Elie Wiesel has died. This man was a giant of our times, one whose humanity was lumninous with the complementary passions of peace building and resistance to inhumanity. A survivor of Auschwitz, he has spent the long life that was spared in the pursuit of truth telling, moral remembering, peace building and a more humane and humanising view of all human beings regardless of all things whatsoever by which they are different from us. There will be important things written in the obituaries, and as the fruit of his life is harvested in words, memories, tributes and evaluations.
I simply want to tell one story of my encounters with Elie Wiesel through his writing. Like many theologians and Christians keen to make sense of what it is I believe about how God works in the world, and how I hear God's voice. I puzzle over those moments of wonder when God's presence rubs against my commonsense, those coincidences of circumstance that couldn't be contrived, those times when you reflect on what has just happened and say, "You couldn't make it up."
We were on holiday in Yorkshire, in an old railway cottage near Goathland. It was a week of sunshine, the cottage had an old fashioned cottage garden, in full bloom, a small river running along the bottom edge, and across it a field full of cows. twice a day the Yorkshire steam train came through the tunnel at the edge of the field, puffing, and whistling as it exited the tunnel. There was a tree on the lawn which I sat under most days, reading. That holiday I had taken a bag of books - I know this because I always do - one of which was the recently published volume 1 of Elie Wiesel's memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea.
On a sunny afternoon I sat reading his harrowing and deeply personal account of being transported to Auschwitz, and his continuing terrors years afterwards on hearing a steam train whistle. As I reached that part of his story, and just as I was reading his description of the steam whistle as a scream of fear, the Yorkshire steam train emerged from the unnel over the field and whistled. It was a moment heavy with a meaning I couldn't then, and still now, cannot fully fathom. It was eerily appropriate, the timing precise and the sound like an echo vibrating down the years as a reminder of how technology, machinery and industrial scale mechanisation, are forces for immense good and incalculable evil.
I remember closing the book, a hardback with its dustcover photo of Wiesel the survivor, writer of books that seared and commanded human conscience, teacher of peace and Nobel Laureate; and I remember thinking of how a teenage boy arriving at Auschwitz had heard that same sound, with a nameless dread that had crystallised through the years into an adamantine resolve that what happened would not be forgotten, or forgiven. Wiesel's life work was to be a witness; to tell what happened; to refuse any diminishment of the enormity and perdurance of those crimes of mechanised and state resourced genocide. Forgiveness is for God he has argued. His own refusal to forgive the unforgiveable is not a defiance of God, it is in obedience of his call to witness. But the complementary commitment is to peace advocacy, bridge building, support of humane neighbourliness.
That sunny afternoon, in a Yorkshire country cottage garden, seated in the shade of a tree, two worlds intersected, and I have a memory of a penny dropping into the fathomless depths of human suffering, and just the beginnings of understanding the capacity of this man to not only survive the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but to survive the attempt to destroy his own humanity, and that of millions of others. It remains one of the most solemn interludes of my life, and one of the most vivid experiences of learning that goes deeper than intellectual cognition - it was a moment of recognition.