AND THE SEA IS NEVER FULL
By Elie Wiesel
Translated from the French by Marion Wiesel
Knopf. 429 pp. $30
The first chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, "All rivers run to the sea, and the sea is never full." The ancient author who gave us this book of wisdom is imparting a message here about the cyclicality of life and the eternal round of nature. It must not go unnoticed that Elie Wiesel, the eminent writer, humanist, professor, political activist and student of the Bible, chose to take the titles of both his volumes of memoirs from this melancholy passage.
"All Rivers Run to the Sea" was Wiesel's 1995 account of his childhood in a remote region of Hungary, his transport to Auschwitz, his liberation, his years of poverty adrift in the turmoil of postwar Europe and his eventual emergence as a man of letters and a voice of Holocaust survivors who unstintingly chose to bear the message that humankind must never forget what the Nazis did. "And the Sea Is Never Full" tells the story of the second half of his life.
Unlike Wiesel's earlier years, the past 30 have not been primarily a period of struggle. They have rather been marked by the writer's ever-increasing fame, culminating in the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize; his taking of many admirable public stances against oppression around the world and in favor of Israel and Jewish causes; and his emergence as something of a permanent Jewish statesman without portfolio on the international scene, with no obvious constituency but his conscience.
Wiesel has been unafraid to speak truth to power. Reagan, Gorbachev, Mitterrand--all became the subjects of his hope, his anger and his disappointment. Like a biblical prophet, he told them to their faces what he thought of them and what he saw as their moral failings. Yet beneath all the acclaim, the prizes, the committees, the foundations, the meetings at the highest levels, Wiesel never stopped seeing himself as the yeshiva student from the town of Sighet who heard the Nazi gendarmes bark out the news of the evacuation to Birkenau. About to receive the Nobel, he reflected, "Who indeed has traced this strange path for the young Jewish boy who, lost more than once among the dead, found himself, one chilly December day, receiving the greatest honor mankind can bestow on one of its own?"
The present always contains within it the seeds of the past, Wiesel is telling us. Life may seem absurd, yet as the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes, there is a divinely imposed order, however dreary, repetitive and meaningless our existence may appear to us. For Wiesel, the Holocaust is ever present--even though he has for decades forsworn writing about it, fearing that words would inevitably diminish and trivialize the unalloyed evil that it represents. The man who in the 1960s became the first Holocaust survivor to gain universal fame by putting his memories into literary form now says that he has "written on diverse subjects mostly in order not to evoke the one that, for me, has the greatest meaning . . . I was content to say that one could say nothing. Like most survivors, I tried to invent reasons to live, and a new concept of man in this insane world, and a new language."
When Wiesel writes in this vein, his prose and his thoughts are sobering and memorable. (Several of his friends and acquaintances, also survivors of the death camps, found that they could not go on living after that experience. His chapter about their suicides is the most touching of any here.) When he describes the political infighting that accompanied events like the formation of the committee to design the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum or President Reagan's wrongheaded decision to visit the German military cemetery in Bitburg, he adds a great deal to our understanding--although his protestations that he is no politician, merely an imaginative writer and a simple Jew, are not always convincing. But when he uses the book to settle old scores, such as his feud with Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, the reader begins to wonder if this is necessary. "Do not expect a discreet and passive stance from me," Wiesel writes. Yet some of what he says is unbecoming for a man of his achievement and stature.
Finally, since the years that this volume covers contained much less inherent drama for the writer than Wiesel's first 40 years, this memoir can feel a bit disjointed, linked loosely by vague associations rather than knit together by chronology. The narrative does not always move with the urgency that marked his first volume. Still, "And the Sea Is Never Full" should take its place as an account of a life marked by high seriousness, good conscience and an utter refusal to submit to evil and oppression.