During the past weeks, we have faced horrific events of human violence within certain cities of our nation as well as within other parts of the world. Hatred, prejudice and discrimination have displayed their evil manifestations before us in graphic manner. It is somewhat coincidental, if not providential, that at the same time, the legacy of a great manifestation of the goodness of human nature came before us. Elie Wiesel, a victim of catastrophic violence many years before, passed away on July 2 at the age of 87. He truly has left us a powerful message regarding the horrors of hatred which cannot be forgotten and is much needed today.
Elie Wiesel was a prolific writer, teacher, speaker and philosopher of the human condition. Of Jewish descent and faith, he was born in Sighet, Romania, and at the age of 15 was forced, with his family, to the horrors of the Auschwitz prison camp. There, his mother and younger sister were put to death in the gas chamber and he lost his father to a fatal beating following their move to Buchenwald just three months before its liberation. Wiesel experienced the horrors of the Holocaust and devoted his life to assuring its horrors would not be forgotten and that they would not be repeated. He was the one who directed the building of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with his words carved in stone at the entrance, "For the dead and the living, we must bear witness." Wiesel received dozens of awards and honors, including the Congressional Gold Medal and the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a tireless advocate for victimized people around the globe, committed to drawing attention to large-scale atrocities and speaking out on genocides in Darfur, Rwanda and Bosnia. Elie Wiesel has a great deal to say to us today in regard to the atrocities of evil which are presenting themselves to us.
It also seems coincidental, if not providential, that Pope Francis made reference to Elie Wiesel on May 6, just a few weeks before Wiesel's death, in a speech he gave to European leaders on the occasion of the Conferral of the Charlemagne Prize. Before the Pope were leaders of Europe who face many difficult times and bear the great responsibility of governing those entrusted to their care in peace. Pope Francis said to them, "The writer Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, has said that what we need today is a 'memory transfusion.’ We need to 'remember,' to take a step back from the present to listen to the voice of our forebears. ... A memory transfusion can free us from today's temptation to build hastily on the shifting sands of immediate results, which may produce 'quick and easy short term political gains, but do not enhance human fulfillment.'" The term "memory transfusion" was used by Elie Wiesel in a novel, The Forgotten, which he wrote in 1989, to focus on preserving the memory of the Holocaust in order that the evil that occurred in it would not be forgotten and that such evil would be prevented for the future. In its July 4 edition, the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, expressed that Wiesel’s legacy was his "appeal for collective responsibility in the face of horror and his call to unite the abilities of each person in pursuit of what is good."
The most influential of Eli Wiesel's many works is his first which is entitled, Night. It is an account, in novel form, of his time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Of the work, Wiesel expressed, "If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one." Night is the work which helped to absorb the Holocaust not only into the American experience but into the experience of the world. When Wiesel made his first attempts, during the 50s, to write about the Holocaust, they were met with poor reaction as no one wanted to speak about it then. In fact, his first title for the work was And the World Remained Silent. It was a great French Catholic writer and Nobel Prize winner, François Mauriac who supported and encouraged Wiesel to write the work and to break his silence about the experience. During the 60s, Night became the first account of the atrocities committed during the Holocaust more than fifteen years after liberation from the concentration camps.
Elie Wiesel and his book, Night, first came to my attention during the 70s as I was listening to a recorded talk of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on the Seven Last Words of Christ. In his talk, Archbishop Sheen made reference to a scene which Wiesel recounted about an actual atrocity at Auschwitz that he witnessed. I was very moved by the reference. From Night the scene reads as follows: “One day as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Applepaltz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains - and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel. The SS seem more preoccupied, more worried than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows. This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as an executioner. Three SS took his place. The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks. 'Long live liberty!' Shouted the two men. But the boy was silent. ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?' someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon the sun was setting. 'Caps off!' Screamed the Lagerälteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping. 'Cover your heads!' Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving; the child, too light, was still breathing... And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: 'For God's sake, where is God?' And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is he? This is where - hanging here from this gallows...'"
This very pivotal account of Night is one that is very searing and brings before us the horror of evil as intentionally inflicted on others by human beings. It also raises the question of our faith and belief in God who is merciful and just. Many theologians and people of faith have reflected upon the meaning of the voice within Wiesel, expressing that God hangs there from the gallows, with very different understandings. Archbishop Sheen's reflection certainly is one that is very much in keeping with our understanding of the Lord’s Crucifixion to which this scene is such a close parallel. God does not send evil and the suffering that comes from it. Such is completely opposed to His nature which is love. In the face of human suffering God gives Himself in His Son so that He is always there with us when we suffer. Through His Cross and Resurrection Christ has conquered sin, evil and death so that they will never prevail over everlasting life. He has taken suffering and death to Himself and so in "hanging from the gallows," not in defeat but in compassion with us, we can see beyond the present suffering in His presence with us. We can only do this because Christ suffered for us and with us.
As we look at the horror of the scenes of evil during the recent weeks through so many forms of pictures and videos, we sense the same horror as the hanging of the child in Night. Our faith tells us that God does not cause such evil but it is the result of sin which turns us from God. Our faith tells us that God has endured the suffering of evil which results from sin to free us and always be with us. Our faith tells us that God never abandons us. However, our faith also tells us that we must join together as a family to overcome the evil of hatred, violence, terrorism and discrimination which inflicts suffering, not only upon other people, but upon God Himself. Wiesel's voice in the Night also mirrors the words of Jesus regarding the last judgment when He tells us that whatever we do to others we do to Him (cf Mt 25:31 – 46). Only God's mercy will bring true justice to those who inflict such horrific suffering to others. Knowing His mercy and presence with us, we leave that justice to Him. May this time of such unsettling horror be met with the power of our prayer and of our faith which knows that God is with us, that God will judge and that His life will prevail. This is the core of Elie Wiesel’s “memory transfusion” to which Pope Francis referred.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
July 29, 2016