Of Feigs and Wiesels: A Solution to the Mystery of Elie Wiesel’s Tattoo?
One of the constant search terms which attracts transient visitors to this blog are terms relating to Lazar Wiesel, Elie Wiesel and his missing tattoo.
On this blog I have given a brief overview of the facts and documents collected by Auschwitz survivor Niklos Grüner here, but these are essentially available elsewhere on the web. What I want to do here is propose a possible solution to this mystery. The reasons for believing Elie Wiesel may have taken the identity of another older Auschwitz survivor, Lazar Wiesel, can be summarised as follows
1. The fact that Auschwitz survivor Niklos Grüner knew Lazar Wiesel and his brother Abraham in Auschwitz and failed to recognise the Nobel Prize Winner on meeting him. The description of his surprise as he writes it sounds credible
2. Mr Grüner then went through the Buchenwald archives and uncovered a number of documents that confirmed his memory of an older Lazar and Abraham Wiesel A-7713 and A-7712 respectively
3. Despite testifying under in court that he possesses a tattoo, A-7713, numerous footages and public photos of a bare-armed Elie Wiesel fails to reveal a tattoo.
To this might be added a fourth reason: there seems to be long-standing suspicion of Elie Wiesel in the Survivor community, to the extent that as far back in the 1980s survivor of the Mengele twins experiment and founder of the Candles museum Eva Kor wrote privately to the Auschwitz museum seeking the registration details of A-7713 and then, years later, privately supplied that information to Mr Grüner by fax.
Mr Grüner believed that his friend Lazar Wiesel wrote Un di Velt Hot Geshvign and this text was changed and adapted by the younger Elie Wiesel and re-released as Nuit. And although there are some significant differences in text and tone between the two to make this plausible, it also leaves some problems. The first is why did Lazar Wiesel write his 1954 memoir from the point of view of a teenager not exactly Elie Wiesel’s age but close to it, and why did Lazar Wiesel not object when his work was plagiarised. As to the first, I have no idea; as to the second, one possibility is that there is familial connection between Lazar Wiesel and Elie Wiesel and permission to use of Lazar Wiesel’s work were freely gifted.
Elie Wiesel is the offspring of two well-established and multi-branched Sighet’s families, the Wiesels and the Feigs. Survivors of these two families (which I am happy to report seem numerous) have loaded extensive geneaologies on Rootsweb. A sample output can be seen here. (The database seems to be the responsibility of a one Leslie Gyi, email: email@example.com). What interests us is the appearance of 3 nameless living Wiesels in this listing – children of Mendel and Golda Wiesel (allegedly Elie Wiesel’s Uncle and Aunt).
The identity of these 3 missing Wiesels is not revealed in Night nor in Elie Wiesel’s later memoir “All Rivers Run to the Sea”, nor have I seen the name Golda in either work. Mendel may have been referred to briefly as the uncle in Night and a brief and surprising tale appears in “All Rivers Run to the Sea.” To help the reader understand this complex relationship, Elie Wiesel’s paternal grandparents (Eliezar and Nissal Wiesel) had 5 or 6 children including Mendel and Solomon (Shlomo – supposedly Elie’s father). While Elie Wiesel’s maternal grandparent, Reb Dovid Feig, had a series of children; the oldest being Israel Feig (who was the father of Golda Feig) and the youngest Sara Feig (the mother of Elie). So at approximately the same time, Sara Feig (born 1905) married Shlomo Wiesel (born 1905), while her neice Golda Feig (born 1904) married Mendel Wiesel (brother of Shlomo, born 1904). Such close intermarriages are not unknown in traditional Eastern European Jewish society, but nowhere that I have seen does Elie Wiesel mention this close-knit arrangement.
A Sara Wiesel nee Feig born in 1905 is too young to have been the mother of the Lazar Wiesel Mr Gruener knew in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. This Lazar Wiesel was born in 1913 although also, it appears with a Sara Wiesel nee Feig listed as his mother and a Solomon Wiesel as father.
A possible scenario would be Lazar Wiesel publishes Un di Velt Hot Geshvign using his own family details (ie Sara Feig and Solomon Wiesel, these two individuals are likely related to Golda Feig and Mendal Wiesel but not siblings as far as we can tell), the names of Shlomo and Sara are included in the dedication and one presumes scattered through the Yiddish text. In 1960 Elie Wiesel publishes Nuit, he removes all mention of Shlomo and Sara from the dedication, nor do these names appear in the text (instead the terms father and mother are used through-out). As the book’s fame begins to spread Elie Wiesel is forced to assume as his parents those of Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, hence Golda and Mendel are written out of his life story and fictional identities (as far as a role of Elie’s parents is concerned) of a younger Sara and Shlomo Wiesel are created. The result is a family tree with the known identities of Elie and his two sisters (all still living) and the duplication with Golda and Mendel and three anonymous living Wiesels being in reality one and the same.
It is interesting to see how Elie Wiesel treats the subject of Mendel Wiesel in his memoir. The relevant text is on page 73
After the war I questioned every survivor of the second transport I could find, seeking news of Uncle Mendel and his family. I thought I found the answer in 1988, when an elderly man called out to me in the lobby of a Miami Beach hotel. [….] And then he told me. At first Mendel and his son had been spared, like my father and me, and had been sent to a camp where conditions were relatively tolerable. But they were in different barracks and saw each other only during the day, at work. One night they could not bear to be separated. When the roll was called, the SS Blockfuehrer counted and recounted the prisoners and order: “Let the prisoner who does not belong in this barracks show himself.” Mendel’s son took a few steps forward. “Closer!” the officer shouted. My young cousin obeyed, halting when he reached the SS man. The officer slowly drew his revolver and shot my cousin in the head, point-blank. My uncle, that sweet and timid man, hurled himself onto his son’s body, as if to protect him in death. The SS man stared at him for a long moment and then shot him in the head too. “Ever since then,” my witness said, “I see Mendel and his son in my dreams.”
In fact, according to at least some of Elie Wiesel’s relatives in America, there are three children of Mendel Wiesel still living – one can only imagine the emotional reunion once Professor Wiesel hears of this happy news which seems to have escaped his notice and his memoir. Then again, if Professor Wiesel had not so famously broken the mirror at Buchenwald Hospital, he might not have had so much difficulty in locating at least one of Mendel Wiesel’s children.
[At this point I would like to put in another plug for Mr Gruener’s courageous book. It can be dowloaded here Stolen Identity. For simplicity I refer to the older Lazar Wiesel as Lazar and the Professor at Boston University and Nobel Prize Laureate as Elie Wiesel, of course, Lazar – Eliezar and Elie can all be variants of each other. I should stress what I have presented is only a possible solution, ideally one would wish the Jewish community to give a definitive answer to Mr Gruener’s questions]
UPDATE: DRAFT STATUS
In order to help resolve this mystery I emailed Professor Naomi Seidman of Berkley, who first wrote on the differences between the two versions of the memoir, to see if a pattern of altered family references between the two versions exist. I also emailed Ms Leslie Gyi (nee Feig) who compiled the online genealogy. Not particularly unsurprisingly, neither have replied, although if any reply is received I will certainly take notice of it here. I also emailed Professor Ken Waltzer of MSU, he graciously replied saying he was in the process of publishing a paper on the issue. Hopefully Prof Waltzer, having been alerted to possible discrepancies with Mendel Wiesel and having been given Ms Leslie Gyi’s contact details, will not rush into print before having clarified this issue with the Feig family. In the meantime, it appears that Prof Waltzer (from the precis of his proposed paper he provided) does not intend to address directly whether Elie Wiesel has a tattoo, but relying on other documentation say that the various registration details that Mr Gruener has uncovered are in error. It also appears that he intends to launch a vicious and unfortunate smear campaign against Mr Gruener’s character and his mental health. O tempora, o mores….
One of the documents Prof Waltzer will rely on is a questionaire form from the occupational authorities of April 1945, this seems to show Lazar Wiesel with the birthdate of Elie Wiesel. Initially I thought that possibly the younger Elie Wiesel had arrived at Buchenwald via another route, eg via an evacuated labor battalion or transferred from Auschwitz without registration, as happened with his two older sisters. Unfortunately there may be a more sinister explanation.
A number of these fragebogen exist online (click on the links below to view them) and they all follow the same pattern. A small Buchenwald registration number (circled in green in the top right corner) along with some brief biographical details. In this case the questionaire states that Lazar Wiesel was arrested on 16 April – a full month before Elie Wiesel claims to have been arrested. Given it is likely that the this record as been accessed as a film or microfiche copy, there does exist a concerning possibility. Namely that the film of this record has been altered in two respects: one to rewrite the Buchenwald number in a significantly larger, bolder and different handwriting at the top (circled in red). In addition, the date of birth (also circled in red) appears to be of a moderately stronger and slightly larger size than, for example, the date the form was filled out (circled in green). In short, there exists the possibility that Elie Wiesel might be caught under the black-mailing influence of a band of ruffians, who scruple not to alter historical documents. Such a fix could be easily implemented at a microfiche level (and German archives love their microfiche still), but much harder to implement at a paper-based record – should these physical records still exist.
In point of fact if you compare Elie Wiesel’s modern signature for autographing books (below):
With the signature on the 1945 form here (enlargement shown below):
One expects some differences in signature with age, but this is whole different style of writing. Lazar Wiesel is narrow, angular and cramped, while Elie Wiesel is open, rounded and flowing. This lends some substance to the possibility that this Fragebogen has been altered much later, using the medium of its microfiche reproduction for long term archival storage.
May 24 1944
As a brief aside, I would like to visit the events of May 24 1944, the day Lazar Wiesel arrived and received his registration number. According to the Glaser list, four Hungarian transports arrived that day; the 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th in the series respectively. From the Kalendarium for this day, we know the male A-series received the numbers A-5729 to A-7728 – 2000 Hungarian male Jews exactly. The Kalendarium does not record any other series or the female series of numbers receiving an influx of Hungarian Jews. We also know from the Glaser list that precisely 499 + 630 + 494 + 470 = 2093 Hungarian Jews from these four transports were not registered but taken in for later transit, including Bea and Hilda Wiesel. That is a total of 4093 Jews from these four transports can be accounted for.
To work out how many from these transports are supposed to have been gassed we would need to know approximately how many were on each train. So for example, if these transport each contained roughly 1000 Hungarian Jews, then no one was gassed. If, on the otherhand, each train carried approximately 3000 Hungarian Jews that day, then roughly 8000 were gassed and the Germans systematically selected exactly one third for labor.
Other means to resolve the issue of the authorship of Night:
Descriptions of familial relationships differing between the original Yiddish version and the French Nuit might give insight to its authorship. I have already pointed out how references to the names Sara and Shlomo, present in the Yiddish version, seemed to be stripped from the French version. However, the French version contains references to two older sisters, Hilda and Bea, which we have records were transfered as labor to a Dachau subcamp from Auschwitz on the 1 August 1944, where they remained until liberation. Consistency across the two versions would be a powerful argument in one direction, while discrepancies would be an equally powerful counter-argument. One hopes that as part of his paper Prof. Waltzer would give careful consideration to this point and provide clear guidance including quotations.
Another familial relationship mentioned in Nuit is that of Rosa/Reizel Stein and her husband Anton of Antwerp:
The little man looked at him for a long while, with his eyes narrowed. “You don’t recognize me–you don’t recognize me. I’m a relative of yours – Stein. Have you
forgotten me already? Stein! Stein of Antwerp. Reizel’s husband. Your wife was Reizel’s aunt. She often used to write to such and us … Letters!” [….]
As for me, I recognized him at once. I had known his wife Reizel before she left for Belgium. He said, – “I was deported in 1942. I heard that a transport had come in from your region, and I came to find you. I thought perhaps you might have news of Reizel and my little boys. They stayed behind in Antwerp.”
I knew nothing about them. Since 1940, my mother had not had a single letter from them. But I lied.
“Yes, my mother’s had news from your family. Reizel is very well. The children too. …” [….]
He came toward us one evening, his face radiant. “A transport’s just come in from Antwerp. I’m going to see them tomorrow. They’ll be sure to
have news.” He went off.
We were not to see him again. He had had news. Real news.
We know from the transportation records that both Anton and Rosa Stein were deported from Antwerp in late 1942, on the same transport with adjacent numbering on the list. It beggars belief Anton Stein would not have been aware of this. Both the children seemed to have survived the war (according to Yad Vashem records) and one of them has provided testimony that Rosa Stein died in Thereseinstadt. This would imply she was selected for labor in 1942 and evacuated sometime in late 1944 or 1945 from Auschwitz or a subcamp. Then, in a combination of evacuations, finally either died just before or just after liberation at Thereseinstadt. Obviously both Anton and Rosa Stein would be very concerned for the well-being of their children. There was one transport on the 31 July 1944 of 563 people from Malines, Belgium that could be referred to in this passage. Its difficult to know what news he might have received from this transport. In any case his wife had been transported alongside him and his two sons survived the war. One wonders how this appears in the Yiddish version, as it is more likely to have originated in that version (since I believe Lazar and Elie Wiesel could be related) on the grounds that Elie Wiesel might well have been too young to remember his cousin. Alternatively, perhaps this anecdote occured to Elie Wiesel during his post war sojourn in Antwerp (where one would have expected he might have tried to find out the fate of his two surviving cousins).
Finally, perhaps we should reflect on what Anthony Burgess has said on such matters:
There were records. There had been witnesses. They could be found, consulted, though with trouble. But the real question for me was: how far could I claim a true knowledge of the factuality of my own past, as opposed to pointing to an artistic enhancing of it, meaning a crafty falsification? In two ways my memory was not to be trusted: I was an old man, I was a writer. Writers in time transfer the mendacity of their craft to the other areas of their lives. In that trivial area of barrom biographical anecdotage, it is so much easier and so much more gratifying to shape, reorder, impose climax and denouement, augment here, diminish there, play for applause and laughter than to recount the bald treadmill facts as they happened.
Then again perhaps the great Noam Chomsky got it right when he said Elie Wiesel was nothing more than “a terrible fraud”
Here at the Warren we await, breathlessly, further developments.