Jerry Earl Johnston: Wiesel opens his heart, as well as ours

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

In 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2011, he underwent open heart surgery.

Last fall, he published a book about the ordeal called "Open Heart."

Since I've been through the procedure myself, I bought it — the way a traveler, home from a distant land, will buy books about the place just to compare notes.

It didn't take long to see that Elie Wiesel — Auschwitz survivor and author of the internationally acclaimed memoir "Night" — is one of the world's finest guides.

First, Wiesel is likeable and trustworthy. He has an uncanny ability to live events spontaneously while, at the same time, monitoring and recording them in his mind — a quality that has made his books about Auschwitz so devastating, yet such treasures.

He is candid at every turn.

In "Open Heart" he talks about his stubbornness (he showed up two hours late for his heart operation).

He talks about his fears and frailty with the courage of a lion tamer.

And the sheer honesty of his voice is enough to bring a tear to the eye.

Wiesel says that, after his operation, he remembered to thank the surgeon but forgot to thank God. And the unvarnished examination he makes of his own motives is fresh and brave. This, for example, on why he insists on keeping the rituals and rites of his Jewish faith:

"My commitment," he writes, "is an affirmation of my fidelity to the religious practice of my parents and theirs. ... I refuse to be the last in a line going back very far in my memory and that of my people.

"I know this answer is in no way satisfactory, or perhaps not even valid. But it is the only one."

In short, Wiesel uses heart surgery here as an occasion — an excuse, if you will — to open his own heart and talk about family, dignity, God, love and himself.

"My life?" he writes in the book's final paragraph. "I go on breathing from minute to minute, from prayer to prayer."

Elie Wiesel is one of a kind. And yet, at the same time, he seems to speak for all of us.

And that virtue will allow his writing to endure, to live on and be a reminder for future generations that unspeakable cruelty and unspeakable love are both part of our world, part of our lives. And for that reason alone, we must never forget. We must remain forever vigilant.

EMAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com

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