AAARGH

 

Footnotes to Elie Wiesel and the scandal of Jewish rage

This paper was helped along its course by many conversations with David Biale and Peter Eli Gordon, both of whom read and commented on early drafts. Karen Adler supplied the French version of Wiesel's work for me.

 

(1).The critical works that examine the theme of silence, generally theologically defined, are numerous. Among the best known of these are Andre Neher, "Le Silence et l'etre : Elie Wiesel," in L'Exil de la Parole: Du silence biblique au silence d'Auschwitz (Paris, 1970), 228-45, and Myriam Cohen, Elie Wiesel : Variations sur le silence (La Rochelle, 1988).

(2). Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Stella Rodway (MacGibbon and Kee, 1960), 32; originally published as La Nuit (Paris, 1958)

(3). A. M. Dalbray, "Les Juifs des Silence," Amif (November 1967) : 1771, quoted in Ellen Fine, The Legacy of Night (Albany, N.Y., 1982), 30.

(4). Wiesel, "An Interview Unlike Any Other," in A Jew Today, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York, 1979), 15.

(5)."An Interview," 19.

(6). Night, 109.

(7).The most common variation on the themes I have outlined above is the banal misreading of Night as also presenting a message of "hope."

(8).Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea : Memoirs (New York, 1995), 239.

(9).Y. Palatitzky, review of Jonas Turkow's Extinguished Stars in Dos Neye Vort (Buenos Aires, 1955); reprinted in Eliezer Vizel, Un di velt hot geshvign (Buenos Aires, 1956), 253 (translation mine).

(10). Wiesel writes in All Rivers, "I had cut down the original manuscript from 862 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish edition. [French publisher Jerome] Lindon edited La Nuit down to 178" (319). But his earlier description of writing the Yiddish manuscript implies that no revisions were made of the pages he had frantically scribbled "without rereading" (239) before handing them over to the publisher. Wiesel also complains that the original manuscript of Un di velt was never returned to him. These confusing and possibly contradictory reports on the various versions of Night have generated a chain of similarly confusing critical comments. Thus, Ellen Fine reports (Legacy of Night, 7) that the Yiddish version of Night is more than 800 pages long, whereas David Roskies states in Against the Apocalypse (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 301, that "the original Yiddish version is not only four times longer and less unified than its French (and later English) version, but has a different message." It is not clear to me whether Roskies is mistaken about the length or is speaking of the unpublished manuscript, which Wiesel implies was lost. Roskies' very brief summation of the difference between the French and Yiddish contents remains the only comment, to my knowledge, on the editing of the writer's "appeal to fight the Germans and anti-Semites who would consign the Holocaust to oblivion." As Roskies puts it, "Since no one in the literary establishment of the 1950s was ready to be preached to by a Holocaust survivor, existentialist doubt became the better part of valor" (ibid.).

(11). Un di velt, 7. The critics faithfully echo this description, virtually always referring to Sighet as a "shtetl (see Fine, Legacy of Night, 8). Mauriac also calls Sighet "a little Transylvanian town" in his introduction to Night, viii.

(12).Un di velt, 7. Wiesel describes his French publisher's objections to his documentary approach in All Rivers : "Lindon was unhappy with my probably too abstract manner of introducing the subject. Nor was he enamored of two pages which sought to describe the premises and early phases of the tragedy. Testimony from survivors tends to begin with these sorts of descriptions, evoking loved ones as well as one's hometown before the annihilation, as if breathing life into them one last time" (319).

(13).Un di velt, n.p.

(14).Wiesel ascribes the choice of the title La Nuit to Lindon's editing (see All Rivers, 319). Wiesel, however, has so embraced the theological and existential principles underlying the change that his original Yiddish title seems strangely uncharacteristic. Thus, one critic mentions the Yiddish title only to suggest that a theological variation of this title, Un Got hot geshvign, would have been a more appropriate title for Wiesel's Twilight (third volume of the Night series).

( 15). The double way of looking at the book, as literature or memoir, is reflected in the schizophrenic handling of the text by libraries. For example, the University of California at Berkeley library has the English version but not the French or the Yiddish, though it continues to list the Yiddish as the original version of Night -- an unread ghost haunting the French and English. The Jewish Theological Seminary library responds to the double generic affiliations of the books by shelving Night among its other French Jewish literature and Un di velt with its Holocaust memoirs and Yizker Bikher.

(16).Un di velt, 244. The French and English versions are nearly identical.

(17). Ibid.

(18). La Nuit, 178.

(19). Night, 109.

(20).Un di velt, 244-45. This passage is also partially reproduced, in a somewhat different translation, in All Rivers Run to the Sea, 320.

(21). Mauriac's foreword in Night, ix.

(22). Ibid., vi.

(23). Ibid., vii-viii. In a rather literal-minded comment on Mauriac's account, Wiesel denies his having said that he was at Austerlitz :"[H] aving never been at the Austerlitz station during the Occupation, I could not have said that I was on that train packed with Jewish children. I probably remarked that I had been in a camp with Jewish children" (All Rivers, 271). The account and its denial speak volumes for the difference between Mauriac's approach to Jewish history and Wiesel's. For a man who prefers not to distinguish the suffering of Jewish children from the agonies of Christ, the difference between a Transylvanian and a French Jewish child would presumably seem minor indeed.

(24).Night, viii.

(25). Ibid., ix. The insistence that Wiesel is a "child" serves to underline his innocence in both senses, as one who does not deserve the treatment the Nazis accord him (as if adults are less clearly victims!) and as a pure soul whose fall from religious grace Mauriac mourns. It is interesting to me that Elie's age is the basis of his first exchange in the camp, when another prisoner advises him to lie about it: "'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'" (Night, 28). It also seems significant to me that Wiesel, who was born in September 1928, should have represented his narrator Elie as younger than himself by nearly a year (Wiesel was deported in the spring of 1944) while describing him as exaggerating his age by three years to Dr. Mengele. It is clear what was at stake in seeming older during the selections ; Mauriac's impulse (and perhaps Wiesel's, as well) to see the Jewish victim as a child is rather more complex in its motivations.

(26). Mauriac's hierarchy of outrages, in which the loss of faith ranks as worse than the extinguishing of life, appears in similar form among other theologians of the Holocaust. As Amos Funkenstein points out in "Theological Responses to the Holocaust" (in Perceptions of Jewish History (Berkeley, 1993], 335), the privileging of religious-theological concerns over the importance of human life, any human life, historically has been both dangerous and unethical. Commenting on post-Holocaust theologians Heideggerian interest in what he calls "a chimera of the authentic self," Funkenstein writes: "A commitment to higher values above the sanctity of the individual not only distracts from the study of man, but can and did lead to abuses and crimes of much greater extent than selfish self-interest ever perpetrated. Granted, this is not a necessary consequence of commitments to absolutes, but it has often enough been so. Now it matters little whether the higher values were transcendental or immanent, God, fatherland, race, or the ideal society of the future. In the name of all of them crusades were fought, genocides committed, persons degraded" (335).

(27). Night, x-xi.

(28). Ibid., viii.

(29). It would also be wrong to ignore the contribution of Wiesel's own narrative to Mauriac's Christological framing. Wiesel enables, if not invites, such a reading, in at least one passage in Night -- the one Mauriac quotes most fully. Three Jews are being hanged, the middle victim a child who dies agonizingly slowly : "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'" (62). Without denying the Christian echoes in this passage, I would argue that the narrator's words here must be read ironically, as a rebuttal to the concept of the religious (Jewish as well as Christian) significance of suffering. To read the strangling child as Christ is to turn the dying child into God, rather than signal that God has died alongside him.

(30). 'An Interview,' 16.

(31). Ibid.

(32). Ibid., 17.

(33). Ibid., 18.

(34). Ibid., 19.

(35). For a fascinating discussion of post-Holocaust Jewish revenge (and its absence or sublimation), see Berel Lang, "Holocaust Memory and Revenge: The Presence of the Past", Jewish Social Studies, 2, no. 2 (1996) : 1-20.

(36). Wiesel, "To a Young Palestinian Arab," in A Jew Today, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York, 1979), 126-27.

(37). In some sense, the intifada was a similarly shrewd move on the part of the Palestinians; by throwing stones at soldiers instead of hijacking airplanes or attacking schoolchildren, the Palestinians won a sympathetic audience through American television.