About the Author
ELIE WIESEL was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The author of more than fifty internationally acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, he was Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and University Professor at Boston University for forty years. Wiesel died in 2016.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:September 30, 1928
Place of Birth:Sighet, Romania
Read an Excerpt
Their eyes—I must tell you about their eyes. I must begin with that, for their eyes precede all else, and everything is comprehended within them. The rest can wait. It will only confirm what you already know. But their eyes—their eyes flame with a kind of irreducible truth, which burns and is not consumed. Shamed into silence before them, you can only bow your head and accept the judgment. Your only wish now is to see the world as they do. A grown man, a man of wisdom and experience, you are suddenly impotent and terribly impoverished. Those eyes remind you of your childhood, your orphan state, cause you to lose all faith in the power of language. Those eyes negate the value of words; they dispose of the need for speech.
Since my return I have often been asked what I saw in the Soviet Union, what it was I found there. My answer is always the same: eyes. Only eyes, nothing else. Kolkhozi, steel works, museums, theaters . . . nothing. Only eyes. Is that all? That is enough. I visited many cities, was shown what a tourist is shown, and have forgotten it all. But still the eyes which I cannot forget pursue me; there is no escaping them. Everything I have I would give them, as random for my soul.
I saw thousands, tens of thousands of eyes: in streets and hotels, subways, concert halls, in synagogues—especially in synagogues. Wherever I went they were waiting for me. At times it seemed as though the whole country was filled with nothing but eyes, as if somehow they had assembled there from every corner of the Diaspora, and out of ancient scrolls of agony.
All kinds of eyes, all shades and ages. Wide and narrow, lambent and piercing, somber, harassed. Jewish eyes, reflecting a strange unmediated reality, beyond the bounds of time and farther than the farthest distance. Past or future, nothing eludes them; their gaze seems to apprehend the end of every living generation. God himself must surely possess eye like these. Like them, He too awaits redemption.
If they could only speak . . . but they do speak. They cry out in a language of their own that compels understanding. What did I learn in Russia? A new language. That is all, and that is enough. It is a language easily learned in a day, at a single meeting, a single visit to a place where Jews assemble, a synagogue. The same eyes accost you in Moscow and Kiev, in Leningrad, Vilna, and Minsk, and in Tbilisi, the capital of the Georgian republic. They all speak the same language, and the story they tell echoes in your mind like a horrible folk tale from days gone by.
For years I refused to believe it. Like many people, I was alive to the reports of Jewish suffering in Russia. I read all the books and articles and heard the testimony given at public meetings or behind closed doors. Yet I was unwilling, or unable, to believe it. I had too many questions, too many doubts and misgivings—not about the fact of Jewish suffering in the Soviet Union but about its scope. I was sure the reports were exaggerated. How else arouse public opinion; how else stir people from their apathy? I relied on my Jewish instinct, telling myself that if the situation were really so black I would of necessity believe it, without demanding proof. My own doubt was sign enough that the reports were exaggerated.
I was mindful, too, of the danger in drawing facile historical analogies between Communist Russia and Europe under the Nazis. Even with regard to the Jewish problem, one is forbidden to make such comparison. An abyss of blood separated Moscow from Berlin. The distance between them is not only one of geography and ideology it is the distance between life and death.
If synagogues are being closed in Russia, I reasoned, Jews will simply go on praying in the ones that remain open. Are families prevented from reuniting? A new regime will soon come to power, and policy will change. Does the press conduct a campaign of anti-Semitism? Does it portray Jews as black marketeers, swindlers, drunkards? Does it disparage the State of Israel and malign the Zionist movement? This, too, will pass. Jews are accustomed to living in an unfriendly atmosphere. They have cultivated patience and humor, and they possess to a remarkable degree an understanding of their oppressors. Everything will pass; one must wait. The essential thing is that they be permitted to live, that their existence itself not be endangered, that there be no pogroms. And in Russia there are no pogroms; no one will dispute that. There are no detention camps. The situation, in other words, is not so unbearable.
Of course it could be better. Of course Jews in the free world are obliged to do everything in their power—to move heaven and earth—to see it improved. And of course one must exert pressure on the Kremlin to end discrimination and abolish the economic trials, whose victims were Jews. It is our duty to protest—and I too was among those who protested. But in several instances I was not at all certain whether the charged being leveled against the Soviets were not much too extreme and radical to be true.
I did not believe, for example, that the Russian government had embarked on a clear and relentless policy of “spiritual destruction.” Despite, or because of, what had happened in the recent past, I shrank from this idea, which for me will always remain in the exclusive domain of the German people. The Russians had fought against Hitler and in that fight had sacrificed twenty million lives. Of all people, they must know how impossible it is to “destroy” the spirit of a people—of any people. The very thought that they, or anyone, might even be attracted to such an idea struck me as anachronistic and absurd. One must, after all, learn something from history.
So I decided to go behind the Iron Curtain to examine the situation with my own eyes. It was no longer possible for me to remain in New York or Tel Aviv and content myself with gestures of solidarity. The problem was too serious for compromises. If the protests were justified, they were in no way strong enough; if not, they had been much too strong. There was no other alternative. One is forbidden to play games with human lives.
In August I made my decision and set the departure date for early in September. I told my travel agent that I meant to spend the High Holy Days and Sukkot in Russia, and gave him a list of the cities I intended to visit. It was necessary to make advance reservations for hotel rooms and flights between cities, but altogether the technical arrangements took no more than ten days, a minimum of bureaucratic activity. No red tape. Everything went simply and smoothly. The Russian government appears to welcome tourist dollars.
Other preparations proved more difficult. From everything I had read and hears, I knew that this was not to a normal trip abroad. Over the years I had met more than a few people who had come back shattered by the experience. Something happens to the man whose travels bring him into contact with the Jews of Russia. Whether he goes on business or to see the Bolshoi Ballet, he soon forgets his original purpose and joins the stream. His life changes; the tourist becomes an apostle. And he leaves something of himself behind.
I was aware, then that something would happen to me, but I did not know what; simply, I depended on its occurrence. I made no plans, I sought no contacts. I refused to arm myself with letters of introduction. I planned to wander about alone, and alone I would meet those I had come to see. I decided not to request personal interviews. I would stay away from official institutions and official spokesmen, visit neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Ministry of Religions. Political manifestoes and worn-out promises did not interest me. I would not appear at the editorial offices of Sovietish Heimland. Whatever Aron Vergelis and his comrades were prepared to tell me they had already repeated countless times before to visitors from the United States, France, and Israel. Nor did I intend to interview the rabbis or lay leaders of the various communities. Why place them in a difficult position? Why confuse them? I could observe their actions from afar.
I would approach Jews who held no position in society, who had never been placed in the Soviet show window by Soviet authorities. I was interested only in them and in what they had to say. They alone, in their anonymity, could describe the conditions under which they live; they alone could tell whether the reports I had heard were true or false—and whether their children and their grandchildren, despite everything still wish to remain Jews. From them I would learn what we must do to help . . . or if they want our help at all. They alone, I told myself, have the right to speak, to advise, to demand. Theirs is the only voice to which one is obliged to listen. My journey to Russia would be a journey to find them.
Table of ContentsIntroduction to the 2011 Edition / vii
To the Reader / xi
1. Introduction / 3
2. Fear / 11
3. A Gift / 20
4. Babi Yar / 28
5. Celebration in Moscow / 37
6 A Night of Dancing / 49
7. Solitude / 57
8. The Dream of Israel / 66
9. What They Expect from Us / 76
10. The Return / 88
11. Epilogue / 107
Afterword by Martin Gilbert / 115