The Shadowy Origins of “Night” I
In literature, Rebbe, certain things are true though they didn’t happen, while others are not, even if they did. … Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea
By Carolyn Yeager
Part One: When and how was Un di Velt Hot Gesvign written?
The question I present to you, the interested public is: Was Night, a slender volume of approximately 120 pages in its final English-language form, written by the same person who wrote its original source work: the reputed 862 typewritten pages of the Yiddish-language Un di Velt Hot Gesvign (And the World Remained Silent)?
This is an important, though not crucial question, as to whether Elie Wiesel is an imposter. The evidence that I have uncovered so far is however, even on this question, not in his favor.
Naomi Seidman, professor of Jewish Studies at Graduate Theological Union, wrote a controversial article about Elie Wiesel titled “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage.” In that article, she mentions a 1979 essay by Wiesel, “An Interview Unlike Any Other,” that contains the following on page 15:
“So heavy was my anguish [in 1945] 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.”1
Just as an aside, I have to wonder whether these are believable thoughts for a 16 year old? And why wouldn’t his memory be better immediately, rather than 10 years hence?
In the essay, Wiesel also explains that his first book was written “at the insistence of the French Catholic writer and Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac” after their first meeting in May 1955 when Wiesel had obtained an interview with the famous writer and the subject of the Holocaust had come up. Wiesel told him he had taken a vow not to speak, but Mauriac insisted he must speak. “One year later I sent him the manuscript of Night, written under the seal of memory and silence.” 2
As far as I can tell, there is no mention in this 1979 essay about writing the almost 900 page Yiddish manuscript while on a ship headed for South America. This particular essay is not available on the Internet, and Seidman is one of the few that even mention it.
In his 1995 memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Elie Wiesel gives a more complete description of his first attempt to record his camp experiences already in 1954, before the ten year vow of silence was up. Wiesel is always stingy with dates, and gives no exact month for the ship crossing, but from later comments about when he returned to Paris, we can place it in April 1954. Beginning on page 238:
I was sent on several European trips related to the Israeli-German conference on reparations, then to Israel, and finally to Brazil.
His assignment was to check out ‘suspicious’ Catholic missionary activities toward Jews.
My poet friend Nicholas proposed to go with me. A resourceful Israel friend somehow managed to come up with free boat tickets for us.3
Before he continues writing about the trip, he interjects a full page about a romance with Hanna, who wants to marry him, and whether he should. He tells her he will be gone 6 weeks—he is glad to have the time to think it over.
These questions haunted me during the crossing. I was worried sick that I might be making the greatest mistake of my life. Should a man marry a beautiful, intelligent, and impulsive woman with a marvelous voice, just because he had once loved her and because she had now proposed to him? And because he did not want to hurt her?
Then, the very next paragraph:
I spent most of the voyage in my cabin, working. I was writing my account of the concentration camp years—in Yiddish. I wrote feverishly, breathlessly, without re-reading. I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival. I wrote to speak to those who were gone. As long as I spoke to them, they would live on, at least in my memory. My vow of silence would soon be fulfilled; next year would mark the tenth anniversary of my liberation. I was going to have to open the gates of memory, to break the silence while safeguarding it. The pages piled up on my bed. I slept fitfully, never participating in the ship’s activities, constantly pounding away on my little portable (see comment #1 below), oblivious of my fellow passengers, fearing only that we would arrive in Sao Paulo too soon.
We were there before I knew it. 4
There is no lead-up in All Rivers Run to the Sea that his concentration camp “testimony” was heavy on his mind; this paragraph just jumps out of the blue. And it’s all he wrote, in a 418-page memoir, about the process of putting down the most important words he would ever write. But no! It seems clear from this that the finished words of La Nuit were the most important words he would write, and that he had a hard time knowing what to say about the writing of the “original” manuscript. So he brushed it off in one paragraph.
We get a very contrasting picture of Wiesel’s writing style in his Preface to the 2006 new English translation of Night by Marion Wiesel, his wife. Referring to his awareness [at that time] that he must bear witness, he writes:
Writing in my mother tongue [Yiddish]—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 images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was “it”? ”It” was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned. All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless.
And yet, having lived through this experience, one could not keep silent, no matter how difficult, if not impossible, it was to speak.
And so I persevered.
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 …
Though I made numerous cuts, the original Yiddish version still was long. 5
Here, Wiesel tells us that he agonized over the writing of the Yiddish manuscript, and it was slow going. He even consulted the dictionary. But his time on the ship could not have been more than 2 weeks of the planned 6-week voyage to Brazil. In All Rivers Run to the Sea, he claims to have written 862 typewritten pages during that time, when he had to also eat, sleep and take care of other essentials. So of necessity he says he wrote feverishly, without re-reading. It leaves the two accounts as total contradictions.
When the ship docked at Sao Paulo, his friend Nicholas, an Israeli citizen, disembarked. But Elie, as a stateless person, was prevented from doing so by some “red tape.” Then he noticed a group of about 40 Jews from Palestine who had been “lured” over by the promises of Catholic missionaries, who also were not allowed to disembark. He makes the decision to join them and write their story for his newspaper. After traveling to several ports (Wiesel is now relegated with the unwanted Jews to staying in the ship’s hold), the boat docks at Buenos Aires, Argentina. It just so happens that in Buenos Aires a Yiddish singer came onboard with Jewish book publisher Mark Turkov. Wiesel shares his concern about the Jewish exiles, for whom he had become spokesman, with Turkov, and then:
As we talked, Turkov noticed my manuscript, from which I was never separated. He wanted to know what it was and whether he could look at it. I showed it to him, explaining it was unfinished. “That’s all right,” he said. “Let me take it anyway.” It was my only copy, but Turkov assured me it would be safe with him. I still hesitated, but he promised not only to read it, but “If it’s good, I’ll publish it.” Yehudit Moretzka (the singer) encouraged me by telling me she would make sure the manuscript would be returned to me in Paris, with or without a rejection slip. I was convinced Turkov wouldn’t publish it. I couldn’t see why any editor would be interested in the sad memoirs of a stranger he met on a ship, surrounded by refugees nobody wanted. “Don’t worry so much,” Yehudit told me as she left. But I felt lost without my manuscript. 6
This is the last that is said of the manuscript. Wiesel goes on to write about the positive outcome for the “exiles” and himself to go ashore in Sao Paulo, and Hanna’s letters which had piled up in the American Express office there. No further communication with Turkov is reported or any mention of his manuscript until 35 pages further on. It’s back to the business of journalism.
I had been away for two months when Dov recalled me to Paris to cover Pierre Mendes-France’s accession to power. I flew back, anxious to see Hanna. I would explain the exceptional circumstances, find a way to make her forgive me. She would understand, for I had missed her. I would tell her that I had been faithful to her, even in my thoughts.7
Handing his only copy (see comment #1 below) of the manuscript over to Mark Turkov in this strange manner appears to be an attempt to explain why Wiesel does not have possession of the original Un di Velt Hot Gesvign, but it is not convincing to me that he would turn such a “sacred –to him—soul work,” embodying his commitment to “witness for the dead,” over to strangers in a foreign country with only a vague promise that it would be returned. He is first consumed by it, then careless of it. He adds his professed belief that Turkov would not be interested in it and would never publish it. Why then part with it—and feel lost without it? Like so much of Wiesel’s writing, it stretches the limits of belief.
Even more, he says it was not completed to his satisfaction. There are several things Wiesel is likely trying to account and cover for with the ship book-writing story: (1) the incredible length of this manuscript and the short space of time he had to write it; (2) a way to get it into the hands of an Argentine Yiddish publisher in 1954; and (3) his lack of ever being in possession of the original and even being relatively unfamiliar with it. Writing in such a “feverish state”, without re-reading (impossible!), leaves him free to have no clear idea what was in it.
Several pages further on in All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel writes about his meeting and relationship with Francois Mauriac:
He wrote of our first meeting in his column of Sat. May 14, 1955, referring to a “young Israeli who had been a Jewish child in a German camp.” Of course, I wasn’t Israeli. Perhaps in his mind, Jews and Israelis were the same thing.
I owe him a lot. He was the first person to read Night after I reworked it from the original Yiddish.8
Wiesel is telling us that “he” did the editing from the “original Yiddish.” He says the same in the Preface to the new 2006 translation of Night: “Though I made numerous cuts, the original Yiddish version still was long.”9
But when did he do this editing?
Mark Turkov, from whom I have not found one word of confirmation for the ship scene with Elie Wiesel, must have reduced the 862 pages to 245 pages himself because he published it in the same year, 1954, in his 176-volume series of Yiddish memoirs of Poland and the war, called Dos poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry, Buenos Aires, 1946-1966).10
The next and last mention of Mark Turkov and the manuscript in All Rivers Run to the Sea again pops up as less than a paragraph in the midst of Wiesel’s busy schedule and after the breakup of another love affair, with Kathleen this time, in the summer of 1955. He writes:
In December I received from Buenos Aires the first copy of my Yiddish testimony “And the World Stayed Silent,” which I had finished on the boat to Brazil. The singer Yehudit Moretzka and her editor friend Mark Turkov had kept their word—except that they never did send back the manuscript. Israel Adler invited me to celebrate the event with a café-crème at the corner bistro.11
That’s it, believe it or not. This is obviously something Wiesel is not interested in focusing attention on. Because none of it is true?
The timing also requires that after Wiesel received the Yiddish book from Turkov in December ’55, he managed to translate the 245 pages into French for Francois Mauriac, and present it to him in May 1956–as Wiesel testified in “An Interview Unlike Any Other.”
What can we believe?
Certainly Elie Wiesel, who had cousins living in Buenos Aires 12, could have known about Mark Turkov’s Yiddish publishing house and his massive series of WWII “survivor” memoirs. He could very well have read some of them, even the one titled Un di Velt Hot Gesvign, written by a Lazar (Eliezar) Wiesel from Sighet, Transylvania, which may have been passed around within the Yiddish-speaking community before it was published. Wiesel could therefore have used the volume of 245 pages to write a French version for Francois Mauriac.
Could someone have intervened with Mark Turkov to convince him to go along with Elie Wiesel as the author? Sure, they could. And could something have happened to Lazar Wiesel, survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau-Buchenwald, born Sept. 4, 1913, causing him to disappear from the scene? 13 Again, yes, and maybe not even foul play. This is speculation at this point, but nevertheless quite possible.
In Part Two, I will discuss the tell-tale differences between Un di Velt Hot Gesvign and La Nuit, suggesting two different authors, and what some critics say about it.
1. “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,” Naomi Seidman, Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, and Society, Fall 1996 (Vol 3, No.1). Online at http://www.vho.org/aaargh/fran/tiroirs/tiroirEW/WieselMauriac.html
3, Comment: If this is an assignment by the newspaper for which he is chief foreign correspondent, why does he need or want free tickets? Is this the way Israeli newspapers operated?
4. Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs (New York, 1995), pp. 238-40.
5. Elie Wiesel, Night, translated by Marion Wiesel, (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006), p. ix, x.
6. All Rivers Run to the Sea, ibid. p. 241
7. ibid, p. 242
8. Ibid, p. 267
9. Night, 2006, p. x
10. Encyclopedia Judaica, 2008
11. All Rivers Run to the Sea, p. 277
12. Ibid, p. 241. “In Buenos Aires my cousins Voicsi and her husband Moishe-Hersh Genuth came to meet us. I gave them some articles for the Yedioth Ahronoth. unaware that they would be reprinted or quoted in the American Jewish press.”
13. Miklos Grüner claims that this Lazar Wiesel, his camp friend, is the true author of Un di Velt Hot Gesvign and that Elie Wiesel stole both his identity and his book.