'The Forward'

October 4, 1996

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One Scholar's Explosive Accusation

(Ms. Kessler is an editor at the Forward)



What if Elie Wiesel had written his famous Holocaust memoir "Night" not as a plaintive meditation on Jewish suffering and the death of God, but rather as a bristling call for vengeance against the Nazis and an indifferent world?


In fact, he did. That is the contention of Naomi Seidman, a Jewish studies professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., who compared a Yiddish version of "Night," published in 1956 under the title "Un di velt hot geshvign" ("And the World Kept Silent"), with the French and English versions for the journal Jewish Social Studies. The article, which will appear in November, seems likely to ignite a major intellectual controversy.


The article, "Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage," charges that Mr. Wiesel sanitized his reminiscences, purging them of uncomfortable references to Jewish vengeance when they later appeared in French, in order to position himself not as a Yiddish memoirist but as a writer in the European existentialist tradition. According to Ms. Seidman, Mr. Wiesel fashioned the memoir's image of the survivor to validate the views of the French Catholic writer FranÁois Mauriac, who championed the book and introduced it to the public.


In editing his Yiddish memoir for his French publisher, Ms. Seidman told the Forward by telephone from her Berkeley office, Mr. Wiesel "replaced an angry survivor desperate to get his story out, eager to get revenge and who sees life, writing, testimony as a refutation of what the Nazis did to the Jews, with a survivor haunted by death, whose primary complaint is directed against God, not the world, the Nazis, etc." Mr. Wiesel also "turned the story of the fate of the Jews of Sighet [the Romanian town from which he came] into a more archetypal drama, taking it out of the context of the Yiddish memorial books and making it a story of all shtetls," in effect, sacrificing the Jewish particularity of the Holocaust in favor of a universalist message.


Ms. Seidman marshals an interesting textual and contextual case for her thesis, which develops some themes briefly sounded by David Roskies in a 1984 book, "Against the Apocalypse." In a 1979 essay, "An Interview Like Any Other," Mr. Wiesel wrote that he published his memoir "La Nuit" after a 10-year vow of silence only at the urging of Mauriac, whose account of his meeting with the young survivor appears as a foreword to "Night's" French and English editions. In Mr. Wiesel's 1994 memoir, "All Rivers Run to the Sea," he recalls that he wrote "Un di velt hot geshvign" before meeting Mauriac.


While "Un di velt hot geshvign" joined a burgeoning genre of Yiddish Holocaust memoirs and yizkor bukhen, and in fact was published as volume 117 of a series on Polish Jewry, "La Nuit" burst forth on the scene sui generis, supposedly the first postwar cry emanating from the abyss, Ms. Seidman contends. "The two stories can be reconciled in strict terms," she said, "but they still give two totally different impressions, one of a person who's desperate to speak versus one who's reluctant."


Her article provides several stunning instances of discrepancies between the Yiddish and French versions, which are 245 and 158 pages, respectively. For example, "Night's" famous ending, in which the young Wiesel, recuperating in a hospital after his liberation from Buchenwald, looks in a mirror and sees a corpse staring back at him, does not accord with the Yiddish version, which is several paragraphs longer. In the Yiddish, the image of the haunted survivor, the passive corpse, is destroyed as Mr. Wiesel recounts that he smashed the mirror and then fainted - after which salutary act, he writes, "my health began to improve." He goes on to rail against a world that was rehabilitating Germany, where the "bestial sadist of Buchenwald, Ilsa Koch, is happily raising her children," recalling that in that period he began the outline of his book.


"There are two survivors, then, a Yiddish and a French - or perhaps we should say one survivor who speaks to a Jewish audience and one whose first audience is a French Catholic," Ms. Seidman concludes in her essay. "The survivor who met with Mauriac labors under the self-imposed seal and burden of silence, the silence of his association with the dead. The Yiddish survivor is alive with a vengeance and eager to break the wall of indifference he feels surrounds him."


"There's something permanent about the living skeleton that resides in the soul of the survivor; that's the image that's more acceptable to the reading public, including Mauriac," noted Ms. Seidman, who likened the image to Mr. Wiesel's public persona, which she described as "a spiritualized, passive, victimized, silent, sad, still somehow dead Jew."


In another example, Mr. Wiesel chides the young male camp inmates for shirking vengeance after the liberation. In English (and similarly in French), the passage reads: "On the following morning, some of the young men went to Weimar to get some potatoes and clothes - and to sleep with girls. But of revenge, not a sign." The Yiddish, in Ms. Seidman's translation, passes a much different judgment on the scene: "Early the next day Jewish boys ran off to Weimar to steal clothing and potatoes. And to rape German girls. The historical commandment of revenge was not fulfilled."


Ms. Seidman pillories Mauriac, known for his humanism and for winning a Nobel Prize for literature, as more interested in seeing the Holocaust's murdered Jews as an emblematized version of Christ than as victims of an event in which Vichy France and European intellectual passivity bore some responsibility, framing the event "within the existentialist religion." Pondering the young narrator of "Night" in his preface, whom he calls "the child who tells us this story," and "one of God's elect," Mauriac writes, "Have we ever thought of the consequences of a horror that, though less apparent, less striking than the other outrages, is yet the worst of all to those of us who have faith: the death of God in the soul of the child who suddenly discovers absolute evil?"


"With this passage, Mauriac lays out an implicit hierarchy of Holocaust horrors," Ms. Seidman writes. "For people of faith what was 'worst of all' about the murder of six million Jews was the 'death of God in the soul of the child.'"


"I think it's a complete scandal that Mauriac's introduction was allowed to become part of Jewish writing on the Holocaust," Ms. Seidman said. "In three pages, Mauriac gets himself, along with Europeans and Christians, off the hook for the responsibility of responding to Nazism and Christian anti-Semitism. Far from troubling his conscience, the whole issue of the Jewish Holocaust becomes a bolstering of Christian belief, rather than [something that causes a] questioning."


Steven Zipperstein, director of Jewish studies at Stanford University and the editor of Jewish Social Studies, said of the article: "As prominent and influential a voice as Elie Wiesel is, the making of his reputation remains obscure. This is the first article I've seen that begins to point in the direction of the man behind the emblem....To point out that this man was as a young man fiercely ambitious is not to criticize him; it's to humanize him. It also explains why Wiesel emerged as the quintessential voice of the Holocaust, not, say, [novelist] Chaim Grade or [poet] Avraham Sutzkever."


Mr. Wiesel, for his part, professed puzzlement at the interest in the differences between "Night" and "Un di velt hot geshvign." "I explained that in my memoir ['All Rivers Run to the Sea']," he told the Forward. He conceded that there were differences between the books but denied any intentionality to them, chalking up the discrepancies to the fact that "the Yiddish language is different [than French]" and that he had "shortened, shortened, shortened" the manuscript for publication in French. The shortening was for purposes of concision, not to make it less angry," he said. "'Night' is an angry book."


He also claimed that presenting a less choleric portrait of himself as a survivor would have in no way aided the book's European reception. "On the contrary," he said, "if ['Night'] was angrier, it would have reached more people, since at that time angry literature was fashionable."


Ms. Seidman claims that she does not begrudge Mr. Wiesel his place in history; rather, she wants to revisit some of the questions his memoir originally posed. "How I read this is a negotiation between the Jewish urge to testify and the limits of the Christian ability to hear," she said. "There were immense gains on both sides. The Holocaust entered Western culture. It could easily have not. Wiesel is to be credited with that to a large extent. But on the other hand, [the Holocaust] has been framed to offend Christians as little as possible. Who got the better part of the bargain? I think the Christians did."

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