Gayle Madwin (queerbychoice) wrote,
Gayle Madwin

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Elie Wiesel

Those of you who recommended Elie Wiesel's books to me in my poll a while back have earned my gratitude. I read two of his books today, Night (an autobiographical account of Auschwitz) and Dawn (a novel about terrorist acts committed in the effort to create Israel), and, particularly in the first one, it seemed as though every page should be framed on my bedroom wall and reread daily, because every page revealed something to me so terrible and profound and hitherto unknown about the human experience. I mean, I was only four pages into the story when I got to this true story of a Jewish immigrant to Hungary, Moché the Beadle, who had been carted off by Nazi soldiers when they came to get all the Jewish immigrants (but not yet the native-born Hungarian Jews), who miraculously escaped and tried to warn the native-born Hungarian Jews of what the Nazis were like:
One day, as I was just going into the synagogue, I saw, sitting on a bench near the door, Moché the Beadle.

He told his story and that of his companions. The train full of deportees had crossed the Hungarian frontier and on Polish territory had been taken in charge by the Gestapo. There it had stopped. The Jews had to get out and climb into lorries. The lorries drove toward a forest. The Jews were made to get out. They were made to dig huge graves. And when they finished their work, the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion, without haste, they slaughtered their prisoners. Each one had to go up into the hole and present his neck. Babies were thrown into the air and the machine gunners used them as targets. This was in the forest of Galicia, near Kolomaye. How had Moché the Beadle escaped? Miraculously. He was wounded in the leg and taken for dead. . . .

Through long days and nights, he went from one Jewish house to another, telling the story of Malka, the young girl who had taken three days to die, and of Tobias, the tailor, who had begged to be killed before his sons. . . .

Moché had changed. There was no longer any joy in his eyes. He no longer sang. He no longer talked to me of God or the cabbala, but only of what he had seen. People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them.

"He's just trying to make us pity him. What an imagination he has!" they said. Or even: "Poor fellow. He's gone mad."

And as for Moché, he wept.

"Jews, listen to me. It's all I ask of you. I don't want money or pity. Only listen to me," he would cry between prayers at dusk and the evening prayers.

I did not believe him myself. I would often sit with him in the evening after the service, listening to his stories and trying my hardest to understand his grief. I felt only pity for him.

"They take me for a madman," he would whisper, and tears, like drops of wax, flowed from his eyes.

Once, I asked him this question:

"Why are you so anxious that people should believe what you say. In your place, I shouldn't care whether they believed me or not. . . ."

He closed his eyes, as though to escape time.

"You don't understand," he said in despair. "You can't understand. I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. Where did I get the strength from? I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So that you could prepare yourselves while there was still time. To live? I don't attach any importance to my life any more. I'm alone. No, I wanted to come back, and to warn you. and see how it is, no one will listen to me. . . ."
That's on page 4, and the book only keeps getting more powerful from there.

As for the second book, Dawn, I truly do not believe I will ever again read any article about Israel's oppression of Palestinians without thinking of it. Nothing he writes can make the behavior of the Israeli government right (nor would he want to - he wouldn't have won the Nobel Peace Prize if he were interested in justifying brutality); but it does make the wrongs much more comprehensible. People who speak of Israel as just another nation of white colonizers, like the U.S. and Canada and Australia and all the rest, previously seemed to me to be oversimplifying a little, but now they seem to me to be outright absurd. The fact that two instances of killing cause equal pain to the victims does not make it useful to draw any comparisons between them if you want to understand why they happened and prevent them from happening again. The motivations are different. White colonizers who founded the U.S., my ancestors, killed Native Americans and African-Americans in order to get rich. White Jewish colonizers who founded Israel killed in order (I think, after reading Elie Wiesel) to convince themselves that they would no longer be the ones destined to be killed. I don't mean that they feared being killed by Palestinians; I mean that they feared being killed by Nazis, and that to kill somebody else, anybody else, even somebody completely innocent, was a way to feel that it wouldn't happen to them anymore. Not a morally acceptable way, you understand. Just . . . a way. (The book isn't even actually about killing Palestinians at all, but rather about killing an individual Englishman who posed no threat, so I'm reading between the lines a bit here. Nonetheless, the motivations Wiesel describes seem to me like motivations that would also apply to killing Palestinians.)

I was very struck, yesterday, by a line from an article about Dennis Rader, the BTK serial killer. Former Wichita police chief Richard LaMunyon commented on the tone of Rader's confession in court: "He just referred to these people like rag dolls, like they didn't exist," he said. "Each and every one of those people comes to your mind and you can see them and the agony and the pure terror that they went through. All this comes rushing back." As I was reading that I knew, somehow, with absolute certainty, that if Dennis Rader ever sees this remark - and he will, I expect, if he hasn't already - he will laugh and think to himself in a tone of superiority that Richard LaMunyon has entirely missed the point. That the point is that if you're the one doing the strangling, you don't have to relate to the ones being strangled. The agony and the pure terror that they went through don't matter if you're a different species that's fundamentally incapable of being victimized, whose role is inherently to do the victimizing of other people instead. You're not that kind of person. By the act of strangling those people, you make yourself into the other kind.

This isn't true, of course. To strangle someone does not prevent you from ever being strangled, just as refraining from strangling anyone does not condemn you to be strangled. But I think Dennis Rader sees it that way. And I think the Holocaust survivors described in Elie Wiesel's novel Dawn, who in their efforts to create Israel killed an Englishman who posed no threat to them, saw it that way too. I mean, for them the fear that they themselves could be strangled had infinitely more real justification than it ever had for Dennis Rader; and some of the people they killed would in fact otherwise have killed them. But when they started carrying over the killing to innocent people as well, their motivations bore more resemblance to Dennis Rader's than to the motivations of more typical colonizers. Typical colonizers kill for money, which is power over anything that can be bought with money. The Holocaust survivors/pre-Israeli soldiers described in Elie Wiesel's novel killed for the sheer feeling of power over the victim alone, as I think Dennis Rader did.

I mean, I'm sure there have been many people everywhere, including in Israel, who have killed for money. Perhaps I'm trying to read one novel as a more complete tale of Israel than it ought to be read as. But I do think that the sense one can get from a novel of how emotionally terrorized and traumatized the people who first created Israel were is extremely important to bear in mind when trying to talk about how the government they created has behaved; and the sense of the emotions of the people who created history is precisely what one can only get from a novel, because history textbooks never convey it with remotely the power that Elie Wiesel does.
Tags: books
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