Good Reads: Different memoirs, different realities
October 11, 2007
” Elie Wiesel, “The Accident”
Gore Vidal, in writing in his own memoir “Palimpsest,” described a memoir as “how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double checked.” Although a subclass of autobiography, memoirs appear less structured and less encompassing, and is often written from the first-person point of view. Memoirs are more about what can be gleaned from a section of one’s life than about the outcome of the life as a whole. Often it is significant and at times, it has ramifications well beyond the individual.
Like the classic Japanese film “Rashomon,” where several people witness a robbery on a country road, and each witness has a different reality of what each thought had happened, memoirs are revealing for those who experience it and how they remember the experiences of it. This week I am suggesting two very powerful, very horrific memoirs by two very talented writers that center on the same place and time but very different realities.
Elie Wiesel is a Romanian-born American-Jewish novelist, political activist, Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor. He is the author of over 40 books; the best known is “Night,” a memoir that describes his experiences during the Holocaust and his imprisonment in several concentration camps. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and was called the “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.” His speech of acceptance was a powerful message “of peace, atonement and human dignity” to humanity. On Nov. 30, 2006, Wiesel received an honorary knighthood in London, England in recognition of his work toward raising Holocaust education in the United Kingdom.
Born in Sighet in the Kingdom of Romania (which became annexed to Hungary in 1940), Elie’s father, Shlomo, an Orthodox Jew, ran his own grocery store, and in addition to Elie, had three daughters and a wife Sarah. In April 1944 the entire Jewish community in Sighet was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where his mother and younger sister, Tzipora, were separated and never seen again (presumed to have been murdered there). Remarkably, almost all of the rest of the family survived. Only his father, who suffered from dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion, in the closing days of the war was sent to the crematory and perished there. It is said that the last word he uttered was “Eliezer,” Elie’s name.
For 10 years after its end, Wiesel would not talk of the war. At the end of that time, he wrote “Night,” a thin 109-page volume in Yiddish, which was published in Buenos Aires in 1955. It has become bedrock among Holocaust literature, alongside Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl,” and Primo Levi’s “If This is a Man.”
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“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.” Here we see Wiesel’s increasing disgust with mankind and his loss of faith in God. In “Night” everything is inverted, every value destroyed. “Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” a Kapo tells him. “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”
In “Night”, Wiesel said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end ” man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.”
But is it over? Is it ever over? There are some who hold on, and some that cannot let go, some that cannot move ahead. There was no end and there cannot be a beginning.
“Let Me Go” by Helga Schneider, is such a story. It is a heart-rending memoir, which chronicles the uneasy reunion between a daughter and the mother who left her husband and young children to join the infamous Nazi Secret Service in World War II. In 1941, when the family was abandoned by Traudi, her mother, Helga Schneider was only 4 years old and her brother Peter 19-months. She did not learn the terrible truth until decades later; her mother was a member of the SS and served as a guard at both Ravensbruck and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Helga eventually was placed in institutions, boarding school and lived through the devastation of post-war Berlin. Finally in 1963 she left Germany, a few years later married an Italian and has lived in Italy ever since.
Once, in 1971, four years after the birth of her son, she decided to trace her mother and introduce her to her child. The visit was traumatic. Her mother, ignoring her grandson, wanted Helga to try on her SS uniform and to have the jewelry she had taken from her Jewish victims at the camps. She left, vowing to herself never to return again.
But then in 1998, Helga was summoned to visit her now 90-year-old mother who was experiencing quickly deteriorating health in a Viennese nursing home. She decided “albeit hesitatingly” to pay her a visit and convinced a cousin on her mother’s side to accompany her. “Let me Go” is the short, shocking account of this chilling meeting.
The day before visiting the home, Helga goes to the Wiesenthal Center and reads a curriculum vitae of her mother that was “even more disturbing than I had expected,” in which her character was described as “lying, opportunistic, fanatical, disloyal.”
Helga knows that her mother was a particularly fanatical Nazi, utterly dedicated to the SS and the elimination of the Jews. But she is still traumatized when Traudi said “Well, my daughter, like it or not, I have never regretted being a member of the Waffen SS, is that clear?” which she announces soon after her arrival. Painful as it is to ask, she wants to know what her mother did, what her mother felt, whether she missed her children, did she miss her when she saw the children in the camps.. The only sentimentality Helga is to derive from Traudi, who initially does not acknowledge recognizing her and tells her that “her children are dead,” is Traudi’s desire eventually to have Helga call her “Mutti” (Mummy) in a manipulative maneuver of control. It is difficult to read their mutual inquisition and witness Helga’s anxiety “that something of this woman lives within me, in my genes. I’m repelled, disgusted.” (Traudi could actually be the guard that took Wiesel’s mother and sister to their death.) The book is honest and it took emotional courage to write such an important historical document. It conveys the experiences of those Germans who had to come to terms with who their parents were, and the crimes they had committed. Rarely do we see life on the other side. And 50 years later, it is not clear if, for them, it is still night.
Sam Weller, the premier biographer of Ray Bradbury, will be in Reno to discuss the life and works of the author of Fahrenheit 451 and other well-known books and short stories. The program, partially sponsored by the Hilliard Endowment, is free and open to the public.
Friday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m.
Raggio Education Building Lecture Hall, Room 2030
University of Nevada, Reno
Weller will also be a guest on the weekly public affairs program, “High Desert Forum,” on KUNR 88.7 FM public radio, Friday, Oct. 19, at 4 p.m.
Sam Weller is the author of The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, winner of the 2005 Society of Midland Authors Award for Best Biography and a Bram Stoker Award finalist. The former Midwest Correspondent for Publishers Weekly magazine, Weller is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune Magazine, and a frequent literary critic for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Punk Planet. He is a member of the full-time faculty in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago.
Weller’s appearance is part of Northern Nevada Reads, a project of The Big Read. Northern Nevada Reads features Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 as the centerpiece of a community-wide “read” that includes book discussions, a photo contest, showings of the 1966 film version of Fahrenheit 451 and many other activities. For details on upcoming events, visit http://www.northernnevadareads.org or call (775) 742-2461.
Northern Nevada Reads, a project of the Big Read, wants as many people as possible to enjoy reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. So once you’re finished with your copy, please consider dropping it off at one of the locations listed below.
All donated copies will be sent to other northern Nevada communities for their reading projects. Books can be dropped off from Oct. 7 through Nov. 7 at any Washoe County Library during open hours or through book drops. Hours for all branches are listed on the library system’s Web site, http://www.washoe.lib.nv.us.
City of Reno Fire Stations, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily:
Station 5 – 1500 Mayberry Drive (Southwest Reno)
Station 6 – 3970 Mira Loma Drive (Southeast Reno)
Station 15 – 110 Quartz Lane (Sun Valley)
Station 16 – 1240 Eastlake Blvd (Washoe Valley)
Station 18 – 3680 Diamond Peak Drive (Cold Springs)
North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District, Administration Building, 866 Oriole Way, Incline Village, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.-
Join your friends and neighbors on Saturday, Oct. 13 from 2 to 4 p.m. for the first meeting of Reel Talk, a new program at the Incline Village library and this week featuring a free viewing of Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The famous film portrays the evils of censorship in society, and following the film’s screening, there will be an informal discussion. For middle school ages through adult.
October 14 e. e. Cummings (1894)
October 15 Mario Puzo (1920)
P. G. Wodehouse (1881)
October 16 Oscar Wilde (1854)
Eugene O’Neill (1888)
October 17 Arthur Miller (1915)
Adults (fiction): “Suite Française” by Irene Nemirovsky
Young Adult (ages 13-17): “Sealed with a Diss” by Lisi Harrison
Juvenile (4th-6thgrade): ” Love, Stargirl” by Jerry Spinelli
Children (2nd-3rd grade): “Ginger and Petunia” written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco