FROM THE KINGDOM OF MEMORY
By Elie Wiesel
Summit Books. 250 pp. $19.95
GREGOR VON REZZORI, like Elie Wiesel, came from the Middle European multi-ethnic culture in the far eastern reaches of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his recently published reminiscence, The Snows of Yesteryear, he quotes the poet Paul Celan as saying of Czernowitz, von Rezzori's birthplace in the Carpathian mountains, that it was a place where people and books had lived. Obviously Celan also meant . . . and Jews: The world Celan is speaking of vanished with the Holocaust, yet Middle Europe without Jews is unimaginable. When von Rezzori (he is Catholic) went back in 1989 to visit Czernowitz, he found the city unrecognizable; the sardonic hum of its multitude of Jewish voices had been silenced.
In his collection of personal essays and public speeches, From the Kingdom of Memory, Elie Wiesel recreates the music of those missing Jewish voices; his abiding desire is to reaffirm through memory the existence of his family and friends, to recreate his life in Sighet, a small Jewish town also in the Carpathians. Wiesel and his entire family were rounded up; just three weeks before the Allied landings in Normandy, they were put on the last Transylvanian convoy for Auschwitz; only he, then 15, survived.
In "Pilgrimage to Sighet," and "Making The Ghosts Speak," Wiesel retraces his painful journey from his early days as a bookish child content to live within the confines of his ghetto universe -- his background was highly religious -- to the after-Auschwitz raging solitary adolescent: Why had not the Sighet ghetto been warned? Where was God? How could the pope have kept silent? How could the Germans who counted Goethe and Bach as their own have massacred Jewish children? Where were the Allies? Why had the world remained indifferent?
Forty-five years later these still remain the unanswerable questions of our bloody 20th century. In Paris in the immediate postwar period, Elie Wiesel had to invent a process for living his life for which there were no models -- he needed to think his way, step by step, to the forming of a new language which would permit him to bear witness to the indescribable. In his work there is the continuous tension of his survivor's need to tell what happened, to imprint the horror on an indifferent world, to redeem in his eyes the fact that he alone, of his family, was "chosen" to live, while, in direct contradiction to this, is his equally forceful drive to protect the dignity of the dead by keeping silent, by acknowledging the perpetual secret of the extermination camps.
In "Trivializing Memory" he writes: "Wittgenstein said it: Whereof one cannot speak, one must not speak. The unspeakable draws its force and its mystery from its own silence. A nineteenth-century Hasidic teacher put it his own way: The cry unuttered is the loudest." I tend to agree with Wiesel's dislike of using the Holocaust as a backround for made-up fiction -- films like "The Night Porter," "Seven Beauties," docudramas like "Holocaust," even flights of literary fancy like Cynthia Ozick's "Shawl," always end up as bathos.
After Wiesel's first attempts at mourning -- he initially isolated himself in Paris, and led a life of self-punitive asceticism -- he trekked to India; he tried to lose himself in Hindu mysticism and Sufism. Finally he stopped his emotional flight; he became willing to inhabit his own space. "Like most survivors, I would give everything I own to awaken and see that we are in 1938-39; that I had only dreamed the future. That is what I miss most: a certain peace, a certain melancholy that the Sabbath, at Sighet, offered its celebrants . . . It reminds me that things have changed in the world, that the world itself has changed. And I have, too."
The French Government asked Elie Wiesel, who was given the Nobel Prize for Peace, to testify at the Barbie trial. His testimony, along with his speech at Bitburg and his acceptance of the Nobel, is reprinted here. What is hard to convey in a collection of essays is the effect that Wiesel had on the trial. What was different from the Nuremberg and the Eichmann trials is that the prime movers in bringing Barbie to trial had been, like Wiesel, children during the Second World War. One sensed, in the court room, the filial need for exact repetitions.
For instance, George Klarsfeld's father, before being deported, had placed Klarsfeld in a Jewish children's home. Klarsfeld, throughout the Barbie trial, defended the policy of keeping Jewish children in these homes. The father of the French minister of justice, Robert Badinter, had been imprisoned by Barbie in Montluc prior to his deportation; Badinter placed Barbie in the same Montluc cell. Maurice Rasjfus, an impassioned Trotskyist historian the same age as Wiesel, argued at the trial that the real loss for Jews was the secular intellectual culture represented by his Polish parents. Though Rasjfus's ideas, on the surface, are in direct opposition to Wiesel's notion that what got lost was the sweet Hasidic religion of his parents, the impulse in both men is the same: the yearning to undo time, to reunite with and give dignity to parents annihilated in the Holocaust.
Wiesel has an unmatched powerful way of telling Europeans about the Holocaust. His style (he sounds less abstract in French) of almost not recognizing Barbie's existence, of using private memory to arrive at universal redemption, made him invulnerable to the barbs launched against him by Barbie's lawyer, Jacques Verges. For Verges, Wiesel was a symbol of Israel; as such, he denounced him. But a child's memory of loss contains no mistakes, timeless anguish is impervious to legal attack.
New York University Press coincidentally has just published Elie Wiesel Between Memory and Hope, a collection of essays on Wiesel and his ideas by scholars and writers. The meditation by Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, "Night: The Absence of God? The Presence of God?," is particularly good. The collection is edited by Carol Rittner.
Barbara Probst Solomon, who covered the Klaus Barbie trial, is the author, most recently, of "Horse-Trading and Ecstasy," a collection of essays.