Authors: Elie Wiesel
ALSO BY ELIE WIESEL
The Town Beyond the Wall
The Gates of the Forest
The Jews of Silence
A Beggar in Jerusalem
One Generation After
Souls on Fire
Zalmen, or The Madness of God
Messengers of God
A Jew Today
Four Hasidic Masters
The Trial of God
Five Biblical Portraits
Somewhere a Master
(illustrated by Mark Podwal)
The Fifth Son
(edited by Irving Abrahamson)
The Six Days of Destruction
(with Albert Friedlander)
A Journey into Faith
(conversations with John Cardinal O’Connor)
From the Kingdom of Memory
Sages and Dreamers
A Passover Haggadah
(illustrated by Mark Podwal)
All Rivers Run to the Sea
And the Sea Is Never Full
Memoir in Two Voices
(with François Mitterrand)
King Solomon and His Magic Ring
(illustrated by Mark Podwal)
Conversations with Elie Wiesel
(with Richard D. Heffner)
After the Darkness
Wise Men and Their Tales
Copyright © 1968 by Elie Wiesel
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Distributed by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., in 1968, and subsequently by Schocken Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1982.
Published by agreement with Elirion Associates.
Schocken and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Portions of this book have appeared in
Commentary, Hadassah Magazine
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Wiesel, Elie, 1928–
Legends of our time.
Translation of: Le chant des morts.
Reprint. Originally published: 1st ed. New York: Holt,
Rinehart and Winston, 1968.
[PQ2683.I32C513 1982] 843’.914 82-3225 AACR2
The old white-bearded Rebbe looked at me disapprovingly. “So, it’s you,” he sighed, “you are Dodye Feig’s grandson.” He had recognized me at once, which both pleased and embarrassed me. I have not been so identified since my childhood; since the war
Twenty years have elapsed since he last saw me. We were still in Hungary. My mother brought me to him to obtain his blessing. Now we were alone in the room, in a suburb near Tel Aviv. And for some reason I felt more uncomfortable than then
He sat in his armchair and studied me. He had not changed much. His face remained friendly and pained. His smile contained all the wisdom in the world
“Hmmm, Dodye Feig’s grandson,” the Rebbe repeated as if to himself. His eyes were resting upon me and I wondered whom he saw. And why he turned sad all of a sudden. Then I realized that unlike him I have changed in more than one way; I was no longer his disciple
“Rebbe,” I said, “I have been working hard to acquire a name for myself. Yet, to you I am still attached to my grandfather’s.” It was a poor attempt to break the tension; it failed. Now he seemed somewhat angry: “So, that’s what you have been doing all these years,” he remarked. He nodded his head and added: “What a pity.”
My mother’s father was among his favorite followers. Dodye Feig was more famous as a Hasid than his grandson shall ever be as a writer. Was that the reason for the Rebbe’s anger? I dared not ask him. I became again in his presence the child I once was who would only listen
“Tell me what you are doing,” the Rebbe said in a soft voice. I told him I was writing. “Is that all?” he asked in disbelief. I said, yes, that’s all. His expression was so reproachful that I had to elaborate and explain that some writings could sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. He did not seem to understand
I was afraid of that. If I had waited so many years before I came to see him—although I knew where he could be found—it was because I did not want to acknowledge the distance between us. I was afraid both of its existence and its absence. All the words that for twenty years I have been trying to put together, were they mine or his? I did not have the answer but, somehow, I was afraid that he did
“What are you writing?” the Rebbe asked. “Stories,” I said. He wanted to know what kind of stories: true stories. “About people you knew?” Yes, about people I might have known. “About things that happened?” Yes, about things that happened or could have happened. “But they did not?” No, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end. The Rebbe leaned forward as if to measure me up and said with more sorrow than anger: “That means you are writing lies!” I did not answer immediately. The scolded child within me had nothing to say in his defense. Yet, I had to justify myself: “Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred.”
That was all I could say. Was it enough? I did not know. The Rebbe let it stand. He stared at me for a long moment until his face lit up again. He asked me to come closer; I obeyed. “Come,” he said, “Dodye Feig’s grandson should not go away empty-handed. Come and I shall give you my blessing.”
And I did not dare remind him that for so many years I have tried so hard to acquire for myself a name which needed to be blessed, too. Only after I had left him did I realize that perhaps the time has come for Dodye Feig’s grandson to take my place at the typewriter
The anniversary of the death of a certain Shlomo ben Nissel falls on the eighteenth day of the month of
. He was my father, the day is tomorrow; and this year, as every year since the event, I do not know how to link myself to it.
Yet, in the
, the great book of precepts by Rabbi Joseph Karo, the astonishing visionary-lawmaker of the sixteenth century, precise, rigorous rules on the subject do exist. I could and should simply conform to them. Obey tradition. Follow in the footsteps. Do what everyone does on such a day: go to the synagogue
three times, officiate at the service, study a chapter of
, say the orphan’s
and, in the presence of the living community of Israel, proclaim the holiness of God as well as his greatness. For his ways are tortuous but just, his grace heavy to bear but indispensable, here on earth and beyond, today and forever. May his will be done. Amen.
This is undoubtedly what I would do had my father died of old age, of sickness, or even of despair. But such is not the case. His death did not even belong to him. I do not know to what cause to attribute it, in what book to inscribe it. No link between it and the life he had led. His death, lost among all the rest, had nothing to do with the person he had been. It could just as easily have brushed him in passing and spared him. It took him inadvertently, absent-mindedly. By mistake. Without knowing that it was he; he was robbed of his death.
Stretched out on a plank of wood amid a multitude of blood-covered corpses, fear frozen in his eyes, a mask of suffering on the bearded, stricken mask that was his face, my father gave back his soul at Buchenwald. A soul useless in that place, and one he seemed to want to give back. But, he gave it up, not to the God of his fathers, but rather to the impostor, cruel and insatiable, to the enemy God. They had killed his God, they had exchanged him for another. How, then, could I enter the sanctuary of the synagogue tomorrow and lose myself in the sacred repetition of the ritual without lying to myself, without lying to him? How could I act or think like everyone else, pretend that the death of my father holds a meaning calling for grief or indignation?
Perhaps, after all, I should go to the synagogue to praise the God of dead children, if only to provoke him by my own submission.
Tomorrow is the anniversary of the death of my father and I am seeking a new law that prescribes for me what vows to make and no longer to make, what words to say and no longer to say.
In truth, I would know what to do had my father, while alive, been deeply pious, possessed by fervor or anguish of a religious nature. I then would say: it is my duty to commemorate this date according to Jewish law and custom, for such was his wish.
But, though he observed tradition, my father was in no way fanatic. On the contrary, he preached an open spirit toward the world. He was a man of his time. He refused to sacrifice the present to an unforeseeable future, whatever it might be. He enjoyed simple everyday pleasures and did not consider his body an enemy. He rarely came home in the evening without bringing us special fruits and candies. Curious and tolerant, he frequented Hasidic circles because he admired their songs and stories, but refused to cloister his mind, as they did, within any given system.
My mother seemed more devout than he. It was she who brought me to
to make me a good Jew, loving only the wisdom and truth to be drawn from the Torah. And it was she who sent me as often as possible to the Rebbe of Wizsnitz to ask his blessing or simply to expose me to his radiance.
My father’s ambition was to make a man of me rather than a saint. “Your duty is to fight solitude, not to cultivate or glorify it,” he used to tell me. And he would add: “God, perhaps, has need of saints; as for men, they can do without them.”
He could be found more often in government offices than in the synagogue—and, sometimes, in periods of danger, even more often than at home. Every misfortune that befell our community involved him directly. There was always an impoverished, sick man who had to be sent in an emergency to a clinic in Kolozsvar or Budapest; an unfortunate shopkeeper who had to be bailed out of prison; a desperate refugee who had to be saved. Many survivors of the Polish ghettos owed their lives to him. Furnished with money and forged papers, thanks to him and his friends, they were able to flee the country for
Rumania and from there to the United States or Palestine. His activities cost him three months in a Hungarian prison cell. Once released, he did not utter a word of the tortures he had undergone. On the very day of his release, he took up where he had left off.
My mother taught me love of God. As for my father, he scarcely spoke to me about the laws governing the relations between man and his creator. In our conversations, the
was never mentioned. Not even in camp. Especially not in camp.