Elie Wiesel’s Wrenching Lost Version of ‘Night’ Was Scathing Indictment of God and Fellow Jews
The 150-page work that historian Dr. Joel Rappel pulls off the shelves of his vast library is a difficult document to read. It’s not the handwriting that makes the task hard – it’s actually quite legible. The content – a searing indictment against God and anyone who believed in him during the Holocaust – is what causes the reader to shudder.
“We believed in miracles and in God! And not in fate … and we [fared] very badly not believing in fate. If we had, we could have prevented many catastrophes,” writes the author. “There is no longer a god in the heavens; he whispered with every step we put on the ground. There is no longer God in heaven, and there is no longer man on the earth below. The universe is divided in two: angels of death and the dead,” he continues.
And then: “I stopped praying and didn’t speak about God. I was angry at him. I told myself, ‘He does not deserve us praying to him.’ And, really, does he hear prayers? … Why sanctify him? For what? For the suffering he rains on our heads? For Auschwitz and Birkenau? … This time we will not stand as the accused in court before the divine judge. This time we are the judges and he the accused. We are ready. There are a huge number of documents in our indictment file. They are living documents that will shake the foundations of justice.”
Who is this man who wants to settle accounts with God and shake faith to its very roots? The author’s name appears at the top of the first page: Eliezer Wiesel.
That is how Elie Wiesel, arguably the most famous Holocaust survivor, wrote his name at the beginning of his journalistic and literary journey. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been one of the most significant voices of the Jewish world since the second half of the 20th century. However, the wider public has not been able to read this particular work, which he wrote in the late 1950s.
Wiesel intended to turn it into a special, expanded Hebrew version of his best seller “Night” – one of the most widely sold, read, translated and quoted Holocaust works internationally. However, before he completed his task, he decided to shelve the text, placing it deep in his archive. Even Haim Gouri, who translated “Night” from the French to Hebrew, didn’t know of its existence.
Thus, the archived book was buried for decades, awaiting the moment of its rediscovery.
The man who finally located the archived work was Dr. Rappel, and it was no easy task when you consider that Wiesel’s archive at Boston University – where he served as a professor for over 35 years – contains about a million documents, stored in 330 boxes. The archive has many of his manuscripts, among them early versions of his articles, drafts and incomplete chapters from books that were never published.
These writings document, among other things, Wiesel’s life in the Transylvanian town of Sighet (then Hungary, now in Romania), where he was born in 1928, and New York, where he has lived since the 1960s; his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald; his career as an Israeli journalist after the Holocaust; his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry and human rights around the world; and his career as a successful writer who rubs shoulders with world leaders.
Wiesel has known Rappel for decades. He was the one in 2009 who asked Rappel to organize and manage his archive, and it took Rappel – a historian and former Israel Radio staffer who specializes in researching the Land of Israel, the Jewish nation and Judaism – seven years to accomplish the complex task of classification and organization. He dedicated two-and-a-half of those years to detective work on locating Wiesel’s lost manuscript.
Rappel’s interest in the archived work was spurred after a document on display in the university library caught his eye. It was a photograph of a page in Hebrew in Wiesel’s handwriting, whose content reminded him of “Night.”
“An alarm bell went off inside of me,” Rappel recalls. “Indeed, Wiesel wrote ‘Night’ in French [also Yiddish] and Gouri translated it into Hebrew, so I asked myself, ‘What is another Hebrew version of this book doing here?’” When he posed the question to Wiesel, the author answered, “There is something like that but I don’t know where it is. I would be very happy if you can find it.”
Rappel realized that he wouldn’t be able to rest until he found the manuscript, but the task proved difficult. “Go find 100-plus pages among a million documents, which are still not organized like a real archive,” he says. He combed through some 500 pages a day, looking for hints as to the location of the missing manuscript. After two-and-a-half years, when he was “completely despondent, but very much stuck with the will to succeed,” he was surprised to find a package of papers in Hebrew among other documents. When he examined it, he realized he had found what he was looking for.
Criticizing God and fellow Jews
“Night” was Wiesel’s first book, written in the 1950s and translated into English in 1960. It describes his experiences as a young Jew in the Holocaust, grappling with harsh existential, identity-related and faith-based questions, and brought him international recognition.
The archived version of “Night” is hugely different to the published one. It contains entire sections that don’t appear in the finished book, as well as different versions of pieces that were included.
As well as the sharp criticism of God, the archived version also included harsh criticism of many Jews who either yielded to temptation or were tempted to believe that nothing bad would befall them. Wiesel settles accounts with those among his people who shut their eyes and ears to what was happening, and blames them for paving the Nazis’ way to committing their horrors. He calls them “false prophets.”
“Eternal optimists … it would not be an exaggeration on my part if I were to say that they greatly helped the genocidal nation to prepare the psychological background for the disaster,” he writes, adding, “In fact, the professional optimists meant to make the present easier, but in doing so they buried the future. It is almost certain that if we had known only a little of the truth – dozens of Jews or more would have successfully fled. We would have broken the sword of fate. We would have burned the murderers’ altar. We would have fled and hidden in the mountains with farmers.”
He also reserves criticism for the Jewish leadership, both in Palestine and globally. “We didn’t know a thing [in Europe], while they knew in the Land of Israel, and they knew in London, and they knew in New York. The world was silent and the Jewish world was silent. Why silent? Why did it not find it vital to inform us of what was going on in Germany? Why did they not warn us? Why? I also accuse the Jewish world and its leaders for not warning us, at least about the danger awaiting us in ambush so that we’d seek rescue routes.”
He also describes at length his Christian-Hungarian neighbors, who joyously watched the Jews of his hometown being deported. “All the residents stood at the entrances of their homes, with faces filled with happiness at the misfortune they saw in their friends of yesterday walking and disappearing into the horizon – not for a day or two, but forever. Here I learned the true face of the Hungarian. It is the brutal face of an animal. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I were to say the Hungarians were more violent toward us than the Germans themselves. The Germans tended to shoot Jews.”
Wiesel also discusses the desire for revenge that arose in 1945. “At the end of the war, I refused to return to my hometown because I didn’t want to see any more the faces they revealed behind their disguises on that day of expulsion,” he writes. “However, from one perspective, I am sorry I didn’t return home, at least for a few days, in order to take revenge – to avenge the experts of hypocrisy, the inhabitants of my town. Then it would have been possible to take revenge!”
It’s fascinating to compare what Wiesel originally wrote with what appears in the final, softened version. Take, for example, the archived version revealing that originally Wiesel wrote an additional passage about sexual relations among those being transported in the cattle cars to Auschwitz.
He wrote in detail in the archived text: “Under the cover of night, there were some young boys and girls who had sexual intercourse. The initial impact of the disaster was sexual. The tension of the final days sparked the desires that now sought release. And the heat also added its own touch, so that the sexual scenes did not provoke protest in the carriage. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
Why did Wiesel, now 87, write this text in Hebrew if he decided ultimately to present Israeli readers with the version translated from French? What is the meaning of the differences between the Hebrew version and the one translated into Hebrew from French? Why did he never publish it, but rather store it away among a million documents? And if he wanted to dispose of it, why not simply destroy it – as he did with some of his other manuscripts?
Rappel, who returned to Israel from the United States last summer, has also pondered these same questions. “The first question that arose for me was why this manuscript was not published,” he says. “I wondered if someone wanted to make it disappear and get rid of it.”
Because of his health, it is now no longer possible to ask Wiesel these questions. But the writer, as is his wont, added a little mystery to the matter when Rappel – one of the people closest to him – asked him about the archived text. “This is the version of ‘Night’ that Wiesel wanted the Israeli reader to see. He didn’t write it for anyone else. Therefore, it was so important,” Rappel explains. “Wiesel knew that many Holocaust survivors from Auschwitz and Buchenwald, as well as many Jews living in Israel, would read this version, and so he put more emphasis on the Jewish aspect.”
If that’s true, why did Wiesel store it away, deep in his archive? “He knew that, someday, someone would find this manuscript and leave it for the following generations,” believes Rappel.
Whatever the reason, in order to place the writing of this work in the oeuvre of Wiesel’s life, one must return to 1954 – nearly a decade after he was liberated from Buchenwald. He was then a young journalist, filing copy for Yedioth Ahronoth from Paris, and was sent on a journalistic assignment to Brazil. On the way, in a small cabin on a boat, he began writing the book that was destined to transform him from a journalist writing in Hebrew for the Israeli public to a respected, renowned and wealthy author.
In his 1995 memoir “All Rivers Run Into the Sea,” Wiesel described the process of writing “Night”: “I worked in my cabin for most of the journey. I wrote feverishly, with shortness of breath, without rereading … The pages piled up on my bed. I slept fitfully. I didn’t participate in the activities onboard, and I typed incessantly on my little portable typewriter, ignoring my fellow passengers, concerned only that we would get there too soon.”
Wiesel was then 26. A decade before, he was being tossed between life and death in the Nazi camps, where he lost his mother, father and one of his sisters. At this point, he decided to break the vow of silence he had taken upon himself and “to open up the gates of memory,” as he put it.
By the time he had finished writing, he had 862 pages in Yiddish describing what had happened to him during the Holocaust. He published this work in 1956, in an abridged, 254-page version in Yiddish with the title “And the World Remained Silent.” The book was published in Argentina by Mark Turkow, brother of the actor Jonas Turkow. Two years later, an even shorter French version was published.
The person who encouraged Wiesel to publish the book in French was François Mauriac, one of France’s great authors. The men met for the first time in 1954, when the journalist Wiesel interviewed Mauriac, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1952. When Mauriac told Wiesel about “the image of cattle cars filled with Jewish children at the Austerlitz train station,” Wiesel told him, “I was one of them.” Mauriac immediately understood that Wiesel’s recollections and experiences deserved to be published, and he encouraged him to further edit down the Yiddish version, change the name to “Night,” and introduce other changes that would make it appealing to as wide an audience as possible.
“Please listen to an old man like me: We must talk – we also need to talk,” Mauriac told him, according to Wiesel. And so was born “Night,” the 158-page, abridged version of “And the World Remained Silent.”
Mauriac wrote in the foreword that “Night” is “different, distinct, and unique,” and wished that the number of readers “should be as numerous as those reading ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’”
The book was translated into 35 languages, among them English and Hebrew, and is mandatory reading on the Holocaust in schools around the world. Indeed, it was many readers’ first encounter with the Holocaust. Another generation was exposed to it after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club in 2006.
Rappel estimates that Wiesel wrote the archived Hebrew manuscript in the late 1950s, during the period when he was in talks with Dov Yudkowsky – the then-editor of Yedioth Ahronoth and his closest friend in those days – about translating the French edition into Hebrew. When the talks got serious, he stopped writing the Hebrew version and gave the translation job to Gouri.
Decades later, Gouri himself no longer remembers who asked him to translate “Night” into Hebrew, but stresses that it was the first book he had translated from French. The two met in the early 1950s, when Wiesel was writing for Yedioth in Paris and Gouri was there on a scholarship. The two stayed in touch for many years, despite differences of opinion over Wiesel’s decision to live in the United States.
“As a radical Zionist, I thought that he, as a survivor, would come to be one of us,” recalls Gouri now. “[Then-Mayor] Teddy Kollek also offered him an apartment in Jerusalem, but he said that the United States gave him the home he was lacking. Many didn’t forgive him for this choice. Even after he received the Nobel Prize [in 1986], they wrote some harsh words about him. But over time, a new generation accepted him. When they attacked him, I said, ‘I wasn’t in Auschwitz. He was there.’ It’s impossible to hurt a person who survived Auschwitz. Perhaps if he had moved to Israel, he would have been one of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors.”