"You shall choose life": Reading Elie Wiesel's Open Heart in the shadow of a week of tragedy

"You shall choose life": Reading Elie Wiesel's Open Heart in the shadow of a week of tragedy

Like many millennials, I discovered author, scholar, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel in high school after reading his memoir of his time in the Naxi Concentrations Camps during World War II, Night. I remember the moment I started to read the book, I was shaken by the starkness of his prose and the underlying power of even the most simple words. When writing about such a charged subject, there's a major possibility for some terribly purple prose, languishing and trite.

After many years of Wiesel out of my line of sight, I was intrigued when I saw his memoir Open Heart (published in 2012) at Barnes & Noble the other day. It's thin, I thought, and I immediately started to read it. I don't often get moved to tears in the middle of a bookstore (that's a damn lie, of course I do) but this time was like having the wind knocked out of me.

Between Orlando's tragedy, mass shootings in Chicago, infant deaths, and political turmoil (completely with disgusting, untimely comments), these words seared like an iron on my heart. To be watching the news and seeing neanderthals taken as messiahs, these words were simple, honest, and free of rank bias or self-serving rhetoric. These were words of comfort that did not require the rational human being to set aside reality.

I sat in bed, having purchased the book, and read the entire book, about 79 pages, in less than half an hour. With images of death, destruction, and chaos in my mind, these words were like a sweet balm placed on a wound not likely to heal for millennia.

The book is a memoir of Wiesel's journey from health to heart disease to surgery to recovery. Six of his arteries were near clogged, so immediate surgery was foisted upon him. In the day or so leading up to surgery, Wiesel thinks about his life, his legacy, and his mortality in the most raw, honest way imaginable.

Throughout my reading of the book, I placed neon yellow post-it notes to mark passages that I felt held particular significance when read in light of recent events. I shall share four of the most powerful with you.

"Am I ready to lose their love?", Wiesel asks himself, imagining the loss of the love for his family if he happened to die during surgery. (Wiesel 24)The question I asked myself was are we ever truly ready to lose our love for someone? Whether it be death or alienation, we try to hold onto those we love for as long as we can. Our fingers are tightly pressed together, trying to keep our loved ones from slipping through our fingers. The loved ones of those massacred and murdered didn't have this question to ponder, they simply had their cared for ones wrenched from them by madmen.

At one point Wiesel quotes the French Poet Charles Baudelaire's poem Mon coeur mis a nu (My Heart Laid Bare): "There exist in every man, at every hour, two simultaneous impulses; one leading toward God, the other towards Satan." Wiesel asks himself "Have I distinguished the path to Good from the one leading to evil?" (Wiesel 39) This is the constant struggle in life, I believe. Good and Evil, whether we are religious or not, constantly war within us. It seems these days that with most people, the evil has metastasized like a cancer and is gnawing the fiber of humanity. Our morality is a choice in our lives. At the end of the day, we aren't forced to act evilly, we simply choose not to fight for the good. Murder, stealing, and violence are seen as the only outlet for the downtrodden and weary. The answer, they think, is found on the trigger of a rifle.

Wiesel is Jewish and at one point quotes scripture: "Ubakharta bakhaim" meaning "You shall choose life." Wiesel adds "...with the promise to live a better, more moral, more human life." (Wiesel 37) In Ayn Rand's book The Virtue of Selfishness, she expounds on this decision: "Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course." (Rand 25) We all make the decision to live, and it is most certainly our decision to make. To take a life is to rape someone of their choice to walk this Earth, breathe the air, and love with zeal and passion. But, all the same, you need to choose to live your lives in a way that is healthy and manageable. Stress is what is gnawing at this society, piece by bloody piece. Each death is a fabric of life being snipped by fate, soon to unravel completely.

This final quotation is almost an entire chapter of the book, and that is what I will choose to leave you with. Elie Wiesel can conclude with more poignant words than I ever could:

"A credo that defines my path:

"I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe that we must not give up on either.

"Was it yesterday-or long ago-that we learned how humans beings have been able to attain perfection in cruelty? That for the killers, the torturers, it is normal, thus human, to act inhumanely? Should one therefore turn away from humanity?

"The answer, of course, is up to each of us. We must choose between the violence of adults and the smiles of children, between the ugliness of hate and the will to oppose it. Between inflicting suffering and humiliation on our fellow man and offering him the solidarity and hope he deserves. Or not.

"I know-I speak from experience-that even in darkness it is possible to create light and encourage compassion. That it is possible to feel free inside a prison. That even in exile, friendship exists and can become an anchor. That one instant before dying, man is still immortal.

"There it is: I still believe in man in spite of man. I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed and perverted by the enemies of mankind. And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console." (Wiesel 72-73)

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