the faith of his youth.
Now we will look at a book that is translated in title as both The Accident, and Day. The correct translation of the French title Le Jour would be Day, however the translator pickes up a theme that runs through the book -- Whether Wiesel's accident was or was not. If not, then Wiesel went through much more suffering and physical pane then necessary, because he could have avoided the car that hit him, and chose not to. There are hints in this book that Elie contemplated suicide before this event and the accident may of just been a way to attempt doing so without the stigma of a suicide. "At one point my desire to become one with the sea became so strong that I nearly jumped overboard. I had nothing to loose, nothing to regret. I wasn't bound to the world of me. All I had cared for had been dispersed by smoke." Here Wiesel talks about thoughts of suicide, yet he doesn't go through with it because of human contact. There for the translation of the title and of the "accident" is open to conjecture.
Throughout the book, Wiesel is troubled with guilt and shame all of his life. He asks himself why did he survive? "That's the way it is: shame tortures not the executioners but their victims." and again in; "I still blush every time I think of the way God makes fun of human beings, his favorite toys." He can not comprehend what happened to him and those around him. That six million Jews died in the concentration camps, is something we cant comprehend. That he being one of a few who survived he cant comprehend.
Yet he sees a purpose in why he and the other survivors were left behind. It is a dark purpose, it is to remind us that it can happen, and could happen again. "Those who like me, have left their soul in hell, are here only to frighten others by being their mirrors" This is also seen in passages like: "I am a story teller. My legends can only be told at dusk. Whoever listens questions his life. ... The heroes of my legends are cruel and without pity. ... You want to know who I am, truly? I don't know myself. ... Look at me carefully. No, not my face. At my hands." He saw himself as a ghost of a man , with nothing but a life of pain ahead of him. Then his friend, Gyula, of his comes to visit him in the hospital. He gives Elie this advice; "Yes, yes and Yes. The dead have no place down here. They must leave us in peace. If they refuse use a whip. ... Suffering is given to the living, not to the dead. It is man's duty to make it cease, not to increase it. One hour of suffering less is already a victory over fate. ... Man must keep moving, searching, weighing, holding out his hand, offering himself, inventing himself." Elie came to realize, lying there in the hospital, that he had a choice to make: "I could choose the living or the dead, day or night."
I believe that he chose light, life and day. This will be shown from his life and actions from this point on. In the text "The Cloistered Walk", a quote from the American poet Emily Dickinson, can be applied as well to Wiesel's life: "Somehow myself survived the night/ and entered with the day ..." that I believe describes Elie's journey to date.
A contrast is clearly seen between the Wiesel in 1954 which shows an angry, hateful young man seen in quote four on page 2 of this essay. And the Wiesel of 1995 where he has softened and moderated his views. In December of 1995 he gave an address in Pittsburgh, PA. Because of his earlier published views, Organizers of the lecture series were afraid that he would turn down their invitation to "The Three Rivers Lecture Series". One of the founding companies of the lecture series was Bayer, a child company of I.G. Farben, the company that produced Zyklon B the gas which was used to kill Jews at Auschwitz. The CEO of Bayer, a German national contacted Wiesel personally to see if he would appear. The following are excerpts of that address; "Wiesel said as a Jew he did not believe in collective guilt. ... He also stated that Hitler and his regime were the enemies of the German people of today just as they had been enemies of the Jews and others during World War II, because of the stigma Hitler had placed on the history of the country." In forty years Wiesel has learned how to be compassionate, to forgive , to grow.
As Wiesel's fame grew so did his international influence, especially working for the United Nations. He had been able to use this fame to draw attention and seek justice for oppressed peoples in the Soviet union, South Africa, Vietnam, Biafra, Bangladesh, and more recently in Bosnia. When asked about sending troops into Bosnia he is quoted as having stated; "He felt it was the morally correct action. He said when you make a morally correct choice you make yourself and those around you stronger."
Elie and Etty Hillsum had very different paths and calls. Etty was to be a witness of those who knew they were going to the camps. Her strength came from accepting this role. Elie on the other hand was to be a man who lived through these terrible times and become a voice , for those who had no voice, also to help try and prevent such events reoccurring.
Morality is a major theme in his works. He has written more than thirty-five works dealing with morality amongst the nations, and races, about Judaism and the Holocaust. In these works we can see his returning unto God time and time again.
And despite his softening Elie still struggles with his anger towards God from time to time. Yet God accepts Elie's anger: "God's final victory , my son, lies in man's inability to reject Him. You think you're cursing Him, but your curse is praise; you think your fighting Him; but all you do is open yourself to Him; you think you're crying about your hatred and rebellion, but all you're doing is telling Him how much you need His support and forgiveness."
To Wiesel it is no longer a question of doubting God. God will always be God, it is not for man to judge His acts; however we can question His motives. "A man who is put to the trial, he said must give triple thanks to the almighty: first for giving him strength to endure the trial, second for bringing the trial to an end, third for the trial itself. For suffering contains the secret of creation and its dimension of eternity; it can be pierced only from inside. Suffering betters some people and transfigures others. At the end of suffering, of mystery, God awaits us ..." Elie is still like the little boy at the masters table. He is still questioning, still pursuing, still questing after God. Elie has come to understand God to mean: "when you understand that you are living and searching in error, because God means movement and not explanation". He has come to accept God's answers even if they are silence. This is a truly close relationship to God. Much like R.S. Thomas's "Welsh Pastoral" poems, Wiesel's deep faith is revealed in his questioning, in his doubt there is great faith because he can admit his doubt and his struggle with it.
Donald Nicholl in "Scientia Cordis" states "Hence the characteristic medium of the scientia cordis is neither a principle nor a law but a story - a story that will move the heart." This is what Elie does, he draws at our heart, and causes us to question, God, man, history, Christianity, Judaism. Elie teaches and his primary goal is to help us become more sensitive to each other. "Sensitive. Be sensitive in every way possible about everything in life. Be sensitive. Insensitivity brings indifference and nothing is worse than indifference. ... Sensitivity is inclusive, not exclusive. If you are sensitive, you are sensitive to everything. You can not say I am only sensitive to this person but not to others. That is not only counterproductive, it's self-defeating. It's not only because of religion, or social problems, or medical problems, that you must be sensitive. There is nothing more exciting then to be a sensitive person. Because then you listen, ...You see the person in the street, you do not know his face and you think, 'Who knows what secret that person carries?' Which means you learn and you learn and you learn and you become enriched to a point that afterwards it overflows." This is what he attempts and I believe accomplishes in his writings that I have read. The reader cries, weeps, mourns, and rejoices in the victories when they are achieved. The readers become drawn into his books, because they compels us to read on even when the pain is breaking our own hearts. Which again brings us back to Nicholl; "The reason why story-telling is the appropriate medium for the scientia cordis, then is that in matters of aspiration the motto is that very motto which Cardinal Newman took for his own - cor ad cor loquitor, 'heart speaketh to heart' -and it is only along the path of such speech that dancing and joy and truth can travel."
Elie accomplishes this lofty goal and even surpasses it. Nicholl also states
"Unless one is prepared to go the whole way, unless one is wholehearted, it would be better never to set out on this journey. Because wisdom, the true science, will never come to dwell in the heart against its wish. One must desire it and desire it with a whole heart." Elie has spent the last 44 years trying to understand why God allowed the holocaust to happen. Yet through it all he has grown in compassion, forgiveness, grace and sensitivity (love) for all other men. We would do well to seek to grow in such ways.
Thus we can see that Elie is a true spiritual quester, who not only believes, but because he can admit his doubts and struggles, has a deeply profound faith. As well as a strong impact upon those who dare to read his works.
1928- born Sighet, Romania
1944- deported to Auschwitz
1945- father dies in Buchenwald
1945-April- liberated from concentration camp
1948- Moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne
1948- work in journalism begins
1954- decided to write about Holocaust (First to use this term)
1956- Hit by car in New York
1958- Night is published in English
1961- Published Dawn
1962- Published The Accident
1963- received U.S. Citizenship
1964- Returned to Sighet
1965- First Trip to Russia
1966- Publishes The Gates of the Forest
1966- Publishes Jews of Silence
1968- Publishes Legends of our Time
1969- married Marion Rose
1972- son is born
1978- appointed chair of Presidential commission on the Holocaust
1980- Commission renamed U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council
1985- Awarded Congressional God Medal of Achievement
1986- Awarded Nobel peace Prize
1995- Published Memoirs
(Based Upon time line in Elie Wiesel Bio, see end notes)
2. Hall of Public Service
3. Night, p. 1
4. Night , p. 17
5. Night , p. 31
6. Night , p. 32
7. Night, p. 34
8. Night, p. 65
9. Night, p. 66
10. Night, p. 87
11. Night, p. 79
12. Night, p. 109
13. Dawn, p. 125
14. Dawn, p. 132
15. Elie Wiesel's Contribution to Holocaust Writing
16. Dawn, p. 139
17. Dawn, p. 151
18. Hall of Public Service
19. Dawn, p. 174
20. Dawn, p. 190
21. The Accident, p. 241
22. The Accident, p. 239
23. The Accident, p. 239
24. The Accident, p. 249
25. The Accident, p. 271
26. The Accident, p. 315,316
27. The Cloistered Walk, p. 1
28. Reactions to Remarks December 13th 1995
29. Reactions to Remarks December 13th 1995
30. The Gates of the Forrest, p. 33
31. The Gates of the Forrest, p. 201
32. Legends of our Time, p.93
33. Scientia Cordis, p.161
34. Hall of Public Service
35. Scientia Cordis, p. 163
36. Scientia Cordis, p. 166
* Bio Based upon Elie Wiesel Bio
Wiesel, Elie. Night Translated Stella Rodway.
New York: Bantam, 1982
Wiesel, Elie. Night, Dawn, The Accident
Translated. Stella Rodway, Francais Frenaye, Anne Borchardt
Toronto; Doubleday, 1972
Wiesel, Elie. Gates of the Forest, The
Canada, Holt, Rinehart, Wington, 1966
Wiesel, Elie. Legends Of Our Time,
New York, Holt, Rinehart, Wington, 1968
Norris, Kathleen. Cloistered Walk, The
New York, Riverhead Books, 1996
Nicholl, Donald. "Scientia Cordis" From The Beatitude of Truth: Reflections
Of a Lifetime Edited Adrian Hastings
Darton, Longman and Todd
The Hall of Public Service
Elie Wiesel's Contribution to Holocaust Writings
Elie Wiesel's Bio
Reactions to remarks Dec. 13th 1995
Elie Wiesel's Relationship with God by Robert E Douglas Jr.
(First written for 'Faith Quests' RS 100C Spring 1998.)