"Open Heart" by Elie Wiesel

“Open Heart,” by Elie Wiesel

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When eighty-two-year-old Elie Wiesel was told he needed emergency heart surgery he was surprised rather than afraid. His breathing felt normal and he had no chest pain. Flaunting doctor’s orders, he went to his office and lost himself in work–letters and appointments to attend to, and a delegation of Iranian dissidents to see. Later, however, on entering the operation theater, his pessimistic nature took over and his mind was in turmoil: “In front of me, the cemetery; behind me, the garden of my childhood. The future is shrinking; the past is dying.” But Wiesel survived and the result is Open Heart, an absorbing, clear-eyed reflection on his own mortality and a candid account of a life lived.

Before slipping under the anesthetic, Wiesel – fearing he won’t wake up – takes the time to consider those dearest to him: he recalls how he first met Marion, his wife, translator and fellow camp survivor; he replays the birth and upbringing of his son, Elisha; and most poignant of all, he relives the last moments of his time with his parents and sister at Auschwitz.

Naturally, his bleakest reminiscences are those regarding what he euphemistically terms “the Event.” “Can one die more than once?” he asks himself at his lowest ebb. “One could, there.” Throughout the book he is heard constantly counting his blessings. He has eluded death for so long but now feels, “eternities later, that it shall have its way.” A degree of stoicism suddenly exerts itself, emboldening him. Death is nothing new. “Hadn’t I lived with death, even in death?”

Such thoughts give way to two main concerns. First, after offering a vivid, Bosch-like glimpse of hell and wondering if he is headed there, he switches to what he will say if he gets the chance to stand before God. He has only one word–”Why?”–adding that Auschwitz was not only a human tragedy but a “theological scandal.” Second, and with words which echo his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, he asks if he has performed his duty as a survivor. “Have I transmitted all I was able to?” Despite decades spent denouncing fascism he ponders the efficacy of his campaigns, and in a rare moment of doubt claims that ‘all of us who have fought the battle must now admit defeat.’

Luckily for the reader, such fascinating “open-heart introspection” doesn’t end after the operation, although it does take on different permutations. We see him at his most self-effacing when, over a remarkable couple of pages, he reviews his literary output and chides himself for not tackling the Event enough. Even his masterpiece, Night, is described as “a slight volume.” And after being, by turn, scared of and ready for death, he is later frustrated by it. “So many things still to be achieved,” he proclaims, putting us in mind of Tolstoy’s equally feisty Ivan Ilyich: “Can this be dying? No, I don’t want to!”

In a revealing postscript we find Wiesel physically weakened but mentally reinvigorated. He has many upcoming projects, leading us to surmise that those things could well be achieved after all. “I tell myself that, somehow, I have just begun.” Open Heart is Wiesel at his most vulnerable and his most determined, and his thoughts and ideas have never been so lucidly conveyed. In among that soul-searching is his personal credo, one which defines that thinking and summarizes his moral outlook: “I belong to a generation that has often felt abandoned by God and betrayed by mankind. And yet, I believe we must not give up on either.” That indomitable resolve can be felt throughout the works of Elie Wiesel, but is arguably at its most powerful in Open Heart.

Malcolm Forbes' reviews and essays have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the San Francisco Chronicle, The National, The Australian, The Daily Beast, the Quarterly Conversation and many other journals. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin. More from this author →