Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel died over the weekend. He was 87.
Earlier this year I read his book “Night” for the first time. It is a harrowing account of the years 1941-1945, during which time Nazi Germany invaded Hungary and more than 550,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered. While the book is based on Wiesel’s experience and narrated in first person, Wiesel took some literary license in telling his story, so it is not purely a memoir but an attempt to relate, as powerfully as possible, the physical, psychological, and spiritual trauma of the Holocaust experience.
The book recounts how the Wiesel family, following their removal from their home in Sighet, Transylvania, was taken to Auschwitz, where Elie and his father were separated from his mother and three sisters. Following the war Elie reunited with his two older sisters, but he never saw his mother or younger sister again: both were sent to the gas chamber. Elie and his father were later moved to Buchenwald, where the elder Wiesel died from starvation, sickness, and repeated beatings.
“Night” opens by introducing the character of Moishe the Beadle, who in spite of his low position on the social ladder is well-liked by the townspeople, perhaps because of his adeptness at staying out of their way: “He had mastered the art of rendering himself. . . invisible.” It is ironic, then, that it is Moishe who first tries to warn the people of Sighet about what is coming.
But This Is the Twentieth Century
In 1941, Moishe and other Hungarian Jews like him who could not prove their citizenship were first removed from Hungary and then murdered by the Gestapo; Moishe survived only because he was mistaken for dead. He managed to return to Sighet to sound the alarm to his Jewish friends of the danger they were in, but they would not listen, labeling him either dishonest or delusional as they “waited for better days that surely were soon to come.”
Even as horrible rumors swirled of a fanatical leader intent upon exterminating an entire race, the Jews of Sighet would not allow themselves to entertain such a preposterous idea: “Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century! And thus . . .[they] concerned themselves with all manner of things–strategy, diplomacy, politics, and Zionism–but not with their own fate.”
Eventually Moishe gave up the warnings, and Elie’s father rejected his suggestion that they leave Hungary: “I am too old, my son. . . . Too old to start from scratch in some distant land.” When news came that Fascists had taken over the Hungarian government, Wiesel writes, “We were still not worried. . . . it was all in the abstract. It meant nothing more to us than a change of ministry.”
Even when the Germans invaded Hungary, the residents of Sighet reassured themselves they would surely not come as far as their town. When the Germans did just that but nothing too terrible immediately transpired, “the optimists were jubilant: ‘Well? What did we tell you? . . . There they are, your Germans. What do you say now? Where is their famous cruelty?’”
They were to find out.
Evil Can Happen Here, Too
As Americans we are taught, and most of us believe, that there is something special about America. We speak reverently of the independent and pioneering spirit that sparked a new nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” We cherish the “rugged individualism” that enabled us to build a “shining city on a hill.” We think of ourselves as being the most generous and compassionate people on the face of the earth.
This view of ourselves as something unique in history, a nation markedly different from, and superior to, any other, has the potential both to motivate us for good and to lead us into laziness and neglect. For it is in believing too fully in our pedestal that we have the greatest capacity to fall off of it.
The truth is, nothing in the physical or psychological makeup of Americans makes us invulnerable to the rise of institutional evil. We continue to allow among us the atrocity of abortion on demand, with almost 60 million lives ended since Roe v. Wade. The lie that assisted suicide and euthanasia are humanitarian rather than murderously utilitarian acts continues to be pushed. Yet the usual reaction to the Moishes of our day, the ones who warn us that evil is real, ubiquitous, and on the march, is that of the townspeople of Sighet: “No way! That could never happen here! This is America!”
In our politically correct, hyper-sensitive times, the words “Hitler” and “Nazi” and “fascism” have largely become forbidden words. If one points out any similarity, however infinitesimal, between Adolf Hitler and a leader of our day or between Nazi Germany and a modern Western nation, one is typically ridiculed as a kook and chastised for inflammatory rhetoric. Yet it has been less than 100 years since the unthinkable happened. Hitler and his National Socialist party were voted into power by appealing to a nation’s fear, frustration, and pride. If we are serious about those oft-spoken words, “Never again,” we must acknowledge the evil of which humanity is capable and the potential that exists for a free people to give up their freedom.
Elie Wiesel and his masterpiece, “Night,” can teach us many lessons. Foremost among them is that we cannot prevent what we refuse even to discuss. It may well be that a particular comparison and the warnings attached to it are not well-founded. But if we dismiss as crazies and liars everyone who dares to say the words “Hitler” or “Nazi Germany” in discussing the events of this day, we run the risk of failing to heed a Moishe whose warnings we ought to at least give a hearing.
It is said that those who will not learn history are bound to repeat it. To study it we have to talk about it—all of it, even what we might wish to believe could not ever happen again.