The Liberation – 75 Years Ago Today

Ellie Weisel

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day   – the day 75 years ago when the Auschwitz death camp  was liberated by Soviet Red Army troops.  Since the Shoah, different nations have embraced different narratives of the tragedy.

It is almost inconceivable, but true, that two of the most acclaimed Holocaust writers were imprisoned in the same Auschwitz sub-camp, Morowitz, at the same time. Same survivors claimed they occupied the same block.  “There, they suffered the same unspeakable deprivations, the deadly cold, disease, hunger, and dehumanization. In that insanely polyglot place, they both learned the lifesaving lingua franca—German—and miraculously passed through selections. And even after liberation, when tens of thousands still died, they somehow endured.”

Yet, despite all their shared horrors, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi emerged with profoundly different versions of the Holocaust’s meaning and lessons.

“Wiesel expressed fury at the Germans, his family’s Christian neighbors, Jewish collaborators inside the camps, indifferent Jews overseas, and especially God. He described desperate sexual encounters among prisoners likely to die and the rape of German women by newly liberated survivors.Virtually all of this rawness was excised from La Nuit, first published in 1958, under the mentorship of the French Catholic humanist François Charles Mauriac. As noted by the critics, Mauriac condensed an embittered 865-page Yiddish manuscript into 254 pages of literary French all but drained of acrimony.The need for revenge was replaced by acceptance of the silent martyrdom traditionally preferred by the Church. Originally a cry of despair, the description of a Jewish boy’s hanging by the SS became, in Wiesel’s new homogenized version, a parable of saintly suffering.The book was not a best seller; only 6,000 copies were sold in America in 1960 when it was translated into English.  But over the next 60 years sales would surpass six million; selected by Oprah’s Book Club and spend 18 months at the top of the New York Times Best Seller List. Wiesel was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize. An entire generation of American high-school students learned about the Holocaust almost exclusively from Night.

The change in attitude toward the Holocaust came in the 1970’s and culminated in the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. Reconciliation, rather than retribution, became the message that Wiesel and the museum he championed brought to Americans. “Even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion,” he wrote. “I still believe in man in spite of man.”

“Could it have been otherwise? Would Oprah have interviewed a survivor who demanded the eye-for-an-eye execution of 6 million Germans? Would hundreds of thousands of American young people of all backgrounds pass through a memorial which taught “never again” as a pledge to armed resistance rather than a plea for universal love?”

Primo Levi

The degree of celebrity achieved by Wiesel would never be attained by Primo Levi, though he was arguably the finer writer. Like Wiesel in America, he became his society’s most revered bearer of Holocaust memory. Secular, humanistic, anti-religious, nonmilitant, and post-national, Levi spoke in a language intelligible to Europeans.

“Levi belonged to a thoroughly assimilated family that thought of itself as Italian in a way that the Wiesels could never have been Romanian or Hungarian. Arrested as a partisan, he admitted he was Jewish only after concluding, naively, that it would ease his punishment. Yet he was a brilliant chemist who viewed reality through a scientist’s lens, exacting and cold, so different from the young Wiesel’s spiritual, visceral world.”

Though in Auschwitz three months longer than Weisel. Levi was spared hard labor and as a brilliant chemist was put to work in a plant seeking to create rubber in the laboratory.  He also missed the death march to Buchenwald as the Red Army approached.

“Levi’s memoirs tell a story almost identical to Weisel’s. His observations, though, are radically different, as are his conclusions. Unlike Wiesel, Levi did not need a Mauriac to tenderize his prose. Tormented by the idea of killing even as a partisan, he refused to hate the Nazis.” Rather than dream of vengeance, he focused on observing, chronicling to the minutest detail, and commenting on ordinary people subjected to the most monstrous conditions. As his biographer, Carole Angier, concluded, “He did not just learn in order to survive. On the contrary; he survived in order to learn.”

If Wiesel never lost faith in humankind, Levi continued to believe in Europe, unreservedly returning to Italy after the war.  Levi postulated that hyper-nationalism in pre-war Europe made the Holocaust possible – and the E.U., created to submerge hyper-nationalism, listened.  Much of Europe has resisted the idea that the Holocaust was essentially a Jewish drama.

Levi was not instantly celebrated in Europe. Begun in 1946 and published 10 years later, If This Is a Man sold only 1,600 copies.  It wasn’t until the ’70s that Levi was able to quit his chemistry job and devote himself to writing.  ” By the time of his death, in 1987, he was recognized as Europe’s Holocaust author par excellence, traveling to schools to talk about his Auschwitz experiences and speaking out against Holocaust deniers. His list of awards was long and, had he lived, would likely have included a Nobel Prize for literature. Instead, that honor went to Kertész, another dark, rationalistic, fiercely secular Jew who returned to his home country, Hungary, after the war, and later moved to Germany.

America and Europe incorporated Wiesel and Levi into their popular narratives. But who is their counterpart in the state that emerged in part as a reaction to the Holocaust, and was founded in significant part by its survivors? Which writer speaks of Auschwitz in a voice that Israelis are willing to hear?

Who speaks of the Holocaust with an Israeli voice?

“Israelis  never have embraced a Wiesel or a Levi, or their sentient messages. Night was never a major best seller in Israel, and many of Levi’s writings were not even translated into Hebrew until after his death. And for good reason.

Israelis saw the Holocaust as the inevitable outcome of 2,000 years of Jewish homelessness and Christian hate that was ended by independence and armed strength, rather than as a historical aberration to be denied recurrence by tolerance and peace. Nor do they believe that the existential threat ended with the liberation of the camps. For Israelis, it continued with enemy forces—not merely odious ideas—massed on Israel’s borders. More than a personal or human tragedy, the final solution was perceived in Israel as a national nightmare requiring a firm sovereign response.”

The main Israeli repositories of Holocaust memory are Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the Ghetto Fighters House Museum near Haifa.

Israel commemorates the Holocaust not today, the internationally recognized anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, but on Yom Hashoah v’Gevurah (Holocaust and Heroism Day). the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

“In the competition between mourning for the victims and lionizing the resisters, the latter clearly won.”

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About toritto

I was born during year four of the reign of Emperor Tiberius Claudius on the outskirts of the empire in Brooklyn. I married my high school sweetheart, the girl I took to the prom and we were together for forty years until her passing in 2004. We had four kids together and buried two together. I had a successful career in Corporate America (never got rich but made a living) and traveled the world. I am currently retired in the Tampa Bay metro area and live alone. One of my daughters is close by and one within a morning’s drive. They call their pops everyday. I try to write poetry (not very well), and about family. Occasionally I will try a historical piece relating to politics. :-)
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4 Responses to The Liberation – 75 Years Ago Today

  1. beetleypete says:

    A thoughtful and fitting piece to mark this day, Frank.
    Whichever point of view eventually prevails, neither seem to be able to stop the combination of circumstances that led to the rise of those who originally carried out the Holocaust. I fear it could easily happen again in the near-future, though perhaps to people of a different religion.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I appreciated the chance to pause today and remember. My grandmother was a totally assimilated Jew and would have surely been executed when Paris fell if she hadn’t moved to the U.S. My extended French family was murdered.

    Liked by 1 person

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