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My Resistance to Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel helped turn the horrors of the Holocaust into an industry of manipulative sentimentality.

Elie Wiesel’s death has prompted much discussion on social media. I’ve written — quite negatively — about Wiesel in the past:

“It’s long been remarked that the Holocaust and Israel have replaced God and halakha as the touchstones of Jewish experience and identity. The Holocaust is our deity, Israel our daily practice.

You get a sense of this in a New York Times oped Elie Wiesel wrote on the day that NBC first aired its mini-series Holocaust. That was in April 1978.

All Jewish families, mine included, watched it. One Jewish magazine even said that watching it ‘has about it the quality of a religious obligation’ for Jews. Like the Six-Day War, it was a founding moment of contemporary Jewish identity.

I remember it vividly. I watched all nine and a half hours of it. I developed a mad crush on one of the characters, a beautiful, dark-eyed Jewish partisan in the forests of Poland or Soviet Russia (played, I realized much later in life, by a much younger Tovah Feldshuh). During one scene, of a synagogue packed with Jews being set ablaze by the Nazis, I ran out of my parents’ room, sobbing uncontrollably.

It was terrible TV; I tried to watch it years later and couldn’t make it past the first half-hour.

But Wiesel didn’t complain about the aesthetic quality of the show; it was the desacralization of the Holocaust he objected to. As quoted by Peter Novick in The Holocaust in American Life:

It transforms an ontological event into soap-opera. . . . We see long, endless processions of Jews marching toward Babi Yar. . . . We see the naked bodies covered with “blood” — and it is all make-believe. . . . People will tell me that . . . similar techniques are being used for war movies and historical re-creations. But the Holocaust is unique; not just another event. This series treats the Holocaust as if it were just another event. . . . Auschwitz cannot be explained nor can it be visualized. . . .  The Holocaust transcends history. . . . The dead are in possession of a secret that we, the living, are neither worthy of nor capable of recovering. . . . The Holocaust [is] the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it was; the others will never know.

It’s all there. The Holocaust not as an event in secular history but as a leap into transcendence; it cannot be explained, it can only be circled, like a holy fire. Auschwitz is our Sinai, the ovens our burning bush. Like the Jews receiving God’s commandments, the Jews of the camps experienced a sacred mystery, received a secret message, which we can only approach at a distance, with awe and trembling. I, the Holocaust, am your God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Over the weekend, on Facebook, I reiterated my longstanding concerns:

“I know Elie Wiesel is beloved by many, Jews and non-Jews alike. But as someone who’s written about — and against — him over the years, I feel like I have to issue a dissent.

(Please don’t tell me today’s not the day. Unless you’ve complained about what I said about Christopher Hitchens upon his death or a great many others. If you don’t want to read any criticism of Wiesel, I completely understand. I honestly do. Might I suggest then that you stop reading what I’m about to say?)

Set aside Wiesel’s stance on Israel/Palestine, which was often indefensible.

More than anyone, Wiesel helped sacralize the Holocaust, making it a kind of theological event that stood outside history. ‘The ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted,’ was how he once put it.

At the same time, he helped turn the Holocaust into an industry of middlebrow morality and manipulative sentimentality.

Primo Levi had a special dislike for Wiesel’s ways and means, which makes Wiesel’s infamous verdict on Levi’s suicide (“Primo Levi died at Auschwitz forty years later”) all the more grating.

Decades ago, in a scorching essay, ‘Resistance to the Holocaust,’ Philip Lopate caught the measure of the man: ‘Sometimes it seems that “the Holocaust” is a corporation headed by Elie Wiesel, who defends his patents with articles in the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday Times.'”

An interesting discussion ensued.

After I was accused on another thread of being insensitive to the claims of survivors, to how a survivor chooses to represent himself and his experience, to how my position only reflects the fact that I was not There nor even near There, I followed up with this statement from the Nobel Prize–winning author Imre Kertész, who was a survivor (he died earlier this year), from his essay “Who Owns Auschwitz?”:

I regard as kitsch any representation of the Holocaust that is incapable of understanding or unwilling to understand the organic connection between our own deformed mode of life (whether in the private sphere or on the level of ‘civilization’ as such) and the very possibility of the Holocaust. Here I have in mind those representations that seek to establish the Holocaust once and for all as something foreign to human nature; that seek to drive the Holocaust out of the realm of human experience.

But I’ll confess that while my reaction to Wiesel and his brand (Wiesel once said that “the universe of the concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone.”) is informed by and reflects Kertész’s position, a more visceral distaste is awakened in me by these kind of strictures from Wiesel. And the negative reactions of people to criticism of Wiesel.

Reading this piece from Haaretz, on how Wiesel was received in Israel, helped concretize my feelings. The article shows how little standing Wiesel actually has in Israel. Both the Right and the Left dislike him, for different reasons. And his particular brand — a survivor who shrouded his experience, and the Holocaust as a whole, with an aura of religiosity — just didn’t sell there for many years, if ever.

What the article shows, by implication, is that the hushed tone we’re all expected to adopt, here in the US, when speaking of Wiesel and his work actually has less to do with the Holocaust or even Israel than with the pervasive sentimentality of American culture and argument, the notion that trauma confers privilege and precludes judgment or argument, that when it comes to the most terrible matters of history, we’re all supposed to act as if we’re in church.

Lopate’s essay, which came out in the late 1980s, really expressed this well. I’ll just quote from him:

When I was small, a few years after World War II had ended, my mother would drag me around Brooklyn to visit some of the newly arrived refugees; they were a novelty. We would sit in somebody’s kitchen and she would talk with these women for hours (usually in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand) to found what what it was like. After we left, she would say in a hushed voice, “Did you see the number on her arm? She was in a concentration camp!” I didn’t understand why my mother was so thrilled, almost erotically excited, when she spoke these words, but her melodramatic demand that I be impressed started to annoy me . . .

“Holocaust stands alone in time as an aberration within history,” states Menachem Rosensaft. And Elie Wiesel writes that “the universe of concentration camps, by its design, lies outside if not beyond history. Its vocabulary belongs to it alone.” What surprises me is the degree to which such an apocalyptic, religious-mythological reading of historical events has come to be accepted by the culture at large — unless people are just paying lip service to the charms of an intimidating rhetoric. . . .

I just don’t get why both New York City and Washington, D.C., should have Holocaust memorial museums. Or why every major city in the United States seems to be commemorating this European tragedy in some way or another. An Israeli poet on a reading tour through the States was taken into the basement of a synagogue in Ohio and proudly shown the congregation’s memorial to the 6 million dead: a torch meant to remain eternally lit. The poet muttered under his breath, “Shoah flambé.” In Israel they can joke about these matters. . . .

These monuments have an air of making the visitor feel bad, at the same time retaining a decorously remote and abstract air — all the more so when they are removed geographically from the ground of pain. . . .

Will the above seem the ravings of a finicky aesthete? I apologize. But remember that it is an aesthetic problem we are talking about, this attempt to make an effective presentation of a massive event. The dead of Auschwitz are not buried in Yad Vashem; believe me, I am not insulting their memories. Yad Vashem is the product of us the living and as such is subject to our dispassionate scrutiny and criticism. . . .

Theodor Adorno once made an intentionally provocative statement to the effect that one can’t have lyric poetry after Auschwitz. Much as I respect Adorno, I am inclined to ask, a bit naively: Why not? Are we to infer, regarding all the beautiful poetry that has been written since 1945, that these postwar poets were insensitive to some higher tact? Alexander Kluge, the German filmmaker, has explained what Adorno really meant by this remark: any art from now on that does not take Auschwitz into account will be not worthy as art. This is one of those large intimidating pronouncements to which one gives assent in public while secretly harboring doubts. Art is a vast arena; must it all and always come to terms with the death camps, important as they are? . . .

It has also been argued that the enormity of the Nazis’ crimes against the Jews calls for an aesthetic approach of an entirely different order than the traditional mimetic response. This seems to me nothing more than a polemic in favor of certain avant-garde or antinaturalist techniques, hitched arbitrarily to the Holocaust. . . .

Art has its own laws, and even so devastating an event as the Holocaust may not significantly change them. For all its virtues, the longeurs, repetitions, and failures of sympathy in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah are not exonerated, no matter what its apologists may argue, by the seriousness of the subject matter, as though an audience must be put through over eight hours of an exhaustingly uneven movie to convince it of the reality of the Holocaust. A tight film would have accomplished the same and been a stronger work of art. Lanzmann might reply that he is indifferent to the claims of art compared to those of the Holocaust; unfortunately, you can’t play the game of art and not play it at the same time. . . .

False knowledge. Borrowed mysticism. By blackmailing ourselves into thinking that we must put ourselves through a taste of Auschwitz, we are imitating unconsciously the Christian mystics who tried to experience in their own flesh the torments of Christ on the cross. But this has never part of the Jewish religion, this gluttony for empathic suffering. Though Jewish rabbis and sages have been killed for their faith, and their deaths recorded and passed down, Judaism has fought shy in the past of establishing a hagiography based on martyrdom. Why are we doing it now?

In certain ways, the Jewish American sacramentalizing of the Holocaust seems an unconscious borrowing of Christian theology. That one tragic event should be viewed as standing outside, above history, and its uniqueness defended and proclaimed, seems very much like the Passion of Christ.