“Survivors of hell have an acute focus on the objective. They have little time for pettiness and time-wasting.” — Elie Wiesel
The world lost a great and indefatigable humanitarian this week with the passing of acclaimed author, journalist, academic and human rights activist Elie Wiesel. He was 87 years old.
Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who endured the notorious death camps of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, was also a prolific writer who authored some five-dozen books, both fiction and non-fiction, many of which related to social justice, Israel, the Holocaust and Judaism.
In one particularly moving conversation, Wiesel shared with a friend of mine R’ Simon, how he had basically given up on life after the war and the atrocities, and losses, he witnessed. Even after meeting French author François Mauriac, who persuaded him to serve as a witness and chronicle his experiences, he still felt dead inside and could not bring himself to personally commit to any life-affirming activities. But then things changed.
He told Simon, “I credit your father as being one of the first people who altered my view and attitude to life. Though he, himself, had suffered under Soviet oppression, losing his parents at a young age, your father was a shining example of positivity and celebrating life and its possibilities.”
He paused, took a deep breath and continued: “And then, in the mid-‘60s, your father introduced me to the Lubavitcher Rebbe-Menachem Mendel Schneerson. You father persuaded me to go see him, which I ultimately did. After hours of dialogue and subsequent correspondence, the Rebbe was the one who finally convinced me to marry and build a family. His most compelling argument – which I could not refute – was that the only and ultimate response to Nazi destruction was to build a family and perpetuate the memory of those they wished to obliterate.
“This changed my life, forever. In the single-most important decision of my life, I married Marion in 1969, and, then, in 1972, we had our son – our pride and joy – Shlomo Elisha, named after my father, who perished in Buchenwald,” he said.
Clearly very emotional, Wiesel walked Simon over to the photos on his desk. Pointing to pictures of his son and his grandchildren, he simply said: “Everything is worth this.”
Simon once asked him whether it is true that marching into the gas chambers, Jews would sing Ani Ma’amin [I believe], a heart-stirring melody expressing one’s complete and unwavering faith in the coming of the Messiah, who will usher in a new world order of peace. Wiesel replied that the barracks where the Jews were held was a distance from the death chambers. But very often he did hear the whimpering prayers of the Jews near him. The cry of the Shema (sacred passages), the reciting of Kaddish (mourners prayer), the Shabbat or holiday prayers, and also, the singing of Ani Ma’amin.
“If I may ask,” Simon continued, “How do you explain this devotion? In the face of utter abandonment, of a God who was totally concealed, allowing His people, His children, to be decimated, the Jews had the total right to be angry at God. How do you explain the fact that instead they thanked and prayed to Him, sang His praises and declared their absolute belief that He would redeem them?!”
Wiesel’s response captures his essence: “Things really don’t make sense. Life is mostly absurd. We have seen man at his worst. But for the Jew, insanity is not abnormal. I can’t tell you what was going on in the minds, hearts and souls of the Jews who walked to their deaths. But I can tell you that every single one of these sacred people knew one thing. And they declared it with their prayers and their songs:
“You can take our bodies, but you can’t take our souls. You can take our lives but not our faith. We will prevail. If not today, tomorrow.
If not tomorrow, the next day. If not us, our children. If not our children, our grandchildren. But we will prevail.
“Ani Maamin… I believe with complete faith…”
Dearest Elie Wiesel, you have made your mark. You have served as a child of your father’s and mother’s, and of so many fathers and mothers. You have brought into this world a son and grandchildren – and millions of students, considered to be children as well. You have prevailed, as has the Jewish people. We will live to see the world as promised to us. And if not today, tomorrow.
In 1973, Wiesel composed a cantata titled, “Ani Maamin: A Song Lost and Found Again.” The song concludes with the following verses:
I believe in you,
Even against your will.
Even if you punish me
For believing in you.
Blessed are the fools
Who shout their faith.
Blessed are the fools
Who go on laughing.
Who mock the man who
mocks the Jew,
Who help their brothers
Singing, over and over and
I believe in the coming of
And though he tarries,
I wait daily for his coming.