Who was the real Mordechai Shushani?
My latest book, entitled Satan’s Synagogue, has just been released after ten years in the making. Part historical text, part fictional story – or what I call a faux history – this chronicle follows a circuitous route: from Brooklyn to Austria to Rome to Jerusalem to Nazareth, from Elie Wiesel to Auschwitz to the Holocaust to remembrance and history-making, from Mark to Peter to Jesus to Josephus to an Ancient Roman senator named Gaev, from Josephus to Franz Joseph to Josepher. Along the way, there are ancient documents unearthed, and an assassination attempt uncovered, and a bicycle ride made through Galilee and old Phoenicia, or what I’m calling the Tour de Josephus. The book is available here: https://www.amazon.com/Satans-Synagogue-history-Brian-Josepher-ebook/dp/B07PQT7PF3/ref=sr_1_9?keywords=satan%27s+synagogue&qid=1554465399&s=gateway&sr=8-9.
I am writing a series of profiles related to the book. This is part five. In the first three parts, I offered critical evaluations of three famous chroniclers: Mark the Evangelist, Josephus of the 1st century, or Jesus Century as it was called then, and Elie Wiesel of the 20th century. Those profiles are all available further down this page. In part four, I broke with the chronicler motif. I profiled a Holocaust survivor of a different kind. His name was Moshe Lazar and, in contrast to the typical traits of a survivor, he displayed shades of kindness, generosity, naiveté, and optimism. His profile included a major reveal. I hold Lazar’s “secret stash,” or explosive documents that reach back to the first century, and before. An article or two in that “secret stash” unveils new information on our next character. Let’s move away from famous chroniclers, and kind Holocaust survivors, to profile a great enigma. His name was Mordechai Shushani and he was a mystery unlike any other. Here are ten brushstrokes to demystify the Shushani mystique:
1) Mordechai Shushani (or Ben-Chouchan, as he was first identified in an article in Maariv back in 1952) did not offer a written account of his life. He did not settle down at a university somewhere, with a student population who might document his teachings, his beliefs, his politics, his experiences and expectations. Nobody who came across him in the years before World War Two or after ever noted Shushani with pad and paper. He was not a diarist. He was not a letter writer. Only Elie Wiesel noted “manuscripts” written by Shushani. But Elie Wiesel, as I’ve documented in different places, including a profile on this blog (https://satanssynagogue.com/2019/04/11/who-was-the-real-elie-wiesel/), is an unreliable witness.
Without a written record, the evaluation process becomes hazy. The written record stands as a crucial barometer. Without one, the life and legacy of a subject depends upon the whim of the storyteller.
In Shushani’s case, that haziness turns into a dense fog, as the first and primary writer to document his life was Wiesel. He did so in four chapters spanning thirty years. But let’s be real about Wiesel. He liked his mysteries. In a library’s worth of volumes on and by Wiesel, he promoted a great unknown, his own enigma. Notably, he wrote predominantly about subjects who did not write on themselves (his father, a character named Moché, the Besht). That gave Wiesel a clear playing field to profile as he saw fit.
In Shushani’s case, it’s also noteable: the biographer (Wiesel) of one the most enigmatic characters of the 20th century (Shushani) tried for his own enigma. What did he create? Let’s jump in.
In his last chapter on Shushani, his autobiography from the 1990s, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel documented the first sighting. The visual occurred in the summer of 1945, or weeks after Wiesel’s liberation from Buchenwald. Wiesel, then a stateless teenager living in a French orphanage, traveled to Lyon. There, amongst other activities, he attended a lecture by the philosopher André Neher. An informal professor/pupil relationship developed. Neher offered a unique doctrine. His ways of interpreting circumvented conventional Jewish thinking. “He didn’t explain through a narrow, Jewish perspective but rather a worldly scope,” Benjamin Gross, who did his doctoral work under Neher, explained. Gross saw the effect as “revolutionary” for Wiesel. The narrow vision of a Hasidic Jew from a small town in Northern Transylvania began to expand, Gross proposed. (Author interview with Benjamin Gross, January 2009.)
One evening, someone pointed out the “strange man” named Shushani. Wiesel described, “Dressed like a vagabond, a tiny hat perched on his enormous head, he stood in a corner, lost in his thoughts.” Meanwhile, the talk of the room centered upon the man. Was he a genius? A madman? Wiesel hesitated to approach. The combination – “I was wary of geniuses and drawn to madmen” – left him in a state of vacillation. As Wiesel vacillated, Shushani vanished. “Too bad,” Wiesel concluded, “but our paths would cross again.”
If this was Wiesel’s first visual of Shushani, only Wiesel served as the source. Benjamin Gross, while present at the Neher lecture, knew Shushani from the war years. Both had been in Limoges. For at least part of the war, Shushani gave lectures on the Talmud. “Big ones that lasted a few hours,” Gross recalled. But if he recalled the lectures, Gross couldn’t place Shushani in Lyon in the immediate aftermath of war.
Some thirty years before Wiesel wrote his autobiography, he chronicled a different first sighting of Shushani. In a story called in “The Wandering Jew,” published in Legends of Our Time, that visual turned into an encounter. Wiesel set the time and place as post-war Paris. He set the tone, “Our first meeting was brief and stormy.”
According to Wiesel, he attended a synagogue to welcome in Shabbat. After prayers, a dialogue ensued between the “old man, repulsive in appearance” and “the foreigner,” as Wiesel described himself, “the refugee… from over there.” A code for the concentration camp universe.
In their brief dialogue Wiesel rendered himself as bashful, diffident – “I bit my lips” – and Shushani as irritable, cutting, brilliant. Shushani gave a lecture. “He closed his eyes,” Wiesel told his tale, “and went into an explication, the brilliance and rigor of which dazzled me. I was already his, I entrusted him with my will, my reason. He spoke and I could only admire the extent of his knowledge, the richness of his thought.”
Following the lecture, Wiesel attempted a compliment. He called the lecture “beautiful.” According to Wiesel, Shushani derided. He described beauty as a “façade,” a “decoration,” as “nothing more than illusion[.] Man defines himself by what disturbs him and not by what reassures him.”
A pattern emerged. In the educational process of Hasidism, or the milieu in which Wiesel was raised, mentorship meant everything. Every young Hasid needed a master. Wiesel found his. That relationship lasted for three years, according to Wiesel. Shushani came twice a week to Wiesel’s tiny rented room in Paris, never at the same time. He stayed for hours, speaking on whatever subject “preoccupied him that day. And each time,” Wiesel continued, “I felt the same sense of amazement.”
That sense of amazement, as Wiesel expanded his first story on Shushani into a wider narrative, gave way to a figura. Shushani became a mystery, a riddle. Wiesel nurtured the mystery. He built stories on top of stories, or “tales in tales. Tales of tales of tales. Like a concentric circle.” If there were contradictions in the tales, so be it, for they not only served the mystery but they allowed Wiesel to control the flow of information. Contradictions in the world of Wiesel became a form of control. As noted earlier, Wiesel even contradicted the notion that Shushani didn’t add to the historical record. He identified “indecipherable manuscripts” written by Shushani, “some of which are in my possession.”
If that is accurate, there is no record. Wiesel’s life’s work can be found at Boston University, where Wiesel taught from 1976 to 2013. Joel Rappel, the founder and director of the Elie Wiesel Archive, characterized Wiesel basically as a packrat, or someone “known for meticulously saving almost every piece of paper on which he wrote.” Still, there are no Shushani manuscripts in the holdings. (https://www.jpost.com/Jerusalem-Report/Elie-Wiesels-first-book-574677)
2) From the first line in his first chapter on Shushani, Wiesel imbued his narrative with enigma. “No one knew his name or his age,” Wiesel wrote in 1966, “perhaps he had none.” For the length of that first chapter Wiesel kept the identity of the man a mystery. Wiesel solved that mystery in his second chapter. “If I reveal his name now,” Wiesel wrote in 1970, in a story called “The Death of My Teacher” in One Generation After, “it is because he is no longer alive.” Shushani died in 1968.
According to Wiesel, his attempt at safeguarding Shushani’s identity in his first chapter didn’t work with those who knew him. “Others recognized him despite my efforts to disguise the image,” Wiesel wrote in “The Death of My Teacher.” “His disciples of one year, or one night, took pains to tell me they were not fooled.”
Wiesel responded, “I myself thought I had exaggerated; yet I had told the truth. Yes, he did visit faraway countries; yes, he did received unusually high fees for his lectures, fees he then gave to charity; yes, he did behave like one of the hidden Just Men who enter exile and anonymity before offering salvation to their fellow men; yes, he was greater than the legend surrounding his person.”
Note the heavy brushstrokes: the intrepid wanderer, the generosity, the comportment. Note the legend building. Wiesel equated Shushani’s code of conduct to the Just Men, known in Hebrew as the Lamed Vov. According to Talmudic tradition, thirty-six Lamed Vovnik walk the earth at any one time. As righteous individuals, they carry the weight of mankind. But they are not saints or holy men. They are too humble to even believe in their function.
Wiesel furthered the humility aspect in another source. “In the Hasidic tradition,” he related, “before the Just Man could be revealed he had to become a Navenadnik, wandering about and hiding his own identity so as to attract and help others anonymously.” (See Lily Edelman, “A Conversation with Elie Wiesel,” in Robert Franciosi, ed., Elie Wiesel: Conversations.)
If Wiesel hinted at Shushani as a Navenadnik in his second chapter, he used the term outright in his autobiography from the 1990s. The brushstroke then attributed high moral standards to Shushani: modesty, humility, nobility.
3) Let’s interrupt these brushstrokes to ask a question. In his biography of Shushani, did Wiesel subtly present a grandiose image of self? Consider the tone presented in his Shushani legend and promoted in his own narrative: humility. In that tone, Wiesel removed himself from the forces of ambition. He shaped his own character upon the solitude of work, to study and to write. Meanwhile, his credits piled up. He wrote indefatigably. He won literary prizes in France. He served two presidents as the Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. He won the highest prizes bestowed by the U.S. government: the Congressional Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His crowning achievement occurred in 1986 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wiesel developed a distance between himself and his accomplishments. The world fame and import fell to him. He played no role in his accomplishments. Rather, he expressed wonder at his success.
This incredulity found a champion in Wiesel’s longtime literary agent, Georges Borchardt. Wiesel met Borchardt in the late 1950s. Borchardt then represented the French publishing house Les Editions de Minuit in New York. Through Borchardt’s efforts, Wiesel’s first memoir, the iconic Night, found an American publisher. A confidential, trusting relationship grew from these roots.
Asked about the promotion of Wiesel during the long width of Wiesel’s career, Borchardt responded, “I, as his agent, did not do anything to promote him, nor did he promote himself. People just came after him…” (Author correspondence with Georges Borchardt, May 1, 2009.)
Borchardt’s statement held some merit. In July 1966, for instance, the 92nd Street Y contacted Wiesel. His lecture series began with the Y’s outreach. But Borchardt missed the wider story. Wiesel hired a promoter, the B’nai B’rith lecture bureau, in the spring of 1967. The bureau, then and now, represents renowned Jewish public figures and scholars. Lily Edelman became Wiesel’s publicist. In many different sources over the years, Edelman interviewed and wrote about Wiesel. Never does she acknowledge her role as paid publicist. Never does Wiesel acknowledge that role.
Wiesel’s incredulity then expressed a kind of purity. The advance of Wiesel’s brand, however, developed through a more active, assertive role. To hire an agency did not remove Wiesel from self-promotion. Rather, it added a layer. A similar dynamic played out in Wiesel’s campaign to win the Novel Prize.
Notably, the lack of self-promotion as a defining characteristic paralleled the New Testament. “He stayed outside in remote places,” the Gospel of Mark detailed Jesus’ movement. “Yet people kept coming to him from all quarters.” (Mark 1:45. Oxford Study Bible.) Was the framing coincidental? A lack of self-promotion, an overwhelming tone of humility, promoted Wiesel as modest, somber, interior. The Gospels of Jesus imbue the figure with similar characteristics.
4) Let’s circle back to Wiesel’s framing of Shushani as a Lamed Vov. If Wiesel subtly presented a grandiose image of self as a disciple, did he go further? In his wider narrative of Shushani, did Wiesel mold a Wiesel-like character? Did he build a mythology of Shushani to parallel and promote a mythology of Wiesel?
To find answers, let’s expand the probe. In addition to Wiesel’s epic narrative, a smattering of investigations and eyewitness accounts accumulated over the years. How did those sources describe Shushani in relation to the legend perpetuated by Wiesel?
As Wiesel began his narrative with name and age, that seems like an appropriate jumping off spot. In his final chapter on Shushani, Wiesel gave the man’s birth name as Mordechai Rosenbaum. According to Wiesel, he based his conclusion on information sent to him by other eyewitnesses.
An Israeli journalist, Yair Sheleg, weighed in with different theories in his own investigation. Sheleg speculated that Wiesel saw one of Shushani’s passports, bearing the name Mordechai ben Shushan. Shushan in Hebrew means lily or a lily-like flower. Sheleg, wrongfully, named rosenbaum as the German word for lily. (see Yair Sheleg, “Goodby, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, September 26, 2003.)
In contrast, a journalist named Salomon Malka interviewed a New Jersey man who met Shushani’s nephew. Malka was then writing his book, Monsieur Chouchani. In that book, Malka interviewed Wiesel extensively. In fact, the Wiesel interview comprised the first part of the book. I am calling that interview Wiesel’s third chapter on Shushani.
According to Malka, Shushani’s nephew passed on Shushani’s real name as Hillel Perlman. That name found corroboration from another source. Shalom Rosenberg, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University who studied with Shushani late in Shushani’s life, told a story. He credited Shushani as the source. In the 1920s Shushani traveled to America. He carried with him letters of introduction. The letters, written by Rabbi Abraham Kook, named “Perlmann” as a “brilliant, highly knowledgeable rabbi, who has a wide breadth of learning and profound wisdom.”
In Shushani then, identity confusion formed. Mystery stoked the confusion. The uncertainty added to the legend. Did Wiesel, in helping to build the identity confusion, do something similar with his own?
His birth name, according to a copy of his birth certificate, was Lazar Vizel. His Hebrew name was Eliezer. In the 1950s he changed the spelling of his family name. The copyright to his Yiddish manuscript of Night reads: Eliezer Wiesel. Two years later, he adopted another name. With the publication of La Nuit, the world was introduced to Elie Wiesel.
If the alteration westernized and de-Judaized his name, Wiesel added layers. In his autobiography from the 1990s, Wiesel claimed that he wrote under pen names, Elisha Carmeli and Ben Shlomo. In those layers Wiesel created his own identity confusion. Mystery and uncertainty built from the confusion. A legend emerged.
Wiesel did something similar with Shushani’s birthplace He named a series of possible birthplaces, from Marrakech to Vilna to Kishinev to Safed to Calcutta to Florence to Shushan in modern-day Iran, a city mentioned in both the Book of Esther and the Book of Daniel. That place-name, of course, possibly explained the origin of Shushani’s name.
In his two later chapters, Wiesel reduced the possibilities down to one: Lithuania. According to the tale he told to Salomon Malka, Wiesel met with a rabbi who claimed to be Shushani’s nephew. Wiesel even noted that the nephew resembled his once master in appearance. The nephew offered a portrait of Shushani as a child, including Lithuania as his birthplace.
Wiesel then picked up the thread of Shushani’s childhood. He offered a profile in his autobiography. As a child, Shushani “dazzled relatives and teachers with his prodigious memory. He retained everything he read. Even before his bar mitzvah he could recite the entire Talmud by heart. People came great distances to listen to him, and his father took him even further afield, exhibiting him, for a fee, in various communities. That was how he got rich, and how he traveled the world. Everywhere he went he stunned and enchanted his audience, becoming a formidable acrobat of knowledge.”
Note the effect. What Wiesel began in his first chapter with the “brief and stormy” meeting in a Parisian synagogue reverberated. Shushani as an ilui, or prodigy. Shushani as a maggid, or an itinerant orator, sparkled. Lost in the sparkle was Wiesel’s profile of himself and the similarities between the two. Wiesel did not portray himself as a child maggid, but he did become a maggid as a young adult. First, he turned to journalism. Thanks to that profession he “explored the world and went to North Africa, Africa, South America, India and elsewhere.” (Harry James Cargas, Harry James Cargas in conversation with Elie Wiesel.) Later, his emissary career took him to such places as Moscow, Kiev, Thailand and Ethiopia.
Wiesel’s framing of Shushani as an ilui found a variant of himself in his narrative. Wiesel told a story in his autobiography. The date was sometime in the early 1960s. According to Wiesel, he received an urgent phone call from a cousin. Gravely ill, the cousin needed an operation. Before going under the knife, however, he wanted Wiesel’s blessing. Wiesel rushed to the hospital.
Days after the surgery, Wiesel went to visit the cousin. Wiesel had an ulterior motive for the visit. Why did the cousin want Wiesel’s blessing? In answering the question the cousin related a prophecy. The prophecy took place when Wiesel was 8 years old. The year, ostensibly, was 1936. Wiesel went with his mother to see the Rebbe of Vishnitz. This was a regular routine. The Wiesels belonged to Vishnitzer Hasidim. The Rebbe received both mother and son. After a time, he asked the mother to leave the room. He then tested the child on his knowledge. Afterward, he asked to see Wiesel’s mother alone.
Wiesel waited in an antechamber. When his mother emerged from the private audience, she was a “changed woman,” according to Wiesel. “Violent sobs shook her body. People stared at her in commiseration. The Rabbi must have said terrible things to her, terrifying, painful things – about me.”
Flash forward to the 1960s and the cousin in his pre-operative state. Why did he crave Wiesel’s blessing? The cousin, it turns out, was in the antechamber that day back in 1936. When he saw Wiesel’s mother emerge in tears, he rushed to comfort her. He walked with her awhile. She confided in him. The cousin then relayed the Rebbe’s words to Wiesel in the hospital room. “Know that your son will become a gadol b’Israel, a great man in Israel, but neither you nor I will live to see the day,” the Rebbe told Wiesel’s mother.
Unlike Wiesel’s profile of Shushani’s childhood, Wiesel downplayed the prophecy story. By adding layers – a cousin relating a tale that occurred thirty years earlier – he removed himself and subtly reduced the effect. In essence the effect framed the gadol b’Israel as a man of humility. What got lost? Wiesel created a legend that fit both his ambition and his aesthetic.
5) How did Shushani enter Wiesel’s life? In his autobiography, Wiesel chronicled the encounter on a train from Paris to Taverny. According to Wiesel, his head was in the Book of Job, as he had to prepare for an upcoming presentation. In Wiesel’s description, he felt confident that he knew the subject. The scene was then set up for disturbance, degradation and restoration.
Wiesel’s first chapter on Shushani some thirty years earlier moved along similar lines. In both versions of the story, Wiesel unexpectedly heard a voice on the train. When he looked up, he saw Shushani as “slovenly, and his ridiculous tiny hat and dusty glasses made him more than a little conspicuous.”
Shushani immediately embarked on a “veritable examination” of Wiesel’s knowledge of Job, “strewn with traps and trick questions.” Wiesel failed miserably. Shushani then excoriated Wiesel for having the “chutzpah to give a speech on Job in public.”
In his autobiography Wiesel described his reaction. “I was eager for this ordeal to end” but the “train moved with agonizing lethargy.” The “ordeal” did not end at the Taverny depot. According to Wiesel, Shushani followed him to the orphanage where he lived. Shushani spent the weekend. Wiesel described that Shabbat as “a punishment.” Shushani allowed Wiesel to give his presentation. “He didn’t speak during the discussion either,” Wiesel detailed, “but an ironic smile fluttered on his lips.”
That ironic smile turned into a “real” lecture on Job to “rehabilitate” him. Wiesel called that lecture “a dazzling, stimulating, provocative, enriching exposition the likes of which I had never heard.”
If his first chapter on Shushani moved along somewhat different lines – Shushani had no patience for Wiesel’s presentation, he interrupted and took the class on an “unforgettable experience” – the framing stoked the legend building. Note the figure of Job. As rendered by Wiesel, the power relationship between Shushani and Wiesel paralleled the power relationship between God and Job. Was Wiesel actually studying Job on that train ride or did he use the character as a literary device? Further, by the time Wiesel offered his first chapter on Shushani, he had come to be recognized as a Job-like figure. Alfred Kazin, writing a review of Night in 1960, found Wiesel’s “embittered interrogation of Providence” analogous to “the ever-human Job.” The framing lit a fire. In 1966 Maurice Freedman, the biographer of Martin Buber, labeled Wiesel as a “modern Job.” Nearly three decades later, Freedman altered the label to the “Job of Auschwitz.” (See Alfred Kazin, “The Least of These,” The Reporter, November 1960. See Maurice Friedman, “Elie Wiesel – The Modern Job,” The Commonweal, vol. 85, October 14, 1966.)
In between these pronouncements Wiesel wrote a book of portraits aptly entitled Messengers of God: Biblical Portraits and Legends. He ended his portraiture with a chapter on Job. As Wiesel readily admitted, he was “preoccupied” with the character, particularly in the years following the war. Job “could be seen on every road of Europe,” Wiesel portrayed. “Wounded, robbed, mutilated. Certainly not happy. Nor resigned.”
The description seemed to ask something of Wiesel. Did he have himself in mind? In his wider portraiture of Job, did he mold a Wiesel-like character? Did he highlight those characteristics of the Jobian legend to fit with his own biography? By telling his tale, did he subtly parallel and promote himself as a Jobian figure?
Let’s take a brief detour from Shushani to consider certain brushstrokes in Wiesel’s portrait of Job. Wiesel labeled the character as “our contemporary.” He asserted, “Whenever we attempt to tell our own story, we transmit his.” If immediately Wiesel created a link between himself and a Biblical counterpart, he solidified the connection. The character belonged to the “most vulnerable part of our past.” Job was “a mirror a thousand times shattered reflecting the image of a solitude bursting with madness.”
The image in the mirror circled back to the end of the Night story, when Wiesel looked at himself after a year in the concentration camp universe. The shattering conjured a different ending. At the end of Wiesel’s Yiddish version of Night, he shattered the mirror. The madness spoke to the overall effect of the concentration camp universe. It also linked to Wiesel’s chronicle of Shushani, as madness played a vital component. Madness wasn’t the only connection to Shushani. Wiesel rendered Job as a Just Man, stateless, a wanderer through provinces and centuries.
In Wiesel’s overlap of stories, in his “concentric circle,” Job, Shushani and Wiesel all orbited and intersected. But unlike Wiesel’s biography of Shushani, his portrait of Job focused on that “vulnerable” past. Wiesel rendered Job as an innocent: “Job, friend of man, tested by God, did not deserve his punishment.” He noted the “startling” speed in Job’s downfall. “In no time at all, he lost his fortune, his possessions, his children, his friends, all his reasons to live.” He was pushed into a role, the “hapless victim drawn into the abyss.”
How did Job react to these circumstances? He asked “no questions, not even of himself.” He “believed.” He “accepted.” “He did not, he could not, understand what was happening to and around him. He was being pulled and pushed in all directions and he did not know that it was all part of a plan.”
If his description essentially followed the story as told in the Book of Job, note the connections to another story. Substitute the 1940s for the ancient period. Substitute Wiesel’s hometown of Sighet for the land of Uz. Substitute Wiesel for Job. Wiesel’s description paralleled his prelude to his arrival in the concentration camp universe. Job’s belief and acceptance sounded like Sighet’s in the days when deportations trains meant “work.” The staggering speed sounded like Sighet’s sea change, as the town moved from thriving shtetl to ghetto to Auschwitz in rapid succession. If Job did not understand the master plan, if Job did not revolt, neither did Sighet. But Job, like Wiesel, was pushed to the brink. When he finally spoke, according to Wiesel, Job asked the “eternal question” of the persecuted: “Why? Why me? Why now? … What is God doing, and where is His justice?”
Those questions echoed the torment found in the most pivotal scene in the Night story, as three prisoners were hung in front of the entire prison population of Monowitz. Behind him, Wiesel heard another prisoner utter, “‘Where is God? Where is He? Where can He be now?’”
The echoes reverberated further. Wiesel imbued Job with the push and pull between guilt and innocence. Job “would have preferred to think of himself as guilty. His innocence troubled him, left him in the dark; his guilt might give the experience a meaning.”
Did the description suggest something of Wiesel? Did he find his own innocence as a survivor troubling? Did he form his guilt to find some meaning? Forming guilt was hardly a reach. For Wiesel, self-recrimination pervaded, in the way Wiesel could not aid his dying father, in the very act of survival while the surrounding pastoral was littered with bodies. A question then forms. In Wiesel’s telling of the Job story, where did Job end and Wiesel begin?
In Job’s celestial debate with God, Wiesel found a hero. “Job had nothing left in this world except words,” Wiesel narrated, “but he knew how to use them.” He made his words “quiver.” He made his words “scream.” Words became Job’s rebellion. In words, Job “reversed the roles.” God became the “defendant.” Job “spoke his outrage, his grief; he told God what He should have known for a long time, perhaps since always, that something was amiss in His universe.”
Coming from Wiesel, the rebellion had a haunting quality, as if he longed for such a celestial encounter. Job’s indictment accused God of turning His back on His creation, in losing interest, in absenting Himself. This was Wiesel’s indictment, too.
At this point in the legend, according to Wiesel, God “chose to make Himself heard.” God responded to Job’s indictment with a series of question. If Wiesel found God’s explanation amiss – “Actually, God said nothing that Job could interpret as an answer or an explanation or a justification of his ordeals” – Wiesel found Job’s response inexcusable. Instead of exasperation or aggravation, Job “declared himself satisfied. Vindicated. Rehabilitated.” The “fierce fighter,” as Wiesel rendered Job in his rebellion, “abruptly bowed his head and gave in.”
For Job, such action led to restoration. He recovered all that he had lost. He died an old, satisfied man. For Wiesel, such action became a “hasty abdication.” In Job’s resignation and restoration, Wiesel registered an “insult to man.” Wiesel wanted Job to protest further. Wiesel reimagined the ending by putting words in Job’s mouth. “What about my dead children,” Wiesel wanted Job to ask God, “do they forgive You? What right have I to speak on their behalf? … Now it is my turn to choose between You and my children, and I refuse to repudiate them. I demand that justice be done to them, if not to me, and that the trial continue.”
Wiesel’s trial continued. Unlike Job, restoration was not an option. Those murdered during the Judeocide were not coming back. The town of his childhood was gone. The boy he was, and the man he would have become under a different history, left a lasting, staggering impression. The words Wiesel put in Job’s mouth speak to Wiesel’s adult life. As a messenger to mankind, he built his tug with God into a less celestial, more earthly, protest. He became a voice of conscience.
Where did Job end and Wiesel begin? Here, with Job’s renunciation and Wiesel’s repudiation. But Wiesel’s break with Job did not discount or nullify the overall resonance of the tale. A Job-like figure emerged. For followers of Wiesel, the connections were unmistakable. A Biblical, or prophetic, counterpart became incorporated in what would be known as the “Elie Wiesel Phenomenon.”
6) The figure of Job then, in Wiesel’s chronicle of Mordechai Shushani, appeared multifaceted. But from Shushani’s enigmatic appearance in Wiesel’s life, a choice presented itself. Two directions beckoned. One direction led toward piety, rooted in tradition. The other direction led toward the cult of iconoclasm. If we know the direction Wiesel chose, some evidence suggests that a close friend and adviser attempted to lead Wiesel away from Shushani. Menashe Klein, like Wiesel, grew up in the Orthodox environment of Northern Transylvania. Klein came from Ungvar. As the son of the Ungvar rabbi, he followed a most prestigious line. His future, like Wiesel’s, appeared set.
That future came crashing down in the spring of 1944. Like Wiesel, Klein’s Holocaust journey passed from Auschwitz to Buchenwald to orphanages in France to America. Judith Hemmendinger, a counselor at those orphanages, remembered Klein as “special.” Aside from his cantorial voice, he looked “after the religious life” of the boys. “He was like a rabbi then.”
Wiesel agreed. He called Klein, “Our guide, our spokesman” in the orphanages. “When there were matters to discuss with the management, he did it.” Wiesel credited Klein with constructing a real Shabbat, “so that the service would be dignified and the study room similar to those we had known in our childhood.”
Klein immigrated to America in 1947. He settled originally in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn and went on to found a yeshiva in Borough Park. He became the spiritual leader of the Ungvar community and, according to Wiesel, “one of the great Halachic arbiters of his generation.” When he died in 2011, he had thousands of disciples. In many ways he fulfilled the demands of his prestigious lines of heritage, with the flatlands of central Brooklyn substituted for the mountainous region of Northern Transylvania.
Before emigrating, Klein met with Shushani. According to Wiesel in his autobiography, Klein felt “threatened in his presence.” He didn’t have specific reasons for the threat, just “instinct.” He counseled Wiesel to “leave him as soon as possible.” He pleaded, “Do not see him again. The welfare of your soul is at stake.” (Author interview with Hemmendinger, December 2008. For Wiesel’s description of Klein in France, see Elie Wiesel, “Friendship,” in Irving Abrahamson, ed., Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, vol. II. For Wiesel’s description of Klein in America, see Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea.)
Klein chose the piety path. Wiesel, who had followed the piety path up to this point in time, submitted to Shushani. If piety represented old patterns, a world of fathers, Shushani shook his “inner peace.” He “overturned certainties.” Wiesel declared, “I needed to be forced to start all over.”
In Shushani, Wiesel seemed to abandon the governing forces of his upbringing. He seemed to abandon friends. He became a very lonely person, according to eyewitness reflection. He seemed to abandon God, according to more eyewitness reflection. He denied God’s very existence. He became a renegade. His interrogation of God, found on the pages of Night, can be charted to the period spent with Shushani.
Shushani seemed to come at Wiesel as a deconstructionist. He abolished established doctrine. He made Wiesel think, not only theologically and textually but creatively. He made Wiesel imagine. Wiesel in his psychological state welcomed that kind of instruction. Shushani became his rebellion.
But recognize how Wiesel rebelled: through a master, or through an old model. Wiesel saw Shushani as a maggid. There was a comfort to this mooring. “I used to go to the synagogue every Sabbath and listen to the maggidim,” Wiesel recalled. “They were wandering storytellers who used to go from one village to another. They were the link between villages, the witnesses from one culture to another.” (Edward B. Fiske, “Elie Wiesel: Archivist with a Mission,” The New York Times, January 31, 1973.)
In Shushani the maggid, Wiesel seemed to find a piece of his childhood, a flicker. Shushani then wasn’t strictly a deconstructionist. A wider evaluation identifies Shushani as both an iconoclast and a link back to Wiesel’s childhood. For Wiesel, Shushani was an extraordinary find.
7) For Shushani, Wiesel was just as extraordinary. Whoever Shushani was, and the historical record struggles to define him, recognize what he became in Wiesel the biographer. Wiesel established himself as the bearer of Shushani’s tikkun, or restoration. In such a role the bearer carried enormous weight. Wiesel determined the outline and color of the past.
Wiesel’s tikkun, however, wasn’t the only reflection of Shushani from the era of liberation in France. Other boys and their counselors from the French orphanages retained some vivid memories. Perhaps the most vivid belonged to Judith Hemmendinger, for her father studied the Talmud with Shushani in the pre-war years. Those studies began in Strasbourg in 1936. According to Hemmendinger, Shushani “came every night for dinner at our place and my father was crazy about him.” Hemmendinger’s mother felt differently. She “didn’t like him so much because he was a schnorer and he stank,” Hemmendinger revealed.
These recollections spoke to a polarizing enigma. Hemmendinger’s mother saw a beggar. Her father saw a genius. Both views held sway.
Hemmendinger also placed Shushani in Paris right before the war, where her father continued his studies. “The apartments in Paris were not heated,” Hemmendinger recalled, so Shushani and her father studied the Talmud in the metro, “because it was warm there.”
When war broke out, Hemmendinger’s father was put in a vulnerable position. Philippe Feist was an engineer from Berlin. He’d never gained French citizenship. As a German national living in Paris, and therefore a citizen of an enemy combatant, he was arrested by the French. When the Nazis conquered France, Feist became a prisoner of the Third Reich. As a Jew, he was deported to Auschwitz in September 1943. He did not survive.
The memory of Philippe Feist, though, worked in Shushani’s favor. Judith Hemmendinger recalled, “I was in Taverny [an orphanage] and he [Shushani] came and said he wanted a place to stay in the home. I told him I couldn’t. He said: ‘You can’t tell me that after I was so close to your father.’ So I capitulated.”
Hemmendinger’s reflection contained a strain of Shushani’s manipulative tendencies. She also contradicted Wiesel’s encounter story. Did Shushani enter Wiesel’s life on a train to Taverny as he studied Job, or as a guest invited (by coercion) by Hemmendinger?
Hemmendinger continued with her reflections. “Because he smelled so bad he got a room on his own. A very small room. He never ate with us – only on Friday night because he was never hungry. He was studying all day. A few boys were meshuggah with him like my father was….”
Hemmendinger went on to describe the boys’ enchantment. On Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples, Shushani “spoke from morning to night. The boys would sit there listening to him!” The exclamation and surprise that boys could sit for so long, and so engrossed, were hers.
Other sources confirmed Shushani’s eating patterns. A lack of hunger, though, was not the driving force. Moshe Schweber, who originally met Shushani in Strasbourg in the 1930s, offered housing to Shushani years later in Jerusalem. He recalled, Shushani “would never let people pass their hands near his food, because he was afraid of contamination.” Zwi Bachrach, later a Jewish history professor at Bar-Ilan University, met Shushani on a kibbutz. He recalled, “He would never sit with us in the dining hall. We had to leave a tray with his food outside the door of his room and he would eat by himself. The first time I offered him a cup of coffee, he threw it out the window.” (Yair Sheleg, “Goodby, Mr. Chouchani,” Haaretz, September 26, 2003.)
If paranoia was the driving force for his abstinence, Hemmendinger reflected further on Shushani’s eating pattern. He typically ate “in the middle of the night” when “he’d get hungry for bread and sardines.” To accommodate, Hemmendinger gave the storage key to one of the boys. “You have the key only for Mr. Shushani,” she told the boy.
To a paranoid, manipulative behavior pattern, Hemmendinger also described a hoarder. “He never threw anything away.” His stash of papers and books reached “so high the cleaning woman couldn’t get into his room!” Hemmendinger ordered the cleaning woman to throw away Shushani’s materials. To his credit, he “never complained.”
Shushani remained at the orphanage at Taverny for two to three years, according to Hemmendinger. Ostensibly then he lived at Taverny for the life of the home, arriving sometime after October 1945 and departing before September 1947. Did Hemmendinger’s detail contradict Wiesel’s? Did Shushani’s tutoring of the young Wiesel take place at an orphanage in Taverny, not in a tiny rented room in central Paris?
Regardless, both Hemmendinger and her colleague, Gaby Cohen, wanted Shushani to leave Taverny. But Hemmendinger felt trapped. Out of loyalty to her father, she allowed Shushani to stay. “What can you do?” Hemmendinger asked rhetorically.
To Hemmendinger’s detail, Gaby Cohen added broad strokes. “The man who did not sleep and did not eat… How to describe him? Mysterious, strange, special. Present in our world? Just that kind of never seen before.”
A great phrase: “Just that kind of never seen before.” Another boy from that time offered a similar description. Jacques Ribons did not study with Shushani. To Ribons, Shushani was inaccessible. “You couldn’t talk to him,” Ribons described in his patent phraseology. (Author interview with Jacques Ribon, January 2010.)
Ribons then segued to a story. One day he was traveling to Paris. Shushani occupied the same car. According to Ribons, Shushani always carried a suitcase. At the train station in Paris Shushani’s suitcase fell open. It was full of money. Dollars, British pounds, French Francs. “Where did you get the money?” Ribons asked. Shushani replied that he went on tours of the United States.
Ribons’ story found corroboration from Wiesel. He, too, witnessed the suitcase filled with money. He also told Salomon Malka that Shushani earned his keep by giving lessons. How did Wiesel pay for his? According to Wiesel, he didn’t. Living far below the poverty line at that time, Wiesel couldn’t offer remuneration. Counselor Mireille Warshawski contradicted Wiesel. The agency that governed the orphanages, known as the OSE, paid Shushani.
According to Wiesel, Shushani also made money in another fashion. During the 1920s, he made a mint in the stock market. He lost that money in the crash. According to Wiesel, Shushani then swore to never “again set foot on American soil…”
The parallel to Wiesel is striking. He lost a fortune in the Bernard Madoff scandal, with estimated losses reaching as high as 37 million dollars. As Wiesel offered the detail of Shushani and the stock market crash years before the Madoff scandal, real life seemed to reflect storytelling. If Shushani lost a fortune, Wiesel served as the only source. But in the telling of that tale, Shushani became a prefiguration for Wiesel.
Consider another prefiguration. In 1950, according to Salomon Malka, Shushani was in a car accident while living in Israel. The details of that accident remain sketchy. Where did the accident occur? Was Shushani hurt? What were his injuries? Malka couldn’t answer, nor did he know the source of the information. In an author interview Malka added a postscript, “I hadn’t thought of it before, but Wiesel had a similar accident in New York in the 1950s, if I’m not mistaken.”
Malka was not mistaken. According to Wiesel’s narrative, a taxi driver hit him as he crossed a Times Square intersection in July 1956. Here again, the Shushani accident seemed to prefigure the Wiesel accident. A question lingers. Was Wiesel the source behind the Shushani car accident? If Wiesel didn’t spread the story in his biography, did he offer the information in a more covert way? Was the car accident a prefiguration or a story spread subtly by Wiesel to parallel his own epic narrative?
8) In his autobiography, Wiesel charted the last decades of Shushani’s life. Shushani abruptly left France for Israel. He lived on a kibbutz. He returned to Paris. He then settled in Montevideo. The framing left the imprint of the Just Man wandering in exile, returning to the image Wiesel created in his second chapter on Shushani, from 1970. “I knew of no country he hadn’t visited,” Wiesel described. “He had been seen in Algiers, heard in Casablanca, spotted in Nepal.”
Notably, on those same pages, Wiesel spun a similar timeline of travel for himself. He moved to Israel, but he didn’t find what he was seeking. He returned to Paris. Meanwhile, he trekked to North Africa and Morocco. He traveled to India. He even stopped at the port of Montevideo, allegedly. Though, as I documented in Satan’s Synagogue, that last trip was a part of Wiesel’s apocrypha.
What then did Wiesel’s narrative of Shushani suggest? Was he blurring the lines? Was he overlapping the epics? Did he build a mythology of Shushani to parallel and promote a mythology of Wiesel? Where did Shushani end and Wiesel begin?
9) Shushani, indeed, settled in Montevideo. He died in 1968. Wiesel’s second chapter on Shushani told the story of his master’s death. He related an eyewitness’s account, “Sitting on a lawn, surrounded by students, he was teaching them Talmud when suddenly he paused in mid-sentence; a moment later he had stopped breathing. In Jewish tradition, such death is called mitat neshika: the angel comes and embraces the chosen one like a friend and takes him along without inflicting pain.”
Mitat neshika, or death by a kiss, derived from an old rabbinic legend. At age 120, Moses did not want to die. Told by God that the time had come, Moses fought the decree relentlessly. He enlisted all forces available to him, the earth, the sun and stars, to intercede on his behalf. But God proved adamant and Moses had to accept his fate. And so God came down to take the soul of Moses to the heavens. Aided by attending angels, God had Moses close his eyes, cross his arms over his chest and put his legs together. To herald death, God kissed Moses. With that kiss God took Moses’s soul.
The kiss connoted a mystical death, pure and soothing, peaceful to Moses’ initial struggle. Wiesel’s conjuring of a mitat neshika in Shushani’s death edged Shushani up to saintliness. Notably, according to Wiesel, a series of his masters died in the same pure manner. If his masters died in purity, did that suggest something of the pupil?
In his autobiography, written over twenty years after the second chapter, Wiesel told the same story of Shushani’s death. However, in the later source, Wiesel established the time of death: “one Friday afternoon in 1965.” In both renderings, Wiesel’s attention then went to himself. Apparently, Shushani carried Wiesel’s first chapter, “The Wandering Jew,” in his pocket. As it was found on Shushani at the time of death, Wiesel was asked to compose the Hebrew inscription for the tombstone. According to Wiesel, the tombstone reads, “The rabbi and sage Mordechai Shushani, blessed be his memory. His birth and his life are bound and sealed in enigma. Died the sixth day of the week, Erev Shabbat Kodesh, 26 Tevet 5726.”
That date converts to January 18, 1966 in the Gregorian calendar. To these contradictory details, Salomon Malka offered a completely different history. Only Wiesel’s day of death found corroboration: a Friday. According to Malka’s investigation, Shushani attended a conference for South American teachers in Durasnes, a village in the middle of Uruguay. The participants finished dinner. Shushani had eaten alone in his room. A participant at the conference passed by Shushani’s room and heard him cry out for a doctor in Hebrew, “Roffe! Roffe!”
According to another participant at the conference, Shalom Rosenberg, Shushani felt like he couldn’t breathe. He refused at first to see a doctor. But he relented. He was taken to the village hospital. The doctor there diagnosed a heart attack.
If Shushani died of a heart attack, Malka found contradictory information. The body was brought to a rabbi in Montevideo, who washed Shushani before the burial. According to that rabbi, Shushani died of a brain hemorrhage.
In either case, Shushani might have died a gentle death, as per Wiesel’s story. But the eyewitness reportage suggested otherwise. The reportage suggested a patient in distress, either calling urgently for a doctor or, at the very least, suffering enough to consult one.
According to the death registry, verified by Salomon Malka, Shushani died on January 26, 1968. The registry offered the Hebrew date: 25 Tevet 5728. Malka visited the grave. While confirming the epitaph as written by Wiesel, Malka wondered why Wiesel did not mention the misdating in their interview.
The misdating remains a part of the enigma of Shushani, as chronicled by Wiesel. Another inaccuracy disappeared. “He was buried in Jerusalem,” Wiesel wrote in his second chapter. That canard vanished in his later autobiography.
In an author interview, Salomon Malka related the “great disappointment” of his book. He anticipated translations into English and Hebrew, the two most prominent languages of Jews in the modern era. Through a wider readership Malka hoped to gain additional information. But the book remained in its original French, with translations in Greek and Spanish. No further discovery came across Malka’s desk.
Malka connected his disappointment to Wiesel. “My feeling is that Wiesel knows more than he is telling,” Malka confessed. “Or that he likes keeping up the legend that surrounds this figure.”
By holding on to information, spinning legend, or adding disinformation (the deathdate as example) or contradictions, consider the pivotal role played by Wiesel. He distinguished himself as the bearer of the Shushani legend. Malka, for instance, sought out Wiesel as the key source. Subtract Wiesel as a source and Malka’s book loses half of its pages. Subtract Wiesel as a source and the stories of Shushani exist predominantly in oral form. What happens when the generation who knew Shushani passes into history? The future of Shushani belongs to Wiesel.
10) Or does it? Early in my research on Wiesel, I met a legendary scholar. His name was Moshe Lazar and he had spent his life’s work preserving the Sephardic heritage. He had learned Ladino, the language of Jewish Spain, back in the 1950s. He’d then begun to translate the major volumes of the Sephardic Classical Library. During his scholarly pursuits, he’d discovered and amassed a treasure troves of documents. Some of those documents spoke to the Inquisition period. But other documents traveled thousands of years back in time to the Roman Empire period. I hold some of those documents. I was, perhaps, the last writer to truly know Moshe Lazar. Moshe then was in the process of giving his collections away. He gave me cherished documents, or what he proudly called his “secret stash.”
Moshe hadn’t shared the contents of his “secret stash” with anybody. He claimed that he would be “excommunicated by the rabbis” if he did. Excommunication bothered him. Moshe had a muddled relationship with his religion. He’d rejected God, as his years in the concentration camp universe had taught him. But he’d formed a fervent commitment to his Jewishness, to the culture and the history, to the people and the literature, to the memory. Judaism gave him hope. He could not leave hope behind.
We had a handshake agreement. I would not go public with the contents of his stash in his lifetime. Moshe Lazar died on December 13, 2012. The question for public consumption then became: What was in his secret stash?
That is a large question. One that I began to unravel in Satan’s Synagogue. One that I will continue to unravel in future book projects. But something in Moshe’s “secret stash” caught my eye upon first sight. It was a siddur, or a Jewish prayer book. Aside from being old and stained, it seemed quite ordinary. The kind of book a davener might find in any place of worship. What was the siddur doing in Moshe’s collection?
I asked the man. Moshe was a small man, as most Holocaust survivors were. He’d entered the concentration camp universe at the age of fifteen. Like nearly all Jewish prisoners, he’d been starved by his captors. Without proper nutrients, his adolescent body didn’t develop. But when I asked about the prayer book, Moshe seemed to grow in stature. He seemed to fill the room. We sat in his office at the University of Southern California and Moshe took on the height and girth of a member of a USC basketball team. This from a man who stood about five foot six and couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred and thirty pounds.
The siddur was a keepsake. In his mind, Moshe was transported back to 1943, to a prison camp in France named Rivesaltes. That camp, in historical terms, was a waystation. Prisoners at Rivesaltes and other prisons were transported to the Drancy internment camp, or Gurs. From there, all railway lines led to Auschwitz.
Moshe did not go to Auschwitz. He was rescued by the French Underground. He was placed in a Catholic school, as per French Underground protocol. He survived the rest of the war with his head in the New Testament, not the siddur.
Moshe remembered the “strange” man he met at Rivesaltes. “Shushani” the man called himself. “Only Shushani,” Moshe continued, “as if he didn’t have a forename.
The one name didn’t define the man as “strange” in Moshe’s recollection. Nor did his appearance or smell or vagabond ways. Instead, the word spoke to the man’s “daily life.” He “recited” the “siddur shalem,” or the complete siddur. Every morning he “read” the siddur “aloud,” beginning with the “Shema Ysrael and the Priestly Blessing and moving through the other sixteen blessings.” This, Moshe marvelled, in a place where scripture and religious life “had been banned.” And, being caught with a prayer book or “reading” from it aloud would “end in a transport train to the East.”
“East,” of course, meant Auschwitz, where all life ended and though Moshe put the word “reading” in quotations, he didn’t really meant it. The “strange” man knew the siddur by heart. Moshe continued, “I began to read with Shushani. I would sit with my eyes on the pages of the book and he would correct my pronunciations. I never once saw him consult the book for content. He had pitch perfect memory.”
A great phrase: “pitch perfect memory.” The phrase reminded me of Gaby Cohen’s description of Shushani: “Just that kind of never seen before.”
The scene as described by Moshe left an indelible image. While everyone around them foraged for food, Shushani and Moshe recited prayers to each other. Moshe went on in life to think little of food, and other daily cares. The Moshe Lazar I knew lived a life based on the conditioning he’d learned at Rivesaltes. Food, weather, traffic, noise; they did not seem to exist in his head. Ironically, he lived in Los Angeles, where food, traffic and weather are the preoccupations.
As noted, Moshe did not go to Auschwitz. He was rescued by the French Underground. “Did Shushani go to Auschwitz?” I asked Moshe.
He didn’t answer directly. Instead, he remember the post-war years in Paris. Moshe lived there until 1948, when he went to Israel to fight in the War of Independence. He saw Shushani again, or a “reflection” of Shushani. “The man had changed,” Moshe remembered. His words tailed off. He couldn’t put his fingers on the change.
Moshe did not study with Shushani in Paris. He no longer wanted to recite the daily prayers, or comb through the Torah and Talmud. He had changed, too. But, he did show Shushani a keepsake. Back at Rivesaltes, when the Underground rescued as many children as possible, Moshe parted with Shushani. As a gift, Shushani gave Moshe the siddur. “Shushani didn’t need it anyway,” Moshe reasoned. “You’ve never seen anyone with such a memory.”
In post-war Paris, Shushani didn’t “acknowledge” the prayer bookin any way. Moshe showed him the copy. Shushani didn’t “remember the siddur, or me.” Moshe called it “strange,” and perhaps part of Shushani’s particular “psyche.”
Our conversation on Shushani ended there. After Moshe’s death, I discovered the truth. Moshe, it turns out, had looked into Shushani’s life. He’d discovered a history never before uncovered. It is a startling story never before told. But, let me save that for another project. I will, however, leave a hint.
As noted earlier in these pages, there was a New Jersey man who met Shushani’s nephew. That man passed on Shushani’s real name as Hillel Perlman. Shushani’s real name, if accurate, isn’t the hint. The New Jersey man claimed to be Shushani’s nephew. That meant that Shushani had at least one sibling.