Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’
Elie Wiesel, 1986 Nobel Peace Laureate, professor, author of more than 40 books, Romanian-born Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, crusader for peace and human rights, died last week in New York at the age of 87.
“If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one,” Wiesel said in the preface to the new translation of his book “Night,” which was first published in France in 1958. “Just as the past lingers in the present, all my writings after ‘Night’ including those that deal with biblical, Talmudic or Hasidic themes, profoundly bear its stamp, and cannot be understood if one has not read this very first of my books.”
Translated into 30 languages, “Night” has sold millions of copies since its first publication. “Night” is about Wiesel’s experience as a 15-year-old boy in 1944-1945 in the Nazi concentration camps—Auschwitz and Buchenwald—where his father, mother and little sister suffered and died in the hands of Hitler’s German Nazis. Wiesel and his two older sisters survived.
After the war, Wiesel spent his young adulthood in France where he worked as a journalist. He wrote the slim volume more than a decade after that experience for which, he said, he did not have enough words. “Night,” followed by “Dawn” and “Day,” formed a trilogy that could be considered part of Holocaust literature. His wife Marion translated most of his books from French to English.
While writing “Night,” Wiesel always wondered if he had the right words for “it.” In the preface of “Night” he described what it was like to write the book.
“‘It’ was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned. All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless. Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cars, the last voyage toward the unknown?” Wiesel knew his story would not be easily received. “After all, it deals with an event that sprang from the darkest zone of man. Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know.
“Is that why my manuscript—written in Yiddish as ‘And the World Remained Silent’ and translated into French, then English—was rejected by every major publisher, French and American, despite the tireless efforts of the great Catholic French writer and Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac? After months and months of personal visits, letters and telephone calls, he finally succeeded in getting it into print.”
Mauriac wrote a stirring foreword to “Night.” In the last paragraph he said: “And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world? … All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to Him. That is what I should have said to the Jewish child. But all I could do was embrace him and weep.”
Included in the latest edition of “Night” is Wiesel’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Norway in 1986. He said: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
To describe “Night” simply as a tearjerker would be to miss the point. Wiesel himself said he felt he did not have the words to describe what “it” was. He simply narrated how events, painful as they were, unfolded in chronological order, only lapsing every now and then into reflective recitations. It is in the preface that Wiesel unleashed the rage, the unspeakable grief, that ate at his soul, on remembering his dying father’s last call, “Eliezer… Eliezer,” to which he refused to respond because… he was afraid.
“His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears.” Who could they be, if not his mother and little sister, that he was referring to when, in the preface, he wrote about “the vanishing of a beautiful, well-behaved little Jewish girl with golden hair and a sad smile, murdered with her mother the very night of their arrival [in Auschwitz]? How was one to speak of them without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity?”
On page 34: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”
Accolades poured upon Wiesel’s passing, but he also had detractors.
As a writer, I harken to Wiesel’s words: “I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer—or my life, period—would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human history.”
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