In 1941 a man returned, dazed and distraught, to his home town of Sighet on the border between Romania and Hungary. The first of Sighet's Jews to have witnessed and survived the slaughter of Hungary's first Jewish deportees, Moshe came to warn the Jewish community of what lay in store for them. No one believed his testimony. Three years later the unwitting Jews of Sighet were deported with the help of the Hungarian police to the German death camps. Few would ever return. One who did, however, was a boy whose parents and little sister had been murdered in the camps. Like Moshe, "the first survivor", Elie Wiesel survived to bear witness in his fiction and now in the first volume of his memoirs to the Holocaust of European Jewry.
Wiesel's powerful memoir charts the traumatic transformation of the poor and timid boy from Sighet into an internationally renowned writer and witness. His peaceful childhood shattered by the unimaginable depravity of the death camps, Wiesel found refuge in France where he somehow summoned the will to rebuild his life and embarked on a career as a journalist in France and the United States before finding his vocation as a writer.
Wiesel's memoir does not offer any new analysis of the phenomenon of antisemitism. His achievement is, rather, to remind us repeatedly of its devastating consequences. The experience of Wiesel's family does, however, help us to understand the perplexing passivity of the victims of the Holocaust. Wiesel recalls his mother's poignant response to the news of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Why, she wondered, could the Jews of the ghetto not have waited calmly for the war to end? The Jews of this small Eastern European town, Wiesel reminds us, had confidence in German culture and humanism. Certainly if, as Daniel Goldhagen has controversially argued, there existed a deep-rooted, exterminationist antisemitism in Germany before 1933, the Jews of Sighet were unaware of it. Moreover, the reality that awaited them was, quite simply, far worse than anything conjured up by the imagination.
Wiesel's Jewish identity condemned him to the death camps but his sense of solidarity with the Jewish community was to sustain him after his release: "I belonged to the community of night, the kingdom of the dead, and henceforth I would also belong to the wondrous, exhilarating community of the eternal City of David." He provides a compelling commentary on the experiences of the fledgling state of Israel, which he visited for the first time in 1949. And yet an intriguing aspect of Wiesel's life is the fact that he did not choose to settle in Israel. Although he does not tackle the issue explicitly, Wiesel intimates that his decision was influenced by the fact that as a Holocaust survivor he was made to feel "useless and superfluous", an outcast in the new Israeli state and an embarrassing reminder of the indignities and traumas of the diaspora experience.
Wiesel's memoir is remarkably free of rancour and bitterness. But it is passionate in its condemnation of the betrayal and solitude Europe's Jews were forced to endure. For Wiesel, words become weapons in his battle against solitude and forgetfulness. Yet he is keenly aware of the problems of representation. He does not experiment with innovative ways of depicting his experience in the camps. Ultimately, he argues, language is too impoverished to convey the reality of an experience "that can neither be imagined nor shared". For Wiesel the Holocaust also has a metaphysical dimension, disturbing existing philosophical, theological and psychological assumptions. Steeped in the rich spiritual life of Eastern European Jewry, he claims that his faith remained "nearly intact" in the death camps. Indeed, one of the most striking images of the memoir is that of Wiesel as a young boy drawing comfort from the sacred books he had brought to sustain him on his hellish journey in the sealed cattle truck that transported him to Auschwitz. Subsequently plagued by doubts, Wiesel charts his continuing struggle to resist resignation and fatalism.
The episodes that make up the memoir present us with a vast cast of characters, many of whom come alive, some of whom remain disappointingly one-dimensional. And the reader is frequently entertained by humorous vignettes, ranging from the description of his youthful forays into mysticism to his bizarre encounter with a Yiddish-speaking Red Indian.
Haunted, but not paralysed by the past, Wiesel continues to wage his battle against the solitude of victims everywhere. In 1993, in response to ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, he condemned "the excruciating sights of this old new war". Today, as the mass graves of Srebrenica are exhumed, Europeans should make it their business to read this testament that warns against forgetting the past so quickly.
Anita Bunyan is fellow in German, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs Volume One 1928-1969
Author - Elie Wiesel
ISBN - 0 00 255673 1
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 432