No one will bear witness for the witness.
— Paul Celan, poet and Holocaust survivor
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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“To believe” has thus a twofold reference: to the person, and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it.
— The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 177
Elie Wiesel survived Auschwitz — but not before being forced to stand witness to the Shoah. As one of millions of personal stories, most of which won’t ever be heard, Wiesel’s account begins with being torn from his mother and sisters and standing watch as his father, wasted from dysentery, was beaten to death by Nazis. Wiesel confesses that he succumbed to a guilty relief watching his father finally die, for there is a secret abomination evil keeps: Love becomes a burden when despair holds it prisoner.
Paul Celan, a Jewish poet, bore witness to his personal tragedy through poetry, writing of the impossibility of testimony when the witnesses are burnt to smoldering, mute ash. The Shoah uncovered a black maw that threatened to swallow God Himself and, though some have argued that there can be no art after Auschwitz, Celan asserted that his poetry would have to suffice, writing, “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” Despite Celan’s aesthetic courage, he fed even his poetry to that gaping maw, as we see in the paradoxical heart of his poem “Aureole-Ash,” which states in spare and excruciating agony: “No one will bear witness for the witness.”
There is another path when words, sterile and hollow, are sucked into nothingness: silence. Wiesel had chosen this path, hermetically sealing his experiences so thoroughly that he believed they would die with him. That is, until the day he scored an interview — one he would later call “an interview unlike any other” — with François Mauriac, the prominent Catholic theologian and philosopher king of the Parisian post-war literati. Though he respected Mauriac, Wiesel arrived at the interview with an ulterior motive: to persuade Mauriac to introduce him to Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France, which would have been a professional brass ring for the then-unknown Wiesel.
Instead, the name “Jesus” flowed from Mauriac’s lips like liquid, and Wiesel found it caustic. Finally, Mauriac’s persistent testimony made a crack in Wiesel’s formerly impenetrable wall of silence, as his own testimony to evil was drawn out from him, almost against his will. Surprising himself with the depth of his own hostility, Wiesel responded trembling with rage:
“Sir,” I said, “you speak of Christ. Christians love to speak of him. The passion of Christ, the agony of Christ, the death of Christ. In your religion, that is all you speak of. Well, I want you to know that ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six million times more, than Christ on the cross. And we don’t speak about them. Can you understand that, sir? We don’t speak of them.”
Wiesel fled Mauriac’s apartment for the elevator, wanting only escape, but instead he felt Mauriac’s arm drawing him back to where they had sat. At first, all the old man did was all one can do when words fail and grief overcomes: Mauriac wept.
Wiesel said recently in an interview that, at first, it made him feel like a monster to have made this decent and wise old man, this loving man, weep so, and he felt an almost unbearable urge to flee again. This was the first whisper of love in the room — what is this love and where does it come from that it makes a man feel shame at his own torment because it injures others? But Mauriac pressed Wiesel: Tell me more. We must speak of it. And so, for a few hours at least, Wiesel spoke the things he swore never to speak, allowing his new friend to shoulder his burden with him. When they parted, the two men embraced near the elevator to which Wiesel had fled earlier; and Mauriac, who had been a member of the Resistance, said to his friend: “One must speak out — one must also speak out.”
The result of that meeting between the elderly, Catholic Mauriac and the young, Jewish Wiesel resulted in La Nuit or Night, the Nobel Prize-winning testimony of Wiesel’s experience in the camps and his career as witness — to both the travesty of the Shoah and his unfailing belief in God in the face of ineffable horror. A witness supported and enabled through another man’s loving witness, a man unafraid to say the name Christ into the blackest of pits. The original title for Wiesel’s work was Un di velt hot geshvign, Yiddish for “And the World Stayed Silent” — a link to Celan’s despairing cry that no one bears witness to the witness. Celan, who entered his poetry into that silence, took his own life in the River Seine. Wiesel, however, still stands as a living witness, replacing the poison Mauriac drew from him with an intonation of the name we are promised will stop any deadly thing from doing us harm.
Wiesel has yet to put the final punctuation on this story, as the blossom between Wiesel and Mauriac has not yet reached its full bloom. The now-deceased Mauriac explained his humble act of love in a dedication he wrote to his Jewish friend, about which Wiesel expressed:
When I am thinking of my personal experience, there comes to mind, as a luminous example, Francois Mauriac. I, a Jew, owe to the fervent Catholic Mauriac, who declared himself in love with Christ, the fact of having become a writer . . . . Once Mauriac dedicated a book to me and he wrote: “To Elie Wiesel, a Jewish child who was crucified.” At first I took it badly, but then I understood that it was his way of letting me feel his love.