LOS ANGELES, Dec. 7 (JTA) — Elie Wiesel’s second memoir differs from his first both in time and in approach.
In “All the Rivers Run to the Sea,” the first volume, which started with his birth and closed in 1969 with the author as a 40-year old bridegroom, Wiesel narrated “mostly that which I see within myself.”
The sequel, “And the Sea Is Never Full,” opens again with his wedding day in Jerusalem, but the perspective is outward-looking and the tone sharper, even combative.
“If, for me, the first volume is a kind of formative work, the second evolves under the sign of conflict,” he writes. “So do not expect a discreet and passive stance from me. The introvert will yield to the extrovert.”
Wiesel, now 71, is as good as his word. Neither the joy of his marriage to Marion, a fellow survivor, nor the pride of fatherhood keeps him at home to tend his interior garden.
His stature as the voice of the oppressed grows constantly, enhanced by the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and he becomes both a witness and activist in moral struggles of the past 30 years.
He seeks to arouse the world’s conscience— in the Soviet Union, he pleads for refuseniks and dissidents; in South Africa, he battles the apartheid regime; and he denounces atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Along the way, he seems to meet everyone and forget no one. The pages are dense with the names of the mighty and humble, the wise and the foolish. As promised, he does not shrink from confrontation.
Wiesel publicly chastises President Reagan for visiting the German military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, challenges Lech Walesa in Poland and his old friend Francois Mitterand in France, and battles constantly for the peace camp in Israel.
But in almost every chapter, the public figure revisits the familiar introspective persona. In interior monologues and almost nightly dream encounters with his father and grandfather, Wiesel is haunted by the ghosts of Auschwitz and Buchenwald as he wrestles with his own demons.
Still, it seems, Wiesel is uneasy in his dual roles of inward-looking writer and public activist. He acknowledges a certain degree of self-censorship, particularly in writing about his confrontations with leaders in Israel, American Jewish spokesmen and certain Holocaust scholars.
‘I want to be a defender of Jews, not their adversary. We have enough enemies as it is,” he said in an interview last week.
But, he reveals, he maintains a secret file with the names and errors of “certain leaders.” Apparently, so damning is the file that he has given instructions not to open it until 50 years after his death.
Above and beyond confrontations, Wiesel has two great fears. The greatest is the loss of memory and in an earlier book, “The Forgotten,” he describes the terrifying decline of a man with Alzheimer’s disease.
“His memory is like a book, and day after day a page is torn out, until there are no pages left,” he says of the book’s main character.
After writing 41 books, Wiesel’s own memory is constantly being recharged, as the titles of his memoirs indicate.
“I took ‘All the Rivers Run to the Sea,’ followed by ‘And the Sea Is Never Full’ from Ecclesiastes,” says Wiesel. “To me, the sea stands for memory, which is constantly replenished but is never filled up.”
His second fear is that the Holocaust is being eroded by trivialization and misinterpretation.
“The Holocaust is being assaulted,” he charges. “I don’t mean the deniers — they don’t matter — but I fear the latest assault, which comes from the academic community.”
Among the attackers are teachers and scholars, “who have to say something new,” and do so by questioning the testimony of Holocaust survivors.
For instance, says Wiesel, if two survivors describe a certain building at a collection point for deportees and one said it had five windows, and the other recalls seven windows, a latter-day historian might maintain that none of the survivors’ testimony is credible and that they are fantasizing.
Wiesel holds that even the most well-meaning of films, docudramas and novels on the Holocaust diminish its purity and sacredness, and that ultimately the only words that count are those coming directly from survivors.
The Holocaust, he writes, is the “ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted. Only those who were there know what it was, the others will never know.”
Wiesel also fears that emphasis on monetary repayments to those who died or suffered during the Holocaust, while fully justified, might obscure one fact. “The point is that 99 percent of the victims were poor,” he says. “The tragedy is that in their deaths, they were robbed even of their poverty.”
Wiesel was among the first to call for public recognition of Righteous Gentiles, who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. He was partly motivated by the memory of Maria, “a simple Rumanian peasant woman,” who worked in his parents’ household.
“When we were confined to the ghetto, Maria smuggled food to us,” he recalls. “Just before we were deported, she urged us to escape to the mountains, where we could hide in a hut owned by her relatives.
“That was in May 1944, two weeks before D-Day, but we didn’t listen.” We “didn’t know about the Final Solution, no one told us. Later, when our train stopped at Auschwitz, no one had heard of the camp’s name.”
Wiesel’s voice rises above its usual whisper when asked how he feels about his public status as a “heroic Holocaust survivor” and now “the moral conscience” of his time.
“Survival was sheer luck, nothing else,” he declares emphatically. “It wasn’t heroism, or initiative, or intelligence, just sheer chance.”
While he has become accustomed to being introduced as the conscience of mankind, he is not flattered. “I don’t enjoy it, I resent it,” he says. “Nobody has appointed me as symbol or conscience. They can say I’m a teacher, yes, a witness, yes, a writer, yes, but anything else I don’t accept. I used to protest such introductions, but now I’m fed up even with the protests.”
Wiesel continues his intense involvement with Israel, though resenting its treatment of the Diaspora as Jews “of the second rank.” We “must establish an honest relationship, in which neither side is better or worse,” he says. He is optimistic that under the leadership of Prime Minister Ehud Barak, real peace with the Palestinians will be achieved in the year 2000.
Otherwise, he is singularly unexcited by the approaching millennium.
“As a Jew, I don’t really care,” he says. “In any case, does anyone think that a change in calendar will change human nature? Will hatred stop? Will people unite to face common threats?”
Wiesel, author, professor, studious scholar, family man, activist and, yes, symbol, continues to write four hours every morning. Happily, he doesn’t know what “writer’s block” means and the output remains prodigious.
“I only sleep four hours a night and I have no social life,” he says. “I write and I study.”
He is in the middle of a major work, “My Masters and My Friends.”
He is also planning a new novel, but declines to talk about its subject or plot. “I am superstitious that way,’‘ he notes with a rare smile.