Sunday, June 22, 2008

Watching With Wiesel 1

My alliterative title has been chosen with care.  Let me explain.  Many years ago as a young boy I was an obsessive viewer of that great documentary-style history series The World At War. I remember that I used view this documentary about The Second World War often with my father whenever he was not at work.  Many a time I used go to bed upset by the scenes of butchery and carnage I had viewed and by the eye-witness accounts that I had heard that I used cry myself to sleep.  How could men be so unkind, uncaring and so brutally disrespectful of human life?  When I use "men" here, I'm sadly admitting that it is purposefully chosen to be used in the full glory of its gender rather than in its tamer generic sense of referring to the whole human race.  After all, it is the male of the species who wages war with all its attendant evil excesses.

Narrated by Laurence Olivier and with with a wonderfully moving musical score by Carl Davis, Thames Television made this acclaimed film history of the Second World War which even to this day stands as one of the most massive undertakings in television documentary history.  Why? Well, quite simply, since it set out to tell the story of the war through the testimony of key participants - from civilians to ordinary soldiers, from statesmen to generals, it had to interview many who quite literally had not long to live.  It was first broadcast in 1973.  I would have viewed it both on ITV or BBC firstly and not long thereafter on RTE.  In those years I was in second and third year in secondary school. Even to this day this documentary still gets a massive broadcasting around the world and even has its own designated web site, here - W at W.

Hence the first word in my title above - "watching."  Watching has the meaning in one sense, then, of looking at or viewing a TV programme.  However, it also has a deeper more spiritual meaning too, because to "watch with" someone is to be with them in a caring way; to be with them in spirit.  Those of us who have read the New Testament will remember it is a word that Jesus uses when he speaks with his apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In fact the word appears in the New Testament in the context of a rebuke from the Master's lips as Jesus is reproaching his apostles for not being able to "watch with" him, that is to witness and partake of his suffering.  So hence "watching" when coupled with the preposition has a powerfully resonant meaning. 

Now to the noun or proper noun of my title Wiesel, I do refer to the Nobel Laureate for Peace, Elie Wiesel who could equally well have won the prize for literature.  I had his disturbing little book Night by my bedside for the last two nights and read it from cover to cover.  If you want a first hand account of life in Auschwitz then this is the book to read.  I have ready many books by many other eye-witnesses from this concentration camp and others, but this is the bleakest and most profound.  Buy it.  You'd read it in one sitting - two hours at most I'd say, maybe even more quickly. Anyway in this post I want any readers out there to watch with me with Wiesel as I give an account of this very important disturbing little classic. You cannot remain unmoved.

A Short Note on Wiesel:

Elie Wiesel will be 80 years old this coming September.  The Elie is short for Eliezer.  He is a prolific writer, having written more than forty books - it's as if he has been exorcising by the pen the evil demon of Nazi genocide that entered his young soul an inmate of Auschwitz all those years ago.  He was only fifteen when he was first taken away by the evil Nazi genocide machine.  He is best known for the little book I read over the last two nights as bedtime reading.  Now, if you haven't got a strong constitution I would recommend that you read it early in the morning.  I am accustomed to listening to my dreams and I welcome them, be they good or bad. 

When Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 the Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a "messenger to mankind," noting that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps," as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace."   My edition of Night ( Hill and Wang, N.Y., 2006., translated from the French (1958) by Marion Wiesel) is translated into English by his wife and contains an appendix with his Nobel acceptance speech therein, and that makes wonderful reading.  I'll quote a little from it here:

No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions.  And yet I sense their presence.  I always do - and at this moment more than ever.  The presence of my parents, that of my little sister...

I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago.  A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.  I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish.  It all happened so fast.  The ghetto.  The deportation.  The sealed cattle car.  The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.

I remember he asked his father, "can this be true?  This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages.  Who would allow such crimes to be committed?  How could the world remain silent?"

And now the boy is turning to me.  "Tell me," he asks, "what have you done with my future, what have you done with your life?"  And I tell him that I have tried.  That I have tried to keep the memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget.  Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.

(Op. cit. supra, 118)


To be continued.

Above I have placed the most moving picture I myself have seen from The Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War. This picture is graven in my mind since it was the picture which formed the opening sequence of each programme in The Word At War series. Against the background of Carl Davis's wonderful score this picture was then burned into nothingness. It depicts the round-up of residents of the Ghetto by the Nazis, April/May 1943

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