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  • Arthur A. Cohen's Debt to Elie Wiesel
  • Emily Kopley

In a 1990 review of 1980s American Jewish fiction, Alan Berger notes that the Holocaust refugee in Cynthia Ozick's short story "Levitation" is modeled on Elie Wiesel. "The refugee…is clearly based on Wiesel himself," Berger writes (228). This refugee urges fellow guests at a Manhattan party to "Come to modern times…Come to yesterday" (356). Both prophetic and mystical, the refugee, like Wiesel, stresses the link among historical times and the importance of apprehending the Holocaust. Berger's keen observation invites consideration of a parallel dynamic. A similar literary use of Wiesel's extraordinary life occurred a decade before "Levitation." In 1972, Arthur A. Cohen published In the Days of Simon Stern, a grand, philosophical novel in which the eponymous Messianic figure aims to protect Holocaust survivors. Elie Wiesel very likely served as a model for Simon Stern and for Simon's friend and the novel's narrator, Nathan Gaza. Cohen and Wiesel's short-lived but devoted friendship informed Cohen's daring fiction, a fiction that may in turn have encouraged "Levitation."

In his own days, Arthur A. Cohen was a remarkable figure. Before his death in 1986 at the age of fifty-eight, Cohen had garnered abundant critical notice for his four books on Jewish theology, his five novels, his edited volumes on religious thought and on visual art, his catalogues for his Modern Art bookstore Ex Libris, and his many short stories and essays. Since his death, Cohen has received occasional scholarly attention, mostly for his book on Holocaust theology, The Tremendum, and for In the Days of Simon Stern, his strongest work of fiction. Michael Morgan and Steven Katz have discussed Cohen's writing on the Holocaust, which he saw as a historical discontinuity that proves both God's "infinitesimal uncontrol" and the urgent need to pursue Jewish theology.1 And Alan Berger and Lillian S. Kremer have written about In the Days of Simon Stern with attention to its historical and theological underpinnings. In 1998, David Stern and Paul Mendes-Flohr published the splendid omnibus An Arthur A. Cohen Reader, which received particularly lengthy and appreciative reviews from Julian Levinson and Ilan Stavens.2 Yet Cohen's books—which have been out of print since 1988—invite much more scholarly scrutiny. Cohen's [End Page 28] writing can be daunting: the style is highly allusive and at times opaque, and his fiction and theology are equally metaphysical, more typical of pre-war Europe than post-war America. Despite its difficulty, this writing reflects the rigorous intellect and ambitious imagination of a man indeed rooted in his time and place.

Cohen's archive, housed at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, reveals influences on him: the archive's folders burst with newspaper clippings that served as sources for Cohen's fiction, and scores of folders contain correspondence with literary contemporaries, such as Ozick and Wiesel. Ozick was Cohen's closest friend; Wiesel was a close friend for a few years, 1965 to 1967. Evidence that Wiesel served as a model for Simon Stern and Nathan Gaza lies in the novel, Wiesel's own writing, and correspondence between Wiesel and Cohen.

Before considering this argument, it may be helpful to compare Wiesel and Cohen's lives until their friendship.3 Both were born in 1928, under vastly different circumstances: Wiesel in the shtetl of Sighet, Romania, to a middle-class Orthodox family; Cohen in New York City to a wealthy assimilated family who rarely attended synagogue and drifted between Reform and Conservative affiliations. Wiesel's childhood reading consisted of the Talmud and Kabbalist texts—he didn't read a novel until he arrived in France after the Holocaust—while Cohen's consisted of American and European literary classics—he didn't read much in Jewish texts until he was a Master's student at the University of Chicago. Wiesel's family spoke Yiddish at home; Cohen never learned the language. The young Wiesel considered becoming a great Hasid and Kabbalist; the young Cohen considered converting to Christianity. In 1944, Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz. In 1944, Cohen began his B.A...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-5077
Print ISSN
0271-9274
Pages
pp. 28-40
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-12
Open Access
No
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