October 10, 2002
The Multifaceted World of Wiesel
One of the most interesting aspects of "Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular," a one-hour autobiographical television documentary, lies in revealing the many aspects of a man, revered mainly as the most authentic voice of the Holocaust.
Wiesel's first love was music and, in one of the many anecdotes scattered throughout the PBS special, he recalls that his first violin teacher was a musical Romanian policeman in his hometown of Sighet. The cop was paid for each lesson with a bottle of plum brandy, and when he finished drinking it, the lesson was finished.
As the film and Wiesel's life progresses, from the closed Chasidic milieu of his shtetl, to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, to France, Israel and the United States, so do the different facets of Wiesel's personality.
After his liberation, he vows "to remember every face, every eye of our agony ... and to bear witness"; as a student in Paris, he falls in love with every girl in his class but is too shy to approach any of them ("the worst sins are those you don't commit"); and as a university professor himself, he is the caring teacher ("when a student speaks, he is the most important person in the class").
He becomes, ultimately, a fighter against injustice anywhere, and is recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize ("I must work for the Jewish people, but not ONLY the Jewish people.")
For devout believer and atheist alike, there is much to be learned from Wiesel's ongoing dialogue with God.
He tells the Almighty, "You didn't behave well [during the Holocaust] ... but I never divorced God. I believe in God, but I have the right to protest his ways." The documentary spans Wiesel's 74 years, from a warm, cheder- bound childhood to the world after Sept. 11, and he speaks, lyrically, about his love for three countries, Israel, the United States and France.
Director Robert Gardner wisely keeps the camera focused tightly on Wiesel's creased face and sad eyes, which seem to have seen everything and forgotten nothing. The only other voice is that of actor William Hurt, reading, sensitively, selections from Wiesel's works.
"Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular" airs on KCET on Monday, Oct. 21, at 10 p.m. His latest work "Judges: A Novel" (Knopf, $24) is available in bookstores.