Elie Wiesel, prolific author, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Holocaust survivor, died earlier this summer. In honor of his astounding legacy and impact on the portrayal of the Holocaust in the arts, Regenstein Library is featuring an exhibition entitled Representations of the Holocaust and the Legacy of Elie Wiesel.
Wiesel, who was born in Romania in 1928, is perhaps best known for his novel Night, in which he recounts his boyhood experiences in Auschwitz. The book has since been translated into 30 languages and is the inspiration for the two-case exhibit on the Reg’s fourth floor reading room.
In a 1975 interview entitled “An Interview Unlike Any Other,” Wiesel asked, “How does one describe the indescribable? How does one use restraint in recreating the fall of mankind and the eclipse of the gods? And then, how can one be sure that the words, once uttered, will not betray, distort the message they bear?” Such questions are explored in the exhibit, which features the works of other artists who attempted to capture and convey the ethos of the Holocaust.
Under the curatorial guidance of Divinity School student Tzvi H. Schoenberg and Anne Knafl, a Regenstein librarian specializing in religion, philosophy, and Jewish studies, the cases represent a wide array of artistic endeavors. The cases contain the poetry of Sylvia Plath, excerpts from George Steiner’s literature, Arthur Miller’s plays, and manuscripts of Arnold Schoenberg’s dissonant music.
Representations of the Holocaust also acknowledges and explores the differing artistic philosophies held by artists who grappled with this period in history. “Special attention is paid to attempts to confront both personal and collective experiences pertaining to the Holocaust and the critical reception of such attempts,” reads the exhibition description on the library website. But the exhibit also examines the way in which critical reception prompted alternative forms of representation. Such was the case of George Steiner who, objecting to Plath’s “personification of the Holocaust,” attempted a non-personal representation of the Holocaust by rendering it philosophically and in light of the problem of anti-Semitism, in his Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. (1982).
In this way, the exhibit celebrates Wiesel’s lifelong goal of using artistic voice as a megaphone for genocide prevention and remembrance. By featuring artwork alongside its dialogue and criticism, Representations of the Holocaust highlights the countless answers to Wiesel’s question of what it means to “describe the indescribable.” The cases do not suggest that there is a correct answer to this question. Rather, they pay homage to Wiesel’s firm belief in the power of the arts to attempt a response—viewers can decide for themselves which artist employs the most masterful “description.” Thus, despite the fact that there is only one work by Wiesel (a copy of Night) in the cases, the exhibit is inherently about him and his unyielding commitment to fulfilling his civil duty through the arts. It explores how prolific artistic figures used art in the ways Wiesel imagined and strove to promote.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel said, “I have tried to keep memory alive…I have tried to fight those who would forget.” Representations of the Holocaust and the Legacy of Elie Wiesel captures this spirit through artistic inquiry, imagery, and exploration. For as Wiesel concluded in his speech, “every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.”
The exhibition runs through October 31 on the fourth-floor reading room of Regenstein Library.