Twenty-four years later, these words are more applicable than ever
In 1996 I had the honor of receiving an invitation to hear Elie Wiesel speak at the Jewish Community Center Book Fair in West Bloomfield, MI. My journalism teacher and mentor, Harriet Maza, knew how much his work meant to me as I myself was about to embark on a trip to Poland through the March of the Living. I had forgotten about this story; it was a finalist among the National Quill and Scroll Awards in 1997 and the recipient of more than a few statewide journalism honors. I uncovered it recently as I dug through old boxes from high school. Twenty-four years later, I gasped at the relevance of the words, now more than ever. No digital version of this story exists, so I typed it up to share this wise man’s words with the world.
Anyone who knows me knows that Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank are among my heroes. Sitting in the presence of this great man, and being afforded the chance to ask him a question, is among my favorite of memories. If there is one lesson I learned on my trip to Poland, it is that we must never forget, we must never stay silent, and that we must always speak up for what is right, and against what is wrong.
Memoirs…Nobel Peace Prize winner shares his stories
By Lindsay Spolan (now Pinchuk)
Originally published in the West Bloomfield High School, Spectrum, December 1996
For my Bar Mitzvah, I remember, I had received a magnificent gold watch, But I could not keep my gift. The time was late April, 1944. As for me, my only possession was my watch. It meant a lot to me. And so, I decided to bury it in a dark deep hole, three paces from the fence, under a poplar tree whose thick strong foliage seemed to provide a reasonable secure shelter. On our return, the earth would give them back to us. Until then, until the end of the storm, they would be safe.
“I keep my promises,” said Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. “we should always keep promises.” As he looked out into packed room at the forty-fifth annual Jewish Community Center Book Fair last month, Wiesel referred to the time only a year before, when he had been scheduled to speak to this audience, but suddenly had to leave.
The death of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had shattered the world, and Wiesel needed to attend the funeral of his longtime personal friend.
“It’s a day we shall remember with pain, frustration, and infinite regret. To end a life is a human and philosophical catastrophe,” Wiesel said sadly. “He didn’t deserve it; we didn’t either.” Wiesel goes on to discuss this tragic death in his new book Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea, the autobiography he had come to speak about at the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
Twenty years later, standing in the middle of the night, I remember the first gift, also the last, I ever received from my parents. I am seized by an irrational, irresistible desire to see it, to see if it’s still there in the same spot, and if defying all the laws of probability, it has survived-like me-by accident, not knowing how or why.
Shipped with his family to Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp, in 1944, Wiesel survived unlike his parents and younger sister. His mother and sister, Tzipora, died in the gas chambers; his father perished from starvation and disease. Wiesel, by pure chance, made it out of that hell alive.
In his book, he describes his experiences while attempting to reconcile the existence of God with the horrors of the Holocaust.
“The barbed wire fence will forever remain an immense question mark on the scale of both humanity and its creator,” he says. “Which side was He on? Isn’t He the Father of us all? How can we fail to pity a father who witnesses the massacre of his children by his other children?”
My curiosity becomes an obsession. All that matters in this town is my gold watch and the should of its ticking.
“I can’t hear,” shouts a listener in the back of the room.
“This has been the problem of my life,” responded Wiesel. “I speak and I speak…and no one can hear me.”
Wiesel praised the JCC for encouraging people to read. “What you are doing is very important,” he said.
The watch, I must think of the watch. Maybe it was spared. Let’s see, three steps to the right. Stop. I recognize the place. Instinctively, I get ready to re-enact the scene my memory recalls. I’ll use my hands, my nails. But it is difficult; the soil is hard, frozen, it resists as if determined to keep a secret. Too bad, I’ll punish it by being the stronger.
At age sixteen, the war ended, and Wiesel entered the most difficult part of his life; he had to learn to adjust to death. “How do you learn to laugh, to love?” he asks.
At the end of the war, Wiesel moved to Paris where he studied and yearned to write. To perpetuate his passion for writing, he became a journalist. It wasn’t as easy as he thought. He was assigned to interview Miss Europe from the beauty pageant. Stricken by her beauty, Wiesel had no idea what to even ask her. “How do you interview Miss Europe?” he questioned laughingly. “She was very beautiful; I almost fell in love. What do you ask? What books had she read lately?” He smiled.
Suddenly a shiver rose up through me. A sharp sensation, like a bite. My fingers touched something hard, metallic, rectangular. So, I have been digging in vain. Here it is, in the palm of my hand: the last relic, the only remaining symbol of everything I had loved, of everything I had been. A voice inside me warns: Don’t open it, it contains nothing but emptiness, throw it away and run.
Wiesel’s most well-known book, Night, recaptures his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He insists that if what one is feeling is not written down, it can be forgotten or distorted. When asked how he managed to survive such horrible situations, he replied, “As long as my father was alive, I lived for him. When he died, I died.” And then, “By sheer luck, I survived.”
When Night, first appeared on bookshelves, no one wanted to buy it. In 1960, only 3000 copies were sold. “What would I prefer? To be read or to be bought…to be read,” he said and acknowledged that that is what has happened with Night.
In the beginning of the writing process, Wiesel, as any writer, has many subjects to choose from. “There are so many subjects saying ‘Take me! Take me!’ Throw away nine situations and take one. Take only one,” he said. “Now the child is born.” According to Wiesel it is not what is added to writing that is important, but what is actually deleted from it.
I am angry with myself for having yielded to curiosity. But disappointment gives way to profound pity: the watch too lived through the war and Holocaust; the kind reserved for watches perhaps. In its way, it too is a survivor, a ghost infested with humiliating sores and obsolete memories. I touch it, I caress it. What I feel, besides compassion is a strange kind of gratitude. This nameless lifeless thing had survived for the sole purpose of welcoming me on my return and providing an epilogue to my childhood.
Wiesel says that even in America the idea of fanaticism exists as a problem. He admits that nothing can be worse than to deal with fanatics who have power. Wiesel describes Night as a protest against those powers. “We must have the power and will to take the side of the victim,” he said about the ethical human response.
While driving through the South during the Civil Rights Movement, Wiesel admits that he was shocked at the hatred. “I was ashamed to be white when I saw what was happening to Blacks,” he openly admits.
But Wiesel talks with positive wonderment about his new home, America.
On a cross country journey, he stopped at an Indian reservation where he signed his name in a guest book, only to find an existing signature in Hebrew. One of the Indians slapped him on the back and said, “Shalom alechem.” The Indian was a Jew, a survivor of the Holocaust; he had the number on his arm to prove it.
“What a good new country America is…the Indians speak Yiddish,” he said laughingly.
I must go. I stuff the watch into my pocket and cross the garden. I enter the courtyard. Halfway down the street I am overcome by violent remorse. I have just committed my first theft. I turn around, retrace my steps through the courtyard and garden. Holding my breath, my eyes refuse to cry, I place the watch back into its box, close the cover and my first gift once more takes refuge inside a deep hole. I smoothly fill the earth to remove all traces.
Wiesel commends youth educational programs such as the March of the Living, a trip to the camps in Poland and to the Jewish land of Israel. He characterizes them as “one of the most important programs we have.”
“It is up to human beings to build on the ruins, with the ruins, a hearth, a shelter, a dwelling in which life will be celebrated and not profaned, in which the future will not be accompanied by anguish, “Wiesel has said.
His own passion for learning is what kept Wiesel sane throughout all that he encountered. It has been something that has never left him, even in his darkest hours. “There’s much more to studying than getting the grades,” he said. The pursuit of answers and understanding helps to heal.
I simply wanted to leave behind me, underneath the silent soil, a reflection of my presence. One day, a child would play in that garden, dig near the tree and stumble upon a metal box. He would thus learn that his parents were usurpers, and that once upon a time there had been Jews and Jewish children, children robbed of their future.
“We must find reasons in each other to justify the day.”
In All Rivers Run to the Sea, memory creates and recreates. Wiesel forces the reader to understand what may never be able to be understood at all. He leaves vivid images of story, pieces of friends that no longer exist, and events that captured his one dark Night. And he asks, “Have we as humanity learned nothing yet?”
In the end, he reminds his audience, “Just as despair can come to one only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.”
The sun was rising, and I was still walking through the empty street and alleys. I heard distinctively, but as coming from far away, the tick-tock of the watch I had just buried. It was, after all, the very first gift that a Jewish child had once been given for his very first celebration. Since that day, the town of my childhood has ceased being just another town. It has become the face of a watch.
Excerpts taken from “The Watch” a short story written by Elie Wiesel.
This story was originally published in The West Bloomfield High School Spectrum in December 1996
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