A Lesson in Itself

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A couple of minutes after 9 o'clock last Friday morning I was sitting in NBC'S Studio 6B in Rockefeller Center, watching Cardinal O'Connor and Elie Wiesel tape the Channel 4 "News Forum'' program with Gabe Pressman. The topic was the Holocaust in general, and Kristallnacht in particular.

Elie Wiesel is the right person to talk to if you're talking about the Holocaust: it is he, in the words of a recent New York Times story by Walter Goodman, who has compelled the world to remember it. And yet, strangely enough, for years he maintained a silence on the suffering that he and his fellow Jews had endured in the Nazi terror. It was only after a conversation with Francois Mauriac, the noted Catholic author—whom he moved to tears by likening the suffering of Jewish children to that endured by Jesus—that the silence came to an end. "Maybe you should talk about it," Mauriac said, and Wiesel did just that.

Dozens of monitors flickered in Studio 6B as the three men talked of the Holocaust years. Most of the monitors showed the images being recorded by the cameras in the studio, but the one directly in front of me was tuned to Channel 4 itself. The Today Show had just concluded, and what should be coming on but the Geraldo Rivera program—and last Friday, if you remember, was the broadcast of the celebrated Nazi chair-throwing incident, the one that left Rivera with a broken nose.

This was all quite unreal. As these two men—the Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor and the cardinal-archbishop of New York—sat talking softly about God and the prophets and the deaths of small children, the faces of hate that live out Hitler's terrible legacy were glowering silently in front of me.

Wiesel offered some unusual insights—suggesting at one point, for example, that in the Nazi years what happened between the people of Germany and the Jews of Germany was a divorce. "An involuntary divorce," the cardinal replied, "and please God, it can be a catalyst for bringing people together."

Wiesel patiently answered a question he has been asked many times: no, he said, I never doubted the existence of God; even in Auschwitz I never stopped praying. That, the cardinal responded,must have been something like the biblical prophets who never really doubted the existence of God, but were repeatedly asking,"Where are You?"

On the screen directly before me, the veins in the throat of a young Nazi bulged toward his reddened face as he stood and shouted at a questioner. The monitor remained silent. A woman in the Rivera audience turned her face away in revulsion.

The half-hour in Studio 6B went by quickly. Wiesel struck me as a man of God-given insights. At one point he mentioned our habit of asking for God's mercy, and he added, "Maybe it's time for us to have mercy on God. Look what we are doing to His creation."

Cardinal O'Connor used the word "mystery" to describe the Holocaust, and Gabe Pressman asked Wiesel if the Holocaust were a mystery to him as well. "Oh, yes," Wiesel replied. "I've been writing about the Holocaust for 30 years, and all the questions I ever had are still there."

How many people would end up watching this gentle and thoughtful exchange, I wondered, compared with the one going on in front of me on the monitor? Only a fraction, of course. At this point, everyone on that tiny screen was standing and shouting. The sound didn't have to be on: the message was hate—and, irony of ironies, Nazi hate at that. Those who voiced it had a forum on a prestigious station, at quality time, with hyped-up promotions at almost every station break that had led up to it.

Much of the talk in 6B that morning centered on the lessons of the Holocaust. It occurred to me that a program that glorifies people baiting each other, and one in particular that ended up with chairs being thrown around, will have an infinitely greater attraction than one that features two learned men whose views of the human condition are shaped, above all, by their understanding of God.

And sad though it is, perhaps that is a lesson in itself.

—Gerald M. Costello
This column originally appeared in Catholic New York on Nov. 17, 1988.

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