Open Heart

Facing emergency heart surgery and his own mortality, one of the most significant moral voices of our time reflects on his life in this brief volume.

And while the page count of Open Heart is relatively low, the emotion and imagery coming from Elie Wiesel’s mind is plentiful and vibrant and unique.

What does the now 84-year-old share with readers?

Faces and questions, especially in regard to his family and the Holocaust. (You can read more about his experiences as an Auschwitz prisoner in his acclaimed work, Night.)

Also marriage and children and grandchildren.

And believe it or not, this tireless advocate for Holocaust survivors (and making sure the world remembers so that it never happens again) wonders if he’s done enough in his teaching and public life in regard to this all-important mission.

(Related: Wiesel offered what many considered the most moving and sober remarks at a Durban Watch conference, which focuses on fighting intolerance the world over.)

In addition, Wiesel’s ongoing questioning of God—where has it led?

And is there hope for mankind?

Here Wiesel converses with Oprah on the importance of friendship:

This arresting excerpt from Open Heart demonstrates the author’s considerable storytelling prowess:

I am drowsy and fight against sleep by trying to follow the brief professional exchanges in the operating room. Actually, I don’t understand a word. About an hour later, I hear the surgeon saying, “I am so sorry, I don’t have good news for you: Your condition is such that the insertion of a stent won’t suffice. You have five blocked arteries. You require open-heart surgery.”

I am shaken. Sure, I know that these days open-heart surgery is regularly performed the world over. Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s face appears before me; I had met the famous surgeon at a conference in Haifa and we had engaged in a long dialogue on medical ethics, comparing Judaic and Christian points of view. I had looked at his hands, wondering how many human beings owed them their survival.

But now the words “open-heart surgery” are meant for me. And they fill me with dread.

“You’re lucky. A colleague of mine, an expert in this type of surgery, is at the hospital right now. I have spoken to him. He is ready to operate on you.”

“Doctor,” I ask, “have you told my wife?”

“No, but I will do it right now.”

In a moment he is back: “I’ve seen Marion. As well as your son, Elisha.”

The fact that my beloved son is already at the hospital does not surprise me. Since his earliest childhood, he has always made me proud, always been there for me.

“What do they think?”

“They agree; we have no choice. But the decision is yours alone.”

“May I see them?”

Marion and Elisha are not good at hiding their anxiety. Their smiles seem forced. And how am I to hug them without falling apart? Marion, holding back her tears, tries to reassure me: “The doctors are optimistic. The surgeon they propose is world-renowned.”

“It will go well,” says Elisha. “I know it, Dad. I am convinced of it.”

I remain silent.

“Shall we go?” urges the attending physician.

The nurses are ready to push the gurney toward the OR. I steal another glance at the woman with whom I have shared my life for more than forty-two years. So many events, so many discoveries and projects, unite us. All we have done in life we have accomplished together. And now, one more experience.

As the door opens, I look one last time at our son, the fine young man who has justified—and continues to justify—my life and who endows it with meaning and a hereafter.

Through the tears that darken the future, a thought awakens a deeper concern, a deeper sorrow: Shall I see them again?

Wiesel picks up the narrative here regarding his brush with death:

Open Heart is a deep, soul-searching, intimate account of both hope and despair—a candid, poetic exploration of Wiesel’s love, regrets, and faith.