The Hostage, by Elie Wiesel

Our member Bonnie Wohl writes:

How close to home, our home, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Elie Wiesel, who has lived and intimately knows terror and can eloquently transfer feelings to words, takes the reader on a believable journey into the life of a hostage in, of all places, Brooklyn, New York. How did I miss this huge political, newsworthy story that garnered world attention? I didn’t. It was believable but not true.

We meet the hostage Shaltiel, an innocent, innocuous storyteller and writer, a husband and son, who is both an Orthodox Jew and a survivor. This story finds its basis in the life experiences of the author. While the book can be read and appreciated on its own merit, it is helpful to have read Wiesel’s book Night, the haunting memoir of his life.

In the bowels of a building, blindfolded and tied to a chair, Shaltiel had no idea where he was or why he was there. We learn it was a random abduction by an angry and violent Palestinian with an anarchist Italian as his cohort. Shaltiel was a pawn used to barter for the ultimately unsuccessful release of three Palestinian prisoners. Much to his abductor’s dismay, Shaltiel was not famous or rich. Even though he had no political clout, he was a Jew and that made him a potential bargaining chip. The Arab was angry and abusive and Elie Wiesel was graphic in his descriptions of Shaltiel’s torture. The Italian, an atheist, had no investment in prisoners and it was he, the relatively kinder of his abductors, who untied Shaltiel’s hands and offered a parched man some water. Shaltiel shared select stories with him with hopes it might help him be released.

Ultimately the Italian supported and had compassion for his irrational, angry Arab terrorist comrade who, as a child born in a Palestinian refugee camp, had been broken by personal and family tragedies from emotional taunting to the death of loved ones by Israeli commandos.  There are some similarities in Shaltiel’s and the Arab’s life stories.

In the midst of unbearable torture, Shaltiel’s survival was his photographic memory. It kept his mind focused on something other than that dark and dingy basement which became synonymous with endless unbearable and inhumane treatment. As he drifted into unconsciousness, he traveled the course of his life to date, met with the God of his ancestors, questioned his life choices,

I was uplifted by Shaltiel’s blissful childhood memories, his good fortune due to a very concrete talent of playing chess. These retreats allowed reprieve from frequent episodes of physical beatings and humiliation and depravation.  As Shaltiel retreated within, I joined him as his past continued to unfold to the present day.  The heart-wrenching memories of the abrupt ending of his childhood via the Holocaust, the destiny of his family members, to his introspective inventory of his current life prior to his abduction, caused Shaltiel to rethink his priorities amidst uncertainty of any future. Concurrent with this is, the physical, spiritual and emotional journey his family endure as the police, aided by the Israelis, continue to progress on their search to find and free Shaltiel.

I chose this book because of the author without knowing anything about it. I looked at the cover daily for weeks but couldn’t get beyond the image of the blindfolded man on the cover. The pages unturned, I renewed and eventually returned the unopened book.  Too late to pick another title, I searched for the book on disk which then served as a segue to the printed page, allowing me to experience this brutal and, at the same time, beautiful story.