Legends of Our Time by Elie Wiesel

I discovered after reading this, that Wiesel is a controversial figure. I’m not talking about the anti-Semitic loons or the woman who wanted to join the ‘me too’ campaign. Rather, within the body of work that stands as ‘Lest We Forget’, there is much debate as to what his testament means, whether he has betrayed those he writes of, himself included, how his work fits into what others have done. He was the rockstar of the Holocaust preservation, the first to force non-Jewish people to acknowledge the horror. Yet he only managed to do that by watering down what he had to say, a process that started with The Night, his French and then English version of a much longer work written in Yiddish for an entirely different audience.

As has been noted by scholars in the field, the watering down process wasn’t only about making something that was palatable to the world that was complicit in the murder of millions of Jews. It made sense that a different audience would be presented with a differently written, more culturally accessible work.

However, there is also the issue of memory, what a memoir is, at which point it becomes a lie. Much has been written about this too in reference to Wiesel, and in particular his juxtaposition with James Frey on the Oprah Bookshow (whatever that is).

For my part, I can understand the impossibility of saying the same thing to the people you are accusing as to the people to whom wrong is done.  It is so easy to understand the humiliation as well as the rage. Even the idea of silence, as a major theme. What I find hard to relate to is the mysticism that is fundamental to his interpretations of the world. His rage feels as genuine as his talk of forgiveness feels forced. I can believe whole-heartedly in the one, not at all in the other.

This may be entirely my failing. I’ve never been religiously inclined and the notion of ‘forgive and forget’ does not sit easily with me. Eventually one sort of forgets. With that comes something which isn’t forgiveness, more like a moving on, I suppose, which takes the place of that more noble sentiment.

In any case, can one have it both ways? Forget in some personal way, and never forget in some social way which we believe is vital to the prevention of such events in the future? I had the misfortune to go to Berlin’s memorial for murdered Jews a few years ago. Full of people taking selfies and having fun. It could scarcely have been more offensive to point of the place. Richard Brody wrote of it:

The title doesn’t say “Holocaust” or “Shoah”; in other words, it doesn’t say anything about who did the murdering or why—there’s nothing along the lines of “by Germany under Hitler’s regime,” and the vagueness is disturbing. Of course, the information is familiar, and few visitors would be unaware of it, but the assumption of this familiarity—the failure to mention it at the country’s main memorial for the Jews killed in the Holocaust—separates the victims from their killers and leaches the moral element from the historical event, shunting it to the category of a natural catastrophe. The reduction of responsibility to an embarrassing, tacit fact that “everybody knows” is the first step on the road to forgetting.

Why no names, he asks? The victims are shrouded in abstract concrete anonymity, as are the murderers.

Nothing I read in this book of Wiesel’s shakes my conviction that the process goes on. It may have been hidden for a while, but it was never not there. The idea that it has ‘come back’ like it had disappeared because WWII was lost, for example, by the murderers of the Jews could not be further from the truth. It has never not been there. Not before, and not after WWII. The despising glee Wiesel describes on the faces of his Transylvanian neighbours as the town’s Jews were sent off to the camps has never changed. It only goes underground now and again when that is the right strategic thing to do.

Right now around the world anti-Semitism is going public in a million different ways. What happens when we permit ourselves to forget, to think that things are different now, is that they become the same. The Guardian reported a story a few days ago about a National Trust event in which Nazi uniforms were worn and displayed. The organiser denied this, but in fact a plethora of photos from the event showing them being worn gives the lie to that.

The purpose of the extremity of the Far Right and on-going Nazi groups is that its very existence makes this event acceptable. It’s okay, it’s just part of ‘living history’. It’s not like we actually bashed Jews or something. And before you know it, none of it means anything anymore. Anti-Semitism will simply be upfront  normal again instead of hidden where it should be in sewers with rats.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that when I wrote to the National Trust to complain about the very idea of this ‘Living History’ display of Nazis, to receive back a reply which barely contained its irritation with me. In particular I note that is said:

Historical re-enactments can help raise awareness of important and difficult moments from the past and bring stories to life in an engaging way. We don’t therefore have an issue with re-enactments in themselves but do believe they should be done sensitively.

My eyes are stuck still on the words ‘engaging’ and ‘sensitively’. How could these words ever be used to talk of such things? The answer is, because the events don’t really matter because they never did. Except to Jewish people, of course. And they will never stop paying the price.

Update 28/8/18 update 28/8/18 And even as we write and read, Naziism continues to come out of its hiding place to take its preferred place on the stage. And no great surprise to see that even (or especially?) Hitler salutes are ignored by the police, despite being illegal. The reason? Appeasement. ‘…a desire not to escalate an already tense situation had forced them to hold back.’ The police are the grand-children of Nazis too.
 

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