Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel died in the United States, his adopted homeland on July 2. If you haven’t heard of him, he was an extraordinary human being who helped us all remember the Holocaust and who helped us to say, “Never again!” He was a survivor who came face to face with the depths of human cruelty and nevertheless refused to loosen his grip on hope.
I first came to know Wiesel through his novel “Night”, written in the late 1950s. It is the story of Eliezer, a devout Jewish teenager who is rounded up with the Jews of his town and shipped to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. In one pivotal scene in the book, he describes the execution of three Jews, one of whom is a child.
“One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz … The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
“The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
“But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the commandant. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is He? This is where — hanging here from this gallows…”
It’s a terrifying piece of writing, a horrifying image. We want to avert our eyes … but we must not.
Some people saw this as the beginning of a movement called “the death of God.” I don’t know what Wiesel meant when he wrote it, but I don’t believe it was about God’s death. For Wiesel, the Holocaust was a critical turning point. Ever after, he talked more about morality than theology.
Wiesel would say that we can no longer be sure about God’s involvement in the life of humanity. What we can be certain about is our own commitment to never allow this kind of horror again. Never again Auschwitz. Never again such an assault on the Jewish people.
In later years, he took up the same kind of stand against nuclear proliferation. In a panel discussing the nuclear option, Wiesel stood alongside generals talking sanely about the insanity that was/is nuclear deterrence and “mutually assured destruction.” Wiesel was the voice from Auschwitz warning us not to do to the whole world what had been done to the Jews of Europe. He seemed so sad that night, so unimpressed by the ribbon–bedecked generals reassuring us that all would be well despite 50,000 nuclear weapons hanging over our heads.
Today, Wiesel would say the same again about the violence being perpetrated against the LGBTQ (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender/queer) community. Never again! Never will such an assault happen while we stand silently by. We will raise our voices against every prejudice, every hatred, every bigotry.
“Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere,” he said.
After Auschwitz, Wiesel’s dealt with God by questioning God and arguing with God. He taught us that we must ask questions of God about justice and mercy, demanding fiercely that justice and mercy and compassion must be practiced ever more fervently in our world and in our lives. This kind of protesting–questioning faith makes so much more sense to me than the doctrinaire–complacent faith we see prattled so loudly by televangelists and conservatives.
Despite his inability to speak of God, he did not lose hope. At the Days of Remembrance in 2002, he remarked, “People say occasionally that there must be light at the end of the tunnel, but I believe in those times there was light in the tunnel. The strange way there was courage in the ghetto, and there was hope, human hope, in the death camps. Simply an anonymous prisoner giving a piece of his bread to someone who was hungrier than he or she; a father shielding his child; a mother trying to hold back her tears so her children would not see her pain—that was courage.”
Elie Wiesel was one of the giants of our time. He who helped us remember will always be remembered. Rest in peace, brother Elie.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican