To come to terms with Wiesel’s case means, before anything, to come to terms with this document. But everything depends on knowing where to open it. For upon reading its first few pages one might quite expeditiously surmise, understandably enough, that it must belong on the same shelf with the great Auschwitz memoirs, those of Levi, Améry, Ka-Tzetnik, Kuznetzov, Frankl, Kertész, Pahor, etc., indeed side by side with the 1958 French version and its offshoot translations, all of which can indeed be substantively or primarily classified as memoirs. How might such a cataloguing error be obviated? A crude expedient would be to stick a plastic red tab to the top of the first page of the fourth chapter of the Yiddish text, above the chapter heading, Der yom hadin, ‘The Day of Judgement,’ to mark the point in the document where the specifically depositional tone is adopted in a conscious manner and from which vantage point, consequently, the entire document may be recognized, read, and properly filed as a deposition.
The ‘Day’ in question in this chapter is Rosh Hashanah,1 New Year’s day in the Hebrew calendar. To be exact, it is the Rosh Hashanah that headed the 5705th year of the universe (according to talmudic reckoning) since its creation. The date (i.e. 17 September 1944 in the ‘common era’) remains by and large of historiographic interest, and as such has considerably less significance for our hypothesis that Wiesel is the last Ashkenazi than the fact that the Ereignis associated with this date does not exactly belong to the day in an historical manner, properly speaking, but rather constitutes an ‘event’ that is quite dateless but to which that day in European history (be it in September or Tishrei) can be meaningfully associated. On the other hand, in so far as an understandable conventional need to assign dates to apocalypses and to consider them in a historiographic light may be indulged, this date in the year 5705 (1944) can also serve to conveniently mark the apocalypse of Ashkenaz. At least, again, in so far as such an apocalypse can be regarded as an interesting event. However we consider it, in any event, the apocalyptic character of the day is essential to the depositional account of it.
The testimony of Wiesel recounts the ‘event’ as follows. On this day, in the evening, the eve of the New Year, approximately ten thousand men congregated in the Auschwitz Appellplatz to stand before the Judge of all the earth, to stand thus in order to be judged. Many of these men were devout—frume yidn. Others less so. But none so little as to actually be truant from the occasion of the momentous congregation. The devout ones, recalls Wiesel, had already been making preparations for the holy day since the onset of the change in seasons, as the month of Elul in its approach to the autumnal equinox is set aside for special annual efforts at introspection. ‘We must be ready for the Day of Judgment!’ these men could be heard saying in the camp or during work detail. But for Wiesel, who at the time was a youth just about to turn sixteen, these proclamations found an apposite, alternative meaning, a meaning that he was able to implicate into the same chapter title in an ironic sense.
Be ready? For what? We’ll be ready.
This time the roles will be reversed. This time we will not stand like the accused before absolute justice. This time we will be the judge and He—God alone—the accused.
—’We have to get ready for the Day of Judgement!’ devout Jews warned us.
We’ll be ready. Everything is prepared. Powerful documents in our prosecuter’s dossier. Animated and gruesome documents. Documents that ought to jolt the foundations of divine justice in heaven and on earth.
A Day of Judgement? Let it come. We’re waiting for it.2
From here Wiesel’s account of the day continues to expand the back and forth play between the plain calendrical meaning of this day in which men once again passed before their Judge ‘like sheep before a shepherd,’ and the ironic meaning of this ‘Day of Judgement’ in 5705, namely, the apocalyptic sign whereby this unique day punctuated history itself with finality as the said Judge Himself stood in judgement before a jury of ten thousand plaintiffs. (It should be noted that it is specifically and solely this ironical apocalyptic meaning that is in question here rather than any apocalyptic meaning in the plainer, straight-forward sense of a ‘Last Judgement’ reserved by God for the end of time, a sense that is certainly also at play in the chapter.3) These two possible meanings are even legible in the ambiguous use of the term ‘we’ with which the effervescent experience of such a congregation must inevitably be remembered. The ‘we’ who squarely situate themselves within calendrical time (‘We have to get ready …’) speak, without irony, on an altogether conscious level of concern. And if the fourth chapter were read on this level alone, it would have to be classified as a type of travesty, a dark farcical Purimschpiel in which Auschwitz would appear as a field divided into the camp of the faithful and the camp of the faithless. The ‘we’ who belong to apocalyptic time, on the other hand (‘We’ll be ready …’), this ironic and furious ‘we,’ in whose front row stands the adolescent ready to singe his own lungs with his screams, requires that the chapter be read with more psychoanalytical attunement, with an ear for the sounds of the inner schism within the Ashkenazi soul as such, that is, a schism inherent in the psyche of each member of the Auschwitz association assembled for this voluntary roll call on the 1st of Tishrei 5705. This ‘we’ cannot distinguish the faithless from the faithful. It cannot do so as a result of a deep turbulance and blurring of identities that takes place in both elements of the crowd. Among the so-called faithful, there is more than enough despair to make it difficult to apply the term ‘faith’ in any simple manner. In the the eyes of these frume yidn, Wiesel is able to discern an ‘an absurd faith’ (an absurdale emuneh), a ‘despairing trust’ (fartzveifeltn bitakhoin), ‘an abyss of trust’ (a tehoim fun bitakhoin),4 in other words, a ‘faith’ that is its own opposite. The khozn, the liturgical leader, can barely string together the words of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy. The congregants pour out a grotesque mixture of ‘prayer and despair-prayer (yeush-tfiloh).’5 Among the so-called faithless, conversely, this same despair that convulses the hearts of the devout ones becomes a source of strength for their case against God, a strength which, if the devout could not disentangle from their inner confusion, a sixteen-year-old was able to take up without shame in a fearless khutzpeh that would transform an all too familiar ritual supplication into an all but unprecedented legal petition, turning the tables on the Judge on this Day of Judgement. This is the real meaning of his estimation of his position as that of a detached onlooker: ‘I came to the Appellplatz. But I did not join the minyin in liturgy. I stood there like an observer …’.6 It means that he is not detached at all, that he is in fact the other, more confident liturgical leader of the great congregation, and that the spectacle of piety is actually the fundamental force that consolidates the strength of his case, this apocalyptic class action.
Look how the human being has become stronger than God, I thought to myself.
Ten thousand people participated in a giant minyin. Blockälteste, kapos, and simply prominent camp inmates. All, or almost all, have come together to pour out their prayer with the despair-prayer of the camp minyin.
Devout Jews—who on account of their Judaism had lost the right to be called human beings—devout Jews are crying in a loud voice.— ‘Let us bless the blessed Lord!’ calls out the cantor in a inhuman voice. The blessing was uttered, as the wind, rather than a human creature, prayed before the altar.
Let God be blesssed!
Human beings are praying. The ten-thousand-headed man, in obedience to words, bows down, like a tall giant tree bending its branches, feeling the storm wind.
Human beings are praying. They are praying to God. Here in the camp. Between electric fences. At a stretch from the crematoria. Their prayers climb to God. Blessings. To the God who daily takes smoking sacrifices of blood. […]
The cantor—a Vizhnitzer hosid, a shoikht or a judge—sings heart-rendingly.
‘The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof …’
He stops at each word. Unable to bind the words of the song together. The melody sticks in his throat like a bone, choking him.
And I—the one-time yeshiva bokhr, the bar-mitzvah youth, thought to myself: Yes, the human being is stronger than his Maker, than his God. When You, God, great and awful God, were disappointed with Adam and Eve, You just drove them out of Eden; when You were disappointed in Noah’s generation, you quickly brought a flood upon it; when Sodom became unpleasing to You, You burned them up in a fire. And now that human beings are disappointed in You, what are they doing? They pray to You! They praise Your name! […]
Once? Once I believed with a perfect faith that God sees everything and justice is everything, that God does not forget, that God pay attention to genuine prayers.
Once? Once I believed, believed with a perfect faith, that upon any gesture of mine, any prayer, depended the fate of the world, of the Jewish people, of the final redemption.
No more that ‘once.’
Today? Today no more tears come to my eyes. The source has dried up. Today I no longer feel myself weak. I feel strong. I feel within myself the might, the strength of someone against whom a monstrous injustice has been perpetrated. I feel strong. Strong like a prosecutor across from a murderer.7
Strength is an issue of signal significance in this ‘event’ and in Wiesel’s account of it. We will see when we turn to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s interest in this case how the issue of strength will have undergone two critical permutations. The first configuration of strength is documented by the first three chapters of Wiesel’s deposition. It is the strength of the German murderers (the deitshe roitzkhim, as Wiesel calls them in his dedication) vis-à-vis their Jewish victims of crime. The second configuration takes shape as a third party is drawn into the situation, namely the Master of the universe, the universe in which Jews lived alongside Germans in Ashkenaz. This is the theme of the fourth chapter. ‘Today I no longer implored. I was no longer capable of lamenting. I felt, on the contrary, very strong. I was the accuser. And the accused: God.’8 The theme is the strength of the Jewish victims vis-à-vis God, the strength of the case against Him, a strength evidently drawn from a supreme legislative source higher than that of the Master of the universe. It is a moral strength built upon a solid foundation of utter physical weakness. ‘What is Your greatness,’ Wiesel asks God, ‘by comparison with their weakness?’9 In the third configuration, finally, which we will see taking shape at the most critical point in the Rebbe’s advice to Wiesel regarding this case, at which point the second configuration is shown to have a deep internal weakness, a certain critical decadence, we will see the presentation of a configuration of strength that is yet higher than the supreme legislative source looming above the Master of the universe and that can no longer be arranged in terms of any ‘vis-à-vis.’ We will have to tackle the difficulty of conceptualizing this third configuration. In order to prepare the way to it, we first need to grasp the second configuration, in which the strength of the case against God can be grasped in its maximum force. How to bring out the strength of the case of Eliezer Wiesel against God, therefore, must be the first issue for our dossier. It is the basic problem, already mentioned, of legal representation, the legal re-presentation of pre-litigious moral fury. And as already mentioned, in order to configure the case in such a way that its innermost strength comes to a maximum of expression, it is necessary to begin by examining, rather ruthlessly (in preparation for the ruthlessness to be expected from the cross-examination of the defence, the theodician defending the Master of the universe) the point of weakness in the fury. Where is this point of weakness in Wiesel’s case? It is to be found in its literary aspect.
We begin therefore with the simple recognition that in this case we are dealing with above average literature. That is to say, above, but not too far above. Our question is simply as follows. Is it not something of a wonder—and the challenge is to consider the wondrous phenomenon unsardonically—that the memoirist opera of this writer commands such wide authority in the genre of Auschwitz letters, actual authority and not just popularity, when we consider the chronic persistence whereby a kind of melancholia more purple than black hemorrhages prose of the same hue throughout these memoirs? It is a question of high literature. The maudlin character of Wiesel’s dramaturgy, or more precisely, what may be termed the maudlin principle systematically at work within it, from the first Yiddish page of his first and, in a sense, ‘only’ book (‘If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one’10), all the way to his nth publication (The Good Lord should give him the health and strength to write yet one more!), is the persistent popularist factor that, more embarrassingly than occasional shortcoming here or there throughout his oeuvre, compromises his literary capacity to evoke for the sake of a internally bleeding need to give voice to everything under the sun. Evocation, an essential mark of literature of the first rank, is proportional to the writer’s capacity for emotional self-contraction, for a certain elegant and modest reticence, a confidence in the resources of silence, perhaps even something like good manners. Literature of the second rank, accordingly, is marked by an incapacity for this. Incapable of withstanding the pressure of the spaces between the lines, it rushes in to fill every vacuum, in a nervous worry that the Said (le dire) could only have survived its journey to the reader’s inner ear under the swarming protective reinforcements of the Meant (le vouloir dire). It is the author’s anxious anticipation of a commentary which he writes preemptively, furtively into the work itself. A good example of this weakness was noticed by Camus in his reading of La Nausée, about which he commented that Sartre had not quite managed to dissolve philosophical ideas into literary images.11 In Wiesel’s case, what is not adequately dissolved in the literary element is the already-mentioned fury that has very little to do with literature. This is something that has not gone unnoticed by his critics, especially the ones who read Yiddish.12 Therefore we will also have to show how the maudlin principle is itself an expression of, as well as a truncation of expression resulting from editorial intervention, of a certain bilious humour that, left unedited, expresses itself as fury. Restricting our attention, to begin with, to the dynamics of evocation, however, the first point to notice regarding Wiesel’s need to give voice to too much is that it is embarrassing precisely because it does not come across as a failing in either natural talent or discipline. What is at play, again, is a principle.