Forgiving Elie Wiesel, Somewhat, on His Opposition to Gypsies in Holocaust Museum

The Nazis’ extermination of Gypsies was nearly as complete, proportionally, as the Nazis’ extermination of European Jews. Yet the commemoration of Gypsy victims of the Holocaust has never come even close to the memorialization of Jewish victims.

In her fine book on gypsy life, Bury Me Standing, Isabel Fonseca describes the resistance by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council to the inclusion of Roma, or gypsy, victims of the Nazis in the museum that the council supervises in Washington.

It was only after the 1986 resignation of President Elie Wiesel, the survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who had opposed Gypsy representation, that one Gypsy was invited onto the council…

I tended to judge Wiesel for this opposition, till a few days ago, when I read his book on his father’s murder in a concentration camp, Night (1958). In it, he describes his first night in Auschwitz, after saying goodbye to his mother and one of his sisters for the last time. He and his father are moved to a barracks where Gypsy inmates assisted the German guards, or kapos. His father is suffering from colic and approaches a Gypsy to find out where the bathroom is.

The gypsy looked him up and down slowly, from head to foot. As if he wanted to convince himself that this man addressing him was really a creature of flesh and bone, a living being with a body and a belly. Then, as if he had suddenly woken up from a heavy doze, he dealt my father such a clout that he fell to the ground, crawling back to his place on all fours… I did not move… Yesterday, I should have sunk my nails into the criminal’s flesh… I thought only: I shall never forgive [him] for that…

Night‘s great theme is the son’s guilt at surviving while his father dies. It includes another scene of cruelty by Gypsies. I wish Wiesel could have gotten past his anger at Gypsies when he held a position of authority; and yet I find that I also excuse him.