The Sonderberg Case - By Elie Wiesel & Catherine Temerson

MUST ONE SUFFER and then feel death’s ice-cold breath on the nape of one’s neck in order to understand why one has been going around since earliest childhood with an ill-defined despondency close to melancholy?

I felt it long before the trial.

And afterward.

I felt it on the day Dr. Feldman explained to me, in a gentle, slow voice, as though he were addressing a child, that the body can become our implacable enemy.

One day, I thought, I’ll turn it into a novel.

Concerning the trial, I had long been convinced that I’d never know the truth of what really happened that day between the two men, blood relations, in the high mountains of the Adirondacks.

Accident? Suicide? Murder? Can one willingly take to the grave an enigma that refuses to disclose its secret?


What evil spirit had driven Werner Sonderberg to take a break from his classes at New York University and leave town for a trip so far from the Village with the aged, disillusioned relative said to be his uncle? Yedidyah wondered. What could they have said to each other for their quarrel to reach a pitch of deadly violence? And who was this uncle whose tragic death, far from anyone, loomed over the Manhattan courtroom filled with journalists, lawyers, and curious onlookers for days and days?

The media, absorbed by ever-changing current events, or from boredom, no longer mention the trial. The fate of an individual matters little compared to the goings-on of political, financial, and artistic celebrities. But Yedidyah thinks about it often, too often probably; in fact, he remains haunted by it. Remembered images from the trial never leave him; and the proceedings echo in his mind. The lit-up room; the jury members, whose faces were alternately impassive and horrified; the judge, who at times looked like he was dozing but never missed a word of what was being said; the prosecutor, who thought he was the avenging angel. And the defendant, oscillating between defiance and remorse, avoiding the mournful gaze of his beautiful fiancée. Sometimes, when Yedidyah assesses his work, with its setbacks and intervals of calm, his dazzling triumphs and slow or dizzying failures, this trial stands out for him like black granite attracting the twilight. Years have gone by, but Yedidyah still can’t reach a verdict.

Where does a man’s guilt begin and where does it end? What is definitive, irrevocable?

One thought has obsessed him constantly since then. Thanks to Dr. Feldman’s diagnosis, he became conscious of his mortality: Could he possibly go, and duly leave his children, their mother, Alika, and the entire convulsive and condemned world, without certainty?

Until my final hour on this earth, I’ll remember this event that bore me, carrying me from one discovery to another, from memory to memory, from emotion to emotion, and I’ll never know the real reason behind it.

Why this meeting, this confrontation with a destiny that touched mine on the surface, like a coincidence?

I could have studied other subjects, been interested in music rather than theater; I could have had other teachers, been captivated by another woman and not fallen in love with Alika; I could have been less close to my grandfather and my uncle Méir; made other friends, cherished other ambitions—in short: I could have been born somewhere else, perhaps in the same country, the same city as Werner Sonderberg, and explored other memories. I could have lived my entire life without knowing the truth about my own origins.

I could simply have not existed, or ceased to exist. Or not been me.

I was in my office getting ready to write a review of a play that had just opened the Off Broadway season. It was Oedipus, an ultramodern, contemporary, hopeless (too chatty) interpretation of it.

On rereading the notes I’d taken during the performance, I wondered about the play’s endurance. How could it be explained? After all, of the three hundred plays written by the three giants of ancient Greece—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—all but around thirty have vanished. How could the selection and censorship of time be explained?

Do the gods, known and feared for their whims, have a say in this matter? Weren’t they themselves subjected to the same test? Some of the plays have become popular again while others seem consigned to the so-called dustbin of history: Is there any justice in this? And what about the collective memory of artistic creation? For every Prometheus and Sisyphus haunting scholars, how many of their former equals are barely stirring and covered in dust?

And then what could possibly have induced