From the archives, a letter to Elie Wiesel: reflections on 'Night' and Catholic-Jewish relations

DEAR ELIE: I have been asked to reflect on François Mauriac's Preface to your book Night from a perspective of "30 years later." Let me do so in the form of a letter, a genre that symbolizes the personal dimension in our relationship so dear to me.

Whenever I use Night in my classes, I tell my students: "Be sure to read Mauriac's Preface. Not all prefaces deserve to be read, but this one does. It will give you a key to the book." All these years Night has remained linked to Mauriac's name. This had always seemed quite normal to me, even fitting. After all, it was Mauriac who, in your own words, had launched you as a writer. I can imagine that it had been an honor for you—at the time a young, unknown Jewish journalist—to have the famous French writer and member of the Académie Française introduce your first book, and thus introduce you to the world.

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But 30 years have gone by. You no longer need Mauriac to introduce you to the world. The world knows you well. You have written many other books, each new book eagerly awaited. You have received the Nobel Peace Prize. Mauriac is dead. And yet, you have kept his Preface as prelude to Night, and thereby as prelude to your entire work. What may have been grateful acceptance on your part 30 years ago has long since become deliberate choice.

Could this choice have had its moments of difficulty for you? I wonder about this because of all that Mauriac represents, not only in literature (fame and success), but also in religion (Catholicism). Given the profoundly tragic history of the relationship between your faith and his (and mine), was it really so easy for you to accept the endorsement of your work by France's leading Catholic writer? All the more so because, as you make vividly clear in "An Interview Unlike Any Other," Mauriac's approach to Judaism was cast—at least initially, and quite understandably—in the mold common, prior to Vatican II, even to those Catholics who were sympathetic to Judaism. At best—as you mentioned in A Jew Today—they saw Judaism as no more than a prelude to Christianity, as the setting for Jesus: "Every reference led back to him. Jerusalem? The eternal city, where Jesus turned his disciples into apostles. The Bible? The Old Testament, which, thanks to Jesus of Nazareth, succeeded in enriching itself with a New Testament. Mendes-France? A Jew, both brave and hated, not unlike Jesus long ago." You leave no doubt in the reader's mind how deeply these words offended the Jew in you—to the point where, for the first time in your life, you "exhibited bad manners.” So great was your anger that it overcame your shyness and you wounded the old man with your words, and he began to weep.

You allowed yourself to be angry, and he allowed himself to weep. Each of you had the courage to be in touch with who you truly were at that moment. And it was this that broke down the wall between you. There is no downplaying of the moment of harshness. Mauriac’s humanity made him weep over his insensitivity to you as Jew. Your humanity caused you to be deeply troubled because you had hurt an upright and profoundly moral man.

Your humanity, Elie, has seemed to me to be the constant in your life. No matter how much has changed for you and in you these past 30 years, you are no longer homeless and alone. You have a beloved wife and son; you are revered the world over. This has not changed. If, at times, your judgment of Christianity has seemed harsh to me, in your personal interactions, whether with me or with my students or with the many Christian friends who love you, there has never been anything but gentleness and graciousness.

And is it any wonder that you should judge Christianity harshly? That, even as a child, you would cross the street out of fear whenever you passed a church? No, it is no wonder; it is, alas, all too understandable. For Christians have incurred much guilt toward your people. What is surprising, what is extraordinary, is that you have been able to distinguish between the tradition as a whole, and individual Christians. For this I have long been grateful to you.

Recently, since reading your new book Twilight, I am grateful in yet another way. For I sense in this book a change in your attitude. Not only is the hero, Raphael, saved by two peasants "who are good Christians,” but in describing the age-old pogroms that used to break out during Holy Week in Rovidok (as in so many other villages and towns of eastern Europe) you speak of the perpetrators as “Christians who were not necessarily followers of Christ."

Why do these few words move me so? Let me try to explain. For us Christians, the sense of guilt at our corporate history of persecution of Jews becomes, at times, almost too heavy to bear. The burden is lightened when we discover, or remember, that there have been through the centuries Christian women and men who did not run with the mob, even—also—during that darkest of times that will forever be known as the Holocaust.

Because of the weight your words carry for millions of people, non-Jews as well as Jews, the text I have quoted can, and I believe will, make a crucial contribution to the reconciliation between our two peoples. Thus, more than ever will you have become the messenger of peace the Nobel Peace Prize citation calls you.

And perhaps, also, your relationship with your old friend François Mauriac will have entered a new phase. Were you to talk once more face to face today. 30 years later, yet another barrier between you would have fallen. Perhaps, indeed, the dialogue continues? After all, both Jews and Christians worship a "God who raises the dead."

Permit me to end these reflections with a wish. Won't you, please, as you promised in A Jew Today, publish your conversations with Mauriac, which continued over the years?Then we would know a little more of the relationship between you, of what enabled you both to transcend your religious and political disagreements. Only you can give us the answers to this and, by so doing, shed further light on one of the most remarkable friendships of this century.

Happy birthday, and Shalom!

This article initially appeared in the Nov. 19, 1988 issue of America under the title "Mauriac's Preface to Night: Thirty Years Later."

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