Elie Wiesel and the Agony of Bearing Witness

Why should any of us expect people who have suffered profound trauma to relive it for our benefit?

Elie Wiesel speaks at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. (Charles Dharapak / AP)

Elie Wiesel made it look so easy. I’m not referring to the profoundly beautiful troubling words that spilled from his pen and pricked the conscience of millions around the world. And I don’t mean the way that his speaking voice had a quiet depth of emotion, somehow more powerful because of its subdued tone. His galvanizing talents and moral courage have been lauded by many writers in the days since his death and rightly so.

What stays with me is this: Elie made it look bearable to bear witness to horror again and again, to on a daily basis invite traumatic memories back into his consciousness. He never claimed he was comfortable with this role. He accepted this painful duty in order to defend human rights and advocate for the oppressed. In his 1986 Nobel acceptance speech, Elie spoke of the community of Holocaust survivors as honored by a terrible burden. He asked, “Do I have the right to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honor on their behalf? I do not. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions. And yet, I sense their presence. I always do. ... This [Nobel Prize] belongs to all the survivors and their children…”

But not all Holocaust survivors are willing or able to speak of their experiences. I am intimately familiar with the choice to stay silent. My father was a nine-year-old Jewish boy when Nazi Germany invaded his native Poland. He was one of the lucky ones, eventually saved by deportation to Soviet territory where he nearly starved to death in a slave labor camp. Almost his entire extended family—well over one hundred people—were killed. For decades after the war my father suppressed his pain, never speaking of what he had endured and dodging questions when pressed by friends or strangers. This silence was his way of healing and building a new life in the pluralistic America he so loved. My father became a professor of Soviet studies, dedicating his life to fighting totalitarianism and anti-Semitism from a comfortable professional distance.

When I was only three weeks old in January 1973, my father flew from our home in Indiana to Switzerland to join a gathering of Jewish leaders working to free Soviet Jews from religious and political oppression. My father and Elie Wiesel, friendly acquaintances through their years of activism, ran into each other on the shores of Lake Geneva. Elie had recently become a father, welcoming a baby son. As my father recounted to me time and again, the two men embraced, not merely celebrating their shared fatherhood, but also deeply moved by the rebirth of the Jewish people and the renewal of their decimated families.

When I heard this story as a young girl, the message was clear. All children are miracles, but my sister and I and other children of survivors were not supposed to have ever existed. We had a special obligation (like it or not, and many do not) to make good use of our lives and to be proud Jews and grateful Americans. It is no accident that I chose to marry another child of a Holocaust survivor. It is no accident that I became a Holocaust historian and spend my days teaching and preserving this history. All of these choices came from a legacy of genocide and a struggle to understand the severed roots of my family tree—an understanding I pursue even more now that I am myself a parent of questioning children.

American society celebrates people who publicly share their personal pain and channel it into something positive. Sandy Hook parents lobby for gun control. Cancer survivors raise research funds through highly visible charity walks. As a teenager I repeatedly nudged my father, “Why won’t you talk about what you went through, Daddy?” In some morbid way I was proud to be just one degree of separation from tragic events, as if it might make me seem deeper than the average Midwestern teenager. My father’s reply was blunt. “When people I barely know ask me to tell them what happened to me during the Holocaust, it feels like they are saying ‘Nice to meet you. I heard you were gang raped, tell me about it.’” His explanation of his silence left me chastened, silenced myself.

Why should any of us expect people who have suffered profound trauma to relive it for our benefit or for the betterment of humanity? And why do we assume that pain yields wisdom or moral clarity? In part it is because of the choices of Elie Wiesel and the survivor volunteers I see every day in my workplace, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Make no mistake, it is not easy for them to walk into our building, to revisit their personal tragedies, to speak about their murdered relatives and friends. Some of them also remained silent for years, only opening up late in life. Now many of them cannot stop talking—as though years of internal struggle are flooding out.

Just two years before he died, I persuaded my father to record testimony of his wartime experience. Compassionate colleagues from the Holocaust Museum knew what it took for him to finally speak and conducted the interview with great sensitivity and respect. I pointedly stayed away on the day of filming and only watched the tape later. After years of repressing memories, his testimony is frustratingly thin on specifics. But my daddy’s clear voice is there nonetheless, his Slavic-Yiddish accent and mannerisms the features of a character type now shrinking in numbers by the day. His testimony will in perpetuity tell my children and researchers at the Holocaust Museum that there was more than one trajectory, both during and after the Holocaust. That not everyone thought it wise or necessary to share their pain with strangers or even their intimates.

Elie Wiesel described Holocaust survivors as those who had “emerged from the Kingdom of Night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray [the dead].” I recognize now that staying silent for so long did not signal a lack of strength in my father. He courageously embraced life after the Holocaust with great humor and optimism, bringing children into a world that had betrayed and abandoned him. My father needed to leave his past behind in order to take that leap of faith.