Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed work about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power,” yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devoted Catholic, mentioned that Mendes-France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded, in the heat of the moment, that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross, yet nobody spoke about their suffering. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about it. The young man took his friend’s advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published in Yiddish an abbreviated version of this book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit), and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the literary and small publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Elie Wiesel’s eloquent and informed interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. By 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, further augmenting its exposure.
This work is definitely autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has been also read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, almost lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.
Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a small Romanian town in Northern Transylvania which had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.
Wiesel’s entire family—his father Chlomo, his mother Sarah, and his sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, managed to survive the Holocaust. However, since the women and the men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the war. In the concentration camps, father and son clung to each other. Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor, and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Chlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation: he’s beaten by SS officers and by other prisoners who want to steal his food. Weakened by starvation and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, sadly, only a few weeks before the Americans liberated the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a paternal sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Chlomo, fearing that he himself will become the next victim if he tries to help his father. In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences through a sense of absence: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…” (112)
Night is offers a stark psychological account the process of human and moral degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie, became doubly victimized: the victims of everything they suffered at the hands of their oppressors and the victims of everything they witnessed others suffer and were unable or, perhaps more sadly, unwilling to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of humanity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it again, in far better conditions, if at least one condition is met: caring about the suffering of others. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and his message to the world at large—is about the empathy required to keep the Holocaust memory alive. He reminds us all, “that I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon