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The arctic freeze continues creating havoc in our country, even into late February. Stories abound of utility outages, food shortages, and health issues, even death. Necessary errands present challenges.

In such circumstances, I reach for the slim novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich written by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn; its protagonist is drawn from the author’s experience as a bricklayer in one of the Gulag slave labor camps in Karaganda, northern Kazakhstan.

The novel begins in 1951, five o’clock in the morning—Twenty-seven degrees below zero and another work day, outdoors, for Ivan and the five hundred prisoners in Hut 6. The ragged noise of the hammer awakening them was “… muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows.” From then until lights out, the reader follows Ivan’s efforts to survive.

Extremes of stale black bread and gruel in the mess hall, extremes of ragged clothing triple-wrapped around emaciated bodies, extremes of frostbite and blinding snow, extremes of cutting winds with no shelter, extremes of armed guards and attack dogs, extremes of multiple roll calls—all described in terse words, with no respite for the killing chill.

Aside from its gripping story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, its 1962 publication by the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir is significant. Until then, the atrocities of the Gulag system had been kept hidden from the world. With Stalin’s death in 1953 and with the de-Stalinization programs instituted by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this novel revealed its egregious secret. Solzhenitsyn continued writing from his Russian heart, until his death in 2008.

“Thanks to be to Thee, O God, another day over!” Ivan says as the novel ends.

Jews, centuries-old enemies of Muslims, still draw the disparaging term fox, with its connotations of evil: stealth, thievery, cunning, and wanton killing. However, twenty-six year old Mohammed al Samawi from Yemen has published The Fox Hunt – A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America (2018), and through this experience, tweaked this pejorative.

Raised in Sanna, Yemen, by strict Shiite parents, Mohammed excelled in his studies, a compensation for his stroke-damaged limbs, caused when an infant. Computer skills enhanced his academic pursuits that were colored by the imams’ interpretation of the Koran; their authority was never questioned.

However in 2012, Mohammed’s beliefs were shaken when one of his professors at the Canadian Institute offered him an English bible. Shocked by its revelation of God’s compassion that also filled the pages of the Koran, he shunted his career toward international business and set out to locate a Jew while working for the NGO, Partner Aid. A year-long hunt, in secret, ensued, until he bonded with Daniel Pincus, also attending the Muslim Jewish Conference in Bosnia. There, he also met like-minded peers, intent upon creating dialogues with warring factions in their Middle Eastern countries.

However by 2015, Mohammed’s passion for peacemaking precipitated death threats on his personal cell.

It was Daniel Pincus and others on social media who helped Mohammed escape from the flames of the Shia-Sunni civil war raging near his fourth floor apartment. For thirteen harrowing days, holed up in his bathroom, he prayed and responded to emails of his own Justice Corps.

Thus Daniel became the fox as depicted in the parable ascribed to the Jewish scholar Rabbi Akiva in second-century Caesarea, with which the author concludes this riveting memoir of transformation.

 

 

How formulate words around the life of Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016) who, in dialog with his God, fully individuated himself within the warp and woof of his global community? Left a legacy of printed words that still fire imaginations and challenge the moral fiber of his readers?

Such is the task I set myself after completing Elie Wiesel’s second memoir,And The Sea is Never Full, 1969 -1999.

His lifelong study of the Torah and the Talmud imbued his witness, his writing, and his teaching in lecture halls and international venues. Like Jeremiah of the Old Testament, he was passionate, fully sensitive to the worlds within and around him. Words, written and later spoken, became his métier. Yet silence obliterated any foray into his death camp experiences: they remained inexpressible: referred to as “it.” Yet, paradoxically, “it” fueled his rich imagination with stories and assuaged his psychic wound. Those privy to his spiritual depths relished his unique vision: living with unanswered questions before the silence of God.

In his memoir, Wiesel also reproduced parts of significant dialogs and lectures that reveal the breath of his wisdom and his attunement to his listeners. Dreams of his deceased family, in italics, also showed his respect for his unconscious, ever guiding him toward wholeness. He was also not without wry humor in his admission of foibles. So beneath this world citizen lived a simple man of passion who loved being husband to Marion and father to Elisha.

Yet Elie Wiesel’s witness to hatred, under the guise of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and fanaticism, still flourishes—but not to worry. He has passed the baton on to us, with its imperative to root out such vestiges within our psyches. There is hope.

 

 

 

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