The powerful message of Elie Wiesel's Night.
I know it's hard to believe, but there is there is something even more powerful than a Nobel Prize to make a book shoot to the very top of the best-seller lists.
If an author can have his work selected by Oprah Winfrey's book club, sales immediately soar to the stratosphere. A nod of approval from television's superstar guarantees number one listing on Amazon and a mad rush by millions of buyers for the latest "must read" as decreed by America's most influential literary maven.
That surely has to be good news for Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1986, whose ground-breaking book on the Holocaust, Night, has been announced as the most recent Oprah's choice.
The world simply didn't want to hear about atrocities beyond human comprehension.
Granted, Wiesel had to wait a long time for this honor. In retrospect it seems almost incredible that when Night was first written, not a single publisher was interested. "Too morbid," they told Wiesel in their rejection letters. "No one will read it." Finally accepted by a small publishing house in the States in 1960, Wiesel got a paltry advance of $100 and saw sales of but a little over 1,000 copies in 18 months.
It was true. The world simply didn't want to hear about atrocities beyond human comprehension. Genocide just wasn't fashionable. Remembering the Holocaust was the "politically incorrect" mantra of the immediate post World War II era.
It took many years for the veil of silence to be lifted. But in time Night became recognized as perhaps the definitive personal account of the Holocaust's horrors. By now it's been translated into 30 languages. Without Oprah, it has already mesmerized millions of readers round the world. With this latest endorsement, Wiesel's memoir will almost certainly become a classic in the mold of A Diary of Anne Frank -- a book that must be read by anyone interested in understanding the events of the 20th century.
WHY RELIVE PAIN?
Perhaps now is the time to ask the unspoken question: What is it about this depiction of despair -- an account that by its very attention to detail makes it almost painfully unreadable -- that demands our attention? Why do we have to relive with the narrator those moments of suffering that are best forgotten by the victims themselves if they are ever to make peace with their unbearable memories? Why must we read a book that makes us weep so that through our tears we can barely make out the words on its pages?
This is how Oprah explains the reason for her selection:
Like Dr. King, I have a dream of my own, too, that the powerful message of this little book would be engraved on every human heart and will never be forgotten again. That you who read this book will feel as I do that these 120 pages ... should be required reading for all humanity.
But exactly what is "the powerful message of this little book"? Is it no more than to remind us of the reality of evil? Surely by now no one needs to be taught this self-evident truth. Is it a lesson in the magnitude of human potential for cruelty, the latent lust for sadism and brutality that inconceivably lurks within seemingly normal people? How will that help us feel hopeful about turning our world into a kinder and better place?
Memory, if it is to serve a purpose, must be premised on a reason for reliving what should never have been endured in the first place. "I remember so that..." -- the pain of recalling is justified only by what I gain from the experience.
So what should Night teach us?
The answer is all-important because, even more than in the days of Nazi Germany, it is crucial to mankind's survival. What we have to learn from Wiesel's memoir is, I believe, a remarkable insight that I once heard from my teacher, Rabbi Soloveitchik, with regard to the Purim story. What was the greatest miracle of the holiday that commemorates our victory over the evil Haman who plotted the first total genocide against our people?
The miracle, said Rabbi Soloveitchik, was that when Haman publicly announced his intention "to annihilate and to slay all the Jews, from the young to the old, infants and women in one day" -- the Jews believed him. And because they believed him, they took appropriate action.
Hitler did not hide what he proposed to do to the Jews once he assumed power. Mein Kampf spelled it out clearly. The world heard -- and said, "Well, it's just words. Surely he can't possibly mean it." And so we wrote him off as a fool with a moustache whose ravings were just rhetoric for the masses -- while all the while we should have realized that tyrants actually mean what they say.
Perhaps one of the most powerful lines in Weisel's Night is uttered by one of his neighbors in the barracks at Auschwitz: "I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He's the only one who's kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people. (p.77)
The great lie of Holocaust history is that no one really knew what was happening, that no one could have imagined the reality that was the fate of Europe's Jewry. Yet the seminal character in Night is Moshe, the Beadle, the caretaker of the synagogue who became Wiesel's mentor in the mysteries of the Kabbala. Moshe is crammed on a cattle car, herded into a concentration camp, and somehow -- miraculously -- escapes to tell the Jews of his hometown of Sighet what is in store for them. But Moshe is ignored. Moshe is dismissed as a fool, a man whose imagination clearly got the better of him. Better to label the witness as insane than to take his testimony to human insanity at face value.
What Wiesel realized in retrospect was that denial is what doomed his family, his neighbors and his people. "It can't be true" was the unfortunate response of those who didn't want to accept the reality that it was true.
Night is what happens when those who testify to evil aren't taken seriously.
And why did Wiesel finally write the book after years of personal silence? Here is how he put it: "If I had to sum up my mission in one sentence, it would be: Not to make my past your future."
Night is what happens when Moshe the Beadle is ignored, when those who testify to evil aren't taken seriously. Night is the darkness that comes from our unwillingness to heed unmistakable warnings.
Surely that must be relevant as we listen to Arab leaders announce their intention to "wipe Israel off the map." Nonsense, European leaders assure us. That's only rhetoric. The kind of unbelievable rhetoric that took 6 million of our people just a generation ago?
And surely that must send a message to the Western world as we hear the clearly stated plan of Osama bin Laden and his Muslim cohorts to eliminate "all infidels" from the earth.
"It's just typical Eastern exaggeration" is the wishful thinking of those who still haven't learnt what a Holocaust survivor is trying to teach us. Take our enemies seriously. They mean what they say. And what is unimaginable to us can actually happen -- just like Auschwitz wasn't a figment of Moshe the Beadle's imagination.
Oprah has to be commended for a selection that deserves universal readership. But her choice will only prove meaningful if it's accompanied by the kind of understanding that lies at the heart of its message. As tragic as Night is, Wiesel has told us "Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair." Jewish tradition teaches that day begins with the night before; that is meant to remind us that dawn follows darkness, that day is the aftermath of the night that precedes it.
In spite of what Wiesel has endured, he remains optimistically committed to life. Man can prevail, he teaches. Goodness may be victorious over evil. But only if we grasp the truth that defines our obligation to God and to our fellow human beings: "The opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it's indifference."