Elie Wiesel’s Plays as Kaddish: The Sacred Duty to Remember and Resist
By Prof. Lori R. Weintrob
Director, Wagner College Holocaust Center
This article is an expanded version of remarks presented by author in conjunction with the National Jewish Theater Foundation /Holocaust Theater International Initiative 3rd Annual Remembrance Day Play Reading program honoring Elie and Marion Wiesel
Elie Wiesel expressed faith in the power of dialogue, words spoken aloud, to be transformative. Urging survivors to speak and the next generation to listen, Elie Wiesel pledged “Whoever hears an eyewitness, becomes an eyewitness”(1). Wiesel first said these words in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem on the 57th anniversary of his liberation from Buchenwald concentration camp. He then related how on the day of his liberation, he joined a group of Jewish adolescents in celebrating their freedom by saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. An orphan at age 16, he had a sacred duty. Wiesel explained: ”I thought that this Kaddish would never end; it would last until we died, and in a way I was right.” The Kaddish prayer elevates the soul of the deceased, as the mourner calls upon the community to publicly affirm their faith. Similarly, words of testimony spoken aloud turn us away from anger and hatred to God and man and indifference to the suffering of others, towards a shared ethic of faith and hope.
Wiesel believed in words spoken aloud—in testimony, prayer or theater—as a powerful motivating force against fascism and genocide. His first staged performance, A Black Canopy, A Black Sky, and his other theatrical writings are vehicles to remember and resist indifference to others. A Black Canopy, A Black Sky, written for the 25th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising questioned why the world and God didn’t do more to aid the Jewish fighters, why they perished. In these works, as in the Kaddish prayer, “memory is a sacred duty,” a conversation with God reflecting responsibility for others (2). Like the Kaddish, theater can be a communal form of remembrance and a call to action and solidarity.
The desire to bear witness for the living and the dead Wiesel carried with him throughout his life. In his own words he explained: “Why I write? To help the dead vanquish death”(3). How important it is that we recall this mission on Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, Yom Hazikoron la Shoah ve-la G’vurah. Inaugurated by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in 1953, the date of the 27th of Nissan (on the Jewish Calendar) was chosen to mark the heroism of the month-long 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Jews fought back against their Nazi oppressors; the date was carefully chosen to link this heroism with Israeli Independence Day, eight days later. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter selected this date the official, annual U.S. memorial ceremony, soon after he asked Elie Wiesel to chair the President’s Commission on the Holocaust. In 1986 Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Prize as “eyewitness and messenger,” for his “fight against indifference and the attitude ‘it’s of no concern of mine.” Wiesel was now recognized as an international activist in the “struggle for peace”(4).
Today, on Holocaust Remembrance and Heroism Day, we mark the 74th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Today we seek to fulfill the obligation “Never Again” by remembering the six million murdered by the Nazis, not least the one million children. Elie’s youngest sister Ziporah Wiesel was only seven years old when she was, with their mother Sarah, murdered at Auschwitz. As Wiesel has stated: “Never again” becomes more than a slogan: It’s a prayer, a promise, a vow… Never again the suffering of innocent people, or the shooting of starving, frightened, terrified children. It’s a prayer”(5).
Dialogues to Honor the Dead
Ever since the publication of his memoir Night in 1958, at the age of 29, Wiesel struggled to find the words to not only remember the dead but also to motivate to action his generation and the next, l’dor v’dor. The original title of Night, published in Yiddish, was “And the World Was Silent.” Would that ever change? In an interview published in The Paris Review, Elie Wiesel explained: “In One Generation After, I develop another genre: the dialogue. I bring the dialogue back in A Jew Today. What are these dialogues? They are dialogues with the dead. Nobody else listens, nobody else hears”(6). Today, we will do readings of three of these dialogues: “A Father and His Son,” “A Mother and her Daughter,” and “A Man and his Little Sister” published in A Jew Today (1978).
At fifty years old, the same age as his father when deported to Auschwitz, Wiesel uses this original literary form to communicate with the dead, to question God and to challenge the living. In one haunting piece, an 8-year old girl asks her older brother: “But will you speak even when you don’t see me?” “I shall try,” he replies. She asks him to remember her love of singing, of Holy Days and of God. Eavesdropping on the intimate conversations of those who fear being forgotten, with the unburied, we hope, will engage you to remembrance and action.
“Why do I write?“ Elie Wiesel asked. “Perhaps in order not to go mad. Or, on the contrary, to touch the bottom of madness. Like Samuel Beckett, the survivor expresses himself en désepoir de cause—out of desperation”(7). Indeed the first article Wiesel wrote about theater in 1976, published in the New York Times, has as its title: “I wrote this play out of despair”(8). Like Samuel Beckett’s Vladimir who asks: “Was I sleeping while the others suffered?,” “Am I sleeping now?” the questioning of the human condition on stage by these playwrights, who were also eyewitnesses to the Second World War, resonated with Wiesel(9).
Wiesel began to experiment with theater in the mid-1960s, in the wake of his first visit behind the Iron Curtain. Zalman or the Madness of God (1975) was Wiesel’s attempt to spread awareness of the “tragedy and courage” of Soviet Jews. It followed his expose The Jews of Silence (1966). Like the original title of Night, this was a reprimand—it referred not to the silence of Russia’s Jews but of the Western Jews who were indifferent to the oppression and anti-Semitism behind the Iron Curtain. It was first produced in March 1968 on French National Radio, where, Wiesel felt, “it had a real impact”(10).
Funerals instead of a Wedding
In these years of the 1967 Six-Day War and student unrest in Paris, he also wrote three short plays, all set in a ghetto on the brink of destruction. In reporting on the Six-Day War for the Yiddish journal Forverts, Wiesel used theatrical metaphors to describe how the Soviet Ambassador to the U.N. and other security council members changed their tone when Israel began to win the war: “It was as if a theatrical director, unfamiliar with his cast, switched the parts of his actors; those who had opposed us suddenly asked for mercy(11).” His two plays written in French, The Choice and Once Upon a Time, both trace the dilemma of a Jewish underground resistance fighter who contemplates killing for the first time (12). Once Upon a Time (which aired on radio in December 1969) ends with Daniel deciding to fight the Nazi commander rather than comply with the orders. Eighteen months earlier, in March 1968, his play A Black Canopy, A Black Sky (1968) premiered with Hadassah Players in New Jersey. Originally written in Yiddish, it commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (13).
In the reading today we hear echoes of mourning rituals, and of Wiesel’s despair in the voice of a couple Mendel and Sarah (who shared the name of Wiesel’s mother). They are waiting at dusk for Chava, meaning “life,” to return to the underground bunker. Chava is introduced as Mendel’s “bride-to-be” and Sarah’s sister. Chava, who has visited with Jews in other ghettos and bunkers to organize resistance, has left to make contact with the Polish Underground. Interestingly, Wiesel has designated a female character as the representative of the Jewish resistance fighters. A Magid (rabbi-preacher) steps forward to insist that Mendel marry quickly, the moment she returns: “To show God himself that we Jews refuse to lose our belief in ourselves.” His urgency derives from the massacres he witnessed that left him as a “preacher to the dead Jews”: “Listen, I said to them. Why didn’t you protect your relatives from the slaughter? Why only me? Why didn’t you protect your heirs, your Kaddish-sayers? Why didn’t you have pity on them?” The Magid speaks to God and to the community, living and dead. Mendel, however, is too haunted by the “hundreds of my relatives” and “holy old men and innocent children” slaughtered, without funerals (14).
A knock on the door brings not Chava but a young boy with tragic and desperate news. From his hiding spot, he watched as Nazi guards humiliated “the Rov” (Rabbi) and his students and “Yonkel the cripple.” The Magid demands that the names of those killed be spoken aloud: “Their names….these dead must be remembered…everyone.” The boy’s purpose is to report that David, the leader of the Jewish resistance has announced the time is right, despite a lack of weapons, for “the privilege of fighting” the German army. When he leaves, Mendel grows yet more impatient that Chava hasn’t returned. He flees as well. It is only then that Sarah reveals a secret. Chava is not her sister and Mendel’s fiancée but rather someone Mendel invented after being severely wounded by the Gestapo. He couldn’t bear that his actual fiancée Sarah was also captured and perhaps killed.
Strong throughout the play, Sarah suddenly confesses her doubts whether she is even alive: “Is Mendel right? Was I killed? Am I dead? And am I out of my mind, not he?” The Magid can’t help her as he can longer distinguish reality and dreams. Instead, he shares visions of the future of “Jews marching in the streets with flags and music,” “with pride” and “victories.” But Wiesel’s notes demand this be a vision of despair not hope. The Magid continues to recite prayers, quoting from Ani Ma’amin, but questions why “The Merciful one has divorced himself from his people.” In the name of those who died, he protests the silence and inaction of God and the wider community. In an allusion to Wiesel’s critique of the bystander, the Magid begs of the dead:
Do the living a favor, even if they are not worthy; do more for them than they did for you; help them far more than they helped you. Be gracious, ‘O dead, to the Jews of tomorrow. Don’t deny them their joys; don’t deny them their bar mitzvahs and their marriages, their homes and their freedoms. This is what I will ask of my dead congregation.
Wiesel’s play challenges God and humanity to resist indifference to the pain and suffering of others—in the Shoah and today. Indeed, the play ends with his darkest vision: “The dreadful black chuppah” (wedding canopy) “stands under a sky of black stars.” “I see the groom…He is alone…All alone.” The Magid’s words provoke Sarah’s “heart-rendering scream.”
Wiesel and Marion wed
These plays were written as he courted Marion Rose, born in Vienna. They wed in Jerusalem on April 2, 1969. Thereafter, he was able to involve her talents in his new enterprise. Wiesel explains in his Memoirs “I worked on the play full-time, thrilled at having discovered a new medium…I received help from Marion, who had studied drama and knew instantly when a line of dialogue seemed false or contrived (15).” Marion helped with the production of Zalman at the prestigious Arena Stage in Washington by Alan Schneider, director of plays by Samuel Beckett. In 1972, Marion gave birth to their son Shlomo Elisha, named for Elie Wiesel’s father. Wiesel, the only son of Shlomo and Sarah Wiesel, now had a son to say Kaddish (16).
In an interview with The Washington Post, at the time of the production of Zalmen at the Arena Stage Theater in 1974, Wiesel asserted, “We live in an age of theater, in which the most important messages are being said, not in books, but on the stage (17).” Two years later, to a reporter for The New York Times, Wiesel explained: “Since the end of World War Two, the most important and meaningful words have been said on the stage: Brecht and Beckett, Sartre and Camus, Hochhuth and Ionesco influenced this generation as much as novels had influenced the previous one, and perhaps more (18).” Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy gained global attention for its controversial portrayal of the indifference of Pope Pius XII. It also brought to the public eye the attempt by German Protestant SS-Officer Kert Gerstein to alert the world to gassings he witnessed in Belzec and Treblinka.
Theater to Fight Indifference
In explaining his goals in writing his plays, Wiesel quoted Andre Malraux, “it is literature’s task to redress injustice.” In his Memoirs, Wiesel explained a vision for his performances: “In my play, I would seek to correct the injustice done to Rabbi Levin. On stage I would allow him to do what he never dared to do. That would be my theme.” In Wiesel’s own words, he transformed the “victim into a hero” by allowing him “to drop his mask, to break his silence, to become mad, to shout the truth, to make me into his witness, his messenger (19).” As literary critic Joseph Lowin has argued of Wiesel’s liturgical drama “The theater’s attraction for Wiesel is persuasive…Wiesel naturally conceives of both literary and real-life situations in dramatic terms. What is beyond dispute is that Wiesel believes that theater is an-if not the-appropriate vehicle for the conveyance of ideas (20).”
Wiesel’s need to shout the truth shapes his second full-length play, The Trial of God as it was held on February 25, 1649 in Shamgorod, translated by Marion Wiesel and published in 1979. In this play, Wiesel turned to a form of theater specifically linked to Jewish tradition: the Purimspiel or Purim play in order to relate an experience in Auschwitz that had troubled him—the moment when young Elie watched as three distinguished Rabbis put God on trial for his indifference to the fate of the Jews. Wiesel emphasized that the Rabbis did not find God guilty but rather used the word “CHAYAV” or “He owes us something.” Then they went to pray (21). For Wiesel, “Purim, the annual day of fools, children, and beggars,” rather than Yom Kippur, was the moment to challenge God and man for indifference, to turn tragedy into farce (22).
Wiesel changed the setting to one of the most terrible, if forgotten, events in Jewish European History, the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Jews in Poland and the Ukraine by the Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki. More than seven hundred Jewish communities were destroyed(23). Maria, a Christian waitress, testifies that after the innkeeper Berish’s wife and other children were slaughtered, he was tied to a table, forced to watch the rape of his daughter Hanna. This Din-Toire or Trial of God is both tragedy and farce, a theater of the Absurd, where fear reigns as a new pogrom lurks. Maria offers to hide Berish and Hanna, to save them. Maria was also the name of the Wiesel family servant in Sighet, Romania who offered to hide his family during World War II.
“Hope is a Gift”
Wiesel once wrote that “God made man because he loves stories (24).” Wiesel’s writing is more than storytelling however. It is a way to fight oppression, indifference and forgetting. Critic Alan Berger has described it as a “theology of protest (25).” We may see Wiesel’s theater as a form of Kaddish, the prayer to remember and honor the dead. Wiesel’s “Dialogues” and plays, like his Memoirs, are crowded by those who died, returning to speak to him in dreams, urging us not to forget them. The traces our loved ones left behind must be treasured, so their sacrifice is not lost but part of us, a guide to our actions.
I saw Elie Wiesel speak five years ago, when he was given an honorary doctorate at Wagner College on Staten Island in 2012. He opened his speech with a bit of humor, about how certain he was that no one in the audience had read his writings other than Night. He ended his talk with a plea: “The thing not to forget is Hope. Remember that Hope is not a gift given from God to us; Hope is a gift, an offering, that only we, human beings, can give to each other (26).” It is a great honor to be here today to share in our experience of his theatrical works, spoken aloud, to hear his insightful and terrifying words urging remembrance and action. This is our offering of hope in the name of six million Jews and five million non-Jews who perished in the Holocaust, so that, as Wiesel said: “Never Again is not a slogan…It is a vow, a promise, a prayer.” May it be a Kaddish for those who perished and a warning to never again allow the hate and inaction that can lead to” in Wiesel’s haunting words: “the shooting of starving, frightened, terrified children.”
April 22, 2017
New York Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center
This article is an expanded version of remarks presented by author in conjunction with the National Jewish Theater Foundation /Holocaust Theater International Initiative 3rd Annual Remembrance Day Play Reading program “Dialogues: Elie Wiesel, Playwright.” I want to thank my colleagues in the Wagner College Theater Department Theresa McCarthy and Mickey Tennenbaum for their participation in this performance and their collaboration in other holocaust theater initiatives. I want to also thank Arnold Mittelman, President of NJTF HTII for inviting us to participate in this special program honoring Elie and Marion Wiesel and for his support and encouragement. I dedicate this article to Auschwitz survivor Rachel Roth, author of Here There is No Why? (2013), an eyewitness to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who speaks out against genocide in New York, South Africa, Germany, Poland and Israel.
- Elie Wiesel, International Conference “The Legacy of Holocaust Survivors” at Yad Vashem, April 11, 2002. http://www.yadvashem.org/holocaust/elie-wiesel.
- Elie Wiesel speaking at Buchenwald to President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkela, June 9, 2009.
- Wiesel, “Why Would I Write? Making No Become Yes,” New York Times, April 14, 1985, p.13.
- Elie Wiesel, Hostage: A Novel. Translated by Catherine Temerson (New York: Random House, 2012), p.77.
- Elie Wiesel, Interview with John S. Friedman (1978), “The Art of Fiction,” published in the Paris Review 26 (Spring 1984), 130-178. “Dialogues” are published in One Generation After (1970), 31-38, 52-59, 86-93 and in A Jew Today (1978), 167-179.
- Wiesel, “Why Would I Write? Making No Become Yes,” New York Times, April 14, 1985, p.13.
- Wiesel, “I wrote this play out of despair,” New York Times, March 14, 1976, p.5.
- Beckett, Waiting for Godot: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts (New York: Grove Press, 1954, 2011), p.104.
- “Elie Wiesel drama on Soviet Jews to be done on Broadway; Debut in Hebrew in Israel,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Dec. 22, 1967. Wiesel’s play premiered at the Habima Theater in Israel in 1970, although he found the performance unfaithful to his written play. See Friedman “The Art of Fiction” and Harold Flender, “Conversation with Elie Wiesel,” in Robert Franciosi (editor), Elie Wiesel: Conversations (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 26, 79.
- Forverts, June 12, 1967, reprinted in The Forward, June 12, 2017.
- Debra Cash, “Elie Wiesel’s Theater: A Conversation with Guila Clara Kessous,” All About Jewish Theater, April 17, 2011. Once Upon a Time was published in 1970 in French in Entre Deux Soleils but not translated until 2007. See: Louise Kennedy, “Once Upon A Time is now for Wiesel Play,” Boston Globe, 9, 2007; Dina Kraft, “Lost Elie Wiesel Play ‘The Choice’ Receives Belated Premiere,” Haaretz, April 16, 2015. For more on these plays, see Guila Clara Kessous, Théâtre et sacré : analyse d’une interculturalité dramatique dans les oeuvres de Paul Claudel et d’Elie Wiesel, Boston University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 2008.
- “Group Slates New Play,” Courier-News, March 26, 1968. A Black Canopy, A Black Sky was later published in Irving Abrahamson (editor), Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, 3 volumes (New York: Holocaust Library: 1985), 3:19-28.
- Also in 1968, bemoaning the lack of cemeteries to visit, Wiesel wrote: “For me, writing is a matzeva, an invisible tombstone, erected to the memory of the dead unburied. Each one corresponds to a face, a prayer, the one needing the other so as not to sink into oblivion.” See Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time (New York: Random House, 1968), p.8. Rachel Leah Jablon discussed Wiesel’s Night from a similar perspective in her article: “Witnessing as Shiva, Memoir as Yizkor; The Formulation of Holocaust Survivor Literature as Gemilut Khasadim,” The Journal of Popular Culture, 38 (2004), 306-324.
- Wiesel, Memoirs, See also: Harry James Cargas, “Drama Reflecting Madness: The Plays of Elie Wiesel,” America, Nov. 19, 1988.
- Elie Wiesel’s son discusses the importance of his saying Kaddish in “Elie Wiesel’s Only Son Steps Up to His Father’s Legacy,” New York Times, May 12, 2017. The urgency of saying Kaddish for those who perished was first brought to my attention by Rabbi A. Romi Cohn, author The Youngest Partisan: A Young Boy Who Fought the Nazis (with Leonard Ciaccio).
- Wiesel, Washington Post, April 26, 1974.
- Wiesel, New York Times, March 14, 1976.
- Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs (New York: Schocken, 1996), p.406. Elie and Marion’s Wiesel wedding is the dividing line between the two parts of his autobiography.
- Joseph Lowin, “Elie Wiesel’s Liturgical Drama,” Midstream (2004). However, Wiesel was often critical of dramas that represented the Holocaust. See Elie Wiesel, “Art and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory,” New York Times, June 11, 1989.
- Jenny Fraser, “Wiesel: Yes, we really did Put God on trial,” Jewish Chronicle, Sept. 19, 2008.
- Friedman, Conversations,
- Ingrid Anderson, “Ethics, Meaning and the Absurd in Elie Wiesel’s Trial of God and Albert Camus’ The Plague,” The Value of the Particular: Lessons from Judaism and the Modern Jewish Experience-Festschrift for Steven T. Katz,” Leiden: Brill (2015), 340-358.
- Wiesel, Gates of the Forest (1966) and Friedman, Conversations, 76.
- Alan Berger, “The Storyteller and his Quarrel with God,” in Elie Wiesel and the Art of Storytelling, edited by Rosemary Horowitz (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006), 71-89.