There’s a passage in a new book about Holocaust scholar and survivor Elie Wiesel that is at once frustrating and satisfying in its ambiguity and anger. It happens when the author, Howard Reich, amid many conversations with Wiesel, asks Wiesel the inevitable suite of questions: Why? Why is human history in part a story of anti-Semitism? Why did the Holocaust happen? Why are Jewish houses of worship targeted for violence today?
“Why do they hate us? Why?” Wiesel replies. “So I know all the answers. In the beginning it was religious reasons. Other times, it was social reasons. They hate us either because we are too rich or too poor, either because we are too ignorant or too learned, too successful or too failing. All the contradictions merge in the anti-Semite. And yet, one thing he knows: He hates Jews. He doesn’t even know who Jews are. In general, I say, the anti-Semite — let him tell me why he hates me. Why should I answer for him?”
Wiesel’s answer glides quickly past the obvious historical and cultural antecedents, and avoids the pat, poetic explanations a lay reader craves, to make a point the lay reader must confront: There is no rational reason for hating the Jewish people, or any people, because they exist. And no justification for the Holocaust or countless other acts of violence and bigotry against Jews, stretching from enslavement in ancient Egypt to last Saturday’s mass shooting at a synagogue in Poway, Calif. In short, Wiesel provides both no answer and the right answer: “Let him tell me why he hates me. Why should I answer for him?”
Reich, a Tribune critic whose parents survived the Holocaust, wrote “The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel,” as part of his own exploration of a dark past he didn’t experience personally. Reich’s parents were deeply scarred by their suffering under Nazi persecution yet sought to shield him from the details. They couldn’t, of course. Reich’s paranoid mother would spend nights in their Skokie home peering out the living room window, scouting for enemies who weren’t there. His father would his share happy, violent nightmares of revenge. “I was killing Nazis good,” he told young Howard. “I was shooting them down.”
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Reich interviewed Wiesel for a 2012 Tribune event, which led to hours and hours of taped conversations over four years. As Reich says, the book is about two generations of Holocaust survivors speaking to each other from opposite perspectives of this cataclysmic event. One experienced the horror, the second was raised amid the active memory of its terror. The significance is that, even if there are no easy explanations to genocide, or solutions, the topic of the Holocaust must be broached, studied and passed down or it risks being forgotten, or refuted.
Wiesel, who died in 2016, wrote more than 60 books, including the acclaimed memoir, “Night.” He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Reich tells us that Wiesel’s interest in cooperating with Reich — Wiesel was an eager interviewee — reflected his commitment to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive. Wiesel said the Holocaust was about the Nazi desire to kill the past and future. “What they really wanted to kill was the children because they carry the Jewish identity forward,” Reich tells us.
Wiesel’s life is a testament to his defiance of the Nazi aim. He wrote about the Holocaust so future generations will understand what happened. In Wiesel’s words, “To hear a witness is to become a witness.”
Anyone who reads Reich’s book will become a witness too.