Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Franklin’

Night #1 and Night #2—What Changes were Made and Why, Part One

Friday, February 17th, 2012

By Carolyn Yeager
copyright 2012 Carolyn Yeager

On Tuesday, January 17, 2006, Amazon.com announced that it was changing the categorization of a new translation of Elie Wiesel’s Night from novel to memoir.

Amazon would also revise the editorial description of the original edition to make clear that they consider the book a memoir, not a novel. “We hope to make these changes as quickly as possible,” said Jani Strand, a spokeswoman for the online retailer. The day before, Oprah Winfrey had announced that Night was her latest book club choice, displacing her previous selection, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

The sudden switch from fiction to non-fiction caused some discussion and questions, which Strand brushed away by saying,  “Amazon.com’s data source for the Oprah Book Club edition of Night inaccurately classified the book as fiction.” She declined to offer details. The book, re-classified as “Autobiography” and blessed by Oprah, was already No.3 on Amazon.com as of that Tuesday afternoon! Wiesel, interviewed later with his literary agent Georges Borchardt, insisted they had never portrayed it as a novel.

But the publisher did.1 There has been confusion about the question for so long—even Wiesel’s defenders have to admit it. Ruth Franklin, in her 2011 book, A Thousand Darknesses, wrote: “Unfortunately, Night is an imperfect ambassador for the infallibility of the memoir, owing to the fact that it has been treated very often as a novel—by journalists, by scholars, and even by its publishers.”2  On Night’s Wikipedia page it has long been described as autobiography, memoir, novel—yes, all three. How long will that continue? As long as there are editions of Night that still sport those labels, one assumes.

Left: Oprah Winfrey and Elie Wiesel pose together at the  Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity Award Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel on May  20, 2007.  Winfrey was honored  with  the  Humanitarian   Award for “positively impacting people all over the world, especially children.”  One year earlier, she had selected Wiesel’s “Night” for her popular book club “pick” which sent it immediately to the top of the national bestseller lists.

As for Wiesel and Borchardt, they answered questions about differences in the text of the new edition by saying they were not significant enough to justify raising questions. The next day, Wiesel’s wife Marion, the translator of the new edition of Night, said in an interview that among the changes was a reference to the age of the book’s narrator when he arrives in 1944 at Birkenau, the entry point for Auschwitz.

“At no point did this change the meaning and the fact of anything in the book,” Marion Wiesel said. She explained it this way:  The narrator tells a fellow prisoner that he is “not quite 15.” But the scene takes place in Spring 1944. Mr. Wiesel, born on Sept. 30, 1928, would have already been 15, going on 16. So in the new edition, she changed it to “15.” Whaaaa? She changed the age of Eliezer as it was written in the Yiddish book to fit Elie Wiesel, who was fifteen and a half at that time. What is written in the Yiddish original, Un di velt hot geshvign, we also find in the original Night, so that can only be called unethical. Marion tried to joke it away, telling reporters “I kidded Elie and told him, ‘I don’t think you can add.'”

But that particular change, rather than insignificant, was one of the major reasons that a new translation was undertaken. There are other quite significant changes in the new edition that will be enumerated in this article. When you learn what they are, you can decide for yourself if you think they are insignificant.

Right: Marion Wiesel is the translator of the 2006 edition of  Night. Here, in 2010, she attends an after party at The Monkey Bar for Oliver Stone’s new “South of the Border” New York premiere at Cinema 21.

Wiesel wrote a Preface to the New Translation, something he didn’t have in the original La Nuit or Night.

In his preface, Wiesel begins: “Why did I write it? … so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness …”

He continues in this vein—typical Wiesel mystical-religious style. However, in his only description of the writing process of this book—the typing of the 862 pages which he titled Un di velt hot geshvign, according to his later memoir—it is hard to believe that he was in such a state of mind. He writes in All Rivers Run to the Sea that during this time in Paris he is busy with his newspaper job and contacts; also involved in a love affair with a woman named Hanna. He embarks on a major journalistic assignment in Brazil, sent by his editor, taking along a friend to keep him company on the ship’s crossing. They both get free tickets from a “resourceful Israeli friend”—these benefactors are usually unnamed. As the voyage begins, he says his mind is dwelling on Hanna and whether he should take the marriage step that she had asked for.

I can’t imagine an atmosphere less conducive to writing about what he describes as “the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history.” But he continues very matter-of-factly in All Rivers, “During the crossing I wrote my testimony …” and in one short paragraph tells us all he thought important to say about it. Moreover, he has never elaborated on it since!

In the new preface, Wiesel writes that in retrospect he doesn’t know what he wanted to achieve with his words, but then he comes up with something: “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.” He needed to “invent a new language.” He is not speaking of an actual language, like German, French or English—but a language of survivors, or for survivors. Wiesel writes that common words like “hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney … all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else.” Really? He does not explain how that is so. But Wiesel has tried to create the idea of holocaust survivors as a special class, set apart, who know things others do not know, and can never understand—”Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know.”

Wiesel describes his writing as slow!  “Writing in my mother tongue (Yiddish) … I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right.” This contrasts totally with his description in his memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea (p. 238-40)  that he wrote the original Yiddish manuscript fast and feverishly without re-reading!

Why a new translation of Night after 45 years of success with the old one?

Here again, Wiesel hedges in the preface and doesn’t have a convincing answer. He says his wife Marion has translated other books for him, and “knows his voice better than anyone else.” He says he didn’t pay enough attention to the original English translation by Stella Rodway—after his first reading of Night from the publisher, he never read it again. As for Mrs. Wiesel: “Fluent in French, she had never read the English version,” she said. But good news! Elie Wiesel Cons The World has found a translator and now has large portions of the Yiddish book translated into English. We can compare the real 245-page original to both the 1960 English translation from the French by Stella Rodway and the 2006 English translation done by Marion Wiesel.

In doing so, we have made two important discoveries.

First, Stella Rodway’s 1960 English translation of Night is an accurate rendition of the French text of La Nuit, as originally published in 1958.  That means that if there are any “errors” in the Night story, they weren’t put there by Stella Rodway.

Second, when we compare the three texts—the original version of Night, as translated by Rodway, the “corrected” 2006 translation by Marion Wiesel, and the 1955 Yiddish original of Un di velt hot geshvign—we find that the “errors” brought up by Marion Wiesel are for the greater part what was actually written in the original Yiddish book, though usually in more detail there.

In other words, the 1955 Yiddish version, the 1958 French version, and the 1960 English version generally agree—only the “corrected” 2006 translation is different.  So, are these really errors of translation that Marion Wiesel is fixing for us?  Or are they not simply problems for Elie Wiesel?  Under close scrutiny, the Elie Wiesel narrative has huge holes which bring up embarrassing questions, and this is what Marion Wiesel’s new translation was meant to head off.

Left: Original Night cover, 1960, features the title, while the author’s name is exceptionally small and insignificant. Francois Mauriac’s forward is featured.  In 2006, the author becomes the “title,” i.e. the main selling point, and Mauriac is no longer mentioned, although his forward remains in the book.

A Comparison of the 1960 original with the 2006 new version.

Following are the most “significant” differences I have found between the Stella Rodway 1960 translation and the Marion Wiesel 2006 translation. To make as clear a case as possible, I begin with the Yiddish [UdV] and its French translation La Nuit [LN], followed by the Stella Rodway English translation [SR]. Finally, Marion Wiesel’s revised translation [MW]. The word or phrase being compared is in boldface. Number one has already been written about in When Did Elie Wiesel Arrive at Auschwitz?

1.  The Saturday before Pentecost … or two weeks before?

UdV Page 22: Geshen iz dos Shbth far Shbw’wth. A friling-zun hot oysgegosn ir likht un varemkeyt iber der gorer velt un oykh iber geto …  /  It happened Saturday [Sabbath] before Shavuot. The springtime sun had spread its light and warmth over the whole world, and even over the ghetto. . . .

LN Page 29: Le samedi précédant la Pentecôte, sous un soleil printanier, les gens se promenaient insouciants à travers les rues grouillantes de monde / The Saturday preceding Pentecost …

SR Page 23:  On the Saturday before Pentecost, in the Spring sunshine, people strolled carefree and unheeding, through the swarming streets.

MW Page 12:  Some two weeks before Shavuot (Pentecost). A sunny spring day, people strolled seemingly carefree through the crowded streets.

The Yiddish, the French and the original English versions agree—it was the Saturday before the festival of Pentecost/Shavuot—but Marion Wiesel’s new edition sets that date back by two whole weeks. This is very significant because, as the story continues, it was later on the following day that the Jews of Sighet were forced to leave their homes in preparation for their eventual deportation:  “The ghetto was to be liquidated entirely. We were to leave street by street, starting the following day.”

So Mrs.Wiesel was NOT correcting errors in the English translation, but changing the text to fit the reality of when the Hungarians from Sighet arrived at Birkenau.  Pentecost was on Sunday, May 28, 1944. The “Saturday before Pentecost” is thus May 27. Some two weeks before is May 14.

Un di velt hot geshvign, La Nuit and the Rodway translation all have Eliezer’s family leaving on the final journey to Auschwitz around June 2nd, six days after Pentecost/Shavuot, which was a Friday. However, they also agree that “Saturday, the day of rest, was chosen for our expulsion.” So it’s necessary for us to add another day to the family’s stay in the small ghetto to make the chronology work.  On Saturday, then, the Jews are marched to the synagogue and spend the night there; in the morning, Sunday June 4, they board the train: “The following morning [Sunday], we marched to the station, where a convoy of cattle wagons was waiting. [… ] We were on our way.”  Four days and three nights on the train (according to the description in Night) makes their arrival date June 6, 1944, around midnight.

But this is not only long after the prisoner number A7713—which Elie Wiesel supposedly received at Auschwitz, and still (again, supposedly!) has tattooed on his left arm—had been given out, but also long after the last transport left from Sighet.  Indeed, there were no transports from the town after May, according to official records.

Marion Wiesel did not mention this one to the reporters; nor did Elie speak of it in his preface to his wife’s translation. But it was discovered by our translator. Marion Wiesel’s arbitrary “correction” allows Eliezer’s family to leave on May 21 and to arrive  by May 24 (just before midnight!) thus making it possible for Eliezer to receive the registration number A7713. This is a very significant change, probably the most significant in her entire new English translation.

An added note: This interesting passage is on page 27 of Un di velt, but is not included in the shorter French or English Night:

We had opportunities and possibilities to hide with regular goyim and with prominent personalities. Many non-Jews from the surrounding villages had begged us, that we would come to them. There were bunkers available for us in villages or in the mountains. But we had cast aside all proposals. Why? Quite simple: the calendar showed April 1944 and we, the Jews of Sighet, still knew nothing about Treblinka, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

Now we have April as the general time of deportation!  So according to the timeline we find in Un di velt, Eliezer and his family left Sighet some time in June, while the calendar on their wall still said April . . .  and in the meantime, we know from official Auschwitz records that the deportations actually occurred in the last two weeks of May.  The person who wrote this knew nothing about the real deportation dates for the Sighet Jews.

2.  Copulating on the train … or just caressing?

UdV Page 47:  Tsulib der engshaft hobn a sakh instinktn zikh dervekt in kerper.  Erotishe instinktn, un untern forhang fun der nakht hobn yungeleyt un froyen zikh gelozn bahersht durkh di oyfgereytste chwshym zeyere.

Ot der ershter rezultat fun umglik: erotishe freyheyt.  Di shpanung fun di letste teg hot itst gezukht a veg vi oystsulodn zikh un der leychtster iz geven – an erotisher.

Di erotishe stsenes hobn nisht dervekt keyn protestn mtsd di eltere Yidn.  Zey hobn farmakht oyern un oygn, zikh gemakht nisht zen un nisht hern.  In moment fun schnh faln avek di keytn fun der konventsioneler moral.  Mentshn hobn zikh getrakht: ver veys vos der morgn iz “lwl tsu brengen?  Zol yugnt oysnutsn dem heynt, oystsapn fun im dem letstn hn’h-tropn . . .

In English: Because of the crowding, a host of instincts awoke in [people’s] bodies.  Erotic instincts – and beneath the curtain of night young men and women let themselves be ruled by their aroused senses.

And so the first result of misfortune: erotic freedom.  The stress of the last days now sought a way to discharge itself, and the easiest was – an erotic one.

The erotic scenes did not arouse any protests from the older Jews.  They closed their ears and eyes, and forced themselves not to see and hear.  In the moment of danger, the chains of conventional morality fall away.  People thought to themselves: who knows what the morning is likely to bring?  Youth must seize the day, squeeze from it the last drops of pleasure . . .

LN Page 45: Libérés de toute censure sociale, les jeunes se laissaient aller ouvertement à leurs instincts et à la faveur de la nuit, s’accouplaient au milieu de nous, sans se préoccuper de qui que ce fût, seuls dans le monde.  Les autres faisaient semblant de ne rien voir.

SR Page 34:  “Free from all social constraint, the young people gave way openly to instinct, taking advantage of the darkness to copulate in our midst, without caring about anyone else, as though they were alone in the world. The rest pretended not to notice anything.”

MW Page 23:  “Freed of normal constraints, some of the young let go of their inhibitions and, under cover of darkness, caressed one another, without any thought of others, alone in the world. The others pretended not to notice.”

Elie Wiesel did not mention this change in his preface to the new English translation by his wife, but he did give quite a lengthy explanation (humorous to us) in the preface he wrote for the new French edition. This is what he said there:

Thanks to her, it was possible for me to correct an incorrect expression or impression here and there.  An example: I describe the first night-time voyage in the sealed cars, and I mention that certain persons had taken advantage of the darkness to commit sexual acts.  That’s false. In the Yiddish text, I say that “young boys and girls allowed themselves to be mastered by their excited erotic instincts.”  I have checked among many absolutely trustworthy sources.  In the train, all the families were still together.  A few weeks of the ghetto could not have degraded our behavior to the point of violating customs, mores and ancient laws.  That there may have been some clumsy touching, that is possible.  But that was all.  Nothing went any further.  But then, why did I say that in Yiddish, and allow it to be translated into French and English?  The only possible explanation: it is myself I am speaking of.  It is myself that I condemn.  I imagine that the adolescent that I was then, in the throes of puberty even if profoundly pious, could not resist such erotic imaginings, enriched by the physical proximity between men and women.

The original French : Grâce à elle, il me fut permis de corriger çà et là une expression ou une impression erronées. Exemple : j’évoque le premier voyage nocturne dans les wagons plombés et je mentionne que certaines personnes avaient profité de l’obscurité pour commettre des actes sexuels. C’est faux. Dans le texte yiddish je dis que « des jeunes garçons et filles se sont laissés maîtriser par leurs instincts érotiques excités. » J’ai vérifié auprès de plusieurs sources absolument sûres. Dans le train toutes les familles étaient encore réunies. Quelques semaines de ghetto n’ont pas pu dégrader notre comportement au point de violer coutumes, moeurs et lois anciennes. Qu’il y ait eu des attouchements maladroits, c’est possible. Ce fut tout. Nul n’est allé plus loin. Mais alors, pourquoi l’ai-je dit en yiddish et permis de le traduire en français et en anglais? La seule explication possible: c’est de moi-même que je parle. C’est moi-même que je condamne. J’imagine que l’adolescent que j’étais, en pleine puberté bien que profondément pieux, ne pouvait résister à l’imaginaire érotique enrichi par la proximité physique entre hommes et femmes.

Is this convincing, dear readers? Consider that the narrator of Un di velt says exactly the opposite of what Wiesel tries to present in his new French preface: the first result of a few weeks in the ghetto was erotic freedom, which was acted out in front of everyone in the train. And the “erotic instincts” that the youths let themselves be “ruled by” clearly must have involved sexual intercourse—why else would everyone have needed to shut their eyes and ears so tightly?

Liar Ruth Franklin

The Elie Wiesel of 2006 (and perhaps the Hasidic rebbes had something to do with this?) wants us to believe in the inviolable sanctity of the Jews’ “customs, mores and ancient laws,” and also in their innate respect for their elders and one another. But he is directly contradicted by what are, we are told, his own words of fifty years ago : “In the moment of danger, the chains of conventional morality fall away.”  Which Wiesel do we believe?

And Ruth Franklin, senior editor at The New Republic,  has the temerity to insist (toward the end of her 2006 review article) that “his [Elie’s] original suggestion that couples “copulated” in the cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz  . . .  was always a gross mistranslation of the original Yiddish.”  We’ve shown you here that it isn’t.

3.  Not yet fifteen … or fifteen?

UdV Page 63 : Yingl, vi alt bistu? fregt mir a heftling.  Zeyn pnym iz geven in der fintster, ober zeyn kol iz geven a mids, a varems. Nokh nisht keyn 15 yor, hob ikh geentfert.

“Kid, how old are you?” a prisoner asked me.  His face was in darkness, but his voice was tired and warm. “Not yet 15 years,” I answered.

LN Page 54:  Hé, le gosse, quel âge as-tu?  C’était un détenu qui m’interrogeait.  Je ne voyais pas son visage, mais sa voix était lasse et chaude.  “Pas encore quinze ans.” / Not yet 15 years.

SR Page 39: “Here, kid, how old are you?” It was one of the prisoners who asked me this. I could not see his face, but his voice was tense and weary. “I’m not quite fifteen yet.”

MW Page 30:  “Hey, kid, how old are you?” The man interrogating me was an inmate. I could not see his face, but his voice  was weary and warm.  Fifteen

This very important passage was discussed above. I think the reader would agree that “not yet 15″ can mean even farther from the age of 15 than “not quite fifteen.” What is clear is that Marion Wiesel has changed the author’s original words to fit them to her husband’s age in Spring 1944.

4.   April … or May?

UdV Page 83:  A sheyner April-tog iz es geven. A frilings-rich in der luft.  In English:  It was a beautiful April day. A scent of spring in the air.

LN Page 69: C’était une belle journee d’avril.  Des parfums de printemps flottaient dans l’air.  Le soleil baissait vers l’ouest.

SR Page 49:  It was a beautiful April day. The fragrance of spring was in the air. The sun was setting in the west.

MW Page 40:  It was a beautiful day in  May. The fragrances of spring were in the air. The sun was setting.

(See again When Did Wiesel Arrive) Once more, the original Night as translated by Stella Rodway agrees with the Yiddish and the French; Marion Wiesel arbitrarily changed April to May, yet said her translation did not “change the meaning or the fact of anything in the book”  … what she calls a “significant change.” Well, this is a significant change, and for the same reason as given in number 1 above.

5.  Himmler … or “Reichsfuehrer Himmler?”

UdV Page 124-5:  “In nomen fun Himler . . . der heftling num’ . . . hot gegnbet . . . bsh”thn luft-alarm . . . loytn gezets, paragraf . . . iz der heftling num’ . . . farurteylt tsum toyt!  Zol dos zeyn a lere un a beyshpil far ale heftlingen . . .”

“In the name of Himmler . . . prisoner number . . . stole . . .  during the air raid . . . according to the law, paragraph . . . prisoner number . . . is condemned to death.  May this be a lesson and an example for all prisoners.”

LN Page 100:  “Au nom de Himmler ... Le détenu No… a dérobé pendant l’alerte… ”

SR Page 68:  “In the name of Himmler … prisoner Number … stole during the alert … According to the law … paragraph …prisoner Number … is condemned to death. May this be a warning and an example to all prisoners.”

MW Page 62:  “In the name of  Reichsfuehrer Himmler … prisoner number … stole during the air raid … according to the law … prisoner number … is condemned to death. Let this be a warning …..”

Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler

Again, the Yiddish and the original Night agree.  However, no trained member of the SS, or even the Wehrmacht, would ever have shown such disrespect as to use Himmler’s name in such a formal context without his full title: Reichsfuehrer SS Heinrich Himmler.  Marion Wiesel tried to fix the error by adding “Reichsfuehrer,” but she still gets it wrong: you don’t drop the “SS.”  On its own, this tells us that the speech was an imaginary one  invented by the author (whoever that is), someone who was never present at such a scene. Indeed, lack of knowledge about how the SS functioned in the camps is evident throughout the book. For example, the SS did not normally go inside the barracks; everything inside was handled by the kapos.

6. Ten days and ten nights … or just “days and nights”

UdV Page 207:  Tsen teg un tsen nekht hot gedoyert di reyze. / Ten days and ten nights the trip lasted.

LN Page 155:   Dix jours, dix nuits de voyage.  Il nous arrivait de traverser des localités allemandes.

SR Page101:  Ten days, ten nights of traveling.  Sometimes we would pass through German townships.

MW Page 100:  There followed days and nights of traveling. Occasionally we would pass through German towns.

In January of 1945, as the advancing Red Army approached Auschwitz, a decision was made to evacuate, sending the prisoners to other camps in Germany.  Evacuation of the Monowitz (Auschwitz III) camp, to which Eliezer and Father had previously been transferred, began at 6 p.m. on January 18. The prisoners were given extra clothing and food—bread to carry with them. They also had whatever food they had saved up. After marching all night during a snowfall, they rested in the morning in an old brick factory. In late afternoon, they began again and reached Gleiwitz camp in a few hours [night, Jan. 19]; they then remained in Gleiwitz barracks for three days. On the 22nd  they went to the train stop and waited until evening. They were brought bread for the journey. The convoy set out

From there, as we see above, the Yiddish, the 1958 French and 1960 English versions agree on the trip lasting ten days and nights. But Marion Wiesel removes the number ten because it makes Eliezer’s timeline for the death of his father on Jan. 28/29 completely impossible. Another very significant change. Ten days and nights from the night of Jan. 22nd is the night of Feb 1, 1945.

This shows that the author of Un di velt knew nothing about the transport that arrived at Buchenwald on January 26 with 3000 prisoners from Auschwitz. This is the transport that, according to existing official records, brought Lazar and Abraham Wiesel to Buchenwald, who were registered at the camp there on  . . . January 26, 1945! (See Buchenwald Archivist Cannot ID Elie Wiesel, How True to Life is Wiesel’s description of Buchenwald, and Gigantic Fraud Carried Out.)

7. Fifteen … or sixteen?

UdV Page 213:  I was fifteen years old then. Do you understand—fifteen? Is it any wonder that I, along with my generation, do not believe either in God or in man; in the feelings of a son, in the love of a father. Is it any Wonder that I cannot realize that I myself experienced this thing, that my childish eyes had witnessed it?  (This passage from Moshe Spiegel’s stand-alone translation of Chapter Six of Un di velt hot geshvign, published as “The Death Train” in the 1968 volume Anthology of Holocaust Literature.)

LN Page 158:  J’avais quinze ans. / I was fifteen.

SR Page 103:  I was fifteen years old.

MW Page 102:  I was sixteen.

In the original versions, Eliezer repeats that he is fifteen years old in January 1945. Elie Wiesel’s birth date is Sept. 30, 1928 so on that day in 1944 he became sixteen years old, making him 16 years and 4 months when this particular event on the train to Buchenwald occurred in late January 1945. Once again, Marion Wiesel simply changes the age as she did before — if Elie was actually sixteen at that time, then Eliezer, the character in the book, must be too!

In Part Two, I will construct the timeline of the events in Buchenwald following the arrival of Eliezer and his father, and other details about Buchenwald. What will we find out?  Stay tuned.

Endnotes:

1. On the back cover of the original hardcover Night,  with the black & white striped jacket (as pictured here), it is printed “Literature” as the classification.  

2.  Ruth Franklin,  A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction, Oxford University Press, 2011,  pp 71-72.

Unfortunately, Night is an imperfect ambassador for the infallibility of the memoir, owing to the fact that it has been treated very often as a novel—by journalists, by scholars, and even by its publishers.  Lawrence Langer, in his landmark study The Holocaust and the Literary Imagination, notes that Night “continues to be classified and critically acclaimed as a novel, and not without reason.” . . .

Nonetheless, in 1997 Publishers Weekly columnist Paul Nathan had to issue a correction apologizing for referring to the book as an “autobiographical novel”; he had been misled, he said, by the entry on Wiesel in The International Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Biography.  In response, the correction itself was challenged by the director of Penguin Reference Books, publishers of the biography dictionary, who cited half a dozen sources to the effect that Night was in fact a novel.  Together with most critics, Gary Weissman, who recounted the above history in his book Fantasies of Witnessing: Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust, seems to concur with Ernst Pawel’s remark in an early magazine survey of Holocaust fiction, that “the line between fact and fiction, tenuous at best, tends to vanish altogether in autobiographical novels such as Night.”  The hybrid terms used to describe it include “novel/autobiography,” “non-fictional novel,” “semi-fictional memoir,” “fictional-autobiographical memoir,” “fictionalized autobiographical memoir,” and “memoir-novel.

GO TO PART TWO

Elie Wiesel and Chapman University need help with “knowledge and ethics” surrounding the holocaust

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

by Carolyn Yeager

Elie Wiesel arrived at Chapman University in Orange CA on Monday, March 28 in his new capacity as “Distinguished Presidential Fellow” and gave a lecture titled  “Knowledge and Ethics.”   He also  spoke to a small class of Chapman Religion students. According to the Orange County Register [photo at right courtesy Paul Bersbach, OCR],  he “answered several questions, but posed many of his own.”  This is typically the way Wiesel, 82,  avoids revealing his ignorance of the entire topic of the concentration camps.

 Wiesel’s contract with the university, and specifically with the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education which is the real sponsor and driving force behind the contract, is for five years. Thanks to a bequest from Barry and Phyllis Rodgers, the Rodgers Center was opened in 2000 for the purpose of helping to keep the memory of the holocaust alive, well, and lucrative.

As we reported here last October, each spring semester Wiesel will deliver a lecture and carry on some interaction with students. Don’t think he’s doing it only in the interest of “keeping memory alive” or for any of the noble reasons suggested by Marilyn Harran, Director of the Rodgers Center and University spokesperson on matters pertaining to Wiesel’s fellowship.

 

Left: Marilyn Harran. Right: Wilkinson Hall on the Chapman campus. The Rodger Center comes under the aegis of the Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Studies.

As reported in the Chapman Panther newspaper on March 28, “Harran declined to say how much the Rodgers Center is paying Wiesel for his lecture. Mary Platt, director of communications and media relations, confirmed that the amount is confidential.”

It’s widely quoted that Wiesel’s standard speaking fee is $25,000. We don’t know how much he is charging for visiting with students in their classrooms, but it is no doubt substantial. Chapman’s wealthy Jewish donors who support activities at the special Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and the Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library are apparently willing to pay it.

Harran, a professor in both the Religious Studies and History departments, is a devotee of Wiesel and his myth. She tends to speak of Wiesel in worshipful terms, as I reported in my Oct. 2010 blog post. At that time, she included these words in her announcement of his fellowship at Chapman: “We are unbelievably fortunate that he has chosen to return to Chapman and to share with us his knowledge and wisdom.  I am stunned and deeply grateful that he will be with us in this new role as Distinguished Presidential Fellow.  I know our university community will be profoundly enriched and inspired by his presence.” This is the cue for students to show the proper respect toward the visiting professor, and hang on his every word.

Harran is teaching a course this semester called “Elie Wiesel: His Life and Work” with Jan Osborn, professor of English. According to The Panther, only eighteen students are taking the course. Harran wrote a March 28th opinion piece for the school newspaper titled “Knowledge, ethics and Elie Wiesel” in which she mentioned his book Night and also said: “Some of you will recall seeing Wiesel visiting Auschwitz with Oprah Winfrey or standing by President Obama’s side at a commemorative ceremony in Buchenwald. These are powerful images. Indeed, it is hard to remember when the memory of the Holocaust did not have a place in our American life and culture. There are Holocaust documentaries and films; Holocaust museums in cities such as Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, and the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library at Chapman. And there is the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.”

Hurrah, hurrah. Isn’t it wonderful. She gives Wiesel much of the credit for bringing this about. She then asserts this historical tidbit: “the  Final Solution was agreed upon in a 90-minute meeting attended by 15 senior SS officials and bureaucrats”—referring to the reputed “Wannsee Conference” in 1942 in Germany. But the meeting minutes show clearly that it was a discussion of the “final solution of the Jewish problem” as a deportation plan, not an extermination plan. So where does that leave Elie Wiesel’s story? And Harran is a PhD in History? It’s obvious she needs some help with knowledge and ethics herself.

Wiesel told the religion students that he studied literature at the Sorbonne University  in France before he became a journalist for the Israeli paper Yediot Arhronot in Dec. 1949. I have shown in Questions on Elie Wiesel and the Sorbonne that that claim is false. Wiesel also told the students  he cannot answer the questions: Why did the Holocaust happen? and Why did it happen to the Jews? But … “since I have survived, I feel I have a duty to do something with myself.”

In all their discussions of ethics, the pressing current persecution and torture of the Palestinians by Israel is never brought up. EWCTW will continue to report to you about Wiesel’s activities at Chapman. Contributions sent by readers are welcome.

*    *    *

Also see:  Beyond Sensationalism: Writer Discusses Holocaust Literature.  Ruth Franklin is on the book circuit trying to explain why holocaust memoirs are so full of fiction.

“From the very moment, it is imagina­tion at work,” explained the writer.  “There’s this myth that Holocaust texts emerged ful­ly-formed from their creators. However, so much rewriting was done to tell the story in a more effective, memorable way.”  Uh huh. sure.

 

 

More Reasons Why I Don’t Believe

Sunday, December 5th, 2010

By Carolyn Yeager

More reasons why I don’t believe Elie Wiesel is the author of Un di Velt Hot Gesvign

A dear reader has brought to my attention something that I covered in “The Shadowy Origins of Night, I, II and III”, but which deserves revisiting in order to shine a brighter light on some perhaps small, but meaningful, details that impact on the question of whether Elie Wiesel is the author of the Yiddish-language Un di Velt Hot Gesvign (And the World Remained Silent).

If we start with the map provided in “Shadowy Origins of Night, Part II,” we notice that Sighet is not in Transylvania, but in Maramures [sometimes called Marmaros], a district distinct from Transylvania. We see that Sighet is the only city shown in the eastern half of Maramures and is exactly on the border with Czechoslovakia.

 

The writer of Un di Velt describes his hometown of Sighet on the first page of the book as

the most important city [shtot] and the one with the largest Jewish population in the province of Marmarosh. Until the First World War, Sighet belonged to Austro-Hungary. Then it became part of Romania. In 1940, Hungary acquired it again.” 1

It is totally reasonable for a man born in 1913, as was Lazar Wiesel, to write such a description since, at the time of his birth, Sighet was indeed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After WWI [1919] it became part of Romania when the borders of Central and Eastern Europe were “rearranged” by the victorious powers [France, Britain, United States]. Then, in 1940, at his age of 27, it again changed rulers and borders, and became German-allied Hungary.

Lazar Wiesel lived through all these changes. He was old enough to understand them. As a man in his thirties at the end of the war, and his early forties when the book was published in 1955, Lazar Wiesel could be expected to write a comprehensive account of his experience—not only a good deal of historical/political material on his hometown and its townspeople, but covering his personal political/religious beliefs also. And this is indeed what we know is contained in the published book, Un di Velt. 2 Taking eight to nine years to complete the entire 862 pages of it, if that’s what it was, is quite reasonable, and even to be expected.

This makes a great deal more sense than Elie Wiesel’s incredible description of frantically typing 862 pages of “memory” during an ocean voyage to Brazil, without pre-planning, reference materials or access to other persons.

Returning to the location of Sighet, Wiesel, in the French and English versions La Nuit and Night, changed, on the first page, what had been described as the “most important city with the largest Jewish population in the Maramures province” to:

that little town in Transylvania where I spent my childhood.

Nothing more. Why does Elie Wiesel say that Sighet was in Transylvania? Could it be because the average person might recognize that name in association with Hungary and/or Romania, while they would not recognize Maramures or Marmarosh? And why would the author’s hometown go from the largest city in the entire province to a little town, presumably of no significance?

While it is true that more recently Maramureş, Romanian Crişana and the Romanian Banat are sometimes considered part of Transylvania,  it is not precisely so. An inhabitant who identified with his region would probably not put it that way, but someone for whom the geography held no special place in his mind, heart or memory, this kind of generalization might be preferred. For example, if I don’t want a person[s] to know much about me or ask me questions, I will say I was born in the American mid-west and hope to leave it at that. If I don’t mind more being known, I’ll say exactly where, and give some detail. I know, because I do both and it’s very clear to me why.

Whatever the reasons Elie Wiesel had to cloud the picture of his hometown, it is clear that he and his publisher wanted to emphasize some things, de-emphasize, or delete, others, and shorten, shorten, shorten. This fictionalizes the account.

For me, the crux of whether to accept Elie Wiesel as the author of Un di Velt comes down to that odd paragraph in his 1995 memoir3 describing the burst of unbelievable energy that came over him while on a ship traveling between France and Brazil, when he typed 862 pages of 9 year-old memories on a portable Yiddish typewriter within no more than a two week time period.. Think back nine years in your own life and discover just how clearly you can remember everything that took place. Yes, his was an exceptionally traumatic time, but that doesn’t necessarily make one’s memories any clearer, just that certain parts stand out from the rest. Also, for me as a writer, just that high amount of sustained, concentrated typing would be an impossible task.

Another difficulty is that Wiesel didn’t describe the writing of his original manuscript until it appeared in his memoir, where, as I continue to remind, he gave it only one short paragraph! Or, if you will, a few sentences. I said above that it is a lot to swallow. I want to make it plain right now that I cannot, and thus do not, swallow it. I am convinced Elie Wiesel did not write Un di Velt Hot Gesvign [And the World Remained Silent]. I think it remains for him to prove that he did so, since his attempts at that so far only make us doubt it the more. He can begin by answering some of the many questions put to him on this website, as they are not frivolous or unfair.

 In the remainder of this article, I will point to further items of interest and fact that, while not individually conclusive, bolster my position “not to believe.”

Night is a work of fiction

We must remember that Night was classified as fiction when it was first published. Today, there is a good deal of embarrassed uncertainty as to how to categorize it. The original English-language Hill and Wang publication in 1960 listed the book as Judaica/Literature. The new translation from the same publisher issued in 2006 says it is Autobiography/Jewish Interest. On the Wikipedia page for Night,4 it is called “Autobiography, memoir, novel”—all three. Words lose their meaning when dealing with Elie Wiesel, and we’re familiar with his professed difficulty with “the limitations of language.”

On that same Wikipedia page, we read:

[I]t remains unclear how much of Wiesel’s story is memoir. He has reacted angrily to the idea that any of it is fiction, calling it his deposition, but scholars have nevertheless had difficulty approaching it as an unvarnished account.

Most who write about Wiesel are not scholars or, if they claim to be, they don’t live up to the title. Ruth Franklin, though an avid apologist for Wiesel, admits that the original Yiddish author blames the Jewish concept of “chosenness” as the source of the Jews’ troubles, and she accepts that Wiesel is the author.5 Yet this is an idea that Wiesel would never entertain for an instant. Franklin writes:

The Yiddish version was an historical work, political and angry, blaming the Jewish concept of chosenness as the source of the Jews’ troubles. Wiesel wrote in the 1956 Yiddish version: “In the beginning was belief, foolish belief, and faith, empty faith, and illusion, the terrible illusion. … We believed in God, had faith in man, and lived with the illusion that in each one of us is a sacred spark from the fire of the shekinah, that each one carried in his eyes and in his soul the sign of God. This was the source—if not the cause—of all our misfortune.

Naomi Seidman, professor of Jewish culture at the Graduate Theological Union, whose article 6 I have referred to above and quoted in “Shadowy Origins,” documented the transition from a historical account of events to an autobiographical novel, concluding that Night transforms the Holocaust into a religious event, the abdication of God, with the witness [Eliezer] both priest and prophet. Wiesel himself has said that Auschwitz is as important as Mount Sinai—where in the Bible the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God.7

On the Internet, we find various sites that still call Night a novel. At the website About.com: Secondary Education, Night is called “A novel by Elie Wiesel.”

At the website Yahoo!Answers, the question is asked: Discuss the significance of “night” in the novel Night by Elie Wiesel?

In 2006, Alexander Cockburn wrote 8:

Amazon.com […] had been categorizing the new edition of Night under “fiction and literature” but, under the categorical imperative of Kakutani’s “memory as a sacred act”9 or a phone call from Wiesel’s publisher, hastily switched it to “biography and memoir”. Within hours it had reached number 3 on Amazon’s bestseller list. That same evening, January 17, Night topped both the “biography” and “fiction” bestseller lists on BarnesandNoble.com.

In the same article, Cockburn tells of an interview with Eli Pfefferkorn of Toronto, who related this story:

“In 1981, Wiesel invited me to give a talk to his seminar students at Boston University. In the course of my talk, I discussed the relationship between memory and imagination in a number of literary works. I then pointed out the literary devices he used in Night, devices, I stressed, that make the memoir a compelling read. Wiesel’s reaction to my comments was swift as lightning. I had never seen him as angry before or since. In the presence of John Silber, the then President of Boston University, and my own Brown University students whom I invited, he lost his composure, lashing out at me for daring to question the literalness of the memoir. In Wiesel’s eyes, as in the eyes of his disciples, Night assumed a level of sacrosanctity, next in importance to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In terms of veracity, it is a factually recorded work, virtually meeting Leopold von Ranke’s benchmark of historical accounts: Wie es eigentlich gewessen, how it really was.

Examples of fiction in Night

Beyond all the well-known fictions in Night, there are some that may have gone largely unnoticed. For example, another dear reader pointed out that on page 68 of the 1960 edition,10 a hanging is described as taking place at Buna [Monowitz].

The head of the camp began to read his verdict, hammering out each phrase:

“In the name of Himmler … prisoner Number … stole

[…]

 prisoner Number …is condemned to death.”

The reader commented, “The person who wrote that could never have been around any SS officers. Heinrich Himmler was only referred to as Reichsfüher.” He further points to the fact that in the new 2006 translation of the book, the passage was changed [on page 62] to:

In the name of Reichsführer Himmler …

Someone obviously pointed out the error to Wiesel or his editors. But this doesn’t fix it either, because not even a lowly camp inmate would be sentenced to death in the name of the second in command. The order would have to read: In the name of the Führer …

Says my reader: This is enough in itself to prove that Wiesel had never been around any SS personnel.

There is another similar incident in Night that is widely considered to be fiction, in full or in part. This is the 3-person hanging scene, also known as the “Crucifixion” scene. It appears on page 70 in the 1960 edition:

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all round us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains—and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.

The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him.

This time the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him.

The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.

The three necks were placed at the same moment with the nooses.

“Long live liberty!” cried the two adults.

But the child was silent.

“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.

“Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping.

“Cover your heads!”

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive …

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“Where is God now?”

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows …”

Except that there was no child. And probably no crucifixion-style hanging at all.

Alexander Cockburn writes in the article referenced above that after hearing several Jews express doubt about the story, he called Raul Hilberg, author of a standard work on the Holocaust, who was at that time 80, at Hilberg’s home in Vermont. [I have added the underlining]

“From a purely academic viewpoint”, Hilberg began, “it would be interesting to have a scholarly edition, comparing the Yiddish version with subsequent translations and editions, with appropriate footnotes, Wiesel’s comments etc. He was addressing two entirely different audiences, the first being the Yiddish-speaking Jews, members of the world of his youth whom he addressed in nineteenth-century terms. There’s more detail, more comment. I made that suggestion to Wiesel and he didn’t react favorably.”

 Hilberg turned to the crucial scene: “I have a version of the hanging from an old survivor with the names of all three adults.” That survivor had said that there was no boy among the three. Hilberg mentioned this in a review of Night, in which, he told me, “I made no secret of our differences. But whereas it [the age of the central figure in the hanging] may seem somewhat small, it makes a very big difference to Christians, particularly Catholics, because it’s very clear that mystics are intensely interested in the scene because it seems to replicate the crucifixion. It made a considerable impact. So the fact that this figure may not have been a boy at all is disturbing.”

“It would appear”, Hilberg went on, “from the record I have, that some witnesses have questioned whether this scene took place at all. I have a long statement by an older man, a man whom I judge to be quite trustworthy, though one must always remember that things are sometimes observed or heard about later. I talked recently to a survivor of that section of the camp who said it [the hanging of the three] didn’t take place, but maybe it took place earlier. I don’t know. Dating these things is hard for survivors. Some have doubted this would have taken place. Buna was a work camp, so this other survivor, a PhD in history and a very intelligent man, didn’t believe it. I said to him, ‘How do you know this didn’t happen?’ I consider it not only a possibility but plausible. But age is a big issue to some people. That’s something [Wiesel] did not discuss in the new edition of the book.” 11

Arthur Butz reminds us12 that Bruno Dössekker, who never came near a German concentration camp in wartime, published an acclaimed purported memoir of the ordeals of a certain Jew, Binjamin Wilkomirski, at Majdanek, Auschwitz, and other camps. When he was exposed as a fraud, many important supporters remained loyal to him, on the grounds, roughly speaking, that his account sounded powerful.

Age Confusion 

 Continuing on with the issue of age and the part it plays in Elie Wiesel’s credibility as a holocaust survivior—so very related to his credibility as the author of Un di Velt—we go to page 39 in the original 1960 edition of Night. Eliezer and his father have just arrived at Birkenau and been separated from the women and children into the men-only group. A prisoner speaks to him.

“Here, kid, how old are you?”

It was one of the prisoners who asked me this. I could not see his face, but his voice was tense and weary.

“I’m not quite fifteen yet.”

“No. Eighteen.”

“But I’m not,” I said. “Fifteen.”

“Fool, Listen to what I say.”

Then he questioned my father, who replied:

“Fifty.”

The other grew more furious than ever.

“No, not fifty. Forty. Do you understand? Eighteen and forty.”

He disappeared into the night shadows.

 In May 1944, Elie Wiesel, born Sept. 30, 1928, was 15 years old; his 16th birthday was still four months away. So what does it mean for the star “witness” of the story, Eliezer, to say he is 14, going on 15? If this is Wiesel’s “deposition”, why would he make himself months younger than he really was?  Does he want to emphasize his tenderness and vulnerability? Or was he simply careless, forgetting what his age would have been and what season of the year it was?

Once again, the error was corrected in the 2006 new translation—there he answers that he’s fifteen, not “going on fifteen.” The prisoner tells him to say he’s eighteen.

On page 41:

We continued our march toward the square. In the middle stood the notorious Dr. Mengele […]

I was already in front of him:

“How old are you? He asked, in an attempt at a paternal tone of voice.

“Eighteen.” My voice was shaking.

“Are you in good health?”

“Yes.”

“What is your occupation?”

Should I say that I was a student?

“Farmer,” I heard myself say.

Apparently, this means that Eliezer and his father are accepted to be 18 and 40 years of age. Eliezer is adding three years to his stated age of 15. This forces us to ask once again those never-satisfactorily answered questions: Were the Germans so easily fooled or were they not? Did they or did they not keep careful records? Did they follow their policies to the letter or were they sloppy at times? It seems to depend on what’s most convenient for the camp survivor’s story—on one occasion they lie about their age and get away with it; on another, the SS keep impeccable records and know everything.

According to holocaust historiography, if, upon arrival at Birkenau, you were too young or too old to work [or were a woman with young children], you were sent immediately to the gas chamber. [Although in Night no such name is used; it is always called the crematoria.] Thus, we are to believe that Eliezer and his father were saved from that fate by lying about their ages.

The problem with this explanation comes later at Buchenwald, when Eliezer’s father dies shortly after arrival, on January 29, 1945. On page 114, Elie Wiesel writes:

I had to stay at Buchenwald until April eleventh. I have nothing to say of my life during this period. It no longer mattered. After my father’s death, nothing could touch me any more.

I was transferred to the children’s block, where there were six hundred of us.

If Wiesel had been entered into Birkenau as an 18-year-old, he would now be listed as 19—not a child. Why would he have been assigned to the children’s block after the death of his father? It’s true it was later called the orphan’s block by some, but that term may have come about later when the underage inmates who could not be reunited with a family member were sent to an orphanage in France.

We have no records for the death of Shlomo Wiesel at Buchenwald nor a registration [entry] number for either Shlomo or Eliezer Wiesel. But whatever the facts are finally determined to be, according to Elie Wiesel’s later writing he was there and was once again sixteen years old. And, in fact, the birth date on the transport list to France for the person of the mysterious Lázár Wiesel was 1928.

Wiesel describes his own book

Wiesel has said of Night:

 …my first narrative was an autobiographical story, a kind of testimony of one witness speaking of his own life, his own death. All kinds of options were available: suicide, madness, killing, political action, hate, friendship. I note all of these options: faith, rejection of faith, blasphemy, atheism, denial, rejection of man, despair and in each book I explore one aspect. In Dawn I explore the political action; in The Accident, suicide; in The Town Beyond the Wall, madness; in The Gates of the Forest, faith and friendship; in A Beggar in Jerusalem, history, the return. All the stories are one story except that I build them in concentric circles. The center is the same and is in Night.13 

“Night was the foundation; all the rest is commentary. In each book, I take one character out of Night and give him a refuge, a book, a tale, a name, a destiny of his own. 14

First, he calls his book an autobiographical story, a kind of testimony. These are modifiers indicating it is not a true autobiography, or a true testimony. Then, he saw options in it for further exploitation. From this story—Un di Velt Hot Gesvign as the original treasure-trove?—he can get a whole career-ful of books. Wiesel has authored nearly 40 books, all given credence and believability because of this one Yiddish original.

He also calls it “one witness speaking of his own life, his own death.” Of course, Eliezer didn‘t die, but Wiesel is referring to his spiritual death after undergoing the horrors of the holocaust, as he describes it. However, and this is very important, the author of Un di Velt was not a “corpse” looking back at himself in the mirror at the end of the book, but a revitalized man [not a child] looking forward to his regained health, his freedom, and the opportunity to give his account of it in his own way.

This is a huge point that all pro-Wiesel “scholars” downplay or completely ignore. Only Naomi Siedman addresses the questions it raises, but then she also lets it lay. Another opportunity for scholars that is not taken advantage of is Wiesel’s insistence that the “Holocaust” is the private domain of the “survivors.” Typical of his statements is this one:

The Holocaust cannot be described, it cannot be communicated, it is unexplainable. To me it is a mystical event. I have the feeling almost of sin when I speak about it.15

This rings false coming from someone who has made a 50-year career and gotten rich out of writing and speaking about “The Holocaust.” If it “cannot be described,” this releases him from accurate description and covers for the sense we all get that he is not speaking from first-hand experience. If it is “unexplainable,” that can explain his contradictory and foolish statements. Elie Wiesel hides dishonesty in mysticism, which is what Alfred Kazin meant when he criticized Wiesel publicly by calling him “a mystifier.”16

And isn’t it a strange choice of words for Wiesel to confess to a “feeling of sin” when he speaks about the holocaust. It’s a psychological truism that we’ve learned watching TV crime shows, if nowhere else, that the criminal has an urge to confess and therefore will often admit the truth without admitting it. [Larry Silverstein of 9/11 fame confessing to the “pulling” of Bldg. 7 comes to mind.]

To another writer,17 Wiesel said:

I knew the role of the survivor was to testify. Only I did not know how. I lacked experience, I lacked a framework. I mistrusted the tools, the procedures. Should one say it all or hold it all back? Should one shout or whisper? Place the emphasis on those who were gone or on their heirs? How does one describe the indescribable? How does one use restraint in re-creating the fall of mankind and the eclipse of the gods? And then, how can one be sure that the words, once uttered, will not betray, distort the message they bear? [my added underlining]

This passage now reverberates very strongly to me that Wiesel is confessing his uncertainty as to how to construct a holocaust survivor story that will be convincing. He lacks experience—not in writing, but as a camp inmate. He lacks a framework—that would be the personal experience that he doesn’t have. He doesn’t know how to tell it, not because he lacks writing expertise, but because he lacks first-hand knowledge.

He doesn’t want to do it wrong and be found out to be someone who wasn’t there … a fraud! Later, he decided to describe it as indescribable. Not having suffered all that much, he decided to project overwhelming suffering for every inmate.  The very fact that he calls it “the fall of mankind and the eclipse of the gods” tells us—screams at us—if only we will listen, that what he describes doesn’t exist in our real world. Wiesel continues with this:

So heavy was my anguish that I made a vow: not to speak, not to touch upon the essential for at least ten years. Long enough to see clearly. Long enough to learn to listen to the voices crying inside my own. Long enough to regain possession of my memory. Long enough to unite the language of man with the silence of the dead 18

This, of course, doesn’t make sense; it’s nonsense talk. Wiesel decided to wait until he could learn more about it, read what others wrote, talk to survivors. Then, lo and behold, he found a manuscript that he could claim to be his very own, and his real career was launched.

Endnotes:

  1. Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, Eliezer Wiesel, page 7, translated by Naomi Siedman in “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage.”
  2. “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,” Naomi Siedman, Jewish Social Studies, Dec. 1996.
  3. Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Knopf, New York, 1995.
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_(book)
  5. “A Thousand Darknesses”, Ruth Franklin, The New Republic, March 23, 2006.
  6. Siedman, ibid.
  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_(book)#Memoir_or_novel
  8. “Truth and Fiction in Elie Wiesel’s Night: Is Frey or Wiesel the Bigger Moral Poseur,” Alexander Cockburn, CounterPunch.com, April, 2006. Found online at http://www.rense.com/general70/elie.htm
  9. In the New York Times for January 17 [2006], Michiko Kakutani wrote in her usual plodding prose, with her usual aversion to any unconventional thought, that “Mr. Frey’s embellishments of the truth, his cavalier assertion that the ‘writer of a memoir is retailing a subjective story,’ his casual attitude about how people remember the past — all stand in shocking contrast to the apprehension of memory as a sacred act that is embodied in Oprah Winfrey’s new selection for her book club, announced yesterday: Night, Elie Wiesel’s devastating 1960 account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.” From Cockburn, see footnote 8.
  10. Elie Wiesel, Night, Hill and Wang, New York, 1960.
  11. Cockburn, ibid.
  12. “Historical Past vs. Political Present,” Journal of Historical Review, vol 19, Nov/Dec 2000. Online at http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v19/v19n6p12_Butz.html
  13. Harry James Cargas, In Conversation with Elie Wiesel, Paulist Press: New York, 1976, p. 86
  14. Cargas, ibid, p. 3
  15. ”Elie Wiesel: Out of the Night,” Morton A. Reichek, Present Tense. Spring 1976, p, 42
  16. Cockburn, ibid.
  17. Wiesel, “An Interview Unlike Any Other,” in A Jew Today, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York, 1979), p.15.
  18.  “Interview,” ibid.

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