“We are part of the human family”
By Jessica Ullian
Elie Wiesel — Nobel Prize winner, Holocaust survivor, and Boston University’s Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities — gathered hundreds of people in Metcalf Hall on October 25 and told them a story that was joyous, sad, bitter, and hopeful: the history of Jews in America.
Chronicling the centuries with humor and sorrow, Wiesel traced the creation of the American Jewish community, beginning with Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the New World — an expedition that he said emerged partly out of the explorer’s desire to find a new home for Spanish Jews — and celebrating milestones and achievements as well as mourning losses and destruction. Throughout his account, he wove in personal experiences and called on Jews in this country today to perpetuate American Judaism by remembering their responsibilities to their religion and to the world.
“We are who we are,” Wiesel said. “But because we are part of the human family, we must look around us. And if people suffer, we must help.”
His talk, entitled Memories of Doubts and Hope, was part of BU’s annual Three Encounters with Elie Wiesel lecture series, and coincided with the conference Why Is America Different? presented from October 25 to October 27 by the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies in honor of the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in America. He was introduced by Steven Katz, the center’s director and a CAS professor of religion, who said that Wiesel offers a unique perspective on what the American Jewish community means to immigrants and refugees. “He knows, as few of us do, as few of us can, the real meaning of America,” Katz said.
Wiesel, who was born in Transylvania in 1928, is best known for his memoir Night, which chronicles his experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. He was 15 when he and his family were sent to Auschwitz, and after the camps were liberated in 1945, he went to Paris and later became a journalist. Since Night’s publication in 1960, Wiesel has written more than 40 books and gained international recognition as a human rights activist and a distinguished scholar of religion and the humanities. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1986.
In relating the history of America’s Jewish community, Wiesel spoke of the centuries-old struggle of Jews to retain their beliefs when they were repeatedly forced to leave their homelands. He started his lecture with the 23 Brazilian Jews who arrived in New Amsterdam — now New York — in 1654, but said the real history of American Jews originated with Columbus’ voyage to the West Indies, which began on the same day that Spain ordered its Jews to convert or go into exile.
“Was it simply a coincidence?” Wiesel asked. “In Jewish history, there are no coincidences.”
Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, he continued, led to the colonization of Brazil, where many exiled Spanish and Portuguese Jews had fled before the small group left South America for New Amsterdam. Although initially turned away by Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colony’s governor, they did settle and, Wiesel said, “like Jacob’s children in Egypt, the few became many.”
Initially, the small community was able to get by in New Amsterdam — a Jewish butcher was even given an exemption from killing hogs. Maintaining tradition was a struggle, since there were few rabbis or teachers, but as the group grew it became more self-sufficient, publishing prayer books and even constructing America’s first synagogue, in Newport, R.I., in 1759.
As the country itself expanded, some Jews, as a path to success and establishment, chose to abandon religion. Jews were on both sides in the Revolutionary War and in the Civil War, and gradually acquired new rights and opportunities. However, the more footing they gained in America, Wiesel said, the more “impoverished, defenseless, and threatened” Judaism became. In colonial times, a high intermarriage rate threatened dissemination. In the early 20th century, many younger Jews rejected their parents’ ways in favor of anarchy and communism. And as some Jews attained financial stability, they sought higher education, not religious education. In Europe, he said, “in some ultra-religious circles, people believed that to emigrate to America meant to stop being Jewish.”
Ironically, it was the Holocaust — linked with the subsequent creation of the state of Israel — that provided new meaning to American Jewish identity, Wiesel said. Jews felt themselves Jewish, he said, “by linking their fate to the memory of the dead in Europe and the living in Israel.” Old-world Jewish culture, which had virtually disappeared in Europe, was revitalized in the United States. By the time Wiesel arrived, America seemed like “paradise.” New York alone had four daily Yiddish newspapers, and Jews were well-established in business and entertainment.
But Wiesel’s enthusiasm about the burgeoning Jewish culture in America was tempered by the questions that have tormented him since his years in the camps — questions about why, at various points in history, the United States and other nations have not taken greater action against anti-Semitism. He used Hungarian Jews as an example — groups of Jews were deported from the country by order of the Nazis well into 1944, even as World War II was essentially ending.
“It alone could have been saved, and it wasn’t. It could have been saved because it was last,” he said. “All political and tactical explanations of why so little was done lose their human weight. The fact is, nothing was even tried.”
Now Wiesel feels a mixture of apprehension and hope. The number of American Jews has decreased by 5 percent in the last decade, according to a population survey, he said, and the commitment to Israel seems uncertain. Further, he cannot understand why younger Jews would not take an interest in a nation that was the greatest dream of their grandparents or parents, and he does not know what that means for the next phase of American Jewish evolution.
But the community’s survival, he said, requires Jews to recognize that their unique heritage and their future in the global community are intertwined, and to remember that a triumph such as the creation of the Jewish state can emerge even from a great tragedy.
“We are all possessed by an irresistible urge to evoke hope,” he said. “Even when at times there is none.”