Reflections on Elie Wiesel and the Legacy of Holocaust Survivors

Ron Berger —

1049Last month Elie Wiesel passed away at the age of 87 years. The death of the author of Night, one of the most widely read memoirs of the Holocaust, as well as more than 40 other books, may at one time be viewed symbolically as marking the passing of a generation of Holocaust survivors. His death offers me the occasion to reflect upon their legacy. But first, some observations about Wiesel himself, who has left a more controversial legacy than some people might realize, in spite of the unbridled accolades he has received from some quarters.

Born in Signet, Transylvania (later Romania) in 1928, the 15 year-old Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis in April 1944. The most famous passage from Night is about his first night in the camp: “Never shall I forget that night…which has turned my life into one long night….Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.”

After the war, Wiesel studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and became a journalist. In 1958 he published La Nuit, which has now been translated into some 30 languages. The slim volume, just 115 pages in its latest edition, was pared down from a much longer version that was first published in Yiddish. La Nuit was initially considered too slender and depressing by U.S. publishers, and when Night was eventually published by Hill & Wang in 1960, it was not a commercial success. One of the reasons for this lukewarm reception, as I will explain shortly, is that the public was not much interested in the stories of Holocaust survivors at this time.

In 1978 President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel to chair the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, which became the basis for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) that opened in Washington, DC, in 1993. In that capacity he argued against highlighting the deaths of millions of non-Jews—such as Gypsies, Catholic Poles, and Soviet POWs—in the museum’s exhibits. To do so, Wiesel thought, would be to undermine the Jewish particularity of the Holocaust. He also argued against highlighting the 1915 Turkish genocide of Armenians, a Christian minority in Turkey, as a prelude to the Holocaust.

Nevertheless, in the ensuing years Wiesel began speaking out on behalf of human rights causes around the world, receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in 1985 and Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The USHMM Award, established in 2011 and renamed the Elie Wiesel Award, is the museum’s highest honor that is bestowed upon “internationally prominent individuals whose actions have advanced the Museum’s vision of a world where people confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity.”

On the other hand, as historian and theologian Marc Ellis points out, Wiesel expressed little concern for the rights of the Palestinian people and became an advocate for U.S. economic sanctions and military intervention in the Middle East. In doing so, Ellis thinks that Wiesel “compromised his witness” while simultaneously acquiring great wealth and notoriety. I am also reminded of Norman Finkelstein’s quip that for a lecture fee of $25,000 Wiesel would talk about how the truth of the Holocaust, in Wiesel’s words, “lies in silence,” “defies both knowledge and description,” and “cannot be explained nor visualized.”

 * * *

Wiesel once wrote that in his worst nightmare he would wake up shivering, thinking that when he and other survivors were gone, “no one will be able to persuade people that the Holocaust occurred.” In my view, however, the most pressing question is not whether the Holocaust will be remembered, but how it will be remembered. One place to start is with the observations of sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, who notes that “In the beginning, the Holocaust was not the ‘Holocaust’….In the torrent of newspaper, radio, and magazine stories reporting the discovery…of the Nazi concentration camps, the…remains of what had transpired were typified as ‘atrocities,’ part of the general horror of war.” The particularity of Jewish victimization and the suffering of Jewish survivors were opaque; and the photographic and film images that were taken by the Allies presented the victims (dead and alive) as a “petrified, degrading, and smelly” depersonalized mass of misery that generated revulsion rather than compassion.

At the Nuremberg trials in Germany following the war, Jewish victimization was certainly acknowledged, but it was subsumed under the broader categories of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity” and soon half forgotten. The word “Jew” was not even mentioned in Alain Resnais’s otherwise brilliant 1955 documentary film Night and Fog. And William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a 1960 bestseller, devoted just two to three percent of its some 1,200 pages to the Jewish genocide. In this context, most Americans came to view World War II in terms of what Alexander calls the “progressive narrative” of the war, the belief that the evil of Nazism had been overcome and “relegated to a traumatic past whose darkness [had been] obliterated” in favor of a forward-looking vision of a more humane and democratic age.

In the current period—when books and films about the Holocaust abound, and when the U.S. has a memorial museum dedicated to the genocide adjacent to the nation’s other venerated monuments—it is difficult to imagine the public’s disinterest in the Holocaust during the early postwar years. In his autobiography, for example, eminent Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg recalled how difficult it was to find a publisher for The Destruction of European Jews, his ground-breaking account of the bureaucracy that implemented the Holocaust. Eventually he found Quadrangle Books, a small independent company, which agreed to publish the book in 1961 after a Jewish-survivor family promised to subsidize the project with $15,000 to pay for books that would be donated to libraries.

unnamedAt this point in this essay, I want to interject a personal note. My father, Michael Berger (1921-1994), was also a Holocaust survivor and he, too, felt this same disinterest in his experience during the early postwar years. He had arrived at Auschwitz in November 1943, several months before Wiesel, after being in two other camps. Like Wiesel, he survived the infamous death march as the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz before the Soviets arrived from the east in January 1945. After the war, when he arrived in the U.S. and was reunited with his three sisters in Los Angeles who had immigrated from Poland before the war, he was saddened to discover that no one was particularly interested in hearing about his ordeal. People would say things like, “We suffered too. Did you know that we couldn’t get sugar and that gasoline was rationed?” So my father and other survivors like him stopped talking about their experiences. At that time the notion of the Holocaust “survivor” who was held in awe as a witness to history had yet to be conceived. The world was not ready to listen to their stories, to say nothing of embracing them as revered figures. They were viewed as “displaced persons,” “refugees,” “greenhorns.”

Israeli Jews in particular—who envisioned a society of self-reliant “new men” achieving mastery over their environment by returning to their ancient homeland and fighting for independence and the creation of a Jewish state—at times even held rather disdainful attitudes toward survivors. According to Israeli psychiatrist Shamai Davidson, for a long time many Israelis implicitly urged survivors “to forget their past…and….emerge from their background of powerlessness, helplessness, and defenselessness into a new Israeli identity” that repudiated what Israelis perceived as the passivity of the European Jews during the war. Thus Israelis lent a more receptive ear to the stories of those who had been involved in armed resistance, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. In fact, they sought out these individuals and treated them as heroes. Survivors who could not or would not conform to this expectation were dismissed as inconsequential at best.

hqdefaultA key turning point in this disconcerting view of survivors was the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, the Nazi’s leading expert on Jewish affairs and a key architect of the Holocaust, had been apprehended by the Israelis in Argentina and taken to Israel for criminal prosecution. In the minds of Israeli officials, however, the purpose of the trial was not simply to punish Eichmann but to impress upon the rest of the world their moral obligation to support the Jewish state. It was an occasion for building national pride and for highlighting not only Jewish suffering but, more importantly, Jewish resistance.

The Eichmann trial initiated the cultural creation of an alternative narrative that highlighted the distinctiveness and enormity of Jewish victimization. It was the first time that large numbers of survivors began telling their stories in public, including stories of non-heroic suffering. Several years later, the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors renewed fears among Jews that a second Holocaust was possible. At the same time, the decisive Israeli victory brought pride and confidence to Jews around the world and legitimized Israel as a capable ally of the U.S. that was worthy of its support on pragmatic as well as moral grounds. Building on the financial security that Jews had achieved in America, survivors increasingly felt empowered to become more vocal about their wartime experiences, and by the late 1970s the Holocaust began receiving widespread exposure in print and film, especially through the airing of the 9 ½ hour miniseries called Holocaust, a docudrama about two fictional families—one of assimilated German Jews and the other of a highly-placed SS official—that aired in 1978 and was viewed by some 120 million viewers in the U.S. alone. As such, survivors who had for years been deprived of the respect they deserved found themselves in high demand, even held in awe and embraced as revered figures. Audiences wanted to get close to them, to feel their pain, and in doing so become witnesses to history themselves. In turn, survivors came to view themselves as responsible for reminding the world that what happened to them must happen “Never Again!”

* * *

As the generation of Holocaust survivors passes away, I also find myself thinking about the second-generation children of survivors like myself. This is not an identity that was available to me growing up as a member of the postwar “baby boom” cohort in the 1950s and 1960s. During that time I actually knew very little about the Holocaust and about what had happened to my father and our Polish family.

When I was six or seven years old, my father later reminded me, I asked him why I only had grandparents on my mother’s side of the family while all my friends had two sets of grandparents. At that time all he said was they had died. When I was a little older, he did tell me about being in a concentration camp and about his agony over losing his parents. At that age, however, I did not really understand what being in a concentration camp entailed, and to me it seemed as if the only observable trace of his ordeal was the blue number 160914 that was tattooed on his left arm. Moreover, I cannot recall any attention given to the subject during all my years in public school or later even in college at UCLA. Nor can I recall it mentioned in Hebrew school during the period of my life I was preparing for my bar mitzvah.

The community in which I grew up was a working- and middle-class Jewish enclave on the west side of L.A. It was my mother’s decision that we should live there. Her parents, who were also Jewish, had immigrated to the U.S. between the two World Wars and had settled in Glendale, California, just outside the borders of L.A. proper. This is where my mother was raised. It was an anti-Semitic community, home of the John Birch Society. My mother never experienced violence because of her Jewish ethnicity, but neither did she think it was an environment in which she wanted to raise her children.

The public schools I attended had large Jewish populations. It was not uncommon for classrooms to be virtually empty on the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At Christmastime I did not feel left out or envious of Christian children because my parents were successful at deluding my brother and me that the practice of receiving gifts over an eight-day period for Hanukkah was much better than a one-day holiday. Only later did I discover that many Christian children enjoy a veritable orgy of gifts on that one day that far surpasses anything we received during our week-long celebration.

My parents’ religious beliefs could best be described as agnostic, although they always self-identified as Jews and held strong nationalist sentiments toward Israel. For us, being Jewish was more of an ethnic-cultural identity than a theological faith. During my childhood, we did observe all of the major Jewish holidays, and it was assumed that at 13 years of age I would have my bar mitzvah, which I did. Further Jewish education was not obligatory, although I did study Hebrew for another six months. Because I was raised in a liberal Jewish milieu, I felt as though I was an assimilated American. And that was fine with me. I did not believe that being Jewish made me an outsider until I moved to southeastern Wisconsin in 1981 upon accepting a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater (UWW).

UWW is located in a small college town between Madison and Milwaukee, about two hours by car from Chicago. In Whitewater and the neighboring small towns in which I lived for several years, there are few, if any, Jews. Most of the people in these communities are either Catholic or Lutheran who have little contact with people from non-Christian backgrounds. Within a month or two after I first arrived, I was invited to dinner at a faculty member’s house. After dinner the conversation somehow turned to religion, and our hostess said, in what seemed like a non sequitur, “Those Jews have a lot of nerve thinking they are the chosen people!” Then there was the little 7 year-old, a neighbor of mine, who expressed confusion to her parents when she found out I was Jewish because she thought that all “Jews had horns.” Several years later, a 12 year-old friend of my stepson casually remarked, “Jews are bad people.”

At other times I heard comments pertaining to people who would “Jew you down,” a phrase I had never encountered while living in L.A. Most (but not all) of the time I said nothing. This battle I did not need to fight. But I often felt as if I was invisible, and I empathized with how people of color must feel when they go into a store in a white community. All eyes are on them. If being Jewish were something you could see on my face, they would be watching me too.

Oddly enough, at this time I was unaware of the growing collective awareness among second-generation children of survivors, many of whom were helping their elders tell theirs stories of the Holocaust. The second generation first gained national recognition through an article written by journalist Helen Epstein in the New York Times Magazine in 1977, which she followed with her book Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. More generally, this second-generation movement may be traced, in part, to the cultural interest in familial “roots” and genealogy that emerged in the U.S. in the mid-1970s.

2833085My own interest in exploring my father’s past, however, was piqued at a lecture I attended at my university in 1987. Robert Clary, the actor most known for his role as Louis LeBeau in the television sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, spoke to a standing-room-only audience of more than 800 people. The show was rather popular at the time, and I had never seen so many students turn out for a non-sporting event. Clary’s topic was the Holocaust and his survival of it. He explained that for most of his postwar life he had kept quiet about his experience to avoid the painful remembering of his “thirty-one months of hell.” But as he turned sixty, he began to realize that soon there would no longer exist living testimony to this momentous event.

During the audience question-and-answer period that followed Clary’s speech, a young woman stood up, identified herself as 25 years-old, and said she was upset that she had never learned or even “heard about the Holocaust” before Clary’s lecture. The audience, myself included, was taken aback by her comment. But what also soon struck me was how little I knew about the Holocaust and in particular about what had happened to my father and his family. This led to an immediate phone call to my father back home. “We have to record your story,” I told him. And he seemed pleased, ready for someone to ask, and happy he’d be able, in his words, to “leave a legacy for my family.” I remember, too, when we subsequently visited Poland in 1989, and he said that he felt as if he had triumphed over Hitler, because here he was alive and well, while Hitler was long dead.

What started out as a family project also blossomed into a professional interest in the Holocaust. Through my previous work as a sociologist, I had been concerned with questions of class, race, and gender. (At that time religious ethnicity, among other categories of social difference, had not been let into this holy trinity.) But now, as I began to feel a sense of nostalgic affiliation with my ethnic origins, I was struck by how much I had failed to inquire into my own family history.

Part of this familial and sociological project also included documenting the story of my uncle, Sol Berger, my father’s older brother by two years. He and my father were the only two members of our extended Polish family who had not immigrated to the U.S. before the war who survived. Unlike my father, Sol was not interned in a concentration camp, but rather passed as a Catholic Pole among anti-Semitic Poles, including a group of anti-Nazi Polish Partisans, eventually becoming an officer in the Soviet Army.

Additionally, both my father and uncle began speaking about their experiences at the Museum of Tolerance in L.A. and at schools, synagogues and churches, and other venues. While my father died only a few years after beginning his speaking “career,” my uncle, 96 years-old at the time of this writing, continued to do so for nearly two decades.

But what about survivors’ pleas that what happened to them must happen “never again”? Or President Bill Clinton’s assertion in his dedication speech at the opening of the USHMM, when he opined that “the evil represented in this museum is incontestable. But as we are its witness, so must we remain its adversary in the world”? Yet happen again it has—the genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, in Rwanda in the 1990s, and in Darfur in the 2000s, to name a few. Hence I wonder, along with President Carter’s former national security advisor Zbigniew Brezinski, who once asked whether Holocaust remembrance had become a “proclamation of a moral imperative” or a “pompous declaration of hypocrisy.”


Jeffrey C. Alexander. 2004. “On the Social Construction of Moral Universals: The ‘Holocaust’ from War Crime to Trauma Drama.” In Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity, edited by J. C. Alexander et al. University of California Press.

Ronald J. Berger. 2011. Surviving the Holocaust: A Life Course Perspective. Routledge.

—. 2013. The Holocaust, Religion, and the Politics of Collective Memory. Transaction Publishers.

Shamai Davidson. 1992. Holding on to Humanity—The Message of Holocaust Survivors. New York University Press.

Marc H. Ellis. 2016. “Elie Wiesel is Dead.” Mondoweiss, (July 3).

Helen Epstein. 1979. Children of the Holocaust: Conversations with Sons and Daughters of Survivors. Penguin.

Elie Wiesel. 1956/2006. Night. Hill & Wang.

10 thoughts on “Reflections on Elie Wiesel and the Legacy of Holocaust Survivors

  1. Outstanding essay, Ron. I read “Night” by Wiesel in high school in 1972 or ’73, and many years later, I came upon a book called “Memoir In Two Voices,” co-authored by Wiesel and Francois Mitterand, who of course, after a distinguished career as a statesman became President of France. Mitterand was quite controversial for a time, as he faced accusations of having collaborated with the Vichy regime in France during WWII. I don’t know if you may have read this work or not, but I have a copy and, if you are interested, I will bring it to you when you and Charles get together for lunch one of these days.


  2. A wonderful essay. The perspective your family history brings to bear makes it all the more poignant and frightening.


  3. Profound, excellent article, Ron. (No offense to Wise Guys, but I think you should take it further, to something like the New Yorker, Atlantic, or to a scholarly journal in in history, culture, or Holocaust studies for a wider readership). I was especially taken by your personal reflections as son of a Holocaust survivor. And there is so much to be gleaned historically from reading it, especially the fact that the significant fact of Jewish victimization specifically was slow to emerge post-WW2 and that the Eichmann trial became something of a catalyst for the historiographical designation of the Jewish Holocaust. I also appreciate your indicating that very great man though he was, Ellie Wiesel stopped short of an embrace of the theme of Palestinian suffering and rights. Your article really is the full package. Please seek to share it more widely.


  4. Thank you, Dave, for the kind words. For this article, I did draw upon what I have written in my previous book Surviving the Holocaust that focuses on my father and uncle’s experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Ron this was quite an engaging and informative essay which helps me to understand even more of the evolution of Holocaust studies. I did think that the entire essay might focus on an alternative view of Wiesel, especially his inability or indifference to ethnic groups or those who challenge the boundaries of Israel such as in the on-going Israeli-Palestinian wars. Wiesel of course, became the spokesperson and raising questions about his indifference might have been uncomfortable for everybody. I also appreciated your comments on how Americans and Europeans who did not experience or know of the Holocaust, came to hear about the Holocaust through books and films. Your reference to a UWW student who asked, why haven’t I heard about this before, reminded me of almost regular “complaints” in my UWW World of Ideas classes which was why are we hearing about this for the first time as juniors in our university class? I also appreciate hearing again about your uncle and his experiences and remember our search in and around Auschwitz camps for places he might have worked. I think we found a plaque which provided some information about sub-camps. Most of all Ron, I appreciate your diligent research and writing into so many aspects of the Holocaust and how it is remembered. Finally I agree with a writer who suggested this be sent to print magazines so more readers can appreciate your insights. thanks very much for this…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you Ron for such an absorbing commentary which has escaped the awareness, understanding and the proper perspective for responding to the roots of the Holocaust. Absolutely stunning. I have to read more of the Wise Guys, and I also agree with Dave. Your thinking needs a larger audience.

    Liked by 1 person

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