On the day President Reagan went to the cemetery at Bitburg, Elie Wiesel left his hotel here and went to a nearby Jewish center. There, television technicians lit him, miked him and plugged him in with faraway parts of the world -- producers in America, anchormen in Germany -- and for a time he shared the screen with the president himself. Another man might have felt triumphant, but not Wiesel. He had been elevated in celebrity, but diminished in consequence. In the end, he had been brushed aside.
All along he had seen it coming. Much earlier, in his hotel room, he had summoned Franz Kafka, another Eastern European Jewish writer, to explain how he felt. "This is a nightmare," he said, throwing some items into his suitcase. Like Kafka's character, Joseph K. in "The Trial," Wiesel said, he was being enmeshed in banalities -- the first one being the original, seemingly innocent, invitation to the president simply to visit a German military cemetery.
Then came others, and after a while the trip itself hardly mattered. It was the explanations that did. First, the president asserted that the World War II generation was gone -- died off. Then he said the German war dead were victims also. And then, at Bitburg, the president repeated some of that, adding a dollop of schmaltz about German and American soldiers sitting down to a Christmas Eve dinner as the war raged around them.
"Do you know where I was, December 24, 1944?" Wiesel exclaimed later. "I was in Auschwitz and the Nazis were killing us."
He is not a big man. In fact, he is surprisingly short -- tentative in appearance. The man who survived the camps, the kid who woke to find his father gone and taken to the ovens, the man who seemed to tower over the president when he lectured him on the meaning of the Holocaust, is a little man, slight and tired. Chairs seem to engulf him and even the words of protest come out of his mouth fatigued, forgiving -- maybe because the scared kid of the camps, the one who lived only because he knew how not to attract attention, is still within him. "That boy remains. I am still that boy inside," he said.
There is a miracle to Wiesel's life. If you read his book, "Night," then the man you see is a kid, a rag hanging from the line of life. He is small and weak, strong only in spirit. All around him are the dead and dying, the SS -- the snow and the cold and the hunger and the people who threw crumbs to the Jews like they were seals and laughed to see them lunge for the bread. There is nothing in that to prepare you for the fact that the kid lived to lecture the president in the White House, to talk with Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw across continents and time zones -- to be, in the simple eyes of the simple media, Mr. Holocaust, the man who speaks for the dead.
The Holocaust is the central experience of Elie Weisel's life. It is that way for many survivors, for many Jews who are not survivors -- for many others as well. The enormity of the crime, they think, is so apparent, the injustice so great, that just to mention it, to invoke it, is to silence criticism, to end an argument. Auschwitz. Treblinka. Dachau. What can you say? How can you explain? Not even Wiesel can. He cannot even tell you why he lives -- why he did not die like all the others.
But the president waved that all away. He considered. He thought. But he went his own way. He said -- said in words but said mostly in action -- that there was something more important -- a vow to another head of state. And from there, the list got longer: Pershing missiles and German-American relations and reconciliation and even a repudiation of collective guilt, which no one had mentioned and which Wiesel himself repudiates. It did not matter. The man and his argument got mowed don by a Gatling gun of banalities.
When reporters asked Elie Wiesel how he felt, the word he used over and over was "excluded." Sometimes he said this was a "historic moment" and very often he used the term "turning point." He mentioned how the controversy had educated people about the Holocaust, and that, of course, was good. But nothing could change the fact that in one day the president had gone from a concentration camp to the cemetery of those who had -- no matter how indirectly -- made that camp possible. There was only one way for the president to get there and he did it. He brushed aside Elie Wiesel.