It is all too common that when a very good person dies – even an historical icon – we spend a day summarizing the person so we can then go on to other subjects. Nobel-Prize winning humanist and Holocaust survivor died this last July 2, and he will of course not be with us for his 88th birthday this September 30. But he did leave some things behind that he wants us to have -- his birthday gifts to us, so to speak – in the many books that he had written during his life time.
It was through one of Wiesel’s books that I was able to spend an afternoon with this man who finally gave me an impression of being one of the holiest people I had ever met.
I was a 24-year-old relatively low developed New York newspaper reporter when I met Elie in his garden-variety New York apartment in the fall of 1973. The occasion was Wiesel’s publisher wanting to promote the author’s new book, “Souls on Fire.”
I may have been given the assignment by my supervising editor because I was very familiar with Wiesel’s earlier books. I will list those books here because after re-reading most of them in recent years I feel they would benefit any reader who would follow Wiesel’s pursuit of reason after his mother, father and little sister had been killed in concentration camps. These books were the well-known “Night,” “Dawn,” “A Beggar in Jerusalem,” “The City and the Gate,” “The Forest and the Gate,” “The Accident,” and a “Beggar in Jerusalem.” Each book was a narrative account of surviving the Holocaust as well as surviving the survival from the Holocaust. I recommend these books today to any reader
But “Souls on Fire” was different. It was not a narrative in so much as it was expository. The content was passionate poetry. But I didn’t understand where this passionate poetry was coming from.
At our meeting, the 44-year old Wiesel sat over a small table, and I sat over the other side of the table, bent toward each other like two chess players in the grasp of a very intense chessboard. Wiesel understood quickly that I did not have a clue what his “Souls on Fire” was about. He wore a black pullover sweater. On such a spiritually buoyant person, the black sweater occasionally made me think of the black smoke of the incinerators that were the final homes of his young father, mother and sister.
He had married just four years ago, at age 40, after a long struggle with guilt about starting his own family after witnessing the killing of the family who went with him to the concentration camps. He lived with his wife and young son Shlomo, named after the father he had written about in “Night” who had regularly saved Elie’s life in the camps, before the father Shlomo had been beaten to death in front of young Elie by a Kapo
Elie Wiesel had a passion for storytelling. While I can’t now even remember even one specific sentence Elie shared with me, I know he told me a story. On that sunny fall day on Manhattan’s Upper West Side he told me a story about himself that I had not found in anything he had written then. Many years later I saw this story again in the first book of a two-volume autobiography he had later brought out decades later in 1996, “All Rivers Run to the Sea.”
The story was about he and two of his friends who around the beginning of the 1940’s took up the challenge of trying to decipher the ancient Jewish scripture called “The Kabbalah.” With Adolf Hitler opening declaring a personal war against all Jewish people of the world and having his successful invasion of France without much of a fight, the times in Hungary where full of anxiety for the Wiesel’s and their neighbors in their Hungarian shtetl. The challenge to read the Kabbalah and to understand it was the hope of Wiesel and his two young teenage friends to find some consolation and assurance.
But instead of assurance and consolation, something happened to the two friends of Elie as they probed deeply into the Kabbalah. They lost their sanity. They became catatonic.
When the Nazis entered the Hungarian shtetl, they quickly executed the two mentally-ill young men, which was their common policy with any mentally-ill people. Then they abruptly ordered the little Wiesel family into a train-driven cattle car their new place in the concentration camp. Because Elie’s sister was very little, on the entrance to the concentration camp the Nazi’s swung her hard into a planted boulder to dash her brains to death, as they did with all the small children coming off the cattle cars.
So anyway, what was the book “Souls on Fire” about?
I now understand it was about the vision that the three boys received in their search for truth when in the process they caught a glimpse in the Kabbalah of the coming Holocaust.
My understanding of all this now makes it just impossible to let any level of racism go. So I can’t just dismiss the racist comments against African-Americans by former LA Clipper owner Donald Sterling go as just senile hysteria. Nor can I let the racist comments against Mexicans by New York businessman Donald Trump go as just senile hysteria.
That memory of Elie Wiesel just won’t let me do it.
Chris Sharp— Commentary
Chris Sharp is an Educator and a prize-winning professional writer. He has recently published a new book titled How to Like a Human Being . His commentaries represent his own opinions and not necessarily the views of any organization he may be affiliated with or those of The SCV Beacon