By Jeff Burns
Recently, the world mourned the passing of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel. At age 16, Wiesel was liberated from the Buchenwald concentration camp. His Romanian family perished in the Holocaust. Wiesel survived and dedicated his life to educating the world about the Holocaust and to being a champion for the oppressed around the world. He wrote 57 books over the course of his 87 years. Here are a few of my favorites, and I hope to re-read some of these soon.
Many of us are familiar with his first work, Night, published in 1960. It is commonly read in high schools, and, if everyone had to read one book about the Holocaust, it would have to be this one. Night is Wiesel’s memoir of his “life” in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Only about 120 pages, it is one of the heaviest books you will ever read. Many people do not know, however, that Night is the first work of a trilogy, and the other two books are just as powerful. Dawn is the story of a young Holocaust survivor and Jewish guerilla fighting for independence in British Palestine. Day centers on the death of a Holocaust survivor in New York City. All three books poignantly explore life, death, guilt, brutality, inhumanity, and humanity.
Wiesel’s two-volume memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full, takes the reader from his childhood memories of his Romanian village through his career as spokesman for humanity.
The Gates of the Forest tells the story of a Jewish teenager who is the lone survivor of his family, wandering through caves, forests, and villages, seeking some sort of order or explanation. The Town Behind the Wall follows a Holocaust survivor as he returns to his home village in Hungary, now behind the Iron Curtain. As he finds himself imprisoned as a spy, he grapples with the bystander question: what did the people of his village do as the Germans deported their Jewish neighbors to death camps? The Trial of God is a play, set in a Ukranian village in 1649 following a pogrom in which almost all of the Jewish residents had been murdered or driven from their homes. A traveling group of actors arrives at an inn, and the Jewish innkeeper demands that they put God on trial for abandoning humanity.
Has God abandoned humanity? How can God allow things like the Holocaust to happen? How can human beings so cruel and brutal? How can human beings stand by as brutality happens? How does humanity – and individual humans – survive such experiences? How can such things be prevented? These are all the questions that Wiesel addressed in his writing, and we would be hard pressed to find a better “spokesman for humanity.”