1939: Mihail Sebastian’s Bucharest
IN MEMORY OF ELIE WIESEL
[Note by Tom Gross]
(This dispatch doesn’t concern the Middle East and might not be of interest to many on this list. It is a follow-up to the dispatch: Elie Wiesel RIP: “And the World Remained Silent”.
There continues to be some really horrendous defamations of Elie Wiesel on twitter and elsewhere made by extreme left wing (and presumably self-loathing) Jews such as Max Blumenthal, to the extent that Hilary Clinton’s spokesperson last week felt the need to put out a statement condemning Max Blumenthal (who, like his father, had been an advisor of Hillary’s, albeit an informal one).
The French writer-philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy has written an interesting obituary of Elie Wiesel. It is attached below.
I also attach a piece from Britain’s former Labour Party Foreign Secretary (Foreign Minister), published in The Guardian on Saturday: “My hero: Elie Wiesel by David Miliband”.
(This is the same once-per-week “My Hero” series in The Guardian that my father was also featured in when he died.)
REMEMBERING IOSEF MENDEL HECHTER (MIHAIL SEBASTIAN)
But before that, I would like to draw attention to another Romanian Jewish writer on the Holocaust, Mihail Sebastian, who deserves to be much better known (if only in order to explain the world into which Wiesel was born).
Mihail Sebastian was the pen name of Iosef Mendel Hechter, who died in May 1945, aged 38. (He survived the war but died in an accident.) He has only been translated into English relatively recently and is still largely unknown.
Sebastian’s “Journal,” say his admirers, is at least as important as Victor Klemperer’s diaries. And American novelist Philip Roth wrote that Sebastian’s “Journal” “deserves to be on the same shelf as Anne Frank’s Diary and to find as huge a readership.”
Sebastian’s novel “For Two Thousand Years” is also being widely praised. As Paul Bailey points out in The Guardian’s review of it earlier this year:
“The Jews, [Romanian intellectual circles] contested, were responsible for all the ills besetting their beloved country – communism, syphilis and homosexuality being among the most prevalent… It is thanks to his brother Benu, who secreted the unpublished journal in the diplomatic pouch of the Israeli embassy in Bucharest when he emigrated from Romania to Israel in 1961, that Mihail Sebastian is now regarded as one of the foremost chroniclers of the rise of Nazism in civilised Europe.”
Reviewing For Two Thousand Years, in the New York Review of Books (May 26, 2016), John Banville writes:
“The wonder of it is that Sebastian’s ‘Journal’ is not only an invaluable historical document, fully as significant as the diaries of Victor Klemperer and Anne Frank, but also a beautifully shaped and subtly executed work of literary art. Never has the savagery of which human beings are capable been recorded with such insight, style, gracefulness, and, amazingly, humor… In the annals of anti-Semitism, Romania holds a particularly egregious position In a pogrom in 1941, Jews were herded into an abattoir and hanged by the neck on meat hooks. A sheet of paper was stuck to each corpse reading: ‘Kosher Meat.’”
Also in the New York Review of Books, (October 4, 2001) Peter Gay writes:
“Romania’s history is essential to understanding Sebastian’s world, since anti-Semitism was a birth defect from which the country still has not recovered... When a larger Romania emerged after World War I, xenophobia only tightened its grip on educated Romanians... The Iron Guard introduced assassination into Romanian politics – its killings were carefully planned, and carried out in cold blood.
“The record of unrelenting persecution continues, all the more telling for the coolness of Sebastian’s account. Jews are forbidden to fly the Romanian tricolor or the German flag; they are ordered to donate their sheets, pillows, shirts, pajamas, and the like to the government, “without explanation, without warning.” In August the Jews living in some cities must wear the yellow star… Jews, even in Bucharest, must give up their telephones; Jewish children are expelled from schools.
Some of Sebastian’s friends assure him of their sympathy. “Madeleine Andronescu on the telephone,” he notes the next day:
“You make me ashamed, Mihail. I feel ashamed that you suffer and not I, that you are being humiliated and not I. Whenever I see a Jew, I feel an urge to go up and greet him and to say, ‘Please believe me, sir, I have nothing to do with all this.’”
Sebastian refuses to take any comfort from such remarks. He writes:
The tragedy is that no one has anything to do with it. Everyone disapproves and feels indignant—but at the same time everyone is a cog in the huge anti-Semitic factory that is the Romanian state.
Whether or not they are staggered or disgusted, they and tens of thousands like them sign, endorse, and acquiesce, not only tacitly or passively but through direct participation. As for the mass of people, they are jubilant. The bloodying and mocking of Jews have been public entertainment par excellence.
Below I attach Bernard-Henri Lévy’s tribute to Elie Wiesel.
-- Tom Gross
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“THE REBBE’S STUDENT”
The Humble Nobility of Elie Wiesel
By Bernard-Henri Lévy
July 5, 2016
It begins in a world now gone, lying at the borders of Ruthenia, Bukovina and Galicia, forgotten places that were the glory of the Habsburg Empire and of European Judaism. Seventy years later, all that remains of this world are ruined palaces, empty Baroque churches and synagogues leveled and never rebuilt. And now it has lost one of its last witnesses: Elie Wiesel.
Wiesel survived the obliteration of this world, and from it fashioned a second birth, devoting his life, in fear and trembling, to resurrecting those who perished. That, for me, is what stands out in the life of the author of Night and Messengers of God.
In the years after 1945, Wiesel rubbed elbows with the greatest of the great. He garnered the same vast, worldwide, enduring admiration as Yehudi Menuhin. But he never stopped being that yehudi, that ordinary Jew, that survivor whose heart would pound as he passed through customs in New York or Paris.
Wiesel set himself one task, at once impossible and categorical: to become the living tomb, the cenotaph, of the beggars of Sighet, of the comically clumsy ghetto Hasidim, and of the countless campmates who had, in the face of God’s silence, chanted the Kaddish for their own passing. For this, he had only his tongue, and not even his native tongue, but the French that he learned in an orphanage for deported children at age 15 – and later turned into his violin. Without Wiesel, there would have remained no trace of countless lives reduced to ash and smoke.
I do not know if Wiesel was a “great” writer. But I am convinced that he, like Benny Lévy, another friend, believed that a Jew of his type does not come into the world to pursue literature as a profession.
Wiesel’s work has neither the inaccessible sublimity of Kafka, nor the paradoxically lofty power of Proust. It perhaps lacks the laconic grace of Paul Celan, who wrote that, in the country they shared, one finds nothing but books and men.
But he is one of the few to have spoken the unspeakable about the camps. He shares with Primo Levi and Imre Kertész – how many others? – the terrible privilege of having felt six million shadows pressing against his frail silhouette, in an effort to gain their almost imperceptible place in the great book of the dead.
His other great virtue, perhaps, is having ensured, through his work and henceforth in the minds of those inspired by it, that the dark memory of that exception that was the Holocaust will not exclude – indeed, that the Holocaust requires – ardent solidarity with the victims of all other genocides.
I picture Wiesel in 1979 on the Cambodian border, where I met him for the first time, his familiar mop of hair a jet-black wing hovering over his lean, handsome head. He was the first person I heard theorize on the sad imbecility of those who engage in competitive victimhood, those who insist that we have to choose our own dead – Jews or Khmer, the martyrs of this genocide or that.
I picture him seven years later in Oslo, where I accompanied him to receive the Nobel Prize that he wanted so much. At one point, his face suddenly darkened as if overtaken by an unexplained anxiety. In his expression – which could change in a moment from joy, gaiety and mischievous intelligence to the infinite sadness of one who will never recover from having seen the worst that humans can do – the sadness clearly seemed to have won.
“The Nobel Prize,” he mused. “From now on, I’ll be a Nobel prizewinner, but there is only one title that matters, which is rebbe (rabbi, teacher), and I know that I am not one. I know that I am and will always be no more than the rebbe’s student.”
Then there was Wiesel’s last meeting with François Mitterrand, the Sphinx, the Machiavelli of the Élysée Palace. In their previous encounters, the villager from Sighet and the bourgeois from the Charentes had engaged, icon to icon, in long and deep exchanges that, I believe, may have kindled some mutual affection. Wiesel had the feeling of rediscovering, under the president’s power, something of the priestly concern of Mitterrand’s namesake, François Mauriac, who had taken Wiesel under his wing on his return from Auschwitz and with whom he felt he had helped to mitigate the thousand-year-old strains between Jews and Christians.
But, then, in this last meeting, Wiesel learned, bit by bit, that Mitterrand the Marist prince had blithely gone off to play golf the day his loyal lieutenant, Pierre Bérégovoy, committed suicide, and that Mitterrand had continued, to the very last, to defend René Bousquet, head of the Vichy police and denouncer of Jews. Had Wiesel been deceived or co-opted? He had known court Jews. And now he had been consecrated as an official Jew, seeming to have forgotten the chilling maxim from Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”): “Seek not undue intimacy with the ruling power.” The fathers knew that the temptation of such consecration is a delusion and a trap.
Wiesel’s greatness was to have remained, under all circumstances – one of those humble Jews whom he considered the crown of humanity. His nobility consisted in never forgetting the lesson of the Rebbe of Vizhnitz, even after he had donned the robe of the man of letters, that he bore the burden of those, adorned in caftan and fur hat, who had wanted to be as elegant as the Polish nobles who led the pogroms against them.
And I believe that not a day passed in Wiesel’s long life as a celebrated intellectual, honored by great universities and consulted by presidents, without spending at least an hour poring over a page of the Talmud or the Zohar, knowing that initially he would understand nothing of what he read, but that this was the price of the only true celebration.
This was just what his people had done in Sighet, believing that one day the Messiah would come. And it is what we do today when we grasp that neither Cambodia, nor Darfur, nor the massacres in Syria, nor the need, anywhere on the planet, to drive out the beast that sleeps in man should divert us from the sacred task of saving what we can of memory, meaning and hope.
That is the lesson of Elie Wiesel. May it guide us through a time haunted, more than ever, by crime, distraction and forgetfulness.
MY HERO: ELIE WIESEL
My hero: Elie Wiesel by David Miliband
The writer and Holocaust survivor fought for justice, defending persecuted people of all races and religions. He taught us that the word ‘refugee’ need not be unpopular
By David Miliband
July 9, 2016
I met Elie Wiesel only once, in his New York office two years ago. He had joined the board of directors of the International Rescue Committee in 1985, and continued on our board of overseers. As the new president and CEO, I wanted his advice.
Wiesel remained doughty, passionate, inspiring. “I am a refugee but the word refugee is not popular,” he told me. “But everyone likes the idea of refuge. Fight for refuge. We all need refuge.”
I remember in that moment understanding the often-cited description that Wiesel believed in taking sides – someone who knew what he was for as well as what he was against. He understood, as well as anyone, the power of knowledge and truth in the battle against ignorance. His descriptions of his first visits to Germany, and his meetings with German youth who used education to overcome their own country’s past, are not just moving, they are testimony to an openness of mind even in the midst of the worst memories.
Wiesel’s enduring legacy will not only be his story of survival through the darkest hours of humanity amid the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. But also the inspiration of his lived life: his fight for truth and justice wherever he saw human dignity threatened. His visits around the world with the IRC led him to defend persecuted people of all races and religions.
This fight has never been more needed. Where globalisation should be bringing down barriers, the trend is towards putting them up. Dangerous populism and toxic xenophobia are again on the rise in Europe and the US – but also afflict minorities across the rest of the world. War and insecurity displaced a record 65 million people last year; and the system of international order that upholds peace and security is under threat.
But as much as Wiesel’s life reminds us of what we need to guard against, it also embodies what we must strive to emulate. He was not just a survivor, his story reminds us that when states open their doors to those fleeing persecution, they open their doors to knowledge, creativity and untold potential.
Wiesel’s memories have documented history, and his works have informed a generation. He taught us that, in the face of atrocity and tragedy, morality can prevail; that knowledge and truth are vital in the battle against ignorance and intolerance; and that the word refugee need not be unpopular. That is the lesson of Elie Wiesel.