Murray Baumgarten: "Auschwitz and the End of European Liberal Culture: Eliezer Wiesel’s Night"

For Opening of Buchenwald Exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library


January 11, 2015 | Free & Open to the Public
Skylight Gallery Exhibit Area, Main Library 100 Larkin St, San Francisco
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1. Reading Night

Night – the brief version we have in English translation from 1960, edited and rewritten from the almost 900 page Yiddish book Elie Wiesel wrote in 1954 and that was later published in Argentina as the 245-page Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, which you will hear more of in a later lecture by Naomi Seidman – Night begins in 1941 with the 12 year-old Elie Wiesel getting to know Moshe, the Beadle. Let us call him Moshe the Shammes, a better more Jewish word than Beadle.

He is “a man of all work at a Hassidic synagogue,” in Sighet, Transylvania. Moshe is a humble, well-liked member of the congregation, “a past master in the art of making himself insignificant, of seeming invisible.” And he is a Cabalist, who “used to sing, or rather, to chant . . . of the suffering of the divinity, of the Exile of Providence who, according to the cabbala, awaits his deliverance in that of man.”

Our twelve year-old narrator of Night and its protagonist, Eliezer Wiesel is a devout Jew, his intense piety evident in the tears that accompany his prayers. Though his father tells him he is too young to study the Cabala, citing Maimonides’s proscription against studying it before one has reached the maturity of thirty years of study — Eliezer discovers a teacher in Moshe the Shammes.

“Why do you weep when you pray?” Moshe asks Eliezer, “ as though he had known me a long time.”

“I don’t know why,” I answered.
Moshe: “Why do you pray?”

” “I don’t know why,” Wiesel answers.

The young boy learns from Moshe that “every question” possesses a power that does “not lie in the answer.” Man raises himself toward God, Moshe adds, “ by the questions he asks.” And “Prayer1 is the true dialogue, in which man questions God and God answers.” But, Moshe goes on, touching on themes central to the Book of Job that will haunt us as we read in Night of the terrible experiences these Jews undergo, “we don’t understand His answers. We can’t understand them. . . . You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself.”

But the teaching does not end here, for Eliezer turns to Moshe and asks him “And why do you pray, Moshe?” the answer: “I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.” – (pp 2-3.)

This exchange hovers throughout the narrative of Night, as the Nazi occupation of Hungary in 1944 and the cooperation of the Arrow Cross Fascist Hungarian party, lead to the ghettoization of Sighet, and then the deportation of its Jews to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Buchenwald. What are the right questions becomes an overarching theme of this book and of Holocaust writing.

2. Night and Holocaust Writing

Many of the great Holocaust accounts – Primo Levi, Ida Fink, Imre Kertesz, Art Spiegelman among others – build their narratives by including how the story is told and Night is part of this genre, this kind of writing.

The questions Moshe, the Shammes addresses to Eliezer Wiesel turn out to be directed through the first person narrator at us, the readers. Like Eli Wiesel his experiences will lead Wiesel to ask the questions Job poses in the Biblical account. His struggle to make sense of the Holocaust is part of his story, as we follow his psychic effort to understand.

What for example do the innumerable acts of cruelty in the ghettoization of Sighet signify? Or the horrible travel in cattle cars to Auschwitz of sixty to eighty people shoved in without food, water, and only a common bucket as a toilet – or the murder of the babies, mothers, and children?

Confronted with a prisoner’s remark, “Poor devils, you’re going to the crematory,” Elie Wiesel discovers the reality of Auschwitz, which inverts the civilized conduct of his former world. “They were burning something,” he tells us when he arrives, and discovers it is “Babies. Yes I saw it – saw it with my own eyes – those children in the flames.” He cannot deny what he has seen – and speaks to us directly: “(Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that?)”

Wiesel is an accurate and careful observer. Though a young studious boy of 12, he has not absorbed the conventional clichés of everyday life. That is why he sees the rawness of this life, without any ameliorating patina. It is a trait he shares with the young narrator of Buchenwald, Imre Kertesz. Both look about them with fresh eyes, and what they see is the horror of a high European civilization, gone off the tracks of civilization into barbarism and cruelty.

The very notion of reality and of meaning is now called into question, for Wiesel asks himself — and us –“Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it.” For “How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent?” The only possible answer can be that it is “a nightmare. Soon I should wake with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself back in the bedroom of my childhood, among my books . . .”

For ten years after his liberation at Buchenwald Wiesel was silent, and then he wrote his account, bearing witness to the end of European Liberal Culture in the flames of Auschwitz. We his readers join him in this testimony, for we read with him, and that is the power and the truth of this book. Asking the right questions of God, neither Wiesel, nor Job, gain answers: but the questions, the questions continue to obsess him and us.

3. Bildungsroman

Wiesel reaches for these questions because he is writing in a literary form called the Bildungsroman, the account of the coming-of-age, and initiation of a young man into what will become his maturity. To understand the power of this literary form, we must pause for a moment to consider the origins of the kind of story he is telling, of the Bildungsroman, the coming of age tale. It is the literary form that makes it possible for Wiesel to describe growing-up in Auschwitz as his education in a nightmare of cruelty.

Ironically, that literary form was invented in Weimar, where the Nazis built Buchenwald. Goethe the great humanist German writer, the sage of Weimar, invented the Bildungsroman at the end of the eighteenth century. In The Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister Goethe describes how the young boy grows up into adulthood. The idea of the bildungsroman swept through Europe because it focused on the psychological experiences of growing up.

Night recounts the personal responses of Eliezer Wiesel, as he encounters and is shaped by the objective conditions of Auschwitz. But while Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship leads his character into a larger, more civilized world, what Wiesel discovers is the barbarous experience of what Primo Levi called “the gigantic social and biological experiment” of the Nazis. In this world when Primo Levi reaches for an icicle to slake his thirst the guard snatches it from him. “Warum,” Primo Levi asks: Why? “Hier ist kein Warum – Here there is no why.”

Demolishing Jewish communities and character, the Nazis sought to destroy European liberal civilization– all those structures of meaning forged with such difficulty over centuries. The Nazi kingdom is intent to destroy the world of Liberty,Equality, Fraternity – of the French Revolution, that ushered in modern conceptions of humanity, citizenship, and individuality.2

This world of destruction is what Wiesel must make sense of. No surprise then to discover that Moshe the Shammes, who has discovered the reality of Auschwitz, tries to warn his Sighet congregants but they cannot believe him. Rather, they think he has now become Moshe the crazy one.

“Only listen to me,” he would cry, “Jews, listen to me. “ But no one can believe him, for this is a reality beyond normal comprehension. “I did not believe him myself,” says our Eliezer. “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.” (p. 5).

What Moshe is desperately trying to communicate, Eliezer will have to learn for himself. “You don’t understand,” Moshe tells them, “You can’t understand.” They “take me for a madman,” and “tears, like drops of wax, flowed from his eyes.”

For he is come back from the dead to warn them: “I have been saved miraculously, “ and “managed to get back here . . . 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. . . I wanted to come back, and to warn you . . . and no one will listen to me.”

Holocaust witnesses all tell us of their incredibility – no one believed the Nazis would want to destroy an entire civilization by murdering an entire people. That was a key part of the Nazi program – no one was to believe the witnesses even if some might remain alive.

4. Witness: Wiesel and the Boys of Buchenwald

Like a Biblical messenger, Wiesel will survive to tell the story.

1944, and the crumbling Nazi kingdom will transport the Hungarian Jews of Transylvania to Auschwitz.
By now most of the Jews of Poland have been ghettoized, deported, and killed; the Nazis are extending their net to Greece; but Field Marshall Montgomery has stopped Rommel from reaching the Suez Canal, and the Yishuv in Palestine is safe. Now the Nazis, invited by the Arrow Cross Fascist Party, invade Hungary to make it judenrein.

No rescue like Montgomery’s for the Yishuv will come for the Jews of Sighet, for Elie Wiesel and his father.

1945, and the Nazis are on the run, as the Soviet Army pushes them out of Poland. The Nazis evacuate Auschwitz – Birkenau and the other death camps – Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, Bergen-Belsen, — and drive the slave laboring Jews to Buchenwald, within the borders of Germany. (See the map for the death march.)

1945 and Buchenwald is crowded with Jews from Auschwitz. Established in 1937, one of the first concentration camps it was designated for political prisoners, especially Communists, now called criminals.

Buchenwald is near Weimar. The political prisoners, especially Communists sent there in the first years of the Nazi administration, are now joined by thousands of Jews, and especially the young Jewish boys who have managed to survive Auschwitz by lying about their age and working like adults.

And some of these communists, led by Anton Kalina and Gustav Schiller, make it their business to help the boys.

Many people ask how come there were Jewish boys still alive in 1945. Remember that the Nazis kept the families they sent to Theresienstadt together to use as propaganda for the Red Cross – that they were only “resettling the Jews to the East,” and treating them humanly. It was part of the Nazi propaganda machine to fool the Allies, and to fool the Jews.

Yes, the Nazis killed children immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz — a million and a half Jewish children. But there was also a family Lager in Auschwitz, where for a time family groups stayed together, part of the Theresienstadt plan.

Despite the fabled precision and thoroughness of the Nazis the process of destruction involved much improvisation. The family camp was part of that – and Auschwitz was also an industrial camp, using Jewish slave labor for its processes. And by then some of the boys understood that if they lied about their age they might survive.

In Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness one of the prisoners emptying the arriving cattle cars at Auschwitz tells the young boy, — “Zestsayn! . . . versshtayt di? Zestsayn!,” he repeats over and over, “ Say you are sixteen.” And Kertesz notes, “I somewhat cheerfully agreed: all right, I’ll be sixteen, then” And he also learns that “whatever might be said and quite irrespective of whether it was true or not, there were also to be no brothers, and particularly – to my great amazement, – no twins; above all, though “jeder arbeiten, nist kai mide, nist kai krenk” – Everyone work, no being tired, no being sick –that was about the only other thing I learned from them during the possible not quite two whole minutes” (p. 79) of arrival.3 4

5. Liberating Buchenwald

But now it is Wiesel we are considering, as he is put on a death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald, — look at the map, the distance is about 400 miles, which these starved, brutalized, slave laborers, many of them children, — miraculously survive.
Note also how brief is Wiesel’s account of Buchenwald.

Reading Night we must ask what kind of life, what kind of meaning, do these episodic fragments of a narrative add up to.

And as you make up your mind, take this remarkable and indispensable exhibit, organized by the OSE – the French Jewish organization to save the Children – les enfants this exhibit brought to us by Lehrhaus — into consideration.

Should you want to learn more about Buchenwald, read Felix Weinberg’s Boy 30529, and especially Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002.

We should honor the OSE for their work in saving the children, before the Holocaust, and during whenever possible, and after – it is work perhaps now even more necessary for France after this week’s dreadful massacre.

Arriving in Buchenwald, Wiesel and his father who have been inseparable and mutually supporting companions throughout, are exhausted. The SS lines them up. “I held onto my father’s hand – the old, familiar fear: not to lose him,” Wiesel tells us. And they see “Right next to us the high chimney of the crematory oven rose up. It no longer made any impression on us. It scarcely attracted our attention.” They are weary, they are survivors, but exhausted, not knowing how much longer they can hold out.

And then they are surprised. “An established inmate of Buchenwald told us that we should have a shower and then we could go into the blocks. The idea of having a hot bath fascinated me.” But Wiesel’s father “was silent . . . breathing heavily beside me.”

There is a crowd waiting to get into the showers, pushing and shoving, and Wiesel’s father wants only to sit down in the snow. Eliezer pulls him up, tells him he must make an effort, even though his father tells him he wants to lie down and rest in the snow. “Having lived through so much, suffered so much, could I leave my father to die now? Now when we could have a good hot bath and lie down?”

“Father!” I screamed, “Get up . . . you’re killing yourself.”

They argue, they struggle, the son desperately dragging the father towards the showers. At that moment the air raid siren sounds, and the prisoners are driven into the barracks.

It is too late for Wiesel’s father, who, feverish, asks for coffee, and Eliezer manages to get some for him. His father contracts dysentery, other prisoners steal his bread, and when he is not able to stifle his groans he is beaten.

Together, Wiesel and his father have survived, looking out for each other, like many others. Wiesel’s narrative recounts how first the father helped the son; and now the son, reversing expectations, must help the father.5 Elie Wiesel is not yet 16 years old.

“I awoke on January 29 at dawn. In my father’s place lay another invalid. They must have taken him away before dawn and carried him to the crematory. He may still have been breathing.

“There were no prayers at his grave. No candles were lit to his memory. His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond.

“I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like – free at last!”

The Nazis murder even the memorial honoring of the dead. They impose what Alvin Rosenfeld has called the “double dying” – not only of the individual but the destruction even of his memory.

And the young Wiesel knows that he has lost his faithful companion, but he is also glad to be rid of the burden. It is a stark admission. And yet Night undoes the Nazi work, for this account memorializes the relationship of father and son.

BUCHENWALD – how ironic that it is near Weimar, the home of the Weimar democratic republic established for a democratic Germany after WW I, and undermined by Hitler’s regime – Weimar, where Goethe wrote his great works, including the Apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister. For the Nazis wanted to undo that too, the humanist tradition of Goethe and Schiller, in which Jews and Germans were intertwined.6

Buchenwald, where as the Nazi regime crumbles, the communist underground revolts, and liberates the camp as Wiesel tells us at the end of his narrative, even before the American Army arrives.

Buchenwald and its subcamp Ohrdruf, where Generals William Walker, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower will require the Germans of the nearby towns, including Weimar, to view the corpses and barbarities of these camps – not death camps but camps to destroy the slave laborer Jews while getting the last bit of possible usefulness from them.

There are famous pictures by Margaret Bourke-White that were taken just days later, and published in Life magazine. General Walker insisted that the mayor of Ohrdruf and his wife also view the camp, and afterwards they went home and committed suicide.

Wiesel does not commit suicide. Yet when he looks in the mirror at the end of his episodic account – “a corpse gazed back at me.” That is his witness and through him, ours, for “The look in his eyes, as they gazed into mine, has never left me.”

The corpse, looking back at Wiesel from the mirror, was rescued by the communists of Buchenwald, among them the Czech prisoner Antonin Kalina and the Polish Jew Gustav Schiller. Wiesel and the boys of Buchenwald were saved by the power of the Soviet Army, the air raids of the American and Allied air force, and Patton’s tanks. Those were the instruments that held the promise of building a new European civilization on the ruins of what had been destroyed.

When they invited Elie Wiesel to dedicate one of the houses on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz our students knew Auschwitz had drawn a line in modern history. They called the house, Beit Wiesel. And I think the students understood that what Wiesel was bearing witness to for all of us was the end of European Liberal Culture.

1 Moshe is quoting Talmudic sources I first learned about from my teacher David Weiss-Halivni.

2 When Clermont-Tonnerre announced on December 23 1789 in the French Parliament that “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals,” he was proposing the revolutionary idea that every human being was not a member of a collective group but an individual ––“ In short, Sirs, the presumed status of every man resident in a country is to be a citizen.” — The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1996), 86–88.

That right – the Declaration of Independence was to call it “an inalienable human right” – was what the Nazis were taking away from the Jews, from Elie Wiesel. The Nazi experiment is to destroy that civilization, that enshrined an idea of humanity. That idea of humanity as citizens, with inalienable rights, grows from the two sources of classic liberal European culture – the ancient Greeks and the ancient Jews. The Nazis turned with fury on the Jews and Judaism, on the Torah scrolls they destroyed with such alacrity beginning with Kristallnacht, as Alon Confino has explained in detail in his recent article and book. They were destroying the world in which they had come to maturity, which they hated – and of course the hate extended to its presence even in themselves.

3 Kertesz reminds us of what Holocaust means, in his Nobel prize speech: “One question interested me: What have I still got to do with literature? For it was clear to me that an uncrossable line separated me from literature and the ideals, the spirit associated with the concept of literature. The name of this demarcation line, as of many other things, is Auschwitz. When we write about Auschwitz, we must know that Auschwitz, in a certain sense at least, suspended literature. One can only write a black novel about Auschwitz, or – you should excuse the expression – a cheap serial, which begins in Auschwitz and is still not over. By which I mean that nothing has happened since Auschwitz that could reverse or refute Auschwitz. In my writings the Holocaust could never be present in the past tense.”Like Primo Levi who tells us that this is a world where “Hier ist kein Warum” – here there is no why – we are in aworld changed by Auschwitz, and there is no going back.

4 I will talk more about Kertesz’s indispensable account for which he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2002 when my colleague Peter Kenez and I speak next Saturday evening in Sacramento for the CVHEN in the KOH Library and Cultural Center on the grounds of Mosaic Law Congregation, 2300 Sierra Boulevard, Sacramento, CA 95825.

5 My colleague Kenneth Waltzer is engaged in just that research, and is working with a group of Buchenwald survivors near Michigan State where he teaches. Together they have made a film soon to be released widely called Kinderblock66, and it also tells the story of their block leader, Antonin Kalina, a Czech communist, and his assistant, a Polish Jew named Gustav Schiller, who protected these boys. Later they would have Kalina designated a Righteous Gentile, and a tree planted in his honor in the Grove of Righteous Gentiles next to Yad Vashem.

6 As Todd Presner reminds us.

For more information about the *Alive! A la Vie! – The Boys of Buchenwald exhibition, please visit

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