An interview with Prof. Elie Wiesel, Honorary Chairman of the Tsfat Education Fund, and Rabbi Ephraim Kenig, on Faith in a Post-Holocaust Era.
In what ways have chassidic teachings shaped your work as a writer, teacher, thinker and Jew? Also, do you consider yourself a chassid in any way?
Elie Wiesel: The answer is yes, I am a chassid, because when I am asked what kind of Jew I am, there are so many different ways to be Jewish, so the easiest response is yes, I am a chassidic Jew. I grew up in Chassidut Vizhnitz, but I also became very close to the late, great, Lubavitcher Rebbe. Although I wasn’t his chassid, I was his friend. I also love Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. I grew up with other chassidic influences, but for me, it is like a love affair with Rebbe Nachman. He deals with love, which is seen through how he viewed the world and the way he told stories. If I could write in the way he wrote, I would probably be better off. I received much from Rebbe Nachman. But truthfully, I have also taken a lot from my Jewish learning. I learn gemara every single day because that’s who I am.
Naturally, I went through spiritual crises after the war, but I never abandoned my passion for study. Many have endured the same events and tragedies as I. People often ask, “How did you survive?” I don’t know how I survived. Believe me, I have no idea. My question, on the other hand, would be different. I would ask how did we remain normal in a world that was so inhuman? We came out of the war as defenseless, absolutely naked. What saved us?
I know what saved my sanity was Torah study. After the war, the moment I arrived at an orphanage in France, the first thing I asked for was a masechet from a Talmudic tractate I had brought with me when I entered the camps. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the influence of Rava and Abaye, Rabbi Akiva, Rebbe Yishmael and actually, also the Baal Shem Tov. I have never given up learning. So I am a chassid in the best sense of the word, despite the fact I don’t look like it. Perhaps if there had been no war, I would be wearing a shtreimel today together with Rav Ephraim—and I say this with nostalgia.
Rabbi Moshe Weinberger of Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY, addressing a diverse gathering in Manhattan at the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. He speaks on the higher significance of Tsfat to our generation in the context of Chassidic teachings.
The commanding officer at the Russian military academy (the equivalent of a four-star general in the U.S.) gave a lecture on "Potential Problem and Military Strategy." At the end of the lecture, he asked if there were any questions.
An officer stood up and asked, "Will there be a third world war? And will Russia take part in it?"
The general answered both questions in the affirmative. Another officer asked, "Who will be the enemy?"
The general replied, "All indications point to China."
Everyone in the audience was shocked. A third officer remarked, "General, we are a nation of only 150 million, compared to the 1.5 billion Chinese. Can we win at all, even survive?"
The general answered, "Just think about this for a moment. In modern warfare, it is not the quantity of soldiers that matters, but the quality of an army's capabilities. For example, in the Middle East, we have had a few wars recently where five million Jews fought against 150 million Arabs, and Israel was always victorious."
After a small pause, yet another officer, from the back of the auditorium, asked, "Do we have enough Jews?"
Thanks to Dr. Roger Meyer of Washington, D.C. for the story.
It was a dark, cold night in the Janowska Road Camp. Suddenly, a stentorian shout pierced the air: "You are all to evacuate the barracks immediately and report to the vacant lot. Anyone remaining inside will be shot on the spot!"
Pandemonium broke out in the barracks. People pushed their way to the doors while screaming the names of friends and relatives. In a panic-stricken stampede, the prisoners ran in the direction of the big open field.
Exhausted, trying to catch their breath, they reached the field. In the middle were two huge pits.
Suddenly, with their last drop of energy, the inmates realized where they were rushing, on that cursed dark night in Janowska. Once more, the cold, healthy voice roared in the night, "Each of you dogs who values his miserable life and wants to cling to it must jump over one of the pits and land on the other side. Those who miss will get what they rightfully deserve - ra-ta-ta-ta-ta."
Imitating the sound of a machine gun, the voice trailed off into the night followed by a wild, coarse laughter. It was clear to the inmates that they would all end up in the pits. Even at the best of times it would have been impossible to jump over them, all the more so on that cold dark night in Janowska. The prisoners standing at the edge of of the pits were skeletons, feverish from disease and starvation, exhausted from slave labor and sleepless nights. Though the challenge that had been given them was a matter of life and death, they knew that for the S.S. and the Ukrainian guards, it was merely another devilish game.
Among the thousands of Jews on that field in Janowska was the Rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira. He was standing with a friend, a freethinker from a large Polish town whom the rabbi had met in the camp. A deep friendship had developed between the two.
"Spira, all of our efforts to jump over the pits are in vain. We only entertain the Germans and their collaborators, the Askaris. Let's sit down in the pits and wait for the bullets to end our wretched existence," said the friend to the rabbi.
"My friend," said the rabbi, as they were walking in the direction of the pits, "man must obey the will of God. If it was decreed from heaven that pits be dug and we be commanded to jump, pits will be dug and jump we must. And if, God forbid, we fail and fall into the pits, we will reach the World of Truth a second later, after our attempt. So, my friend, we must jump."
The rabbi and his friend were nearing the edge of the pits; the pits were rapidly filling up with bodies. The rabbi glanced down at his feet, the swollen feet of a fifty-three-year-old Jew ridden with starvation and disease. He looked at his young friend, a skeleton with burning eyes.
As they reached the pit, the rabbi closed his eyes and commanded in a powerful whisper, "We are jumping!" When they opened their eyes, they found themselves standing on the other side of the pit.
"Spira, we are here, we are here, we are alive!" the friend repeated over and over again, while warm tears streamed from his eyes. "Spira, for your sake, I am alive; indeed, there must be a God in Heaven. Tell me, Rebbe, how did you do it?"
"I was holding on to my ancestral merit. I was holding on to the coattails of my father, and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, of blessed memory," said the rabbi and his eyes searched the black skies above. "Tell me, my friend, how did you reach the other side of the pit?"
"I was holding on to you," replied the rabbi's friend.
Based on a conversation of the Grand Rabbi of Bluzhov, Rabbi Israel Spira, with Baruch Singer, January 3, 1975. Originally published as "Hovering above the Pit," in the book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach, Oxford University Press, 1982.