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by | May 3, 2013 | Book Reviews

The Sonderberg Case
Elie Wiesel
Translated from the French
by Catherine Temerson
Alfred A. Knoff, 2010
178 pages, $25

With more than 50 books to his illustrious credit, Elie Wiesel, who prefers to write in French and have his work translated, continues to bless us at age 84 with his multiple pursuits. Indeed, if anyone deserves to be known as “Our Teacher and Rabbi,” it is this humble yet honored survivor. He emerged from the “kingdom of the night” resolved to help save humanity, struggling with his shaken faith in his early classic Night, and contending with his brethren’s fate in Soviet captivity in Jews of Silence, ever faithful to his Jewish moorings and their universality.

Wiesel, a 1986 Nobel Peace Laureate— he should receive one for literature, too—is on the very short list of those who serve as humanity’s conscience. He courageously speaks for human rights in addition to his “Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanities,” and academic work at Boston University. Wiesel is a recipient of the United States Congressional Gold Medal, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is the founding chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Museum Council, among other prestigious honors. He is a humanitarian ambassador par excellence.

Wiesel’s The Sonderberg Case, is a suspenseful Holocaust-related novel, testimony to his unique being at home both in the vineyard of Jewish knowledge, as well as general philosophy and literature with the traditional Jewish penchant of responding to questions with questions, while spreading nuggets of humanizing wisdom.

The book’s protagonist, New Yorker Yedidyah (“God’s friend”), gives up a career on stage for one as a theater critic, teaching that words count more than theatrical acts in a Jewish context, for “man is a book.” Wiesel himself was a journalist in Paris following World War II.

Assigned by his editor to cover a trial of 24-year-old Werner Sonderberg, a German student at New York University who is charged with murdering his uncle Hans Dunkelman, Yedidyah ponders Werner’s seemingly contradictory response of “Guilty…and not Guilty.”

Hans, who is really Werner’s grandpa, is an unrepentant ex-Nazi officer of the notorious Einsatzgruppen, boasting to Werner of his murderous record and only regretting that Hitler lost the war with hope of yet a future victory.

Werner confronts his grandpa prior to Hans’ apparent suicide, for depriving him and all German youth of normalcy by condemning them to eternal guilt. “Because of you, all of you, though we were born after the atrocities, we feel guilty. Because of you, my joy will never be unmitigated.”

Yedidiyah’s intersecting drama concerns his liberating discovery that he was born in Poland to parents who gave him away for temporary safekeeping to their housekeeper Maria. His birth parents perished in the Holocaust and Maria, a loving and righteous Gentile returned him to the Jewish people. Not all Poles returned Jewish babies. Yididiyah’s lingering pain of an incomplete past now resolved meets Werner’s pain for which, however, there may be no remedy, though both were victimized by the same evil forces of, in Wiesel’s language, “the great turmoil.”

The author applies the Holocaust’s lessons of guilt and responsibility, healing and hope, to the tragic conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, trying to acknowledge all sides while seeking to protect the “other,” that both have suffered from. He probingly reflects on the opposite poles and messages of Auschwitz and Jerusalem, reminding us that all that we do bears moral consequence affecting human lives deserving of tender treatment.

Tackling heavy-duty themes along with light ones in an enchanting framework of skillful interplay, Wiesel eases the burden of memory without diluting its sacred essence. Encompassing much, which is our gain but a literary risk, the author succeeds to connect three pivotal countries in three continents in a delicate balance. The Sonderberg Case will long echo in a rewarded reader.

—Rabbi Israel Zoberman, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chaverim.