Commentary Magazine

Comprehending the Holocaust

To the Editor:

Did Leon Wieseltier, in his review of Elie Wiesel’s The Oath [Books in Review, January 1974] ask himself why Mr. Wiesel chose the mythical town of Kolvillag rather than select one of the many historical episodes of blood-libel? Could it be precisely because the human mind has not been able to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust or the pogroms that Mr. Wiesel has sought to bring them to the level of human understanding? Could it be that Kolvillag speaks for “all mankind,” from the Hebrew word “all” and also from the Hebrew for “voice” which is transliterated the same way?

Did Mr. Wieseltier understand the role of contrasts in The Oath, beginning with the structure of the novel itself? If Azriel is Wiesel, is not the young man also Wiesel? Azriel is the Wiesel who left the concentration camp a quarter of a century ago and said, “If we had known that you knew, we could not have survived”; and the young man is the Wiesel of today who says, “We know that you knew and we still have chosen life.” Why doesn’t Mr. Wieseltier understand what it was that the young man found in Azriel’s tale to transform his pain through an understanding of Jewish history? Isn’t the example of the recent October War enough? Did it not bring all the characters of Kolvillag to the center of the world stage once more? . . .

How can Mr. Wieseltier say that Elie Wiesel robs the Holocaust of its force, that “Wiesel’s art is no match for the truth,” when it is Kolvillag which does not accept this truth? . . . What more need one say? “For in order to realize himself man must fuse all levels of being into one, every man is all men” (The Oath, p. 190). . . .

Blanche E. Sosland
Mission Hills, Kansas



Leon Wieseltier writes:

Blanche E. Sosland is of course correct that “the human mind has not been able to comprehend the enormity of the Holocaust,” and that just such an understanding must be won if that catastrophe is to be meaningfully assimilated into Jewish consciousness and tradition. But it is Elie Wiesel who makes understanding all the more inaccessible; it is the exotic symbols and histrionic postures of his tales which erode our sense of the brute factuality of the event. A really responsible commitment to understanding must begin with the demythologization of the Holocaust, with the rather unimaginative reminder that it was historical, that it happened. The survivors of the camps with whom I am acquainted are not existential heroes, but scarred people coping with their loss in a commonplace world that insists upon continuing; and when they speak of their experience they do not tell of dramatic choices, of battles with God and Jewish fate, but of crusts of bread and the numbness induced by suffering. There is no place for these real sufferers in Elie Wiesel’s fiction.

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