I was flipping channels the other day when I recognized a voice. It stopped me cold and I spent twenty minutes transfixed. My embarrassing discovery: I had stumbled into Oprah's show.
The voice was that of Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate and survivor of Auschwitz. Oprah had featured his magnum opus, Night, in her book of the month thing, but this tv program showed Oprah walking with Wiesel through Auschwitz, past the glass-encased displays of mounds of hair, shoes, pictures, childrens' clothes. It was deeply moving to see Wiesel talk about this, my own personal Virgil guiding a tour of Hell. His low, steady voice was firm that others should know what happened there.
After this show, I felt moved. I went to the framed, signed letter from Elie Wiesel that I have (on loan from a close friend, to whom he sent it). I started listening to a reading of Night in my car as I drive.
The question Oprah did not ask, and the question that has haunted me ever since reading Night at about age 12, was this: How do you leave? How do you leave the exhibits at Auschwitz and go on with the rest of your life? How do you ever smile or laugh again? I got a Bachelor's degree in German history trying (unsuccessfully) to answer these questions.
Every time I feel some bit of joy, I also feel a bit of guilt. Perhaps this comes from the Puritan roots of America. But I rather think it's a reminder to me not to live trivially, to live and think and write as if it mattered.
I was an atheist long before reading Night, but I think it was this book in particular, and Primo Levi's autobiography Survival in Auschwitz, that made me understand that the Holocaust disproves even the possibility of a benevolent God. I think of that scene where the young boy is being hanged by the Nazis, and the other prisoners are made to watch; the hanging doesn't go right, and the boy is held by the rope for 10 minutes, kicking and choking, 20 minutes, swinging and gasping, and it just will never end. And the cry goes up among the prisoners: Where is God?
I don't want to imagine a God who would allow the Holocaust to happen. I don't want to imagine the God who gave my cousin leukemia. Don't get me started on pediatric brain cancer. If there were such a God, then I would hope that upon death I could have the opportunity to express my feelings with my fists, against the bridge of His nose. Perhaps the Gnostics were right: We're not going to Hell, this world is Hell.
I once told my friend, from whom I have Wiesel's letter, of Wiesel's importance for my atheism. She replied that even though Wiesel remains religious, he would understand. Here's a man who remembers as a teenager standing before Dr. Mengele, and yet continues to write, to live, to teach. Such is the greatness of the man from whom we all have something to learn.
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