The Power of Elie Wiesel’s ‘Night’

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Sa­man­tha Power

Word­s­tend to fail us most in two cir­cum­stances — in the face of pro­found evil and of tran­scen­dent de­cency. When Elie Wiesel first tried to de­scribe his ex­pe­ri­ence in the camps, he later wrote, “I watched help­lessly as lan­guage be­came an ob­sta­cle.” We who have the honor to speak about Elie have the op­po­site chal­lenge, find­ing words that cap­ture the fierce and mag­i­cal essence of this mar­velous man. Elie gave friend­ship with the in­ten­sity of a young man fresh out of col­lege—with in­no­cence and adamant con­vic­tion that that friend­ship would be an eter­nal bond, which, in Elie’s case, it usu­ally was. He used to quote some­one who said in French, “Ma pa­trie, c’est les amis.” “My friends are my homeland.”

It was Elie’s be­lief in friend­ship that re­lates so pow­er­fully to the mir­a­cle of his joy­ful­ness. Of course, we must con­sider the con­text from which that joy some­how emerged. None of us will ever com­pre­hend the de­prav­ity of what Elie ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing the Holo­caust. He tried to help us see and feel that pain, but he knew our lim­its. Nor can most of us fathom the alone­ness that Elie ex­pe­ri­enced af­ter he was lib­er­ated from Buchen­wald on April 11, 1945. Imag­ine the 16-year-old boy who walked out of those gates. A boy with A-7713 tat­tooed on his arm. A boy who, as far as he knew, had lost his en­tire fam­ily, and who — when he gazed at him­self in the mir­ror for the first time since be­ing sent to the con­cen­tra­tion camp — saw a corpse star­ing back at him. “The slight­est wind would blow me over,” he later said.

Many of us have been struck by the fact that it took Elie 10 years to pre­pare him­self to put into words the hor­rors of what had been done to him and to his fam­ily and to his peo­ple. A whole 10 years be­fore he could be­gin to write. And when he did so, in the spring of 1955, this wise old man who had been to hell and back was just 26 years old. What must it have been like for this man, in his Paris lodg­ings, to rouse the demons — to hear once again what he called the “si­lent cries”? “While I had many things to say,” he would later write, “I did not have the words to say them….. How was one to re­ha­bil­i­tate and trans­form words be­trayed and per­verted by the en­emy? Hunger — thirst — fear — transport — se­lec­tion — fire — chim­ney... I would pause at ev­ery sen­tence, and start over and over again. I would con­jure up other verbs, other im­ages, other si­lent cries. It still was not right.” He reim­mersed him­self in that pe­riod, into the dark­ness of night. The ap­proach that came most nat­u­rally to him was blunt and un­spar­ing. What he bore wit­ness to — and thus re­lived — were the hor­rors in­flicted upon him, but also his own most sear­ing mo­ments of de­hu­man­iza­tion, when he could not bring him­self to help the per­son whose com­pan­ion­ship had helped keep him alive in Auschwitz and later, on the death march — his fa­ther. As he even­tu­ally wrote, “He had called out to me and I had not an­swered.”

In the orig­i­nal text, which Elie wrote in Yid­dish, he had added, “I shall never for­give my­self.” Elie Wiesel car­ried all of this.

It can be hard to imag­ine that there was a time when the pre­vail­ing wis­dom was not to bear wit­ness. But that is pre­cisely what it was like when Elie was writ­ing. Sur­vivors did not speak about their past — even to their own chil­dren. Here in the United States, there were no memo­ri­als to the 6 mil­lion Jews who had been killed. The word “Holo­caust” did not even ap­pear in The New York Times un­til 1959. Even in Europe — where the mass mur­der had taken place and en­tire Jewish com­mu­ni­ties had been wiped out — the topic was hardly men­tioned. It was against this wall of si­lence that Elie wrote. And then the man whose life’s mis­sion would be to com­bat in­dif­fer­ence laid his heart out to the world, pre­sented his ex­pe­ri­ences, his story, and they re­acted with in­dif­fer­ence. Al­though he had cut the orig­i­nal Yid­dish ver­sion from more than 800 pages to a lit­tle more than 100, all the ma­jor pub­lish­ing houses turned the book down. The renowned French nov­el­ist François Mau­riac re­solved to help Elie. “No one is in­ter­ested in the death camps any­more,” pub­lish­ers told Mau­riac. “It just won’t sell.” When Elie went in search of an Amer­i­can pub­lisher, he later re­called, their re­jec­tion let­ters of­ten noted that Amer­i­can read­ers “seemed to pre­fer op­ti­mistic books.”

All who have read “Night” are haunted, per­haps above all, by Moishe the Bea­dle. Moishe was among the first wave of for­eign Jews de­ported from Elie’s town of Sighet, who were trans­ported by train to a for­est in Poland, where they were forced to dig their own graves at gun­point, and then ex­e­cuted en masse by the Gestapo. Moishe sur­vived, wounded, fak­ing his death, and even­tu­ally made his way back to Sighet, where he told his neigh­bors what he had wit­nessed. “Jews, lis­ten to me!” he yells out­side the syn­a­gogue, weep­ing. “That’s all I ask of you.

No money. No pity. Just lis­ten to me!” But no one lis­tens. Moishe is ig­nored — dis­missed as a mad­man. How cruel was it, then, that young Elie Wiesel, who was taunted by his per­pe­tra­tors that no­body would ever know or care what had hap­pened to him and his peo­ple, how cruel was it that he en­coun­tered a world that again seemed in­dif­fer­ent to what he had gone through? When he was try­ing to place his man­u­script, did he feel some­how like Moishe the Bea­dle, a man who pos­sessed the truth, but was ig­nored? And yet none of this ap­pears to have di­min­ished the deter­mi­na­tion of Elie Wiesel. “Night” of course did even­tu­ally find its pub­lish­ers, and af­ter sev­eral years, its read­er­ship did be­gin to grow, at first grad­u­ally, and then ex­po­nen­tially.

Ar­guably no sin­gle work did so much to lift the si­lence that had en­veloped sur­vivors, and bring what hap­pened in the “King­dom of Night”out into the light, for all to see. And yet. In­jus­tice was still ram­pant. Geno­cide de­nial against the Ar­me­ni­ans, the hor­rors of his life­time — Pol Pot, Bos­nia, Rwanda, Dar­fur, Syria in his later years. He lived to see more and more peo­ple bear wit­ness to un­speak­able atroc­i­ties, but he also saw that in­dif­fer­ence re­mained too wide­spread. Amid all the pain and dis­ap­point­ment of Elie’s re­mark­able life, how is it that the dark­ness did not en­velop him, or shield him from the sun? How is it that the light in Elie Wiesel’s gaze was ev­ery bit as defin­ing as his life’s ex­pe­ri­ences? “What is ab­nor­mal,” Elie once told Oprah Win­frey, “is that I am nor­mal. That I sur­vived the Holo­caust and went on to love beau­ti­ful girls, to talk, to write, to have toast and tea and live my life — that is what is ab­nor­mal.” Elie raged against in­dif­fer­ence to in­jus­tice, to be sure, but he also sa­vored the gifts of life with fe­ro­cious zeal. “We know that ev­ery mo­ment is a mo­ment of grace,” he once said, “ev­ery hour is an of­fer­ing; not to share them would mean to be­tray them.” Maybe it was be­cause Elie had such a strong sense of pur­pose on his jour­ney — to help those who could still be helped. A duty to his neigh­bor. To the stranger, the stranger that he once was. He called it his 11th com­mand­ment: “Thou shalt not stand idly by… . You must speak up. You must de­fend. You must tell the vic­tims, … ‘You are not alone, some­body cares.’”

Through the years, Elie ven­tured out to the most un­likely, iso­lated places. There was Elie in a tiny vil­lage along the Thai bor­der with Cam­bo­dia, meet­ing with refugees who had just es­caped the Kh­mer Rouge. There was Elie, cross­ing the jun­gle in Nicaragua on foot and in a kayak, to reach the Miskito In­di­ans who had been driven from their land. “I,” Elie re­flected later, “who have been known to lose my way in my own neigh­bor­hood and don’t know how to swim,” trav­eled all that way to bear wit­ness to their dis­place­ment and see how he could help. Now one might think that in these en­coun­ters Elie found only suf­fer­ing, but he did not. He found mean­ing. Abe Fox­man re­mem­bered visit­ing a school pro­gram in Tel Aviv that Elie and Mar­ion had helped set up for un­doc­u­mented chil­dren from Su­dan — one of many such ini­tia­tives they cre­ated — and Abe re­mem­bers see­ing Elie singing and danc­ing with the kids, in pure, al­most child­like joy. Elie Wiesel of­ten wrote of the anger within him. But what he pro­jected most ef­fort­lessly was his love. Jews, Elie would of­ten say, are a peo­ple of un­par­al­leled grat­i­tude — so much so, he pointed out, that they be­gin the day by thank­ing God for open­ing their eyes. Elie’s great­est joy came in the time he spent with those clos­est to him, his wife, Mar­ion, and his son, Elisha. A few years ago, when he was re­cov­er­ing from heart surgery, Elie was vis­ited by his beloved grand­son, Eli­jah, then just 5 years old. Here is how Elie de­scribes the en­counter: “I hug my grand­son and tell him, ‘Ev­ery time I see you, my life be­comes a gift.’ Eli­jah ob­serves me closely as I speak and… re­sponds: ‘Grandpa, you know that I love you, and I see you are in pain. Tell me: If I loved you more, would you be in less pain?’”

Elie writes, “I am con­vinced God at that mo­ment is smil­ing as He con­tem­plates His cre­ation.” I am so very sad that my chil­dren will not have the chance to talk meta­physics with the mas­ter. But let me of­fer an­other rea­son that God is smil­ing today. As our na­tion goes through dif­fi­cult days, “Night” is a book that is firmly in­grained in that small canon of lit­er­a­ture that kids and young adults read when they are grow­ing up in Amer­ica. Along­side At­ti­cus Finch and Scout, one of the nar­ra­tors that will have an early shot at shap­ing our chil­dren’s moral universe is 16-year-old Elie. So, while the void is enor­mous — above all, for Mar­ion, Elisha, and the rest of the fam­ily — and the void is enor­mous for our world, I too am filled with pro­found joy know­ing that my 7-year-old boy and my 4-year-old girl — like Elie’s grand­kids, and their chil­dren af­ter them — will wade into big ques­tions for the first time with Elie Wiesel as their guide. That they will be less alone for hav­ing Elie with them. That “Night” will be one of the works that lay the scaf­fold­ing for their moral ar­chi­tec­ture. All be­cause Elie Wiesel was op­ti­mistic enough to keep go­ing — and to find the strength to shine his light on us all.

Amid all the pain of Elie’s re­mark­able life, how is it that the dark­ness did not en­velop him, or shield him from the sun?

From the new in­tro­duc­tion by Sa­man­tha Power to ”Night” by Elie Wiesel, pub­lished by Hill and Wang, a di­vi­sion of Far­rar, Straus and Giroux. Copy­right 1958 by Les Édi­tions de Mi­nuit. Trans­la­tion copy­right 2006 by Mar­ion Wiesel. No­bel Peace Prize Ac­cep­tance Speech and No­bel Lec­ture copy­right 1986 by The No­bel Foun­da­tion. In­tro­duc­tion 2017 by Sa­man­tha Power. All rights re­served.

POWER THE FIGHT: For­mer U.N. Am­bas­sador Sa­man­tha Power found so­lace in Elie Wiesel’s work.

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