Authors: Elie Wiesel
Table of Contents
For Elisha and Lynn
Look, young friend and brother
Do your eyes see the young woman with the grave manner who is destined to you?
See how she leans her head to her left as if seeking your hand on her shoulder, see the dream of mystery and desire that hovers over her beautiful and melancholy face; that dream is yours.
Look, and you will know what it is to love.
But it will be too late.
Paritus the One-Eyed, Letter to the lost disciple
I’M FOUR YEARS OLD, OR MAYBE FIVE. IT’S A SABbath afternoon. Mother is lying down in the next room. I’d asked her to read to me from the book she had by her side, but she has one of her frequent headaches. So I ask my father to tell me a story, but just then there’s a knock at the door. “Go see who it is,” says my father, reluctantly glancing up from the journal he’s keeping. A stranger is at the door.
“May I come in?” he asks. A big bearded man, broad across the shoulders, with sad eyes—there’s something disturbing about him. His gaze seems heavy with secrets, and glows with a pale and holy fire.
“Who’s there?” my father asks, and I reply, “I don’t know.”
“Call me a wanderer,” the stranger says, “a wandering man who’s worn-out and hungry.”
“Who do you want to see?” I ask, and he says to me, “You.”
“Who is it, a beggar?” my father asks. “Tell him to come in.” No matter what the hour, my father would never deny his home to a stranger seeking a meal or a night’s shelter, and certainly not on the Sabbath.
The stranger comes in at a slow but unhesitating pace. Father stands to greet him and leads him to the kitchen. He shows the stranger where to wash his hands before reciting the usual prayer, offers him a seat, and sets before him a plate of
But the stranger doesn’t touch it. “You’re not hungry?” my father says.
“Oh yes, I’m hungry, and I’m thirsty, but not for food.”
“Then what is it you want?”
“I want words and I want faces,” says the stranger. “I travel the world looking for people’s stories.” I’m enchanted by the stranger’s voice. It is the voice of a storyteller: It envelops my soul. He continues: “I came here today to put you to the test, to measure your hospitality. And I can tell you that what I’ve seen pleases me.” With that, he gets to his feet and strides to the door.
“Don’t tell me you are the prophet Elijah,” says my father.
“No, I’m no prophet.” The stranger smiles down at me. “I told you, I’m just a wanderer. A crazy wanderer.”
Ever since that encounter, I’ve loved vagabonds with their sacks full of tales of princes who became what they are for love of freedom and solitude. I delight in madmen. I love to see their crazed, melancholy faces and to hear their bewitching voices, which arouse in me forbidden images and desires. Or rather, it’s not the madness itself I love, but those it possesses, those whose souls it claims, as if to show them the limits of their possibilities—and then makes them determined to go further, to push themselves beyond those limits. It’s second nature with me. Some collect paintings; others love horses. Me, I’m attracted to madmen. Some fear them, and so put them away where no one can hear them cry out. I find some madmen entertaining, but others do indeed frighten me, as if they know that a man is just the restless and mysterious shadow of a dream, and that dream may be God’s. I have to confess that I enjoy their company, I want to see through their eyes the world die each night, only to be reborn with dawn, to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open.
IS TODAY MONDAY? MAYBE IT’S TUESDAY, BUT no, it’s Thursday. As if it matters. The wanderer can’t seem to wake up, which is unlike him, and so it was with Isaac and Job when they were
full of years,
as Scripture tells us. In his dream, he has just seen his father. He stands solemnly for a long moment, and then father and son embrace. He awakes with a start, then falls back into heavy, oppressive slumber. No more father. Talk to him, he doesn’t answer. Stretch out a hand, he turns away. With an effort, he opens his eyes. He knows he’s alone, that he should get up, that he has a long and trying day ahead, but he can’t seem to place the day in his exile’s life: Does it belong to his future, to his past? His soul is lost in the fog and is taking him to some terrifying place of the damned. Somewhere an old woman ravaged in body and memory is watching for him, perhaps to punish him for misdeeds long forgotten, for promises carelessly tossed aside. Who is she? A beauty he dreamed of as a boy but could not hold on to? One of his daughters, stricken in her mind and lost in the depths of time? He searches his memory; their dark faces circle around him and seem about to close in and suffocate him. He knows that he is destined for a fateful encounter with a mysterious woman. A turning point? The end of a stage of his life? If so, isn’t it time for some kind of
—an accounting of his soul— in which he would review the fires he’s been through and the many lives he’s led?
He shakes himself awake, gets up, goes to the washbasin, and examines his reflection in the mirror. He sees his yellowish gray pallor, his sagging features, his dull gaze. He doesn’t recognize the man staring back at him. All he’s done is to change nightmares.
MY NAME IS GAMALIEL. YES, GAMALIEL, AND I’LL thank you not to ask me why. It’s just another name, right? You’re given a name, you carry it around, and if it’s too much of a burden, you get rid of it. As for you, dear reader, do I ask you how come you’re named William, or Maurice, or Sigmund, or Serge, or Sergei? Yes, Gamaliel isn’t an everyday name, and let me tell you, it has its own story, and it’s not one you hear every day, either. That’s true of everybody, you’ll say—and so what? If they want, they can tell me the story of their lives; I’ll hear them out. Let me add that I’m also named Péter. Péter was my childhood. For you, childhood means playing with a ball, rolling a hoop, pony rides in the park, birthdays and holidays, vacations at the shore or in the mountains. My childhood was in a nightclub. It has a story, too.
I’ll get around to that.
Just bear with me.
FOR NOW, LET’S STICK TO GAMALIEL. ODD KIND of name, I know. You don’t see it very often. Sounds Sephardic. So how did I get it? You really want to know? I inherited it. Yes, some people inherit houses, or businesses, stamp collections, bank accounts. I inherited my name. My paternal grandfather left it to me. Did I know him? Of course not; he died before I was born, or else I’d have been given another name. But then how did his parents happen to choose so unusual a name, one that seems better suited to a tired old man than to a newborn baby? Did they find it in the traditions of their Sephardic ancestors, those who were expelled from Spain, or perhaps those who stayed on, the Marranos, who pretended to convert but secretly retained their Jewish identity? You can find the first Gamaliel in the Bible: Gamaliel, son of Phadassur, chief of the tribe of Manasseh; and in the
where he is described as “a Jew and a great luminary.” And of course in the Talmud, where he’s frequently quoted. His grandfather was Hillel the Elder. He lived and taught somewhere in Palestine during the first century, well before the destruction of the Second Temple. Yes, I bear the name of a great leader, known for his wisdom and moderation, universally respected in Israel. He was president of the Sanhedrin and of a well-known academy. Nothing was decided without his consent. I would have liked to have known him. Actually, that can be done. All I have to do is look in the records of discussions in which he took part. I’ve been doing that every chance I’ve gotten since I came to America, which by now is quite a while ago. I like to study, and I love to read. I never tire of reading. I have a lot to catch up on.
Besides, you could say it’s what I do for a living.
I write so I can learn to read and read and read.
Book of Secrets
The air-raid alarm is silent, making it a quiet night,
but even so, the Archbishop of Székesváros has a
nightmare. The Archbishop, Monsignor János
Báranyi, dreams he is in the Vatican, waiting for an
audience with the Pope. Feverishly, he is searching for
the first word he’ll speak, the one crucial word that
will convince the Pope of his humility and his
obedience. He cannot find that word. All he can think
of are garbled phrases that might as well be false
prayers dictated to him by some evil spirit. What shall
I do? Lord in heaven, what shall I do? Without that
first word, nothing else he says will matter; the Lord’s
Creation will be damned. The Archbishop is in a
panic. Time is running out: In a few minutes, the door
will open and he will be kneeling before the successor
to Saint Peter. The Pope will tell him to rise and speak
about his mission, but he, a poor sinner from a distant
province, will still be seeking that first word. Help me,
Lord, help me! Suddenly, his mother is there holding
him by the shoulders. She is long dead. The
Archbishop knows that even in his dream—but then
what is she doing here, in the Pope’s waiting room?
How has she come into his dream? He is about to ask
her, when the door opens, opens so softly that it does
not disturb a fly perched on its golden doorknob. Now
the Archbishop cries out in horror. . . . It’s the Angel
of Death, who tells him to come forward. . . .
Gamaliel rereads the passage. Now he finds he dislikes the last lines, so he crosses them out and writes instead:
. . . When the door opens, the Archbishop sees a
beautiful stately young Jew, who, with a graceful
gesture of his arm, invites the Archbishop to enter
and be seated. But he cannot move: The Archbishop is
like a man paralyzed. Who is the Jew? By what right is
he in the Pope’s innermost sanctum? Now his mother
comes to his rescue, saying, “All these years, you didn’t
know that Christ was Jewish, too. It’s my fault, my
son; I should have taught you that when you were a
child. And now . . .” “And now what, Mama?” “And
now you know,” she says.
Strangely enough, it is not the first time this dream
has troubled the Archbishop’s sleep.
Of this much, Gamaliel is certain: Georges Lebrun may be a good Christian, but he doesn’t know much about religion, so he won’t make head or tail of this novel he has so long been anticipating. But Lebrun wants it. He needs it as an ailing lover needs the drug that keeps him alive. Gamaliel was still living in Paris when he showed Lebrun the first pages, written in French. He had begun to learn the language in Budapest, from an Agence France-Presse correspondent who was a “friend”—a customer?—of Ilonka. Gamaliel had gone on to master French so well, he had aroused the envy of the writer Georges Lebrun thought he was. Years had gone by, and now Gamaliel was living in New York, but Lebrun was still after him for his manuscript. He wanted it with all his heart; he dreamed of it. That was what he kept saying to Gamaliel, by letter, by telephone, and in person when their paths happened to cross: “That book belongs to me. If you don’t give it to me, I’ll kill you. I’ll do worse: I’ll make you wish you’d never been born.” Not this time. Gamaliel knew he had made a mistake in letting his silent partner read the manuscript he had barely begun. But to hell with him: Let him find himself another ghostwriter. Here, in this story, Gamaliel speaks for himself. It’s time.
GAMALIEL IS WALKING THROUGH A DARK AND depressing section of Brooklyn. He is no longer young. He walks hunched over, the eternal stranger protecting his secret, as he heads toward a silent building for forgotten people. He has no idea what awaits him, but he senses that somehow he is going to meet his fate there. Can he exorcize that fate, or at least come to terms with it?
Running through his head are the silly narratives he used to dream up for amateur writers who wanted to be thought professional. That was how he paid the rent. Love stories for shop girls, Kiplingesque adventures in exotic settings, financial conspiracies, gritty detective stories: scribbling, not writing. None of them had the substance or the range of the story he’s been wanting to write for these many years. But that’s an all-absorbing task, one that requires researching in depth such questions as the origins of Christianity, its metamorphoses, its doctrines, which ban any kind of doubt or any reference to human sexuality. The Apostles and their Gospels. The Church fathers and their screeds against the Jews: how to explain their hatred for the children of Israel? The connection between the Bible of the Jews and the Christian New Testament. The many ways they had of putting the Son foremost, relegating the Father to the background. The Vatican and its hierarchy, its culture and its rules, its power and the limits of that power. The silence of Pope Pius XII about the persecution and annihilation of the Jews, the open spirit of John XXIII. What is the theological meaning of the celibacy the Church imposes on its priests and nuns? What’s an archbishop, and how do you get to be one? And if you’re a mystic, how do you find it out? What must you accomplish to be admitted to the secret knowledge of the Teachers, with their exceptional and terrifying gifts? Gamaliel must be thoroughly informed in his account of the strange events that brought together a dignitary of the Catholic Church and a rabbi versed in the Kabbalah. Several times he has thought he was on the right track—the story rang true—but when he reread it the next day, he saw that the scene demanded a different outcome from the one he’d conceived for it. But where does the story want to go? He can’t tell now. He’ll get it right next time. Next time? That’s the mantra of refugees and wanderers, thinks Gamaliel, always the outsider. When is next time? Tomorrow? Later on? In another life? In another person? You’ll have to come back, with other papers, with other affidavits. Go to the next window.
Let’s note here that Gamaliel, the stranger in this story, isn’t really a stranger. Like everyone else, he has an identity: He has an address, friends, connections, habits, and, yes, he has his quirks and his whims. But the refugee in him is always on the alert, ready to speak the word that will upset all he’s taken for granted about the way he lives. It is said that a man never recovers from torture, that a woman never recovers from rape. The same is true of those who have been uprooted: once a refugee, always a refugee. He escapes from one place of exile, only to find himself in another: Nowhere is he at home. He never forgets the place he came from; his life is always provisional. Happiness for him is a moment’s rest. Love that is supposedly eternal? A blink of the eye. For a man in his situation, at every step, the end seems near.
Is the bell about to toll for him?
For some time now, Gamaliel has felt himself growing old;
has become the key word: the many adventures he will never undertake, the girls he will never kiss, the children he will never have, the faraway places he will never discover, the cello he will never learn to play, the ecstasy he will never again feel next to a body that is vibrant with life—without fearing he will fail. The passing years grow heavy; their weight drags him down. Gamaliel tires more easily. He is often out of breath; his mind wanders. His need to sleep becomes urgent. He’s lived a lot of years. How many does he have left? He’s wasted an appalling number of them. Did he bungle his youth? Alexander the Great died at thirty-three, Spinoza at forty-four; the Baal Shem-Tov was sixty. Mozart, Pushkin, Rilke, Herzl: They enriched the world in the course of their short, frenzied lives. And how about Gamaliel himself? Who will carry on his name? What will he leave behind? Just words, and not even the ones he would want to have endure. Vanity of vanities: It’s all absurd. Music is what he has always regretted: He wishes he had gone to the conservatory. Paritus the One-Eyed used to say, “When the words start singing, I start dancing.” But not Gamaliel. Everyone else is dancing. He has never learned how.
The exile’s days are growing few, as are those of the season, and the century is drawing to its close. How many times has he stood at the cliff’s edge and wanted to withdraw—but to where? “From one abyss to another,” murmured a great Hasidic teacher, but he did not say whether he was describing the adventure of our passage through this life or, rather, our search for peace and the ultimate answer. Despair is the refugee’s everyday companion, even when he is enjoying himself or entertaining others. He despairs of his work, in which he supplies his clients with shoddy writing that will make no difference to anyone. Despairs of a life divorced from reality, and from his two daughters, cut off from him by a hatred he has never been able to understand and accept. His heart sinks at the thought of them. Where are they now? What’s become of them? So many years since they rejected him, utterly, convicted him with no right of appeal. Was it his fault, or was it the fault of his wife, Colette, who had killed herself to make his punishment more complete? After her mother’s suicide, Katya, who liked to call herself the elder of the twins, had also tried to take her own life. The younger twin, Sophie, had gone off to an ashram in India, where she changed her name and made herself a new existence, in which she had no connection with her father. All Gamaliel’s efforts to find his daughters had been in vain: gone, no forwarding address, vanished without a trace. Unhappy offspring of an unhappy marriage, in a time without a gleam of light or an oasis to relieve its melancholy, a marriage entered into unwillingly in a Paris that was itself discouraging and deceitful. Why had he never remarried? Was he afraid? Afraid of stirring up the remorse that threatens to kill off any chance he has of redeeming himself, of fulfilling any promise there is in him?