July 13, 2006

Krista's Journal: Faith in the Face of a Destructive World

July 13, 2006

I first met Elie Wiesel in 1985, when I was a young New York Times stringer in West Berlin. He was visiting that city, the former capital of the Third Reich, for the first time since the Holocaust. He had requested a meeting with a group of young Germans — the new, post-Holocaust generation. Afterwards, another journalist and I sat with him and his wife and talked. He was visibly surprised, even shaken. He said this: "I had never before considered that it could be as difficult to be a child of those who ran the camps as to be a child of those who died in them."

I was not a religious person at that time. I was caught up in political crises — the enduring geopolitical consequences of Germany's descent into Nazi terror. I was an idealistic, ambitious young American, enthralled with politics and military strategy. Yet I felt Wiesel's words belonged on the front page of newspapers, that they should be shouted to the world. I was finding that politics could not penetrate the complexities of human nature that shape the problems it arose to address. Through Elie Wiesel's eyes, paradoxically, a goal like redemption — and not just retribution — appeared possible, even necessary. But this had nothing to do with God. Wiesel's faith, as he wrote in Night, had been consumed forever by the flames of the ovens at Auschwitz.

I became a religious person in the years that followed — in part because I continued to wonder at the limits of politics and to love large questions of meaning. As I began to read literature about faith, I often found Elie Wiesel cited as an icon of a reasonable loss of faith. He was at once a quintessentially Jewish figure and a thoroughly modern intellectual. There is a terrible moment in Night when Wiesel watches a young boy die slowly by hanging and repeats the question posed by someone in the crowd: "Where is God now?" Wiesel writes, "I heard a voice within me answer him. Where is He? He is hanging here on this gallows…"

But I could never quite imagine that as the last word on God in Wiesel's life, especially after he began to publish volumes of Hasidic tales in more recent years. Two decades after our first meeting in Berlin, I sat across from him in a hotel room that my producers had turned into a makeshift studio. I asked him the questions I'd come to care about in the intervening years. I asked him to tell me what happened after he lost his faith forever at Auschwitz. He answered: "What happened afterwards is in the book. I went on praying."

When you read Night, it's easy to dismiss those prayers as hollow ritual, to skim past them to the horrors that seem to defy their validity. But Elie Wiesel holds human beings responsible for the evil of Auschwitz and Birkenau, he tells me, not God. "God gives us the world which he wanted — not perfect but beautiful. And what are we doing to it?" He cites an idea first described by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, that in certain historical periods there is an "eclipse of God." Elie Wiesel imagines that perhaps the Holocaust was so massive and unbearable that God "turned his face away." Still, he can not help but be angry with God for that. All of Wiesel's writing about faith is rich with paradox and infused with the anger he feels up to this day.

Somewhere along the way in America, we came to think of religious people as those who have all the answers. Elie Wiesel is an exceptional — and exceptionally wise — example of the way I have come to believe religious traditions actually function in the lives of real people most of the time. That is to say, faith and religious ritual are there precisely in the midst of life's ambiguities, when there are no easy answers and the world does not make sense. After the horror of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel went on venting his anger at God, writing his stories, grieving, rediscovering Hasidic legend, visiting other people in places of horror, and praying. His life is a model of religious faith and practice in a world where faith can seem purposeless, even destructive.

If you catch nothing else of this week's program, listen to the marvelous prayer Elie Wiesel recited near the end of our conversation. It includes this petition: "I no longer ask You to resolve my questions, only to receive them and make them part of You."

Recommended Reading

Image of Night
Author: Elie Wiesel
Publisher: Bantam Books (1982)
Binding: Paperback, 109 pages

This is the classic memoir of the Holocaust — published when Wiesel was in his 20s — in a world which still had not found public words to describe what happened in places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Treblinka. For that, Night is surprising in its spareness. It is direct and simple. It observes the contours of human tragedy and human evil and raises questions without forcing answers.

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is the recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Nobel Peace Prize, and is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.