Monday, July 11, 2016, late in the afternoon, one could see, in front of the Paris City Hall, a crowd of Parisians in tight rows, who slowly crossed the barriers of the many watchful security services.
This numberless crowd ascended the steep, regal staircase that leads to the Salon d’honneur. And it was amid the glitter and pomp of the Republic that the memorial service took place. An homage to Elie Wiesel, born in Romania, deported at the age of fifteen, survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, who died in New York on July 2. He was 87.
When he got off the train that was bringing him to France along with 430 others, this survivor, who was no longer of our world, was immediately taken in hand, and saved by the Jewish child welfare organization, l'OSE. At that time, he spoke only Yiddish and Romanian. For 10 years, Elie Wiesel lived in France, a nation whose language and culture he adopted, but all the while continuing to cherish his own. It was at the Sorbonne that he studied philosophy. He became a journalist, and then a French writer. His first novel, La Nuit (Night), with a preface by François Mauriac, was published in France in 1958. More than 50 works followed, nearly all on the Holocaust, the silence, and the attempt to deny what happened. It is thus one of her adopted children that France honored on 11 July. But no one can forget that France had allowed thousands of her own Jewish children to board the trains that led them to torture.
On Monday, 11 July, at precisely 7 PM, a singular cortege makes its entrance into the Salon d’honneur at City Hall. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, were followed by Haïm Korsia, Head Rabbi of France; Monseigneur André Vingt-Trois, Cardinal of Paris; Izio Rosenman, a camp-mate of Elie Wiesel; Edmond Elalouf, President of The Elie Wiesel Institute of Paris; and Jean-François Guthmann, President of l'OSE, a foundation created by Jewish medical doctors in St. Petersburg 104 years ago, to save children.
This farewell ceremony begins with a projection of a short film that lasts just a few minutes. Elie Wiesel. A carved, slender face etched with lines chiseled by sadness and humility. Bitter lips. And the long, white rebel strand of hair. A face filmed in close-up. And the familiar and strange voice of this young man of 87. He calls out to us, he implores us: don't commit the crime of indifference, don't look away, don't allow another massacre to be perpetuated in the shadows, answer the appeals of those who are being bombed, imprisoned, decapitated. Break the silence.
This familiar and strange voice that breaks with emotion, but that does not break, reminds us that this adolescent saw his mother and sister die in the camps, he saw Germans in the full bloom of health toss into flaming pits live children, live infants and live elderly, he saw what he calls "the world of shadows and smoke," he saw and heard his father, whom the SS were beating to death just meters away, call out to him, begging him to approach. Terror paralyzes the son, he does not move, he does not respond to the prayer of the sufferer, who is agonizing before his own eyes, and whose perpetual agony will never leave the tumult of his memory.
For more than 50 years, Elie Wiesel has been seeking tirelessly, through sleepless nights and in front of blank pages, the words, the images, the sounds that might deliver him from the words, the images, the sounds that never stop torturing his soul, and to which no single word, no single image, no single sound could do justice. It is as if every survivor were condemned to relive, day after day, what he went through, in order never to forget it, and to always and tirelessly keep in sight the continual film that must be transmitted, but no one knows how.
And perhaps it is precisely because no single word, no single image no single sound has made us able to see and hear what these survivors saw, heard, and endured that we may perhaps have been able to perceive something, and the anguish makes us tremble, a thin, blurred reflection of the unspeakable, the unnamable.
At the City Hall, each of the officials of the cortege speaks. Each one evokes, in his own way, the tireless battles on so many fronts—Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfour—led by Wiesel, who was justly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Izio Rosenmann, deported at age 13, speaks of the unusual friendship he and Wiesel shared, that of two children who meet at Buchenwald and whom hunger transformed into rabid animals. He underlines their difference—he, an atheist, a communist, a revolutionary. Elie—coming from a religious Hassidic family, who in the camp divorced God, but never divorced the faith of his grandparents. Two children by whom History, and their own history, remain forever marked.
Manuel Valls, the last to speak, is the most ardent, vibrant defender of liberties. The most political. The rise of anti-semitism outrages him; one must combat it in all of its forms. He cites the singularity of Jewish culture and what humanity owes to it. Those in attendance are on their feet, applauding as one would a diva. Perhaps silence would have been more eloquent.
Of these numerous and beautiful speeches, I find myself recalling especially a Hebrew expression that David de Rothschild mentioned: Tikkoun Olam. I had learned from a lecture on “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” that God gave us an imperfect world, a world to mend. I did not know those words, Tikkoun Olam, which assign to us the task of mending the world. And it conveys another imperative to us, that of keeping alive, from generation to generation, until the end of time, the spirit of Judaism to which Elie Wiesel’s life’s work bears witness.
Translated from French by Diane Joy Charney.