The Sonderberg Case
by Elie Wiesel
Knopf, 192 pp., $25
What does a reader expect from a Holocaust-themed novel by the world’s most famous survivor of Auschwitz? Perhaps nothing more than that the survivor, Elie Wiesel, provide some reflections on what it means to survive, on what it means to remember. If so, Wiesel’s new novel is worth readaing—plus, there’s a murder mystery thrown in for a bit of drama.
If, on the other hand, one would like to think that a great man, and Wiesel is a great man, should produce a great novel, then The Sonderberg Case is a disappointment. The story does deal with the legacy of the churban of European Jewry—and interestingly, it’s not just Jewish memory we’re talking about here. Wiesel takes up the impact of the horror on a German who is too young to have been involved but who has close ties to it and lives with a feeling of guilt by association. But as a novel, this just isn’t one of Wiesel’s best.
It shifts perspective and jumps around in time, mostly to little effect. Both techniques are used to weave together two stories: One is about Werner Sonderberg, a young German studying at a New York university, who stands accused of killing his older German uncle while the two were visiting the Adirondacks. The other story, which takes up more of the novel, is about a Jew named Yedidyah, a theater critic at a New York newspaper who is asked to cover the Sonderberg trial.
Yedidyah loves his father, grandfather, and uncle, but he has trouble understanding them; he loves his wife and two sons, even as he periodically feels at a distance from them. He loves the theater, but when it becomes clear he has no future as an active participant, he becomes a drama critic. When he tells his father about his new job, the father’s response is this: “Do you know the difference between a writer and a journalist? The journalist defines himself by what he says and the writer by what he doesn’t say.” Yedidyah is confused: “Was he happy about my success? I had no idea.”
Yedidyah’s story becomes even more complex when he discovers that the American Jewish family he thought was his own is, in fact, his adoptive family. He learns that he was born to European Jewish parents and that he had an older brother, all of whom were destroyed in the Holocaust. As a baby, Yedidyah was rescued by a Christian woman and then placed at a refugee camp after the war so that he could be adopted by other Jews. When Yedidyah is given the Sonderberg trial as an assignment, he finds himself thinking about the man being judged. He is confused about a defendant who insists on pleading “guilty and not guilty.” At the trial, he observes the jury and concludes:
What if I were one of them? What if the fate and honor of the 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 crimes? A participant even?
But Yedidyah concludes that he could never be on that side of the equation: “I quickly dismiss the thought. I’m not Werner Sonderberg or his double. I’m me.”
Wiesel seems as passionate about trying to get into the mind of the German as his protagonist. Yedidyah asks, “Could I be, as [Sonderberg] is, the murderer of an old German, a witness to those horrible crimes?” Wiesel seems to be asking what would (or should) a young German’s answer be to that same question. If confronted by an uncle, a father, or grandfather, who was not only a witness but an active participant, and maybe not just an active participant but one who justifies his actions in your name, in the name of the next German generation, would you exact justice by throwing that person off a cliff?
Unfortunately, in answering these questions in the way he does, Wiesel further weakens his story. Instead of a complicated and morally questionable resolution, we get a neat and tidy package of justification of the Nazi cause by the older generation and then complete rejection by the younger. Is it really that simple? Indeed, Wiesel is much better at embodying living memory than trying to capture the same ideas in a novel. He puts the following words in Yedidyah’s mouth: “How was I to reconcile Auschwitz and Jerusalem? Would the former merely be the antithesis, the anti-event of the latter? If Auschwitz is forever the question; is Jerusalem forever the answer?”
Wiesel provided his own answer, and delivered his verdict much more powerfully, in his recently published full-page advertisement about the Jews’ eternal capital than in the novel. As Wiesel declared, following President Obama’s very public rebuke of Israeli building plans in Jerusalem, “The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory. . . . It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another. . . . Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul.”
The difficulty with being the living embodiment of modern Jewish memory is that you can overstep your boundaries. After publishing his plea for Jerusalem, the administration reached out to Wiesel in an effort to fix its image problem with American Jews. President Obama invited Wiesel to lunch, and the two Nobel laureates were photographed eating a kosher meal together. Wiesel was right to agree to the meeting, but he went beyond his role when, afterwards, he pronounced all tensions dissolved between the Jews and the administration.
It is not for Elie Wiesel to pass judgment on serious policy differences between Israel and the Obama administration, nor is it his role to “decide” that American Jews have nothing to worry about with this president. It was more than enough for him to seize the mantle of conscience.
Abby Wisse Schachter is an associate editor at the New York Post.