The Sonderberg Case
By Elie Wiesel
Translated from French by Catherine Temerson
(Excerpt from a novel)
IT IS BECAUSE of Werner Sonderberg that, one fine spring May, I found myself in court, in the bosom of the justice system. Not as a lawyer, as my mother had wished, but as an interested observer. And above all as a drama critic.
This was the boss’s idea. Rather original, not to say hare-brained. To tell the truth, I had tried to dissuade him.
“I haven’t studied law, Paul, as you know. I’ve never attended a trial, and never set foot in a courtroom. Do you want me to make a fool of myself? My area of expertise is theater!”
“That’s just it. Trials are like theater. All those who participate in them are playing a part. In England, the judges wear wigs. In France it’s robes. When the lawyer says, in his client’s name, ‘we plead guilty or not guilty,’ it’s as if he himself were guilty or not guilty, too. It’s theater, I tell you. In a criminal trial, especially with a jury, there’s always suspense and drama. That’s why the readers are interested in it.”
“And the defendant, Paul?” I replied. “Is it a game, for him, too?”
“It’s up to you to tell us.”
That’s how, from one day to the next, the aforementioned Werner Sonderberg, nephew of Hans Dunkelman, burst into my life.
I remember: a Sunday, late afternoon. I return from the theater and find a meeting of the editors. They’re preparing the layout. The Middle East is on the front page as usual, as well as a speech by the president at a midwestern university. Then the secretary of state’s televised statement on the subject of bilateral negotiations with Moscow on nuclear disarmament. I listen with only half an ear. My thoughts remain focused on the hapless actors who had to perform in an avant-garde comedy that never took off. Thank God, it won’t have a long run. But how can I express this without being nasty? I’m lost in these considerations when I hear voices getting louder. It’s Paul losing his temper.
“The trial of the year, as they say, starts next week and we are unprepared?”
“Our two legal reporters are away,” says Charles Stone, the old- timer in charge of the metropolitan desk. “James is on vacation and Frederic is getting married.”
“Couldn’t he pick a better time?”
“Maybe he could have,” Charles says, “but not his fiancée. As she sees it, happiness is much more urgent. She’s not a journalist.”
Contrary to what everyone feared, Paul did not explode. Head bent down, hiding his anger, he started to search in his mind for someone who might fit the bill, and I had no trouble figuring out why he was hesitating. No one appealed to him. So-and-so wrote too slowly; another lacked precision and sparkle; another really had to be kept in his assigned job. And suddenly his eyes met mine.
And that’s how I found myself spending hours delving into the archives of our newspaper, looking for material I could use in my first legal column. And after that? Tomorrow is another day. God is great.
Werner Sonderberg is a young German of twenty-four. Born in a town near Frankfurt, he moved with his mother to France, where he attended secondary school. After his mother’s death, he came to the United States to get a master’s degree in comparative literature and philosophy at New York University. Intelligent, hungry for knowledge, as an uprooted person he made a lot of friends at the university; he was even known to have had a few passing affairs. His teachers treated him kindly and predicted an outstanding career for him in his adopted country. Until then, nothing to report. No police record. No alcohol, no drugs.
One fine morning, a wealthy compatriot, Hans Dunkelman, came to visit him, claiming to be his relative; at the time, Werner didn’t understand: Was he an uncle, a distant cousin? His name didn’t ring a bell. Strongly built, dressed with meticulous elegance, he must be a wealthy industrialist, an investor or stockbroker, thought the young man.
They were often seen together. So much so that Werner’s girlfriend, Anna, a young brunette with cheerful eyes, complained about it to their mutual friends.
“When I want to spend an evening with him,” she said, pouting, “I have to make an appointment. I know, he told me, the man is his uncle, the only living member of his family. But still there’s a limit, don’t you think?”
One day, she couldn’t control her anger. “Werner just told me he was going to take time off in the mountains with that Dunkelman. Without me. Take time off from what, from whom? From me maybe? I can’t get over it!” Indeed, Werner and his uncle went to the Adirondacks, not far from the Canadian border, but the nephew returned alone. Taciturn, he refused to answer when Anna quizzed him about his uncle’s absence.
“We separated,” he finally said by way of explanation, looking annoyed. “That’s all. And I hope I never see him again.”
“But why? What happened?” asked the young student. “Did you quarrel?”
Werner shrugged his shoulders as if to say, Don’t harp on it.
Obviously preoccupied, he preferred to remain alone, as though he felt estranged from love and happiness. Anna tried in vain to make him relax. This was the first time such a thing was happening to them. He seemed cut off from the outside world, impervious to his girlfriend’s attentions.
Several days later, alerted by a passing tourist, the local police discovered Hans Dunkelman’s corpse at the foot of a cliff. Accident, suicide, or murder? Did he throw himself into the void? Did he succumb to malaise? Did someone push him? The autopsy revealed a high alcohol content in his bloodstream. At the hotel where Werner and he had rented two rooms for a week, they found the name of his nephew, who had returned to New York precipitately.
Two days later, Werner Sonderberg was arrested and charged with murder.
After rereading and correcting my introductory article on the trial, I leave the newspaper office and go home. It is night. Alika welcomes me, looking surprised.
“It’s late. What happened?”
I tell her about the turbulent meeting of the editorial staff, but the solution Paul found doesn’t please my wife.
“Don’t tell me you’re giving up the theater.”
“Don’t be afraid. We’ll still be going to all the good plays… if and when there are any.”
“How are you going to be able to juggle the two issues, writing reviews and summarizing the trial proceedings?”
“No problem: the trial takes place during the day. And it won’t last long. A few days. Maybe a week. That’s what everyone says.”
“But are you sure you can handle this sort of assignment?”
“No, I’m not. But Paul is sure. You know him; he’s stubborn. Once he gets an idea into his head, he won’t budge an inch. And he’s a friend. I’ve got to trust him.”
Alika is just as obstinate as Paul, and she isn’t convinced.
But she becomes resigned.
“Let’s hope these few days go by quickly… and pleasantly.”
But the trial would have many surprises in store for us.
Very early the next morning, I’m barely awake when I get a phone call from Paul.
“I read your piece. It’s going on the front page. But let me be frank: it’s not what I expected of you. You just made a compilation of what others have written. Too many facts, too many details. In a word, too dry. You’re not a machine. Think of your passion for the stage. The courses you took. These are the tools you should use. Each person has to come alive, every sentence has to be effulgent, and everything has to revolve around the main character.”
“I see. You shouldn’t have . . .”
“Don’t take it badly. But on reading you, one has the impression that you’ve never heard of this crime, am I mistaken?”
“No, you’re right,” I say in a weak voice. “You’re always right. But I warned you that...”
“That you’re not the right man for the job. Yes, I know. You’re wrong. Trust me: you can do better and you will.”
“I’ll try, Professor.”
We both hang up at the same time.
“I should have listened to you,” I say to Alika, who is still half asleep. “I shouldn’t have agreed to it.”
“Agreed to what?”
I let her sleep.
Room number 12 in the New York County Criminal Court is packed. Photographers, reporters, lawyers, legal correspondents, the German consul. They all seem to know one another. Habitués apparently. They all speak at the same time: the weather, the baseball and football games. The stock market. The latest gossip. I can’t make sense of it. I don’t know anyone. I don’t belong to their world. Estranged from myself, I sit quietly in my corner, pen and pad in hand, my eyes wandering around the setting where a man’s future will be hanging in the balance. Will he find freedom again? Will he lose it forever? Will he win back the right to happiness? Will he become a respectable member of the human family again, or remain one of humanity’s black sheep? And what about me, what am I doing here? Where do I fit in?
A murmur sweeps through the room. The defendant is brought in; he has been cast in the part of showing how man and act can coincide, and how society judges one of its own.
Flanked by two policemen and wearing a gray suit, a white shirt, and a blue tie, Werner projects the image of an elegant man whom fate has turned into a culprit. His features are drawn, his gestures slow, he has a fixed, lackluster gaze; he doesn’t acknowledge a single familiar face—his mind is elsewhere. He walks toward his seat accompanied by his two attorneys, Michael Redford, his court-appointed lawyer, and Peter Coles, a lawyer hired by the German consulate. As the leading man in a scene whose lines he doesn’t know, he makes a successful entrance: he is the focus of attention. It is from him that we expect the truth: the explanation for an irreversible act. Is he deliberately adopting an indifferent attitude to his surroundings, to what awaits him? Where do his thoughts lead him? To the scene of the crime, up there in the mountains? Or to his victim, to whom he will be bound to his dying day, no matter what happens? Was it precisely that bond he sought to establish by committing his crime?
“He’s so young,” someone whispers. “He doesn’t look like a murderer,” says another. A third person remembers that, after all, he’s German. Therefore? You can expect anything.
What is my first impression? Guilty or not guilty? How is one to know? How can one be positive? Yet it is possible he is guilty. Why not? There had been a quarrel, that’s certain. A brusque movement, entirely unpremeditated, and the young man could easily have pushed the old man, even if he later regretted it.
Suddenly my imagination becomes fired up. I see myself with him in another setting. In a train or a café. Two strangers. In the theater? I address him with one word: Why? And he replies: Who appointed you judge?
“Ladies and gentlemen, the court is in session!”
In unison, everyone in the room stands up. Tradition first: the law demands respect. As a result, the defendant is no longer the focus of attention. The presiding judge, Robert Gardner, in his black robe, vested with specific powers whose reach only the habitués understand, is now the focal point. Everyone stares at him with curiosity, as if they were trying to guess the future: Will he be strict or understanding, inflexible or easily swayed?
“Be seated,” he says, greeting the court with a nod.
A dry, dispassionate, impersonal voice that speaks not so much for an individual as for a system. This man has only one concern: to forge ahead, rejecting any compromise, or any deviation from the law, which is immutable and incorruptible. The clerk announces that the court is convened in order to examine case number 613-D: New York State v. Werner Sonderberg. The judge wants to know if all the participants are present. The answer is yes. The prosecutor, the defendant, the defense lawyers—all are present. Are they all ready? the judge asks. Yes.
The first session is now open. The trial can begin. Suddenly it occurs to me: if you think about it, I’ve got a part to play here. Much will depend on my articles. The judge may read them. Will he be influenced by my comments?
“Will the defendant please stand up? Kindly state your name, age, place of birth, profession, and place of residence.”
“Werner Sonderberg. Twenty-four years old. Born in West Germany. A student at New York University. I’ve been in America for a year. I live in downtown Manhattan. Thirty-three West Fourth Street.”
A slow, calm, precise voice: someone who controls his feelings. He’ll know how to defend himself. My thoughts wander and take me to the distant past: if he had lived in the dark times, he would have worn a uniform—but which one? I immediately stop myself: I have no right to imagine him in any uniform. Who appointed me judge?
“Enter your plea: guilty or not guilty?”
A required question in the United States. Usually it introduces no emotion in the courtroom. The defendant hesitates a second before raising his voice as if he wished to convey a tone of gravitas and replies, “Guilty.”
He stops to catch his breath. Stifled murmurs on the benches. Some members of the audience are clearly disappointed. After this admission, no dramatic developments
can be expected. Or eloquent attacks.
“ . . . and not guilty,” the defendant hastens to add.
Surprised, not to say shocked, some observers lean forward to scrutinize the young German’s face: in this courtroom, no such statement has ever been heard before. Judge Gardner raises his hand to call the court to order.
“This is not an acceptable answer. It is my duty to inform the defendant that the law requires him to answer guilty or not guilty.”
The attorney stands up and takes the floor in order to speak for his client.
“Your Honor, will the court allow me to provide an item of information in order to clarify?”
“Mr. Redford, you’re a member of the bar and the procedure holds no secrets for you. Might you have forgotten, for some extraordinary reason, to tell your client that the court allows a plea of guilty or not guilty, but not the two simultaneously?”
“I did make that clear to my client, Your Honor. But he persists in . . .”
“Mr. Redford, let’s leave the explanations for later. At present, let’s have the defendant tell us in an audible, intelligible voice whether he pleads guilty or not guilty.”
Werner shakes his head.
“So it’s Fhonorno?” asks Judge Gardner. “Not guilty?”
The attorney whispers a few words into his client’s ear. Then: “Please forgive us, Your Honor, but my client only wished to tell the court that no, he can’t accept the choice,
“In that case,” the judge rules, showing his irritation, “the court will decide for him. Clerk, enter a not guilty plea for the defendant.”
“In that case,” the judge rules, showing his irritation, “the court will decide for him. Clerk, enter a not guilty plea for the defendant.”
After that, he motions to the defense attorneys and the prosecutor to come closer.
“I expect to see you in my chambers without delay,” he says to them with an intimidating look and in a muffled voice. The hearing is suspended. The court was to reconvene at two p.m.
I run to the newsroom and walk into Paul’s office without knocking: as luck would have it, he’s with Charles Stone.
“So, how’s our legal reporter’s baptism going?” Paul asks.
“Talk about experiences, this sure is one,” I say. “You’re right, it’s theater, but in a category of its own. Everyone is improvising, more or less, including the judge. Every kind of surprise is allowed. And I feel like an intruder.” I tell them about my first court hearing. Paul smiles. “You don’t hold it against me that I forced you into volunteering?”
“It’s too early to answer yes or no.”
“Beware, you sound like your young defendant.”
“Except I haven’t killed anyone. Not even in my theater reviews.”
“I’m waiting for your piece,” Charles interjects. “I need it by eight p.m.”
“I’ll tell Judge Gardner to hurry up.”
I go home to have lunch with Alika. She seems displeased with my excitement.
“Don’t forget, your first love is theater, after all, not law.”
“My first love is you.”
“Come and eat.”
The afternoon session is devoted to the selection of the twelve-person jury, men and women.
They begin by drawing lots: a peculiar lottery. Each potential juror is presented for approval to the prosecution and the defense. All members of the jury are required to be objective, neutral, devoid of prejudices, and incapable of being moved by anything but reason, a sense of equity and truth. A saint would fit the description.
One of the first potential jurors is an elderly Jewish tailor who is probably religious as he is wearing a yarmulke. In order to get rid of him, the prosecutor questions him on his attitude toward Germany and the Germans.
“Do you think you can be completely objective with respect to the defendant?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Because you’re probably attached to the past of your people.”
“So? Why would my loyalty to the past cloud my judgment in this particular case?”
“Because you’re you and the defendant is who he is.”
“You mean I’m Jewish and he’s German, which should predispose me to hate him, is that it?”
“No, no, that’s not what I meant.”
“Fortunately, sir. Because I happen to be against the principle of collective guilt. Whether German or Muslim, only criminals are guilty; the children of murderers are children, not murderers.”
As for the attorney Michael Redford, he makes use of his right to dismiss two prospective jurors peremptorily.
The next person to be considered is an elegantly dressed woman, in her early forties, intelligent, and wearing light makeup. For some reason, I see her as the wife of a banker, as a lover of Greek and Roman art and of contemporary music. The prosecutor objects to her and dismisses her.
Three sessions will be required for the judge to finalize the jury selection. For the other reporters these sessions are uninteresting, rather repetitive, and devoid of surprises. Not for me. Each one is a discovery leading to a confrontation between the defendant and the eight men and four women sitting in the jury box, to the left of the judge’s platform. I have trouble taking my eyes off Werner Sonderberg as I try to guess what he is feeling. After all, his life is in the hands of these individuals more than in those of the judge. He knows—his lawyers have told him—that the vote of the jury has to be unanimous for him to be convicted. All that’s needed is one dissenting voice and he can walk away free. I wonder who among the jurors might save him. Astonishingly, he seems preoccupied by something else entirely. He seems indifferent to the jury.
But then what is he thinking of with a look of such concentration?
My first articles seem to be well received.
“You see? I was right,” Paul remarks. “It’s because you have no understanding of legal issues that you succeed in making the reader interested. You connect on a dramatic, personal level.”
Charles agrees. “There’s a freshness in your writing that you don’t find in the articles of veteran court reporters.”
“Let’s talk shop,” I say. “Every hearing reminds me of a theatrical performance. I try to bring to light the dramatic tension that will make the performance progress but at an unhurried pace. As in theater, I feel the tension must come from within and be devoid of obvious artifice.”
“Except that in the theater,” Paul says in his low voice, “the actors and the audience go home, safe and sound, after the curtain comes down each day. In any case, I notice you’re interested in your new field of activity. Maybe even more than in the theater?”
That evening I recount the conversation to Alika as we walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner.
“Paul’s wrong,” I say to her.
She doesn’t respond.
“You don’t believe me? You have doubts about my loyalty?”
“As I always do. You know me.”
“Even in this instance?”
“Even in this instance.”
“Because I’ve read your articles.”
“And? What do they prove?”
“They’re good. Better than your theater reviews.”
"Thanks for the compliment. But let’s say that I work differently. I didn’t know anything about the judiciary world. I never thought about it. But, you know, you can feel attracted to something that’s foreign to you.”
I don’t understand. Why is she so irritated?
“Do you actually think that because I’m suddenly interested in the law I’m going to forsake the theater?”
“I don’t know what to think anymore.”
“Do you want me to give it up?”
“It’s what you want that counts.”
“Me, I want to understand why you’re annoyed at me. Am I a journalist or not? I have to go where my editors send me. Let’s say tomorrow I’m assigned to a local police station. I can’t just say no. The same goes for this trial.”
Alika knits her brows, furious and seemingly hurt.
“That’s completely different. In a police station, you’d do your work and you might even do it well, but you wouldn’t love it. Whereas as far as this trial goes, you enjoy attending it. Enjoy talking about it. Enjoy showing off your talent. And your new passion. That’s the point: we no longer share the same passion.”
“Well, then, prove it to me: return to theater.”
“How many times do I have to keep saying it? When I’m in the courtroom, that’s exactly where I am—at the theater!”
“Really? Who’s the author of the play? The judge? The defendant? The public? Don’t tell me they’re improvising, all of them as long as they’re . . .”
“Yes, they are, in a way.”
“You’re out of your mind!”
This is our first real quarrel. There will be others—more or less futile, more or less serious. In her opinion, I’m spending too much time away from home. My explanations—the fact that I’m no longer in control of my schedule because of the trial, the interviews with lawyers and spectators, my library research and editorial meetings—are useless. She criticizes anything I say. “Even when you’re here, which is increasingly rare, you’re miles away.”
I don’t understand what’s happening to us. For the first time in ages, we’re getting on each other’s nerves. There are a lot of silences. Misunderstandings. Some discoveries: the little gestures that used to awaken or strengthen our love now dampen it. My way of buttoning my shirt. Her way of wiping her lips when she drinks her coffee. The magic is gone.
Actually, Alika is not entirely wrong to be annoyed with me. I’ve undergone a change. Just a week ago, she occupied all my thoughts and filled my life, whereas, for the last few days, the trial has suddenly become the focus of all my attention. But she’s also mistaken: I haven’t forgotten my passion for the stage.
In fact, after our quarrels, I set a rule for myself: to go to the theater at least once a week, though Alika goes almost every evening. And this while continuing her studies. According to her, our professor and protector shares her apprehensions about me.
“He wonders,” she says one day, returning from a performance, “if you would still be able to write an objective review of a play in which I would be playing one of the leads.”
“I have no idea.”
“But do you think that could happen?”
A shudder goes down my spine: I remember The Three Sisters. Alika with a group of students, in a small amateur theater. Does she know? I don’t let myself get flustered.
“No doubt it could.”
“And so? What would you do?”
“You’re right, and so is the professor: it would be a problem for me. But maybe not for the reason you think. I would say to myself: if I like it, people will say it’s because of you. And if my review is critical, the people who don’t like me will snigger: look at that bastard, he’s humiliating his own wife.”
“So? How would you get out of this dilemma?”
“This is not about to happen tomorrow, as far as I know. We have time to think about it.”
But, to tell the truth, I’d rather not think about it. When my grandfather read my articles, he said: “Long ago, in Judea, in the days when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem, a twenty-three-member court would sit and deliberate in cases requiring capital punishment. If the sentence was unanimous, it was immediately thrown out of court: it was inconceivable that, among the twenty-three judges, not one would side with the poor defendant, who was alone and helpless in facing them.”
I told him that I wished I could have attended those trial deliberations and covered them for the newspaper at the time.
“Remember the lesson, my son: when a man’s life is at stake, it is not theater.”
It is day three of the proceedings. The experts at the courthouse are predicting the trial will be relatively short. Not many witnesses will be called to the stand. According to the prosecution, at the fateful moment, the defendant and his uncle were alone. No one saw Hans Dunkelman die. Going by what they call “circumstantial evidence,” provided by the local police, he fell from the heights of a plateau. But the question is, as we know: Was it an accident or a murder? The nephew’s ambiguous statement is disturbing and preys on everyone’s mind. How can someone be both guilty and not guilty? The young German remains silent while the other protagonists reveal themselves to be nonstop talkers. In a tribunal everyone wants to be heard. The only one who doesn’t seem to care is the main character, about whom there is so much curiosity that men and women have jammed the courtroom. From the very first hearings, I wondered: Will he even take the trouble to listen? He seems absent to the public and to himself.
On the fourth day, I describe my impressions of Sonderberg to Paul.
“He’s someone who is engaged in a struggle, and I don’t know against whom or what.”
“If he’s guilty, he could get the death penalty or, at minimum, life imprisonment. That’s a good enough reason to be afraid, isn’t it?”
“Yes. But there’s something else; I sense it. Put it down to the kind of intuition that theater teaches you to cultivate. At a certain point, he looked at a woman in the jury. I caught his gaze. And his fleeting smile. As though he thought that if the twelve members of the jury had been women, his sentence would have been to make love to each of them.”
“A swaggering smile?”
“I don’t know. I think he was trying to destabilize her. But, for a second, he succeeded in destabilizing me.”
Paul, lost in his thoughts, says nothing.
To my amazement, the readers seem to like what I write. I see the hearings as a series of acts in the course of which the characters come onstage one after the other. Each session begins with the curtain going up; each adjournment is like an intermission. When the clerk tells the public to rise, it is like stage business: all the participants play their part and I play mine.
In this kind of production, any plot development is theoretically possible—and for journalists, desirable—up until the final scene. Let me remind you of the law: if just one jury member has doubts about the defendant’s absolute guilt, the defendant is immediately acquitted.
Here again, my grandfather is right: in ancient Judea, it was more practical, though no less complicated. In the Sanhedrin, as I said earlier, if just one jury member ruled in favor of the defendant’s innocence, the guilty verdict of the majority prevailed. The defendant no doubt prayed that if one sage out of the twenty-three judges believed in his innocence, he would join the others and support a unanimous guilty verdict, so that his innocence could triumph.
I look around the courtroom. As earlier, I continue to familiarize myself with the surroundings and the ambience. The judge, the prosecutor, the attorneys, the defendant, the clerk: each makes his presence known in his own way, depending on his personality. As for the jury members, their part seems to be that of a mute choir: ill at ease, as if wondering why they’re here instead of at work in their offices or spending the day with their family. What would my uncle Méir say if he were on the jury? Or my grandfather?
True, the judge explained to the winners of this lottery that they were performing their duty as citizens, for every individual has the right to be judged by his peers; however, the judge can’t stop their minds from wandering.
His peers? Does Werner see them as such? I remind myself that they include a distinguished-looking black woman who is a university professor; a Puerto Rican taxi driver; a woman who is a department store employee; a grandmother of Irish descent; a black man who works on Wall Street (banker, stockbroker, consultant?). They have no names, just numbers. They will sit in the same seats every day, in an order established by the court clerk. With time, they will each adopt a distinctive behavior and body language, and display individual character traits. But initially they form a tight-knit group. They move in unison, turning their heads to the right or to the left, to follow what is going on before the judge, or to scrutinize the defendant’s impassive face.
The prosecutor, Sam Frank, is a former marine officer. Tall, slender, a steely look in his eyes, jerky in his gestures, he approaches the trial as if it were a military operation. Werner is the enemy. He is to be unmasked, crushed, and rendered harmless forever in a dark, stifling cell.
Nothing remains here of the old British traditions whereby the different sides wear wigs and caps and question one another with feigned, excessive courtesy, exchanging titles and compliments as they aim their poisoned arrows all the more skillfully. In our courtrooms, no one feels intimidated in expressing himself.
Alternately addressing the judge and the jury, Frank presents the prosecution’s case forcefully and with conviction. For him, there are no possible grounds for doubt: Werner Sonderberg is guilty of the murder of his uncle Hans Dunkelman.
“This will be demonstrated to you in the course of this trial, which, we hope, will not be too drawn out. To me, it seems the situation could not be clearer. The young Werner Sonderberg and his elderly uncle Hans Dunkelman leave Manhattan and check into a quiet hotel in the Adirondacks. For one week. Presumably to talk to each other and rest. Did they quarrel? Yes. A chambermaid will confirm the fact. She heard their shouts. The night porter as well. The following day they were seen leaving the hotel together. For a walk. To breathe the cool mountain air. What happened up there in the mountains? What did they say to each other? At which point did their words become unduly violent? Which one struck the other first? Who pushed whom? There’s only one possible answer to that last question, since it was the uncle’s body that was found by the police. What more do you need? Isn’t that enough for you? Very well. His nephew, the defendant, went back to the hotel. Alone. And a short time later, he was alone, at home, in his Manhattan apartment.”
He breaks off. A dramatic pause. Turning to the jury, he gives them a meaningful look. “The prosecution feels there is nothing to add. Besides, you heard him: he admitted he was guilty. So you know who Hans Dunkelman’s murderer is. He is here before you. He should be judged in your soul and conscience. Give him the punishment he deserves.”
As though obeying him, the jury members look at Werner. So do I. He is sitting upright, head held high; he doesn’t react. What are his feelings? What does he see right now? His uncle? He wears a mask of indifference on his face, as though he didn’t care about anything. As though his future had fallen apart, his hope had vanished in a final act of violence, along with the life of an old man who had been part of his family.
For a second, I think I see a flutter in Werner’s eyes; he seems to be looking for someone in the public. It lasted only a second, and I really have no way of knowing if it was an involuntary movement or a signal directed at a specific person. But thanks to that twinkling of the eye, I located one young woman who is intently watching him with an expression that is hard to define. Later on, I will find out that her name is Anna. I don’t know why, but I’m immediately interested in her. So different from Alika. She is attractive, but not in the same way; you look at Alika and you feel like hearing her talk. Not this woman; you gaze at her as if she were a work of art, and it’s sufficient. Elegant, haughty in spite of her youth. A sober charcoal gray suit. A blue scarf. A beautiful oval face, tinted glasses, long dark hair that cascades down her back.
“The counsel for the defense may now speak,” says the judge.
Michael Redford stands up. Everything about him seems exaggerated. A heavy head on sturdy shoulders. Long arms, large hands. Puffy lips, bushy eyebrows. After greeting the court, he turns to the jury and scrutinizes them silently for a moment, as if to warm them up or prepare them for what they are about to hear.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, at the start of this trial I have very little to say to you, except this: Werner Sonderberg has pleaded not guilty for the simple reason that he’s innocent. He didn’t kill his uncle; he didn’t kill anyone. He is incapable of killing. We intend to prove this to you. To begin with, our purpose is to demonstrate to you that the prosecution has no tangible proof on which to base their case. Its argument is built on hazy assumptions. Now let me ask you to stop looking at me. Instead, look at my client, Werner, who came to America to build a future for himself. He is not known to have enemies, whether at the university or elsewhere. A superior student, absorbed in his work, his life plan did not include murder, no matter what the prosecution says: it sees him as guilty and would like to make him pay the price. He went to the mountains to spend a few days with a man who introduced himself to him as his uncle. One morning, they went for a walk. Werner Sonderberg came back to the hotel alone. That very night he returned to his studio apartment. Did his uncle, who stayed behind, fall to his death? Did he commit suicide? We have no idea, nor do the police. In fact, they should have conducted more of an in-depth inquiry before making an arrest. In a democracy like ours, we don’t arrest an innocent man just because we have no other suspects. Werner Sonderberg has no business being here. That’s our deep conviction.”
Slowly, imperceptibly, he moves closer to the young defendant, no doubt in order to establish a kind of complicity between them, as though they were one. Bravo, maestro. He knows his job and, as far as I can tell, is performing it to perfection. The twelve members of the jury keep their eyes riveted on him as he returns to his seat. Some of them seem intrigued, others interested. Two among them, however, have to struggle not to show their boredom.
What if I were one of them? What if the fate and honor of this young German were in my hands? A dangerous, dishonest thought: it would lead me where I won’t allow myself to tread. Like that other bizarre thought that crosses my mind: could I possibly be the one in the dock? Could I be, as he is, the murderer of an old German, a witness to those horrible times? A participant even? I quickly dismiss the thought. I’m not Werner Sonderberg. Or his double.
I keep thinking about my grandfather and his memories: What would he have advised me? What opinion would he have had of that young German? He’s far away but I wish he were present. I learned so much from him. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I do, so much so that it makes me suffer.
I think of my father, too. I’d like to know what he thinks of Werner Sonderberg.
One day, when I was still very young, I was feeling a sadness verging on depression, and talking to no one because a friend had betrayed my trust. My father invited me into his study. As usual, he was bent over a dusty book. I stood behind him so I could read what he was pointing to.
“It’s a text by the great Rabbi Kalonymus ben Aderet. He lived in Barcelona and later in Fez. He was the contemporary and friend of One-Eyed Paritus and translated some of his poems into Sanskrit. Here he makes us reflect on man’s secret powers: man did not light the sun, but it is he who measures everything by its light; he did not invent the darkness of night, but it is he who fills it with his nostalgic songs; he did not vanquish death, but it is he who stands up to it with each breath and each prayer. A speck of dust, he knows how to rise above the stars in order to get near to his Creator’s creation.”
My father went on, without changing his tone of voice. “Remember, my son. It’s not me talking to you right now; it’s this great poet and visionary, close to Don Itzhak Abrabanel, who had to leave Catholic Spain in 1492 because he wanted to remain true to our alliance with God. It is he who is telling you not to despair.”
My father read a few passages in silence before speaking again with the same gentle and solemn tone, and the same slow and melancholic rhythm.
“And Rabbi Kalonymus ben Aderet also has this to say to you: ‘Today, on the eve of the Sabbath, I am strolling under the blue and tender sky of Italy. We have found a land of welcome here. We live among ourselves in the ghetto and study the Law of Moses so that it will guide us to Jerusalem step by-step. True, we are not free, but we dream of true freedom; we are not happy, but our souls sing of the joy of being able to remember the sunlit times of David and Solomon, and Isaiah’s and Jeremiah’s heartrending appeals to justice and generosity. In spite of everything we have been through, we are still capable of gratitude here; our most beautiful texts are those expressing our gratitude.’ Follow me on my path: look at that Jewish man and that boy; it is a father taking his son to school; look at that woman and her smile; her mind is on all those of whom she is the descendant; look at that old man: he is smiling, in the distance, at the adolescent he used to be, the adolescent who accompanies him to a future whose promise is a ray of sunshine. How can we see all this and not cry out: Thank you, Lord, for having created a world where human happiness is close to divine grace.”
I love my father. I want him to know that. For all time.
Excerpted from The Sonderberg Case by Elie Wiesel, published August 24, 2010 in English. Previously published in French: copyright © 2008 by Editions Grasset & Fasquelle. English translation copyright © 2010 by Catherine Temerson. Reprinted with permission by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.
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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.