Hold It All

Philosophy/Poetics/Politics

Category: Khurbn

Elie Wiesel and Worthy Remembrance

See, Wiesel has often made this claim quite explicit:  I am above politics, my message is so precious and pure it cannot afford to be sullied by compromise. Such is the transcendent dignity of the murdered Jews of whom I am their delegate and spokesman.  My task is to show, au contraire,  how and why he’s (unconsciously?) political, that is to say, not as independent as he thinks he is, not as distant and detached and free from the determinations of the “political” as he would like to think.  For to reap the symbolic profits that he has himself reaped, he has had to cover a lot of distance in the move from a space of  relative in cognito to one of major publicity and prestige.  And yet, I need to attend to the subtleties involved in his case, because he is often quite deliberately political in the case of Sanctuary for example, even if he in the same case contradicts himself.

Another issue worth investigating  is whether by his own efforts, Wiesel has assisted in the process of transforming the Holocaust from a perennial warning to a political fashion statement [which affords him plenty of symbolic profits, and which he himself already denied in his memoir about “capital”]. Read the rest of this entry »

On Moshe-Leib of Sassov

 

Before we leave Sassov, let us take a minute to ask ourselves these last questions:  Was Reb Moshe-Leib the forerunner of all those helpless men and women who, generations later, eternities later, continued to sing and rejoice even in the ghettos?  Even in the kingdom of night?  Even as they went into darkness?  Was their Ani Maamin, their faith in the coming of the Messiah, a reverberation of his?   Is joy possible — is faith possible — is hope permissible — when death is so sovereign?  Is joy the answer?  Is memory the answer?  Is there an answer?

How did Reb Moshe- Leib of Sassov, the symbol of compassion and love in Hasidism, put it?  “You who wish to find the fire, look for it in the ashes.”

–Elie Wiesel, Somewhere a Master: Further Hasidic Portraits and Legends

Conclusion to “Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership”

President Bill Clinton once rightly observed that the Holocaust  should be  “‘ever a sharp thorn in every national memory.’”  The same ought to be said of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the long-standing U.S. support for oppression and repression in Central America.  Wiesel’s critique in the opening epigraph to this chapter retains a timely pertinence  to our situation today:  “Where are the humanists, the leaders, the liberals, the spokesmen for humanity”?  Indeed, the Holocaust may be one of many sharp thorns in our national memory.  But citizens and religious believers today ought not simply denounce Nazi crimes, horrific and unforgettable as they were, but also contest U.S. policies that victimize innocent people today.  Such grass-roots communities, NGOs, and  ever-growing networks of concerned citizens can certainly see the connections between the Holocaust victims with the past and present suffering of Japanese, Vietnamese, Timorese, Salvadorans, and Palestinians and thus subvert the self-serving rhetoric  of  state power by practicing a self-critical solidarity with our victims.

Liberation theologies have emphasized the importance of making a preferential option for the poor. This option has earned the Christian churches much ill-repute, if not persecution, in many places.  In Europe before and during the Second World War, for Christians to act in solidarity with Europe’s historically unworthy victims, the Jews, would certainly have exacted a cost, from defamation to harassment to  execution.  While “the world remained silent,” in Wiesel’s earliest formulation, Europe’s Jews were exterminated. There was no ecclesial preferential option for the poor European Jews during the Holocaust.  The tremendous suffering of those unworthy Jewish victims still ought to compel us to ask questions so rarely raised in the U.S. intellectual community:  Who are our unworthy victims in this present moment, how we can assist them in surviving, and how can we resist the temptations of silence and respectable status?  For if we remain silent, if U.S. power goes unchallenged by its own citizens, if the elite manufacture of consent proceeds  without citizen interference, far too many innocent people alive today will join the ranks of the Jewish abandoned, damned, and dead, still so mourned by Elie Wiesel.

–Mark Chmiel, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership, Temple University Press, 2001

A Jewish Vocation

This week I finished Marcel Reich-Ranicki‘s autobiography,  The Author of Himself.  He was a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and the foremost literary critic in post-war Germany.  As I read him, I thought of my friend Hedy Epstein, whose family, like Reich-Ranicki’s, was killed in the Holocaust.  She admitted that from 1945 to 1970, she hated all things German until she had a surprising insight. Read the rest of this entry »

List/27

I recently read David Roskies’ book, The Search for a Usable Jewish Past, and from its pages I noted the following books or authors to read:

Ahad Ha’am
S. Y. Agnon, The Bridal Canopy, A Simple Story, A Guest for the Night
Alter, Modern Hebrew Literature
S. Ansky, Between Two Worlds, or The Dybbuk
Sholem Asch, The Psalm Jew, The Nazarene 
Sholem Asch, The Shtetl 
Rachel Auerbach, in The Literature of Destruction
Isaac Babel, Red Calvary 
Bialik, “In the City of Slaughter”
Boyarin, From a Ruined Garden
Boyarin, Storm from Paradise
Simon Dubnov
Rokhl Feigenberg, Chronicle of a Dead Town  20
Fein, Selected Poems of Bialik
Finkelstien, Akiba: Scholar, Saint, and Martyr 
Glatstein, Anthology of Holocaust Literature
Chaim Grade, The Agunah, The Yeshiva 
M. L. Halpern
Howe, Treasury of Yiddish Stories
Howe, Voices from the Yiddish
Huberband, Kiddush Hashem  35
Zelig Kalmanovitsh
Chaim Kaplan
Katznelson, Vittel Diaries
Kermish, To Live and Die with Honor
Rokhl Korn, Earth 
Mani Leib
Lewin, A Cup of Tears
Ber Mark, Scrolls of Auschwitz 
Mintz, In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov
Mintz, Hurban Responses to Castarophe in Hebrew Literature
Miron, Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler
Nahman of Bratislava, Tales 
S. Niger
Yehoshua Perle
Polen, The Holy Fire: Teacings of Rabbi Shapira
Chaim Potok, The Chosen 
Theo Richmond, Konin: A Quest 
Leyb Rochman, The Pit and the Trap
H. Roth, Call it Sleep
Roth, The Counterlife
Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism
Bruno Schultz
Shabtai, Past Continuous 
I.J. Singer, Yoshe Kalb 
Singer, Satan in Goray
Spielgelman, Mauss
Milton Steinberg, As a Driven Leaf
I.J. Trunk
I.M. Weissenberg
Wirth-Nesher, What is Jewish Literature?
Wisse, Modern Jewish Canon
Yerushalmi, Zakhor
S. Yizhar, Hirbet Hizeh 
Zborowski, Life is with People
Zerubvel, Recovered Roots
Chaim Zhitlowsky

A Reader to an Author

“A whole world collapsed before my very eyes, but you,
my favorite author, are bringing it to life again.”

–Miriam, in I.B. Singer’s Meshugah

Western Civilization

The uprising of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto began in the spring of 1943 and lasted about twenty days. Of the thousands of Jews still in the ghetto when the uprising began perhaps a few hundred escaped alive. A greater number were killed by the blowing up of their dugouts and the sewers. But, despite the burden on every S.S. man and German police officer during the action to drive out the Jews from Warsaw–where they had once numbered a quarter of a million–the spirit of the S.S. men and the police officers, it was noted by one of their superiors, was “extraordinarily good and praiseworthy from the first day to the very last.”  

Charles Reznikoff

The Way It Looked in 1996

The main intellectual task is to confront the Israeli conscience with the serious human and political claims of the Palestinians:  these require moral, intellectual, cultural attention of the most profound kind, and cannot easily be deflected by the common tactic of putting Israeli security on the same plane.  On the other hand I do think it is a mistake simply to rule out the whole history of anti-Semitism (the Holocaust included) as irrelevant.  As Palestinians and Arabs we have not even tried to study this enormous subject, nor in any serious way have we tried to see how it impinges on the Jewish, and indeed Western, conscience as something all too real. Thus we need a discourse that is intellectually honest and complex enough to deal both with the Palestinian as well as the Jewish experience, recognizing where the claims of one stop and where the other begin.

–Edward Said, The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After

Face to Face with Elie Wiesel

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. Read the rest of this entry »

A Nation of Words

Miriam Weinstein’s Yiddish: A Nation of Words is a compelling book. Go to Amazon.com and type in “Yiddish” and many books will come up whose titles are cheap, sentimental, ridiculous, goofy.  Weinstein has a sense of appreciation and gravity about her subject, which deals with shtetl life, immigration, the Final Solution,  the State of Israel, and  the language’s future prospects.  It is a fascinating introduction to a language, culture, and people.  Jews who came to the US from Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s spoke Yiddish. In those days New York was the largest Jewish city in the world.

It’s long been common to say that Yiddish as a language is  dying.  But Weinstein points out the historical determinants of this:  Nazism destroyed Eastern European and Russian Jewish culture; the Soviet Union repressed the Jewish intelligentsia and eliminated the cultural infrastructure that had once been given to Yddish; and America Jews abandoned Yiddish culture in their quest to assimilate.

Weinstein quotes survivor Frieda Aaron, who identified one of the countless ways the Nazis had of being vicious:  “Every Sabbath night, as we were marched to the camp, the guards enacted a ritual of beating and killing to the accompaniment of a recording of the Yiddish song Gut vokh [Have a Good Week] that in better times greeted the new week.”  After the war, many surviving Jews ended up in Displaced Person camps where speaking Yiddish was no longer dangerous.  Weinstein writes that “driven by a need to see who was left, to arrange some kind of lives for themselves, and to tell the world what horrors they had seen, one of the survivors’ first requests, after food and medicine, was for Yiddish typewriters.”  And they began writing testimonies and memoirs in Yiddish, many of which still haven’t been translated into English.

Yiddish took a beating in Palestine and Israel, as the Zionists, many of whom grew up with Yiddish, sought to make Hebrew the national language with no competitors.  Weinstein notes, “In the new Jewish homeland, where, according to the Law of Return, anyone with a Jewish mother was welcome, the quintessential Jewish mother’s tongue was not welcome at all.”  Hebraists took it upon themselves to police their fellow Yiddish-speaking citizens and shame them or interfere with their conversations and meetings.

Near the end of her book,  Weinstein points out  that “It is unlikely that Yiddish will ever revive as a widely spoken language. But Yiddish can be remembered. It can still connect Jews to each other and to their past. It can link Jews and non-Jews alike to one of the great expressive traditions of the world.”

Still, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate, once observed, “With the Jews, resurrection is not a miracle, but a habit.”