The Jewish Chronicle
Liberation and memory
Geoffrey D Paul eavesdrops on some deep talk. Alan Montague is back in the courtroom The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel
Chicago Review Press, £25.99 Reviewed by Geoffrey D Paul
AFTER MORE than 50 books, probably thousands of articles, speeches, interviews and conversations, intimate or otherwise, it is hard to believe that Elie Wiesel still has something interesting to say. If you are familiar with Wiesel’s anguished search for an explanation of the Holocaust, of man’s inhumanity to man, then you are unlikely to find much in Reich’s book that is new. But the “intimate conversations” are compellingly readable for all that because Wiesel knew well what he had to say and, even better, how to say it in a manner to halt the reader in mid-sentence and read again what he was saying.
Howard Reich is the most unlikely, but also the best equipped, to plumb the depths of Wiesel’s psyche. Reich’s father was liberated from Buchenwald concentration camp on the same day as Wiesel. There is no evidence they knew each other, but it certainly gave Reich an embossed calling card when — a music critic for the Chicago Tribune — his editor asked him to interview Wiesel.
How serendipitous was that? Neither man knew it when they first met, but Wiesel had only four years to live before his death, aged 87, in 1986. In four years of intensive conversations, in person, on the phone, in an exchange of letters and in various cities, the survivor’s son and the Great
Survivor himself established a friendship which has produced this distillation of Wiesel’s life and legacy and enabled the author better to understand the fate of his parents, whose story is interwoven through this relatively slim but intense, book.
Something similar was published in 2018 by Wiesel’s teaching assistant for several years at Brandeis University, Ariel Burger (Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom). better questions.
Wiesel, who proclaimed himself a Chasid, in time-honoured Jewish manner answered many a question with another question. Others he batted away with the skill of the lecture-hall professional who knows where not to tread.
And then there were those to which he struggled for a response. How did he retain his faith as a Jew after Auschwitz?
“I say to myself, ‘Look, my father was religious to the end. My grandfather was religious, my great-grandfather. I cannot betray them. So, what do I say?’ OK, in spite of God, I will continue believing in God…
“How can I not believe. And how can I believe, when I know so much? All of that, of course, is part of my life story.”
Which is the point of everything Wiesel wrote and said.
Here, if you need it, is a short introduction to Wiesel’s massive oeuvre. But the answers are few.
In time honoured Jewish manner, he answered many a question with a question
Geoffrey D Paul is a former editor of the JC