More of Elie Wiesel's quest for truth

November 21, 1999|By Hans Knight | Hans Knight,Special to the Sun

"And the Sea is Never Full," by Elie Wiesel. Alfred A. Knopf. 384 pages. $30.

This is the story of a man haunted by ghosts, and driven by a mission: To give voice to those who can no longer speak, to lend vision to those who no longer see. They are the special victims of the Holocaust.

Of all the survivors, of all the witnesses, none has jolted the world's often somnolent memory more implacably than Elie Wiesel. "I am fascinated by everything that touches on memory, its mystical force," he writes in this, the second volume of his autobiography. "Memory is the key element in my work and my quest ... It is to me what poetry was to Aristotle. More than history, it contains Truth ... To write, to teach and share. Without it, what would I be? Without it, life has no meaning."

Wiesel's turbulent life, chronicled in a style now Talmudic, now reportorial, offers a vivid picture of a gifted and tormented crusader in a righteous cause.

Born in a small Romanian town, he begins an odyssey that leads to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where most of his family perished. After the war, he works as a journalist in France. Over the years, he writes dozens of books. He becomes and international celebrity. In 1986, he wins the Nobel Peace Prize.

He roams the world as an eloquent advocate for human rights, carrying his message to the Soviet Union, Cambodia, South Africa, Japan, Bosnia. He sups with world leaders of every stripe and often crosses swords with them. In Moscow, he comforts Mikhail Gorbachev as the Russian is toppled from power. In Poland, he lambastes Lech Walesa for "de-Judaizing" the Holocaust. He breaks his long friendship with Francois Mitterand when, shortly before the French president's death, he is appalled to learn of his dealings with a Vichy police chief who helped deport Jews to death camps.

Most spectacularly, he scolds Ronald Reagan right in the White House for placing a wreath at the Bitburg military cemetery which contains the remains of SS men. He is rightly outraged when the President compounds the moral gaffe by saying that the SS were victims as much as those who died in the Nazi camps.

Clearly, Wiesel, the soft-spoken intellectual, comes across as a passionate, relentless fighter for his convictions. To get your attention, he does not tap you lightly on the shoulder. More likely, he drags you by the scruff of the neck. Revered by many, he is derided by some. In Israel, some have questioned his dedication because he chose not to live there. In America, some Jewish leaders have criticized him for "making waves."

Among his most deplorable conflicts is his feud with Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who champions the "brotherhood of all victims" while Wiesel insists on viewing the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish catastrophe. Two great men, linked by a mutual quest of remembrance, divided by mutual disdain.

But, never mind, as he is fond of saying. Above dissonance, Wiesel's song is a hymn against hate. It resonates with deep humanity.

At 71, Elie Wiesel teaches at Boston University. His students should listen well. The rest of us too.

Hans Knight, a former reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin and editorial writer for the Harrisburg Patriot News, was a translator at the Nuremberg trials for the U.S. War Department. His free-lance writing is widely published in the New York Times, The Sun and other publications.

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