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?"