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August 21, 1981 - Image 22

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1981-08-21

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THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

22 Friday, August 21, 1981

Elie Wiesel's 'Testament' of Timeless Jewish Torture in Russia

By BETTE ROTH

Elie Wiesel is perhaps
history's most articulate
witness to the Holocaust. In
over a dozen novels and

countless essays, interviews
and addresses, he has
shared with•us his intense,
exquisite pain. In "The Tes-
tament" (Summit Books),

Wiesel turns his attention
to yet another Jewish
tragedy, Stalin's senseless
execution of Russia's finest
Jewish poets and novelists

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on Aug. 12, 1952.
Paliel Kossover, the
hovel's central character, is
a Yiddish poet. The title of
the work refers to his "Tes-
tament," an autobiography
written in the form of a con-
fession to crimes against the
state, crimes never articu-
lated for_ him. He was in-
carcerated from 1949 to
1952 and went to his death
never knowing just exactly
what he had in fact done.
His story is quiet and he
moves forward slowly. He
tells us of his passive post-
ure in his quasi-conversion
from Judaism to Com-
munism, in his fight against
Franco in the Spanish Civil
War, in his sojourn in Paris
and in his reluctant return
to Russia during World War
II.
Kossover, a fictionalized
character, can be seen as a
composite of all of the Yid-
dish artists who fell victim
to Stalin's rage: His inabil-
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ity to guide his own destiny
in concert with the bland-
ness of his recollections are
not unique personality
quirks. They are, rather,
examples of the "ideal"
Soviet citizen in a country
which tries to mold and
meld her multi-ethnic,
multi-national citizens into
a dull group of obedient ser-
vants to the system.
The reader feels the
tedium and lack of motiva-
tion a Soviet citizen surely
mustleel. Wiesel purposely
draws out seemingly incon-
sequential events to achieve
this ambiance.
But Kossover expresses
his anger in his poetry. This
seems to be his only outlet
for authenticity. He cannot
live in the day-to-day world
with anything other than
resignation.

A central motif of the
novel is an "involuntary" si-
lence. Kossover's son,
Grisha, is mute, the result
of a freak accident. Kos-
sover is sentenced to
months of solitary silence
when even speaking aloud if
only to himself, is met with
severe punishment. He tells
us that his punishment one
of the many inflicted upon
him, is the ultimate torture.
Soon the mind loses the
ability to visualize words, to
think in language, the criti-
cal difference between beast
and human being.
Thought is cast into a
boundless void.
Wiesel's ability to bring
the reader into that experi-
ence proclaims his genius as
a writer. The terror of that

torture lingers long after
the novel has ended.
The silence is symbolic as
well. Grisha can only listen
to,or read about the horror
of his father's story. He is
unable to respond with any-
thing other than silence.
And both he and his father
represent all of Russia's
Jews, her "Jews of Silence"
as Wiesel has so eloquently
named them. They can wit-
ness the terror but those
who cry out are exiled.
The Holocaust was a
tragedy in black and white
with remembrance trans-
formed into vivid, if terri-
ble, color, A spectacle of
horror seen and reseen, told
and retold, read and reread
by the world's Jews, it was
the psychic shock, the
trauma that changed the
collective consciousness of a
people.
Many Jews in Russia re-
mained beyond the reaches
of Hitler's horrors, either as
members of the Soviet army
or as partisans in Russia's
underground. Some escaped
simply by moving east more
quickly than the German
army. But the terror they
encountered, recounted in
the pages of "The Testa-
ment," was perhaps even
more frightening than the
Holocaust.
This Russian terror was
not a sudden 12-year
paroxysm of a madman on
the loose but is the slow,
steady, routinous sen-
selessness of a bureaucracy,
the Soviet apparatus, a gov-
ernment whose foundations
rest on fear.
"The Testament" recalls
300 years of pogroms and
purges, tortures both physi-
cal and psychic, which
began for the Russian Jew
with the Chmelnicki mas-
sacres of 1648. The Soviet
system is, for the Jew, a rep-
lication of past history.
The year 1952 was but
one more betrayal in a his-
tory filled with short-lived-
acceptance and sudden bet-
rayal. And as we focus upon
an event almost 30 years
old, we are uneasy. We
think of Shcharansky,
Nudel and others and we
wonder if they too will be
forced to tell their story as a
"written" testament. Or
will they be able to break
that dreadful barrier of si-
lence before it becomes past
history to be remembered
only in inactive anger.
"The Testament" is an
eloquent description of the
dual nature of man and of
the "banality or evil."
Wiesel deals not only with
the victim, Kossover the
Jew, but with the-collective
perpetrator, members of the
Soviet system of bureauc-
racy. He finds their motiva-
tion and rationale utterly
banal.
Even the direct partici-
pants in the torture tell us
that "they were only follow-
ing orders." Wiesel im-
plicitly tells us that the
Russian experience is but
an extension of the
Holocaust.

C.1_ ‘

ELIE WIESEL

of Job, of Elie Wiesel. An__
the title gains profound sig-
nificance when we recall
that the Old Testament is,
after all, a chronicle of the
individual Hebrew, Iraelite,
Jew in his continuing
dialogue with his Creator,
an oral communication
however, which addresses
the problems of injustice
and evil. "The Testament"
is. in a sense, the continua- .
tion of that story. Wiesel
seems to find no "rational"
rationale nor does he see a
satisfactory ending.
Russia's senseless system
afflicts all of the citizens in
that vast land mass. But for
the Jew and for Elie Wiesel,
this novel is just one more
chapter in a long Jewish
story of incomprehensible
and profound grief. And
Wiesel, the ultimate
polemicist, should be
praised for his masterful
ability to motivate a secure
American Jewish commu-
nity to go beyond the
Holocaust in our anger and
rage.
His story commands our
attention; he compels us to
act. He seems to be telling
us that only by listening to
that terrible Russian si-
lence and then by exhibit-
ing the same anger and rake
evoked by the ,memories of
the Holocaust can we truly
honor the Six Million who
perished.
His novel is an implicit
call to action in behalf of the
Russian Jew today, caught
yet behind a barrier of si-
lence in a labyrinth of un-
predictable and inexplica-
ble madness.

HIAS Honors
UN Official

NEW YORK — Michael
Novak, U.S. Representative
to the UN Human Rights
Commission, will receive
the Liberty Award of HIAS
(the Hebrew Immigrant Aid
Society) at a dinner Sept. 20.
in New York.
Novak is the 14th reci-
pient of the award, which is
given to individuals "who
have made a substantir
contribution to the furthe,
ante of peace and freedom in
the world." Novak made
world headlines earlier this
year following his inau-
gural speech at the Feb-
ruary session of the Human
Rights Commission in
Geneva. In that address,
Ambassador Novak spoke of
his "shock" on hearing
within the commission "so
much hatred, so many lies,
such squalid racism, such
But the novel transcends despicable anti-Semitism —
a specific person,or event. It all in the sacred name of
is the story of Ecclesiastes, human rights."

T

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