Elie Wiesel's story endures, empowers

Always a writer, Holocaust survivor knows his life's work is examining faith, humanity

Eli Wiesel

A bronze bust of Elie Wiesel at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune / October 21, 2012)

NEW YORK — A slender, silver-haired gentleman steps onto a nearly bare stage, the instantaneous applause continuing long after he reaches the spare wooden table awaiting him.

For a moment, amid the din, he studies the audience — young and old, some in business suits, others in jeans and sneakers — then sits down and promptly begins to deliver his essay on the prophet Ezekiel.

Elie Wiesel has been giving these talks at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for 45 years, long before he won the Nobel Peace Prize (in 1986), long before his book "Night" had become a landmark in Holocaust literature, long before he had begun to change the world through the searing yet lyric power of his prose. His life's work has won him many accolades, including the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize, which he will receive Nov. 11 at Symphony Center during the Chicago Humanities Festival.

Though every U.S. president from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama has sought his counsel, though world leaders have courted him and repudiated him, though international humanitarian crises have inspired him to catch the next plane into the next war zone, Wiesel always returns to the wooden table at the 92nd Street Y to deliver his reflections on the Bible, the Talmud and, of course, life itself. As far back as 1970, he promised himself that his writings would move on to subjects other than the Holocaust — which he survived in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps — but, inevitably, he returns to the theme, as he does on this night.

"We lived in death," says Wiesel, 84, weaving his Holocaust past into his thoughts on Ezekiel. Then he wonders aloud whether the prophet foreshadowed the tragedy that destroyed most of Wiesel's family and millions more. Or perhaps what someone said to Wiesel in the camps is correct, so he quotes him: "I think that he — Ezekiel — was there with us."

In essence, Wiesel is wrestling with faith in the face of genocide. How one holds on to it when there are so many reasons to doubt. How Wiesel clings to it ever more firmly, despite all that has happened — or perhaps because of what has happened.

A 22-year-old man in the audience, who will be heading to Navy Officer Candidate School this October week, takes note of Wiesel's ongoing struggles. Though the fellow has read many of Wiesel's books and knows well the author's motifs, he feels he needs to be in Wiesel's presence before shipping out.

"My generation is the last one to know Holocaust survivors," says Jonathan Panter, who graduated magnum cum laude from Cornell in May. "I know that my (future) kids will never hear Elie Wiesel. It's important for me to do what I can to hear these stories, so that I can pass them on."

Though he may not know it, young Panter has just helped Wiesel fulfill one of his primary missions in life since the end of the war: nurturing memory.

Searching for meaning


he day before Wiesel's talk at the 92nd Street Y, he's seated in his Manhattan office, contemplating his oft-combative relationship with God. The deep creases in Wiesel's face and the wide-open gaze of his large, expressive eyes indicate a man who has seen more darkness and felt more sorrow than most of us ever will.

Shortly after his liberation from Buchenwald, on April 11, 1945, Wiesel — by then 16 years old and twice an orphan — found himself transported to France with other child survivors and noticed immediately what was happening to them.

"Most of us actually became very religious — as much as before, if not more so," he says, speaking in a soft, warm baritone.

"Why?" he asks himself, before a visitor has a chance to. "Maybe because we were trying to prove that we are stronger than history. That Hitler wanted to deprive us. And (we thought): 'Go to hell. We shall continue believing in God, the God of Israel.'"

And yet in his writings Wiesel struggles openly with the meaning of that belief.

"I will never cease to rebel against those who committed or permitted Auschwitz, including God," he writes in a volume of memoirs, "All Rivers Run to the Sea." "The questions I once asked myself about God's silence remain open. If they have an answer, I do not know it. More than that, I refuse to know it. But I maintain that the death of 6 million human beings poses a question to which no answer will ever be forthcoming."

Even so, says Wiesel today, he must believe.

"You can struggle outside or inside — I prefer to do it inside faith," he says. "If it's outside, it's finished: 'Goodbye God.' Finished, right? And there is no problem anymore. And problem is part of my existence, of my consciousness and of my life."

This questing, questioning approach to life derives directly from Wiesel's religious training in Sighet, Transylvania, (now Romania), in what he affectionately calls a "shtetl" (a small Jewish village). There, like his friends in the 1930s and early '40s, Wiesel immersed himself in his studies of the Bible, the Talmud and — against the wishes of his elders — the mysticism of the Kabbalah, a fascination that echoes through his fiction and nonfiction.

"I was taken by the mystery of the beginning (of existence), which one is not supposed to study, not before 30, according to Maimonides, or 40," says Wiesel.

"And I'm still very much involved in searching the mystical truth, the mystical beauty of truth."