My high school had a couple of days of holocaust awareness, around about 1977 or so, when I was in 9th grade, I think. Elie Weisel came and spoke and we watched “Nacht Und Nebel”
It was terrifying stuff for a 14 year-old, even one that had been interested in military history, who had been reading about the crusades, the holocaust, WWI, etc. I had read about horrors humans inflict on eachother, but seeing the stick-like bodies of humans being shoved around by bulldozers … I understand why it was deemed necessary to indoctrinate us with a loathing for genocide, but it gave a lot of us nightmares for weeks. I’ve never needed to review pictures of concentration camp victims – they are still etched in my mind.
Wiesel was profoundly psychologically damaged by his experiences, as anyone would be. But 14 year-old Marcus didn’t understand that, and hadn’t ever encountered anyone so shaped by pain and darkness. During his talk, one thing Weisel said, that was flat-out wrong, was that the US betrayed the jews by not trying to rescue them – that the US should have bombed the railways taking the victims to the camps, or done something. During the question and answer period afterward, I raised my hand and said, “Hi, I’m the head of our military history club* and I don’t think your suggestion of bombing railways would have worked because the nazis were already shooting people on the street and…” I never finished. I’m sure I was a snotty-nosed kid. But I thought I was engaging with his ideas, and I had ideas of my own about strategic bombing.** Well, the technical term for what happened next was that “he flipped his shit.” Weisel made a comment to the effect that, “See!?! There are still nazis among us!” and pointed a shaky finger at me. I was shocked and horrified and raised my hand to clarify when our headmaster got his hand on my shirt collar and escorted me out of the assembly hall rather hastily.
Later there was a meeting in the dean’s office and my father was summoned. Dad’s an academic’s academic who used to lecture in cap and gown because “that is the uniform of a professor” even in muggy Baltimore summer heat. He listened for a bit and then asked, “Well, was my son right?” He continued with something or other about how historical analysis had to be as objective as possible and, on the other hand, Marcus can be pretty snotty at times… etc. Then he swirled back out and left me to apologize for being snotty to a great man, while the question of defending my historical views was neatly mooted. Dad was always good at parsing problems apart, I think it was probably from all the time he spent studying Marcus Aurelius.***
So those are my memories of Elie Weisel – a shaky, yelling, tortured, angry man, who I always associated with the trauma of seeing that horrible movie. Looking back, I respect him: he devoted the rest of his life to constantly confronting, day in and day out, the holocaust. I watched “Nacht Und Nebel” exactly once but Weisel must have seen that movie so many times – in addition to living in that movie – it must have been a feat of strength to get up and face each new day.
Rest in peace, Elie Weisel, from this snot-nose kid. Much respect.
Postscript – history now knows that the allies were not surprised by the death camps. Aerial surveillance and photo interpretation had advanced to the point where the generals and political leaders knew what was going on. I wish I could have discussed this with Weisel. If there was a failure on the part of the allies it was a failure of vision and diplomacy – instead of bombing the railways, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt or their high commanders could have informed the nazis “We know what you’re doing and when this is all over you’re going to hang. Stop it, right now.” The allies weren’t interested in conflict de-escalation by that point, which means that the reason they didn’t try to save the jews was because they didn’t care to try. That conclusion is much more horrible than the one I reached at 14. The soldiers that freed the camps were, of course, shocked – because – again, the high command simply didn’t care about them, either.
(* That was our excuse for getting a club room where we could play Diplomacy and Squad Leader in peace while everyone else was in study hall)
(** Namely: not accurate enough to do anything, which is why it didn’t affect the war’s outcome at all.)
(*** Yeah, he named his son after his favorite philosopher. If I had a son, he’d have been named Epicurus and if he didn’t like it he could change it when he turned 18)