Hold It All

Tag: Elie Wiesel

A Monument Made of Words

Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father’s Court
June 1998

After we had left Warsaw (during the First World War), we continued to hear news of him from time to time.  One son died, a daughter fell in love with a young man of low origins and Asher was deeply grieved.  I do not know whether he lived to see the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.  He probably died before that.  But such Jews as these were dragged off to Treblinka.  May these memoirs serve as a monument to him and his like, who lived in sanctity and died as martyrs.

This is a memoir consisting of 50 or so short (6-8 page) vignettes on the author’s boyhood in Warsaw at No. 10 Krochmalna Street and in Bilgoray, a (patriarchal) world that has vanished. He includes accounts of  his family and occasional adventures, but mostly he attends to the characters in his father’s court.  The locals with their disputes would come to his Enneagram 5-ish rabbi who would adjudicate the antagonists.  Our hero-narrator often is dismissed from the room, since the matter concerns grown-ups, but young Yitshok has a penchant for overhearing,  spying, and keeping near a halfway open door.  The irresistible  Beth Din “was a kind of blend of a court of law, synagogue, house of study, and, if you will, a psychoanalyst’s office where people of troubled spirit could come to unburden themselves. 

Of course, one of the things that occurred to me in reading it is how Singer could remember with such specificity from a remove of sixty years. Of course, he couldn’t, he had to create it  and make it up, i.e., voila, a fiction!  Also, he wrote this pre-67, which occasioned the outbreak of loquacity about the Holocaust; this subject is handled  here with restraint by several references to a character who ended up being “murdered by the Germans.”

Some themes I encountered previously chez Wiesel are here:  the yearning for Palestine, the hoping in the Messiah, the Kabbalah, the 36 righteous, the never-forget-your-ancestors imperative.  But unlike Wiesel’s world, this one teems with all kinds of characters and curses, not just sweet, pious Jews longing for the Messiah.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Hasidism

You can take everything from me—the pillow from under my head, my house—but you cannot take God away from my heart.
— Nahman of Bratslav

Everything the true Hasid does or does not do mirrors his belief that, in spite of the intolerable suffering man must endure, the heartbeat of life is holy joy, and that always and everywhere, one can force a way through to that joy — provided one devotes one’s self entirely to his deed.
—Martin Buber

I confess that I am unable to discriminate among them — I love them all and, at various times, one more than the others. Much depends on my mood. Sometimes I need a Bratzlaver tale, sometimes I need a Rizhiner saying. I particularly love the modest Masters, the humble ones, those who didn’t ‘make it,’ not really; those who simply wished to be companions or disciples of great Masters and remained reserved and withdrawn…
—Elie Wiesel

A Hasid was taught to be forbearing with all the world, to be patient, mild, and gentle in judging others, to love man as well as animals, to be shy, bashful, and to avoid honors and social distinction, to serve God for the sake of God rather than for reward. Constant self-scrutiny and repentance assumed a place of prominence in Hasidic piety unknown before, with ascetic exercises as indispensable means of repentance.
—Abraham Joshua Heschel Read the rest of this entry »

Raising the Alarm, Or Not

I just finished the book Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom  by Ariel Burger and found this interview segment on Wiesel and Palestinian Rights.

Burger quotes Wiesel as follows, which reminds  me of Israeli journalists Gideon Levy and Amira Hass– “The ones who recognize the coming of evil, of oppression, are often seen as madmen. They are attuned to a reality that most people do not see, to a vision of the world without hatred, a messianic vision. They live for this vision, and they are so sensitive to whatever threatens it that, unlike others, they react immediately. They are usually the first to raise the alarm.”

 

Remembering Is Not Enough

Hilene Flanzbaum, The Americanization of the Holocaust
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999

The following  note is from summer 1999 when I was reworking my dissertation to what would become my first book, Elie Wiesel and the Politics of Moral Leadership (Temple University Press, 2001).   Hedy Epstein’s Erinnern Ist Nicht Genug: Autobiographie appeared in Germany in 1999. Norman Finkelstein’s book The Holocaust  Industry came out in 2000. 

This collection of essays doesn’t have much in the way of political relevance to my project, but there are good cultural analyses, particularly the editor’s overview to the subject (e.g., Wiesel at the Mets’ game),  Steinweiss’s remarks on Wiesel in Nebraska, Greenspan’s  studies of the evolving reception and discourses of survivors (stigmatizing vs. celebratory), and Young’s remarks on the politics of identity.  

Indeed, it is easier to talk about cultural shifts and Americanization rather than take the more controversial  and critical view that  elites are happy to focus on the Nazi crimes rather than our own.   Those people speaking out — more than 50 years later! — against Nazism may think of themselves, proudly, as moral beacons, say,  Christian “Holocaust scholars.”  But this reminds me of what Chomsky said, “You can tell the truth about Ghengis Khan, but it doesn’t rank very high on the moral scale.”  People got agitated about the Reagan Bitburg scandal of 1985, but not about Reagan’s  aiding and abetting the bloodbaths in Central America at the same time.  

Not So Random Entries, Commonplace Moleskine/8

51.  Neal looks older, Jewish, very serious and on powerful integrity drive.
–Allen Ginsberg, letter to Jack Kerouac

151.  In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, “I have attained something.” All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something. The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless. Dogen-zenji, the founder of our school, always emphasized how important it is to resume our boundless original mind. Then we are always true to ourselves, in sympathy with all beings, and can actually practice.
–Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

251.  No one is new to me. All are always familial.
–Sri Anandamayi Ma, quoted in Swami Mangalananda, A Goddess among Us Read the rest of this entry »

Not So Random Entries, Commonplace Moleskine/7

440. Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form. — Herman Melville

464. One of the most persistent stereotypes of the Second Chechen War is that the refugees are enemies of Russia. They are not seen as living in tents because their own warm houses were bombed. They are not seen as having been deprived of their rights. They are not seen as innocent people unjustly accused. –Anna Politkovskaya Read the rest of this entry »

Jew-in-the-Library, Jew-in-the-Streets

Jill Krementz, The Jewish Writer, Henry Holt and Company, 1998

Portraits, bios, occasionally quotations form this coffee table book collection of Jewish writers, poets, novelists, scholars. Wiesel is here, as is his nemesis Hannah Arendt, as is Norman Finkelstein’s nemesis, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

Chava Rosenfarb touched me most.

The book’s a testimony to Jewish empowerment, making it (Podhoretz is included), with some occasional sentimentality. The Holocaust survivors are here, a few Yiddish writers, a few Israelis (no women), the young and the ancient, many New Yorkers.

I don’t think the word “Palestinians” is in the whole book, and why should it be? This is a feel-good tribute to the tribe’s success stories. Why muck it up with notice of Israel’s ethnic cleansing program? (But then, if Krementz had done a similar book on “American Writers” in 1982, you wouldn’t be surprised if no one mentioned the recent Indochina cataclysms, compliments of the United States.) Thus, I.B. Singer’s line doesn’t appear to apply to many of these writers: “Life itself is a permanent crisis.” In the Promised Land of American Success, Academy of Arts and Letters, Holocaust and Lower East Side Memorials, how could it be?

What follows is a list of those writers I’d be happy to read (or in some cases, get reacquainted with): Read the rest of this entry »

To Have Been Exiled by Exiles

I was rereading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, which is a great collection of essays on literature and  culture with exploration of the experiences of dislocation, exile, migration, and empire as well as an examination of autobiographical themes, like Egypt, music and piano; the intellectual and academic life; and Palestine.  Here are some reflections that caught my attention…

 

[Mahfouz] is not only a Hugo and a Dickens, but also a Galsworthy, a Mann, a Zola, and a Jules Romain. 318

Mahfouz’s novels, his characters and concerns, have been the privileged, if not always emulated, norm for most other Arab novelists, at a time when Arabic literature as a whole has remained marginal to Western readers for whom Fuentes, Garcia Marquez, Soyinka, and Rushdie have acquired vital cultural authority.  320

Indeed, in Lebanon the novel exists largely as a form recording its own impossibility, shading off or breaking into autobiography (as in the remarkable proliferation of Lebanese women’s writing), reportage, pastiche, or apparently authorless discourse.  322

What Khoury finds in these formless works is precisely what Western theorists have called “Post-Modern”: that amalgam principally of autobiography, story, fable, pastiche, and self-parody, highlighted by an insistent and eerie nostalgia.  323

Read the rest of this entry »

In the News: Aung San Suu Kyi Not Worthy of Elie Wiesel Award

There is more than one irony in this New York Times article.

“Everything Must Be Told and Written Down”

Laura Jockusch,  Collect and Record: Jewish Holocaust Documentation in Early Postwar Europe  (Oxford University Press, 2012).

Laura Rockusch has performed an inspiring service in producing her book, Collect and Record. Contrary to many people’s assumptions that Holocaust survivors were quiet, traumatized, passive  from the war’s end to the Eichmann trial in 1961, she examines how Jews in Poland, France, and in Displaced Person Camps in Germany and Austria  immediately set work to gather anything they could on what he  just happened to their people during the 12 years of the Third Reich.

There were precursors for this kind of work; for example, at the end of World War I, the number of Jews killed in Ukraine in pogroms numbered between 50,000 and 100,00.   Researchers then sought to gather accounts from witnesses and survivors.  Here’s one message:  “Brothers! A curse of terrible pogroms is befalling Jewish villages and towns, and the world does not know, we ourselves do not know or know only very little about it. This must not be concealed! Everything must be told and written down. It is a duty for every Jew who has come or comes from the devastated Jewish towns to report everything that he has seen, for the news must not be lost.”   Khurbn-Forshung  was the name given to this activity—Yiddish for “Destruction Research.” Read the rest of this entry »