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Eli Wiesel and Stories

As been noted by many newspapers, Eli Wiesel, was a very special human being. He felt that having survived Shoah, that he had a profound responsibility to speak out for all those who did not. He broadened his insights from Jews to all those oppressed. Interestingly Rick Salutin in The Star newspaper last week presented another opinion, in spite of Wiesel’s Nobel Laureate award, an unflattering observation of an aging man whose views did not champion all people or nations.

At Northern Secondary,our enlightened department head, Harold Lass, put into place an incredible curriculum of literature even before Margaret Atwood became a house hold name. In OAC( Ontario Academic Credit for graduating students in the 90’s), our students studied the imposition of tyranny on women’s bodies via The Handmaid’s Tale and Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage that examined the Noah story from the bible.

In Grade 11, ours students studied Night, the autobiographical time captured in Wiesel’s novella, describing the holocaust victims’ marches wherein mates had to bargain, or steal bits of bread, where beloved parents were either dragged or laid down by the roadside, where random individuals were executed by brutal guards. Anyone who has vicariously endured the torments of the camps through Wiesel’s adolescent eyes will never forget them. In my years of teaching, many moments persist: one being a young girl who insisted Night, like most books, was only a story and that it was made up, just a story. It did not touch her. No matter what was taught or explained, she and some of her North Toronto classmates vigorously refused to accept Night as actual events. I don’t recall any expression of horror or even surprise, but continual affirmation that books tell stories that are conceived in the heads of writers, and therefore, are untrue. Maybe because they were teens, they rejected everything or maybe they felt the incidents so bizarre, too painful to be possible.

As adults, we understand that a tale may be shaped or conceived in the imagination; however, there may be , and in historical fiction especially, remnants or morsels of truth to be shared with readers. My students’ responses were problematic in several ways: Yes, It was Wiesel’s story and a story by definition is filtered through the mind of the teller. It is unverifiable. We cannot observe it first hand with our own eyes, and every second hand narrative may be circumspect, particularly in a cynical society; however, the darker issue resides in the refutation of genocides and fascist events that have plagued individuals and negators such as the Jim Keegstras of the world who actually taught that the holocaust did not occur and that Jewish conspiracy controls world events, his hate mongering harking back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Needless to mention, even the filming of hideous events such as the Nice murders or Turkey coup are passed through media in the hands of the camera person whose eye lights upon the tragedy of the horrendous scenes. Yet, we do accept the veracity of these unfolding events.

But my student, the strong denier who forthrightly rejected the holocaust as/ is in deed troubling. As years lengthen from the heinous event, grandparents or aged friends who lived through the wars or worse, and even our own children are distanced, obviously not experiencing the same horror we did growing up in a post- war environment. The survivors who can still relate the atrocities are dwindling, and more criticism is heaped on March of the Living. My own father born in Canada felt it not a wise thing to visit the gas chambers, explaining there is enough misery in the world without burdening our children with images that cannot be erased and will form intrinsic signposts in their lives.

In the 70’s I travelled by myself in Europe and my experiences in Austria and Germany were all good, even crashing in a bed in some dorm when I flew in at 3 am, offered up by a kindly passenger. Or walking with a map in Munchen, a man in a long black coat with no other motives but to help me find my location insisted on accompanying me by streetcar and subway safely to my destination. So my memories even before the Berlin Wall came down caused me to ponder this society that was unfailingly helpful, kind and even raucous in the beer halls. ( Remember I was in my early 20’s)

I had planned on visiting Dachau , but was shocked to observe the immaculate camplike bunks and neat unadorned walls. Except for a horizontal sculpture of twisted bodies at the entrance,, there was little evidence that this camp selected gypsies, Jews, music aficionados, homosexuals, politicos who disagreed with party policy silenced by deportation.This was the very first of the camps. But as I recall it, there were no statements to the flogging, the hangings, the sadism , brutality, death marches or the deprivation of humanity that consumed its inmates.

Americans visiting that day I heard kept demurring, “ It’s not so bad”. And truthfully had I not been fascinated with stories of Nazis gouging out luminous eyes of little girls or dogs set on prisoners tearing them apart like turkey legs, I, too, might have cast my eyes on the whitewashed walls and nodded in agreement. Many many years later,I reflected on Yad Vashem’s Memorial that tenderly and painfully evoked the loss of life through The Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem or the heaped mountains of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

And Yes, resting on a park bench back in 1970 at the schloss in Heidelberg, I did overhear some kerchiefed women mutter,” Ah, if the fuhrer were only alive…”

Even as we welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and admitted war torn Syrians to our own borders, the Canadian government was not kind or generous to Jews during those terrible war years of 1933-48 as documented by Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s None Is too Many. In Toronto, Centre Island boasted signs comparing dogs and Jews and quotas for Jewish entrance to universities and the professions were tightly reined in.

Watching Eye in the Sky last night brought  home the value of a single person. Helen Mirren as the colonel must decide on whether to fudge a percentage   point to to save possible catastrophic explosions. The image of the lovely young girl innocent of war and crime and mathematical magical calculations twirls in her hoopla hoop. She is at the centre of a dilemma. The Talmud states,”, Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.)

In these days of terrors, we think of Wiesel, Dachau, Nice, Turkey and wherever souls are destroyed. How troubling that wars continue to plague us, and people continue to deny that we are locked into a pattern that never seems to end.

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