When Werner Sonderberg replies “Guilty … and not guilty,” after being asked to enter his plea in a New York courtroom, the judge and spectators are stunned. Sonderberg, a young German expatriate who is accused of murder, seems to want to explain something to the court, but he is silenced.
In Elie Wiesel’s latest novel, “The Sonderberg Case” (Knopf), Yedidyah Wasserman, an actor turned theater critic, is assigned to cover the trial. As his editor tells him, “Trials are like theater. All those who participate in them are playing a role.” But his much-loved grandfather urges him to remember that, “When a man’s life is at stake, it is not theater.” For many years after, this trial and its questions stay with Wasserman.
The narrative zigzags through time, cutting deeper into the past, as the Nobel laureate explores themes of memory, justice, judgment, journalism and guilt. With spare details, he manages to create complex characters. Wasserman is the father of two sons who live in Israel; his wife is an actress. His own father, a gentle dreamer, teaches ancient texts in a Jewish high school. Wasserman adores his handsome and majestic grandfather, who’s more interested in knowledge than information and looks out with a haunted gaze.
Melancholy, mentioned in the opening paragraph, is a familiar state for Wasserman. He grew up believing that he was an American-born kid, the son of loving parents who were the children of survivors. But he learns that actually he was born in Europe, left for safekeeping by his parents with a gentile woman. His parents were murdered and the woman cared for him through the war years and then turned him over to relief authorities.
But even before he discovers that he was adopted, he experiences a gaping sense of loss, sharing a collective memory for all those who disappeared. He observes, “When a man has an arm or a leg amputated, his ‘phantom limb’ still hurts him. This can be applied to the Jewish people: As the great Yiddish poet Chaim Grade said: each of us feels pain for the limbs that are no longer.”
Wasserman’s stories about the trial are carried on the front page of his newspaper. Sonderberg is accused of murdering his elderly uncle while they are on a walk in the Adirondacks. Some years after the trial, Sonderberg tracks down the reporter and wants to meet. The truth loops back to the Holocaust.
Wiesel writes in a style that is poetic and engrossing, with stories tucked in of rebbes and beggars and, always, more questions. He asks, “But then, as our sages wonder, who will judge the judges?”
Now 82, Wiesel is the author of more than 50 books, most recently the novel “A Mad Desire to Dance.” He writes in French, and this book was translated by Catherine Temerson. Weekly, the author travels from his Manhattan home to teach at Boston University, where he is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities.
In a conversation earlier this month in his office, Wiesel explains that he was drawn to write about the conflict between generations in Germany through the German students who have taken his course at Boston University. They speak to him about their sense of guilt at what happened in their country, even though they were born 30 years after the war. The professor speaks of the paradox: “Those who are guilty claim to be innocent; those who are innocent feel guilty.”
He also feels strongly about the ideas about journalism and ethics that he expresses here. When Wasserman begins working for a newspaper as drama critic, his father advises him to choose words wisely and, when criticizing, to take care not to humiliate another.
Wiesel reminisces about his own earliest days as a journalist in Paris. With the help of a student who is organizing his archives, he recently found his first published articles, written in Yiddish, for the newspaper of the Paris section of the Irgun, Zion in Kampf. He recalls that he got the job by writing to the editor in 1947 and explaining that he was a student of philosophy and wanted to help the Jews in Palestine. His very first piece, he says with a pause and sadness shadowing his face, was about the Altalena, the ship carrying arms for the Irgun that was shelled by the newly formed Israel Defense Forces in 1948, near Tel Aviv. He described two brothers — one on board the ship and the other, not knowing the whereabouts of his brother — given orders to fire. His byline, in those days, was Ben Shlomo (son of Shlomo). And like Wasserman, Wiesel also worked as a theater critic, reviewing productions in the Yiddish theater in Paris for a Yiddish monthly — he was the only reporter.
This season, Yale University Press is publishing “An Ethical Compass: Coming of Age in the 21st Century,” a compilation of the winning essays on ethics in an annual college competition — the Ethics Prize — administered by the The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity for the last 20 years.
Looking back on his many years of writing novels and works of non-fiction, he says that the two books most special to him are “Night” and “The Jews of Silence.” He wrote the latter after making his first trip to Russia in 1965. Upon returning, he made a vow that just as he put on tefilin every day, he would make a daily effort on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
The 92nd Street Y presents “Elie Wiesel in Concert: Melodies and Stories from Long Ago,” on Saturday, Dec. 18, 8 p.m. Wiesel will be joined by an orchestra and choir that will sing and perform songs from his youth, conducted by Matthew Lazar and produced by Phil Ramone. $40. The Y is located on Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street.