The death of Elie Wiesel at the weekend sent me to take his Night down from my shelf.
His searing account of surviving the Nazi Death Camps was published just before I was born. Growing up in faith, I came to know it to be one of the classic texts of the twentieth century, definitive of my (of anyone’s) understanding. It has taken me among so many others to Buchenwald, from which he, unlike so many others, was finally liberated.
I hadn’t realised until reading his obituaries, however, how little focus there had been on the Nazi genocide of the Jews in the dozen or so years between the end of the Second World War and his writing, nor how it was his own use of the term Holocaust – the Greek term for the whole burnt offerings of the Hebrew scriptures – which had been particularly influential in bringing that term into wide use.
There is a passage in the book which is the most quoted and which I’ve often come across used in Christian writing. While being forced to witness one particular horrific prolonged hanging of a boy there is an overheard conversation in which the question ‘Where is God now?’ receives a response ‘He is hanging here on this gallows’.
I came to be deeply uncomfortable with the Christian appropriation of this passage. The book touches often on the death of faith, the death of any credibility in the idea of God, the death of God. It seems abidingly important that this is what he is laying out at this point and not to swerve around it.
For me, the sense that God is indeed found hanging on gallows is also, of course, of abiding importance. I can understand why there is a temptation to use this short passage as a Christian text speaking into that reality. Indeed, I notice Wiesel very unexpected touch on one word of Christian language himself a little later in the book when writing a particular Rabbi’s loss of faith in the face of ‘this Calvary’.
But that does not seem to be a sufficient excuse for a Christian colonisation of a text which takes us to the heart of a Jewish reality, a reality which challenges everything which trips off the tongue too easily about ‘western Christian civilization’, a reality which seems almost obscene to me to use as a hanging peg for Christian apologetic.
The word Holocaust has also, of course, come to be recognised as deeply problematic, indeed it has slowly become not to be the preferred term lest it smuggle in any sense that this was an offering made to God or a sacrifice made by God.
The picture is of one tiny face now over five hundred years old on the edge of one of the brasses in St Nicolas’, Great Coates.