“Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil. I decided to devote my life to telling the story because I felt that having survived I owe something to the dead, and anyone who does not remember betrays them again.” Elie Wiesel
A white-haired, somewhat disheveled man in his 80s walked spryly onto the stage at Vanderbilt to a packed house on April 12, 2010. “I love the ‘otherness’ of others,” began Elie Wiesel. All of us in the audience rose to show our respect. In and of itself, his being here is an unlikely occurrence, considering that he, and the other 20,000 living prisoners at Buchenwald 65 years ago, had essentially been left for dead by the fleeing SS guards. In Night, his Nobel award-winning gut-wrenching masterwork that detailed the ethnic cleansing of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust, Professor Wiesel wrote of that April 10th 1945 day:
“Hunger was tormenting us; we had not eaten for nearly six days except for a few stalks of grass and some potato peels found on the grounds of the kitchens. Then the resistance movement decided to act. Armed men appeared everywhere. Bursts of gunshots. Grenades exploding. We, the children, remained flat on the floor of the block. The battle did not last long. Around noon, everything was calm again. The SS had fled and the resistance had taken charge of the camp. At six o’clock that afternoon, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald. Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves onto the provisions. That’s all we thought about. No thought of revenge or of parents. Only of bread. The next day, a few of the young men ran into Weimar to bring back some potatoes and clothes. But still no trace of revenge. I had not seen myself since before the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.”
I have actually made that run myself, the same one Wiesel described above. The pictures at the end of this file are some that I took after running the miles to Buchenwald from Weimar, the nearby lovely German city (home to Goethe) where the town’s people claimed to have not even known about Buchenwald (most doubt the veracity of that claim). On the day I was there, it was very hard to reconcile the blueness of the sky and the peacefulness of the countryside with the horrific events that occurred there (see the numbers from the museum I went through in the pictures at the end). My most striking memory of walking the grounds was a place near the back where they apparently took women and children…won’t write details of that…but today it is a green forest where birds chirp and squirrels scurry. Next to that same area was a small fenced-in corral that was used by some guards to keep goats, deer, and rabbits. One day the lower-tiered guards were actually punished by supervising SS for cruelty to animals because they had tied them up without adequate water one afternoon (documented clearly in the camp records to demonstrate the humanity of guards). How is it possible that we humans can think that unclearly about the value of life?
So what did Elie Wiesel, one of the great humanitarians of our lifetime, decide to tell us on this visit to Vanderbilt? He first focused, as I wrote above, about how much he appreciates the differences in all people─our collective “otherness.” Then he went on to remind us that these differences in people can lead nations to develop errant laws that do the opposite of ensuring the safety and equality of all. “Laws can be wrong and evil, think of the Nazis, Russians, South Africans.” He told the story of the “judging of the judges,” when the actual judges from the Nazi era (who had first condemned innocents to death and later judged the SS guards as criminals) underwent trial themselves. The judges of these judges stated: “Your main mistake was sentencing the first innocent person; that opened the gates of evil.” On a lesser scale, I am reminded of the Enron accountant who admitted clearly that “it all began with 25 cent ledger changes that grew to tens of dollars and to billions and then to devastated lives and dreams.” This is why mystics decry the occasion of venial sin, which always leads to larger and larger miscalculations of conscience.
Wiesel was deliberate in telling us that the humiliations he and the other prisoners experienced never made him feel personally shameful. “The guards lost their humanity, we did not.” What a paradox and how true. The committer of the sin is the one becoming less human, not the other way around. In fact, he said that the first time he was truly ashamed in his life was many years later in the Deep South, when he witnessed oppression of Whites over Blacks and the sin of our prejudiced American society. “I was ashamed to be a White man in the bigoted southern U.S.”
He then went on to discuss the new fanaticism that is dominating the world – suicide killing. “Terrorism is not new, but suicide killing is our new peril. It started in Israel and then 911, London, Madrid, Moscow, and all over the middle East.” “They even kill children. The sovereign right of children over me is such that if I see a child fall, I don’t look in his/her pocket for ID. I pick the child up and serve. I take care of the child!”
Wiesel went on, “we must do what we can to see in each other not enemy but companion.” The famous “nose” analogy made by GK Chesterton in Orthodoxy came immediately to mind. “All the world’s noses have more in common than they do differences.” How beautiful the colors and shapes of all those noses having a common purpose but uniquely crafted!
He then closed with a plea for Education. “Only through education can we respond to the Holocaust and combat our World’s ‘culture of death.’ Life is sacred!” he implored. In his preface to Night, Wiesel taught that the appropriate response to Auschwitz should be responsibility. “The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He (the witness) does not want his past to become their future.”
Question and Answer:
During the Q&A, the Boston University Professor was asked by an impassioned woman who works with ethnic cleansing in Eastern Europe, “How did you rebuild your life?” Wiesel, for the 4th time that night, brought up God and the Book of Job. “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to Him for that reason. Job is the only book in scripture that teaches us how to live after the trauma.” On that point, there are some points worthy of consideration:
- Job, as we all know from the book’s introduction and course, is the story of a just man allowed to suffer through an seemingly endless test of faith. He loses all his possessions, his sons and daughters, and finally suffers serious illness. His friends try to convince him that this “evil and suffering” are pay-back for some wrong he must have done. These friends justify a moral meaning of suffering. But as JP II wrote in “Salvifici Dolores” in 1984, “While it is true that suffering has a meaning as punishment, when it is connected with a fault, it is not true that all suffering is a consequence of a fault and has the nature of punishment. The figure of the just man Job is a special proof of this in the Old Testament. In this sense, the Book of Job poses, in an extremely acute way, the question of the ‘why’ of suffering; it also shows that suffering strikes the innocent, but it does not yet give the solution to the problem.”
- Suffering brings solidarity to those who are its victims. It joins them together. Therein lies strength that will teach us about love. It also creates in each of us the possibility of rebuilding goodness that we have lost along the way in our lives. It can serve for “conversion.” In this, I as a Christian (though 25% Jewish and with a special kinship to my Jewish family and heritage) kept thinking about how “unfinished” the statement that Wiesel made was about Job being the only book in scripture to direct our rebuild after life’s trauma. To me, the definitive suffering of Christ is the answer still waiting at the end of the Book of Job.
- Regarding the intense suffering of innocents of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, consider the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Passion. Jesus spoke in his Sermon on the Mount of the poor of spirit, the afflicted, those who hunger and thirst for justice, and those persecuted for justice sake. Luke explicitly mentions those “who hunger now” (like Wiesel at Buchenwald having eaten only grass for 5 days). During Christ’s public life, he was fatigued, homeless, persecuted, misunderstood even by those closest to him, and increasingly isolated in preparation for his death. He was then sold out, arrested, beaten, humiliated, spat on, sentenced unjustly, scourged, crowned with thorns, and made to carry and be hanged on a tree. Through this tale of love, and through His resurrection, all of suffering enters a new dimension. Only this new dimension of salvific love puts the suffering of the world into perspective for me. Perhaps this is what Job foresaw when he said, “I know that my Redeemer lives.”
- In this new way of thinking, Jews and Christians can say together, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” It is that paradox of weakness and strength that really came across to me during the Wiesel speech. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” 2 Cor 12:10
Ultimately, Wiesel told of his invitation years ago to the German royalty and leadership. As they bestowed on him an award, he calmly retorted thanks for all that the country had done right following the war, and then he asked them, “But why have you never asked forgiveness from the Jewish people?” The next week those German leaders made a trip to Israel to ask for that forgiveness publically. He smiled at us and said, “I often doubt the power of my words, but sometimes they do work.” Indeed they do…and I hope I remember these lessons of forgiveness, solidarity, and survival through hope that I learned when the Nobel Laureate came to Nashville.