My father told me little about his agonies in the Holocaust. He never mentioned the beatings he suffered in various concentration camps starting in 1942, nor the death march he survived in January 1945, en route to Buchenwald.
For nearly the first 50 years of my life, I never even knew he was in Buchenwald. Nor that my mother had spent three years of her childhood alone, running and hiding from the Nazis in easternmost Poland.
The Holocaust was much yelled about but little discussed as I was growing up Skokie, where thousands of survivors converged in the decades after the war. It wasn't until my mother's traumas resurfaced in 2001 — when late onset post-traumatic stress disorder caused her to believe that she was again being hunted by killers — that I finally tried to learn what exactly had happened.
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Along the way, many survivors have explained to me that, like my parents, they wanted to spare their children the details of what they had experienced. Moreover, the world didn't want to hear their stories, the survivors said, and, anyway, no words really could do justice to the chaos, cruelty and nihilism of the Holocaust.
Hence the silence.
But writer Elie Wiesel — among others, such as Primo Levi and Wladyslaw Szpilman — somehow found the words to evoke the terrors of the Holocaust, nowhere more searingly than in "Night," Wiesel's brief but crushing memoir of the madness of those years. Even Wiesel, however, was silent for a long time, promising himself to wait fully a decade before trying to put the awful past on paper.
When I traveled to New York to interview him last month, in advance of the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize he will receive today at Symphony Center, he explained the years in which he didn't speak about the war.
"I said somewhere that if all the survivors, including your mother, if all of us had met in 1945, let's say … in the valley between two mountains and compared our memories, I think they would have probably come out with a decision not to speak about it," said Wiesel, 84, seated in his Manhattan office surrounded by books in Hebrew, French, English and Yiddish.
"Because, anyway, people won't understand. And then I said, 'In that case, our silence would have been testimony.'
"But we didn't (stay quiet).
"We didn't because, after all, we still believe in language."
Yet throughout Wiesel's writings, he argues that anyone who didn't live through the Holocaust could not comprehend what it was like. Moreover, even Wiesel couldn't bring himself to ask a surviving sibling what happened in the last moments of their mother's and sister's lives, as they were "selected" to be executed upon arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.
"Hilda walked with them a few more steps than I did," writes Wiesel in "And the Sea is Never Full," referring to an older sister, who survived. "I want to question her about it. I don't dare. We speak every week but only about her health, her son, Sidney, her grandchildren. Yet I would like to know more about her experiences in the camp. I don't dare ask. … I curse the reticence that renders me mute."
Silence was long the modus operandi for the survivors, so why did Wiesel ultimately break it, at least in writing? If readers who weren't there can't ever really know what happened, why has Wiesel dedicated so much of his life to telling this story?
"If I cannot understand, why should you?" he said to me, pondering the paradox but not resolving it.
Then what about this: Why did so many publishers reject "Night"? Why, after it was released in France in 1958, did it sell so few copies over so many years? Why did the world not want to hear the stories that a few survivors, such as Wiesel, struggled to tell?
"Look, you know why: It was too sad," said Wiesel. "They didn't want to publish my book because it was too morbid, they said. It went from one (publishing house) to the other. They all rejected it. … It's too sad. Why should they?"
And yet, through the decades, "Night" gathered a vast readership as a landmark account of life in the camps. The slender tome was championed by Oprah Winfrey's book club, still is taught in schools around the world and remains a devastating testament to events its author considered indescribable.
"I swear to you I don't know," said Wiesel. "Not only that. Look: I have published (about) 60 books. And the others are all jealous of 'Night.' They come to haunt me in my dreams.
"I would lie to you if I said that I knew. … I don't know."
I'm willing to hazard a guess. In its stripped-down prose and unflinching, nearly journalistic chronicle of the torments that Wiesel and his father underwent together — until his father succumbed in Buchenwald in 1945 — Wiesel captured what every great writer reaches for: the unvarnished truth.
That truth about the Holocaust was so potent, however, that even Wiesel couldn't examine it for fully a decade after the war, and the world wouldn't accept it for many years later. That truth about the Holocaust was so potent that, as a child growing up in Skokie, I couldn't bear to face it, to ask my parents about it. For nearly the first 50 years of my life, I avoided books and films about the Holocaust, avoided even saying the word. It was too fraught, too tied up with the mostly unspoken tragedy on which my family was built. Not until my father had died, in 1991, and my mother had slipped into delusions of her nightmarish past, in 2001, could I start to face the truth of what had happened to them when they were young and uninjured.
When I did, I learned about my mother's long and lonely flight for her life, about my father's years in many camps, culminating in Buchenwald, where he nearly died, and where Wiesel, too, spent the final, anguished months of the Holocaust.
"Night" told me, with unsparing clarity, how the physical and psychic pain of my father's death march to Buchenwald felt. How the deprivations and depravities of Buchenwald changed Wiesel and, therefore, how it changed my father, as well.
I never really knew until I read "Night." But I couldn't bear to look at the book's cover, let alone read it, until now, at this late date. Its truth was too powerful for me before and remains almost too overwhelming for me now.
When I looked in Wiesel's face in New York and saw the sorrow it held, the pain and humanity in his eyes, I saw my father's face. Only now, more than two decades after my father's death, was I able to ask some of the questions I needed to ask him, by asking Wiesel.
But Wiesel, whose writings on the Holocaust have taken so many of us inside of it, won't be here forever. And not every child of survivors will be able to listen to his voice up close and hear in his Yiddish inflections the long-vanished world that he and my sorely missed father represent.
What will happen when there are no more Elie Wiesels, no more survivors, to sit before us, face to face, telling us what happened? What will happen when their thoughts are just black ink on a white page or pixels on a video monitor?
"Look — you are here, and I am here, and we discuss very serious matters," answered Wiesel, as our long conversation wound to a close.
"We believe that we are witnesses.
"Your mother is a witness. So am I. Therefore our task is a privileged one. No one has our authority to speak on certain issues. No one.
"But to listen to a witness is to become one," added Wiesel. "So there are many now who listen to us, and who read our books and are familiar with our statements.
"Therefore, I am not worried."
So long as Wiesel's words and the memory of my father linger in my memory, I am not either.
Howard Reich is the Tribune's arts critic and author of "Prisoner of Her Past," a book and PBS documentary film about his mother's unspoken Holocaust childhood.
Winner of the 2012 Tribune Literary Prize
Elie Wiesel will receive the 2012 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize Sunday at 10 a.m. in Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. The Literary Prize honors a writer for a lifetime of literary achievement. It's a tradition the Tribune started a decade ago; since then, we've honored many writers, including Arthur Miller, August Wilson, Margaret Atwood, E. L. Doctorow, David McCullough and Joyce Carol Oates. Today's program will be at 10 a.m. in Symphony Center. Visit chicagohumanities.org.