“After Such Knowledge . . .”
Les Portes De La Forêt.
by Elie Wiesel.
Editions du Seuil (Paris).
“Do you know what laughter is? I'll tell you. It's God's mistake. In creating man in order to submit him to His designs, He accidentally granted him the faculty of laughter. He didn't know that later this earth-worm would use it as a means of vengeance. When He realized what He had done, it was already too late. God couldn't do anything about it. Too late to deprive man of this faculty. However, He put His mind to the problem. He chased man from Paradise, invented for his sake an infinite variety of sins and punishments, gave him an awareness of his own insignificance—all this solely for the purpose of preventing him from laughing. Too late, I tell you. God's mistake preceded man's: they have this in common—they are both irreparable.”1
So the mysterious stranger tells the teen-age hero of Elie Wiesel's latest novel, Les Portes de la Foret. Both are Jews, on the run from the cattle truck that leads to the gas chamber. The scene is Hungary, near the Rumanian border, in the last phase of World War II, when the “final solution” of the Jewish question was being systematically put into effect all over Nazi-occupied Europe. It seems as good an explanation as any of the problem of human suffering: how could God—if there is a God—allow people to be treated, systematically, cold-bloodedly, scientifically, with such cruelty? The gas chambers; mountains of naked bodies, some of them not yet dead, being loaded into the crematorium; the firing squad, over and over and over again, shooting the assembled rows of men, women, and children before toppling them into the previously prepared mass graves; children torn from their mothers; young sons forced to witness and even to assist in the torturing of their fathers; the mounds of little children's shoes piled high after their wearers had gone in smoke up the chimneys of the mass crematorium. All this going on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year: hundreds, thousands, millions of people being rounded up, transported under appalling conditions of hunger, thirst, overcrowding, and stench, to be done to death in batches—quickly if they were lucky; if they were unlucky, after the suffering of a deliberately imposed degradation of body and spirit that extinguished all human dignity in all but the most incredibly heroic and tenacious. And all this for nothing they had done; simply for being of a certain stock, for having a certain heredity, for belonging to, or being descended from, those who had belonged to a certain identifiable community. And all this done in the midst of a desperately hard fought war when transport was at a premium, manpower running short, and every person, every energy, every kind of skill and device was needed if there was to be any chance of winning the war. There was no meaning of any kind to this planned slaughter; it hindered every rational aim of the slaughterers. But if it served no human end, what kind of divine end could it serve?
This is one of the questions that Elie Wiesel's novels have been trying to answer. He himself is a survivor of this inexplicable nightmare. In his novel Night—a literally terrible novel that it is impossible ever to forget and which one shrinks from reading twice—he documented with quiet clarity the journey to Auschwitz and the experience of Auschwitz. His mother and little sister went to the gas chamber; his father died beside him, having suffered, before his son's eyes, horrors that the mind almost refuses to take in. Born in Transylvania of a pious mother and a gentle humanist father, drawn by his own instincts to the more mystical side of Jewish lore—cabbalistic and hasidic—Wiesel was only eleven when World War II broke out and sixteen when he went to Auschwitz. His knowledge of, and deep feeling for, Jewish traditions kept him for some time seeking for some divine meaning in the wanton degradations and cruelties he experienced and witnessed. But one day (as he records in Night) he saw a small boy being hanged in the camp because he would not speak under torture about an act of sabotage of which he may not have known anything. The inhabitants of the camp were marched past the hanging body which, being so light, was still alive as the prisoners filed by, and was still moving. Wiesel heard a man behind him asking, “Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here, on this gallows.
Having survived all this, what can a man make of his life? How can he come to terms with his knowledge, his memories, his awareness of what men can and have done to each other? “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” But Eliot's question is not quite the right one. It is rather: After such knowledge, what meaning can be found in life, in existence, in anything? Wiesel's novels represent a search for the answer to that question.
Flitting through all of Wiesel's novels are pious Jews who, in the midst of appalling suffering and in the face of the great European death machine of the Nazis, tried to explain the facts in a way that would save their faith. “God is testing us,” says Akiba Drumer in Night. “He wants to find out whether we can dominate our base instincts, and kill the Satan within us. We have no right to despair. And if he punishes us relentlessly, it's a sign that He loves us all the more.” “All is not madness,” chants Menachem in The Town Beyond the Wall. “God is not madness. What do we know of God or madness? Of the origin of the act? Our knowledge is limited, negative. When God asked Job, ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ Job knew not how to answer. He submitted. Better: he returned his mind to God, so that the reflection could merge again with the source of light. Trust your intelligence to God; he will restore it to you intact, if not purer, more profound.” But even Menachem cannot sustain this argument; shortly afterward he cries: “I say to God: what do you want of me? I am weak, small, and vulnerable. You are great, powerful, invincible. Do you set me a question? Withdraw it. I do not know how to answer it. I only know how to weep. You have taught me only to weep.”
Menachem, however, is not a victim of the Nazis: we find him in a Hungarian Communist prison after the war is over. Wiesel is broadening the charge against God. The Nazi horror was unique only in its scale and its method of organization. Jews have suffered from many hands. The hero of Les Fortês de la Forêt (who is another mask of the author himself) recollects how as a small boy in Hungary he used to be attacked in the street by a band of Christian boys crying Büdos zsido. “Filthy Jews, go back to Palestine, you killed Christ, you'll see what it means to kill Christ, you'll pay with your blood.” The Nazis had no trouble in grafting their brand of anti-Semitism onto the native Hungarian brand; and this goes for most Central and Eastern European countries which the Nazis took over. Wiesel does not emphasize the Christian origins of anti-Semitism, but it is an underlying theme in Les Portes de la Forêt, even though the young hero of this novel is saved and protected by a Christian former maid of his family. He has to pose as the deaf-and-dumb son of the former maid's nymphomaniac sister in order to be accepted in the Christian village (for if he spoke in this Rumanian-speaking community, his accent would have betrayed him). The local schoolmaster, putting on a passion play as an end-of-term celebration, can get none of his pupils to act the part of the wicked Judas, so the deaf-and-dumb boy has to act it, silently. In his double role as Judas and a supposed son of the beautiful nymphomaniac whom every man in the village had at one time or another been in love with and who had betrayed them all, he is set upon by the villagers, reviled and physically attacked, only to be saved at the last moment by the aloof mayor, who turns out to be a secret man of the resistance and who leads the hero to a secret hideout of Jewish partisans. These partisans confidently expect a return of the transported Jews from their “labor camps” after the war, but the hero tells them the truth about the “final solution.” In endeavoring to find a witness to confirm his dreadful story—the sought-for witness is the mysterious stranger who had met him when hiding in the forest and had told him about God and laughter, and had finally given himself up to save his young friend—the hero is led by a chapter of accidents to betray, quite unwittingly, the head of the Jewish partisans, his old childhood friend. In the end he marries the girl whom this leader had loved and who had in turn been loved by her, but both of them find it hard to come to terms with their past. They go to the United States, and it is as a result of a mystic experience with a group of Hasidim in Williamsburg that the hero finds the strength to confront life once again in a mood in some degree positive.
Wiesel's use of parables, mid-rashic sayings, rabbinical legends, and cabbalistic fantasies does not represent a simple return to his Jewish faith. There is no straight religious or other explanation of what he has been through that can release him to face the world again with any sense of meaning and purpose. The hero of The Accident, living as a journalist in New York after experiencing the full horrors of Auschwitz (that is, in exactly the same position as Wiesel himself, who is correspondent for an Israeli paper in New York), is haunted by the deaths of his parents and sister and especially of his grandmother; he belongs to the dead past and feels that he has no right to live and to allow himself to enter into a real relationship with the girl who loves him. He is run over and dangerously hurt in a street accident; but he recovers, in spite of his manifest death wish, and the end of the book gives us some hope that he has worked his way out of his obsession with the past and can allow himself to live in the present, even if that means starting off by lying. The Accident makes no use of traditional Jewish legends or sayings, but its main theme is essentially that of The Town Beyond the Wall and Les Portes de la Forêt, both of which do. The Jewish legends and sayings, when they are introduced, are introduced as catalysts, releasing something in the hero, not as valid truths on their own account. But always behind the horror and the compassion lies the irony. It is irony that really saves—like the laughter of the mysterious stranger in Les Portes de la Forêt—for irony prevents one from putting total trust in a creed, which might in turn be betrayed by further experience.
It is impossible to discuss Wiesel's novels in the terms which one would normally employ in reviewing fiction. All his works are clearly autobiographical, directly or indirectly, and they represent a genuine and sometimes painful endeavor to come to terms with post-Auschwitz life. The problem they deal with is central in modern experience, so that we are continually led as we read to go beyond the novels to reflect on how we ourselves should think or feel on this issue. They are thus important documents of modern consciousness and as such they ought to command the widest possible audience. As for myself, I would go further and confess that I cannot tell and I do not care whether these are great novels. But they are certainly important evidence, great documents, dealing with something which must perpetually haunt everyone old enough to have lived through World War II. For the few Jews who survived Hitler's Europe there is the agonizing problem of making themselves real persons again. Those Jews who were fortunate enough to be living elsewhere cannot dare to say “There but for the grace of God . . .”—for who would have the effrontery to believe that it was God's grace that saved him from the gas chamber while the six million who went were denied that grace? But what was God doing anyway when He let this happen?
“With abundant love hast Thou loved us, O Lord.” “With everlasting love hast Thou loved the house of Israel, Thy people.” These are two sentences from the Jewish daily prayer-book. Wiesel has a right to say that if the slaughter of six million Jews in Hitler's Europe represents the way in which God shows His love for His people, then the sooner He stops loving them the better. In fact, he never puts it that way, though the thought, or something like it, is often just under the surface. One may in the end, with sufficient resilience, courage, and luck, work one's personal way out of the nightmare of Auschwitz to face life again as a normal human being and sustain normal human relationships. But that does not dispose of the theological and philosophical problems, which remain unanswered, in spite of wise hasidic rabbis calling for joyous song in the midst of sorrow. This sort of thing has been going on for a long time; the 16th-century Hebrew work, Emek Habacha (“Valley of Weeping”), lists all the massacres of Jewish communities known to the writer up to his own day—it is a formidable list. Perhaps we should remember this now that the Vatican Council has recently “acquitted” Jews of automatic and universal responsibility for the death of Jesus. It is time that somebody asked the Jews if they are ready to acquit their persecutors. Christ on the cross, Christians believe, is a symbol of the ultimate sacrifice, the ultimate suffering voluntarily endured for the salvation of man. Because of this, William Empson has called Christianity “a hideous system of torture worship.” One does not have to agree with Empson to see that if meekly endured suffering is what is important, then there are millions of other Jews besides Jesus who rate very much more highly. Perhaps the figure of Christ on the cross, so ubiquitous in Christian iconography, should now be replaced by a reminder of a deeper and more widespread suffering than Christ's. Perhaps the figure should be replaced by that of the little hanging boy, still alive while hanging because his body was so light, or that of another little boy (as testimony at the recent Frankfurt trials revealed) who was forced at gun point to hold his father's head under water until he drowned and was then himself shot. Or perhaps just that great, silent heap of children's shoes.
1 The translation is my own. The English translation of this book will be published in May 1966 under the title The Gates of the Forest by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.