Elie Wiesel's story endures, empowers

To underscore the origins of his search, Wiesel walks over to his desk, unlocks a drawer and delicately pulls from it a tablet of yellowed paper the size of his palm. Its handwritten Hebrew text, penned by him before the war, contains his earliest ideas on mysticism and points to the other obsession of his youth and of all the decades that have followed: writing.

A sister of his found the item when she returned to Sighet after the war to see who in the family had survived, and the document attests to Wiesel's early impulses to put thoughts to paper.

"Of all (my) writings, this is one that gives me palpitations," he says, drawing a deep, long breath. "Can you imagine this survived? I always wrote. At 13 I wrote this. … For me, writing was a part of my life. I remember they acquired Hebrew typewriters for the Jewish community center (in Sighet). … And I would go there occasionally just to type with my two fingers, to see if I could write."

After his mother and little sister, Tzipora, were executed upon arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in 1944, and after his father died a slow and brutal death in Buchenwald, in 1945, Wiesel did not believe there was any further reason for him to live.

"I shall not describe my life during that period," he writes toward the end of "Night." "It no longer mattered. Since my father's death, nothing mattered to me anymore."

Yet Wiesel's will to live clearly overcame his desolation, and when he began to recuperate, one of his first impulses was to ask his caretakers in France to allow him pen and paper.

The initial words he put down, however, did not describe the horrors he had just survived. Instead, he wrote this: "After the war, by the grace of God, blessed be His name, here I am in France. Far away. Alone. This morning I put on my own tefillin (a Jewish prayer item) for the first time in a long while."

Wiesel promised himself not to write about his Holocaust experience for 10 years. For a man whose testimony not only on the Holocaust but on genocide around the world has inspired great reverence, his long silence may surprise some.

Why didn't he write sooner?

"I was worried," he says. "I was worried that I will not find the right words. I was worried of using the wrong words, even worse. I still am not sure whether I found the words. I am not sure.

"But at least I said, 'I will wait 10 years.' You know, 10 in Jewish ritual is a special number. Ten years. So I waited. … I kept my word."

In this regard, Wiesel was like most survivors, and in fact, like the American soldiers who liberated them. Silence, at least at first, was their means of survival against the horrors they experienced and witnessed. They needed to push the past further into the distance.

Wiesel toiled as a journalist — first in Paris, then in New York — and finally wrote the story that mattered most: his own. Yet he might never have done so, he says, were it not for the French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac.

While interviewing the great man in 1955, Wiesel at first breathed not a word about his past, as was his custom.

"We spoke at that time; I remember, it was about Israel, anti-Semitism, the usual questions," recalls Wiesel. "And at one point he simply said: 'You know, the worst what I have seen in my life, I saw the trains, with the children.'"

By this, Mauriac referred to the cattle cars that took families, including Wiesel's, to the camps.

"And I said … 'I was one of them,'" remembers Wiesel. "And he began weeping like a child. … And he wept and wept and wept and wept. And I said, 'I was there in the camps, but I never speak about it.'

"And then when he wept, he said, 'You should.'"

With the 10-year anniversary at hand, Wiesel began writing while on a voyage to Brazil. Alone at sea, he allowed his memories out.

After reworking the manuscript from the original Yiddish, Wiesel sent Mauriac the first French copy, and Mauriac began contacting publishers on Wiesel's behalf, one after another rejecting the manuscript. The small publishing house that finally bought the French translation of the book — for approximately $100, Wiesel remembers — had the additional gift of a foreword from Mauriac.

CHICAGO

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