(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Elie Wiesel
Translated from French by Catherine Temerson
So from one day to the next, Shaltiel Feigenberg and his family became famous. Their names and faces appeared on the front pages of newspapers. “The Mysterious Disappearance of a Jewish Storyteller” was one headline. They were discussed on television. President Gerald Ford, when brought up to speed, made his concern publicly known. His secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, followed developments closely. The prospective presidential, senatorial and congressional candidates published statements condemning “all forms of terrorism and proclaiming their solidarity with the Jewish people.” Blanca and her nieces reluctantly submitted to the journalists’ questions to assuage them.
Time magazine quoted Malka saying that the investigations should focus on antisemitic groups: “It’s simple. They’re everywhere. They won’t forgive us for having survived and for having children.” (The magazine pointed out that the hostage had no children.)
The New York Times published excerpts of a short story that Blanca had found in the jumble of her husband’s desk drawers. A literary agent contacted her and asked whether she wouldn’t consider publishing his short stories in a book that could be produced in a matter of weeks.
An Israeli evening daily printed Shaltiel’s Israeli short story in its entirety. It was hardly characteristic of his oeuvre, if oeuvre is the right word. It lacked the intellectual, let alone mystical, preoccupations of his other writings. This one was an action narrative.
Brooklyn was in turmoil. Some young Hasidim created a small self-defense group and offered to protect the Feigenberg family. Their elders announced a day of fasting and invited the entire community to join them in reciting the appropriate Psalms: Heaven will help the Jews when men prove to be powerless or indifferent. A great mystic spent the entire night in silence, in strict reverent meditation, trying to locate and protect Shaltiel.
In Israel, for understandable reasons, official circles and the public were following the Feigenberg episode with ever-greater interest. Are people more interested in the fate of a writer, no matter how modest, than in the fate of an anonymous person? Possibly.
The special adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, General Peleg HarEven, summoned Dan Ramati. Tall, elegant, taut with an angular face, looking perpetually curious and vigilant, he was feared, dreaded and admired.
Ramati, who had been nicknamed “the great,” had had a legendary life. In his youth, before the creation of the Jewish state, in the years 1942 to 1948, he had been a member of the famous Berger Group, whose members were called terrorists by their opponents and resistance fighters by their supporters. The number two man on the English security services’ most-wanted list, he was reputed for carrying out bomb attacks. In the official structure of the state of Israel, as the director of the Mossad, he had exceptional authority, both professional and moral. His opinions were sought after and respected.
“What do you think of the Feigenberg case?” asked the prime minister.
“I don’t know yet. I’ve sent two of our best people to New York. We have excellent relations with the FBI and the CIA, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I want you to make this affair a priority. And to take charge of it personally.”
“Why? Is there something here I’m unaware of?”
“No. But there is something that seems important to me, an intimate connection that has to exist between the Jewish state and the Jewish people—I mean, the Jewish Diaspora. This may be taking place in America, but I think we have a role to play in it. In my mind, wherever a Jew is threatened or persecuted just because he’s Jewish, we’re responsible for his fate. Keep me posted.”
Dan Ramati nodded his head approvingly.
They are in a dilapidated, foul-smelling basement with a few odd chairs and overturned benches. A small window near the ceiling is full of dust and produces a cloudy beam of light. A smell of acrid smoke causes occasional sneezing. Huge cobwebs hang from the ceiling and fill the corners.
There are two men and their hostage. An Arab, Ahmed, is impatient and speaks with a guttural, nervous voice. An Italian, Luigi, seems more easygoing. His voice can be gentle, almost warm at times.
“What do you want from me?” Shaltiel asks. “What have I done to you? Why did you bring me here? Who are you? What am I to you?”
“We can be whatever you want us to be, your salvation or your death,” says Ahmed. “Don’t have any illusions: You can yell until hell freezes over; no one will hear you. And even if they do, no one will care about your fate. They’ll write about you in the newspapers for a few days, then they’ll forget all about you. We have three days left. If our demands aren’t met, too bad for you.”
Shaltiel can vaguely make them out through his ill-adjusted black blindfold. They’re looking hard at him, as if they expect to see him change in some way. He can see their silhouettes. Odd, it’s not like in the crime films where the prisoner can’t see a thing. Is he dealing with amateurs or professionals?
He can distinguish half their faces, like masks. He sees huge eyes. I’m speaking to eyes, not human beings, Shaltiel thinks.
Somewhere in his subconscious, a voice keeps whispering: This must be a case of mistaken identity, a monumental, stupid mistake. These things happen. They must somehow think I’m a dangerous person. But I’m not a danger to anyone. He had been on his way to Srulik Silber’s, an old collector friend, whose house, near the ocean, was crammed with books and esoteric manuscripts. It was an unplanned visit. Shaltiel was going home and suddenly felt like seeing Srulik, especially since he had to return an eighteenth-century Sabbatean pamphlet that he had borrowed the week before. He liked Srulik. Last month, Shaltiel was telling him that his erstwhile dreams had evaporated a long time ago. The Messiah would not be coming. The world, cursed through its own fault, would not be saved; the Messiah would arrive too late, or, as Kafka said, on the day after. Srulik smiled when Shaltiel said that. “Do you really think I don’t know?” he asked.
He never got to meet Srulik again because Satan meddled. Footsteps came up behind him, someone was suddenly rushing, shadows were approaching. Shaltiel walked on, heedless. He was struck on the back of his neck and collapsed, his head on fire. As he regained consciousness, everything was swirling around. The stars were falling with a thunderous noise.
And what about the book he was going to return to Srulik, full of calculations sketched out in concentric circles? It was meant for the initiated and was particularly interesting. Why was everything being sabotaged by some curse plunging him into this makeshift prison?
There is an unpleasant half-light. He is clinging. At first, to pass the time, he plays mental chess against an imaginary opponent. If he wins, he thinks, God will smile down on him; he’ll get his freedom back. But it’s difficult. The white bishop makes a marvelous opening. The king is too old, too slow. The queen is too nimble, too quick, too eager to win. The knight is a prisoner. The game is interrupted by his torturers.
Timidly, a pale beam of sunshine infiltrates through the basement window, protected by two wooden bars. Is it daybreak or dusk?
“You’re Jewish,” says an Arab voice. “Your name is Shaltiel Feigen-something. Feigenberg, that’s it. It’s in your papers. Married. You’re a peddler. What do you sell?”
“Words,” says Shaltiel.
“You making fun of me?”
“No, it’s the truth. I sell words.”
“I don’t believe you. No one buys words.”
“They pay for my living.”
How do they know these things about me? Shaltiel wonders. Oh yes, my documents. It’s all listed. But then they surely know that I’ve done no harm to anyone and that I have no money. My wristwatch is worth all of twelve dollars. I don’t get mixed up in things that are none of my business. I’m happy to have a few friends, who, like me, are in love with words and the silence between them. My life is of no consequence, except for my family. I don’t understand what’s happening to me.
“You want my poverty? You can have it.”
“And he thinks he’s funny,” the Arab says as he laughs.
“Not so clever,” the other one adds. “Do you think we don’t know?”
“Well then. . .”
“Well then what? We know you’re not rich. But we’ll get something out of you, something that’s not money. We’re fighters in the Palestinian Revolutionary Action Group, and you’re our prisoner.”
“Why me? I’m not important. No one will satisfy your demands for my sake, you can be sure.”
Then, in a neutral tone, with no sign of hatred, Luigi explains, as if to a student:
They’re not looking for money; they couldn’t care less about money. That they could get more easily and with less risk. Others give them money. They are interested in playing their part in the life and history of Islam. His organization decided to try to do on the American continent what his comrades are doing in other places, all over the Middle East. It’s the first time. Yes, it’s the first operation on American soil, which is supposed to be safe, secure, impregnable, according to the boasts of its leaders. Hostage taking is more profitable than ordinary attacks in Tel Aviv, Paris or London. It doesn’t cost them anything in human lives and brings them worldwide publicity, as well as the liberation of their comrades-in-arms. So this is a new strategy of the radical Palestinians, faithful to their military, national and religious objectives. They are gambling on Jewish solidarity and taking advantage of its influence on Western governments.
At first, it all seemed unreal to Shaltiel, a crazy scheme staged by men obsessed with pointless, criminal violence.
The first night dragged by populated with predatory, threatening shadows. It’s a tale, Shaltiel said to himself, a frightening tale, senseless and improbable, in which I’m both the witness and victim. It’s a tale in which someone like me is tormented. It’s not me who is aching, who is thirsty. I’m somewhere else. I live in another city, in another world. In another body, another story, another mystery, another person. Soon I’ll wake up, find I’m intact and serene, impatient to string together words that make people dream.
All Ahmed knows is how to insult, swear and curse. He is playing the familiar part of the wicked inquisitor alongside the nice one. Drunk with frustration, he takes it out on his powerless victim. His favorite words are “done for.” “You’re done for, you’re all done for, the Jews are done for,” he says. In the first few hours, that’s as far as he goes. Mental torture is enough for him. Everything about him spreads anger and hatred: hatred toward the Jewish state, the Jewish people, the Jewish past, the Jewish religion, Jewish money, Jewish power. These are his obsessions, his phobias, complete and all-enveloping. At least, this is the impression he wants to give. Every word coming out of his mouth is a gratuitous insult, an obscene swearword, a poisoned arrow or a call to suffering, humiliation, denial, murder.
In his view, the Jewish infidels will survive only so they can be punished by Allah and oppressed by his devoted servants. They are the cause of all evil weighing on the world. They are the incarnation of transgression, impurity personified, the vermin of the earth, society’s cancer, the enemies of peace, the negation of happiness. Realizing that Shaltiel was guilty only of belonging to the accursed people, Ahmed quickly saw how he could take advantage of the situation: He had to coerce his hostage into signing a “voluntary” declaration condemning the Jewish state for “all the crimes committed against the unfortunate Palestinians.” He also wanted to get him to request that men of goodwill, on every side of the political spectrum, save his life by obtaining the liberation of the three Palestinian “prisoners of war.”
Between the obscenities punctuating the Arab’s orders, Shaltiel fi nds himself regretting two things: that he never acquired the mystical powers that would make him invisible and that he never studied the Koran. Does the Muslim holy book, held to be sacred by countless believers, really preach bloodthirsty violence? His mind, molded by the study of Jewish sources, refuses to accept this. If the Koran represents contemporary Islam, as practiced by his abductors, he feels it is a religion much to be pitied.
Ahmed believes that he is the Prophet’s personal servant. It is He who commands him to do what he does. Hence his conviction that he can do as he pleases. Shaltiel is his enemy and the enemy of his brothers in the desert; he must be denied pity. He must be crushed, his will shattered, his faith ridiculed, his honor sullied, his reason denounced, his dignity destroyed; he must be smashed, trampled on, his soul emptied of its powers and treasures. Ahmed’s immediate goal is specific: compelling the masters in Tel Aviv and Washington to accept his political demands. In front of his implacable, inflexible determination, they will show themselves to be weak and cowardly. The key to his victory is here before him: this pathetic Yid, Shaltiel Feigen-whatever.
Little by little, Ahmed convinces himself that, in addition to the liberation of the Muslim prisoners, it will be essential for him to force the hostage to disown his people—those manipulators, renegades, criminal gangsters, children of the devil and death.
“Whether you admit it or not, from the fact of being Jewish, you’ve got Muslim blood on your hands,” he says to his prisoner. “What the Jews are doing at home, they’re doing in your name too.”
“No, no, no!” protests Shaltiel, who hasn’t yet understood the meaning of this accusation. “I’m Jewish, but I’ve never humiliated anyone. I’ve never committed a crime! You’ve made a mistake about me. I’m not the person you’re looking for. I’m not your enemy! I’m against all humiliation, all persecution; I’m opposed to violence in every form, for violence includes violation. The Jew that I am, the storyteller I am, repudiates it with all my heart and soul.”
Ahmed isn’t listening to him. There is no discussing theology, sociology and politics when someone is under the spell of a self-enclosed totalitarian ideology. Intentionally or out of ignorance, Ahmed, who is empirical in all matters, detests pointless and laborious philosophical imaginings, never-ending discussions, or clashes of ideas that might be respectful of nonbeliever opponents and sinners deserving only of complete contempt. His argument boils down to two words: yes and no. His vocabulary is meager, limited to threats and swearwords. His role is not to listen but to be listened to. As he sees it, every infidel is a potential hostage. He is the all- powerful, omniscient master; the slave owes him not just absolute obedience, but also his existence and survival.
Even torture that is only verbal reinforces the power of the torturer: The prisoner’s imagination leads him to dread the next round of interrogations. And when it happens, the feeling of inferiority becomes more acute; it bores into the brain, and the cultural and psychological defenses that surround the brain disintegrate and vanish. The ego is dissolved. Could Ecclesiastes be right? Is a living dog worth more than a dead lion? Chased from his throne by Ashmedai, the master of demons, good King Solomon, the wisest of men, experienced mental torments too. Physical pain comes later. For the tortured, all the knowledge acquired from childhood in the course of a lifetime won’t protect you. The moans seem to issue from another body. In the end, the victim doesn’t have anything or anyone to cling to. It’s the feeling of falling into a bottomless well. Suddenly emptiness or the idea of emptiness appeals to him. Oh, to have an empty head, an empty heart, an empty future; to think of nothing, to feel nothing: This would be paradise in the middle of hell.
But Shaltiel knows this is impossible. His breath is not the only thing binding him to life. He has his parents, his wife, his close friends; they must be dying of anguish. What do they know? What are they doing? Who are they calling? What are the police doing? What is the press saying? In his imagination—and it fits with reality—he imagines Brooklyn in turmoil: the intense speculation in the study and prayer houses; the Hasidim consulting their Teacher, who advises them to recite particular Psalms. In her powerlessness, Blanca must be agonizing. If there is anyone who is moving heaven and earth, it is she. Nothing stops her; nothing holds her back. Dynamic and full of ideas, she must be running from one office to the next, from one of the dozens of Jewish organizations to another; he can hear her motivating them, encouraging them, urging them to act: Surely someone can get to a congressman, a government official.
“So, you little bastard Yid,” Ahmed yells. “Are you going to open your filthy mouth finally? If you don’t talk, I’ll make you drink your own blood! Are you going to ask for the liberation of my heroic comrades? Are you going to sign a confession and publicize your disgust for the Jewish army and the Jewish politicians? They will be done for in time, I can guarantee that! And you first and foremost!”
Meeting with flat refusals, the Arab moved away and seemed to take his companion to task, as though he were testing his loyalty to their cause.
“We’ve got to get him to show his weakness and cowardliness publicly. Thanks to him, we’ll force the liberation of my brother and the others and also gain the respect of revolutionaries throughout the world. That’s our mission!”
So there are only two of them, thinks Shaltiel. Two men, two terrorists, bound by hatred. Yet, listening to them, they’re so different. One will never change because he won’t entertain doubts, but is the other one capable of doubting? In the end, which of the two will kill me? Actually, what’s the difference? Inevitably, they’ll go through with it.
He says to himself that like Dostoyevsky he’ll be a witness to the preparations of his own execution.
He hears a door opening and closing. One of the terrorists has gone out. It’s the Italian. Ahmed begins to manhandle his prisoner, hoping he’ll reach a breaking point.
Shaltiel takes refuge in his memories and in words, as usual. He calls them, but they don’t obey. Ideas and images overlap, become distorted, diverted, disassociated. Finally, a wave of panic turns to tenderness.
Suddenly, a weird thought pops into his head: Why not make a “confession” and sign their preposterous statements, to which no intelligent person will attach any importance, and put an end to this stupid, horrendous spectacle? Other men, ever so much more influential than he, have done this, in another day and age: Nikolay Bukharin, Lev Kamenev, Zinovyev—great statesmen, illustrious generals, admired revolutionaries, former companions of Lenin—when their suffering became unbearable. He can’t do it, though he could perhaps advise the Americans and the Israelis to liberate the three Palestinians, but he could not accuse Israel of war crimes or crimes against humanity: His own memory and that of his parents won’t allow it. Yet it would be so simple: Saying yes under threat is not a disgrace. If he gave in, surely Jews would understand. Didn’t he write articles supporting Jerusalem in an obscure Jewish monthly put out by the Department of Literary Studies at a Jewish college in Ohio? He used a Hebrew name, Shaltiel ben Haskel.
He suddenly finds himself trembling. Is it possible these Palestinian terrorists have read his articles and discovered the real name of their author? Perhaps his abduction was calculated. But why would they read a publication whose readership was so limited that it had to close down for lack of a subsidy? Yet in his feverish pain, he says to himself, Now that electronic communications are becoming global, anything is possible. How is he to know? Should he ask Ahmed if he is familiar with the articles? Bad idea. He might torture him even more cruelly.
Clenching his teeth, he decides not to say or do anything for the time being. He’ll wait for the Italian.
In the course of the following night Shaltiel succeeded in persuading the Italian to remove his blindfold.
“In any case, it’s of no use to you,” he said. “I’ve studied esoteric subjects that have taught me how to ‘see’ voices. So I can describe you and your friend, your faces, your bodies, your behavior. Do you want me to prove it?”
The Italian nodded his head silently. He was surprised when his prisoner began to describe facial characteristics of both men—one bearded, the other just badly shaved; the first having well-defined eyebrows, the other bushy ones.
Luigi is thrown by what Shaltiel has to say, failing to account for the blindfold having been askew. He removes it. Shaltiel has won. He squints, adjusting his eyes to even the meager light.
Am I dreaming? Is it the dream that makes my body tremble? wonders Shaltiel. He is so afraid of torture, so afraid of fear. His brain is muddled, disoriented, especially when he must wear the blindfold. He keeps repeating prayers, but they are beginning to seem less holy. His thoughts are bizarre; he’s not even sure he’s thinking. Does he cry for help? The cry may well be silent. But he hears it and he’s not sure it’s him. He suddenly sees himself surrounded by a group of masked children who are threatening him. They’re reproaching him for not having children. They demand a story, any story, as long as it’s beautiful. He suggests a poem; they refuse. He insists. They put their hands over their ears. He gets angry. A little girl makes a face at him. He finds it unbearable. Finally, he submits:
This is the story of a young, sad tiger who, from afar, tells a beautiful story to an exhausted old lion. Listen, children, grandchildren, listen and don’t cry. And you, old people, listen and don’t laugh.
Don’t look for your father, says the tiger; he is gone. Don’t call for your mother; she is hiding.
What do you say, children, when you’re saying nothing? And you, old people, what are you doing against the forest with its bruised arms?
And you, jailer, who is the real prisoner, you who erects great walls or me, your victim who dreams of freedom?
Let’s listen, children, nice children, let’s listen to the beggar who keeps silent and the blind man who sings of dusk and the tramp who sings of his thirst.
Excerpted from Hostage by Elie Wiesel. To be published later this month (August 2012) by Knopf. Translation Copyright ©2012 by Catherine Temerson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Elie Wiesel is the author of more than fifty books, both fiction and nonfiction. He is a recipient of the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honor’s Grand-Croix, an honorary knighthood of the British Empire, and, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. Since 1976, he has been the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University.