Cafe' des Artistes is an elegant eatery with walls covered by large painted murals of naked, cavorting young women. Richly detailed, life-size, and in full color, N they manage to seem erotic yet not tasteless. Whatever you think of them, they overwhelm. You can't miss them.
Elie Wiesel, author and survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, has dined there a dozen times. He doesn't like going to restaurants, but finds himself in them from time to time in his role as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, a federal agency authorized by Congress to build a $40 million Museum of the Holocaust adjacent to the national Mall. Cafe' des Artistes has a maitre d' who is a Hungarian emigre', so Wiesel--born in Hungary--can easily get reservations.
There is this curious fact: until a journalist recently called his attention to the murals, he had never seen them. Quizzed on the point, Wiesel said, in his soft accent, that it was not especially surprising. "I've literally never seen them. Maybe my mind is trained not to see certain things . . ."
Maybe it is trained not to see groups of naked people.
Wiesel, now the leading writer on the Holocaust, is a short, lean man with hawkish features. He has punctilious, Old World manners, yet is enormously sympathique, and you are drawn to him instantly, drawn into the sadness that is his mood. His brown eyes are direct, but there is no spark in them. They seem to be the eyes of a dead man. He did not see the restaurant murals because there is nothing else--nothing--that he has not seen.
He was 14 when he entered Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was night. Immediately he lost track of his mother and sisters. The line advanced slowly toward Dr. Mengele, who moved his conductor's baton to the right . . . to the left . . . Wiesel and his father were sent to the left. The smoke of the crematoria filled the sky. As they walked, Wiesel saw a truck pull up full of babies and then saw SS men throw the screaming babies into a flaming ditch.
Later he wrote: "Never shall I forget that night . . . which has turned my life into one long night."
It is near the end of the long interview in Wiesel's book-cluttered study overlooking Central Park, and there is silence as a reporter searches for a last question. Though a busy man, Wiesel is content to sit quietly. It seems his natural element, as natural to him as the world of words. . .
How clearly does he still remember Auschwitz?
"Every day . . ." His voice is almost inaudible.
"Sometimes it's the running, sometimes the waiting. People never walked there. They always ran. Sometimes the fear. Sometimes the silence. Sometimes the screams.
"But it's always something, every day, not at fixed moments. Sometimes I have difficulties realizing I'm not there. Sometimes in the middle of the day, in the middle of a sentence, it emerges . . ."
And Cafe' des Artistes? Why did he appear so uncomfortable?
"Maybe I don't like to be served, or to wait. I have a feeling that it is all so futile . . ."
Now, four decades after Auschwitz, with his 20 books ranging over the whole spectrum of Jewish culture and philosophy, Wiesel is Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University. (His first name is pronounced like Ellie, the woman's name; and his last Vee-zel.) His is a world of learning and culture, and he finds himself out of place as head of a small, independent federal agency. Nevertheless, he had to take on the Holocaust museum project as a moral duty.
"I hope it will be a sacred project . . . It's not what I enjoy doing. I'm an old-fashioned person. I still believe in words, in books . . . I'm really a stranger in the world of politics." Yet Wiesel's charisma and drive, as much as anything else, have given the project, and the annual Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust (which will take place in Washington this week), the large national scope they have assumed.
Wiesel's most famous book is "Night," a short, stark account of how he and his family were herded from their small Hungarian town, Sighet, into waiting boxcars and thence to the horrors of the death camps. It was published first in France and then in the United States in 1960.
Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald. His father had died in the camp, and his mother and younger sister had died in Auschwitz earlier. After the war he lived in Paris, where he adopted French as his language--he still does his original work in that language--and began working as a journalist. This took him to Israel and finally to the United States where, after a time, he gradually took up an academic career.
Not wishing to spend all his time on the Holocaust, Wiesel branched out. In 1972, he published "Souls on Fire," described in a Washington Post book review as "a masterful, joyous retelling of the legends surrounding the Hasidic masters of Eastern Europe." This was followed by other works on Hasidic legends and Biblical figures.
"As a reteller of tales, Wiesel has few flaws," wrote the reviewer, Kenneth Turan. "His is a deliberate, elegant style, consciously elevated and poetic, and if he occasionally tries to pack too much into a sentence, to jam it too full of significance and meaning, it is an error easy to forgive."
Much of his prose seems poetic, even some of the most terrible passages in "Night."
Although Wiesel helped coin the word Holocaust in his writings in the late 1950s in its now-accepted meaning of the systematic Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish race, he has come to find the word "cheap, trivialized to an extent I can't use it anymore."
The problem extends to the museum project. "My dilemma is I'm not sure what we are doing. On the one hand, I know we must bear witness. On the other, I see what is being done with our testimony, and I despair. There is distortion, and also, for the survivors to break silence is not easy . . . It's the inherent difficulty in it, that once you turn something so personal and it becomes public it is threatened by compromise . . . I don't want it to become routine . . . It's too personal. I don't want to show my hurt."
Yet he does it.
"It's the greatest proof of selflessness, to teach others things for their sake, not ours. For the dead, it's too late. For the survivors, too. So now we're trying to do something for our children . . ."
He was silent.
Softly he said, "In the beginning, I was convinced if we could tell the truth, the world would improve. It didn't. The future is uncertain at best. There are thousands of victims every day, and people don't care. If the Holocaust didn't change the human condition, for God's sake what will? That's my despair. I am very often on the edge of despair. . ."
He is moved by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. "The names. I said to myself, if I could have a memorial like this, I'd do it. But we'd need seven times seven the walls to absorb six million names . . . the equivalent of four cities!"
He falls silent again. Then, speaking slowly, his voice growing lower and lower as if in pain:
"It happened in the heart of Europe, in the most civilized nation in the world . . . It happened in the heart of Christendom. Those who were involved in the worst part of the killing were men of education and culture . . . Culture itself is not enough. An ethical dimension to culture is needed."