115 pages. That was the sum of Elie Wiesel’s Night, an account of the Nobel Laureate’s imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps. I believe it was toward the end of page 7 that I got up from my chair, walked to my bedroom, and put the book behind several others in a basket under my bedside table. I actually consciously thought, “I’ll just pretend I don’t have the book.” I even thought of hiding it under the bed.
Page 7 was Mr. Wiesel’s account of how Moishe the Beadle (his Kabbalist tutor) miraculously survived his stay at an early Polish Gestapo work camp. He returned to the village warning whoever would listen of the experiences in store for the Jews in hopes they could “ready” themselves while there was still time. No one wanted to listen. The poignant regret of that fact made me want to close the book, for it was inevitable foreshadowing of the rest of the story.
I know. It was a strange reaction, but the memoir from the first sentence was so powerful, almost devastating, to me that I wanted to throw it away without reading any more. But, I didn’t have the nerve. Somehow I felt that I owed it to Mr. Wiesel to read his words. If he had survived the horror described in that book and been bold enough to record it, how could I possibly NOT show him at least the courtesy of reading it, acknowledging it?
It was the first time I had read a personal account of a Holocaust survivor. I think that is the reason why this book came to mind when I was contemplating an article on Human Rights. I came across an initiative from Bloggers Unite encouraging writers to blog about Human Rights on May 15 as a way of bringing more awareness to the issues.
As I thought about my own perspective on human rights, it seemed that Human Writes was a more appropriate term. You see, a major barrier to our engagement in these issues is that the statistics on the grossest forms of human rights violations are simply numbing. Large numbers become impersonal and lose their meaning. But, when one human writes of his own experiences, how can we dare to look away without asking questions? How do we summon that kind of boldness?
In Elie Wiesel’s speech accepting the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize (38 years to the day, ironically, after the United Nations adopted its Declaration of Human Rights), he said, “…I have tried to keep memory alive, I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”
As I open the burden of Night again, I see that Mr. Wiesel does not share OUR luxury of forgetting. For he writes of his first night at Birkenau:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
The issue of human rights brings a new dimension to “paying attention,” the pursuit of this website. It requires a harsh confrontation with the raw, cruel capabilities of human beings; the realization that the events of Elie Wiesel’s Night did not happen in the 12th century, but less than 70 years ago – one lifespan. Yet, similar cruelties are occuring all over the world even as I write. And if I am honest, I admit that the seeds of those mind-boggling statistics occur even in my own little hometown every day. Each time someone (even I) with words or looks or actions seeks to diminish the infinite worth of another human being created in God’s image, we have contributed to the cruelty, as if acknowledging the worth of another somehow diminishes my own.
Elie Wiesel once asked Moeshe the Beadle, “why do you pray?” The answer – “I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.”
I pray for that same strength – to ask God the hard questions, to ask myself the hard questions, and to have the courage to face the answers.