Elie Wiesel Unpacks New Fruit From His Reminiscences

September 23, 1990|By ARNOLD AGES

From the Kingdom

of Memory Reminiscences.

Elie Wiesel.


213 pages. $19.95.

In more than two dozen novels and nonfiction books, Elie Wiesel consistently stresses two messages. The first is the need to testify, as a survivor, about the Holocaust and the depredations it visited upon the Jewish people. The second is that universalism must be rooted in a parochial experience, in being true to one's origins. Virtually all of his themes are subsumed under these two ideas.

Readers of Mr. Wiesel will recognize in his new book images he has conjured up in previous works -- a pious childhood and adolescence in the Hasidic ambience of Sighet, Transylvania; the seismic changes in his life when the Nazis sent the inhabitants of his town to Auschwitz; Yiddish writers who pledged their troth to Stalin; visits to the Soviet Union, and confrontations with death at the site of concentration camps.

But even the old images reveal their polysemous nature as Mr. Wiesel unpacks new fruit from his reminiscences. During his yeshiva (rabbinical college) days he innocently leafed through a biblical commentary written by Moses Mendelssohn -- and was rewarded for his curiosity with a slap in the face by a disapproving rabbi for having exposed himself to this "heretical" scholar. When he first arrived in the United States in the 1950s, he could not understand why people laughed when he told them he was from Transylvania: Vampire lore was not part of his background.

In reconstructing his past, Mr. Wiesel writes movingly of his love of books and libraries he acquired as a youngster, and notes that the intellectual quarrels among the great Jewish sages of the past coexist serenely on the shelves where books containing their often contradictory views are found. In a section on friendship recalling Montaigne's famous essay, "De l'Amitie," Mr. Wiesel describes the youthful friends he had and tells of an association so tight that its members were oblivious to the sounds of war that were slowly but inexorably encroaching on their hometown -- a war that would destroy not only all his friends but every vestige of the life he knew.

Mr. Wiesel suggests a number of ways in his essay collection on how to continue the work of memorializing the 6 million Jews who perished in World War II. The great Jewish libraries of Yiddish and Hebrew books must be rescued from the East European caches where they have been buried for more than four decades. "Redeem those books," he writes, "and all the others that are waiting to be redeemed in all the formerly Jewish towns and hamlets. Send students to locate them, collect them, dust them -- and bring them back to Israel and the Jewish people, the Jewish pupils to whom they belong."

Mr. Wiesel strongly feels as well that the sites of the Nazi slaughter of Jews in Poland and Russia must be clearly identified that the Jewish victims at least can have their identity restored to them even in death. As for Germany, he reminds us that if the United States could issue an apology to Japanese-Americans, then the German parliament must issue a clear public apology to the Jewish people for the sins of the Holocaust. In fact, Mr. Wiesel made this request during a speech at the Reichstag in November 1986.

Preoccupation with the Jewish fate, far from inhibiting Mr. Wiesel's vision, has enlarged his humanity and sensitized him to the pain of others. In a remarkable section of this memoir, he describes a visit to the border area between Cambodia and Thailand where he had gone with a group of writers, journalists and diplomats to investigate the killing fields of Cambodia.

Finding himself there on the day he was required to recite the annual prayer for the dead in memory of his father, Mr. Wiesel sought among his entourage nine other Jews to help him form a minyan (a quorum). As he finished uttering the "Kaddish" -- the prayer for the dead -- he heard a voice behind him echoing his words. He turned and asked the owner of that voice for whom he was saying the prayer for the dead. Stretching his arm toward the frontier of Cambodia, his colleague answered: "It is for them."

It is well known that the Kaddish prayer contains no references to the dead but affirms rather God's glory and omnipotence because at the time of grief one may be tempted to despair. Elie Wiesel's latest work is also an expression of the struggle against despair in which every one is engaged.

Dr. Ages, of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, is a specialist in modern intellectual thought.

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