Call me trivial.
But the universal mourning on the death of Eli Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate suddenly became deeply personal when I realised that I no longer have my copy of his memoir, Night. It was among paperback books that I most reluctantly donated to charity early in 2010 as I prepared to emigrate to Israel.
But most rarely for a book still in print and copyright, it is freely available to read on the web. Furthermore, it is an updated version with a new preface by Wiesel and a fresh translation written by his widow, Marion.
On this one occasion, I trust I will be forgiven for republishing the preface here in full:
Just as the past lingers in the present, all my writings
Why did I write it?
Was it to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories, to help prevent history from repeating itself?
There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don't know how I survived; I was weak, rather shy; I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. If heaven could or would perform a miracle for me, why not for others more deserving than myself? It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give
In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer—or my life, period— would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes
For today, thanks to recently discovered documents, the evidence shows that in the early days of their accession to power, the Nazis in Germany set out to build a society in which there simply would be no room for Jews.
Toward the end of their reign, their goal changed: they decided to leave behind a world in ruins in which Jews would seem never to have existed. That is why everywhere in Russia, in the Ukraine, and in Lithuania, the Einsatzgruppen carried out the Final Solution by turning their machine guns on more than a million Jews, men, women, and children, and throwing them into huge mass graves, dug just moments before
Special units would then disinter the corpses and burn them. Thus, for the first time in history, Jews were not only killed twice but denied burial in a cemetery.
CONVINCED THAT THIS PERIOD in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them.
Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else. Writing in my mother tongue—at that point close to extinction—I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again.
I would conjure up other verbs, other
Deep down, the witness knew then, as he does now, that his testimony would not be received. After all, it deals with an event that sprang from the darkest zone of man. Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know. But would they at least understand?
Could men and women who consider it normal to assist the weak, to heal the sick, to protect small children, and to respect the wisdom of their elders understand what happened there?
Would they be able to comprehend how, within that cursed universe, the masters tortured the weak and massacred the children, the sick, and the old?
And so I persevered. And trusted the silence that envelops and transcends words. Knowing all the while that any one of the fields of ashes in Birkenau carries more weight than all the testimonies about Birkenau. For, despite all my attempts to articulate the unspeakable, "it" is still not right.
Is that why my manuscript—written in Yiddish as And the World Remained Silent and translated first into French, then into English—was rejected by every major publisher, French and American, despite the tireless efforts of the great Catholic French
Though I made numerous cuts, the original Yiddish version still was long. Jérôme Lindon, the legendary head of the small but prestigious Éditions de Minuit, edited and further cut the French version. I accepted his decision because I worried that some things might be superfluous. Substance alone mattered. I was
Example: in the Yiddish version, the narrative opens with these cynical musings: In the beginning there was faith—which is childish; trust—which is vain; and illusion—which is dangerous.
We believed in God, trusted in man, and lived with the illusion that every one of us has been entrusted with a sacred spark from the Shekhinah's flame; that every one of us carries in his eyes and in his soul a reflection of God's image.
That was the source if not the cause of all our ordeals.
I remember that night, the most horrendous of my life:
In fact, my father was no longer conscious. Yet his plaintive, harrowing voice went on piercing the silence
"Well?" The SS had flown into a rage and was striking my father on the head: "Be quiet, old man! Be quiet!"
"Eliezer! Eliezer! Come, don't leave me alone …"
His last word had been my name. A summons. And I had not responded.
In the Yiddish version, the narrative does not end with the image in the mirror, but with a gloomy meditation on the present:
And now, scarcely ten years after Buchenwald, I realize that the world forgets quickly. Today, Germany is a sovereign state. The German Army has been resuscitated. Use Koch, the notorious
Today, there are antisemites in Germany, France, and even the United States who tell the world that the "story" of six million assassinated Jews is nothing but a hoax, and many people, not knowing any better, may well believe them, if not today then tomorrow or the day after…
I am not so naive as to believe that this slim volume will change the course of history or shake the conscience of the world. Books no longer have the power they once did.
Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.
THE READER would be entitled to ask: Why this new translation, since the earlier one has been around for forty-five years? If it is not faithful or not good enough, why did I wait so long to replace it with one better and closer to the original? In response, I would say only that back then, I was an unknown writer who was just getting started.
My English was far from good. When my British publisher told me that he had found a translator, I was pleased. I later read the translation and it seemed all right. I never reread it. Since then, many of my other
I am fortunate: when Farrar, Straus and Giroux asked her to prepare a new translation, she accepted. I am convinced that the readers will appreciate her work. In fact, as a result of her rigorous editing, I was able to correct and revise a number of important details.
And so, as I reread this text written so long ago, I am glad that I did not wait any longer. And yet, I still wonder: Have I used the right words? I speak of my first night over there. The discovery of the reality inside the barbed wire. The warnings of a "veteran" inmate, counselling my father and myself to lie about our ages: my father was to make himself younger, and I older.
The selection. The march toward the chimneys looming in the distance under an indifferent sky. The infants thrown into fiery ditches… I did not say that they were alive, but that was what I thought. But then I convinced myself: no, they were dead, otherwise I surely would have lost my mind. And yet fellow inmates also saw them; they were alive when they were thrown into the flames.
Historians, among them Telford Taylor, confirmed it. And yet somehow I did not lose my mind.
BEFORE CONCLUDING this introduction, I believe it important to emphasize how strongly I feel that books, just like people, have a destiny. Some invite sorrow, others joy, some both.
Earlier, I described the difficulties encountered by Night before its publication in French, forty-seven years ago. Despite overwhelmingly favourable reviews, the book sold poorly. The subject was considered morbid and interested no one. If a rabbi happened to mention the book in his sermon, there were always people ready to complain that it was senseless to "burden our children with the tragedies of the Jewish past."
Since then, much has changed. Night has been received in ways that I never expected. Today, students in high schools and colleges in the United States and elsewhere read it as part of their curriculum.
How to explain this phenomenon? First of all, there has been a powerful change in the public's attitude. In the fifties and sixties, adults born before or during World War II showed a careless and patronising indifference toward what is so inadequately called the Holocaust. That is no longer true.
Back then, few publishers had the courage to publish books on that subject. Today, such works are on most book lists. The same is true in academia. Back then, few schools offered courses on the subject. Today, many do. And, strangely, those courses are particularly
This may be because the public knows that the number of survivors is shrinking daily, and is fascinated by the idea of sharing memories that will soon be lost. For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.
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.
SOMETIMES I AM ASKED if I know "the response to Auschwitz"; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don't even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is that there is "response" in responsibility. When we speak of this
The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.
© Natalie Wood (04 July 2016)