Robert McAfee Brown, whose name is symbolic for engaged theologian and ethicist, is perhaps best known for being able to write clearly, for example, in Theology in a New Key: Responding to Liberation Theology and Saying Yes and Saying No: On Rendering to God and Caesar.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, May 20-27, 1992, pps. 548-550. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. Article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
The story reviewed here is about the repudiating of vengeance. It is about matters of mystery, death, disorientation, incongruity, and the importance of a name.
Elie Wiesel says that the hardest part of writing a novel is getting the first sentence right. Once that is accomplished, the rest falls into place. Here’s the first sentence of The Forgotten: “The shock was so violent that he lost his balance and almost fell to the damp soil; the name on the tombstone, tilted as if under the weight of its weariness, was his own.” The book is almost an extended midrash on this line. It revolves around matters of mystery, death, disorientation, incongruity, and the importance of a name.
Wiesel has painted on successively larger canvases. In his earliest tales he wrote almost exclusively about Jews and the immediate consequences of the Holocaust. Though he still writes chiefly of Jews, the worlds of his later novels (Twilight and especially The Testament ) have expanded geographically as well as humanly. This novel includes episodes in Transylvania, New York City, Israel, Cambodia and Germany, and its cast of characters includes increasing numbers of goyim. Notable also is the increasingly important place given to women—women who are newspaper reporters, spies, commandos, or recruiters for settlement in Palestine.
Despite the variety of settings and characters, the issues Wiesel treats are ones that perennially test Jewish sensibilities and therefore (here is Wiesel’s magic) test others’ sensibilities as well. “The more I write about Jews,” he has commented, “the more I am writing for everybody.” His concern for all people is rooted in the particularities of Jewish existence. Elhanan Rosenbaum’s “farewell” to his son at the end of the book makes the point: “A man like you, Malkiel, can love his people without hating others. I’ll even say that it is because I love the Jewish people that I can summon the strength and the faith to love those who follow other traditions and invoke other beliefs.”
This novel defies condensation or summary. When I tried explaining the plot to a friend I was immediately entangled, confusing fathers with sons, one century with another, the living with the dead; and hints with assurances. This does not mean that Wiesel is a poor story-teller; he is a superb one. If one were to ask him what the story means, I am confident that after several hours of trying to answer he would have succeeded only in retelling the entire book.
The book revolves primarily around Rosenbaum, a Jewish partisan fighter who survived European combat in World War II but became a prisoner of war as a result of later combat in Palestine. He has re-established himself as a teacher in New York City when his doctor gives him the news that he is losing his memory and that there is no cure. Wiesel, for whom memory seems to be the closest thing to the image of God in human beings, and who views memory as the central transmitter of ethical and moral insights, depicts the tragedy of Elhanan’s increasing disability with enormous understanding and sympathy.
As a result of this news Elhanan’s son, Malkiel (the one who saw his own name on the tombstone), must become the repository of his father’s memories as well as his own. The contents of his mind must expand in inverse proportion to the decrease in his father’s ability to recollect. The critical moment in this life-and-death transfer comes when Malkiel is sent at his father’s command to the tiny town in Transylvania where Elhanan grew up. There is something “essential” that Malkiel is to recover there that will bring together the various strands of their lives. But whatever it is it tenaciously refuses to reveal itself, it remains elusive to the end, though we get some important hints. As in Twilight , Wiesel refuses to tidy up all the ambiguities in the lives of his characters, for the good reason that life is never tidy.
Earlier in the story, when Malkiel is about to leave on his quest, he and his fiancée, Tamar, have a serious falling out, an incident elliptically referred to as the story unfolds. Both Jewish writers, Malkiel and Tamar are agonizing over their responsibility to the state of Israel: Is it their task to safeguard and protect an ever-threatened nation, at any cost, even if it means suppressing news unfavorable to Israel’s image? Or is it their task to safeguard and protect the truth? The discussion is heated, and it is important for non-Jews to realize the depth of anguish that protagonists on both sides of this argument feel. The fallout from the argument figures closely in the book’s denouement.
A virtue of all Wiesel’s writing is that despite good reason he does not finally succumb to despair. A simple, three-sentence report on what Elhanan finds when he returns to his hometown after the occupation seems to make a case for the ultimate victory of the power of evil: “The synagogue: transformed into a stable by the Germans. The Hasidic house of study: a military brothel. The yeshiva [school]: a museum of anti-Semitism.” But within 20 pages Elhanan gives us a beautiful tribute to the quality of his marriage: “We loved each other with a perfect and all-consuming love that haloed our daily existence with a fragile mist of eternity.”
Out of the horror of the war and the death camps comes a faith tested by circumstances. Elhanan sees a German officer slaughter a father in front of his children and reflects, “That day I lost my faith.” Later he sees three strangers jeopardize their health to save a sick prisoner and says, “That day my faith was restored.” Out of these experiences, Elhanan, even while realizing that he cannot really help the people around him, resolves at least to listen to them. When his son asks, “Do they feel better?” Elhanan says No. “Then why listen?”—to which Elhanan replies in a phrase that could be the hallmark of all of Wiesel’s writing: “No one has the right not to listen.”
Deeds must be done, even if they have no apparent “result” other than to hold back the darkness. After Malkiel goes to Cambodia on a newspaper assignment and falls ill from overwork and exhaustion while helping some of the sick, Elhanan says to him, “You did well to go there . . . Do you want to know why? Because no one bothered to help us when we needed it.” This parallels an incident in Wiesel’s own life. When he went to Cambodia in 1980 with food and medical supplies, his group was stopped at the border and forbidden to enter. Wiesel reflected, “One thing that is worse for the victim than hunger, fear, torture, humiliation, is the feeling of abandonment, the feeling that nobody cares, the feeling that you don’t count.” What, then, was the point of the trip? “I came here,” WieseI said over a loudspeaker that could penetrate the border, “because nobody came when I was there.”
The focal point of the novel occurs when Elhanan, as a member of the partisan forces, returns to the town of his birth. He has become a close friend of Itzik the Long, who after many commando-guerrilla raids has been renamed Itzik the Avenger. Itzik is determined to repay in kind all the atrocities he has seen committed against the Jews. Vengeance is his reason for existing, and he wants converts to his cause. At one point he gives a machine gun to a group of Jewish children, offering them a chance to kill six imprisoned German soldiers. The children are unwilling and Elhanan thinks, “God of Israel … watch these your children and be proud.” At one point Elhanan himself fires point-blank at wounded Germans, but this is atypical. Vengeance does not become his norm for action.
Itzik’s rage is focused particularly against Zoltan, head of a Hungarian anti-Jewish force, who is finally captured in the taking of the town and killed. As Elhanan moves through the liberated area he hears a woman’s cry, enters the house from which it comes and finds Itzik about to rape Zoltan’s widow, a woman innocent of her husband’s crimes. Elhanan is shocked: Is justice served by outrages against the innocent? He tries to intervene but cannot deter Itzik. Nauseated and disillusioned, he leaves. Later in the day he goes back to find the terrified woman and try to comfort her: “I want to help you … I won’t hurt you … I’m sorry for what happened to you.”
When he finds Itzik later that night, Ethanan is unforgiving: the rape was evil and bestial –and their friendship is over. (Later they meet in Palestine, but Elhanan has sworn “not to forget,” and their relationship remains irretrievably severed.) Not only Itzik but Elhanan himself is permanently scarred; years later he is full of guilt for not having intervened more on behalf of the woman. He remains sure that his son will judge him for his indecisiveness and even interprets his increasing loss of memory as divine retribution.
When Malkiel visits the town a generation later he senses that whatever he is supposed to find will be related to the woman. With the help of an interpreter (whom the secret police have assigned to monitor Malkiel’s activities) he finds the woman Itzik had raped and seeks to discover what she remembers.
The woman has no conscious recollection of the rape, but Malkiel, with a relentless probing that shocks Lidia the interpreter, persists in asking his questions. As the memory returns to lacerate her once again, the old woman is furious at Malkiel for engaging in such psychic surgery. “I prayed God to let me forget, and God heard me. I finally buried my memories … I finally forgot the ugly leers, the hands, the sounds that tied me to that man. Why must you undo what God has done?”
Malkiel, though abashed, must ask one last question: “The man who tried to help you. Do you think of him from time to time?” This time the woman answers positively: “Thanks to him I believe from time to time that not all men are evil. I believe that he was honest and a man of charity.”
“My father,” Malkiel replies, “was the man who tried to save you. Not the other one.” The woman, after shuddering, reaches out to him: “Then will you allow an old woman to thank you? And to kiss you?” After kissing his forehead, she says, “And thank your father.” Even the hardened Lidia has been moved. Once they are outside, she says, “Will you allow an interpreter, not so young any more, to kiss you too?”
Even after his return home, neither Elhanan nor Malkiel is clear that the “essential” they needed has been discovered. But there has surely been an important breakthrough. Malkiel and Tamar will tell the story of Elhanan to their children, and the story will remain alive. They will put their trust in what exalts them—Elhanan’s sufferings—and in what thwarts them—”the ambiguities of Jewish life, most of all life in the diaspora,” symbolized by their difficulty in harmonizing fidelity to Israel and fidelity to truth. They will trust as Jews who affirm rather than deny their Jewishness and who can now see this as a way for them to affirm all living creatures, as Elhanan had done earlier. All of this, Elhanan can recognize, “is part of the essential thing but not all of it.” But it is enough for now; in the living of life, he writes to Malkiel, “you will discover in your own way, what my lips cannot say.”
Wiesel has named Elhanan well; his name means “God of Mercy.” Something of extraordinary magnitude has transpired: the ugliness of Itzik’s unilateral act of vengeance has been replaced by reciprocated acts of love and caring. Returning evil for evil has given way to the transforming power of good. Vengeance does not belong to us; if to anyone it belongs to God. I hear this as a trumpet call from Wiesel to all readers, Jews, Christians and others. This theme—that vengeance is a one-way street to the increase rather than the decrease of evil—is the conviction most needed today in the Middle East, as well as in South Africa, Europe, Latin America, Asia and (especially) Washington, D.C. In crafting the encounter between Malkiel and Zoltan’s widow, Wiesel has touched universal chords. What happened for evil and then for good in that village reminds us of long-neglected priorities. What Elhanan said would be true for his son can be true for us all: in repudiating vengeance, what is “essential” will increasingly be granted us.