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These are feverish, convulsive years, woven from aborted at-tempts and exalted renewals. My life now unfolds under the dual sign of change on a practical level and loyalty on the level of memory. Inside me happiness and distress seem to spark a fire that is both somber and luminous. Could it be that I fear happiness?
Notwithstanding my doubts about language, and perhaps be-cause of them, I plunge deeper and deeper into the whirlwind of the words I try to capture and tame. I cling to the notion that in the beginning there was the word; and that the word is the story of man; and that man is the story of God. If praying is an act of faith in God, then writing is a token of trust in man.
I write more than ever. I pause at every page: That which I have just written, have I not said it elsewhere? And I go on writing because I cannot do otherwise.
I have a wife I love, and yet I write not about love but about solitude. I have a home filled with warmth, and yet I write about the misery of the condemned. Around us, our circle of friends becomes larger. I no longer boycott social events with the old determination. With novelists we discuss politics, with politicians we speak of art. Miraculously, I don't suffer from writer's block, the familiar complaint of those around us. Nor is a lack of topics one of my problems.
Madness and laughter are constant themes in my work. Ever since I heard Moshe the Madman and his song, I am unable to free myself of either--nor do I want to.
The mystical madmen of Sighet, the beggars, bearers of secrets--drawn to doom, they all appear in my fictional tales. But I am afraid to follow them too far, outside myself or deep within me.
Sometimes to elude them, other times to confront them, I work; never have I worked as hard: essays on the Bible and the Talmud, analyses of Hasidic tales, novellas, outlines of novels.
Travel no longer tempts me. I prefer to stay at home and study. There was a time when I considered family life an obstacle to literary creation. I was convinced that it was impossible to be both a good husband and a committed writer. Well, I now assert the opposite. For only now do I fully understand the expression Ezer kenegdo, which God uses in the Book of Genesis when He speaks of wishing to create Eve to serve as Adam's "helpful opposition." I owe much to Marion. She knows how to suggest, to correct, to critically evaluate texts and decisions.
Still, extraliterary pressures soon make themselves felt. In fact, they are not always negative.
With Saul Lieberman I continue to study the wealth of talmudic texts; with Abraham Joshua Heschel I share the beauty of Hasidic tales. We visit my sisters Hilda and Bea in France and Montreal. Serious, even tragic events take place in the world, while in my private life I discover the vulnerable but dazzling joy of a man who beholds the first smile of his child.
This may well be the time to open parentheses: This volume is different from the preceding one, both in approach and intent.
Until now I have attempted to narrate mostly that which I see within myself; from here on I am also obligated to turn my attention to those who have been judging me.
If, for me, the first volume is a kind of formative work, the second evolves under the sign of conflict. So do not expect a discreet and passive stance from me. The introvert will yield to the extrovert.
And yet I shall omit things that are too private, too personal. I shall not speak of certain friends and other persons I have met who have marked me, for better or worse, since the seventies. All that I hope to include in a separate volume, "My Masters and My Friends."
On the other hand, I shall break a vow I made in All Rivers Run to the Sea. I shall take a stand against some of my adversaries, those who have, in my estimation, transgressed the limits of dialogue, having chosen obfuscation as their weapon and "demonization" as their goal. In most instances, it is not my person that is targeted. But in others, less numerous, I am the target, either as a symbol of something or as a witness whose testimony is troubling. Of course I have always rejected the notion of myself as a symbol. Symbols can be repudiated or even erased with impunity. Man is something else, a human being, not a symbol.
What I have said earlier I now reiterate: I detest polemics, but there comes a time when Shtika ke-hodaya dami, as the Talmud says, "Silence easily becomes acquiescence."
One must be willing to say no to lies, no to rancor. Will I succeed in being less mean than the mean ones, less perfidious too? I hope so. I have learned not to respond to rudeness. Why stoop to that level? A Master advised me, long ago, never to use a hatchet in my responses.
Let us close the parentheses.
We left off on Tuesday, April 2, 1969, after a wedding ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem; let us stay there one more moment.
We had, in fact, thought of getting married a day earlier, but at the last minute Marion chose to postpone the ceremony by a day: "April first doesn't sound right," she said laughing. "Our friends will think we're not serious."
The day before the wedding is hectic. In Jerusalem one rarely is allowed to rest. Why would anyone call Jerusalem the City of Peace? What an idea! In Jerusalem you are never left in peace, not even on your wedding day. Friends and strangers come knocking at your door without warning, to ask whether you need anything, or whether you would like to meet this mystical merchant in Mea She'arim or that exotic madman near the Wall.
At 6 on Tuesday the telephone rings. It is Teddy Kollek. The dynamic mayor of the city is inviting me to breakfast. Half asleep, I tell him that just like on Yom Kippur, on his wedding day the bridegroom-to-be is forbidden to eat or drink before the ceremony. "Come anyway," says Teddy, "I need to talk to you. It's urgent." With him everything is urgent, since everything concerns his city. In truth is there in all the world a city that lives more with urgency than Jerusalem?
This time the mayor is wrong--our talk could have waited. But he is preoccupied with current events. Who isn't? He seems more so than anyone else, more so than appears warranted. He fears a hostile initiative by the U.N. to internationalize the Holy City. He would like to preempt it by creating a worldwide commission or association for the defense of the universality of Jerusalem. That is his reason for getting me out of bed on my wedding day. I tell him that his idea seems good, but that there is no hurry and, anyway, the name of the association would have to be changed; the one he has in mind is too long. I suggest "The International Committee for Jerusalem." He accepts. Can I go back to my room now?
By now it is after 7, and the ceremony is set for 11 a.m. I need to prepare myself. But no, Teddy is not done with me yet. Now he needs names of important people for this committee. Whom does he have in mind? It's up to me to find them. I run to get my address book; he knows his by heart. At 9 o'clock, he finally allows me to prepare for my wedding. My nephew Steve, Bea's son, joins me in my room. I shave and change my clothes. Twenty-five years later, I shall keep him company his entire wedding day.
An unforgettable Passover: In an ultrakosher Jerusalem hotel, my closest relatives celebrate a Seder conducted by my Master and friend Saul Lieberman. Bea is there with her husband, Len, and their two children, Sarah and Steve; Hilda with her son Sidney. I read the story of Exodus, and Lieberman dazzles us with his commentaries. But I have trouble concentrating. It has been a long and mentally exhausting day. I feel the presence of some, the absence of others. Which weighs more heavily? I think of my last Seder at home, far away.
The telephone does not stop ringing. No, it isn't Teddy again. The callers are colleagues. Every one of them has an idea, a project to propose. A paper on American-Jewish literature? If I am to believe my caller, the cultural fate of Israel--perhaps even the God of Israel--is at stake. I don't have time? Then how about an interview on that very subject? There follow interviews for radio, for a morning paper and an evening paper. Haïm Yavin, a national television star, a young, earnest man who does not as yet know how to smile, would like me to appear on his weekly show. I'm to take questions from four intellectuals, one of them the poet Haïm Gouri, translator of Night. When? The day after tomorrow. It won't take long, he promises. I ask around; my friends think it is a good idea. Very well, let's do it. The questions are easy, the comments typical. The goal of the writer? To testify. To say "Amen," which signifies: "That is how it is, that is how it was." I quote Malraux: "To leave a scratch on the surface of the Earth." All goes well. No trap, no arrow. Not yet.
A few minutes before the end, Yavin decides to provoke me: "What do you feel, you whose mind overflows with memories, when you meet Arab children in the Old City?" What I feel now is the blood draining from my face. Fortunately television is not yet in color; the television audience does not see me blanch. I try not to show my embarrassment as I respond: "It does actually happen that I come across Arab boys and girls. They ask me for money or chocolate. But sometimes they ask for nothing; all they want is for me to look at them. They want the Jew in me, thus the victor, to confront their defeat. And then, in the face of their suffering, their humiliation, I lower my eyes."
The telecast elicits praise and criticism. Moshe Sneh, the Communist member of Parliament, stops me in my hotel to tell me that he approves my words. What he says moves me, for to me he represents a living enigma. How could this Polish Zionist leader, this former chief of the Haganah, this brilliant mind, this fervent Jew, become a supporter of Stalin? Public opinion casts him as a renegade, or worse. I would like to spend an hour with him to question him, to get to know him better, and perhaps to understand him. But I don't dare intrude thus upon him. Will he ever return to his own? Will he ever find his way back to his roots? I know that later he instructed his son Ephraim, a young general and future minister under Yitzhak Rabin, to recite the Kaddish over his grave. Marion and I had intended to stay another week or so in Israel, but we change our plans. Too many people to see, too many places to visit, too many invitations to accept or decline. Here it is just as traumatic to say yes as to say no. Marion reminds me that I am no longer a bachelor and that if I don't wish to become one again on the spot, I had better take her away, anywhere.
Before we leave, we meet with Paula and Noah Mozes, Dov and Lea Judkowski, Ruth and Eliyahu Amiqam (all from "my" newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth). They fall in love with Marion. We pass many pleasant hours. I visit Binyamin Halevy, the Supreme Court justice. We have known each other for some time. His daughter, Ofra, one of the young beauties of Jerusalem, was a friend of Nicolas, my comrade since 1945.
A handsome man, the judge. He has sharp features, contrasting with his warm gaze. He is refined, elegant. I had had several opportunities to discuss with him the two trials in which the Tragedy was central, those of Rudolf Kastner and Adolf Eichmann. Halevy presided over the first and participated in the second. I remember his resounding conclusions about Kastner, the Zionist leader who he said "sold his soul to the devil" in Budapest. And I remember the questions he asked, in German, of Eichmann.
But now I feel like discussing religion with him. For beyond the esteem in which I hold him professionally, he intrigues me as a man. A practicing Jew, he had opened the Kastner trial with his head covered by a kipa. But then suddenly, toward the middle of the trial, he appeared bareheaded. My question: What had precipitated the religious crisis revealed by this act? What had provoked it? A word of the accused, a gesture of the prosecutor, the tears of a survivor? Or perhaps a point made by Shmuel Tamir, former officer of the Irgun and future minister of justice under Menachem Begin?
He does not answer. Instead he asks me a question in strictest confidence. Begin has offered him a seat in the Knesset. What to do? Forsake justice for politics?
Who am I to advise him? The skeptic in me distrusts politics and, even more, politicians. In the end the judge succumbed to temptation. And came to regret it.
The Côte d'Azur. I love that place of bliss. I love the climate, the atmosphere, the free spirit of its inhabitants. We frequently go there to spend a few days or weeks in the small villages around Nice, Monaco, or Cannes. Hours spent reading, walking, listening to music. The saying is true: One can live like God in France--that is to say, not badly at all.
We settle down to spend the summer in a house Marion found in Roquebrune. I am working on The Oath while at the same time preparing my Hasidic lectures. The writer Manès Sperber and his wife, Jenka, spend some peaceful moments with us. I have already spoken of my ties to Manès. I love to listen to him, and he loves to teach. Adler, Trotsky, Silone: He knows so much on so many subjects. Thanks to him, I make considerable progress in oenology. I also owe Manès everything I know about the behavior of mosquitoes, though I still don't know why, even in the middle of a crowd, I remain their chosen target. To console me he says, "It is always the females that bite. And then they die." Of happiness?
Marion has discovered a villa close to ours, "La Souco," where Malraux lived during the Occupation. She would love to buy it. I discourage her, and that's a mistake. I have come to realize often that her instincts are good, her intuition infallible. Had we followed them more often, her husband would be a wealthy man today.
For a change of scenery we drive to San Remo, where Yossel Rosensaft and his entourage of Bergen-Belsen survivors welcome their Israeli, English, and American friends. They sing and laugh, laugh and sing, even as they evoke their dark memories of long ago.
I rise before the others, around 6 a.m., to go down to the Hotel Royal's swimming pool, where the instructor gives me lessons I desperately need. I tell myself that if one day I have a son, it will be incumbent on me, in accordance with the injunction of Rabbi Akiba, to teach him to swim. Best to be prepared. I am a poor student and tend to flee as soon as I hear steps approaching. Consequently I still don't know how to swim.
The past resurfaces. I remember the day when I first discovered the Côte d'Azur. The immensity of the sea at Bandol. My first trip as a journalist. The immigrants who came from the displaced persons camps. A young girl named Inge. My excessive shyness. My first journey to Israel. All that was long ago, in 1949.
Marion is eager to go home. So am I. We must return to New York, where little Jennifer is anxiously waiting for us. Marion's daughter is often sad, but it is easy to make her smile, so easy.
Here I am, a married man, responsible for a family. For the first time, at age forty, I experience daily life with a woman. In the old days, in Sighet, people married at eighteen. A twenty-five-year-old single woman was considered a spinster, and a thirty-year-old unmarried man a confirmed bachelor. What was the hurry? Were they really mature enough to lead independent lives at such a young age? For me, the discovery of life as a couple includes a series of challenges and traps. I must unlearn certain habits, acquire new ones, learn to bring together two sets of friendships, solder two natures, forge a complicity. There are innumerable problems of adaptation. Will love solve them? What is happening to us happens to everybody. The husband seems always to be cold, while the wife insists on turning on the air-conditioning. She can spend hours in a store; he becomes restless after five minutes. He regularly attends synagogue; she hardly ever does. She loves movies; he is immersed in his books and only occasionally "sacrifices" himself and accompanies her to a film. Never mind. They love each other. Even the disagreements are a source of wonder. Doesn't a life in common signify discovery and sharing? Whatever they undertake, they do together, in perfect harmony. Even their trivial and, mercifully, infrequent quarrels are worthwhile: They allow for stimulating reconciliations.
My friends are happy to see me happy. They've had to wait long enough for this. Rebbe Menahem-Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch had often scolded me, quoting Scripture: "It is not good for man to remain alone." Among the letters I received from him before my marriage, there was one in particular that made me smile. Three strong pages on theological topics like "Is it possible to believe without believing in God?" followed by a simple question that he said "has nothing to do with theology: Why don't you get married?" I told him that the question actually had a lot to do with theology. . . .
Saul Lieberman, too, pushed me toward marriage in his own way: by describing to me the often tragic fate of bachelors in talmudic literature. Abraham Joshua Heschel had limited himself to a few allusions. When we returned from Israel, he and his wife, Sylvia, hosted a dinner in our honor. On meeting Marion, he gave her his trust with characteristic warmth. That day, in his wonderfully courtly way, he crossed half the city to find orchids for the new bride.
As for me, I try to remember why I was so fearful of "losing my freedom." Was I afraid to detach myself from the past and its ghosts? Afraid of a stability I confused with complacency? No doubt these fears were real, but they were of secondary importance. Why did I wait so long to create a home? True, I worried about not being able to support a family, but was there a deeper reason, a general lack of confidence in the future?
Back home people would have said that I was waiting for my zivvug, the being who was destined to be mine in the civil registers on high.
Posted August 27, 2004
This is the second volume of Elie Weisel's Memoirs. Much of it deals with his public meetings and at times confrontations with political and religious leaders. It also tells about the new phase of life that began with his marriage, and the birth of his son. He writes movingly about the loss of his sister, and his relation to his family. As it is a chronicle of outer events of great diversity it does not have the moving power of his greatest work. Nonetheless it provides much more of the story of one of the great moral spokesmen of our time- and the Jewish people's most powerful Post- Second World War Voice of Conscience.
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