By The Bookworm
Two months ago, renowned author Elie Wiesel passed away. His opus lives on, dedicated to preserving the memory of the suffering of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. Liberated in 1945 from the Auschwitz death camp, where he had lost family and community, Wiesel was staggered by what is now called “survivor guilt.” For ten years he spoke nothing of his experiences. Where would whole generations be today had he not found his voice to teach the world of justice and dignity by telling stories of something opposite?
Wiesel’s first words in sharing his testimony were only spoken when, as a young journalist, he was interviewing Francois Mauriac, who was a writer, poet and critic from the “long tradition of French Roman Catholic writers who examined the problems of good and evil in human nature and in the world.”Mauriac wrote the foreword to Night recounting the moment when, after he had shared how the fate of all the children taken to the camps haunted him, Wiesel quietly replied, “I was one of those children.” Not unlike many survivors, Wiesel was drawn out of his silence to speak in the safety created by someone who would not recoil from the facts of evil. Survivors too often are faced with rejection, not belief and compassion, and understand too well how that moment was pivotal and freeing.
First reading Night when I was twelve years old, I was surrounded by abusers and enablers. I must have read Mauriac’s oft-cited line in Night which described Wiesel’s eyes as eyes that had seen “the death of God in the soul of a child who faces absolute evil.” I don’t remember reading them, but they were in the edition I read. What I do remember is closing the book certain that Elie Wiesel would believe me, even when no one else did. We survivors find our witnesses in unlikely places even long before we speak.
I reread Night the week after Elie Wiesel’s death to see if I might feel again that certainty, might be quickened with that resolve to persevere which his words had inspired in me at that tender age at that terrible time. I did not, but I remembered my suffering self as I received, yet again, all Wiesel’s wisdom as a reflection of the Suffering Servant. Every survivor can find something in the example of Wiesel’s redemptive remembering.
We survivors of abuse, including clergy abuse, often share the same prayer in isolation from each other, crying out to God a bitter “why” or “why me,” as Wiesel would in Night. The agony of this prayer was foreshadowed by Wiesel in the opening pages of Night, with the exchange between the very young Wiesel and his Rabbinical teacher, Moishe, shortly before they were taken to Nazi death camps of which they did not know at that moment. The rabbi tells the boy, and with the boy the world: “Man comes close to God through the questions he asks Him, <Moishe> liked to say. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand His replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls ….” And so we enter therapy to find our deepest wounded self – to make our separate peace. As I reread these words, I flashed to how, at that age even, I must have been shown a way to suspend my demand for comprehensible answers to my bitter prayer of “why.”
Of despair, Wiesel taught me about holy ambiguities, speaking of his own perceived call to speak his testimony finally: “Because I remember, I despair. Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.” He knew the course my life would take.
Wiesel’s sense of the power of memory speaks to any of us grappling with our own: “In the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.” Far too often the idea of the consequences of abuse are limited, with only the sense of brokenness remaining, but for Wiesel the search for meaning became his own unique victory over evil. That it would be for all survivors, as well.
What victory? Early in his new preface to Night, Elie Weisel says, “… having survived, I needed to give some meaning to survival…. <as> a witness who believes he has the moral obligations to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.” This newsletter being sent around by other survivors seems like that to me. Not so much that they are documenting crimes; that has been done in other places. What they are doing is documenting the resilience, the faith, the courage, the victories over evil.
Survivors of abuse have stories not just to share but also they are free to choose to finish living their stories in whole new ways. In both cases, we can give our memories in witness to justice and truth, to calls for child protection, and to the need for conversion of heart among many, including many Catholics. Facing the very real resistance that would have us silent and resigned, we are wise to remember Wiesel’s words in Night which remind us to be instruments of God’s will only: “There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.”