The Romanian-born Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, who died on July 2 at age 87, will be remembered for many accomplishments. Above all, his memoir “Night.” (1960) Translated from a 1955 French edition — an earlier, longer Yiddish memoir with differences in substance and style was also published — “Night” focuses on the stench, torture, and death of his experience in Auschwitz, where he was deported at age 15. The suffering of Jews recounted therein was an eye-opener to a wide readership, at a time when the much-praised French documentary “Night and Fog’ (1955) about Nazi concentration camps did not even mention Jews, preferring to focus on a variety of victims who were murdered there.
Much has been written about Wiesel’s role as public explainer of the Holocaust to non-Jews, starting with the well-intentioned preface to the original French edition of “Night” by the French Catholic novelist François Mauriac. Yet Wiesel’s recollections were news to informed Jewish readers as well, such as the French historian Pierre Vidal-Naquet (1930–2006), a valiant fighter against Holocaust denial. In his “Jews, Memory, and the Present,” (1995) Vidal-Naquet explained:
“If now I take my own experience as the son of two French Jews who died at Auschwitz, I would say that for several years, I made no real distinction between concentration and extermination camps. The first book to really teach me what Auschwitz camp was, was ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel, published in 1958 by Les Éditions de Minuit. I was 28. It happens that I loathe the works of Elie Wiesel with the sole exception of this book. Which is a further reason to mention it.”
A 1960 review of the English translation of “Night” appearing in “The Saturday Review” edited by the American Jewish journalist Norman Cousins, reflected on the glut of Holocaust memoirs already available, before pointing to what was different about Wiesel’s:
“Stories by the victims of the Nazis are often strikingly similar because of the fact that the genocide was, by its very essence, such a uniform and orderly operation, marked by typical qualities of German discipline: robot-like obedience and quiet efficiency in carrying out the cruelest of orders. And yet there is a unique quality in the experiences of a child in hell. Mr. Wiesel writes in short, staccato sentences, in the simplest words, and in a relentless, self-denying effort to tell the whole truth as he saw and felt it, moment by moment, day by day. One of his most shattering reactions was loss of his belief in God. Another was his shame over wanting to continue living at any cost.”
In Wiesel’s long life, many books would follow, but few if any had the impact of “Night.” His efforts at fiction, by no means sequels to “Night” yet misleadingly marketed as the “Night Trilogy,” comprised “Dawn” (1961) and “Day,” (1962). His admittedly non-specialist volumes about Jewish lore included “Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters” and a retelling of “The Golem.” Reportage, such as his account of Soviet Jewry based on a 1965 trip, “The Jews of Silence,” followed articles for the Yiddish Forverts from the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. As he aged and became more celebrated, a two-part memoir appeared, “All Rivers Run to the Sea” seconded by “And the Sea Is Never Full.” Another such book appeared as “Open Heart”, reflections on mortality from an octogenarian facing and surviving heart surgery.
All his books were imbued with an awareness of mortality, after his sustained confrontation with death as a teenager. More than a resigned memento mori, at his best moments Wiesel would voice outspoken views to powerful people, as in 1985 when he criticized President Ronald Reagan’s scheduled visit to Germany’s Bitburg military cemetery, where among 2,000 military graves are buried dozens of Hitler’s Waffen-SS. Reagan blithely ignored Wiesel’s widely-reported words, conveyed on the occasion of receiving a Congressional Gold Medal at the White House: “That place [Bitburg], Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”
On other occasions, Wiesel’s influence would be stronger, or at least reported as such when it suited the powers that be. In 1999, Wiesel was used by the administration of President Bill Clinton to justify the launch of the U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia, intended to prevent mass slaughter of Kosovo Albanians. Introduced to an audience in the East Room of the White House by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Wiesel mentioned, without drawing exact parallels to, the Holocaust, adding that indifference was the ever-present enemy and praising the “justified intervention in Kosovo.”
Nor, when attending plush haunts of Nobel Prize-winners such as the political and economic sessions at the Swiss ski resort of Davos, did Wiesel mind being considered a potential party-pooper. In 2008, in the presence of Wang Jianzhou, then-chairman of China Mobile and co-chair at Davos, Wiesel announced to audience applause, according to the Associated Press,: “I’d like China to open its doors to the Dalai Lama so I could accompany him to go to Tibet. That would be a great, great victory.” He added that Beijing should ease restrictions on Tibet, to Wang’s evident discomfort.
In such a long and public life, inevitably some much-discussed events will fade into the background, as when his charitable foundation and personal savings were bilked by the fraudster Bernard Madoff. As Wiesel said at the time, he had seen worse in terms of human iniquity. Instead, his retrospective contribution to further understanding of the Holocaust, even among readers who thought they already knew about it, will continue to grow. That will be the principal legacy of Elie Wiesel. A Google search suggests as much, with websites devoted to Holocaust denial attacking “Night” as if it had been written yesterday. The differences between an 862-page manuscript written in his mamaloshn of Yiddish in 1954 and published in Argentina as a 245-page book, Un di velt hot geshvign (“And the World Remained Silent”) and later versions of “Night” were plausibly analyzed, with notable lack of sensationalism, by the accomplished writers Ruth Franklin and Naomi Seidman. To claim astonishment, as some less responsible readers have done, that a memoir written in Yiddish would differ from one written by the same author in French, with different word lengths and intended readers, betrays ignorance about both languages and the autobiographical art.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.