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Essays On The Memoir Night

Finally, in 1959, Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang agreed to take on “Night.” The first reviews were positive. Gertrude Samuels, writing in the Book Review, called it a “slim volume of terrifying power.” Alfred Kazin, writing in The Reporter, said Wiesel’s account of his loss of faith had a “particular poignancy.” After the Kazin review, the book “got great reviews all over America, but it didn’t influence the sales,” Wiesel said.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 brought the Holocaust into the mainstream of American consciousness. Other survivors began writing their stories — but with higher visibility came the first glimmerings of criticism. In a roundup of Holocaust literature in Commentary in 1964, the critic A. Alvarez said “Night” was “beyond criticism” as a “human document,” but called it “a failure as a work of art.” Wiesel, he argued, had failed to “create a coherent artistic world out of one which was the deliberate negation of all values.”

By the early ’70s, the Holocaust had become a topic of study in universities, spurred in part by the rise of “ethnic studies” more generally and a surge of interest in Jewish history after Israel’s dramatic military victory in the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973. Wiesel, who had moved to New York in the mid-’50s, began lecturing regularly at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and teaching at the City University of New York. (Since 1976 he has taught at Boston University.)

Although his books were all reviewed respectfully, some critics questioned Wiesel’s role as a self-appointed witness. “His personal project has been to keep the wounds of Auschwitz open by repeatedly pouring the salt of new literary reconstructions upon them, and thus to prevent the collective Jewish memory — and his own — from quietly letting the wounds heal,” Leon Wieseltier, now the literary editor of The New Republic, wrote in Commentary in 1974. Reviewing Wiesel’s novel “The Oath,” about a pogrom, Wieseltier criticized Wiesel for “turning history into legend.” His characters were “archetypes of the varieties of Jewish pain,” Wieseltier wrote, so “what remains is ... a kind of elaborate superficiality which does justice neither to the author’s intentions nor to his terrible subject matter.”

In 1978, President Carter appointed Wiesel to a commission that eventually created the Holocaust Museum. In Wiesel’s mind, the “real breakthrough” that brought “Night” into wide view came in 1985, when he spoke out against President Reagan’s planned visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany, where SS members were buried. While Reagan was awarding him a Congressional Gold Medal at the White House, Wiesel told him: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” The next day, Wiesel’s words were on front pages worldwide. (Reagan still made the trip.)

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. The Nobel committee called Wiesel “a messenger to mankind,” teaching “peace, atonement and human dignity.” Wiesel’s “commitment, which originated in the sufferings of the Jewish people, has been widened to embrace all repressed peoples and races.” By the late ’90s, “Night” was a standard high school and college text, selling around 400,000 copies a year.

Yet some critics have homed in on the very qualities that have helped “Night” find a broad readership. Some have criticized Wiesel for universalizing — and even Christianizing — Jewish suffering. In “The Holocaust in American Life” (1999), the historian Peter Novick cites crucifixion imagery in “Night” as evidence of the “un-Jewish” or Christian tenor to much Holocaust commemoration. Others have suggested Wiesel may have revised the book to appeal to non-Jewish readers. In a 1996 essay, Naomi Seidman, a Jewish studies professor at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, detected strong notes of vengeance in the Yiddish version. In the final scene, after the camp has been liberated, Wiesel writes of young men going into Weimar “to rape German girls.” But there’s no mention of rape in the subsequent French or English translations. Wiesel said his thinking had changed between versions. “It would have been a disgrace to reduce such an event to simple vengeance.”

To Lawrence L. Langer, an eminent scholar of Holocaust literature and a friend of Wiesel’s, what sets “Night” apart is a moral honesty that “helps undermine the sentimental responses to the Holocaust.” To Langer, “Night” remains an essential companion — or antidote — to “The Diary of Anne Frank.” That book, with its ringing declaration that “I still believe that people are really good at heart,” is “easy for teachers to teach,” Langer said, but “from the text you don’t know what happened when she died of typhus, half-starved at Bergen-Belsen.” Wiesel takes a similar view. “Where Anne Frank’s book ends,” he said, “mine begins.”

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Night, the first novel of Elie Wiesel’s trilogy on Holocaust concentration camp survivors, is an autobiographical novel that records the author’s own long night of captivity in the Nazi death camps during World War II. Like Eliezer, the novel’s narrator, Wiesel was forced from his own village into Auschwitz, became separated from his mother and sisters, witnessed his father’s slow decline and death, and was eventually liberated at the end of the war.

Although the powerful tale told in Night is deeply personal, Eliezer’s narrative can also be viewed as the story of all European Jews who suffered during the reign of Adolf Hitler. When Eliezer admonishes the Jews of Sighet for their refusal to heed the warnings of Moshe the Beadle, when he questions why his fellow Jewish citizens passively follow the orders of their German captors, when he asks why God lets thousands of Jews be put to death Eliezer becomes a Jewish Everyman struggling in anguish to understand the most troubling chapter in his people’s history.

The process by which Eliezer begins to doubt God and eventually lose his faith reflects the experience of many Jews during and after the Holocaust. Seeing three concentration camp inmates hanging from a gallows, Eliezer reasons that God, too, has been hanged. During a Rosh Hashanah prayer ceremony, Eliezer asks why he should bless God: “Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in his great might He had created Auschwitz?”

Eliezer’s story is a cruel reversal of Exodus, the Old Testament epic of liberation and triumph. It is during the feast of Passover, when Jews celebrate the passing of the Angel of Death over their homes and their subsequent liberation from Egypt, that German soldiers begin arresting the Jewish leaders of Sighet. Exodus records the journey of God’s chosen people toward a promised land provided by God; Night depicts the journey of a people selected for extermination entering into an oppressive captivity in the Nazi death camps. In the face of their trials, the chosen people of Exodus had united; on the other hand, the Jews depicted in Night often turn on one another, fighting, and even killing for food. To Wiesel, Hitler’s Holocaust nullifies the triumph of Exodus. The Jews of Wiesel’s time are faithless, despairing survivors of a long night of captivity; they are not fulfilled travelers who have reached their promised land.

Eliezer’s camp is liberated at the end of Night, but he does not believe that freedom has been provided by the God of Exodus. Buchenwald is freed only when the camp’s resistance movement takes up arms against its Nazi captors. The symbol of freedom is an American tank arriving at Buchenwald’s gates. Eliezer is no longer a captive at the end of the novel, but Wiesel offers no hint of any physical or spiritual rebirth. The novel’s final image is of Eliezer looking into a mirror and seeing a corpse stare back at him. Night is the tale of painful death, not of liberation and rebirth.

The narrating of this harrowing tale presented problems for its author. Wiesel, indeed any writer who tries to depict the horrors of the Holocaust, has to put into words a sequence of terrible events that can never be adequately rendered in language. No description of the Nazi death camps, no matter how skillfully and realistically narrated, can fully depict the terrors that millions of people experienced during World War II. Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors nevertheless felt compelled to record their stories for their contemporaries and for history, and in its plot, characterization, and prose strategies Night is a literary work of the highest order.

Wiesel narrates the events of his captivity in a series of vignettes suited to the story of separation, annihilation, and loss. Few of Wiesel’s characters are substantially developed; Eliezer and his father are the novel’s only well-rounded characters. This strategy is, however, well suited for a book that deals with the marginalization, suppression, and elimination of individuals. Wiesel’s prose style is terse and often understated. Eliezer rarely editorializes in Night; he prefers to tell his story in lean, taut prose, allowing the events of the novel to speak for themselves.

Wiesel continued to explore the lives of Holocaust survivors in L’Aube (1960; Dawn, 1961) and Le Jour (1961; The Accident, 1962), the next two novels in the trilogy begun with Night, and in more than a dozen subsequent novels, nonfiction works, and plays. With Night, Wiesel became a spokesperson for all those who suffered during Hitler’s reign. He was one of the first Holocaust survivors to record his experiences, and he made the rest of the world aware of the horrors that had been perpetrated by Hitler in his campaign to exterminate European Jewry. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for serving as a “messenger to mankind” and as “one of our most important spiritual leaders and guides.”

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