enno Werzberger in Israel, Tadeusz Borowski in Poland, Paul Celan and Piotr Rawicz in Paris, Bruno Bettelheim in the United States, Primo Levi in Italy--the writers who were part of the shrinking community of Holocaust survivors endured severe hardship. Despairing of the written word's power, some chose silence. The silence of death.
Was it because as guardians of memory they felt misunderstood, unloved, exiles in the present, guilty of having failed in their task? Were they afraid of having spoken too much--or not enough? In light of the tragedies that continue to tear apart society, did they admit defeat?
I knew three of them well. Their final acts continue to haunt me.
Primo Levi, speaking of "experts" on the Holocaust, said "They are the thieves of Time; they infiltrate themselves through keyholes and cracks and cart off our memories without leaving a trace."
Why did Primo, my friend Primo, fling himself from the top of a staircase, he whose works finally succeeded in shaking public indifference, even outside Italy?
From our first meeting in Milan, during the seventies, we had formed bonds. In a way we were meeting again, having already "met." Over there, in Buna. I had spent some time in his barracks. I had seen him without seeing him. He had crossed my path without noticing me. Even over there, social differences existed.
Now, transcending frontiers, we moved forward side-by-side as we clung to our links to those who had abandoned us. Was it he or I who said "Maybe I'm dead and don't know it." Like him I was convinced that our experiences isolated us, that people living today or tomorrow could never understand their nature.
When we turned our gaze inward we saw the same universe. The selections, the kommandos, the "roll calls" in the icy wind, the hanging of the young boy, a member of the underground--yes, he remembered it all as I did. Sometimes he would question me about a sentence of mine he had read somewhere; I told him I was a bad interpreter of my writings. I did better commenting on his.
Why death, Primo? To tell us what truth about whose 1ife?
Did he want to reach to the very end of his thoughts, his memories? Truly enter death? I don't remember why, but I called him shortly before his death. A premonition? His voice sounded thick, heavy. "Things are not good," he said slowly, "not good at all." "What's not good, Primo?" "Oh, the world, the world's no good." And he doesn't know what he is doing in a world that's going so badly. "Are you having problems, Primo?" No, he has no problems. In Italy and elsewhere he is read, admired, honored, but it's going badly. We speak of mutual friends, of his plans, of his son, Renzo. I suggest he come to New York, spend some time with me. He doesn't say no, he doesn't say yes; he doesn't answer, as though he were already elsewhere, behind other walls. To cheer him up I describe to him the success of his works on American campuses. No reaction. "Are you there, Primo? Do you hear me?" Yes, he hears me--but he's no longer there.
An American novelist publishes an article that shocks quite a few of us. He says that Primo's friends should have urged him to get treatment, and that a good therapist could have cured him. This is a typical banalization: Here we have existential evil, the lifelong incandescent wound of a soul, reduced to a nervous breakdown common among writers whose inspiration becomes blocked, or among men of a certain age.
Is there another explanation? If there is, it has something to do with a Holocaust writer's attitude toward memory and its workings, writing and its pitfalls, language and its limits. Like Kafka's unfortunate messenger, he realizes that his message has been neither received nor transmitted. Or worse, it has been, and nothing has changed. It has produced no effect on society or on human nature. Everything goes on as though the messenger had forgotten the dead whose message he had carried, as though he had misplaced their last testament.
Yes, we had our disagreements. In my own way I'm a believer; he declared himself an atheist. I persist in wanting to work from within our tradition; he kept his distance. I did not share his leftist tendencies, just as he distanced himself from my attachment to Israel. And then, I thought him too severe with survivors. There our disagreement was total; he ascribed too much guilt to them. His theory of a "gray zone" in which every inmate was guilty--some more, some less, directly or indirectly, simply for having survived--well, all this seems to me simplistic and unfair. By speaking of the "relativity" of their innocence, he was attenuating the guilt of the killers. Only the criminals are guilty, I told him; to compare the victims in any way with the torturers was to dilute or even deny the killers' responsibility for their actions.
Primo's theory reminds me of the advice Karl Jaspers is said to have given Hannah Arendt to mistrust the "false innocence of the victims." What false innocence is he talking about? That of the children, the sick, the old? Surely, they were not guilty, nor were the rabbis, the priests, the dying, emaciated men and women. To say that every one of them could have become a killer is to indict the whole world. It is to compare the privileged kapos with the moribund Muselmänner, "Muslims," as they were called. It is to punish the innocents who have been punished enough.
In my opinion, Primo felt guilty in terms of the present rather than the past. All Holocaust writers are subject to the same feeling of remorse and impotence. Perhaps they think that if things are going so badly it is their fault, because since they have not been able to find the right language to communicate, they have failed to impact the destiny of their contemporaries.
From the first to the last day, I felt his despair. "It's worse today than yesterday, worse than ever," he kept repeating. What did he mean by that? That talking of yesterday was worse than having lived through it, than still living through it? That nothing makes a survivor despair more than knowing that he is useless, that the past will not serve as lesson? Was that why he returned to the land of the dead, because the living would not listen?
He killed himself because he could not go on.
At times I find myself whispering to him You shouldn't have, Primo. Not that, not that. Death is never a solution, you know that....
And yet, deep down, I understand him.
The first review of Jerzy Kosinski's Painted Bird was written by me for the New York Times. Poor Jerzy, who entertained so well and lived so badly--misunderstood in his lifetime, will he be better understood after his suicide?
When he first called me, I was still a bachelor, living on Riverside Drive. He was young, nervous, impatient, eager to dazzle and disconcert. I ask him two questions: "Is your book based on fact?" And then: Are you Jewish?" "I'd like to know," I say, "since your character is presented as a Gypsy. And the word 'Jew' is hardly mentioned." He answers yes to the first question and no to the second. I am amazed: "What? You've lived through all these atrocities and you're not even a Jew?" Thinking that this makes him even more deserving, I add a few compliments to my positive review, which nets me a number of insulting letters from Polish Jews. According to them, I was wrong to be so kind to a Jew who is ashamed of his Jewishness. They knew him in Poland. His book is nothing but a collection of mad rantings. I refuse to believe them. I call him: "I must see you again." "Aha!" is his answer. "So they've contacted you." Who? "My enemies." Who are his enemies? Why does he have any? In any case we need to meet. I invite him for lunch. Again, I ask him the question "Are you Jewish?" He again answers that he is not. "Then why do these people say that..." They are his enemies. This discussion goes on for weeks if not months. When the novel appears in France, my friend Piotr Rawicz writes about it in Le Monde. I ask him "Is Jerzy Jewish?" "Of course he is," Piotr replies. "Did he tell you so?" No, he didn't; on the contrary, he denies it. But then how does Piotr know? "I know," says Piotr. "Why does he conceal his Jewish origins?" I wonder. "Ask him." Piotr asks him; he maintains his position. Piotr wants to know whether he's circumcised. Jerzy refuses to answer. It is only when Piotr, who wouldn't hurt a fly, threatens to call a few friends to help him undress him, that he acknowledges that he is a Jew.
When his second novel appears, I review it for the Forverts. I say that the novel is good but that I find the author peculiar; I explain his bizarre behavior as an attempt to elaborate a philosophy of ambiguity. Jerzy is angry. He sends a letter to the newspaper and threatens to start legal proceedings if I don't retract. He denies ever denying his Jewishness. His letter is published, followed by my response: I have Piotr's letter and other evidence. If he insists, I am ready to publish them. I add that I had expected more gratitude from him. I'm greeted by silence, no lawsuit. A few months later Jerzy telephones and says he wants to see me. At once. I demand an apology before seeing him. He apologizes. I pick up our dialogue where we had left off. "Why did you lie about your Jewishness? The war is over, Jerzy. Jews no longer need to hide." He says he doesn't know what happened to him; that he was absentminded, distracted. And anyway it was better that way. For Poland and the Poles, it was better. A Jewish tragedy written by a Jewish writer would have left them cold, whereas if a non-Jew was being persecuted and a non-Jew was telling of his sufferings, that was something else. Arthur Gelb of the Times believes that his bizarre behavior was motivated by fear--fear of the anti-Semites, fear of persecution.
The quarrel was over. Jerzy recovered his roots, his identity. And my affection. Others were more severe than I. A long article in the Village Voice called him an impostor. A recent biography tries to destroy the myths surrounding him. He went through the war with his parents and thus couldn't possibly have experienced the atrocities described in The Painted Bird, and thus couldn't possibly have written his books himself.
The news of his suicide--which was like that of Bruno Bettelheim--shattered me. So this hedonist was unhappy, even unhappier than his own eccentric or tragic characters.
Piotr Rawicz, my comrade, my companion. Why did he withdraw from the world of the living? I can see him now: hunched over, his gaze hopeless, ironic but lucid, so terribly lucid. Le Sang du Ciel (Blood of the Sky) will remain one of the masterpieces of the period. In my article about it in the New Leader, I wrote:
It is only with sobbing and blaspheming that one can write about the death of a Jewish community betrayed by heaven and earth. Piotr Rawicz has made his choice. His book is an outcry, not an echo; a challenge, not an act of submission. Facing a grave filled with corpses, he does not recite Kaddish; he sheds no tears....
I remember our long strolls in Paris, his pessimism so lucid and merry that it would have taken little for me to go mad with optimism.
His monologues--I remember his murmured monologues in which philosophic reflection (the Bhagavad Gita and Lao Tzu, Spinoza and Wittgenstein) refused to yield to humor, and conversely. For him, everything had to do with metaphysics, even derision. He liked to evoke Germany as he had known it long ago and as he was then rediscovering it. Its fragmented capital attracted him; he saw it as a huge phantasmagorical farce--Berlin and its noncommitted, detached intellectuals; Berlin and its hard-to-bear snobs; Berlin and its false or real aristocrats turned into true or false cynics; its dangerous but ridiculous spies; Berlin and its friendly, voluptuous, and oh-so-easy women.
During our dinners in a small restaurant in the Latin Quarter, he brought to life the ghetto of Lvov replete with scholars and romantic beggars. Other times he would speak of his experiences in the Leitmeritz camp. What had saved him from death? He attributed his luck in large part to his knowledge of German and Ukrainian. He was taken for a Christian. Nevertheless, he remained more often than not in the company of Jewish prisoners. "And what about fear, Piotr?" I asked him. "How did you experience fear over there?" "Oh, it made me laugh," he answered. And without waiting for my reaction he explained "The whole thing was just a farce, a farce on a cosmic scale." I reminded him of Rebbe Nahman of Bratzlav's story in which a prince who has lost his way hears laughter at night, an otherworldly laughter. Piotr nodded he knew Rebbe Nahman.... He knew many things, my friend Piotr.
I sometimes took him along to religious services. We spent a Yom Kippur together in a small, improvised synagogue near the Place de la Republique. The next day he described to me the High Holidays in Lvov. He tried to make it humorous but didn't succeed. Yom Kippur was the only day on which he was incapable of laughter.
Why did he kill himself, he who still had so much to give to 1ife? A rifle bullet through his mouth put an end to a singular destiny.
When I recall Piotr, a knot forms in my chest. Writer, ethnologist, anthropologist, essayist, and poet, he deserved glory and surely happiness (to the extent that these go together) as much as others, more than others. Why did he turn his back on life when he had contributed to raising it to a higher level by making it funnier? Was it the illness and then the death of Anna, his wife and best friend? Was he afraid of solitude? The specter of decline?
Piotr. Often penniless but elegant nevertheless, always generous. Terribly busy but always available. Desperate but pleasure-loving. Our dinners were unforgettable. Endless, too. He loved to talk, and he talked with the clarity of a scientist; a heavy Russian accent, pedantic French, smiles that were alternately melancholy and sarcastic. He pitied the social climbers, celebrated the humble, the beginners, the unknowns. He had written a novel, but what about his childhood memories from Lvov, had he written them down somewhere? And where would one have to look for them? Had he entrusted them to someone?
He drank a lot, smoked a lot, laughed and loved a lot. Why was he no longer writing? Oh yes, he protested vigorously, he was writing; he was writing, but only in his head. (Felipe Alfao, the Spanish author of Locos, told me the same thing.) "Come," he said to me once, "I'll show you." He led me to his tiny room, where one couldn't take a step without knocking over messy piles of books and reviews. He showed me manuscripts, let me read a few pages of mystical poems. Yet he called himself an agnostic. Can one be both mystic and infidel, both prophet and heretic? "'Why,'" he said, "is a word that God gave man by mistake. God is God, can anyone say that God does not believe in Himself? Or that He does not believe in anyone else?"
Why did he choose suicide? What message did he leave us when he opened his lips to welcome death?
Excerpted from And the Sea is Never Full by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 1999 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.