Elie Wiesel’s Open Heart was the book I selected for the 29th week of the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge. I read one of his other books, Night, after he appeared on Oprah; and found it to be a moving, insightful, and reflective book. So, with Night in mind, I was looking forward to reading Open Heart.
This book, however, left me feeling both surprised and a bit disappointed. It did not have the depth that I was expecting considering the topic as well as what Mr. Wiesel is capable of writing.
Open Heart centers on Mr. Wiesel’s open heart surgery at 82 years old. Prior to and following the surgery, he reflects back on his life. He thinks about people, situations he’s been in, books he’s written, and his time at concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
It is clear that he feels an immense sense of gratitude and love towards his life, children, and grandchildren. He conveys these eloquently not only for the benefit of the reader, but more so for his family who will read and treasure his words.
He wonders if he has done enough for those who survived as well as those who perished during World War II at the hands of the Nazis. He wrote about his family who also were sent to the concentration camps. Although he spent time with his father at one, his family died before they could be liberated. Yet, as Mr. Wiesel points out, “In truth, my father never leaves me. Nor do my mother and little sister. They have stayed with me, appearing in every one of my tales, in every one of my dreams. In everything I teach.”
Mr. Wiesel’s faith is woven throughout the book. He questions God; reflects upon mankind and decisions people make and their impact; and wonders about justice and tolerance.
I found parts of the book interesting – particularly because they struck a personal chord with me or reminded me of situations that I’ve encountered in my life. The first one was as Mr. Wiesel was nearing the time of the surgery and seeing his family before the nurses were going to bring him to the operating room. He thinks, “Through the tears that darken the future, a thought awakens a deeper concern, a deeper sorrow: Shall I see them again?”
It reminded me of when my dad was going to have two different surgical procedures done at one time many years ago. Before he was going into surgery, he handed me his small leather-bound notebook that had some information in it. I was to hold onto it while he was in surgery and give it back to him when he left the hospital.
When he was in surgery, I opened the notebook. There was a note that my dad wrote that said something to the effect of how – if he didn’t make it out of surgery – that he wanted us to know how much he loved my mom, his kids, and grandkids. Like Mr. Wiesel, my dad wondered if he was going to make it out of surgery and wanted his family to know how much he loved them. As a side note, I re-read what my dad wrote many times while he was in surgery. It meant to me to know that his family was on the top of his mind at such a critical time.
Something I learned was written in the sixth chapter. Mr. Wiesel was asked to count to ten as the anesthesiologist began his work. He asked for a minute before he began counting because as “a practicing Jew, before giving up his soul, if he lacks the time to properly prepare himself, [he] must at least recite a short prayer – a kind of act of faith – a prayer he has known since childhood.”
I liked the advice he shared that was from a Talmudic sage: “It is incumbent on you to live as if you were to die the next day.” That’s such good advice, and worth hearing multiple times. How many times do we waste parts of our day, only to regret it later? It is much better to live intentionally and try to make the most out of each day rather than letting time slip away.
The author shared a bit about his novel The Forgotten which deals with Alzheimer’s Disease and the fear of forgetting. He wrote, “I compare the patient to a book whose pages are torn out day after day, one by one, until all that remains is the cover. I wonder whether this disease could strike an entire community. Or an entire era.”
I have never heart of the analogy of Alzheimer’s Disease to a book, but it is a quite fitting description. I always described the process of Alzheimer’s Disease that I was seeing in my father as one of a beautiful oak tree.
In its glory, the oak tree is strong, large, and has deep and wide-spread roots. It is anchored in the ground and its branches are so beautifully and widely outstretched. Gradually, a leaf falls off here and there. Before long, an entire branch may be revealed…its leaves having fallen gently to the ground – at times, imperceptible to those around it.
As time passes, more branches are revealed. Before long, the entire tree no longer has leaves. It is only a complicated framework…a tangle…of branches, large and small.
Eventually, branches begin to fall. Some small. Some large. And then only the trunk – the core of the tree – remains. It is still anchored into the ground – its foundation. Yet, it is only a shell…a fragment… of what was once there. That – to me – describes Alzheimer’s Disease and what I witnessed.
At any rate, Mr. Wiedel’s analogy to a book reminded me of the oak tree. Of my father. Of loss and grief. Of reflection. And, perhaps, that’s the point of this book. It is to make one reflect on one’s life – just like the author reflected on his life.
If that’s the goal, then Open Heart succeeded in doing that. For that, I am thankful that I read this book.
BILL HATFIELD – guy who helped us on Gunflint Lake.