Elie Wiesel received Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. His acceptance speech and related lecture, “Hope, Despair and Memory,” which was delivered in Oslo the day after his acceptance speech, are amongst his most well-known public addresses. This week we revisit his famous words by looking at particularly evocative passages so that we can reflect upon Wiesel’s call to action against indifference in the face of hatred.
If you would like to explore this historic moment, here are some helpful links:
- Watch the acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize website.
- Read the acceptance speech.
- Read “Hope, Despair and Memory.”
Elie Wiesel’s A Jew Today originally appeared as Un Juif Aujourd’hui in 1978. The book is a collection of essays, stories, diary entries, portraits, and dialogues written between 1971 and 1978. These short pieces describe an evolving understanding of Jewishness woven out of current events, history, and memory. Wiesel writes about a wide variety of topics, including Israel in the aftermath of the wars of 1967 and 1973, global conflicts, and the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Each essay reflects Wiesel’s passionate political views and personal philosophies, and we hope our selected passages this week will inspire thought and discussion.
Elie Wiesel’s A Beggar in Jerusalem, originally published in 1968 as Le Mendiant de Jérusalem, explores the experiences of David, a Holocaust survivor, who visits Jerusalem after the Six-Day War.
In A Beggar in Jerusalem, Wiesel weaves together a complicated understanding between the past and present as well as the spiritual and physical. He reveals these themes through individuals on the fringe of society: beggars and madmen. As we have seen through our retrospective of Wiesel’s works, both beggars and madmen appear often throughout his stories: In Dawn a beggar teaches the protagonist something that changes his perspective for life; in The Gates of the Forest, he calls madmen “messengers.” Additionally, although we did not share passages from the particular section, Wiesel’s memoir, And the Sea is Never Full, includes a chapter on “Of Madmen and Visionaries.”
Why do you think Wiesel sees the opportunity for special insights and understanding of the world from beggars and madmen?
What role did maps that depict the Holy Land and other biblical locations play in constructing spaces construed as “Jewish”? This is the question that drove our second BUJS forum of spring semester on February 13. Our speaker, Professor Jeffrey Shoulson (University of Connecticut), described his exploration of early maps as he tried to find an answer, examining the development of maps and the understandings of Jewishness, in “Mapping and Unmapping Jewish History in Early Modern Bibles.”
At the heart of Shoulson’s lecture was the history of maps—and how maps affect and reflect the conflicts of the culture and societies that surround and create them. By looking at ancient maps, such as the Madaba mosaic map (circa 550 CE) and the progression of maps included as supplements in editions of the Bible, Shoulson proposed that there was a quiet “desacralization” of the Holy Land. This process “rendered Israel as past” and allowed Christian readers to visualize and supercede that past with their own cultural understanding.
In order to examine this process and the cultural anxiety associated with spaces identified as Jewish, Shoulson pairs a literary and historical approach. He looked to the recurring notion of Zion as a land that continues to retain importance and be contested and searched for representations of that space. He found that physical depictions are overwhelmingly found in early vernacular Protestant bibles. Jewish religious writings of the same time period did not show the same interest in representing the Holy Land. Additionally, the emergence of maps notably intersects with a major shift of ideologies triggered by the Reformation, and also with technical developments for the mass reproduction of maps and books.
Shoulson argued that maps of the Holy Land have much to say about the intersection of cultural and ideology of this period. We can unlock this complex relationship by looking at how each map chooses to depict the geographic space and its religious context, where the maps appear, and where they are notably absent.
Our last BUJS Forum of the year took place on April 27 in the Elie Wiesel Center library. Our speaker, Dr. Rachel Gordan, joined us to speak about how Judaism rose to prominence as a major American religion in the 1950s and 1960s, even becoming known as “America’s third faith.” The forum was titled after her forthcoming publication, How Judaism Became an American Religion. In her lecture, she argued that “middlebrow culture” played a considerable role in the growth of the cultural understanding and prominence of Judaism during this post-war period.
After the war, due to the devastation of the Holocaust and the fact that many American towns had a small population of Jews, there was a common misconception that Judaism was “no longer a living faith.” Middlebrow American literature worked against this misconception by simultaneously presenting Judaism as a living American religion and educating Americans about Jewish culture. “Middlebrow” writing, which was generally understood as “white, middle-class, and conservative in its values,” became a vehicle for this conversation.
Gordan noted that “the term ‘middlebrow’ did not appear until after 1920,” and came to mean “something blandly conventional.” However, in the earlier part of the 20th Century it developed as a distinct social strata of professionals, managers, and cultural workers. Most scholarship has examined the “highbrow” contributions of writers such as Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud. Middlebrow authors such as Herman Wouk and Laura Z. Hobson have received comparatively little notice despite, Gordan explained, the ability of middlebrow culture to “announce Judaism to a mainstream public.”
Although Gordan mentioned a number of authors whose work could be considered middlebrow writing, she focused primarily on the work of Wouk and Hobson. In 1955, Wouk published a bestselling novel titled Marjorie Morningstar, which tells the story of a Jewish woman who was portrayed, remarkably, as an “American every-girl.” Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly starred in a movie adaptation three years after its publication. In the movie and the book, the American public witnessed Jewish holidays and events, such as a Passover Seder and a bar mitzvah, depicted as both American and middle class. Similarly, Hobson’s 1947 novel Gentleman’s Agreement clearly attempts to depict Jewish characters as “normal” Americans, combatting the common caricature of Jews in media as dishonest or scheming figures. Hobson’s vision, Gordan argued, suggested that “simply knowing someone was of Judeo-Christian origin was sufficient reason for respectful treatment.” Although such a standard is outdated by today’s understanding, it was an “imaginative leap toward integrating Jews into America’s national project” at the time of publication.
Our text this week is Wiesel’s 1964 The Gates of the Forest, first published in French and translated to the English in 1966. This novel, set at the beginning of World War II, follows the struggle of a seventeen-year-old Hungarian Jew, Gregor, who is hiding from both Nazi and Hungarian forces in a cave in the forest. Gregor meets a mysterious stranger, Gavriel, who saves his life. He eventually leaves the cave and hides in the village below, posing as a deaf-mute; and, later, seeks refuge among the Jewish resistance fighters. Although woven together as a single narrative, the work is episodic, with each symbolic encounter or scene revealing the identity crisis that Gregor (and by extension, the Jew, in particular the surviving Jew) is now faced with. The passages we will share this week reflect the lessons that that Gregor learns: from the ghosts of his past, from Gavriel, and from his own survival.
In 1962, Elie Wiesel published the final part of his Night trilogy, the novel DAY. The book first appeared in French as Le jour and in English as The Accident. Like Dawn, Day addresses the struggle of the Holocaust survivor to dwell in the world of the living while feeling a ceaseless pull toward the world of the dead.
The novel opens on the streets of New York City where the reader is let into the mind of the protagonist, a young journalist who has survived the death camps but suffers deeply from his experiences. As he walks to the theater with his girlfriend, Kathleen, he is struck by a passing taxi and badly injured. While in the hospital, feverish and in agony, the young man is tormented by thoughts of the damage that his post-Holocaust trauma has caused to both himself and those close to him. When he realizes that his stepping in front of the taxi might not have been an innocent accident, but instead a deliberate flirtation with death, he is forced to face the question of whether he can choose to forge a relationship with life despite the weight of his suffering.
While a fictionalized account, Day draws from Wiesel’s experience of being in a bad automobile accident in 1956 in which he suffered 48 fractured bones and was wheelchair bound for a year. It also reflects, as do Night and Dawn, his struggle with a God whom he raged against yet could not reject.
Beyond Sartre and Adorno: Jean Améry’s Radical Questioning of Jewish Identity and Philosophy in the Wake of the Shoah
What the Shoah has left philosophy with is a failed transcendence. The writings of philosopher Jean Améry in response to his experiences of the Holocaust do not focus on ideology, nor do they focus on the incomprehensible theological meaning behind this destruction. Rather, they focus intensely on the issue of identity. In our second BUJS Forum of the fall 2016 semester, Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein (Philosophy, College of the Holy Cross) led us through a riveting discussion of Jean Améry and his contributions to the question of Jewish identity after the Holocaust.
The quotes of Jean Améry’s that Dr. Bernstein used throughout the presentation were from a highly embodied and visceral perspective. Speaking about what it means to be a Jew, Améry wrote that, “For me, being a Jew means feeling the tragedy of yesterday as an inner oppression.” He then goes on to directly point to his body and writes that, “On my left forearm I bear the Auschwitz number; it reads more briefly than the Pentateuch or the Talmud and yet provides more thorough information.” With poignancy and depth, Dr. Bernstein addressed how radical this statement is when considered in parallel to Deuteronomy 6:5-9 (Sh’ma Y’Israel) – one of the most important passages to Jewish tradition which directly asks Jews to bind G-d’s instructions “ as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.” Améry inverts this relation and instead points to the stark reality that being Jewish is being inscribed with a punishment, and one that is marked for death.
Dr. Bernstein continued to explain that in Améry’s view, not every Jew is capable of thinking out the relationship between Jewish identity and the historical event of the Shoah. It thus can no longer be a question of tradition, but of grappling with a negative identity. This negative identity, Dr. Bernstein argued, goes much deeper than Jean Paul Sartre’s definition of a Jew in his 1946 book, Anti-Semite and Jew, in which he states that a Jew exists only because the Anti-Semite invents him. Rather, Améry drew closely the concepts of identity and dignity to assert how fate is taken upon oneself as a choice for a Jew. And this choice comes with the decision to revolt against the loss of dignity in a world of indifference, despite any historical distance that exists between the Jew and the Shoah. Following the talk, Dr. Bernstein’s presentation served as a unique source of reflection for the highly engaged audience on the inexhaustible lessons of history for the current state of world affairs.
You can view more images from the event at our Facebook.
Professor Leora Bilsky joined us on March 15 for our third BUJS Forum of spring semester to give a lecture on the challenges in international law when facing restitution for Jewish communities in cases of cultural genocide. Bilsky is the William and Patricia Kleh Visiting Professor in International Law as supported by a grant from the Israel Institute. She previously published a book that examines the role of major trials in Israel, called Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity (2015), and also has an upcoming publication, The Holocaust, Corporations, and the Law: Unfinished Business (2017), that calls for the accountability of major corporations in cases of human rights violations.
Bilsky said genocide must be “understood as more than mass murder” because “the notion of group harm is fundamental to the concept of genocide.” Genocide is therefore not only the destruction of individuals, but also an attack on group identity, which can be seen in the prohibition and appropriation of cultural and religious objects and structures. Bilsky cited the example of how the Nazis targeted Jewish books, libraries, and archives during the Holocaust. The international legal community then faced an unprecedented legal question: How should restitution of cultural objects, many of which were heirless, be implemented?
International law was not prepared for the scale and complexity of legal issues that would arise from this question, Bilsky explained. When it came to restitution of cultural objects, the standard was to return any property to its state of origin. The state would then govern distribution with its own domestic property laws. However, the international community clearly failed to consider a situation in which the state participated in the persecution of its own citizens. Additionally, the concept of restitution was focused on the economic value of objects, which failed to consider the importance of cultural value.
Jewish jurists and cultural groups fought to create a new notion of restitution that would be forward-looking. To do so, they had to establish the Jewish people as a legal entity that might speak on behalf of Jewish victims as a collective. During the 1950s, a radical collectivized restitution was granted that allowed such organizations to act as trustees for the Jewish people, which petitioned for the cultural objects to be put back into use in Jewish communities throughout the world. However, this view of restitution was considered an exception and was not made a legal standard. Bilsky suggests that this concept of moving past ideas of the individual and state towards acknowledging collectives, groups, and organizations would enrich the legal imagination and better equip international law to handle situations of genocide.
After the lecture, Bilsky took questions from the audience, who asked about how one might apply new understandings of restitution to contemporary non-Jewish contexts, the impact on Jewish culture, and regarding further historical information. Both the lecture and discussion provided those in attendance with a thoughtful perspective on the workings of international law in cases where there is collective cultural harm.
This week marks the first anniversary of Professor Elie Wiesel’s death on July 2, 2016 (26 Sivan 5776). Thus far, our retrospective has taken a chronological approach to the works of Professor Wiesel, beginning with the autobiographical Night and moving on to his first novel, Dawn. This week, as we reflect on the richness of his inspiring life, we break with our approach and turn to two recently published memoirs. All Rivers Run to the Sea was originally published as Tous les fleuves vont á la mer in 1994. A second volume, And the Sea is Never Full, was originally published as Et la mer n’est pas remplie in 1996. Professor Wiesel took these titles from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) 1:7. “All streams flow into the sea / Yet the sea is never full; / To the place [from] which they flow / The streams flow back again.”
Why do you think he chose this verse, and that image, for his title?
Today, in addition to the quotations we plan to share throughout this week, we add this particularly inspiring passage from All Rivers Run to the Sea―a mediation on the phrase “and yet.”
“And yet. Those are my two favorite words, applicable to every situation, be it happy or bleak. The sun is rising? And yet it will set. A night of anguish? And yet it too, will pass. The important thing is to shun resignation, to refuse to wallow in sterile fatalism” (16).