The Hebrew word for “remember” is used over 200 times in the Old Testament. It describes times when God remembered His people, and acted on their behalf, but also as a command for these same people to follow. To remember the things God had done. To call to mind the ways He showed up in sometimes the most impossible circumstances. The word “zakar” means to remember, yes. But it also means to invoke. To keep. To preserve.
Elie Wiesel was burdened with the task of remembering—of keeping, of preserving—a painful history.
He wrote his first, and most famous book, in 1958. In Night, a compact 109 pages, Wiesel remembers and then tells the story of his experience of the Holocaust. He was just 15 years old in 1944 when the Jewish inhabitants of his town were forced across the Hungarian border to become prisoners of a German concentration camp. In 1945 he was liberated. Two weeks prior, his father died in camp. His mother and younger sister died months earlier.
Elie Wiesel died seventy years later, Saturday July 2, at 87. He was a Nobel Peace Prize Winner. He was an author of more than 40 books. He was an educator and a learner. A husband, father and grandfather. And he was a survivor. In spite of everything.
Though maybe he never intended to be, Elie was a voice for a generation. For a whole people directly impacted by the Holocaust. But also for anyone whose life dealt them a hand that led them to ask questions of God, whose righteous indignation prompted them to shake their fists at God—in frustration, in anger, in fear, in confusion—over who God really is in light of how depraved His creation could behave.
He was honest in his belief. And honest in the loss of it.
He grew up a devout Jewish boy, fervently reading the Talmud and praying. But then the world began coming apart at the seams. His family was made to move to a Jewish ghetto. Then made to board a train in subhuman conditions. And the reality of what was happening—what might happen, what the stories from others suggested had already happened—began to sink in. And then he arrived at the camp, at Auschwitz, where up to 90% of the people were killed on arrival. Of that unimaginable first night, witnessing firsthand the steady stream of smoke curling against the gray skies, Wiesel confesses, “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.”*
What must it have felt like, I wonder, to watch your family die, and then, the confidence in everything bigger than yourself, die too?
He was the voice of a modern day psalmist, who in his vulnerability and fear, in his anger and bewilderment, put words to the parts of ourselves and parts of the world we cannot understand. And in his account, in his retelling, in his remembering, he gave others the permission to ask the same questions he did.
Despite what sometimes felt like his intention to, Elie never lost faith completely. (Or, maybe it was his faith that never lost him.) He maintained doubts. He had bigger questions than answers. He never came to reconcile what he experienced with what he believed ought to be true of the world. But he could not quite let go of God. His was a tenacious grip, on an, oftentimes, fragile faith, choosing over and over, to believe when life’s atrocities suggested it wasn’t in his best interest to do so.
Some 50 years after writing Night, in an interview, Wiesel recounts a story.
“I had a teacher, a great teacher, who once asked me, ’Who is the most tragic character in the Bible?’ I said Moses, because he was a solitary leader who had problems either with God or with the people. There was always somebody who didn’t like him. Or maybe Abraham, who was asked by God to bring his son to be sacrificed. Or maybe it was Isaac, who realized all of a sudden what his father was going to do. My teacher said, no, no, no. I said, ‘Well, then, who is the most tragic character?’ And he said, ‘God.’” **
I suppose that is what Elie Wiesel’s experience tells us most, of all the lessons gleaned from a life spent remembering and retelling. God is the most tragic character of history, present in all and every suffering. Alongside all, and every, hurt. There, in all, and every, abandonment. Every horror. Pain. Evil. God is tragic, because more than anyone else, He has experienced the worst humanity can do, and enters into it, again, and again, and again.
Elie bore the curse of remembering. He remembered our collective history so it wouldn’t simply become the stuff of textbooks. He remembered in order to preserve the humanity behind the stories that make up our communal human experience. And in so doing, made his experience, our experience. His quest for faith, our quest. His search for a tragic God that shows up in the most unlikely places, our search.
And in his remembering, invoking and persevering, he showed us God. He showed us we may not be able to come to terms with evil in the world and how a good God allows it. That task is too large. He showed us we may not have answers for the lingering doubts a hell bent humanity seems to ignite again and again. That responsibility is not ours. And yet, he showed us that while there is much we are left wondering about God, if all we can be sure of is that He is present, then we know enough. It is possible to hold tight to that in the most unlikely of places, and it is possible to keep surviving because of it.
Thank you, Elie. For inviting us into your Night, and for using the days you felt guilty for being given, to tell us, there too, God is.
*Night By Elie Wiesel