Night & Day
Three weeks ago, I finally read Night
, by Elie Wiesel
I found out it was on Oprah's new book list!]. I wrote a draft book review that same night, but it languished after that because I could not find--or rather, because I could not articulate--the points I wanted to make, and the simple review had grown into a lengthy essay with no end. The truth is, I wanted to write something
, but I did not really know what I wanted to say or even exactly how I felt. Worse, no matter how long I stared at the words, or how many different ways I tried to bring into focus the essence of what was in my mind, there was only a vague outline of a notion, a blur of emotions tethered to memories, and a cacophony of competing voices demanding first chair. I was at a loss.
Then I happened to listen to a National Public Radio (NPR) interview with a man who is a longtime devotee of Ariel Sharon
, whom I admire a great deal and who, as I write this, is close to death. During the NPR interview, the man said one of the things he admired most about Sharon was the habit of revenge, that Sharon made it clear that one Israeli death would be retaliated for in multiples, that a murderer's friends, supporters, and cohorts would also pay for the crimes of the criminal.
I suspect the NPR editor left this comment in the interview to show Sharon and the interviewee in a negative light. Perhaps. My reaction was somewhat otherwise, however, in that I completely agree with the sentiment in this context. I understand this view is not widely shared, especially by Palestinians, but I do not ever plan to be nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, and I don't give the slightest damn about what today's Palestinians might think about anything. Non-Jews have been tormenting and killing Jews with glorious and freewheeling abandon, and without remorse, for the past three millennia, and I think it's more than about time Jews put a stop to that nonsense once and for all. Unfortunately, while the rest of the world (even oh-so-urbane Europe) has no problem with the indiscriminate slaughter of Jews by Palestinians, Syrians, Saudis, and Iranians, it never hesitates to condemn Israel for retaliating, and so the Jews' fight for survival goes on unabated....
And there it was, the heart of this essay; the link between me, the present day, and a book about horrible events that took place half a century ago. It all became crystal clear, the connections and applicability I was looking for, the deeper meaning I knew was inside me but was shrouded by the sorrow the book demands. I had found what was there all along.
Night, by Elie Wiesel © 1960 & 1982
After finishing Night
, I found myself at the keyboard, wanting to write something before the images faded, but I was stymied, mute. I had no idea where to begin, or what I could possibly say about the book or the author or the events he described that would really mean anything--that would add value to the world rather than caricature. I wanted to say something that hadn't been said before by anyone else who had read the book, that had meaning to me if to no one else. It was very difficult to get started and even more difficult to keep at it, but today as I think of Arial Sharon, this essay writes itself.
From 1944 to 1945 Elie Wiesel was a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Buckenwald, places whose names ring as familiar in my ears as the names of places near where I grew up--no more strange sounding to me than Trenton, Valley Forge, Bala Cynwood, or Cherry Hill. Wiesel was 14 years old when he was taken from Transylvania to Birkenau in 1944. He was 15 when he was liberated from Buckenwald in April 1945. His Father, Mother, and younger sister died in the concentration camps, his father just a short while before the liberation.
Being Jewish, I have been aware of the Holocaust since before I can remember. I was born a decade after WWII ended and I was raised with the knowledge that many of my relatives--siblings, cousins, and aunts and uncles of my grandparents, most of my extended family--were murdered by the Germans, the Russians, or the Poles, depending on the place and date. I grew up listening to people talk about their lost kin, and hearing the pain and anger in their voices. Before I even understood what I was hearing, I knew about the Nazis and their evil, and I knew about murdered Jews.
While in the Army, I spent six years in Germany (much to my grandmother's dismay), and I have returned several times since, most recently only last month. Never in all those years or during any of the visits did I go to Dachau. I never went to Bergen-Belson, nor to Buchenwald, nor Ravensbruck. In fact, I never went to any place that was set aside as a memorial, stained with the blood and memory of German inhumanity and Jewish agony. Frankly, I didn't want the memory of those places to haunt me--the deeper memories that come from seeing something with one's eyes, as opposed to the shallow, distant memory of seeing through pictures. I also have a good memory for odors and fragrances, and I have been told the camps still smell of burnt human flesh, and of pungent gruesome death, and I have always feared I'd never be free of that stench once I smelled it. Who would be willing to take that
chance? Not me!
I did go to the Washington D.C. Holocaust Museum in 2004, but I arrived too late to see everything in one visit. I saw enough, though, including the full-scale mock-up of a German street on the night of Kristallnacht
. In that display was a yellow-painted park bench marked Nur Juden
(Jews Only). Without really thinking about it, I sat down on it. I do remember thinking "What the hell, that's me, right?!" and "If anyone has the right to sit here, I do." After about 20 minutes I got up and headed straight for the exit. That was a hard, tar-bitter day, and it took a long stroll through the Lincoln, Korean War, Vietnam, and Roosevelt Memorials to damp the fires, to dilute the hate boiling inside me. It was good to be reminded that I am an American first, and what that means.
But what does any of that
have to do with Night
Well, it partially explains my reaction to the book, a reaction that surprised and upset me. I was angry. I was angry at the Germans and at the others who actively or by inaction helped kill Jews, and I was angry at God, a little, for allowing such things, but mostly I found myself angry at the Jews, especially Elie Wiesel's Father and Mother and all the other grownups in his life. I was more than a little angry. I still am.
I doubt anyone can imagine how unreasonable my anger seemed to me, how irrational, and how disturbing it was; after all, who am I
to judge them!?
Nonetheless, I found myself furious, and even as I write this, I am angry again. I did not know why at first, but I do now. Ariel Sharon is part of the reason, and the United States--my being raised American--is also part of the reason. So is the false memory of horror, the resonance of sad-voiced conversations about lost family, and the utterly malevolent, acid-dipped tones of my elders when they spoke about the Germans and Russians, or whenever the names of the death camps were mentioned in any context: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka... There were many others
And so, finally, it comes to this: Night
is a testament to Jewish failure--in my mind, the worst kind of failure imaginable, that of not even trying to survive, of not even going so far as to run away! It was the failure of being so arrogant as to suppose that people would not harm them, in the face of all history and evidence to the contrary. It was the failure of assuming that meek compliance meant survival, despite the evident brutality and unambiguous intentions of the Nazis. It was the ultimate failure of being willing to die just because someone else wanted them to.
This infuriates me!!
I have heard and read that many of the Jews did not know what was waiting for them, and I can accept that for some, but Wiesel's family and neighbors were warned more than once, and nothing in my experience--no matter how hard I try to see it from their perspective, no matter how much I want
to understand--nothing gives me the power to find in myself anything but anger for their lack of resistance. I know how it turned out, I know what was done to them, I know that some Jews did resist, but because of my post-WWII American Jewish rearing, I cannot empathize with those who
instead of this:
I just want to damn them all for not standing up for themselves, just as hurt and angry at them as I was at my father for dying without me being ready! Even now, I just want to yell at them, standing there on the other side of the grave, "How dare you just let them kill your children!! HOW DARE YOU JUST DIE?!?!
And although my anger shames me, it is what it is, and it has a focus, born of resolve hardened over the past 40 years and recently articulated so well by Ariel Sharon, in a speech he gave to the United Nations General Assembly on 15 September 2005. He said:
The Jewish people has a long memory. We remember events that took place thousands of years ago, and certainly remember events that took place in this hall during the last 60 years. The Jewish people remembers the dramatic vote in the UN General Assembly on November 29, 1947, when representatives of the nations recognized our right to national revival in our historic homeland. However, we also remember dozens of harsh and unjust decisions made by the United Nations over the years. And we know that, even today, there are those who sit here as representatives of a country whose leadership calls to wipe Israel off the face of the earth - and no one speaks out.
I am among those who believe that it is possible to reach a fair compromise and coexistence in good neighborly relations between Jews and Arabs. However, I must emphasize one fact: there will be no compromise on the right of the State of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, with defensible borders, in full security and without threats and terror. [emphasis mine]
What Sharon told the UN is what the world needed to be told and to hear! Israel is not a land of sheep! Jews do not seek war, but they will not again turn from a foe or allow themselves to be taken by the wolves without a fight. A fight to the finish, to the utmost end of the world
, if need be.
And that brings me full circle to Elie Wiesel's story.
The past cannot be undone and the Jews of the past century cannot be made whole, the memory of things cannot be erased--nor should it be, but as I live and breathe, to the depths of my soul I know there will never again be a time when Jews take themselves to the gas chambers, calmly step up to the gallows, or just sit and wait for a bullet in the head.
Possibly, it is only because of the Holocaust and books like Night
that I know there are worse things than dying. Perhaps my military experience had a greater influence on my views than I credited; or maybe I feel the way I do because I am not only a Jew with hatred in my soul, but also because I am an American, raised in the shadows of great people, the larger-than-possible heroes and heroines who helped make my country and the world what it is today. It may be all of those things or none, but one thing I do know is that the Jews who are building Israel in the same place it existed thousands of years ago are no less the product of torment and mean living, no less driven by the memory of evil, and no less sure of their right to be there than were those of our ancestors who followed Joshua across the Jordan River into the land God
And so, while I find myself angry at Wiesel's parents and the other adult Jews of their time, I also am glad Wiesel wrote Night
. Without him and others like him who were willing to tell their stories, I would not know what I know, and Israel might not be what it is. Jews in America, many of us at least, have learned the lessons of a free people steeped in the blood of sacrifice required to keep freedom alive; Jews in Israel are the living descendants of a people who have been counting days since 3,000 years before the birth of Christ; and all of us know--have learned well and good the lesson--that the Jews as an independent people have no true friends on this earth, and that if Israel does not stand up for itself, no one will stand in its stead.
The world almost rid itself of Jews 60 years ago, less than a single lifetime ago, after thousands of years of persecutions by all the peoples of Europe. That was the last, best chance the world will ever have had. There will never be another Holocaust for the Jews, there will never be another story like Wiesel's, and Night
will not come again for the Jews unless the darkness takes everyone! Of that
, I am absolutely certain.
To paraphrase Dylan Thomas
We will not go gentle into that good night,
Though enemies should burn and rave at close of day;
We will rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And God, our father, on his high height,
Though curse or bless us, how he might,
We will rage, rage, rage against the dying,
And bring darkness to the world in the final fight.
We will not again go meekly into that good night.
Update Note, 14 Sept 16: Ariel Sharon died on January 11, 2014. He was far from a perfect human being, but then who of us is? For my part, I am not nearly as supportive of Israel today as I was when I wrote this essay, but as the world has begun to turn ugly again, religious and racial hate is more and more becoming not only acceptable but popular—even here in the United States, much to my shame and dismay. Still, Sharon was a hero to me when I was young and remains so today. I hope he found peace.
- Jewish Virtual Library: Kristallnacht Link
- A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust: Images
- U.S. Holocaust Museum Outreach: Nazi Camp System
- The Elie Wiesel Foundation
- Poets.Org: Dylan Thomas Poem "Do not go gentle into that good night"
[ Note: None of the images in this essay were used with permission. Two of them are photos I took of the book cover, the rest are from the internet, and are labeled as parts of historical archives. The links are where I obtained the images used here. ]
Minor changes were made to this essay on 9 Jan 11, 2 Mar 12, and 14 Sep 16