Tag Archives: Elie Wiesel

Reading Round Up: Health, Holocaust Survival and Social Change.

Andrew Weil's latest is one of the books I've read recently.

Andrew Weil's latest is one of the books I've read recently.

My reading’s been a bit all over the place these days, which has been fun, if a bit scattered.

Today I’m going to give quick summaries of books I’ve read recently that each deserve, and will later receive,  their own posts.

1. A Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz As A Young Boy, by Thomas Buergenthal. 

Buergenthal currently is the American judge at the International Court of Justice, and his commitment to human and international rights was forged on the crucible of his experience during the Second World War.  He survived life in a Polish ghetto, stints in Sachenshausen and Auschwitz camps, and a death march that cost him two of his toes.  His mother survived, but his father did not. 

The book has a foreword by Elie Wiesel, who writes among other things about the different amounts of time survivors took to record their experiences.  Wiesel concludes the foreword by saying that it is impossible to know whether Buergenthal would have written the same book 50 years, but what matters is that he has written it.  “And the reader must surely be thankful to him for it,” Wiesel says. 

He is right, and I am also grateful to my uncle Ralph Lowenstein, who, like my father, escaped from Germany on the Kindertransport.

2. Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Changing Our World, by David Gershon

Gershon has done mass mobilizations for causes as diverse as climate change, averting nuclear war and reducing violence in inner-city neighborhoods.  In this engaging work, he draws on that experience and articulates a method for how people can do the same and how the planet can avert catastrophe and end war. 

The charge may sound grandiose, and the language is a bit jargon-laden-we read a lot about “transformative leadership” and “unitive visions,” for example-and I found the book stimulating, hopeful and useful.

3. Why Health Matters: A Vision of Health That Can Transform Our Future, by Andrew Weil.  This is my first book by Weil, who has written several other bestsellers.  In it, he argues against what he sees as three myths of healthcare-among them, the idea that technology leads to better care and more money to better research-as part of his argument that our current health care system is badly broken and in need of radical reform. 

His solution is to focus more on preventive medicine and healthy living, and to rely less on pricey specialists and more on general practitioners who spend meaningful time with their patients. 

This may not sound radical, and implementing his vision would lead to major changes in how health care is administered and who receives it.  A timely read, given the current heated and protracted political debate.

Social Studies Methods Class: Elie Wiesel’s Night

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Disgraced and now imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff has captured plenty of headlines recently. 

The tentacles of his multi-billion dollar Ponzi Scheme have reached throughout the country and have wreaked financial havoc on thousands of families and non-profit organizations.  In many ways, the consequences of his decption have yet to be fully felt, since they came at a time when the economy was already seriously battered.

Madoff’s actions have caused particular anguish in the Jewish community. He is Jewish and used his membership in the community to exploit his religious brothers and sisters.  Some have expressed concerns that his actions will play into long-held stereotypes about Jews as financiers and lead to a rise in antisemitism, while others have struggled to understand the extent and cause of his duplicity.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is one of Madoff’s many victims.  He has called Madoff’s crimes unforgivable. 

Themes of memory, forgiveness, belief and humanity also run throughout Night, Wiesel’s slender and classic memoir that provides an authoritative account of Holocaust survival.

Night opens in Sighet, Transylvania in 1941.  A 12-year-old  Kaballah student, Wiesel and other residents of the community are warned of their impending doom by Moshe the Beadle.  However, the townspeople find Moshe’s predictions incredible, instead concluding that he has lost his mind.

A couple of years later, his predictions turn out to be true.

Wiesel, his family and the rest of the community are forcibly removed from their homes and taken by train to the Auschwitz death camp.  His words about that first night have often been quoted, but bear repetition for their stark power:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.

The repetition and insistence of permanence and memory, the allusions to the Ten Commandments, the combination of images and their consequences all give this excerpt its considerable impact.

Night has many such moments.  He talks about how eight words uttered at the camp’s selection-men to the left, women to the right-means that he and his father are separated from his mother and sisters. 

He never sees them again. 

This is only the beginning for Wiesel and his father, though. 

Night details the appells, or hours long roll calls, which begin early in the morning, the paltry rations which slowly starve and reduce the men’s existence to animal instincts of survival, the collective punishment visited on those who try to rebel and other aspects of unspeakable cruelty they endured.

Wiesel’s father does not handle the physical strain well.  Shortly before the book ends, he dies, but not before Wiesel has come to resent and even have feelings of hatred toward him for his inability to weather the abuse.  Other sons respond similarly, with some even abandoning their fathers on the death march. 

The book ends with Wiesel’s liberation at the Buchenwald camp in 1945.  He looks in a mirror for the first time since before his ordeal and ends the book with the following:

I wanted to see myself in the mirror … I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.

Wiesel describes himself in both first and third person, showing again the permanent impact of his experiences, their lethal and dehumanizing consequences, and his struggle to understand his personhood and meaning in the face of the atrocity he has endured.

Night is part of a trilogy-the other two books are Dawn and Day-and is probably the most well known of Wiesel’s many books. 

Originally written in French, the work was pared down extensively from its original version of more than 800 pages.  Facing History and Ourselves has created a study guide and a video, Challenge of Memory, that has clips that accompany specific scenes in the book, which has sparked ongoing discussion about whether it is a memoir or a novel.

In addition to being a prolific writer, speaker and thinker, Wiesel also created The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  The foundation had  $15.2 million under management by Madoff’s investment firm, and has lost nearly everything.  His life savings have also been wiped out.

And so, now 80, Wiesel faces another challenge. 

While, of course, the financial hardship and betrayal he is grappling with is in no way comparable to his survival more than 60 years ago, what is clear is that Wiesel will meet its with his customary steely resolve and frankness.  He spoken recently about the outpouring of donations from people who learned about the foundation’s plight.  

For those people looking to understand the unspeakable horror Wiesel  and many others endured during World War II, Night is a powerful choice.

Impending Auschwitz Liberation Anniversary, Mommsen’s Analysis.

The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where more than 1 million people were killed during World War II.  Tomorrow marks 64 years since its liberation, and Hans Mommsen's sheds light on the build up to the site of ultimate evil.

The entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where more than 1 million people were killed during World War II. Tomorrow marks 64 years since its liberation, and Hans Mommsen's book, From Weimar to Auschwitz, sheds light on the build up to the site of ultimate evil.

 

Tomorrow marks 64 years since the Russian Army liberated the few survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The view of the train tracks leading up to the red brick building that marked the entrance, the cynical sign on the iron gates with the words, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” or “Work Brings Freedom,” the gas chambers where Zyklon B was used to kill more than 1 million people, the chimnies that belched smoke from the crematoria, Dr. Josef Mengele making his selections and conducting experiments on human subjects are all images that have been seared into our collective consciousness.

My great-grandfather, Joseph Lowenstein, our family patriarch and the man for whom  I am named, was one of the victims. 

Since its liberation, Auschwitz has become a worldwide symbol of genocide, evil and hatred. 

It also has been the subject of many books, art and film.

Claude Lanzmann’s epic, nine-plus hour documentary film, Shoah, has shots of trains rumbling up to the camp’s front gates and interviews with survivor Rudolf Vrba.

Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton wrote about the concept of ‘psyching doubling’ by which one creates a separate persona who commits unspeakable atrocities during the day and returns home as a loving father at night in The Nazi Doctors.

Italian chemist Primo Levi wrote about his struggle to make it through his time in the camp in Survival in Auschwitz, while Tadeusz Borowski made his experience there the subject of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

Both men killed themselves. 

Poets like Charlotte Delbo have written about the place that many consider the symbol of ultimate evil. 

And Nobel Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel, in his memoir Night, a large section of which focuses on his survival at Auschwitz, wrote the following, oft-quoted description:

“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live
as long as God Himself.
Never”

With such a rich collection of sources, it’s hard to imagine an additional work adding much to our undersanding, but I recently read German historian Hans Mommsen’s From Weimar to Auschwitz: Essays in German History, published in 1991,  and felt that my knowledge and historical understanding expanded.

Mommsen’s collection of essays takes the reader from late 19th century German through the rise of the Nazis , their ascent to power, dismantling of the fledgling Weimar democracy and gradual move to genocide-a move that is most vividly embodied in Auschwitz.

For many, this is familiar territory, and Mommsen’s work is noteworthy in several regards.  To begin, he begins earlier than many accounts, which start with the Treaty of Versailles, the punitive pact that wrapped up “The War to End All Wars,” later known as World War I. 

From there, the analyses proceed in a chronological direction, with the hyper-inflation that peaked in November, 1923, Hitler’s beer hall putsch in Munich and subsequent nine-month incarceration, during which he dictated what became Mein Kampf, and the Nazi’s growth in popularity following the stock market crash of 1929 and ensuing Great Depression all playing significant parts.

Mommsen includes these elements, too, but in a much richer  and textured description of the German social and political context than one might find in books like Paul Bookbinder’s Weimar Germany: Republic of the Reasonable. 

In one chapter, Mommsen demonstrates convincingly the generational divide between the Social Democrats and the youth who eventually became a key Nazi constituency by showing the average of the Social Democratic leadership, for example. 

Indeed, Mommsen’s detailed look at internal Nazi party politics is an integral element one of the book’s most enduring contributions: an incisive look at the workings of the Nazi bureaucracy.

This issue has been the subject of intense debate among historians, who have generally fallen into one of two camps. 

The intentionalists, among them the late Lucy Dawidowicz, asserted that Hitler planned the genocide of the Jews from as early as the end of World War I-a 1918 document in which he talks about the need for rational antisemitism is an important one in this formulation-and spent the next 27 years working to carry out his evil plan.

The functionalists paint a different picture.  They talk about ‘the crooked road to Auschwitz,’ a path that was filled with dips and turns and possible directions not taken.  These historians emphasize how there was no central order from Hitler, talk about the conflicting factions within the upper levels of Nazi bureaucracy and note that the killing was carried out on the ground, and cite discussions in top Nazi circles of a forced emigration of Jews to Madagascar as far along as the late 30s for evidence to support their point.

Mommsen is one of the influential functionalists who stresses in his work both the chaotic workings of the Nazi bureaucracy and Hitler’s lack of day-to-day involvement in government action.   

Other historians like Yehuda Bauer have criticized the distinction between intentionalists and functionalists, arguing instead for a synthetic interpretation that includes both elements in the society’s ‘cumulative radicalization.  Bauer has also criticized Mommsen’s work as overstressing the continuity in values and action between the traditional German bureaucracy and the Nazi bureaucracy.  

Bauer’s critiques have some merit, and Mommsen’s contribution to the debate should not be ignored, nor should his courage as a German historian who has been raising these issues within German society for more than 40 years be ignored. 

Mommsen’s emphasis on intra-bureaucratic rivalry may be excessive, and his analysis’ leads to the debatable conclusion of a confluence of factors creating a nearly inevitable outcome.

Still, From Weimar to Auschwitz is a rich collection of essays that push against the idea of a people in the grip of a mad dictator and instead point toward the individuals who carried out transformative evil being accountable for their actions and being able to be judged as such.

With genocide continuing in Darfur and Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga going on trial today at the International Criminal Court for recruiting child soldiers he sent into battle, that’s a thought worth remembering, too.

Ava Kadishson Schieber’s Soundless Roar

Ava Kadishshon Schieber tells her story of World War II survival in poems, drawings and stories.

Ava Kadishshon Schieber tells her story of World War II survival in poems, drawings and stories.

April 1941 was a dire time for Ava Hegedish.

She and her family had moved from Novi Sad, a small city about 50 miles north of Belgrade, to the Yugoslavian capital to escape the Nazi regime that had waltzed through her homeland in a week.

Her father Leo, a gifted amateur violinist, saw through the Nazi assurances of safekeeping for his and other Jewish families.  Leo told his family the only way they could survive was to split up.

And so, having just turned 15 years old, Ava was sent to live in a farming village with relatives of her older sister Susanna’s fiance. 

Her home was a small wooden structure between the family’s pigsty and chicken coop.

Her possessions: art supplies that she managed to stretch and make last for 18 months and a 17-volume, leather bound German language encyclopedias.

Because she was educated, Ava had to pretend that she could neither hear nor speak. 

To speak would reveal her accent, her education, her outsider status and her Jewishness. 

To speak would mean death for her and her hosts.

So she pretended she was deaf and mute for four years.

After the war, Ava discovered that her father and sister had been killed and that her mother, who had survived, had been shattered by her experience and the loss of her husband and daughter. 

After the war, too, Ava realized that she would never belong in Communist-era Yugoslavia. In 1949 she abandoned a career in art, broke off a two-year relationship with a lover, signed over whatever the deeds to the two houses she owned and moved with her mother to Israel.

Ava tells the story of her family, her survival and her depature to Israel in Soundless Roar: Stories, Poems and Drawings, a fascinating and gripping book that haunts, challenges and inspires.

Full disclosure: Ava is a cherished family friend.

As the title suggests, the Soundless Roar is replete with contradictions.  During World War II and after, the comfortable existence she had known in the years before the Nazi takeover was utterly uprooted and torn asunder.

Ava roughly tells her story in chronological order through the stories, which tell of her being her Grandfather’s “bundle of morning joy,” taking the reader through her years in hiding and ending with her 1949 departure for Israel. 

But Soundless Roar is much more of a multi-layered and interconnected set of expressions than a simple recouting of her wartime experience, as valuable as those accounts are from any genocide survivor. 

The stories are filled with intimacy formed of alienation, with animals being better and closer companions than humans, with the aching longings of an unlived adolescence and with the haunting memories that Ava has continued to grapple with in the more than 60 years since the war ended. 

At the end of the story “Trapped” for instance, Ava writes about the combination of fragmentary memory and moments of insight that has been her condition since the war:

“One feels as though one is hanging in the air, while elements around us in turmoil.  At those times I would identify with bats, who try to survive in the invisible existence of darkness, hiding and silent.  The Nazi era killed 6 million people.  It maimed us survivors for life.”

Many stories in the book are drenched in pain and longing for the knowledge that will permit closure.  In the story Spirits, Ava describes how she and her mother desires to find out conclusively that Susanna would never return.  Her mother chooses always to hope, but Ava comes eventually to accept the reality of her sister’s death.

She closes the piece with the following:

“I would have loved to have possessed the firm Buddhist faith and conviction to trust messages from the mountaintops that would be carried by the winds for my sister.

I still would.”

The short sentences, the invoking of another faith tradition, the connection with nature and the admission of enduring uncertainty and long contained in those two sentences give Soundless Roar much of its power and resonance.

Another aspect that the stories explore is how wartime memories can be activated many years later by seemingly mundane experiences.  In Ride Into The City,  a cab ride from an airport terminal in a nameless city brings Ava back to the war so vividly that she is drawn back to the war.  In this case, the driver’s head reminds her of a young man’s head as he was pushed into a deadly black car and toward his certain death.

She ends the story:

“He did not turn toward.  I remained safe. That whole event probably took seconds; it hounded me for years.”

Again, in the conclusion, one sees how tenuous the hold Ava has on the current world, how quickly she can be plunged back into her wartime condition, her awareness but uncertainty about the precise duration of the incident and the continual nature not only of her original experience, but also of the cab ride that triggered the potent memories.

It is important to be clear, though, that Soundless Roar is not the work of a broken woman, nor are the stories the only element in the book. 

Indeed, in many cases, loss is matched by memory, death by survival, absence by presence, and destruction is met with creativity and resilience.

Ava’s sketches merit attention, too. 

Drawn in shadowy lines, the one before the story Diary shows a young child holding a limp toy in its right hand and the hand of an adult figure-possibly a parent?-in the left.  The child’s face evokes a Picasso-like head, with the facial features uneven and turned into each other.  The child’s face appears to have two mouths that turn toward each other.  There, as in the stories, themes of connection, disconnection and loneliness course through the image. 

The child’s hand is reaching out and met by the larger figure, but warmth is absent from the holding.  Similarly, the toy, possibly a doll, which should be a source of pleasure, dangles loosely and in a parallel relationship between the child and the adult.

The poems, which also precede each story, have their own potency.

The title poem, for instance, captures the inadequacy of language, the disorientation caused by the apocalyptic event, the fragmentary nature of life and memory and the necessity for each person to decide for themselves life’s meaning:

soundless roar the title says

construct your own meaning from the image

of mute din

where a vague maze of lines

limited by size and form

just indicates the space it evolved from

no place to fit a key

mind must break open closed entry

and cross the threshold

stare into obscurity of revealed insight

face glare of unfeigned depths

and then the way back to innocence

has lost all road signs

hence time is nameless too

and word’s abundant treasure inadequate

even with novel terms

Other survivor accounts have mined the themes that Ava explores in her work.  The lack of periods and possibly circular structure of the poetry evokes Dan Pagis’  Written in Pencil in a Sealed Boxcar. Ava’s pictures of children in a shattered world and the impossibility of its reconstruction are also dominant themes in much of Samuel Bak’s work. And Elie Wiesel’s Night tells a harrowing story of child survival in Auschwitz-Ava makes it clear that she was in the antechamber of hell, but not in hell itself.

But few books of any genre or period bring each of these elements together in a single work, and with such thought provoking intensity, insight and wisdom.  If Ava’s survival cannot be easily packed into a narrative of hope, neither can Soundless Roar be described as a cathartic exercise by a destroyed woman.

Wounded yet intact, Ava demonstrates remarkable resilience through her survival, and her efforts, however admittedly imperfect, to render her experience with the range of tools at her disposal.  While neither a comforting nor a straightforward work, Soundless Roar is unflinchingly honest in its recounting of her life before, during and after World War II.  The work sounds a clarion call to the reader not to live by ultimately empty slogans like “Never Again,” but to continually forge one’s own meaning in a chaotic, contradictory and often dangerous world.

We are the richer for Ava’s survival and her work.