The Holocaust in Rural Utah

Last night, May 22, I attended a lecture by Elie Wiesel at Snow College in Ephraim, UT. I thought that, perhaps, you all would be interested in a report.

The evening, for me, began with a family gathering at Eric and Juli’s where we were provided with Spaghetti and Babysitting to fortify us for the lecture. When we arrived at the hall, we were quickly guided into the overflow area, as the lecture hall itself was for those who had made reservations beforehand. We had arrived about 40 minutes before the lecture began and, already, the overflow was probably at least half full. On the big screen was a feed from the lecture hall proper, which was had a slide show going.

The slide show consisted of quote froms Prof. Wiesel and facts about his life. For instance, Night is condensation of a 900 page original work written in Yiddish that Wiesel wrote at the urging of friends. In fact, he had kept a 10 year vow of silence regarding what had happened at Auschwitz. Would you like a bunch of hastily scribbled Elie Wiesel slide-show quotes?

“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it is indifference”

“Always question those who are certain of what they are saying”

“Our lives no longer belong to us along, they belong to those who need us desparately”

“Sometimes we must interfere”

“There may be a time when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest injustice”

“an annihilation that only man can provoke, only man can prevent”

“I had anger, but never hate”

“I devoted myself to the dead. Anyone who doesn’t remember betrays them again”

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented”

“One person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death”

“I shouted because I wanted to change them. Now I know that I cannot, so I shout even louder so that they will not change me”

I would like to take a moment to thank my wife for helping me get these quotes down, at least until she was called back to Eric and Juli’s by a erroneously-reported, lightly-choking daughter (who is just fine, and, apparently, always was).

Shall I describe the crowd? The couple in front of me looked like they were dress to attend a local basketball game (he was wearing a jersey even). Prior to the event, people were talking lightly about coincidences in seating and recent and impending weddings. In my party, the talk turned to the dangers of MySpace and internet predation. It was an strange juxtiposition considering what was about to take place.

First on stage was Michael Benson, grandson of President Ezra Taft Benson and President of Snow College. He presented Prof. Wiesel with an honorary doctorate (from a college of 2500 whose highest degree offered is an Associates). He talked about how a student employee of his had been doing research on Prof. Wiesel and about how moved she had been by the quotes and biographies she had found. He commented on Prof. Wiesel’s love of teaching. When presenting the doctorate, Prof. Wiesel was on stage surrounded by three school officials, giant strapping sons of Scandanavia who towered over the Jew from Transylvania and awkwardly shuffled from side to side after presenting him with a ribbon and a plaque.

Prof Wiesel himself was then introduced by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a celebrity rabbi and a close friend of Michael Benson. He actually spent quite a bit of time praising Mike Benson for his vision and commitment to “a dream conceived by myself and Mike Benson 15 years ago”. They believed that their “respective communities could create a greater cohesiveness”. As a result, we now had the opportunity to hear from “the greatest living Jewish personality of all”. Rabbi Shmuley uses hyperbole the way most Americans use English.

To continue with his introduction, Rabbi Shmuley pitted religion and God against humanity over the course of the twentieth century. In the face of the barabarisms of fascism and communism, when humanity asked what God was having to do with all this, they were told “You have no right to challenge. ‘Where was God’? How dare you even ask! Of course you don’t matter.” In this atmosphere, Elie Wiesel made people matter. He said, I have a right to hold God accountable. When faced with the question of why good people suffer, Elie Wiesel said, “They shouldn’t! God has a lot of answering to do.” According to Rabbi Shmuley, by being the voice of those who have no voice, Elie Wiesel becomes our voice, too. He is “a true son of God, a brother of humanity, and the conscience of mankind.”

All of which lead us to Prof. Wiesel himself. He opened up by noting that Rabbis often exaggerate and then quickly got down business. He had been asked to speak on forgiveness. It wasn’t a topic that he choose, he was given it, but it was a challenging and appealing one so he thought he would talk about it anyway.

His first point was that doubt is a gift. Certainty is dangerous in his mind, in fact he called madness a consequence of certainty, not of doubt. Instead, doubt offers the opportunity, or rather the quest, to learn. We define our selves by our quest. As someone who primarily considered himself a teacher, his passion is the passion for study. Our deepest thoughts, if not expressed in words, cannot be communicated. Yet there are things for which there are no words. In some cases, the enemy succeeds in pushing cruelty beyond the limits of language. In those cases, it may be tempting to remain silent, being unable to express the pain and sorrow experienced. But that is not really an option. In saying this, Dr. Wiesel notes that suffering itself conveys no special privileges (except, perhaps, in the case of children). We cannot use suffering to fuel our own self-pity. Rather, we must use our suffering as means to help others.

While being free is good, is essential, to give freedom to those who have no freedom is a greater gift. How can anyone live quietly, peacefully, when others need someone to help them. Even if you cannot do anything directly, you can let them know they are not forgotten, that they are not alone. There is no feeling worse than the feeling of being abandoned. God alone is alone. I am defined by any of you much more than by myself.

This is a new century. On Dec 31, 1999, we celebrated not so much the coming of a new era, but the departure of the old one. Yet our promising new century has already disappointed us. Medieval fanaticism has replaced totalitarianism as the current ideology to be feared and we have become conditioned to accept it. 10 years ago, I would have protested if my luggage was searched. Now, if there is not search, I am worried. Young students, it is your century. There is an old story of a man lost in a forest. He wanders for one day, two days, three days alone. On the third day, he sees another man, runs to him, and says, “I am so happy to see you. I am lost; can you show me the way out?” The other man replies, “I am lost, too. All I can say is don’t go there! I just came from there.”

Since the topic is forgiveness, we should go to the Bible for our study. Everything about anything is in that book. Has God forgiven Adam and Eve? Has God forgiven Cain? Has God forgiven the people of the Flood? The themes of forgiveness, sin and punishment, and exile and redemption are constant in the Bible.

Who has the authority to forgive? The judge or the victim? Are there sins beyond forgiveness? Cain committed genocide (he killed 1/2 of humanity). He became a wanderer and a builder of cities. Is this fitting? The sign was given to protect Cain, but he was deserving of capital punishment. Why did the Almighty introduce humans? Why did he give people the power to choose to disobey? Why did God need us? All that God created was for his glory, but whose? God’s or humanity’s? Has Esau forgiven Jacob? Has Joseph forgiven his brothers?

The idea of forgiveness is deeply imbedded in Jewish tradition. Yom Kippurim is the Day of Atonements. The Talmudic sages devote a whole tractate to yom kippurim. On that day, the High Priest was washed, anointed, and then quizzed and harassed so that the purity of his heart would be known and maintained. His accusers and harassers asked forgiveness, saying that they were doing it for his own sake and for the sake of God. The High Priest would enter the holy of holies and utter the name of God. There was a second, who could utter it if the High Priest was unable, but who, after the High Priest uttered it, immediately forgot it. Judaism is an audacious religion. The name is no longer known. If we have forgotten God’s name, who knows what else we’ll forget. Anyhoo, the High Priest asked forgiveness for himself, his family, and Israel (which, in Wiesel’s mind, is all of humanity). However, there is one kind of sin that God cannot forgive.

God cannot forgive sins committed against another. That is why there is a public prayer on yom kippurim in which the petitioner says to all whom he knows “forgive me if I have, consciously or unconciously, humiliated or hurt any who know. And I forgive all you have humiliated or harmed me.” You are to ask others for forgiveness and, if they refuse three times, they then must ask you to forgive them for not forgiving you.

But what if collective judgment goes unpardoned? Who then passes judgment? God may, as he did in the cases of the Flood and Sodom and Gomorrah. There is a midrash of the Flood. Afterward, after the waters had receded, Noah took a look around and said, “Why God? Why did you have to kill them all? Why did you have to kill even the children?” God then says to Noah, “Now you are asking?” The Destruction of the temples in Jerusalem is a result of God’s anger, not at what people did to him, but at what they did to others. One of Prof Wiesel’s teachers once asked him who the most pathetic person in the Bible was. The answer was God, who had created a good world and then looks down and thinks, “What are they doing?”

Are the Jews asked to forgive Nebuchadnezzar? or Titus? or the Crusaders? or the Inquisitors? Should they forgive regarding the Holocaust? Prof. Wiesel has often been asked if he has forgiven Germany for the Holocaust. He responds with a Hasidic story: Once, a famed Hasidic rabbi, Zusia (?), went on a train to see a friend. A merchant entered his compartment and mistook him for a beggar. The Jewish merchant was then abusive to him, physically and verbally, treating him like a servant. When they arrived at their destination, there was a crowd awaiting the arrival of the rabbi. The merchant realized who he was and ran to him begging forgiveness, promising half his fortune. The rabbi said nothing. The merchant pleaded again, promising all his fortune. The rabbi again said nothing. The merchant gave up and went to see the rabbi’s brother (another famous Hasidic rabbi, Abimelekh (?)), saying, ‘your brother is some rabbi. I apologized! Why won’t he accept it?’ Some time later, the two brothers met and the one asked the other why he didn’t forgive the merchant. The rabbi responded, ‘He didn’t insult me, he insulted in me some anonymous beggar. He needs to ask all the beggars for forgiveness instead.’ It simply isn’t Prof. Wiesel’s place to forgive Germany.

Can we live in a world without forgiveness and avoid war? Or should there be a law requiring forgiveness? Is reconciliation the most important thing? Well, that depends on the terms of the reconciliation. Often with forgiveness comes forgetfulness. Should some things be forgotten? Or should memory replace forgiveness? Can time heal memory? Can the conviction that we are all children of Adam help overcome our alienation from each other? This shows that importance of memory, that it is sovereign. It can enable or oppose forgiveness, because peace and reconciliation begin not with the other, but with ourselves. War begins with people who can’t live with themselves.

But, when forgiveness is mentioned, God is implicated as he is the Judge. Can God be judged? Can a creature of God presume that God be forced to show compassion to sinners? Can the creature create the force? Judaism, that audacious religion, says yes. Moses implored and threatened God at the time of the crisis regarding the Golden Calf. God wanted to destroy the people, but Moses threatened to abandon him if he did. Why is the term Day of Atonements? Because there are two atonements, God forgives us and we must forgive him. But what an impudent attitude! How dare people conceive that they can argue with God! God permits us to argue with him. He wants us to succeed. There is a Talmudic legend of a time that God took a side in a scholarly debate. One of the rabbis said, “if I am right, let the river flow backward” and so it did. His opponent said, “what does the river have to do with anything. Stay out of it river!” and so the river returned to its normal flow. After a couple more episodes like this, an observer asked the prophet Elijah what God’s reaction was to the opposing rabbi. Elijah said, “God smiled, saying, ‘My children have defeated me.'” God likes to be defeated by his children, so long as they remain his children. Late at night, in a death camp, there was a trial. The prosecutor demanded that the God of Israel be brought to justice for abandoning his children, for allowing their suffering and death. After a long deliberation, the jury gave the verdict, “Guilty as charged”. The judge accepted the verdict and and, after having read it, turned to the gathered crowd and said, “now, let’s go and pray”. We should pray to God; we should pray for God. After all, God too needs compassion. We show him compassion by following his way and being his companions. We may be victims of humanity, but I don’t want to be an orphan of God.

Regarding the holocaust, will the world be forgiven for its silence? It has been punished already. Think of all the lives lost who could have made our world better had they lived.

In Jerusalem, during the Eichmann trial, Prof. Wiesel recognized a man from Auschwitz. He was one who distributed soup, a German, riding on the bus now with Prof. Wiesel. Prof. Wiesel went up to him, asked him if he was from Germany, had been in Poland, in Auschwitz, in a particular block. The man shuddered with the recognition of what this meant. Prof. Wiesel had a few seconds to pass judgment on this man. He had beaten Prof. Wiesel, but he had not been particularly cruel. Prof. Wiesel told him not to worry. In all the time he had to judge, he did not.

I do not believe in collective guilt or punishment. Children of murderers are not murderers; they are children. I believe in the responsibility of each of us to maintain the dignity of each other.

Once he went to Germany and talked, gently, about what had happened to him. It was a New Germany, one that had gone a long way in seeking reconciliation with the Jews. Prof. Wiesel was talking with the German Prime Minister and acknowledged all the good that the Germans had done. He then asked, “You have never asked the Jewish people for forgivness. Why not?” A week later, the Prime Minister flew to Israel and did just that.

God is God and he judges. Sometimes my words carry. I thank you for being here tonight.

With that Prof. Wiesel closed. We went home and ate ice cream.

Comments

  1. I want to apologize for the shifting perspectives of my report. It is pretty much all Prof. Wiesel, starting after Rabbi Schmuly. My use of quotes shifted over the report, so just trust me that most of it is quote and the rest is paraphrase.

    I am curious about how you think this approach would work in an LDS context. Would it be appropriate for us to debate or judge God? What would that mean? Or to have compassion or to pray for God? What would that mean?

  2. Thanks, very much. This is quite moving, and will need to think about it for some time.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    Certainty is dangerous in his mind, in fact he called madness a consequence of certainty, not of doubt. Instead, doubt offers the opportunity, or rather the quest, to learn. We define our selves by our quest.

    I love this quote, JDC. Thank you very much for the report. I’ve been strangely drawn to Elie Wiesel since high school – I did my senior thesis on his writings. And now he teaches at Boston University, I’ve had the opportunity to meet him in real life. He is truly a remarkable man, and I agree with his philosophy that we must understand and come to terms with God’s accountability for the horrors of the Holocaust and similar events. I’m not sure how to understand God’s role in these events, though. It something that troubles me almost daily. Thanks for this post.

  4. Often with forgiveness comes forgetfulness. Should some things be forgotten? Or should memory replace forgiveness? Can time heal memory? Can the conviction that we are all children of Adam help overcome our alienation from each other? This shows that importance of memory, that it is sovereign. It can enable or oppose forgiveness, because peace and reconciliation begin not with the other, but with ourselves. War begins with people who can’t live with themselves

    This is very closely related to a major theme of the Book of Mormon: remember and live.

  5. Seth R. says:

    I remember attending a lecture from a holocaust survivor as a high school student. A woman of perhaps 60 or 70 years of age. I remember that the message was quite powerful. But I don’t remember the particulars.

    But I do remember accompanying my dad to the front after the lecture to shake her hand.

    When it was my turn, I asked her if she would ever return to Germany, her homeland which she had not seen since her liberation from the concentration camp.

    “No. I will not.”

    The answer was unhesitating and strong. Behind, her husband shook his head firmly in agreement.

    I still remember this. I also remember that my dad (full blooded German by ancestry) had two connected theories as to why she said this.

    “Perhaps for some sins, there is no forgiveness”

    and

    “She has become a figurehead, a representative of her people. Perhaps it is not her place to forgive Germany.”

  6. The story that haunts me is the one about Noah. “Now you are asking?” with a Jewish lilt is a condemnation. He said, as an aside, that he didn’t like Noah. In this story, you can see why.

  7. One gets the sense here that Judaism is a really “grown-up” religion. It’s like they finally get it.

  8. In that case, I am sure that I do not want us to grow up.

  9. rleonard says:

    Ronan,

    Curious about your remarks about “getting it” What do you mean? Are you talking about forgiveness?

    One a side note I have Jewish Ashkenazi ancestry from one distant relative in Poland.

    From a demographic perspective international Jewry is in steep decline due to a really low birthrate amongst the non orthodox. This points to a much more Orthodox Jewish future as the Ashkenazi secular Jews gradually become less important. This is already playing out in Isreal with the Sephardic and Orthodox/Hasidic Jews now making up the majority. It has also tilted Isreali politics to the right.

  10. rleonard,
    I dunno, really. Just a sense of a realistic, earthy, painful view of G-d, that seems to reflect the realties of this earthy, painful life. As Joseph taught, God is a man, with all that entails. Terrifying yet strangely satisfying. I dunno.

  11. When I read your headline, David, my first thought was that Holocaust went a little far for the violent events in Utah history.

    It’s distressing that events like Darfur can continue for years and no Western power is stepping up. At the same time, we have hundreds of thousands of troops deployed all over the world for causes that are less urgent. Some of them are down right frivolous.

  12. rleonard says:

    I also rather like Judaism myself as well. But I like Orthodoxism better. I fondly remember living in Skokie Illinois amongst them. You could actually have a really good scriptural discussion with them OT of course. The secular Jews seem like Jack Mormons to me.

    There are a lot of parralels between Orthodox Jews and practicing LDS. Dietery restrictions, ceremonial Clothing, large families, lots of education, Not really caring what people thought of your lifestyle/beliefs

  13. Ed Snow says:

    I’m glad to see this posting. Elie Wiesel at Snow College–how did the rest of the crowd react to what he said?

    I’ll be posting something on Thursday or so about a Bar Mitzvah I attended over the weekend that will have some similar themes. When it comes to Judaism, I covet my neighbor’s religion.

  14. The crowd was quiet and smiling as they filed out politely. My party (made up of my in-laws) is remarkably well read and talked about watching Oprah’s journey to Auschwitz with Elie Wiesel this week (Schmuley, a master of promotion, had advertised it). They were moved and inspired by what had been said and they, like Ed, were somewhat envious of their neighbor’s religion.

  15. Seth R. says:

    I know I’m a bit envious. I’ve always liked the Jewish take on human relations with God. I much prefer it to mainline Christianity.

  16. Elouise says:

    Daniel, thank you so very much for this post.
    Wiesel is one of the heroes of our time, not because of the agonies he has suffered, but because of the words he has spoken. Amid the flood of meaningless chatter that washes over the world today, his words have always seemed like treasure to me. I felt that again as you shared your notes on his speech with us. You’ve given us a gift.

  17. Seth R. says:

    So tell me again why so many Church members are so eager to become mainline Christian groupies?

    Why can’t we be more Jewish instead? I mean, we got a good doctrinal motivation and all …

  18. I, too, want to study this.

    Years ago, they showed Schindler’s List on TV and before, they had a documentary, showing Jews being herded onto cattle cars. Bill watched with me and turned to me and asked, “did they really do that?”

    A lot of people don’t know what happened.

  19. Heather Oman says:

    I took Elie Wiesel’s class at BU. He was a remarkable teacher, asking questions about the books we were required to read, making us think, etc. In other ways, he was very, very distant, and we actually had very little student/teacher interaction with him. Virtually all of our assignments were graded by and discussed with the TAs. Then, we all got to sign up for a 15 minute meeting with him at the end of the semester, which actually was extremely awkward. What do you talk about for 15 minutes with Elie Wiesel?

    Looking back,I think in some ways it was set up in a way that made Prof. Wiesel almost untouchable. I suppose all professors maintain an air of distance, but Prof. Wiesel even more so. He was also extremely guarded about his personal life, even when we were discussing his own memoirs. Maybe it was just also my own sense of awe of the person that made me feel so small around him.

    He also said some things in class that directly opposed some of the teachings I had grown up with and my understanding and belief of who God is. That was actually quite distressing to me at the time as a young college student. I mean, who am I to disagree with Elie Wiesel? I spent many a day after his class sitting under a tree at the “BU beach”, trying to figure it out. I think, however, that Elie Wiesel would consider the struggle that his class provoked in me something extremely valuable.

    Anyway, the whole thing was a remarkable experience, and one that I’m glad I got to have. If nothing else, Elie Wiesel forces you to examine your own life, your own beliefs, and the things that you would be willing to stand for, or even if you are capable of making that stand. And in reading his memoirs, you realize that this is a man who literally has escaped death several times. He definitely has a purpose on this earth.

  20. Thanks so much for posting this.

  21. Well, this was quite an experience. I am very grateful for this re-cap because, I was unfortunetly unable to actually listen to Professor Wiesel’s lecture. I was assigned several tasks that evening, one of which was to be a hostess. I had to be the separation between reserved seating and public seating and I will admit being that barrier was not a really blessed event. Well, the doors opened at 6 and the crowds just flooded into the concert hall. To make a long story short, the hall that houses 760 people was packed by 6:30 and the over-flow- the theatre across the lobby was packed by ten to 7. It was insane to see that many people. Both the concert hall and the theatre were packed to capacity with people standing along the walls. Then to accomadate all the people still filtering into the lobby who were unable to fit into either hall were sent to fill classrooms. I think that over all we had 1500-1600 people in the Eccles Center last night. It was an insane night. But the real point I want to make is how embarrassed I am of some of my fellow men and women. While I was hostessing, I had several people literally verbally attack me because they couldn’t find a seat.
    Moreover, I am grieved to say that there were more than one person who had the audacity to say, “If I have to wait in line [for a seat] while 60 Jews walk past me, I am going to be very angry!” in regards to the reserved seating for members of the Jewish Community. I can’t help but think that many people were blinded by the real purpose of the evening, they allowed themselves to become prejudice for seating. The lecture was on a basic gospel principle and these good Christians forgot all other such principles.Pardon me, but while Professor Wiesel is an exemplar to all, he is respected to the Jews in much the same way as LDS members respect a General Authority.
    In a quote from Elie Wiesel, he said
    I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

    So, I would like to take Professor Wiesel’s advice and stand against those who still believe that being a Jew or a Methodist or a Mormon makes us different. We each are people with values and beliefs and while those standards may not be the same, we each maintain a common thread of humanity. We each feel love and hate, joy and pain, peace and chaos. While we may label ourselves with different titles, we all are simply human beings facing the same world.

    What I want, what Ive hoped for all my life, is that my past should not become your childrens
    future. -Elie Wiesel

    Unfortunetly, if we don’t open our mouths and speak of change, history will repeat itself. I know where I stand. Do you?

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    From the Jerusalem Post:

    The defiant knight of faith
    Jerusalem Post, Israel – 14 hours ago

    Mormons and Jews have had a somewhat tortured relationship. Although
    the
    Mormon faith incorporates significant elements of Judaism – from the
    claim
    that Utah is the new Zion to prophecy and priesthood – the Jewish
    community
    has cried foul at Mormon proselytizing of Jews, as well as the Mormon
    practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims.

    So it was the dream of both me and my dear friend Michael Benson, the
    president of Snow College, Utah, whose grandfather served until 1994 as
    the
    leader and Prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,
    to
    create stronger ties between our respective communities, a vision that
    came
    closer to fruition with our joint hosting this week of Elie Wiesel for
    a
    lecture at Snow…

    http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1148482075827&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FShowFull

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