Elie Weisel and Volodymyr Zelensky’s Unanswered Questions

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”
—Joseph Conrad

***

Last week while reading through the latest reports of Russia’s continuing atrocities against Ukraine, I found myself suddenly bursting with indignation, yelling at my laptop as if I were 10 years old and made aware for the first time that the world can be a horrible place in which horrible things happen to undeserving people.

Many nations of the world are ‘doing something.’ Many things, actually, costing many dollars. But a powerful and potentially world-altering question lurks under those commitments: Is it enough?

Muttering obscenities about Vladimir Putin, indulging the thought that I would happily strangle him with my bare hands had I the opportunity, I was struck yet again by how incredulous it is that one nation (one man, actually) can simply decide to eliminate another nation, kill a good portion of its population and destroy many of its cities in an effort to wipe out its government, its identity, its entire way of life, taking it into its own country as if the once independent country had never existed.

“It’s friggin’ 2022!” I shouted to no one, taken aback by my vehemence. “How can this be?”

That second question, I’m pretty sure, was only partly directed to the heavens.

***

Spring is flat out blooming in Durham, the iris running riot, roses not far behind, and with them, the marauding weeds, driving me to my knees in stout but tiresome defense. Armed with a screwdriver and the thumb-forefinger combo of the “pincer grasp” that is referenced in a very different venue by military tacticians, I root the enemy out from its dug-in positions where their troops mass and proliferate with every intention of overwhelming me and demanding surrender.

The jokiness of military imagery combined with the aesthetic of a relatively weed-free garden usually works to get me through weed-pulling season (which seems to last all year these days, but whatever…) with enough lightness of heart to warrant the back and neck discomfort it always entails.

But military imagery is on a different footing in this season of horrible war, and one must tread lightly through its minefields, both real and metaphoric.

Not only that, but the very act of weeding itself, requiring intense focus and flexion of small muscles to dislodge a nascent plant that is often no bigger than a ladybug, activates the absurdist part of pretty much anyone with a semblance of self-reflection, I suspect. Our sardonic inner critic ascends the stage, dripping with disdain and casting doubt on our very reason for being: “Really, you’re spending hours separating tiny plants from other plants while people are dodging bombs, enduring gang rape, and watching their country get reduced to rubble in Ukraine?”

***

Shoes taken from incoming prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp and crematorium.

***

In his 1958 memoir, “Night,” writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel chronicled a harrowing year imprisoned with his father in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps run by Nazi Germany during World War II. He was 15 when he, his parents and three sisters were forced from their middle class home in what was then Hungary, corralled into a Jewish ghetto and soon sent to Auschwitz, where his mother and one sister were quickly exterminated and Wiesel managed  to land in a prison work detail with his father.

Among the horrors the religiously observant Wiesel witnessed were regular hangings of inmates after some disturbance or sabotage in the camp prompted Germans to retaliate with wanton cruelty. One day, among three hanging victims assembled in front of the entire camp was a young, angel-faced boy.

When German soldiers kicked the three chairs out from under the  victims, the adults quickly expired, but the boy was too light to sufficiently strain the rope. Wiesel wrote:

“For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard (a) man asking:
‘Where is God now?’
“And I heard a voice within me answer him:
Where is He? Here he is—He is hanging here on these gallows…”

Wiesel spent the rest of his long life (he died in 2016, after writing some 40 more books) grappling with the awful implications of evil in a world that his God of the Hebrew Bible had proclaimed on each of his seven-day labor of creation as “good.”

He remained a devout Jew through the course of his life, but the question of “Where is God?” in the face of unspeakable evil never stopped haunting him.

Speaking at the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. in April, 1995, he said as much:

“…For me, a man who grew up in a religion, the Jewish religion, a man who his entire life thought that God is everywhere, how is it that man’s silence was matched by God’s? Oh, I don’t believe there are answers. There are no answers. And this museum is not an answer; it is a question mark. If there is a response, it is a response in responsibility.”

That sense of responsibility never stopped spurring Wiesel to action as a tireless peace activist, a kind of conscience of the world and keeper of its soul. At that same museum observance, he lauded then-President Clinton and America’s commitment to memorialize the holocaust, but then turned to him and implored:

“Mr. President, I cannot not tell you something. I have been to the former Yugoslavia. Last fall. I cannot sleep since; what have I seen! We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country! People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything, must be done.”

He was referring to the Bosnian War that pitted Bosnia and its ally Croatia against Serbia in an extraordinarily brutal conflict that included ethnic cleansing, indiscriminate attacks on cities and civilian populations, and systematic rape as a weapon of war.

If that all sounds familiar…

***

***

In a video speech to the United Nations earlier this month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (pictured above) made a characteristically impassioned appeal to the U.N. Security Council, alternately begging and challenging the world’s supposed peacekeeping body to get after the business of its charter post-haste.

The speech began with a grisly litany of war crime atrocities his people had been subjected to by the Russian invaders, which would have surely raised painful memories for Elie Wiesel and compelled him, were he still alive, to rise to his feet and implore the Security Council: “We must do something to stop the bloodshed in that country!”

It is inarguable that many nations of the world are “doing something.” Many things, actually, costing many dollars. But a powerful and potentially world-altering question lurks under those commitments: Is it enough?

And if it isn’t, and Ukraine falls, and Vladimir Putin succeeds, even at great cost, in claiming ownership of it and proving to the world he could get away with the outright seizure of another sovereign nation at his whim, what then? What next?

Zelensky:

“So where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee? There is no security. Although there is a Security Council, (it is) as if nothing happened. So where is the peace that the United Nations was created to guarantee? It is obvious that the key institution of the world, which must ensure the coercion of any aggressors to peace, simply cannot work effectively…Ladies and Gentlemen! I would like to remind you of the first article of the first chapter of the UN Charter. What is the purpose of our organization? To maintain peace. And to force to peace. Now the UN Charter is being violated literally from the first article. And if so, what is the point of all other articles?

A little further on:

“We are dealing with a state that turns the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill. Which undermines the whole architecture of global security. Which allows evil to go unpunished and spread the world. Destroying everything that can work for peace and security. If this continues, the finale will be that each state will rely only on the power of arms to ensure its security, not on international law, not on international institutions. Then, the UN can simply be dissolved. Ladies and Gentlemen!”

Ladies and gentlemen, indeed. What a less polite Zelensky would have been saying is: “Get off your duffs, people! Quit hemming and hawing! Are you serious about repelling Russian aggression or aren’t you?”

So: what does that mean? Behind the prospect of direct UN or America & allies intervention with troops lies the specter of the situation spiraling rapidly out of control and prompting a nuclear war.

Yet America and many allies have been deeply involved all along in supplying Ukraine with weapons and economic aid, and Putin has already made noises that such assistance skirts with being excessive in his eyes. (This is what happens when a bully is allowed to set the terms of engagement from the get-go, with Biden taking pains to state the U.S. would not be committing troops after Putin had launched a verbal howitzer suggesting he was just crazed enough to lob a nuke our way if we did.)

Do we take that possibility with such seriousness that we will continue to tip-toe around Putin and commit less than we are capable of to save Ukraine, and, by extension, multiple other Eastern European nations within Russia’s shadow? And that is not even to mention an attentively watching China with designs on Taiwan, and North Korea casting a longing eye toward its southern counterpart.

Or do we, short of sending in American troops, double and triple our assistance and do the same with the speed of our delivery, treating the saving of Ukraine as the paramount issue of our time?

That option is where I have landed. It is too crucial to the welfare of the entire free world to do any less, and whatever risk such stepped-up support entails, it is ultimately less than the risk of evil winning this day.

***


***

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel warned the world for what surely felt to him like the 10,000th time:

“Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must at that moment become the center of the universe…As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our lives will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.”

There’s little doubt that Volodymyr Zelensky and Elie Wiesel would be fast friends and spiritual-political comrades were the latter alive today. They make a formidable pair as the conscience of our time, urgent voices with warnings the entire free world would do well to heed.

Meanwhile, spring remains in Durham and all the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, affording us its sunshine, its breezes, its days at ocean and river and lake. And time on our knees, tending to weeds (if we so choose).

In an Oprah Magazine interview in 2000, Wiesel was asked, “What does it take to be normal again, after having your humanity stripped away by the Nazis?”

“What is abnormal is that I am normal,” he replied. “That I survived the Holocaust and went on to love beautiful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life—that is what is abnormal.”

That feat—of reclaiming all that is life, of daring again to live in hope and being willing to fight ferociously against tyranny to maintain hope within oneself and help others do the same—seems worthy of a toast on this day and every day of this beleaguered, beautiful, maddening and mystifying world.

It’s the perfect rejoinder and warning to the oppressors who—let us never forget—will forever threaten the free world.

***

***

Full the full text of the most recent 2006 translation of “Night” by the author’s wife Marion, with an expansive introduction by the author, see: https://tinyurl.com/2p95t7pp

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Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.

Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
 https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: larry@rosefoto.com

Tear-stained statue by Mait Jüriado, Talinn, Estonia  https://www.flickr.com/photos/mait/

Auschwitz shoes from historical archives  https://discovercracow.com/auschwitz-photos/

Iris flower and stone mandala by Andrew Hidas  https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/

Wiesel by World Economic Forum  https://www.flickr.com/photos/worldeconomicforum/

Zelensky by Just Clicks With a Camera  https://www.flickr.com/photos/153352659@N03/

6 comments to Elie Weisel and Volodymyr Zelensky’s Unanswered Questions

  • Harry  says:

    I keep thinking about these things – Putin’s actions, Ukraine’s refusal to fold, our response, Europe’s response, our fears about escalation if we respond “too strongly”. Only a madman would want to push this to the point that Putin lashed out against Europe or North America with nuclear weapons, and Putin’s “genius” is that only he knows where that point might be. But there are times, when I’ll see the latest atrocity, when I wonder what kind of world we’ll have, what kind of people we’ll be, if Russia ends up crushing Ukraine, with the thousands and thousands of deaths of innocent people while we sat by debating how much we could help. And sometimes I think “screw it, send in the troops and stop this now and let Putin decide wat he will”. And then sanity comes back and says we can’t blow up the world over Ukraine. Just like in the 60s and 70s when I would think that if it came down to it we wouldn’t blow up the world over Berlin. I don’t know if that’s pessimism or optimism.

    On your other subject – weeding – my wife gave me a Speedweeder for my birthday last year. I’d never heard of it, but now it’s my favorite weeding tool. Such a simple tool, but I keep finding ways to use it. The original came from Britain, but I’m pretty sure you can buy them in the US now… https://shop.nationaltrust.org.uk/speedweeder-weeding-tool.html

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Your process pretty much reflects my own, Harry—turning the thing like a prism and getting a slightly different take on each option. I try to notice—but more or less ignore—the overt emotionalism, the recoil from Putin’s evil and my fantasy of strangling or shooting or otherwise eliminating him by any means necessary. That’s helpful for understanding the monstrous nature of his aggression and the natural human antipathy to it (long may that antipathy live!), but doesn’t do much by way of crafting the most helpful and strategic response.

      I think in the end, I come out with a simple question: Will the world be a safer or less safe place if Putin succeeds? My considered opinion is the latter, because evil such as we see here will never stop with one or 10 or 100 conquests. That informs my sense that we must do more to support Ukraine—going to the max but still short, at least for the moment, of direct engagement with Russia. Since Ukraine has exceeded all expectations in its capacity for resistance, there seems to be a fair-to-middling chance it can do so for the long haul. The downside is its country will be physically decimated along the way, but much of that has already happened, and the alternative—to simply have one’s culture wiped out by an invading force—is to fully decimate its spirit and reason for being at all. That’s clearly how most Ukrainians see it, and they are fighting fully in accord with that vision.

      Yo, a newfangled, non-toxic weedkiller? Blessings upon you, my man, though my weeding tasks present some unique challenges I will be eager to see if this tool addresses!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    In keeping with your gardening metaphor, one needs to be “the constant gardener” (apology to
    John le Carré) to keep tyranny at bay. If not, aggressive weeds will quickly overwhelm the more beautiful but timid roses and tulips. Elie Wiesel warned us of it in “Night”. He wrote, “In the beginning there was faith – which is childish; trust – which is vain; and illusion – which is dangerous.” We mustn’t believe that Putin’s attack on the Ukraine is a passing thing. It’s not transitory, and it’s certainly not illusionary. Wiesel himself admitted his own failure to see just how evil one person could be. He thought humanity would never allow concentration camps to exist. Like most people, he considered “einäscherung” (cremation) to be performed only on the dead. Until Buchenwald and Auschwitz, he thought paintings, not people, were hung (hanged). Moreover, in the beginning, Zyklon B, a hydrogen cyanide derivative, was designed to fumigate freight trains, ships, and warehouses. It was unimaginable to think it would be used to fumigate human life. Hopefully, the horrific images and accounts of Putin’s genocidal war upon the Ukrainians will make it painfully clear to all of us that nothing is beyond imagination.

    By the way, Claire and I have been weeding, mulching and fertilizing our front and back yards. It’s painstaking but necessary! I think I may look into Harry’s Speedweeder.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      I suppose it says something encouraging about how most people view humanity that virtually no one could conceive of just how diabolical the Holocaust was. That failure of imagination, if you will, turned out to be tragically naive, followed by a kind of necessary reset in our understanding of the capacity for human cruelty on a massive scale. And now Putin, not fundamentally different than the Nazis—he just knows he couldn’t get away with all that the Nazis did. It all helps us understand, I think, the urgency with which Wiesel lived his remaining life compelled to warn, again and again, “Never again!”

      • Jay Helman  says:

        The opening Conrad quote that you cited remained with me as I read this post that so deeply resonates with my own thoughts and internal struggle with Putin’s atrocities and madness. Men are capable of every kind of wickedness and throughout history a man rises up to remind us of how evil that wickedness can be. Putin is the man doing it now, and if he is not defeated he will not be the last. He may not be the last even if defeated. Anthony Blinken has now stated that Russia is losing the war. Despite signs of the “paper tiger” image of Russian military might, we (The Security Council, The U.N., The U.S. ) continue to allow the bully to presume that only he knows where the red line lies for all-out war. We all know that sooner or later the bully’s bluff must be called out and exposed. The stakes and the atrocities are way too high to shy away from Putin’s threats. His inner circle is crumbling, his military vulnerability has been exposed, and the future of humane existence is at risk. The time has come to take it to the brink. Play to win, free world, play hard and true to defeat this monster.

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          I’ve been thinking more & more about the ethical quandary presented by not only a classic bully whose bluff must be called, but a nuclear-armed bully with little (make that “no”) regard for other’s lives, long as he’s in his bunker with his caviar and wine until the nuclear fallout dissipates. The choice facing a smaller, less powerful country: Do we just hand our country over to him for the sake of preserving at least its buildings and infrastructure and maybe our kids’ and grandkids’ very lives, even though we will no longer be free and the very spirit of our country and culture will be crushed for a very long time, if not forever?

          Or do we make our stand, suffer our staggering losses, the wreckage of virtually everything we see and people we hold dear, for the sake of our dignity, self-respect, and that elusive entity known as “human freedom?”

          It’s one thing to choose freedom for oneself, especially if we have lived already long lives, but what about the younger generations—what guides making the “right” choice for them on whether to stand and fight or capitulate for the sake of more of the presumably long life they still have ahead of them, albeit one under a tyrant? It’s a hard question for which answers may not fully present themselves until one is faced with the actual circumstance, as Ukrainians are today.

          As this crisis unfolded in the beginning, I thought Biden made a strategic mistake in calling for “regime change,” but a few weeks later, by the time he added “war criminal” and “This man has to go!” to his remarks, I noticed I had changed to more of an “Of course, hell yes!” perspective. There comes a point of such monstrous injustice and the prospect of far more where that came from that the tyrant bully leaves one little choice but to take him on, come what may. The alternative is too chilling and dispiriting.

          Obviously, we are fortunate not to be faced with these questions directly, and I’m glad the Ukrainians have faced them as they have, with flags flying and spirits high. All the more reason it is absolutely incumbent upon the civilized world to do everything possible to help them overcome the invaders.

          Thanks for stimulating more of this thinking. Plentiful material for contemplation here, so the least we can do is think hard…

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