A Thousand Darknesses

by Ruth Franklin | March 20, 2006

By Elie Wiesel
Translated by Marion Wiesel
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 120 pp., $9)

NIGHT IS THE MOST DEVASTATING account of the Holocaust that I have ever read. It is devastating first because of its simplicity. The basic outline is this: after the Germans invade Hungary in 1944, the teenaged Eliezer and his family, religious Jews who live comfortably in their community, are deported to Auschwitz. He and his father, separated from the rest of their family, are assigned to hard labor. As the last days of the war endlessly tick by, they survive transfers, work assignments, selections, illnesses, and all the other daily threats of life in the camp, while watching their friends and neighbors fall dead all around them. In January 1945, Auschwitz is liquidated, and they march through the snow for days before being transferred to Buchenwald. There Eliezer watches his father slowly die.

There are no epiphanies in Night, like Primo Levi's epiphany in Survival in Auschwitz, when he recalls the story of Ulysses from Dante's Inferno and remembers that he, too, is a thinking, feeling human being. And there is no irony, like Imre Kertesz's irony in Fatelessness, when the narrator, mistaken for a corpse and carted away, protests that he would "like to live a bit longer in this beautiful concentration camp." There is no extraneous detail, no analysis, no speculation. There is only a story: Eliezer's account of what happened, spoken in his voice.

The story itself is by now familiar. We know all about Dr. Mengele and people being sent to the left and to the right, about the Zyklon B and the crematoria, about the bizarre systems and hierarchies that allowed some prisoners to discover methods of survival and condemned others to an even quicker death. And the story's familiarity etherizes our minds into complacency: it becomes possible for us to think that because we know about all these things, we actually know them. Auschwitz is no longer just a place--it is a shorthand for the Shoah, a common metaphor for uncommon evil, the almost platitudinous reference for the very embodiment of hell on earth.

Amazingly, such complacency had already set in just a decade after the war, when Francois Mauriac wrote in his foreword to the French edition of Night that "this personal record, coming after so many others and describing an outrage about which we might imagine we already know all that it is possible to know, is nevertheless different, distinct, unique." He suggested that Night's uniqueness resides in the circumstances of its coming to exist--that is, its author's experiences during the war years--which "would in themselves be sufficient to inspire a book to which no other could be compared."

By this standard, however, every Holocaust memoir is "unique," since each survivor tells his or her own terrible story. The second reason Night is incomparably devastating has less to do with the facts of Wiesel's story than with the way he tells them. The book is exquisitely constructed. I do not mean that it is beautifully written: its language and style are decidedly plain. But every sentence feels weighted and deliberate, every episode carefully chosen and delineated. It is also shockingly brief; it can be read in an hour, and carried in a pocket. One has the sense of merciless experience mercilessly distilled to its essence, because to take a story as fundamentally brutal as this one and clutter it with embellishments would be grotesque. By refusing to add the rationality of explanation or the cynicism of hindsight, Night takes us back to its terrible story with something resembling innocence, the innocence of a young boy who, like the rest of the Jews of Europe, had no idea what was coming. To read it is to lose one's own innocence about the Holocaust all over again.

NIGHT, TOGETHER WITH The Diary of Anne Frank, told the story of the Holocaust to the world. The book has been translated into thirty languages and has sold more than six million copies in the United States alone. When the American edition appeared, A. Alvarez wrote in Commentary that it was "almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism." In the years since then, Night's potency has been diffused by its very canonicity. It has been relegated to high school reading lists and overshadowed by the subsequent fame of its author. But now a new chapter has opened in Night's strange career. A lucid new translation of the book by Marion Wiesel, the author's wife, has been selected by Oprah Winfrey for her influential book club; and last month, nearly a half-century after its publication, Night made its first appearance at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

Night's resuscitation comes at a difficult time for the genre of memoir, which has lately been undergoing a crisis. First James Frey was embraced and then flagellated by Winfrey for fabricating large parts of A Million Little Pieces; and soon several other opportunists who had fraudulently claimed an autobiographical basis for their fiction were similarly debunked. Considering the circumstances, Winfrey's endorsement of Night was a canny move: what could better restore her credibility--and the credibility of memoir itself--than a book that was "beyond criticism"? And in fact Night was seized as a lodestar of authenticity by the many commentators who lambasted Winfrey's judgment in the Frey affair. Frank Rich even suggested, quite preposterously, that Winfrey's initial support of the dissimulator Frey might be used by Holocaust deniers to discount Wiesel's experiences.

Unfortunately, Night is an imperfect ambassador for the infallibility of the memoir, for the simple fact that it has itself often been treated as a novel--by journalists, by scholars, and even by its publishers. Matters are further confused by Wiesel's admission in the preface to the new edition that, thanks to his wife's editing, he had been able "to correct and revise a number of important details." He does not elaborate on what these details are, but the statement was quickly investigated by the news media, which reported that among them are such errors as the narrator's age upon his arrival at Auschwitz. (In the first English translation he is said to be "almost fifteen," while in the new edition he is fifteen.) Understandably embarrassed by any suggestion of similarity between his book and Frey's, Wiesel asserted to a reporter that since Night is a memoir, his "experiences in the book--A to Z--must be true… I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel."

But if Night is not a novel, even an autobiographical novel, it is not exactly a memoir, either--if one defines memoir, following Michiko Kakutani (one of the many to go mildly nuts about Frey's hoax) as a form that prizes "authenticity above all else." In our present circumstances, the book has a useful lesson to teach about the complexities of memoir and memory. The story of how Night came into existence reveals just how many factors come into play in the creation of a memoir--the obligation to remember and to testify, certainly, but also the artistic and even moral obligation to construct a credible persona and to craft a beautiful work. Fact, we know, can be stranger than fiction; but truth in prose, it turns out, is not always the same thing as truth in life.

NIGHT WAS FIRST PUBLISHED in Buenos Aires in 1956, as the 117th volume in a series of Yiddish memoirs of prewar and wartime Europe, under the title "… un di velt hot geshvign," or … And the World Was Silent. Ruth R. Wisse, in The Modern Jewish Canon, notes that in contrast to the other works in the series, which were traditional testimonials that aimed to memorialize as many of the murdered as possible, Wiesel's book was a "highly selective and isolating literary narrative" clearly influenced by its young author's reading of the French existentialists. When the book was translated (or as Wisse puts it, "transposed") into French, this distinction sharpened, beginning with the title, which shifts the book's emphasis from the silence of the world at the Jews' fate to the abstract "night," which can mean at once the darkness of the camps and the moral and spiritual darkness of the world during (and after) World War II. Wiesel was re-imagining his book not for his shrinking Yiddish readership, but for the global audience that it would eventually attain.

Wiesel's Yiddish manuscript was more than eight hundred pages long. La Nuit, as it was published by Editions du Minuit in 1958, was 121 pages. Wiesel says that he made a number of the cuts on his own, with further editing from his French publisher, which he then approved. All material not directly related to the story was pruned away. "Substance alone mattered," Wiesel writes in the preface to the new edition (which, like all the translations of Night, is based on the French version, not the Yiddish original). "I was more afraid of having said too much than too little." But his revisions had other implications as well. As Naomi Seidman wrote in an essay called "Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage," which analyzes some of Wiesel's revisions to the Yiddish text, "There are two survivors … a Yiddish and a French": the first wrote a testimonial that was largely intended for the historical record, while the second had grander ambitions.

The book originally began with a passage in which the author, in lines steeped in his biblical education, lamented the Jews' self-deception during the war years:

In the beginning there was faith--which is childish; trust--which is vain; and illusion--which is dangerous.

We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah's flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God's image.

That was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.

And it ended with what Wiesel calls a "gloomy meditation" on the global response to the Holocaust:

Now, scarcely ten years after Buchenwald, I realize that the world forgets quickly. Today, Germany is a sovereign state. The German army has been resuscitated. Ilse Koch, the notorious sadistic monster of Buchenwald, was allowed to have children and live happily ever after

…War criminals stroll through the streets of Hamburg and Munich. The past seems to have been erased, relegated to oblivion.

Today, there are anti-Semites in Germany, France, and even the United States who tell the world that the "story" of six million assassinated Jews is nothing but a hoax, and many people, not knowing any better, may well believe them, if not today then tomorrow or the day after…

As Wisse points out, there is a political purpose to the disappearance of these lines from the text: Wiesel may have been reluctant to expose the "collective self-blame" of the Jews or his own fury at the rest of the world to a primarily Gentile audience. But, more importantly, there is an aesthetic imperative at work as well. These passages have their own didactic power: Wiesel's bitterness as he speaks of the Jews' belief as an "illusion," and his expression of his own impotence in the face of Holocaust denial, is tragic. But their moralizing tone is at odds with the simplicity of the main narrative, and it detracts from the power of the story. There is a terrifying finality to the last scene of the edited version, in which the narrator, after the liberation of Buchenwald and a brief stay in the hospital, looks at himself in the mirror for the first time since his imprisonment: "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me." This otherworldly image is worth a thousand words about the lack of justice for the Nazis or the continuing anti-Semitism of Holocaust deniers.

LIKE ANY MEMOIR, NIGHT MUST balance between absolute fidelity to the events and the making of literature. Its poetic austerity comes at a cost to the literal truth. This cost, it must be said, does not detract in the least way from Night's validity as a Holocaust testimonial. (Since Seidman published her essay about Wiesel ten years ago, it has been outrageously appropriated by Holocaust deniers who exploit her analysis of the differences between Wiesel's Yiddish and French texts for their own purposes.) But it is worth recognizing that such a cost exists, if only to remind ourselves that no memoir can be at once an unerring representation of reality and a genuine artistic achievement.

Consider, for example, the book's first chapter, which begins in 1942, when Eliezer (as the narrator of Night calls himself) is twelve years old. He describes himself as "deeply observant" and immersed in religious study, though he has been unable to find anyone willing to tutor him in kabbalah, an esoteric subject of study generally restricted to older men. One day at the synagogue he falls into conversation with Moishe the Beadle, a poor man who reveals a surprising fount of knowledge. Eliezer recounts one of their dialogues:

Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him, he liked to say. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don't understand His replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.

"And why do you pray, Moishe?" I asked him.
"I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions."…
And in the course of those evenings I became convinced that Moishe the Beadle would help me enter eternity, into that time when question and answer would become ONE.

These talks end when Moishe, along with the rest of the town's foreign Jews, is deported.

He returns with a horrifying tale. The Jews, he said, traveled first by train and then by truck to a forest in Galicia, where they were forced to dig trenches. After they had finished, they were shot one by one. Moishe escaped, miraculously, after being wounded in the leg and left for dead. But no matter how many times he repeats his story, no one believes him; even as late as the spring of 1944, as German troops are invading Budapest, the Jews of Sighet do not think the army will reach their town. They do not even really believe that Hitler intends to exterminate the Jews. The narrator does not try to explain their naivete, just as later he does not try to explain the Nazis' brutality. He relies only on factual statements: "In less than three days, German army vehicles made their appearance on our streets."

"Night fell… Night had fallen… Night." This is the book's only narrative flourish: an almost incantatory repetition, in steady but irregular beats at the beginning of a sentence or a passage bearing some new agony. The Jews of Sighet are first restricted to two small ghettos; soon they learn they are all to be deported. Eliezer's family is in the last group to go, packed eighty to a train car. In their car is a woman named Mrs. Schachter, who has lost her mind and cries out continually: "Fire! I see a fire! I see flames, huge flames!" The other passengers tie her down and gag her. Finally they arrive at a train station bearing the sign "Auschwitz." Here Mrs. Schachter screams of fire again, and now the rest of the passengers see it too.

Is it not too much to ask that the impoverished beadle be both a master of the kabbalah and a Cassandra-like figure whose warnings go unheeded? Or, similarly, that the journey to Auschwitz be punctuated by the cries of another unacknowledged clairvoyant? In fact, if one compares the events in Night to Wiesel's account of his wartime experience in his memoirs, the first part of which were published in 1995 under the title All Rivers Run to the Sea, the evidence of artistic labor can easily be found. The young Wiesel, who was brought up in the hasidic tradition, did in fact dabble in Jewish mysticism, but his master was a man named Kalman, not Moishe the beadle, who is another person entirely. The character in Night is a composite, and so the dialogue that Wiesel reports, and which I quoted above, must be imagined. Mrs. Schachter and her terrifying vision appears in both books, but in All Rivers Run to the Sea she merits just a single mention, while her role in Night is considerably upgraded. Then there is all the information that appears in the memoirs but did not find its way into Night, including the warnings that the Jews of Sighet did have and the repeated deliberations they made about what to do.

DOES ANYBODY, OTHER THAN the literary scholar, care about such variations? Do they matter in any way? They are not problems of fact, after all; they are instances of artistic license. And that is precisely why they are important. Wiesel's decision to make the beadle a secret kabbalist sacrifices literal fact for literary effect: it simplifies the story, helping it to achieve its parable-like quality, and it adds another dimension to Moishe's tragedy. It indicates that Wiesel recognizes the memoirist's dual obligation--to the truth, certainly, but also to tell his story in the most interesting, most memorable, and most meaningful way possible. Like the translator who occasionally veers from the grammar of an individual phrase for the sake of the quality of the whole work, the memoirist too must have the liberty to shape his raw materials into a work of art.

Wiesel's shaping occurs mainly in the service of the narrator's crisis of faith, which is the basso continuo beneath the entire book. It is embodied in Night's central episode: the public hanging of a young boy with an angelic face, who served as one of the Kapos' assistants, together with two other men. Here is Ruth R. Wisse's translation of the scene as it appears in the original Yiddish manuscript:

Both adults were already dead. The noose had choked them at once. Instantly they expired. Their extended tongues were red as fire. The slight Jewish child with the lost dreamy eyes was still alive. His body weighed too little. Was too light. The noose didn't "catch."
The slow death of the little meshoresl [assistant] took thirty-five minutes. And we saw him wobbling, swaying, on the rope, with his bluish-red tongue extended, with a prayer on his grey-white lips, a prayer to God, to the Angel of Death, to take pity on him, to take his soul, liberating it from its death-throes, from the torments of the grave. When we saw him like that, the hanged child, many of us didn't want to, couldn't keep from crying.
--Where is God?--the same man asked again, behind me. Something in me wanted to answer him:
--Where is God? Here he is, hanging on the gallows … [ellipsis in original]
That evening the soup had no taste.
We hid it away for the next day.

And here it is in Night, in Marion Wiesel's translation:

The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing … [ellipsis in original]
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"For God's sake, where is God?"
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
"Where He is? This is where--hanging here from this gallows…"
That night the soup tasted of corpses.

The "improved" version is shorter, most obviously, but it also speaks from a subtly altered perspective. The voice in the first passage is communal: "When we saw him … many of us … couldn't keep from crying." The second emphasizes the singular experience of the narrator: "He was still alive when I passed him." The Holocaust happened to a whole community, obviously, but the community cannot effectively speak as a whole. It is only with the voice of an individual messenger that we can empathize. The new version also boldly alters the final line. Wisse comments that the passage's new ending is "more credible," since "by all accounts, no one at Auschwitz could have left his soup for the next day." But her reading overlooks the fact that Wiesel has taken a simple description ("the soup had no taste") and substituted a literary trope ("the soup tasted of corpses"). Even at Auschwitz, corpses were not actually used to prepare the soup. Paradoxically, a metaphor becomes more believable than an unembellished description.

IT IS WORTH NOTING, THOUGH, THAT the substance of the passage--which is not altered at all in the translation into French and English--is a highly stylized scene constructed to maximize every bit of its shock value. As many critics have remarked, the execution of the angelic young boy together with two anonymous men has Christ-like overtones, which are heightened by the inherent similarity between the gallows and the crucifix. But even discounting this framework, the narrator bluntly informs us of the death of God, in phrasing that is strikingly similar in the two versions. The passage functions as a turning point in Night, after which the narrator apparently ceases to believe. Up to now, he has occasionally invoked God's presence, if only as bitter commentary. "How I sympathized with Job!" he comments early on. "I did not deny God's existence, but I doubted his absolute justice." But soon after the hanging the inmates celebrate Rosh Hashanah, and Eliezer feels unable to take part in the services. "Blessed be God's name?" he asks.

Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? … But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.

In his memoir, Wiesel writes with some annoyance that Night has often been read as a narrative about the loss of faith. On the contrary, he says, he remained a believer after the war (and writes with joy of resuming his Talmudic studies at a camp for displaced children in France), and he continues to practice Judaism to this day. Yet what he has written in Night is more than an indictment of God's absence, along the lines of Paul Celan's famous poem "Tenebrae," in which the Jews in the camps address God in a tone that is half menacing, half sympathetic: "Pray, Lord,/Pray to us,/ We are near"; or of Zvi Kolitz's legendary story "Yosl Rakover Talks to God," which imagines an extended soliloquy directed by a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto to a God who has "hidden his face from the world." Indeed, after this point God nearly disappears from Night, returning only at the very end for one last plea. Watching an elderly rabbi search for the son who has abandoned him in the desperate snowy march from Auschwitz, Eliezer prays to "that God in whom I no longer believed: My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done." His prayer, if it is heard, is not answered.


THERE IS SOMETHING A LITTLE barbaric about performing this sort of dissection on such a book. To be sure, questions have been raised in the past about Wiesel's report even by those who are not Holocaust deniers, specifically his original suggestion that couples "copulated" in the cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz (this was always a gross mistranslation of the original Yiddish, and the new version has toned it down to "caressed each other") and his claim that he saw living babies tossed into flaming pits on his first night in the camp, which has been challenged in The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere. In the foreword to the new edition, he insists that the latter claim is true. (Given everything we know about the sadism of the SS, what is so obviously suspicious about it?) But the very act of trying to put Night under the fact-checker's lens smacks of indecency. One cannot seriously worry about whether babies were burned alive or dead at Auschwitz without losing something of one's own humanity. Is it not enough to know that they were burned at all?

Wiesel, I suspect, would agree. Another passage cut from the Yiddish version describes the death of his father, which is the great tragedy of Night. "Why not include those [lines] in the new translation?" Wiesel asks in the foreword. "Too personal, too private, perhaps; they need to remain between the lines. And yet …" And he goes on to give the passage in its entirety, but separate from the main text. The material that was cut adds nothing to the factual content of the scene: it describes his feelings, his fear of the SS guard who was beating his father and thus his reluctance to come to his father's aid, and his shame at his own fear. The final version leaves all that to the reader's imagination:

In front of the block, the SS were giving orders. An officer passed between the bunks. My father was pleading:
"My son, water … I'm burning up … My insides …"
"Silence over there!" barked the officer.
"Eliezer," continued my father, "water …"
The officer came closer and shouted to him to be silent. But my father did not hear. He continued to call me. The officer wielded his club and dealt him a violent blow to the head.
I didn't move. I was afraid, my body was afraid of another blow, this time to my head.
My father groaned once more, I heard:
"Eliezer …"
I could see that he was still breathing--in gasps. I didn't move.
[all ellipses in original]

Is one version truer than the other? No one could say--not even, I suspect, Wiesel himself, which is precisely why he includes them both. "I mean to recount not the story of my life, but my stories," he writes in All Rivers Run to the Sea. "Some see their work as a commentary on their life; for others it is the other way around. I count myself among the latter. Consider this account, then, as a kind of commentary." The purpose of a commentary is to explicate--but also to invite discussion, argument, more commentary. As the young kabbalist in the death camps knows, the union of question and answer will take place only in eternity.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 20 & 27, 2006 issue of the magazine.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/thousand-darknesses