The chair of the House of Representatives and B'nai B'rith Uruguay President both spoke and paid their respects. The keynote speaker of the event was noted Jewish community leader Ianai Silberstein, who has a long record as a great intellectual and Jewish leader in the Massorti congregation. What follows is his remarkable speech that and has been professionally translated to English.
- “...in a place whose name I do not care to remember” is the famous quote from Don Quixote
- “What's in a name” asks Juliet in William Shakespeare's tragedy
- “Who am I?” asks Jean Valjean, prisoner 24601, in the novel by Victor Hugo.
- “Call me Ishmael”; thus begins “Moby Dick”, Herman Melville's novel
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, wrote:
“I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name.”
Human beings are recognized by their name. Not for nothing, in different traditions and in different ways, names tend to repeat themselves, generation after generation, because identity is something we wish to preserve. Elie Wiesel was one of those numbers who was able to retrieve his name, to rescue it from the abyss and darkness where the Nazi regime not only wanted to bury it, but also to extinguish it. Elie Wiesel converted his name into a symbol and a manifesto.
Elie Wiesel, paraphrasing the aforementioned authors, could have said something like this:
- I chose to remember.
- In my name, there are all the names.
- I am a Jew who survived the Holocaust.
- Call me Elie Wiesel.
As I face the honor and challenge of sharing reflections in a tribute to ElieWiesel and thus dive into the dark memories of the Shoah, the Jewish Holocaust, I cannot but ask myself how I personally arrived at this moment. Am I a child of the Shoah? How could I address an issue of this nature? I immediately ask myself: Can a man of my generation, a Jewish Ashkenazi, whatever his circumstances, be unaware of the Shoah? After all, although my four grandparents left Europe before the war, a good part of their families perished who knows in what circumstances: firing squads, starvation in ghettos, or death camps. Thus, can I have the right to opt out?
The Shoah is unequivocally linked to Judaism. It should not be understood outside of this context, just as it should not be understood outside the Nazi regime. It is a fatal historical crossroads of centuries of anti-Semitism and a racist, efficient and omnipotent regime. A “perfect storm”.
Therefore, allow me to say a few words from a Jewish perspective.
For a long time, I believed that addressing the issue of Jewish identity by founding it on the Shoah was a contradiction: trying to give life and meaning to an identity based on death and destruction, does not seem a very consistent way to address the issue. The silence that prevailed in my family and in so many others, thousands throughout the world, after the tragedy, left a void whose purpose was uncertain: either would forgetfulness lead to disappearance, no longer at the hands of the Nazis but of silence; or a new force would arise to replace that Jewish identity as we conceived it before the war.
Hence I am a child of this new force, Zionism. Zionism, understood primarily as the centrality of the State of Israel in Jewish life, is the answer that Judaism had prepared for its next great tragedy, the Shoah: the culmination of more than two thousand years of institutionalized anti-Semitism in Europe, from Greek Hellenism through the Spanish inquisition to the pogroms in tsarist and communist Russia.
Precisely two weeks ago we commemorated the most tragic day in Jewish history, Tisha B'Av, the day of the destruction of the two Temples of Jerusalem: the first one in 586 BC, the second in 70 CE. When the second temple was destroyed and exile came, and with it the end of the priestly and institutional era of the Temple, Judaism was already developing its next stage: rabbinic Judaism. As Paul Johnson notes in his book “History of the Jews”, at that time we Jews stop writing history to focus on ourselves, on our lifestyle, on our survival. This rabbinic Judaism, through Talmudic literature, through Maimonides, for example, led us to the days of the Shoah. Believe it or not.
It is difficult to know today where Zionism will lead us to. We are a people whose identity is based on the promise of a land and Messianic hope. Together, these are the forces that brought us up to this day. Because I understand it this way, I can say without hesitation that I am a child of Zionism.
I never knew an Elie Wiesel in my family; nor a Chil Rajchman, nor an Ana Vinocur, appealing to the voices that emerged and continue to emerge from Uruguay, like Ruperto Long's recent book, “The girl who watched the trains depart.” In my family nobody spoke, nobody talked about the little they knew; nobody tried, like them, who certainly succeeded in doing so, to build history out of ashes. In fact, none of them passed through Auschwitz; but they were all – all of them – survivors, even those who got out before the war. It would seem that not having lived that inferno, they did not want to even evoke it with words.
Continuing in this confessional tone, I want to tell you about two very strong associations I have with the Shoah: To this day I cannot enjoy eating a potato without thinking of those children of the ghetto about whom I read in school. Not only its basic flavor takes on a special dimension, but while eating it, I am also absolutely aware of its nutritional value. Nor I can see freight cars and railroad tracks without thinking about the Shoah. When we received loads of wood in covered railcars I wondered how they had managed to get all those boards in there that took us so many hours to unload. My question came from the depths of a diffuse but certain memory: those cars had been filled, years ago, with Jews, not with wooden boards and planks. Today, as I very occasionally go over rail tracks, I cannot avoid thinking about how their real purpose was forever denaturized for me. I want to believe that it is not only I who is affected by these associations: not for nothing our own Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Montevideo is defined by two railroad tracks.
Eli Wiesel wrote: “The world was a hermetically sealed cattle car.”
There is no doubt that Eli Wiesel's contribution, along with Primo Levi's and Imre Kertesz's and further testimonies that do not cease to appear, was to put the record straight, give people their names, give a name to barbarism and a name to hope. I quote Bernard Henri-Lévy speaking about Wiesel: He had “the terrible privilege of having felt six million shadows pressing against his frail silhouette, in an effort to gain their almost imperceptible place in the great book of the dead”.
Opening those hermetically sealed rail cars is not just a symbolic act. It means opening both their doors, entering, going through, and stepping off them, a reenactment we can find in any of the museums dedicated to the memory of the Jewish Holocaust worldwide. Nobody stopping for a few seconds there, inside the
wagons within the museums, will be able to escape the feeling of claustrophobia and fear that would ensue if those doors would close again.
Perhaps, although I do not recognize myself at first sight, I actually am a child of the Shoah. Because, as the French writer and documentary filmmaker Ruth Zylberman says, “fear continues as a river that still flows... it is transmitted from generation to generation.” Ruth Zylberman believes, according to her recent interview in the Argentine newspaper “Página 12”, that an “organic memory” exists, a memory that is not expressed by words but exists as a collective subconscious.
No one can self-exclude themselves from the collective they belong to. This is something Hitler already taught us.
However, our species has built up its history in terms of discourse. It is worth reading or re-reading the book by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. We human beings have realized our large projects, be they creative or destructive, by means of words.
Elie Wiesel's strength lies in his personal experience, but especially in his use of the resource of words: pure, hard and poetic. Not poetic according to lyrical and traditional romantic esthetics, but in his tenacious efforts to build metaphors about death and hope.
I cite three metaphorical uses of language in some of his most famous quotes:
- “The world was a hermetically sealed cattle car.”
- “The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don't die of it...”
- “...our heart remains their cemetery.”
Let us take one by one the three examples I have chosen to quote. It is clear, at a rational and logical level, at a realistic level, that the world is not a cattle car, a drawing does not kill in itself, and a heart is not a cemetery. But we have no problem at all to understand immediately, intuitively, the deeper dimension of what Elie Wiesel wants to convey.
To say that “that the world is a hermetically sealed cattle car” is not only equivalent to saying that the world had turned his back to the issue or that there
was no possible escape; saying it metaphorically includes those historical realities but exceeds them in their desperately human dimension.
The heart, a word that already possesses both a real level and a metaphorical level, is not a cemetery; but associating one word with the other builds, on the one hand, on the portability of the memory, and on the other, on the personalization of the collective tragedy. Not only were we unable to bury them in a real cemetery, but each of us carries those dead inside of us, forever, the way we Jews bury our dead.
Today we know with certainty that the “star of David” did kill, as the very young Elie, protagonist of “The Night”, very well knew. The weight of metaphor, in this case, lies mainly in the power of the sign as signifier. Marking, stigmatizing, or numbering people is an act of fierce dehumanization whatsoever the context. When during the military dictatorship, the citizenship of all of us was “categorized”, we were all potential victims. Regardless of the historical consequences in one situation or another, the sign-symbol establishes concrete realities, realities according to which people live. And die.
Among the unconscious memory or the collective memory or other intangible or inexpressible concepts we all perceive, the Eli Wiesels, and the authors of the other testimonies we have cited, arise and choose to speak, adding a voice, among a majority that plunged the subject into the deepest silence.
Perhaps, my personal experience did not need, so far, to verbalize the tragedy brought with it by the people I am part of. Today, I have had to face this challenge and like never before, I have experienced the exorcizing value of words. Because, whether I like it or not, I have the Shoah inside me, and Elie Wiesel also spoke for me.
Eli Wiesel turned himself into the paradigmatic voice of the Shoah, into the spokesman for all victims, those who were murdered, those who are missing and those who survived. He was with the dead and walked among the living to tell a story. He took ten years to start it; others could not utter a single sound on the matter for the rest of their lives, and suffered the memory of terror in the most frightening and lonely silence.
Eli Wiesel did not choose the path of revenge, not even the path of justice, but the path of resilience.
He did not dedicate his life to find and prosecute war criminals. He dedicated his life to remember, write, disseminate, and warn. He did not win the Nobel Peace Prize for nothing. You do not get an award for being a victim but for transforming a personal tragedy into collective hope. The award itself is a recognition by
humanity, in this case of the Western hemisphere, of the tragedy it spawned and allowed to grow and develop within itself, until, later rather than sooner, it had to stop it with its own and depleted resources.
The predatory instincts of man do not stop. The Shoah about which Eli Wiesel wrote and spoke, is not the only barbaric, bloody and genocidal phenomenon which humanity has been witness and protagonist of; perhaps it has been the most systematic, industrial, and effective one. But whatever the system, gas chambers or genocidal war, the same instinct underlies. I quote Bernard Henri-Lévy in his tribute to Elie Wiesel, published in the Jerusalem Report a month ago: The Shoah in its uniqueness and particularity “it requiers ardent solidarity with all the victims of all other genocides.”
Documentation and literature on the Shoah have turned it into a symbol and also a source for the destructive potential of man to himself, and have also turned them into educational materials for future generations. No wonder the Shoah Project in Uruguay achieved the outreach it did, transforming and reinventing itself to continue building how within Uruguayan society and students.
How did this Shoah project take shape? Three very young and very Jewish Uruguayan people proposed to take the Shoah out of the intimate and inner circle in which we had always preserved it, by means of an exhibition in a public space. This stage surpassed, and with the addition of hundreds of other young people, the project takes on a massive scale, reaching the classrooms. The Shoah project turned the matter into a public conversation subject of the Uruguayan people.
Why, when the consequences of state terror during the military dictatorship, torture, imprisonment, and disappearances, start being studied, Uruguayan intellectualism turns to the sources of the Shoah? Because there was not only experience there, but above all, there was literature. With all the differences between one narrative and the other, the roots of evil seem to be the same. Or at least, they can be looked for in much the same way. And allow me say, with all due respect, that evil is not, in any circumstances, something banal.
Elie Wiesel represents, in all his iconic and mediatic protagonism, a very Jewish quality: not only to cherish the memory but to transmit it. Elie Wiesel, a “cheder” student, that place where Jewish boys studied in pairs, sitting opposite each other, analyzing and discussing the sacred texts, the sources, was prepared to document his experience. The same way he lived in his own flesh the Nazi terror, he lived the Jewish tradition. He knew, as the central prayer of our liturgy, the “Shma Israel” (Hear O Israel) says, that the center of this prayer is “veshinantam levanekha”, “you will repeat it to your children”.
A Jew can define him or herself in many ways. No Jew who considers himself as such will exclude the word “tradition” of this self-definition. It might be the only word to connect him or her with Judaism. Not religion, not Zionism, but actually tradition. Whether flavors, smells or a specific ritual, it is a kind of common denominator.
The idea of tradition underlies the work of Elie Wiesel. It is the ancestral mandate that prompted him to write and speak. To such a degree, I would dare to suggest, that at some point the details of his life cease being relevant, his historical experiences being exact, because what counts is his words. In semiotic terms, we might even venture to say that he, Elie Wiesel, himself becomes text: I suggest googling him and you will see the number of pictures, posters, phrases, and videos that appear. The same words he wrote in a novel or said in a specific speech, acquire a new and distinct force once they are mediatized. Beyond who he was and how he lived, there is his idea, forever and ever.
Elie Wiesel is the Shoah signified.
And humanity needed an Elie Wiesel and a Nobel Prize to recognize it, because it is not free of terror, genocide, hatred, racism, xenophobia; the list of sins in this regard is long. If what Elie Wiesel wrote and said did not fall on deaf ears, it is because there were some people willing to listen. We should note that for every racist, anti-Semite, or homophobe, there is a sensitive spirit willing to listen. For each racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic group, ideology, or leader, some Elie Wiesels will emerge and become spokespeople for all those sensitive and empathetic souls whose voice breaks, or who simply cannot find the right words but feel outrage and solidarity.
Judaism does not claim for itself the invention, originality or uniqueness of ethics and morals. What we do know for sure it is that our tradition is an ongoing effort to apply ethical and moral criteria in daily life, in our decisions and actions. Judaism adopted for itself, as a premise, the action based on what is “good and fair”, what is moral and ethical. The discussion around these issues, along with other that are earthlier, has kept us busy throughout the centuries. It seems that the twenty-first century requires more than ever to keep these subjects of conversation on the table.
It was a blessing for us that Elie Wiesel lived until very recently. Now it is our obligation and challenge to keep his voice and his image alive. If next to the iconic images of Che Guevara and Carlos Gardel, we start finding Elie Wiesel, our society will surely have taken a huge step in the right direction. Unless, as in some cases happens, these icons are reduced to mere images, becoming anachronistic. Massification has its risks.
Events of this kind fight that tendency to the loss of significance.
In one week it will be six months since the murder of David Fremd (of blessed memory), in the city of Paysandú, at the hands of a Uruguayan man radicalized in the context of the new forms of hatred and xenophobia reigning in the western world and which also disembarked on the shores our Uruguay river. The children of David and Susy, whom I know well, were involved in the Shoah Project in a committed manner, touring elementary, secondary and high schools in an effort to bring a message of hope and resilience founded on tragedy. Now, with deep sorrow, they and the whole Fremd family, have their own personal Shoah. Now it is they who are survivors, and I say it not only metaphorically: one of the children physically survived the attack when his father was murdered.
When Elie Wiesel walked the paths of death between Auschwitz and Buchenwald, having lost his father, none of us was there with him; we know about his experience from his books and his discourse. Nobody can step into the shoes of the victim. What we can do, is to collect the message of hope left to us by both, Elie Wiesel in his writings, and David Fremd's children, with their by now well-known phrase “that Dad's death be not in vain.”
To end, I quote once again Elie Wiesel, saying:
- that “Racial hatred, violence and idolatry still proliferate.”that we have to remember “those who suffered and perished then, those who fell with weapons in their hands and those who died with prayers on their lips, all those who have no tombs: our heart remains their cemetery”
- and that “the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it's indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it's indifference.”
- Thank you.