- And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969
“I have lived a few lives, “ observes Elie Wiesel, in the second volume of his memoirs. How these existences interrelate provides a key to understanding the thought of this remarkable survivor. Driven by the claims of memory, he has devoted his life to bearing witness. Universally known, recipient of the Nobel Peace prize and many literary awards, the author is indefatigable in his efforts on behalf of Jewish and human rights. In fact, he views the two as inextricably bound. For Wiesel, a central figure on the stage of contemporary history, universal lessons flow from the particular. Paradoxically, however, he remains a very private public figure. Nevertheless, distinguishing between the two volumes of his memoirs, Wiesel writes that in volume two, “The introvert will yield to the extrovert.” He himself provides a crucial clue to reading his life when he observes, “I look for the life of the boy from Sighet in that of the orphan abandoned in Buchenwald.”
This volume is a veritable cornucopia of Wieseliana. From its pages the reader gleans much information about the author as writer, human rights activist, and, above all, a figure who is firmly and lovingly rooted in Judaism. Reviewing the landscape of his life for the past thirty years, Wiesel reflects on issues ranging from politics to piety. Early on, he tells the reader the he feels obligated to “turn my attention to those who have been judging me.” His account of Simon Wiesenthal’s boorish behavior is especially frank. Wiesel is reviled by extremists on both the left and the right. Deeply committed to the Jewish people, he is accused of being “Judeocentric.” A staunch supporter of Israel, he is criticized for not living in the Jewish State. The French antisemite Jean-Marie Domenach vilely shrieks that certain Jews—including Wiesel—are collecting “the dividends of Auschwitz” for their own reasons. [End Page 184]
On the political level, Wiesel takes his readers into the labyrinthine world of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, especially as its members are forced to take a stand on President Reagan’s infamous visit to Bitburg, the German military cemetery which includes graves of the SS. Wiesel vigorously opposes this visit. Unsurprisingly, Patrick Buchanan, a presidential advisor well known for Holocaust denial, contends it is crucial that the administration not be viewed as succumbing to Jewish pressure. Not to be outdone, Marshall Breger, a practicing Orthodox Jew and Jewish Affairs advisor to the White House, tries to dissuade Wiesel from his opposition. But for the author, the matter is not politics but a question of good and evil. Receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, and with President Reagan in attendance at the nationally televised event, Wiesel speaks truth to power. He reminds the president, for whom he has high personal regard, that his place is not with the murderers, but with the victims.
In a chapter aptly titled From Sighet to Oslo, Wiesel, two years shy of his sixtieth birthday, describes two honors he receives in 1986. The first is the Nobel Peace Prize. The second is his invitation from the Commissioner of Baseball to throw out the first ball at the World Series. The author’s son is more excited about the second honor. Wiesel receives congratulations for his Nobel Prize from figures as diverse as Henry Kissinger and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Wiesel builds on the Nobel award in two ways. He further publicizes the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union who are prisoners of conscience. Among those he mentions are Vladimir Slepak, the oldest of the refuseniks, and Anatoly Scharansky—a future minister in the Israeli Government—who “owes his Jewish involvement to (Slepak).” Wiesel also attempts—in vain—to meet with Andrei Sakharov, a non-Jewish scientist who is Russia’s only Nobel Peace laureate.
Wiesel notes that a “writer cannot detach himself from his story. He is responsible for it to the end.” The author takes this admonition to heart. He and his...