Face to Face with Elie Wiesel
by Mark Chmiel
This short review was originally published in the bulletin of the Center for Ethics and Social Policy in Berkeley, April 1993. My book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, was published in spring 2001.
On Harry James Cargas, Conversations With Elie Wiesel
Elie Wiesel is one of the most widely known writers on the Holocaust, principally through his haunting memoir Night (originally entitled in Yiddish, And the World Remained Silent). An accomplished novelist as well as a public spokesperson for human rights around the world, Wiesel was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
Harry James Cargas is a professor of literature whose encounter with Wiesel left him so moved that he undertook what has become a life-long confrontation with the implications for morality and Christianity posed by the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
This book, then, is a record of conversations dating first from the mid-seventies with an additional eight interviews from the 1990s. Cargas engages Wiesel in such a way that affords the reader intimate glimpses of Wiesel the writer and the man: his rigorous work schedule (writing fiction daily from 6 am to 10), the depths of the father-son relationship, and his deep respect for study (spending two hours on 10 lines of Midrashic text). Moreover, Cargas draws forth Wiesel’s ruminations on the various silences — of creativity, mysticism and indifference — that have preoccupied him throughout his career. Wiesel describes his writer’s responsibility as one of bearing witness, identifying injustice, and honoring the memory of those Jews who died under the Nazi regime. The Holocaust is considered the yardstick by which we in contemporary society ought to measure our choices.
Wiesel is deeply nurtured in the Jewish tradition, from the Bible, the Talmud and Hasidism. He sees his role as bridge-builder and critic to the Jewish community from within and its defender from without, a difficult role to balance.
This book of 170 pages makes for compelling reading for anyone concerned with rejuvenating public philosophy for our times. Those concerned with the promotion of human values will find an ally in Wiesel, whose mission reflects a compelling modesty: “to have one person move one step forward with humanity toward humanity would be enough for me. That is really the goal of my writing and of my other activities. To bring a messianic moment, a redemptive moment in the life of another person — saving him or her from despair or abandonment.” His many works of the imagination and testimony can be valuable aids to intensifying moral responsibility for our society.
Upon completing this revealing work, I experienced two gnawing feelings. The first reflects my disappointment that, in the most recent interviews, no question was posed to Wiesel about the deteriorating predicament of the Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Wiesel has long refused to criticize Israel outside of Israel, I would have appreciated Cargas nudging Wiesel to break away from this traditional reluctance in the face of the ongoing injustice against the Palestinians denied self-determination and statehood by Israel and the United States.
The other gnawing feeling cuts deeper still. Namely, how alert are we, as believers and citizens in the United States, to the tragedies and atrocities that are the result of U.S. foreign policy? The recent silence of the world, in particular the United States, on grave matters from El Salvador to East Timor, is an indictment of our own moral and political indifference. Wiesel’s eloquence, as well as his silence, compel us to find our own moral voice and to struggle beyond any allegiances that exclude the voices of today’s victims.