Leonard Rosmarin

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CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND JUSTICE IN ELIE WIESEL'S THE FIFTH SON

Posted by leonardrosmarin on January 29, 2016 at 4:10 PM


When Jews assemble to celebrate Passover, they direct the service of gratitude towards the God of Israel with the help of a little book of prayers and legends called the Haggadah. One of the stories narrated concerns four sons of the same family and their attitude toward the question to ask about the relationship between God and His people. The first son understands the question and accepts its consequences. The second understands it but refuses to assume his responsibilities. The third remains completely indifferent toward it. As for the fourth, he does not understand it at all. But what about the fifth? The fifth is not present in the Passover narrative, but for the father, Reuven Tamiroff in Elie Wiesel's novel, The Fifth Son, he is more alive than the child in flesh and blood seated at the table by his side. Herein lies the tragedy that is tearing apart the heart and soul of this former inmate of a Nazi death camp. Herein lies as well the tragedy of his son born in the United States after the Second World War, and who is the narrator of the novel. It is significant that we never know the first name of this main character. The omission is deliberate. Elie Wiesel wishes to emphasize that his hero lacks a distinctive sense of self.


The reader must get through two thirds of the book before discovering the identity of the absent and enigmatic child to whom the one born after the Holocaust has been subordinated. Only then does he/she realize to what extent that child dominates the text. indeed, Ariel, the six-year old brutally executed by an SS officer remains omnipresent. We meet him at the very beginning of the book in a series of poignant letters that his father, Reuven Tamiroff, addresses to him. The power the child still exerts over this man, beyond the grave, explains the secret sorrow that had been torturing the latter for over twenty years. The quest for identity anxiously and desperately undertaken by the son born in the States after the horrors of the death camps becomes fully understandable only in relationship to the little brother he will never know, but for whom he feels, as do his parents, a lacerating tenderness.


The extreme skillfulness of Elie Wiesel as a storyteller consists in making us aware of the narrator's dead brother, Ariel, at the very beginning of the narrative while maintaining our uncertainty about Ariel's identity. But the author is not interested essentially in keeping up our suspense. We realize retrospectively that this delay is indispensable in order to focus the novel on the parents' moral torment and the anguish of their living son fortunate to have been born after the nightmare they had endured. A barrier gets thrown up between the narrator and his parents. The narrator is instinctively conscious of it without being able to put his finger on the cause of his malaise. The discovery he'll make much later of the phantom prowling around within the minds of his father and mother will represent the last piece of a puzzle reconstructed with great difficulty. It will prompt his bizarre decision to take justice into his own hands in order to exorcize the curse that had been hovering over his family for so long. And so the novel traces the narrator's spiritual itinerary and growth from the moment he determines to satisfy his curiosity about his parents' past to the time he vows to punish the former SS officer responsible for their tragedy, and indirectly, for his as well. While evoking the fight the hero wages to acquire a personal destiny, Wiesel orchestrates a very grave and moving meditation on crime, punishment and justice.


Between the narrator and his father are woven some very complex emotional strands. He adores Reuven Tamiroff, yearns to get closer to him, but always comes up against an invisible wall. This is because Reuven Tamiroff is not at all eager to open up. Indeed, he cannot pour out his heart. A terrible secret deprives him forever of the joy of sharing the intimacy of his soul with another human being. His son finds him all the more fascinating because of the auro of tragic taciturnity and opaqueness in which he envelops himself. As soon as the narrator broaches the subject of the war, Reuven Tamiroff withdraws into himself. As his son notices with resignation: "He wouldn't budge. He would become distant. Subjugated by a great sadness from the past in which mingled an unnameable anguish. All right, I would give up right away. I would change the subject, thinking: I'll try next time."


Walled up thus in his sorrow, Reuven Tamiroff never stops ruminating over his tragic past and, as a result, never ceases to disconcert, fascinate, exasperate or deeply trouble his living son. The unnamed protagonist of the novel strives to lead a normal adult life, first as a university student, then as an intellectual. But it appears that the main and even obsessive purpose of his existence consists in breaking through the silence surrounding his father, in ferreting out the secret that the latter persists in wanting to repress. Only when these conditions are met will the son be able to put an end to his emotional disarray and become an individual with his own distinctive existence. Since he suffers so much from an event that he never lived, he feels he absolutely must get to the bottom of it in order to exorcize it once and for all.

 


Before crossing the threshold of adolescence, the hero must be content with secrets relating to his father's past that come to him in fits and spurts. During one Passover dinner, Reuven Tamiroff's close friend, Simha, urges him not to treat his living son like the fifth son of the Haggadah and to talk to him about his past. Sensitive to his argument, the father begins telling his son about the beginning of his briliant career as a scholar and university professor, his progressive de-judaisation in the name of social conformism, and the renewal of his faith under the spiritual tutelage of a rabbi. On the eve of his son's Bar-Mitzvah, he opens up his soul to the latter by describing the ambiguous feelings he still has about having made the decision with his wife to start a new family life in the States after the war. Having survived the horrors of the Holocaust, the Tamiroffs deemed it necessary to create life to ensure that Hitler did not triumph over the Jews beyond death. But having brought their son into the world in New York, the narrator's father continues asking himself the same anguished question. He wonders whether he and his wife had the right to crush their child under the weight of an accursed past simply by engendering him.


The protagonist will discover only much later under exactly what kind of curse he has been living. When Bonchek, a friend of his father from the time of the Ghetto, enters his life, light is finally shed on many shadowy zones. Bonchek remains in awe of Reuven Tamiroff, and he loves to talk. Reuven's son is an insatiable listener. Thus he learns about unsuspected aspects of his father's character: his exceptional kindness that borders on saintliness, his intrepidness in situations that would shatter even nerves of steel, his consummate talent as a diplomat in the face of the sinister SS commandant.


But this information, however precious it may be, does not really help the son build a bridge between himself and his father. In fact, the repressed anger the young man feels on coming up continuously against his father's wall of silence explodes at the end of the 1960's. Swept up in the whirlwind of systematic confrontation like so many people of his age at the time, the narrator revolts against the father whom he nevertheless worships, and goes so far as to accuse the man of being responsible for his wife's nervous depression. No doubt the son seeks in this way to heap guilt upon himself, and suffer horribly in order to share, albeit indirectly, the pain of his ungraspable father. That road leads nowhere, just like his attempt to better understand Reuven Tamiroff's soul by experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs.


The big breakthrough, however, comes only when the living son who feels unloved discovers by chance the series of letters written by his father to Ariel. The question he asks of this man normally so withdrawn, "Who is Ariel", provokes an emotional cataclysm in the latter. The son sees his father cry for the first time in his life. Obviously, these tears betray the incurable wound already mentioned. This time, however, the father's sorrow will be life-giving, because his son's question tears him away from an ossifying past. No longer enclosed within his terrible secret, he can at last pour out his heart to another human being. His emotional growth, arrested for decades, can finally resume. Having shown himself to be vulnerable, he can henceforth receive the filial love the narrator brings him in a sudden surge of compassion. Knowing that his distraught father needs him, the narrator agrees to assume the identity of the child who perished in the death camp. The very moving dialogue that follows marks the new stage in their relationship:


-Ariel, my little Ariel, he said whispering like some guilty, unhappy child.

-Yes, father, I replied.

His eyes became misty, his breath became heavier as he repeated:

-Ariel.

-Yes, father.


Through his father's sorrow, the living son not only draws closer to him but becomes, in turn, obsessed by Ariel's killer. The narrator had learned about the sinister commandant by listening to Bonchek's stories. But now there is an essential difference. Beforehand, the SS officer, nicknamed by his victims "The Angel of Death" had just been for him the tormentor of the oppressed Jews in the ghetto of Davarowsk. At present, he is the sadistic murderer of his little brother. The hatred he feels toward this German whom he never knew, galvanizes him. When he finds out that the man who was called Richard Lander is still alive under the name of Wolfgang Berger, a desire for vengeance takes on the proportions of an "idée fixe". Even more, the narrator sees in this craving for revenge the opportunity to liberate himself from his father's tragic past and acquire his own destiny. In a letter that he, too, writes to Ariel, he describes this new sense of exaltation that has overcome him: "In truth, hatred attracts me. The Angel attracts me. I need to hate. Hatred seems to me an immediate solution; it blinds, it inebriates, in short: it gives me a purpose".

 


But who is this former Nazi commandant reconverted into the president of a large German corporation and a philanthropist under a new identity? Is he a third-rate actor puffed up with conceit and ferociously egocentric? Is he pure Evil devoid of the slightest sentiment of pity toward his victims in the ghetto? He is rather a narcissist rotten to the core with cynical opportunism and endowed with a remarkable ability to adapt to new situations. When the circumstances were favourable during the Second World War, his sinister narcissism was embodied in the role of an SS commandant. He could at that time use the terrorized Jewish prisoners as magnifying mirrors that sent him back the ultra-flattering image of an unlimited diabolical power. In front of his powerless prisoners, he could delude himself into thinking he was a god. Did he not proclaim himself the God of Death in relation to the Jewish inmates? After the war, circumstances having changed radically, Richard Lander recycled himself into a respectable and honoured citizen of a formerly reviled country that now strived to present a brand new moral persona to the world. The narrator's tour de force will be to unmask the hypocrite, to strip him of his trappings of civic and moral respectability, and to reveal him as a piece of filth.


But once Reuven Tamiroff's living son has the former SS commandant in his power, why doesn't he assassinate the latter? After all, he had sworn to himself to avenge Ariel and the Jews in the ghetto of Davarowsk. His decision to spare the former Angel of Death can be explained in part by the impulsive and vacillating temperament he inherited from his father. There comes a moment during his conversation with Berger where the narrator is on the verge of committing murder. If Berger had tried to justify his sadism before Ariel's living brother, he would have been killed right on the spot. But the narrator's impulsiveness provides only a partial explanation. The profound motive that prevents him from murdering the former Nazi is his Judaism. Despite half-hearted attempts at acting the rebel of the sixties, he remains attached to the faith of his ancestors. Now, according to the Jewish faith, every human life is infinitely precious because God has created it. He alone has the right to make a decision on an individual's fate. Consequently, man is forbidden from transgressing the divine Law by putting himself in its place. Even if one transposed this Law on a purely metaphorical plane, it would still signify that killing was strictly forbidden in order not to debase the human being.


The theme of justice, indissolubly linked in the novel to those of crime and punishment, manifests itself for the first time after the Angel of Death orders the massacre of two hundred Jews in the ghetto. Rabbi Aharon-Asher is adamantly opposed to the act of vengeance planned by Reuven Tamiroff and his friends. Citing Jewish law, he reminds them that the guilty person must be judged by a court of twenty-three members. In addition, the accused has the right to defend himself. About thirty years later, at the very moment the protagonist is getting ready to fly to Germany to commit the assassination, Rabbi Tzvi-Hersh of New York refuses to bless him when he guesses the young man's intentions. From now on, this theme of justice will acquire a magnificent orchestration. Reinforcing and even going beyond the words uttered by Aharon-Asher in 1942, Tzvi-Hersh solemnly declares that the Torah forbids murder in all circumstances. Naturally, the Old Testament teaches us that we have the right to kill someone who wants to threaten us with death. But that does not give us the right to put an end to the life of a person who seems threatening to us. It is necessary first to prove that our aggressor really intends to murder us, and how can one plumb the labyrinthine depths of the human heart to ferret out the motive that impels him to act? Even if a man utters threats, they are perhaps only verbal and psychological.


When the hero arrives in Germany, this issue of judging others is formulated with a renewed intensity. Despite his determination to remain fair-minded, he has trouble overcoming his antipathy towards and distrust of the nation that had been responsible for his family tragedy as well as the extermination of six million of his fellow-Jews. His ambivalent attitude is revealed first in his reaction to a German woman of about thirty, called Thérèse, whom he encounters on the train taking him to Reshastadt where he plans to kill Berger. He acknowledges the validity of her reasoning when she protests against the world's tendency to tar all Germans with the same brush, whether or not they participated in Hitler's diabolical scheme and however young they may have been when the Holocaust occurred. Nevertheless he politely rejects her attempt to express her sympathy to him. And while he awaits his connecting train at Graustadt, he has a bizarre, dream-like vision. He imagines himself present at the funeral of a German who is a total stranger to him. For reasons that escape him, the widow of the deceased invites the narrator to deliver the eulogy. She showers praise on the young Jewish man, declares that he is the only real friend her husband ever had and insults, one after another, all of the people who had known the dead man for a long time. But as soon as the narrator announces to the crowd that he is Jewish, the people forget the widow's insults and become a solid mass of hostility.


He finally confronts Ariel's killer in an atmosphere of profound uneasiness. Having succeeded in passing himself off as an American journalist eager to do a story on Reshastadt, the hero has no trouble getting an interview with the former SS commandant who has recycled himself into a model citizen. On reading the beginning of the novel where Ariel's living brother relates his failed attempt to assassinate Richard Lander alias Wolfgang Berger, the reader would be inclined to believe that this weird venture has been an abysmal failure. The narrator seems to despise his vacillating nature, his congenital inability to carry out to the very end a plan that had been so close to his heart. When he gets back on the train to return to the States, the Angel of Death is still alive. But as one remarks at the end of the novel, Wolfgang Berger will never be the same again. On the moral level, Ariel's brother has achieved a splendid triumph. His vengeance has been exemplary.


Having come as an emissary of the Jews massacred in the ghetto as well as of the little brother he never knew, the narrator arouses in Wolfgang Berger an emotion he was not used to experiencing: fear. Fear of being unmasked and denounced in the media; fear of being reported to the police as a notorious criminal. A fear all the more terrible because his new identity as a respectable, civic-minded citizen is in danger of crumbling under the weight of his infamous past. But that is not all. By underscoring the abyss separating the sadistic criminal that the respected industrialist had been from his present stature as a citizen above suspicions, the narrator exposes not only Berger's hypocrisy but his cowardice. Lander alias Berger used to take delight in torturing thousands of helpless victims and did not even have the courage to acknowledge his evil. The only thing that has changed in this man from whose soul emanates a stench of death is the shroud of respectability covering it. It suffices to read the narrator's description of the fear encroaching on the former killer's face to realize that he is being executed in the figurative sense:


"As I speak, his facial traits become more pronounced and gaunt, his pallor increases from minute to minute, from one episode to the other. He is afraid, oh yes, the Angel of Fear is dominated by fear, pierced through and through by fear; Death has finally caught up with the Angel of Death. For a brief instant, I feel a mute jubilation rising within me: bravo, Ariel! So now you are capable of inspiring, of inflicting terror! Are you satisfied, Ariel? Are you proud of my deed?"


Having torn off the mask of civic and moral virtue worn by the former butcher, all that is left for the narrator to do is to hurl Berger back down into his spiritual void. And the whole ghetto of Davarowsk will sweep into this void with its thousands of innocents that the sadistic brute thought he had crushed under his boot. This is why Ariel's brother leaves Berger's office without having murdered him, without feeling the slightest hatred or even interest in him. What purpose would have been served by taking his life? The worst punishment for the former Nazi is to have to spend his remaining years in the Jewish ghetto that Ariel's brother has resurrected for him: "The Angel no longer aroused in me either hatred or thirst for vengeance: I had destabilized his existence, refreshed his memory, spoiled his future joys, that was enough for me. He would no longer be able to carry on, or live, or laugh as though the ghetto of Davarowsk had not functioned as a stage for him."


Ten years after his confrontation with the former SS commandant, the narrator draws up the balance sheet of his existence. He considers it "not as a failure but as a defeat". Certainly, his relationship with his father has been reinforced. He feels for Reuven Tamiroff "an undivided love" and accepts being for him the son lost during the nightmare of the Holocaust. Hence his feeling of being incomplete as an individual. Almost forty years after Ariel's death the hero of The Fifth Son remains convinced that he does not have an existence of his own. To this sadness is added his sorrowful awareness that less than twenty years before the twenty-first century, the world has already entered "the catastrophe predicted by George Orwell". But being Jewish, he refuses, like so many other heroes imagined by Elie Wiesel, to succumb to despair. He continues to celebrate life. To continue believing in the coming of the Messiah, despite all evidence proving the contrary, constitutes in itself a kind of redemptive faith. And I will close with the hero's final remark: "The Messiah may arrive too late; he will come when there are no longer any people to save. So much the worse; I'll wait for him nonetheless." Like Elie Wiesel himself, the unnamed narrator of this novel prefers to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.


Leonard Rosmarin

 

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1 Comment

Reply Booklover
4:44 PM on January 29, 2016 
This is a splendid article. It should go a long way in rectifying the perspective on the author. He is known mostly as the author of "Night." Your article proves that he is a great novelist.