I was looking into the deepest eyes I think I had ever seen. I was a young graduate student, and Elie Wiesel, only 48, not yet a Nobel winner (not even very well known), was sitting across a table from me at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. It was 1976.
More than a decade before, Wiesel had applied the word holocaust to the Nazi attempt to eliminate all European Jewry. He had come to regret it. People were sullying the term, expanding its use to describe all manner of tragedies, from large to relatively small.
This misapplication of the term and idea of the Holocaust continues. At a government hearing in Kansas in November 2021, protesters of COVID-19 vaccine mandates wore yellow stars to compare their plight to that of Jews in the Holocaust. Even worse, a man representing himself against charges he incited violence during the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, asked in one cross-examination, “What’s your favorite Holocaust joke?” He paused, laughed along with the witness and withdrew the question.
On that morning in 1976, Wiesel seemed full of energy, combative, more intent than ever to ensure that the world would never forget. The hour before, he had lectured on the biblical character Job. I remember Wiesel’s defiant spirit. He insisted that Job was perfectly correct to take God on and complain about his own cruel fate, unjust as it was. Describing how God, in return, bullied Job by upbraiding him and asking him where he was when God made the cosmos, Wiesel said, “Job should have cried, ‘Bull****!’” instead of just caving before the Almighty. His argument was fresh air to someone like me, so used to the conventional discussions of the Bible I’d heard (and been part of) while growing up in traditional Protestantism.
So I felt quite lucky to be included in a group of a dozen who got to speak with this slim gentle man after the lecture. His full, dark eyebrows caught my attention as we sat down. They seemed like sentries guarding his vulnerable, deeply lined face. ‘‘He has the look of Lazarus about him,’’ his friend Francois Mauriac once wrote. Still, as I beheld him in those moments, I couldn’t forget the photo of him as an adolescent in Sighet, his Romanian hometown, taken just before the Nazi occupation. He was a mature man now, but still seemed a touch boyish.
That face of his, those eyes — I had met celebrities before, one or two notables, but he was different. Wiesel’s eyes engaged you. They held you. They looked at you with such expectancy. Maybe it was because I was so fresh-faced, unlike today.
I had a question ready, one I’d been mulling for some time. Remembering it now, I’m more than a little embarrassed. But I was very young, direct and often clueless in those days. I asked, “Mr. Wiesel, can there be any meaning in suffering?” As I asked it, the organizer of our group winced and shook his head at me emphatically.
How could I ask this man of all humanity such a question? This man, who had seen his beloved mother and little sister literally go up in smoke? This man, who in captivity made it his goal to survive and drag his father out of hell with him — but failed?
Wiesel offered a quiet but emphatic “No!” There could be no meaning in suffering. The suffering he had seen was too great. Any meaning one might try to connect with such suffering would dissipate in the face of sheer, unspeakable magnitude.
But taking into account my youth and obvious naivete, he softened. “Well, of course, one can learn from suffering, from some suffering,” he amended. “Suffering can soften the heart, but you must realize that as a Jew living on this side of such a supreme outrage I have no choice — I have no choice but to reject suffering outright. It is entirely unacceptable.”
Then he paused and leaned back a little, so as to more fully take me in. “Well,” he added, “that is the difference, isn’t it, between your Christian faith and my own tradition?”
I had no answer for him. I have spent the last 44 years pondering it: wondering why I had asked such a thing, and why the organizer who had shepherded our group had reacted so strongly.
Our shepherd that day, a Christian campus pastor, had made publicizing the Holocaust his mission in life. My question had embarrassed him, but I am glad I asked it. I know I crossed a line by asking the keeper of the torch of truly sacred memory whether anything good could spin out of the starkest example of evil in history. But Wiesel’s answer – so emphatic at first, then so tenderly nuanced and finally so theological – has stayed with me all these years.
Since I was ordained in 1980, I have preached more than 2,000 sermons. I wonder if and when I have spoken in a way that forgets or dismisses the suffering of innocents. I am still haunted by Wiesel’s answer and whatever prompted me to ask my question.
The cross — we need to account for it.
A crude means of Roman torture and execution, the cross seems to be first a tragic example of what power regularly does to keep the powerless down, to silence voices that cry for justice. No statement beyond that can have any integrity unless that is stated first.
But the cross has also become a beautiful and resonant symbol that has power to lift the hearts of people who long for hope in this world. An alert and caring Catholic priest put a crucifix into the hungry hands of my mother when she was suffering in a hospital. It meant the world to her, quite literally, just as the cross on my meditation table is the center of my daily prayers for my daughter, currently undergoing treatment for aggressive breast cancer.
I imagine Wiesel might have agreed that this central symbol of Christian faith (apart from how it has been used to leverage antisemitism) can, for Christians, be a rich source of hope and inspiration. But I also imagine he would have traded all the good the cross might engender to bring back from oblivion his little sister and the many other millions.
Of course he would, and I for one would support such a bargain. It would be the Christian thing to do.