“That is my major preoccupation, memory, the kingdom of memory. I want to protect and enrich that kingdom, glorify that kingdom and serve it.” – Elie Wiesel
“I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember. No other people has such an obsession with memory.” – Elie Wiesel
My father didn’t like Elie Wiesel.
The Nobel Laureate passed away over the weekend, which I spent with extended family. As an introvert who prefers one on one interactions, gathering en masse is not something I regularly do. Since the poolside reunion celebrated many anniversaries and birthdays in the group, I considered saying nothing about Wiesel. Except I wanted to check that memory of my father with my brothers. That’s not something I usually do, either; many memories are largely personal and subjective and aren’t necessarily shared. Yet, the three of us were in the same place so I made a new choice.
There is a story about a group of blind men who touch an elephant to learn what it is like. Each one feels a different part, but only one part, such as the tail, trunk or leg. They then compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement. In a way, my brothers and I were like those blind men with our elephant father. He didn’t always share the same stories with us and, given our disparate temperaments, we picked up on (or chose to see or not see) different aspects of his being. Perhaps we all wore different colored glasses when we considered him; mine were rosier than the pair my older brother wore. In addition to my father being a complicated and occasionally cantankerous elephant, there was another, more massive elephant in the room. The loss of my father’s family in the Holocaust loomed large and ominous to me. I didn’t address it head on, because who in their right mind charges an elephant? One tiptoes around such a large mammal and tries not to disturb it. It could roar or let loose a large dump. I wasn’t sure which would be worse, provoking my father’s agitation because he didn’t want to talk or having him unleash so much pain it would overwhelm me.
I asked my younger brother if he remembered why our father didn’t like Elie Wiesel. I wasn’t sure if my father had shared this opinion with me alone or if he had trumpeted it to the family. My younger brother confirmed that our father did not speak highly of Elie Wiesel’s focus on the Holocaust. I asked my older brother. To paraphrase, he thought our father disliked Wiesel for turning survival into a soap box and making a name for himself.
If Mr. Wiesel’s stature stung my father, perhaps it’s because they were so close in age, my father just 18 months younger. They both grew up in Hungarian speaking Jewish communities a few hundred kilometers apart, less than half a day’s drive today. The Nazis deported them and their families to Auschwitz in May 1944. Upon arrival at the extermination camp, inmates told each young man to claim that they were older than they actually were so they would be selected for work, not death. Both teenagers lied about their ages and lived to tell about it. Both dwelled in Paris after the war. Both emigrated to the United States. Both had wild hair — jet black in youth that whitened over time — that they either refused to tame or which refused to be tamed.
The obvious similarities stopped there. Wiesel became a prolific writer and speaker, if not the face of the Holocaust. My father, although fluent in Hungarian, English and Yiddish, and proficient in French and Spanish and Hebrew, and despite being able to complete the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in one sitting, had trouble expressing himself in writing and speaking from the heart. After he died, I discovered amongst the haystacks of papers he left behind pencilled drafts of letters to me and others. Even with mundane topics, he crossed out words and entire lines as if painstakingly finding the right combination, perhaps concerned about how an imperfectly phrased note would be received. I imagine that some letters never made it into envelopes and into the hands of the intended recipients. Having spent many hours staring at a blank page or screen, a jumble of words stuck in my chest, clogging my throat or jamming my neural circuitry, I am familiar with the struggle to communicate in writing. The challenge of writing is that it’s almost impossible to be satisfied with it in the moment. A feeling lurks that it could be more elegant, concise, moving, clever or insightful. Yet, spending too much time can rob writing of its immediacy and energy. To write is to invite unease. To not write also invites a slightly different unease.
Perhaps my father found himself caught in that Catch-22 of writing even though, as a physics professor, he didn’t consider himself a writer. He had many stories he could have told, stories that maybe he believed he needed to write because Elie Wiesel, with a similar personal history, had done just that, setting an expectation. That my father largely kept his wartime experience private while his peer became an eloquent spokesman probably provoked discomfort along with irritation at what he might have perceived as Wiesel’s self-aggrandizement. It’s possible, as my older brother suggested, that my father envied Wiesel’s success. Or, I’d add, envied his ability to communicate. Putting on my rosier glasses, I see something else. Wiesel’s prominence and obsession with memory perhaps impinged upon my father’s attempt to enjoy life in the here and now and not regularly revisit a horrific childhood. My father didn’t want “Holocaust survivor” to be affixed to him publicly like the yellow stars forced upon Jews or to have the past either define him or eclipse his actions in the present. He didn’t want pity or to be the object of morbid curiosity. Despite repeated requests, he declined to be interviewed for the Steven Spielberg Film and Video archive at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Whether that’s because he feared an emotional breakdown on camera or refused to participate in such a ritual to preserve his sense of self is anyone’s guess; perhaps a little of each. Silence became his cloak, if not of invisibility, then of normalcy (except his Einsteinian hair gave him away). On the few occasions he spoke to groups about the Holocaust, he emphasized the loss of the culture and way of life rather than the particular horrors he witnessed and suffered. Perhaps those broad contours formed the spine of the elephant, the only part he was willing to run his fingers across. I wanted him to touch the whole thing, including its tongue and teeth, and tell us in detail about it. I wanted him to create some coherence around the unimaginable so that his particular past could come fully into the light rather than remain shrouded in mystery, a mystery he believed would be protective.
If Elie Wiesel represented excess to my father, he was the rock bottom bare minimum for me. Why didn’t everyone, my father included, shout from the rooftops or directly into people’s faces that if humans didn’t clean up our psyches, more of us would suffer gruesome, untimely deaths? Why weren’t we all conspiring around the clock about ways to stave off catastrophes which, in my mind, constantly lurked around the corner? As a teenager, I wanted Americans to drop their pursuits of individual happiness and instead make sure that the planet was safe before we could enjoy ourselves. How could people go to movies and amusement parks and baseball games and shopping malls and laugh at sitcoms and obsess over which jeans made their butts look the sexiest when fellow humans were being persecuted or killed elsewhere? Wiesel gave voice to my confusion and simmering moral outrage. That his presence seemed to puncture the optimistic if not superficial bubble of American culture, a bubble I observed with a mix of envy and disdain and didn’t know how to inhabit, reassured me.
It’s sobering if not heartbreaking that Elie Wiesel passed away when xenophobia and fascism are again on the rise in Hungary, Western Europe and even in the United States. Had his many books, speeches and appearances fallen on deaf ears? Had his Nobel Prize been a prestigious drop in the bucket? Or had his considerable efforts dampened the amplitude of the waves of hate that continue to wash upon the globe? Though I am not a naturally optimistic person, I want to believe that he made a difference, a difference that’s up to each of us to continue however we can. Still, in searching for photos to accompany this essay, I barely saw any of Mr. Wiesel smiling. It seemed as if his deeply creased visage had become a droopy mask of near perpetual sorrow, if not a personal brand. Maybe what fundamentally irked my father, a sensual man who delighted in ribald jokes and a gamut of earthy pleasures, was Wiesel’s embodiment of suffering.