Elie Wiesel: Memories Of Jerusalem

When did I see Jerusalem for the first time? I don't even know. When I visited the city for the first time, it seemed to me that it was not for the first time. At the same time, each visit since then I have had the feeling it is my first visit.

by Elie Wiesel

When did I see Jerusalem for the first time? I don’t even know. When I visited the city for the first time, it seemed to me that it was not for the first time. At the same time, each visit since then I have had the feeling it is my first visit.
Is there a Jew, a Jewish child, who possessesa different relationship toward the most Jewish city in the world? Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s nostalgic poem celebrates us all: though we find ourselves here and there in the Western world, the Jewish heart is always in the East.
Like many of us, I have wandered to many cities and even settled, as a stranger or as a resident, in several of them. But the love that Jerusalem always awakens in me has no equal.
One can become enthusiastic over the spell of Paris, over the radiance of the Riviera towns, over the dynamism of New York and the many colors of Bombay. But enthusiasm is not love. For a Jew, love is bound to Jerusalem from the beginning.
Before I even began to speak I dreamed of the widow, the daughter of Zion, who sits alone in the Temple of Jerusalem. I would wait for the little goat that was to give me raisins and almonds and then carry me, and all of us, far away to the city where everything breathes Yiddishkeit, where even the stones tell tales of wonder in Yiddish about Jewish kings and princes.
Later, as a cheder boy, my schoolmates and I would spin childish fantasies about secret cave tunnels in our Carpathian Mountains that would lead us to Eretz Yisrael. One had only to utter the Name and invisible gates would open. In one blink of the eye all temptations would be cast off. One utterance of the Name and the Exile would end, persecution would end, the enemy would be no more, there would be an end to fear. Master of the Universe, where does one get the Name?
Meanwhile, waiting for someone who knew the Name, we would study and review everything that the Torah and the Gemara had to tell us about the land of our fathers. While studying, we seemed to find ourselves in Jerusalem. All the hills, all the little streets, all the buildings looked familiar. Priests and Levites met us with smiles. Talmudic scholars stopped us in the street and asked us to recite our lesson. Students of Talmud pulled us away to hear Hillel the Elder or Rabbi Akiba lecture.
Though far from Jerusalem we lived between its walls.

* * *

After the war, in France, I lived in various children’s homes. Emissaries from the Eretz Yisrael would come to teach us Zionist songs. From time to time we would take part in farewell evenings for comrades who were to emigrate to America, South America, Australia, where a sister, an uncle, a grandfather had sponsored them. No one could go to Eretz Israel; there were no certificates. So they went illegally. Suddenly someone would disappear from the study hall and the dining room. No one asked questions. We simply exchanged glances as if to say, “Him too?” No gatherings, no speeches, no mutual agreements to keep in contact. It was all forbidden. Today I regret this. What were we afraid of? If the English had spies, they never reached as far as our children’s homes. What then? Probably they wanted to prepare the illegal immigrants spiritually and psychologically.
Perhaps the English truly did have spies at the train stations. One night one of my close friends — his name was Kalman — entrusted his secret to me: several youngsters, himself included, were to go on the Exodus. I could not restrain myself. I accompanied them to the railroad depot. Pointing out an elegantly dressed passenger, the emissary whispered to me, “Look — an English agent.” A minute later, “See the young woman with the red scarf? She is also a spy.”
When the English sent the Exodus back to France, Kalman returned to our circle. To try again? In between, the U.N. voted to establish a Jewish state. And all of us ran to one of the mobilization centers in Paris. The doctor instantly rejected me. And I remained only with a dream.
Reading in French David Ben-Gurion’s first speech as prime minister, I barely managed not to break into tears.

* * *

It took a whole year, until the summer of 1949, before I had the opportunity to go to Eretz Yisrael. A Paris newspaper agreed to send me there as a correspondent. My assignment: to portray the life of the new immigrants to the new — yet old — land, theirs and ours.
Naturally, I immediately ran to Jerusalem. The city was still divided. The Old City belonged to Jordan. I spent long hours in the tower of the YMCA building facing the King David Hotel, unable to satisfy myself with the picture of the true Jewish Jerusalem, so near and yet so far.
It was peculiar: the average Israeli citizen hardly missed the Old City. I seldom heard anyone speak of the deep longing that must dominate every Jew who reminds himself of the Kotel Hamaarivi, the Western Wall. How could one go on with his daily activities in the new Jerusalem when the old Jerusalem was in captivity? No one could answer this question for me. The truth is, one gets used to everything.
Each year I would come to Israel for several weeks. The central point of my visit was always to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The road was then still long and difficult. The trip would take two hours. I would become silent during the last twenty minutes. Lost in memories and thoughts, I would come closer to the towers of Jerusalem. My heart would begin to beat quickly, wildly, as though before an encounter with a friend and protector I had not seen in many years — two thousand years. Pictures, forgotten and forever fresh, remained in my fevered brain. Comrades of long ago. My grandfather in his Sabbath kaftan. The Borsher Rebbe and his radiant face. A Jew does not come to Jerusalem totally alone; figures that have influenced his fate always accompany him.

* * *

June 1967. Exactly like many other Jews, I also feared the outcome of the war between Israel and her neighbors. Too many elements reminded me of historic betrayals committed by the world with respect to our people. The enemy openly threatened annihilation, and in the U.N. no one responded. Ahmed Shukheiry, the leader of the Arab terror groups, clearly announced that after this war there would no longer be a Jewish problem. Nasser’s soldiers prepared to annihilate or enslave all the Jewish inhabitants of the Jewish state. All the governments knew this. Yet it occurred to no one to warn the Arab leaders that the civilized world would not remain indifferent if they attempted to fulfill their murderous plans.
Therefore we Jews in the Diaspora lived in fear. For the first time since the Holocaust I was afraid that what had happened once was possible again: the Israeli army would fight with the utmost heroism, but without help it would not be able to overcome so many Arab armies that had received all types of modem weapons from Soviet Russia. I know: today we know those fears to have been groundless. It is not our fault. We European Jews have learned that it is wiser to rely on the enemy’s threats than on a friend’s promises.

* * *

It is not easy to get a seat on the airplane. All the seats are occupied by Israeli officers recalled to duty. Certain airlines have ceased flying into Lod. Nevertheless, thanks to connections with El Al, I manage to get a seat on a plane from Paris to Israel. After a night on the road, I board the El Al plane. I am the last passenger. They close the doors. We are aloft.
No one speaks. Only the heart speaks, and it hears only its own language. I cannot sleep despite my weariness. It is impossible even to take a nap. Whom will I meet in Israel? Which of my friends and acquaintances are at the front? The pilot gives the usual details of the flying conditions, but no one is interested.
Suddenly, a smiling stewardess approaches me and whispers a secret in my ear: “I know who you are.” I blush. Under normal circumstances I would answer, “I have worked a lifetime to discover who I am, and you know?!” But I am not in the mood to joke, and certainly not with a pretty girl, a smiling one at that.
Later, when other passengers have left her alone, she again comes over to me: “I have read your book.” This troubles me a little. At this time, thank God, I have already published seven or eight books, and she speaks of one. Nevertheless, I do not answer. I thank God she has read at least one of my works. “I want to tell you that your book is the best I have read in my whole life,” and she continues smiling. “I can quote whole pages.” Well, I thank her for the compliment. I think: it is worth going to Israel every week in order to receive such an honor. The stewardess has not finished. “By the way,” she says, “in the third chapter there is a sentence I do not understand, Mr. Schwarz-Bart.”
Now everything is clear to me. The stewardess has confused me with Andre Schwarz-Bart, the author of The Last of the Just. Embarrassed, I attempt to correct her mistake. She rebuffs my words with a laugh. “I know you are flying incognito” she says. “But you don’t have to fool me.” My protests are no use. She is convinced that I am not I. So she treats me with extraordinary courtesy, as though I had been a member of a millionaire’s club. She brings me coffee and chocolate, fruit and more chocolate, so much so that I almost pray to the Creator for the journey never to end.
But the truth gnaws at me after all. I feel it’s not fitting to profit from so many favors on another’s account. I call the stewardess and start all over again. “I understand your mistake. First, I am also a bit of a writer. Second, I also write in French. Third, Schwarz-Bart’s theme is also mine. Fourth, we have the same publisher in Paris. Fifth, we have the same publisher in America. Sixth, we are the closest of friends. Do you want more? We resemble each other physically. You don’t believe me? Even the young typesetter in Paris or New York made a terrible error and printed either his picture on my book, or my picture on his book. Now do you understand?” She stares at me a while, then breaks into a quiet laugh. “Until now,” she says, “I was convinced that I knew everything about you. One thing I did not know: that you have a sense of humor.”
Well, it is a lost cause. I have lost the debate. It is better to keep still and perhaps take a nap.
One or two hours later, she is back again. This time she has a wicked smile. “I do not know who you are,” she begins “But one thing I do know: you are not Andre Schwarz-Bart.” Foolishly, I suddenly want to tease her. “Really?” I ask. “Perhapsyoucanshow him to me.” Her answer is sharp and biting. “Gladly. Andre Schwarz-Bart . . . sits there!” I jump out of my seat excitedly. Yes, my friend sits three rows ahead of me. I run to him. His surprise is no less than mine. “What are you doing here?” I ask him like a simpleton. “What are you doing here?” he asks me. We want to laugh. We want to cry.
We had both heard the call of Jerusalem.

* * *

I shall never forget my arrival in Jerusalem. The war still raged in the Sinai, but it was only the fate of Jerusalem that caught the imagination of the Jewish people. The Arabs were still shooting from the rooftops, but Jews, in the thousands, ran to the Old City, and no one could stop them.
A bizarre, elemental force had suddenly taken possession of all Jews, rabbis and merchants, yeshiva boys and kibbutznikes, officers and schoolchildren, cynics and artists — all had forgotten everything. Each wanted to be at the Kotel Hamaaravi, to kiss the stones, to cry out prayers or memories. Each knew that on that historic day, in that week, the place of the Jew was at the Temple Mount.
I had the privilege to run with them. I have never run with such an impetus. I have seldom said “amen” with such devotion as when the paratroops, in their exaltation, prayed Minhah. I have never understood the profound meaning of Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel, as I did on that day when I stood, as in a dream, under the burning sun and thought with pride of Jewish existence.
At that time an elderly Jew — I thought he was one of the main characters who had stepped out of one of my novels — remarked to me, “Do you know why and how we defeated the enemy and liberated Jerusalem? Because six million souls took part in our battle.”
Then I actually saw what the naked eye seldom sees: souls on fire floated high above us, praying to the Creator to protect them and all of us.
And this prayer itself was also transformed into a soul.

Written in 1967, this essay originally appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward and was translated from the Yiddish by Irving Abrahamson.

Republished in Telling the tale. A tribute to Elie Wiesel, 1993


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