For fifty years the sole survivor keeps his oath—until he meets a man whose life depends on hearing the story, and one man’s loyalty to the dead confronts head-on another’s reason to go on living.
One of Wiesel’s strongest early novels, this timeless parable about the Jews and their enemies, about hate, family, friendship, and silence, is as powerful, haunting, and significant as it was when first published in 1973.
About the Author
Legends of Our Time
Written by Elie Wiesel
ISBN (13 digit): 9780307806413
Sales Status Code: EL
Web Content - About this Author: ELIE WIESEL was fifteen years old when he was deported to Auschwitz. After the war he became a journalist and writer in Paris, and since then has written more than fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction. His masterwork, Night, was a national best seller when it was republished in 2006 in a new English translation. Wiesel has been awarded the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor's Grand Cross, an honorary knighthood of the British Empire, and, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1976 he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:September 30, 1928
Place of Birth:Sighet, Romania
Read an Excerpt
No, said the old man. I will not speak. What I have to say, I don’t care to say. Not to you, not to anybody. Not now, not tomorrow. There is no more tomorrow.
Once upon a time, long ago, there was a small town with a mysterious past, a black stain under a purple sky. Its name in Hungarian was Kolvillàg, Virgirsk in Russian and Klausberg in German. Nobody knows what the Romanians called it, or the Ruthenians, the Ukrainians and the Turks, all of whom, at one time or another, were its rulers.
Don’t look for it on any map, in any history books; it isn’t there. Too unimportant to occupy even a modest place. A regrettable oversight, particularly since it seems irreparable. I should know. Painstaking, detailed research over many years had yielded few clues, few points of reference; not enough to endow it with any semblance of objective reality.
Casual references to Kolvillàg are to be found in five places. Three of these are rather surprising.
One of the letters the Austro-Hungarian colonel Turas von Strauchnitz dispatched to his spouse is dated Kolvillàg, April 4, 1822. Unfortunately, the officer, though a keen observer and expansive by nature, did not take the trouble to explain what he had come to do or discover there: not a word about its citizenry, its homes or local customs.
Klausberg is also mentioned in the correspondence maintained by the Scandinavian theologian Jan Saalbor with an obscure Romanian monk—Father Yanku—of Transylvania: “Could you, my venerable friend, do me a great service? It is a matter of some importance to me to know whether the castle of Virgirsk, better known as the Mute Mountaineers’ Monastery, was built in the tenth or the thirteenth century.” The monk’s reply, if reply there was, has not been recorded. And for the benefit of anyone interested, I should like to add that the monastery in question still stands. Its collection of icons is well worth the journey. On the other hand, nothing in its archives indicates even the slightest kinship with Kolvillàg, Klausberg, or even Virgirsk.
That the hamlet attracted prominent travelers we know from Abraham ha-Katan who, in his Diary (Oppenheimer, ed., 1847), praises its hospitality: “I understand that one might wish to spend a Shabbat here. The merchants, though shrewd, are honest; the women, though charming, are devout; and the children are turbulent but respectful. In Klausberg the stranger will never feel unwelcome.”
Evidently a sage named Yekutiel ben Yaakov must have held court there in the sixteenth century, since his opinion is quoted in the collection of Responsa of the famous Rabbi Menashe, with regard to an abandoned woman—an aguna—who anxiously wished to remarry in order to discourage the local squire who pursued her with his infatuation.
Finally, we come across Kolvillàg in the writings of the great poet Shmuel ben Yoseph Halvi, whose litanies form part of certain liturgical services for the High Holy Days. This is what he tells us: “On the fifth day of the month Heshvan in the year 5206, a frenzied mob ransacked the holy community of Virgirsk. All the children of Israel, beginning with the three judges, were lined up in the marketplace, facing the church. There, under the eyes of an amused populace, they chose to die rather than renounce their faith. By nightfall three hundred and twenty corpses lay strewn across the marketplace stained with blood—and there was nobody to bury them.”
There are the scant bits of information I succeeded in uncovering about this ill-starred town. And so I shall know it only through the voice of its last survivor. His name is Azriel and he is mad.
No, said the old man, I will not tell the story. Kolvillàg cannot be told. Let’s talk of other things. Men and their joys, children and their sorrows—let’s talk about them, shall we? And God. Let’s talk about God: so alone, so irreducible, judging without truly understanding. Let’s talk about everything, except . . .
I had met him one autumn afternoon. I remember, I shall always remember. The sun was setting, red and violent. I thought: This is the last time—and the thought made me sad. Then I said to myself: No, not so. It will rise again, as always, perhaps forever—and that thought too made me sad.
Where do I come from? You are a curious young man. Do I ask where you are from? Oh well, today’s youth respects nothing and nobody; and worse, even boasts about it. In my day old age conferred certain privileges. The closer man came to death, the more consideration he received. The oldest man was the most privileged; people would rise as he passed, solicit his advice and listen in silence. Thus he would feel alive and useful, a part of the community of man. Today things are different. You consider old men embarrassing, cumbersome, fit only for the old-age home or the graveyard. Any means of disposing of them is acceptable. They are a nuisance, those old people. You find their presence an unbearable burden. It is the Bible in reverse: you are prepared to sacrifice your parents. In my day, in my country, men were less cruel.
Oh yes, I am old—four times your age—but fortunately I have nobody in the whole world, which means that nobody wishes me dead . . .
Yes, I come from far away. From the other side of oceans. From the other side, period. Driven from my small town, somewhere between the Dniepr and the Carpathians, a town whose name will mean nothing to you.
A small town, like so many others, a small town unlike any other: a handful of ashes under a glowing red sky, its name is Kolvillàg and Kolvillàg does not exist, not any more. I am Kolvillàg and I am going mad. I feel it, maybe I already am. There is, deep inside me, a madman claiming to be me. Kolvillàg is what drove him mad.
Don’t ask me how it happened, I have no right to divulge that. I promised, I took an oath. With the others, like the others, Bound by oath as much as they. True, I was the youngest, but age is irrelevant. I was present at the conspiracy, I participated in it. And now it is too late: I shall not go back on my word, It ties me to a destiny that is not mine; it belongs to that part of me that yearns to remain faithful unto death, unto madness, faith to the madness which consists in declaring over and over: It is too late, too late.