Every Valentine’s Day my grandmother, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, would send me chocolates and a card. One year she also included a book, “The Town Beyond the Wall” by Elie Wiesel. For Ruth Meller (née Israel) as for millions more around the world, Elie Wiesel was and remains a vital voice of the Holocaust.
Like my late grandmother’s, Wiesel’s is an accented voice articulating translated thoughts. Although he maintains that he thinks in Yiddish, Wiesel writes in French, a language he learned after the war. (By that time he already spoke German, Hungarian, Romanian and Yiddish.) Readers in English therefore find Wiesel’s work after it has traveled from Yiddish to French to English as it attempts to remember, describe and explore what Wiesel once called the “unexplained” and “inexplicable” Holocaust.
Now 85 years old, Elie Wiesel was just 15 when he and his family were deported by the Nazis from their home in Romania to Auschwitz in 1944. His mother, father and younger sister perished in the Holocaust; Wiesel and two older sisters survived. After the war, he studied in Paris and worked as a journalist. During an interview with the writer François Mauriac, the future Nobel laureate for literature persuaded Wiesel to write about his experiences in Nazi death camps. Despite Mauriac’s championing, finding a publisher for Wiesel’s memoir was not easy—people thought it too morbid—but eventually the 178-page book “La Nuit” was published in France in 1958, and a shorter version appeared in English as “Night” in 1960.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed,” Wiesel wrote. “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.”
Wiesel explained his reasons for accepting Mauriac’s encouragement to recount his experiences: “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” But at the same time he acknowledged the difficulty of revisiting the nightmare he lived through, and of trying to describe it to a world that was often indifferent. “Did I write it so as not to go mad,” Wiesel asked, “or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness?”
In “The Town Beyond the Wall,” the book my granny sent me, which was first published in 1964, Wiesel’s unfortunate protagonist, Michael, is arrested trying to return from the West to his hometown behind the Iron Curtain. Detained in a blank prison cell, Michael is forced to revisit his time in Nazi concentration camps, which precipitates a series of flashbacks. In 1966, Wiesel published “The Gates of the Forest,” in which he explored the problem of living in a world in which the horrors of the Holocaust took place. In other stories Wiesel shows how memories can never truly be revisited and the dead cannot be resurrected, only remembered. In “The Last Return,” he revisits his hometown of Sighet only to find that the locals “give the impression of having nothing to forget. There never were any Jews in Sighet, the former capital of the celebrated region of Maramures. Thus the Jews have been driven not only out of the town but out of time as well.”
Wiesel expects to find hatred in Germany, at least from his side, when he visits after the war. In “Appointment with Hate,” however, he finds himself unable to despise the people who destroyed his, the nation that killed his parents and sister. As a result he felt “ashamed of having permitted my hate to get away from me. It was this shame which overcame me in Germany: I was betraying the dead. Instead of judging the Germans, then, I judged myself.” Because, he writes, “whoever does not hate when he should, does not deserve to love when he should.”
In “The Oath” published in 1974, Wiesel argues that as “the people of memory” the Jews understand that to forget “constituted a crime against memory as well as against justice: whoever forgets becomes the executioner’s accomplice.” Every time the Jewish people is attacked, one Jewish person “one storyteller, one survivor, one witness,” is left “to revive the past and resuscitate the murder, if not the murdered.” The joke synopsizing Jewish holidays goes, “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” As Wiesel writes, “Oh yes, it has been going on for centuries. They kill us and we tell how; they plunder us and we describe how; they humiliate and oppress us, they expel us from society and history, and we say how.”
“Night” and his subsequent writings have made Wiesel perhaps the best-known voice of the survivors of the Holocaust. But he has also received criticism from notable Jewish critics. Alfred Kazin, who strongly praised “Night” on its publication in 1960, later described Wiesel as one of the “actors playing the Holocaust circuit” and named author Primo Levi as “a far more trustworthy witness.” Meanwhile Leon Wieseltier wrote in 1976 that, “Elie Wiesel persists in converting his memories into religious kitsch and theodicy made easy.”
However the criticism Wiesel has received is far outweighed by praise. He is the recipient of over 100 honorary degrees from universities and colleges around the world, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. Most notably, perhaps, in 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Through his work Wiesel has fought against indifference, and followed a Jewish tradition of turning almost insufferable memories into written history. For that he has received fame and fortune, and more importantly has battled to ensure that the dead have not yet been forgotten.
Almost 60 years after he was in Auschwitz, and about 50 years after his first attempt at a memoir was published in Yiddish as “And the World Remained Silent,” Wiesel sat alongside the Czech President Václav Havel and American President Bill Clinton in a discussion of power, freedom and human rights in 2002. Deported to a death camp as a child and surviving only by remote chance, Wiesel learned early on his powerlessness in the face of evil. But since the publication of Night in 1958 until today, his has been among the strongest voices calling us to remember those murdered in the Shoah, beseeching us to avoid killing them a second time.