By Inna Rogatchi
I think, or rather feel, that at the time around a yahrzeit of our beloved ones, a certain special cloud is formed in an air around us. Our reflections and memories are dancing around and wrapping us in thoughts. And, hopefully, something else, of another kind of tissue that we cannot describe is present there.
This is the time around the Elie Wiesel’s second yahrzeit, on Sivan 26th, and a gentle and special yahrzeit cloud is here.
On the first yahrzeit, it was a lot of pain and bewilderment. When this kind of person is leaving This World, we all fell orphaned. This year, on the second yahrzeit, the cloud for Elie is of a lighter colour, and I can see more sun-rays transpiring from behind it. But still, a cloud is a cloud.
And our only way to try to feel Elie next to us it is to return to his books once again. So, there are two of us, my husband and I are with our beloved friend Elie’s books in our hands, on our tables, in the garden, his books are scattered around and covering our living pace these days.
My husband is saying: “I have a strong sensation of hearing Elie’s voice while re-reading these pages. So palpable is his love, so tangible are his emotions. He would be a great Rabbi, Elie, if not the war”. Michael re-reads the Elie’s Hassidic stories which, in fact, is a narrative of love.
I am re-reading the Elie’s last novel, A Mad Desire to Dance, and I am as if hearing his voice, too. We can reconstruct his incredible smile without returning to some videos. It is as if never left us. I actually think that it did not. If I would be able to claim an item to the World Heritage UN Register, I would claim the Elie Wiesel’s Smile, among a very few things, along with the Leonard Cohen’s smile. Those are my treasures.
‘Why to start to write?’
There is no doubt in my mind that in the unspeakable horror of the Shoah, or Khurban, as Elie preferred to call the Holocaust – and as vast majority of the Yiddish -speaking Jewry did call it well into the 1950s, -Elie survived to tell us about it. I would never forget how, with that remarkable smile, he would say when people were amazed by the openness of his narrative: “But if not to tell the truth, why to start to write, in the first place?..” Elie was anything but naive, he knew that most of the writing people are writing for many other reasons than for conveying the truth. His question was, actually, a self-examination. For him, there was no alternative: if he started to write – to talk, basically, – and he did it after a decade of complete silence on the Holocaust and the WWII in general, – then it would be the truth telling. As simple as that. As impossible as that. As torturing as that.
But he sustained it all. And it is to the huge degree thanks to Elie’s stand, his inner strength, that the world have got its conscience, its compassion and its love, – after the wide, deep and multi-faced process of dehumanisation which did not stopped on May 8th, 1945, not at all. Leonard Cohen called it ‘the mutilation of (an angel’s) wings’.
I always wondered: how Elie have got the strength to live after his ordeal which, as a matter of fact, he did never overcome. And how could he? A man just unable to overcome witnessing his mother’s murder in front of him, his young and helpless sister’s throw into the flames, literally, his father’s excruciating dying being kept away a few meters from him, but allowing and making him to witness his father’s agony on purpose ( and those were not Germans, but Poles and Ukrainians). This is to mention only his immediate family, without all the other personal horrors that piled over the head of just 16-year old kid which Elie was after the war. The loss of his grandparents, his relatives, his friends; the crimes that he witnessed in the camps; the world of his people being devastated and destroyed.
I am thinking on many of our friends and acquaintances whose life was marked by the Holocaust in so many different ways, always painfully, always unique, always the same. The businesswoman in Australia who never knew what family celebration means, because except her and her parents, there was no immediate family to celebrate. The writer in England, who being a school girl was always escaping school special events because except her parents, she had no family members to join her there. The engineer in Austria who had nobody to invite to his and his wife daughter’s chuppah, because their both’ entire families were exterminated. The student in Israel who had serious difficulties to get married, himself being an orphaned Holocaust survivor. The musician in London who does not know a concept of an aunt and an uncle, because her mother was the sole survivor of an entire family. The future star singer who is met on the railways station in Kaunas upon her return from the evacuation after the end of war by a Jewish man, the one of the very survivors there, who has made his mission to come to meet the survived returning Jews because their all families were gone. The future writer who after return from evacuation and visiting his town in Lithuania had never step his foot to his native place during the next fifty years, because he could not bear the total annihilation of his family, all friends and acquaintances and those empty, haunting streets there. My grandmother who had no place to come to the grave of her beloved sister, aunt and uncle, all murdered by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. My husband’s grandmother who similarly had no place to come to the grave of her oldest daughter with her two children and her husband, all murdered by the similar war criminals in Ukraine.
Elie Wiesel did talk for all of them. To all of us. Being himself torn to pieces by the tragedy of his family and his people, the tragedy which had never left him. How did he find the source and ability to live again?
I have researched all his writings, his memoirs, and his life in detail. I have spoken with his close friends. I did not dare to ask him personally this particular question because I did not want to cause him an extra pain. It is my guess, of course, but I think, I know the answer.
The Sources of Life: The Rebbe, the Family and the Soviet Jewry
I don’t even start to imagine what the Shoah meant for the religious Jews. How do you explain the torturous death of innocent children? Later on, Elie Wiesel, faithful grandson of prominent Vizhnitz Rebbe, would come to the position formulated laconically: “There is no explanation to that”. I accept it. But in his young adulthood, shortly after the end of the WWII, he was still in spiritual turmoil. And it was torturing him. He could not get married – because he could not get married. Period. His life was on balance, in many senses of it.
The blessed breakthrough happened with his meeting with Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebber knew the pain caused by the WWII and the Holocaust personally, too. His father who did serve for 39 years as the Chief Rabbi of Jekaterinoslav-Dnepropetrovsk in Ukraine, had been arrested there by the NKVD shortly before the WWII and sent to exile to Kazakhstan where he died of hunger and sickness in 1944 being in utter poverty together with the Rebbe’s mother who did follow her husband to exile. The Rebbe’s younger brother DovBer was left alone in Ukraine, and was murdered in October 1941 along with all the other patients of the mental clinic in Igren suburb of the city by the bestial Ukrainian Nazi collaborators.
Orphaned young writer Elie when coming to live and work in New York, started to visit the Rebbe in early 1960s, and he did it regularly. One should see the footage of those meetings. The Rebbe who knew about the Elie’s grandfather, did take a special interest in the young man. He looked at him and he talked to him as with a close relative, with compassion, understanding, interest and love, without any distance at all. And Elie was very responsive to the Rebbe’s attitude: the way Wiesel talked to the Rebbe, and later on, about the Rebbe, can be seeing in his eyes, and that smile of an introvert child who had been occasionally happy for a moment, and was grateful for that forever.
It was Rebbe Schneerson who did convince Elie, against all odds, to get married and to start the family at quite solid age of 41. That was a milestone in the Wiesel’s life. And so much it was about the special connection between the Rebbe and Wiesel, and their both’ ultimate ‘secret’ of the origin of the Wiesel’s family that the Rebbe did care to send a very special bouquet to Elie and Marion all the way to Jerusalem on their wedding day in 1969, and Elie was absolutely convinced that it was the most beautiful bouquet he saw in his entire life to the very end of it.
Anyone who had a privilege to know Wiesel more or less well would tell that his family of Marion and Elisha, their son, and later on, his two grandchildren, was the world in which he was re-born. As a sign of a special grace from Above, his only son looks very similar to the Elie’s beloved father Shlomo.
Approximately at the same period of time, Elie has been transformed from an orphan haunted by the Holocaust, into the person on whom the other people were relying, who was active and needed, who was respected – and much, much loved. Loved sincerely and unconditionally. Loved by many. Those many were Soviet Jews, his brothers, those who would become known in history as Jews of Silence because of the term coined by Wiesel.
The first time Wiesel went to Moscow in 1965. It was a love from a first glance, mutually. The 37-years old writer saw the people so very close to him, stoic, modest, aspiring in their hearts, avid readers and thinkers, people living under constant pressure. They understood each other momentarily; the Eastern and Central European Jewish mentality was the same, and many of the Soviet Jews were Yiddish speakers, as Elie was. One would never imagine that usually melancholic Elie would be laughing so happily and dancing so energetically, as he always did being among the Jewish people in Soviet Union.
To end the siege of the Soviet Jewry has become the Wiesel’s perpetual priority which he did tackle tirelessly and successfully. His impact on the eventual liberation of the Soviet Jewry shall not be underestimated. His mission was active for 30 years, and his last visit to the Soviet Union was in 1989.
But it is also the sense of mission, the success of it, so many acts of saving, supporting, helping the others that has transformed Elie Wiesel into the Nobel Peace laureate, so deservingly; into the man of action, stand and authority. His life was back.
It was a wonderful, meaningful, interesting life in which Elie was perceived as a member of their families by millions, all around the globe. Those he was caring of in the former Soviet Union, those he was teaching in the United States, those he met regularly during hi annual visits to Israel, those who read his books, and saw his impact on the international development. Elie was loved not only by Jewish people. He was deeply respected by so many others, and in this universalism he also did an invaluable service to the Jewish people.
When one of us is becoming to be perceived and heard by so many others as the universal authority on humanity, this is the unique mitzvah which does have an important and long-lasting impact on entire nation, on the entity. Our sages teach us in Talmud about that, and if anyone of our contemporaries knew and understood Talmud and other original sources of the Jewish wisdom well, it was Wiesel.
What was the Elie’s key to so many minds and hearts all over the planet? What was the secret of his universal popularity – wrong word – love towards him? I think that the twofold of modesty and honesty is such key. He knew so much – and always had more and more questions. He wrote so well – and kept his writings sincere in more than 40 books, in every written word, actually. This is the most difficult thing for the writer, to be honest. He felt before his reader as before the Creator, bare of anything that colours, alters or hides the truth. “Otherwise, why to start to write?..” – he smiled with that disarming smile, and you knew that the Good does exist and is real in this world.
Two years is not a time in our human measurement. Two yahrzeits is a different thing. The Cloud of Yahrzeit for Elie is becoming lighter and sunnier. It brings back his smile and even his voice, so tangible when re-reading his books and remembering the meetings with him. And we still learn from our beloved Elie.
Several years ago, my husband was commissioned to paint a painting for the Vilnius Public Jewish Library, the first Jewish library opened in Lithuania after the WWII. According to the idea of the Library’s leadership, that painting is the only oil painting in the entire Library, to enhance the art work in the way. That work’s name is Yiddishe Zun, Yiddish Son. And it is about Elie.
On his second yahrzeit, we are preparing a special new dedication plaque to be placed in the place of a kind that Elie loved, a library with soul and spirit. The new plaque with dedication ‘In honor and in memory of Elie Wiesel, the beloved son of his people’ would be placed next to the Yiddish Son painting on July 2, 2018, a secular date of our dearest friend and mentor’s passing.
June 6, 2018
Dr Inna Rogatchi is the writer, scholar and film-maker. She is the co-founder and President of The Rogatchi Foundation ( www.rogatchifoundation.org). She is the author of the internationally recognised cultural and educational multi-disciplined Outreach to Humanity projects.