Monday Morning Thoughts II: Bearing Witness to the Holocaust

Wiesel

As a Jew growing up in this country, the shadow of the holocaust was omnipresent throughout my childhood. And yet, at least for me, while I had long been exposed to the horrors and atrocities of Nazi Germany, it was not until I did a more sophisticated inquiry in a history class in Israel, toward the end of my time in high school, that the brutal reality hit home.

Part of that re-education involved reading Elie Wiesel’s Night.  For me it was a book I could not put down and I finished it in a quick afternoon read that seared its images and thoughts into my brain forever.

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed,” Mr. Wiesel wrote. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

For me, as I assume for many others, those words capture not only Mr. Wiesel’s experience as a 16-year-old in the camps, but the troubled mindset of every survivor and, indeed, every descendant of every survivor, and indeed every descendant of every Jew who managed to avoid the holocaust by luck or good fortune, and indeed every member of humanity itself.

For many, the holocaust is more than just something that happened in history, more than something that is increasingly in history’s rear view mirror, it is a question that sears itself into our existential questions regarding faith in God and, indeed, humanity.

As the New York Times noted in Mr. Wiesel’s obituary after his passing last week, “He wrote of how he had been plagued by guilt for having survived while millions died, and tormented by doubts about a God who would allow such slaughter.”

The Times continued that Mr. Wiesel’s books deal with profound questions that resonate from the holocaust: “What is the sense of living in a universe that tolerates unimaginable cruelty? How could the world have been mute? How can one go on believing?”

These are questions asked, but rarely answered.  But the Times also noted that the book “Night” was not an immediate success.  “The Holocaust was not something people wanted to know about in those days,” Mr. Wiesel told Time Magazine in 1985.  The mood only shifted with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1960.

For me, the most troubling aspect of many troubling aspects of the holocaust was the inaction of the world to stop it.  The turning back of the refugees on the St. Louis, the rise of anti-Semitism, not only in Germany but elsewhere, and books like Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which told the tale of extensive involvement in the extermination of European Jews by ordinary people, hit at the very core of our place in a free society.

The Times described a young Elie Wiesel, in the days after the liberation of Buchenwald, who vowed to “bear witness” but also decided he would wait for 10 years to write of his experiences.  “I didn’t want to use the wrong words,” he once explained.

It is the act of bearing witness that has such profound implications today.  Elie Wiesel died last week at 87.  He was just 16 at the time of his camp’s liberation.  Most survivors of concentration camps are either quite a bit older that Mr. Wiesel, or were quite a bit younger than he was upon his camp’s liberation.

The number of people who can bear immediate witness to the holocaust 71 years after the end of the holocaust is shrinking.  We are running out of eloquent spokespeople.  I fear for what that will mean for the future of our world.

As a young man, the holocaust, though it occurred nearly 30 years before my birth, played a profound role in shaping the kind of person I would become.  I took to heart the mantra, never again.  But, more importantly, I took to heart the notion that I too needed to bear witness.

In my writings on the Vanguard, I have vowed to speak for those who have no voice.  To bear witness to the atrocities and injustices that they suffer.

I have often been asked why certain issues such as race have such a profound bearing on my writings.  My interest in social justice, in speaking out for the oppressed and the underdog, comes from the lessons I personally took from the holocaust.

The words of Elie Wiesel played a profound role in that education process.  And, while his voice speaks no more in this world, it our job to teach the future generations of the work of Elie Wiesel and so many others, so that we too can bear witness to the ultimate atrocities that humans can visit upon each other – and so that we too can embody the spirit of “Never Again.”

I take solace in one thing, Elie Wiesel lived a full life, for 71 years after the liberation of the camp.  It was the goal of Hitler to exterminate Jews from the face of the world, but the Jews had a Yiddish slogan of defiance – “Mir velen zei iberleben” (We shall outlive them).

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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6 Comments

  1. nameless

    He wrote of how he had been plagued by guilt for having survived while millions died, and tormented by doubts about a God who would allow such slaughter.

    Guilt among survivors of a devastating calamity is common.  Why did I survive while others died?  I believe the answer to this question lies in the second question – why would God allow such slaughter?  A profound book on this subject was written by a Rabbi named Harold S. Kushner, titled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People”. (I highly recommend it.)  Rabbi Kushner had to wrestle with the sorrow of losing his young son to a rare disease, and the resulting foundational shaking of his faith in God.  When I was going through some intensely rough times, I found this book of immense help.

    Excerpts from the book that answer the second question – why would God allow such slaughter (as in the Holocaust)?

    Could it be that God does not cause the bad things that happen to us?  Could it be that He doesn’t decide which families shall give birth to a handicapped child, that he did not single out Ron to be crippled by a bullet or Helen by a degenerative disease, but rather that He stands ready to help them and us cope with our tragedies if we could only get beyond feelings of guilt and anger that separate us from Him?...

    Or it may be that God finished His work of creating eons ago, and left the rest to us.  Residual chaos, chance and mischance, things happening for no reason, will continue to be with us, the kind of evil that Milton Steinberg has called “this still unremoved scaffolding of the edifice of God’s creativity”. In that case, we will simply have to learn to live with it, sustained and comforted by the knowledge that the earthquake and the accident, like the murderer and the robbery, are not the will of God, but that aspect of reality which stands independent of His will, and which angers and saddens God even as it angers and saddens us…

    I would like to think that God is the source of my being able to feel sympathy and outrage, and that He and I are on the same side when we stand with the victim against those who would hurt him…

    But everyone is our brother or sister in suffering. No one comes to us from a home which has never known sorrow. They come to help us because they too know what it feels like to be hurt by life.”

    Somehow you found the strength not to let yourself be broken. You found the resiliency to go on living and caring about things… like every one of us at one time or another, you faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, than you ever would have thought you were. In your desperation, You opened your heart in prayer, and what happened? You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy. But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy. I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered.

    I am firmly convinced God cannot control what happens here on earth, but if asked can give the strength to deal with whatever ordeal must be faced.  It is our individual choice whether we make lemonade out of lemons, as Elie Wiesel most surely chose to do.

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