Elie Wiesel: Embracing memory and madness

Elie Wiesel, the concentration camp survivor who became the literary conscience of the Holocaust, was awarded the peace prize for his message to mankind of "peace, atonement and human dignity."
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“Purple in the grays. Vermillion in the orange shadows, on a cold, fine day.”

-- Pierre Bonnard, from his notebooks

Manhattan in a winter storm seems galaxies away from Bonnard’s bright interiors. I carry an exhibition catalog from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Elie Wiesel’s office in Midtown.

As we talk, the bright yellow cover blinks up from the coffee table, louder than the thousands of books in his office; louder than his voice, which is soft with a strong French accent and something else.


Wiesel is 81. He is modestly dressed in a blue blazer, gray pants and black shoes. His manner is a gentle combination of elegance and humility. He is not frail, but I suspect I am not the first to feel the instinct to protect him, to speak quietly, not to move suddenly, to live up to the sophistication and humanity he deserves.

Wiesel’s 49th book, “A Mad Desire to Dance” (Alfred A. Knopf: 274 pp., $24) is a novel that contains, like all his books, the voice of a madman. “These were the first people to be taken away,” he says, thinking back to World War II. “Children, old people, madmen. I give them shelter in my books; there is always a place for them. They haunt my universe and I say, ‘Come in.’ ”

In the novel, Doriel, a middle-aged man whose parents lived through the war, believes he may be haunted by a dybbuk -- in Jewish folklore, the dislocated soul of a dead person. He seeks help from a young female therapist. The chapters follow the progress of the therapy, alternating between the therapist’s and Doriel’s points of view.

Wiesel began writing to bear witness to the Holocaust and to inspire others to write their stories. For years, he has defended the importance of memory against those who deny aspects of the Holocaust.

A loyal following

Even on the day we meet, the media carry the story of a Catholic bishop who questions the existence of the gas chambers. But readers have never abandoned him. Half a century after its publication, “Night,” which details his months in Auschwitz and Buchenwald as a young teenager, continues to appear on bestseller lists.

“Why did I write it?” Wiesel asks in the 2006 preface to a new translation. “Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?”

In February 2007, Wiesel was attacked by a different sort of madman, pulled off an elevator in San Francisco by a 22-year-old Holocaust denier named Eric Hunt who tried to drag him into a hotel room. Ever since, Wiesel has had a bodyguard. He has just returned from the inauguration and sees the election of Barack Obama as “history trying to redeem itself.” He remembers visiting the South in the early 1950s and feeling ashamed to be white.


Most of Wiesel’s books are written in French; the author settled in France after the war, studying psychology and philosophy at the Sorbonne. His wife, Marion, was his translator for many years, but recently she has been called to full-time work at the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which the couple started after he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and which suffered losses of around $15 million, substantially all of its assets, in the Bernard Madoff scandal. “Night” was written in Yiddish, his childhood language.

“A Mad Desire to Dance,” the author explains, is a response to his 1964 novel, “The Town Beyond the Wall,” in which Michael, a Holocaust survivor, returns to the town in which he was born, is captured by communists, put in prison and tortured. The novel ends with Michael locked in a cell with a madman, a catatonic who is unable to break through his wall of silence. “He knows,” Wiesel explains of Michael, “that if he does nothing he will go mad as well, so he tries to cure the madman.”

In “A Mad Desire to Dance,” Doriel is “cured” when his therapist leads him to the realization that his mother, a prominent resistance leader, had an affair during the war.

Did the new novel begin with a memory of dancing? “I’ve never danced in my life,” Wiesel says. “I don’t know how to dance or swim.” Rather, the book “began with a melody. As for the structure, it offers itself from the inside. If I were to begin a novel with a preconceived structure, it would be false.”


Certainly the structure of “A Mad Desire to Dance” comes from Doriel’s therapy: the realization of his mother’s affair and his ability to forgive her. “I believe in therapy,” Wiesel says, “particularly between friends. If a friend talks to another friend to relieve his suffering, that is therapy. Human beings were not born to be alone. God alone is alone. People are capable of falling in love. Illness is not being able to fall in love.”

Wiesel writes each book three times. He is long past denying the element of autobiography in his work. He is, like many writers, exhausted after writing. “One,” he says, “has to condense so much.”

Readers often come away from Wiesel’s books questioning their faith, even the existence of God. “I want them to feel that life is worth living,” he explains, “but I’m not a policeman. Who am I to be a guardian of faith? It is humanity I believe in. Humanity is so frail.”

When Wiesel speaks, he often comes across a memory. Speaking of human frailty, he recalls how frightened he was as a young boy in the camps. “I kept thinking, I haven’t done anything to remain alive.”


After his father died, on Jan. 28, 1944, in the bed next to him, Wiesel says flatly, “I died. I asked myself what would I have done if I had been chosen to be a kapo [a prisoner selected to help supervise other prisoners]. I hope I can say with certainty that I would have said no, but I honestly don’t know. I haven’t been tested. What can I tell the child in me?”

This is the question Wiesel asks in all his books. “The child in me is my judge.”

‘It was a nightmare’

Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania, in 1928. When he returned 20 years after the war, he did not recognize the town. “It looked the same,” he says, “but there were no Jews. Strangers lived there. It was a nightmare. I felt threatened. But I found, in the synagogue, some of the books that had once been mine and some of the commentaries I wrote as a child on the Bible. I remembered what we had done the last night before we were taken away.”


On that long ago evening, Wiesel’s father had dug a hole in the basement to hide the families’ valuables. Wiesel, meanwhile, had hidden a gold watch his grandfather had given him in a tree. Two decades later, he snuck out in the middle of the night “into someone else’s garden to see if the watch was still there. It was there. I put it back. I left it there.”

Wiesel has taught philosophy for 40 years. (He is the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities at Boston University.) “I love my students,” he says. “I spend time with them; I listen to their stories.” He also loves the thousands of stories he receives from fellow survivors; he reads them all, writing letters and prefaces and sending encouraging words. Once in a great while, he discovers that a writer is lying, and this shocks him, but he does not judge. “It is difficult enough to tell the truth,” he says.

Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was difficult for the author to get his books published. No one wanted to read about the Holocaust. “Now,” he says with pride, “there isn’t a school that doesn’t teach it.”

In the end, Wiesel believes, “The beauty of a good book is the special link between the reader and the writer -- sparks from the ashes, light and shadow.” But he worries about preserving that link amid the speed of modern life.


“When I was a child,” he recalls, “we would spend months preparing to visit my grandfather. We had time to think about things -- to anticipate -- before we did them. You’d think for a long time about taking a girl out. Now you ask her out and get divorced on the same day.

“In America, everything is numbers. But I’m happy if I write one good sentence.”

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.