I have never written about the Holocaust because of Elie Wiesel. I knew Elie and he was always gentle and encouraging to me about my work. I will miss him greatly. He was the perfect storyteller and the perfect witness.
In my writing I followed his example that there is no way to adequately explain or interpret what he called “the kingdom of night.” For Wiesel, the Holocaust was an event too evil and too incomprehensible for simple, trite aphorisms or easy lessons. I have black friends who feel the same way about slavery. Some events form you in ways you cannot fully understand or articulate. All one can do, Wiesel believed, was tell the story, and nobody told the story of the kingdom of night with more searing eloquence than Elie Wiesel.
In the wake of his death I feel compelled to try to write about the Holocaust in his honor and memory. I will tell you how I have explained the Holocaust to those who were not formed by it. These are the two questions I am most frequently asked by non-Jews about the Holocaust, and these are my answers:
Q. Why didn’t God stop the Holocaust?
A. Evil, even radical evil, is not God’s fault. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and the like are indeed God’s fault, but they all arise from the great and good blessing of God to have created for us a living planet that floods and cracks and belches fire. These are natural evils and they are actually not evil at all, but they are on God. The second type of evil, moral evil, is all on us. Wars and murders and oppression and bigotry and violence against innocents are all the result of human beings using their free will to make bad choices as individuals and nations. Some of the worst choices are made by people who have chosen to sit idly by while others kill. Wiesel famously taught that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Humans allowed fascism to grow in Germany in the ’30s and by the ’40s the world was suddenly Auschwitz.
God could intervene to stop evil but only by depriving us of our free will. This would eliminate our ability to grow morally. It would diminish our will to protect innocents and fight against the purveyors of radical evil. It would reduce our motivation to cure diseases. A world without evil would be a world without human beings as we know them. Babies live in just such a constrained world and there is a reason we do not yearn to forever remain babies. God could not have stopped the Holocaust without ending our free will, which is our only trait and blessing that in time can enable us to create a world where all future Holocausts are impossible.
Q. Why are Jews so fixated on the Holocaust?
A. On a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, I had a conversation with the director as we walked through the exhibit. He explained that in 1933, before the Holocaust, there were roughly 18 million Jews in the world. In 1945, after the Holocaust, there were only 12 million Jews. One out of every three Jews who was alive on planet Earth in 1933 had been killed by 1945 — one out of three. And the majority of them were killed in a four-year period from 1941-1945. Now consider this: there are more than 300 million people (closer to 400 million people) alive now in America. Imagine if more than 100 million Americans were killed in a four-year period. That’s more than the combined entire populations of California, Florida, and New York. How long would it take for America to recover from the genocide of one third of its population? If after 70 years some asked Americans to just forget it, move on and stop fixating on this catastrophe, what do you think the response would be?
Hitler killed one third of the world’s Jews, and the stunning and depressing fact of Jewish life after the Holocaust is that the world Jewish population, which was 12 million in 1945, is still roughly 12 million Jews in 2016 (and the world’s total population is almost double what it was in 1945). The Holocaust is at the core of most Jews’ identity. In Israel, where military service is compulsory, new recruits climb the ancient desert fortress of Masada that was conquered by the Roman army in the first century and make a collective vow, “Masada will never fall again!” Israel was not in existence as a haven for European Jews, but it is there now. The Holocaust is the blood tattoo on the body of the Jewish people. If you want to understand Jews, you must understand the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel understood the Holocaust even though he never admitted to understanding anything but his story. In the end, his story was enough.