Leonard Rosmarin

Author and Speaker



Posted by leonardrosmarin on January 19, 2017 at 9:35 AM


Back in 1998, I had the pleasure and the honor of interviewing Elie Wiesel for a book that I was in the process of completing on his works of fiction. During the course of our conversation he confirmed what I had surmised from reading his Memoirs, namely, that without the traumatic experience of the Holocaust he probably would have never become a novelist. As he assured me, after traversing the interminable night of flames and horror, he needed to create imaginary destinies in order to see more clearly within himself

His first great text, Nuit, or "Night" (1958 , is not a novel per se. It is rather a heartbreakingly terse account of the year he spent with his father in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Yet it explains why he absolutely had to write works of fiction afterwards in order to free himself from that emotional and spiritual hell. "Night" resembles the book of Exodus unfolding backwards. Whereas the brutally oppressed Hebrew slaves, once liberated by Moses, could look forward to a future as free men and women, the Jewish community in the town of Sighet, at that time part of Hungary, were enjoying a peaceful, reassuring existence until the Nazis dragged them into an unspeakable nightmare. When young Elie emerged from captivity, he was a living corpse and his soul had been stripped of all of its religious fervor.

Writing novels eventually became the only way for him to thrash through this incomprehensible tragedy and seek out solutions that would restore his faith in mankind and replenish his spiritual oxygen. At the beginning of this journey, the first two solutions his heroes hit upon are illusory ones. In the novel L'Aube, or "Dawn" (1960), the young man Elisha embarks on terrorism to help create the state of Israel, even though he knows full well that by committing murder he is violating one of Judaism's founding principles, the sacredness of human life. In the next work, Le Jour or "Day" (1961), the hero imprisons himself in an asphyxiating worship of Holocaust martyrs.

Beginning with the next two novels, despair gives way to hope. The heroes of La Ville de la chance, "The Town behind the Wall" (1962), and Les Portes de la forêt, "The Gates of the Forest" (1964), succeed in moving beyond the Holocaust without ever forgetting it. Michael breaks free from his isolation thanks to friendship and is drawn towards his fellow-man in a surge of fraternal love. Grégor opens his heart more and more to compassion, embodies the messianic ideal and reconnects through it to the faith of his childhood. These tendencies becomes even more marked in the novel that follows, Le Mendiant de Jérusalem, "A Beggar in Jerusalem" (1968 , one of Elie Wiesel's finest works on which I will now dwell. During the course of this narrative, the hero becomes acutely conscious of participating in a spatio-temporal continuum that transcends normal time, and commits himself to a splendid mission: safeguarding the centuries-old memory of his people.

Elie Wiesel didn't intend to write Le Mendiant de Jérusalem immediately after Les Portes de la forêt. He was thinking, rather, of devoting a novel to the dilemma of the Jews in the Soviet Union. But then there occurred very stressful historical events over which he, as a writer, had no control. In 1967 the Six-Day war broke out. Like many Jews, during the weeks that preceded the conflict, the author's heart was weighted down with anguish. He feared another Holocaust. The Arab armies enjoyed a crushing numerical superiority. The western nations remained passive. But for once, the worst didn't happen. The Israelis' incredible intrepidness, unconditionally supported by Jewish communities around the world, ensured the survival of Israel. Inspired by this completely unexpected reversal of a situation the consequences of which had appeared as tragic as they were unavoidable, Elie Wiesel composed Le Mendiant de Jérusalem at a dizzying speed.

As the author readily admits, this novel of his is the most difficult to decipher. It is neither a novel nor an anti-novel, neither a work of fiction not an autobiography, neither poem nor prose, but here Wiesel navigates between all these forms without restricting himself to any one of them. Narratives, lyrical outburst, aphorisms, conversations, newspaper reports and parables follow one another at a breathless rhythm. Behind this chaotic surface, however, the novel has a strong organic unity based on two main themes. The first encompasses the text itself. It is the mystic solidarity that links Jews both as individuals and communities across time, space and legends. Hence the author's need to expand the framework of the conventional novel in order to suggest this centuries-old continuum which takes root in the imagination as well as in history. The second theme is orchestrated within the first. It evokes the death in the figurative sense and self-regeneration of a Holocaust survivor who was trapped in a tragic past.

If these two themes undergird the novel, they in turn derive their raison d'être from the city of Jerusalem itself. A spiritual centre of gravity for religious Jews from time immemorial, a fabulous realm where history and legend become inseparable, Jerusalem is surrounded by an extra-temporal aura. As an adolescent, the hero, David, dreamt of the city long before he could contemplate it. He wanted very much to emigrate there as soon as the Jewish communities in Central Europe were threatened by the Nazi scourge. Supported by his mother, he had entreated his father to take the whole family to the Holy Land before they would become the victims of Hitler's final solution. But as an unconquerably optimistic humanist, his father refused to believe that even Nazis could act so barbarously. David was the only one to remain alive after the Second World War and to make that trip.

According to the hero, all Jews come to Jerusalem as beggars. They are embarked on a quest for spiritual plenitude necessary to fill the void in their existences. Some of them don't even have to search very long to find it. Since they inhabit the holy city, they are convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are connected to the fourth dimension, that of legend which encompasses all centuries. From the point of view of common sense, these beggars resemble the mentally sick. They gorge themselves on illusions the way a dope addict gets high on drugs. They float around in a state of mythomania with hair-raising ease. Yet on the poetic level, the conduct of these crazies is not devoid of meaning, and David empathizes with them. By believing literally that they are on intimate terms with the great personages of the Bible, by proudly proclaiming that they have lived in every era of the Jewish people's history, they show their unconditional solidarity with their coreligionists.

Thus Zalman the beggar astounds a young Israeli aviator by maintaining that he discussed military strategy with two legendary biblical heroes, Yehuda, leader of the Maccabees, and Bar Kochba, the fearless warrior who revolted against Rome. One of his comrades, Schlomo, just as insane, relates a conversation he had with Jesus, warning him against the monstrous perversion that future Christians would make of his message of love, and predicting, to Christ's horror, that his crucifixion would eventually bring about untold tragedy for his fellow-Jews.

The connection of these beggars and of the Jews of the Diaspora to the city of Jerusalem is reinforced on the eve of the Six Day War. Their anxiety for the survival of Israel is all the more intense because they have long memories. They remember that thirty years earlier, Hitler's irresistible rise to power was accompanied by the cowardly and hypocritical silence of the western powers. They remember God's immobility during that period, His inability to defend his people when they faced systematic extermination.

David, just like his creator, Elie Wiesel, is troubled by a sinister premonition concerning the security of Israel. By means of short journalistic reports incorporated into the narrative, Wiesel demonstrates that the many appeals to Israel for caution and patience launched by the major world powers dissimulated their hypocritical cynicism and their intention of allowing the Jews to perish yet again. They would shed tears over the fate of the Israelis only when the tragedy of the latter was consummated.

Fortunately, 1967 did not completely resemble 1940. The author does not fail to emphasize that something essential had changed in the Jewish mentality in twenty-seven years. The Israelis of the new generation would not allow themselves to be led to the slaughter. Moreover, the Jews of the Diaspora were galvanized in favour of their brothers and sisters in danger. The narrative describes the tidal wave of sympathy and solidarity that flowed over Israel on the eve of the conflict, as though the Jewish communities dispersed throughout the world had suddenly become one, were speaking with one voice, and were sharing a unique identity: "Writers and artists, impoverished students and easy-going merchants, believers and atheists, all found themselves in the same camp, carried along by the same wave. As a result, each one realized he was responsible for the collective survival of all, each one felt threatened, targeted."

At the very moment that the Diaspora is galvanized, the hero senses within himself a resurgence of moral energy. Running parallel to the narrative of the victory that the state of Israel achieves over enemies determined to destroy it, is another story: that of David's liberation from a past that was suffocating him and preventing his self-reconstruction. He becomes a new being capable of welcoming the future and experiencing joy. Before the outbreak of the Six Day war, this survivor of the death camps felt he was a prisoner, just like other characters that Wiesel created, of a traumatic past. At various points in the novel he evokes episodes from that period which left an indelible imprint on his consciousness. He remembers the day when his father, one of the leaders of the Jewish community in a central European city, came home looking haggard, after a meeting with the Nazi authorities, and announced the dreadful news that the convoys taking his coreligionists to the concentration camps would be leaving the next morning. He also recalls Iléana, his non-Jewish lover who sacrificed her own life to save him during the occupation. Finally, after Jerusalem has been liberated by the Israeli army, David, as though hallucinated, sees his mother and little sister, tortured by thirst, just as they were the day of their deportation thirty years earlier, walking past the Wailing Wall. This sorrowful past he drags behind him explains his irreducible pessimism. If he has come back to Israel on the eve of the conflict with the Arab states, it is to die while fighting alongside his people, so persuaded is he that the world will allow another catastrophe to happen again, that the Jewish nation is condemned to disappear.

This epic struggle for Israel's survival to which David commits himself will transform his existence. He meets a soldier named Katriel. The latter relates to him a strange parable that keeps reverberating in his consciousness. At first the story arouses his anger. Later on, it will help him understand himself better. According to the story, a man leaves his home to seek out adventures and a magical city. At night he sleeps in a forest, and in order not to take the wrong path, turns his shoes in the direction he is to follow the next day. During the night a prankster turns his shoes in the opposite direction. Thus, when the traveler reaches the city of his dreams the following day, it bears an astonishing resemblance to the one from which he had just departed. He enters a home that looks exactly like the one he used to live in, finds there a woman and children who seem the very embodiments of the family he thought he had left behind. When they entreat him to stay, he is so moved that he agrees.

This story plagues David. Even though it sounds familiar to him, he can't recall where he had heard it. He begins to understand the distress the parable has touched off within him when he remembers what a beggar had said to him at one moment in his childhood: "Remember, little one, that the day someone tells you your story, you will not have much longer to live." This warning will be repeated twice more in an elliptical form by two other beggars, the last repetition occurring just before the end of the novel. The story Katriel had told him forces David to take cognizance of the fact that he is perhaps that traveler. Even though he survived the concentration camp hell, he is still its prisoner. His tragic past remains an integral part of his present life and is devouring it. The David in 1967 has still not acquired existential density. He has never left the dead, and the dead have never left him either: "The living person that I was, that I thought I was, had perhaps lived a lie; I was only the echo of voices silenced long ago. As a shadow, far from the other shadows, I was still bumping into them day after day, these were the ones I was deceiving, the ones I was betraying by moving forward. I thought I was living my life, I was only inventing it. I thought I could escape from the phantoms, I was simply extending their power. And now, it was too late to change directions." When he hears the third warning, on the verge of getting married, David fully understands the meaning of the parable. The death that was prophesized for him was not physical in nature but figurative. The David who was still a prisoner of the death camps long after being liberated physically from them, finally leaves his past behind him without, however, forgetting it, and the new man he has become can now recommit himself to life and love.

Discarding his pessimism, David now plugs into the centuries-old history of his people as though it were some kind of spiritual hydro-electric power station capable of revitalizing his existence, and composed of fabulous legends as well as real events. Hence the indescribable emotion he experiences once he reaches the Wailing Wall. These remnants of the Temple symbolize the whole body of Judaism's spiritual and ethical values. As a result, the ancient stones of this legendary piece of architecture represent an urgent invitation, indeed an exhortation, to every man and woman to realize his or her potential for nobility and beauty, of which the extrapolation to the infinite coincides with the presence of God Himself.

Because of the legends and the exalting aspirations invested in it, the Wall transcends the present to encompass all epochs. On contemplating it, David feels he is suspended between reality and a conscious dream. He finds it perfectly natural at that particular moment that all those for whom Judaism signified the ceaseless struggle to make humanity constantly more human, should be standing in front of these venerable stones. As he tells us, "The kings and the prophets, the warriors and priests, the poets and thinkers, the rich and poor who, throughout the ages, everywhere, had begged for a little more tolerance, a little more brotherhood: here is where they came to speak about it." And adding to his sense of astonishment, he suddenly sees--or imagines that he sees-- the unburied dead from the extermination camps joining all the others in front of the Wall. Far from crushing the living under the weight of their reproaches and terrorizing them as they had done in the novels "Dawn" and "Day," these martyrs had also come to help defend Israel. Just then David is startled by a stunning vision: a biblical prophet explains to him that Israel won the war because the ranks of its army and people were suddenly increased by six million more names.

Consequently, the breakthrough glimpsed in the novel "The Gates of the Forest" has now become an immense, open perspective. The Holocaust survivors can henceforth move definitively out of the moral tunnel where they risked asphyxiation. The dead have become their allies. Remembering them no longer means being imprisoned in a tragic past. Safeguarding the memory of the dead can give the living the courage to make a renewed commitment to life and love.

Obviously, the Judaism of his childhood was instrumental in saving David from despair. But one can sense yet another reason that is present in filigree within the text. It is never expressed explicitly. It is, however, everywhere: an elemental will to live. And so in conclusion, I would like to quote the words of another great Franco-Jewish writer, Liliane Atlan, for whom Elie Wiesel had great admiration. What she says could serve as an epigraph for "A Beggar in Jerusalem": "There are times when the burden of one's pain seems so overwhelming that one feels life can no longer go on. Yet it does go on. And that, perhaps, is the greatest miracle of all."


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Reply gorik534645nep
6:59 PM on March 15, 2017 
An on-line video on the site leonardrosmarin.webs.com
Reply Prometheus
6:08 PM on April 14, 2017 
Creating the imaginary to deal with the horrors of reality seems to have been a way for Elie Wiesel to cope with having survived the Holocaust. His readers are all the more enriched because of this. Professor Rosmarin explains this brilliantly.
Reply Winston
6:09 PM on April 14, 2017 
Professor Rosmarin reflects on Elie Wiesel's writing with poignant and compelling insights. A pleasure to read.
6:04 PM on April 15, 2017 
Thank you so much for your lovely comment. It is deeply appreciated