Elie Wiesel: A Retrospective, Week #3

11174This 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).

Passage #1:

If only I could recapture my father’s wisdom, my mother’s serenity, my little sister’s innocent grace. If only I could recapture the rage of the resistance fighter, the suffering of the mystic dreamer, the solitude of the orphan in a sealed cattle car, the death of each and every one of them. If only I could step out of myself and merge with them.

If only I could hold my memory open, drive it beyond the horizon, keep it alive even after my death.

I know it isn’t possible. But what of it? In my dreams the impossible is not a Jewish concept. (5)

Passage #2:

Joseph edited my translation and told me he was ready to teach me. He soon became my professor of literature and political science, explaining that Yiddish had its own grammar and idiosyncrasies, with countless nuances and as many pitfalls. “If you want to hold the reader’s attention,” he said, “your sentence must be clear enough to be understood and enigmatic enough to pique curiosity. A good piece combines style and substance. It must not say everything—never say everything—while nevertheless suggesting that there is an everything.” (164)

Passage #3:

The day I stop writing, what shall I be? I still have so many stories to tell, so many subjects to explore, so many characters to invent or reveal. I am still tormented by the same anguish: Notwithstanding all the books I have written, I have not yet begun. But then I write them in order to understand as much as to make myself understood. (355)

Passage #4:

And yet. One must wager on the future. To save the life of a single child, no effort is superfluous. To make a tired old man smile is to perform an essential task. To defeat injustice and misfortune, if only for one instant, for a single victim, is to invent a new reason to hope.

Oh yes, I know: it is not always easy to hope. Also, hope can become a trap whose victims are as unhappy as victims of despair. I came up against this problem when I was writing THE FORGOTTEN, which I had trouble finishing. I did not want to leave my young protagonist Malkiel faced with total despair. In all my novels I try to open or at least to indicate a path not toward salvation (does it exist?), but toward encounter, with the Other and also with oneself. In THE FORGOTTEN, the old hero, Elhanan, deprived of his memory and aware of the incurability of his disease, no longer has any hope of human contact. Who could possibly succeed in making him smile one more time? I saw no solution to the problem and kept the manuscript in a drawer for several months. Then very early one morning, as I was working, I heard my young son in the next room. And suddenly the solution was clear. I needed to help perform a transfusion of memory; as Elhanan’s diminished, Malkiel’s would be enriched.

At a certain age one becomes attached to certain words. I now love the word “transfusion.” (403)

Passage #5:

“Remember,” the Book commands us. In my tradition, memory does not set people apart. On the contrary, it binds them one to the other and all to the origins of our common history. It is because I remember where I came from that I feel close to those I meet on the way. It is because man is capable of transforming his burdens into promises that he lives them fully. That is why to live without a past is worse than to live without a future. What would our civilization be if it were stripped of its memory? Memory is more than the sum of images and words, cries and deeds; it is even more than an individual or collective identity; it is the bond that ties us to the mystery of the beginning, this nebulous place where man’s memory is reflected in God’s. (406-407)

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