“No, not in the twentieth century,” was the flippant answer of the Jews of Sighet in Transylvania when told of the ongoing holocaust by the Nazi German Government. “Not in the 20th century.” The century when I was born. Three genocides – Armenia, the Holocaust and Rwanda. Much more violence than the world should have accepted.
But it was the genocide against the Jews that captured our collective imagination – for its special wickedness, it’s tremendously efficient brutality. And rightly so – because it was against God’s chosen people, who brought us salvation and who we are bound by duty and faith and morality to protect and defend. Not that we, of course, don’t defend everybody. But like Francois Mauriac wrote in the forward, “…that connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his (Wiesel’s) childhood was lost.” What is the “Response to Auschwitz?” Wiesel asks in the new forward – that is it. Jesus’s suffering – an apology of sorts to all the human suffering that has come down the line since creation. Recognition of that fundamental flaw in the human condition that makes us sentient, gives us tremendous powers of creation – to glorify Him or to be wicked. And to die, in recognition that we most often will choose the latter.
I find it interesting that “Night” reads so much like “Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” that it is tragically uncanny. True, “Night” is a first person account, and Denisovich is a work of fiction. But is it? The gulag was just as real as Auschwitz – except longer. There was no hope of foreign liberation like the Jews of Auschwitz had with the Russians or Americans. That did not make their suffering less wicked – nor the victims of Stalin either. They are the same.
“But that was the 20th century. This is the 21st century. Not this time.” – Except the mass camps in the People’s Republic of China holding the Uighurs; the political death camps of Kim Jong the next and Kim Jong who comes after that. Tigray in Ethiopia – ironically orchestrated by a colleague Nobel winner of sorts of Elie. So too the Rohingya in Burma – another Nobel Prize winner. The bombing of Libya and Syria and Afghanistan by yet another Nobel Prize winner; 250,000 lives lost in Iraq – maybe more. The 21st century isn’t the 20th? Its not worse, nor is it better. It’s the same.
So what to do? We keep raising our voices. To remember the Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust – to call it by name and not shy away from the fact that we could have done more – that we still should be doing more. Because like Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “Our lives are no longer our own. They belong to those who need us desperately.”