A spokesman for Yad Vashem reported today that Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel who cheated death in Auschwitz died today. He was 87 years old. I invite you to read my May 2014 post “Night” and “The Hamsa.” I share in the world’s loss and I mourn the passing of another great peace hero. May his memory and the things he taught us endure forever.
I find it interesting how one book, one author, one concept, one thought leads to another and another and another ….
At our Seed of the Word book club meeting yesterday — if you care to listen, you can click this link — we discussed Thomas Merton’s classic The Seven Storey Mountain. If you do listen, I’m the schmuck answering the moderator’s first question. I tell the group, “I had difficulty reading this book.” Definitely not the consensus! Next up at the club is Jesus, A Pilgrimage by James Martin, SJ who unequivocally states that it was Merton’s book that changed his life and led him from Corporate America to the Jesuits. See the connection? One thing leads to another.
Today’s Zenit quotation of the day comes from Maximilian Kolbe
“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it.”
I smiled when I read that. Maximilian Kolbe appears briefly in The Hamsa as that ‘crazy holy man’ who saves Bronek with his Latin recitation of Pater Noster. Then I reflected on Kolbe’s quote. The promo quote from Gaspar, Another Tale of the Christ is
“The story of one man’s remarkable search for truth.”
I begin every manuscript with a core message, and the core message behind Gaspar is: Truth is universal.
Mrs. tVM and I hike the ‘Inspiration Trail’ at Sanctuary Cove several times every year. One of the messages posted on the trail is a quote from Chief Seattle:
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
Indeed, it is a Circle of Life. One thing leads to another and in the end, all things are connected.
I just concluded reading Night by 1986 Nobel Peace Prize recipient and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. I read it in preparation of May’s ‘Seeds of the Word’ monthly book club discussion at the Redemptorist Renewal Center at Picture Rocks, Arizona. Having written a ‘Holocaust’ novel, The Hamsa several years ago, some readers are curious that I have never read Mr. Wiesel’s powerful account of his years in the Nazi concentration camp system. The fact is – until this afternoon – I have not. My interest in the Holocaust began one rainy afternoon at the Berkshire County Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I loved the library and frequented it daily between school and basketball practice. On this particular afternoon, I came across Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I will never forget that day or that book.
As I prepare for May’s discussion, I have reviewed several reading guides. One question in particular stays with me. I do not intend to discuss it at the meeting, but I have to answer it here. The Hill and Wang Teacher’s Guide asks
“Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?”
In 2007, I first saw the photo commonly referred to as “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” It still haunts me. I continue to stare at the expression of the ‘victim.’ His face exudes faith and confidence … he is not afraid. When I look at the expression of the executioner, I see doubt and guilt … his eyes are filled with fear. Shortly after viewing that picture, I discovered the “Report by Witold Pilecki” who volunteered to go into Auschwitz and who successfully escaped three years later. The photo and the report evolved into The Hamsa, which incidentally is about neither. Back to the question: “Does the genre of historical fiction ultimately help or harm the nightmarish actuality of the Holocaust?” When I first began writing The Hamsa, I lived in a small town in the heart of Missouri wine country, Defiance, Missouri about 50 miles west of downtown St. Louis. St. Louis is blessed with an excellent Holocaust Museum and Learning Center (HMLC). As I researched my manuscript, I made an appointment with the director and visited the museum. Included in its exhibition – at least in 2008 – is a large image of “The Last Jew in Vinnitsa.” My conversation with the director ended rather abruptly. When I explained to him what I was doing, he emphatically stated, “There is no room whatsoever for the Holocaust in historical fiction.” As his case in point, he referred to the recently released film “Defiance” starring Daniel Craig that recounted the activity of the Bielski brothers who saved over 1,200 Jews by hiding them in the forests of Poland. “That film is not accurate,” he adamantly stressed and repeated, “There is no place for the Holocaust in historical fiction.” I listened patiently and respectfully. His statement rang in my ears for the 40-minute drive back to my home in Defiance. I made a point of seeing the film “Defiance.” It was a good film. More importantly, it occurred to me that if only 2 million people saw the film [the actual box office is reported at $56 million], then 2 million more people have some idea of what the Jewish communities in Poland faced during WWII. Thanks to the Bielski partisans, there were 1,200 fewer people in Hitler’s concentration camps. With that thought in mind, I committed myself to The Hamsa. Do I exercise ‘artistic license?’ Absolutely. One reviewer, Paul Knott referred to a technique I implied throughout the narrative
“If there is any ‘trick’ to the narrative, it might be Bronek’s meeting such historical figures as Franklin Roosevelt, Sonia Henie, and Heinrich Himmler, a la Forest Gump, but these meetings are plausible and serve the story line.”
The final 80 pages of The Hamsa are specific to the protagonist’s — Bronislaw Czech (Bronek) — experience at Auschwitz. I was committed to historical accuracy, and I stand firm that those pages accurately reflect what happened in that hell on earth. I am not a Holocaust survivor and do not pretend to know what it was like. Elie Wiesel did survive, and I hope that what I have written in The Hamsa does justice to those like his friends and father who did not survive. I believe that those thousands who have read The Hamsa have a better understanding of the era and errors of the times.
In September 2013, I joined several other avid readers and we initiated a book club at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Picture Rocks, Arizona. We call it “Seeds of the Word, a Book Club for the Soul.” Our first book was Par Lagerkvist’s Barabbas; our most recent discussion in April 2014 was Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. I love books. As one of my spiritual mentors Fra Alexei is known to say, “When we talk about books, we talk about ourselves.” So true …
In May 2014, we will discuss Night by 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. The book is a mere 120 pages. First published in 1958, it gained little notoriety. By 1997, the book was selling 300,000 copies each year and had been published in 30 languages.
I’ve lost track on how many books Mr. Wiesel has written, but I am certain it exceeds 40. With forty books to his credit, here is how Mr. Wiesel presents his latest edition, translated by his wife Marion Wiesel in 2006. The very first sentence reads — and this by a man who has written more than 40 books …
“If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one ….”
If you’ve not read Night by Elie Wiesel, I think it is time.