When you’re the child of two Holocaust survivors, as I am, the enormity of that event stays with you forever.
And yet, because it’s your own parents who suffered so greatly, you find it difficult — if not impossible — to talk to them about it. How do you ask your mother and father about enduring such cruelties, losing everything but their lives and somehow summoning the courage to start over again?
I certainly never knew how. Which is why I was fortunate to have become friends with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel during the last four years of his life. I met him in 2012, when the Chicago Tribune — where I have worked my entire career — assigned me to interview him, because the newspaper was awarding him its Literary Prize.
Within minutes of meeting in his New York office, we communicated as if we’d known each other for years. Our shared histories connected us, not least because Wiesel and my father, Robert Reich, both were liberated from the Buchenwald death camp on April 11, 1945. Wiesel and I soon decided that our ongoing dialogue should be captured in a book, and the recent release of The Art of Inventing Hope: Intimate Conversations with Elie Wiesel comes three years after his death.
To say that I learned a great deal about the Holocaust, genocide, intolerance, faith and aspiration from Wiesel would be an understatement. For he not only answered questions that had haunted me for decades but addressed some I didn’t even realize I’d been harboring.
It literally has taken a book to articulate what I absorbed from this great thinker and humanitarian, but some lessons stand out.
Above all, I was struck by his optimism, though he certainly didn’t call it that. In fact, he said that after all that had happened to his family and millions more, and with all the genocides that had occurred after the Holocaust, he was pessimistic. But he hastened to note it was “an active pessimism.”
What did he mean?
“Not to give up,” he said. “Because of genocide, you must work harder, rather than say, ‘Since it hasn’t helped, forget it.’”
Rather than give in to despair, in other words, Wiesel and survivors like my parents chose hope.
“If despair is the answer, where do we go?” Wiesel said to me. “What can we build on? What can we begin? If I know from the beginning that it all leads to despair, how can we go on?”
Wiesel and the other survivors did go on, building new lives in foreign countries, learning languages that were strange to them, having children and grandchildren, rebuilding life.
If that’s not the definition of optimism, what is?
Wiesel also explained to me why he, like my parents, clung to faith, despite the knowledge that God had abandoned Jews amid their persecution. Wiesel said he could struggle with that bitter truth inside religion or outside. He chose inside. Moreover, faith to him was not an end in itself, but a process: a tireless asking of questions and seeking answers that may elude us. To Wiesel, faith was not a noun but a verb.
Yet in Wiesel’s conversations with me and in his copious writings, he repeatedly expressed respect for survivors who later rejected the very faith he clung to.
In so doing, he offered one more precious lesson: the meaning of tolerance.
Howard Reich ’77 is the Chicago Tribune’s classical and jazz critic and an author. Reich is completing his next documentary film, Left-Handed Pianist, based on a Chicago Tribune series he wrote. He received two honorary doctoral degrees in May and delivered the commencement address at the Bienen School of Music convocation in June.
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