By Rabbi Israel Zoberman
Prolific author Ellie Wiesel’s book, which originally was published in France in 2011 and became a bestseller, is light only in size. Open Heart is a generous gift from a truly loving heart of the most distinguished representative of the generation of Holocaust survivors. Wiesel has risen from Auschwitz’s hell, which he entered at age fifteen, to become the world’s witness to the human condition and humanity’s prophetic voice of both sacred remembrance and chastising warning. He even admits to making enemies because of his steadfast stance against trivializing Auschwitz, protectively defining the Holocaust as “the Event” (p.40).
This 1986 Nobel Peace Laureate – he deserves the literature prize too – and Founding Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, who has earned our nation’s greatest honors along with foreign high ones, enjoys a special relationship with President Obama. The present book, Wiesel’s perhaps most revealing personal one in which he opens his aching and grateful heart to us, shares and even shocks with his uniquely probing yet sensitive scalpels the watershed impact of his five bypass open heart surgery on June 16,2011 at age 82.
Wiesel utilizes this trying medical and life – changing ordeal in his already eventful life to teach us, this time, concerning life’s universally demanding trials and transitions, courageously facing his own mortality. Graciously, with a full measure of the rabbinic hakarat hatov, acknowledging acts of goodness, and in addition to thanking his medical team, he credits the essential supportive role of loving wife, Marion, and their son, Elisha, in the book’s dedicatory page, for enabling him to “overcome” his “greatest pain and darkest anguish.” After all, his first passion is teaching and when forced to cancel classes in Florida due to illness he was in a state of crisis.
With his life’s experiences passing before him and compelled to engage in soulful stocktaking, this master teacher who is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University, is asking challenging questions albeit as his own student: How well has he fulfilled his obligation as a survivor, he who suffered heavy family losses and a wounded faith which he has struggled to heal, and miraculously surviving with the consecrated mission to tell a tale of woes without despairing of the Creator nor of a blemished creation? Wiesel is honestly mindful that he is a member of a generation that rightfully senses “Abandoned by God and humanity” (p.72). He is attempting to justify his own survival, wrestling with a God who deprived him of so much but also blessed him beyond measure. Isn’t it reminiscent of Biblical Job’s searing saga?
Having contributed immeasurably toward a sane and sacred world, ever standing guard, Wiesel nonetheless doubts if he had done all he could and should have in his struggle against evil. He and fellow survivors believed that the world would change for the better, never allowing for genocides again, and how painful it must be for heart-broken Wiesel to conclude, “The fact is, the world has learned nothing.Otherwise, how is one to comprehend the atrocities committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia…?”(p.51) Snatched from the jaws of the Nazi death machine and naturally carrying with him the survivor’s guilt, now that that he has survived late in his life another scary experience but under markedly different circumstances, he wonders what’s in store for him. While he would have liked to continue with his active and exhausting yet fulfilling schedule that would have overwhelmed others, he laments being forced to reduce his commitments.
Wiesel, with his indomitable will is still very involved, exhibiting great stamina and resolve. May he fulfill his heart’s fondest desire to live to witness the B’nai Mitzvah celebrations of his beloved grandchildren, Elijah and Shira, the children of son Elisha who is named for Wiesel’s father, Shlomo, who perished so close to liberation. May Wiesel do so along with his wife Marion, faithful soul-mate and professional helpmate, herself a survivor from Vienna, Austria, who has endured health issues of her own. Her brainchild is Beit Tzipora in Israel, the centers to enrich Ethiopian children, named for Wiesel’s precious little sister whom he saw with their mother for the last time upon arriving in Auschwitz. Heartfelt good wishes to the entire family for many more years of joy and accomplishments!
This unusual book is sprinkled with culled rabbinic insights from Wiesel’s vast treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom, along with biting humor. How hard and heart-wrenching it is to accept the following reflection, testimony to Wiesel’s profound humaneness and humility, “Yes, I have written much, and yet, at this stage of my life, at the very threshold of the great portal, I feel that I have not yet begun. Too late?”(p.50) Reading this inspiring and transforming account a few days following the multiple tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, this line resonates with so much painful relevance and prophetic meaning, “ We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it”(p.72).
We’ll do well to keep close to our hearts this delightfully instructive Open Heart, both chilling and heart-warming. Wiesel’s extraordinary photo on the book’s front jacket poignantly captures the inspiring essence of a towering and tormented spirit, piercing through reality’s darkness in quest for redeeming light. Contending with the human abyss without succumbing to it, he emerges from his latest encounter with death with renewed gratitude for the gift of life as his divine guide, looming ever larger in the face of a new adversity.
Dr. Israel Zoberman is the founding rabbi of Congregation Beth Chaverim in Virginia Beach. He is Honorary Senior Rabbi Scholar at Eastern Shore Chapel Episcopal Church.