Elie Wiesel (1928-2016)

Elie Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, a small town in Transylvania that was then part of Romania but became part of Hungary in 1940. Wiesel’s Orthodox Jewish family was highly observant of Jewish tradition. His father, Shlomo, a shopkeeper, was very involved with the Jewish community, which was confined to the Jewish section of town, called the shtetl. As a child and teenager, Wiesel distinguished himself in the study of traditional Jewish texts: the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), the Talmud (codified oral law), and even—unusual for someone so young—the mystical texts of the Cabbala.

Until 1944, the Jews of Hungary were relatively unaffected by the catastrophe that was destroying the Jewish communities in other parts of Europe. The leader of the German National Socialist (Nazi) party, Adolf Hitler, came to power in 1933, behind campaign rhetoric that blamed the Jews for Germany’s depression after World War I. Germany embraced Hitler’s argument for the superiority of the Nordic peoples, which he (mistakenly) called the Aryan race. The country soon implemented a set of laws—including the infamous Nuremberg Laws of 1935—designed to dehumanize German Jews and subject them to violence and prejudice.

As World War II progressed, Hitler and his counselors developed the “Final Solution” to the so-called Jewish Question—a program of systematic extermination of Europe’s Jews. By the time the Allies defeated Germany in 1945, the Final Solution had resulted in the greatest act of genocide known to the world. Six million European Jews had been murdered, along with millions of Gypsies, gay people, and others whom the Nazis considered undesirable. The greatest numbers of victims were killed in concentration camps, in which Jews—and other enemies of Germany—were gathered, imprisoned, forced into labor, and, when they could no longer be of use to their captors, annihilated. In addition to the slaughter at the camps, millions of soldiers were killed in battle. By the end of World War II, more than thirty-five million people had died, over half of them civilians.

While anti-Jewish legislation was a common phenomenon in Hungary, the Holocaust itself did not reach Hungary until 1944. In March of 1944, however, the German army occupied Hungary, installing a puppet government (a regime that depends not on the support of its citizenry but on the support of a foreign government) under Nazi control. Adolf Eichmann, the executioner of the Final Solution, came to Hungary to oversee personally the destruction of Hungary’s Jews. The Nazis operated with remarkable speed: in the spring of 1944, the Hungarian Jewish community, the only remaining large Jewish community in continental Europe, was deported to concentration camps in Germany and Poland. Eventually, the Nazis murdered 560,000 Hungarian Jews, the overwhelming majority of the prewar Jewish population in Hungary. In Wiesel’s native Sighet, the disaster was even worse: of the 15,000 Jews in prewar Sighet, only about fifty families survived the Holocaust. In May of 1944, when Wiesel was fifteen, his family and many inhabitants of the Sighet shtetl were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. The largest and deadliest of the camps, Auschwitz was the site of more than 1,300,000 Jewish deaths. Wiesel’s father, mother, and little sister all died in the Holocaust. Wiesel himself survived and emigrated to France.

After observing a ten-year vow of silence about the Holocaust, in 1956 Wiesel published Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (Yiddish for And the World Remained Silent), an 800-page account of his life during the Holocaust. In 1958, he condensed his work and translated it from its original Yiddish into French, publishing it under the title La Nuit. The work was translated into English and published in 1960 as Night. Some scholars have argued that significant differences exist between Un di Velt Hot Geshvign and the subsequent French/English publications, chiefly that in the Yiddish text, Wiesel expressed more anger toward the Nazis and adopted a more vengeful tone.

Although publishers were initially hesitant to embrace Night, believing that audiences would not be interested in such pessimistic subject matter, the memoir now stands as one of the most widely read and taught accounts of the Holocaust. From a literary point of view, it opened the way for many other stories and memoirs published in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1963, Wiesel became an American citizen; he lived in New York City until he died in 2016.

Read more about another account of the Holocaust in The Diary of Anne Frank.

Night as a Literary Work and a Memoir

While Night is Elie Wiesel’s testimony about his experiences in the Holocaust, Wiesel is not, precisely speaking, the story’s protagonist. Night is narrated by a boy named Eliezer who represents Wiesel, but details differentiate the character Eliezer from the real-life Wiesel. For instance, Eliezer wounds his foot in the concentration camps, while Wiesel wounded his knee.

Wiesel fictionalizes seemingly unimportant details because he wants to distinguish his narrator from himself. It is almost impossibly painful for a survivor to write about his Holocaust experience, and the mechanism of a narrator allows Wiesel to distance himself somewhat from the experience, to look in from the outside. Also, Wiesel is interested in documenting emotional truth as well as the historical truth about physical events. Night is the story of a boy who survives the concentration camps, but it also traces Eliezer’s emotional journey from a believing Orthodox Jewish boy to a profoundly disenchanted young man who questions the existence of God and, by extension, the humanity of man. Wiesel terms Night a “deposition”—an exact rendering of the facts as they occurred to him. But Night is neither a record of facts nor an impartial document. Instead, it is an attempt to re-create the thoughts and experiences that Wiesel had as a teenage concentration camp prisoner.

Because the protagonist of Night closely resembles its author, it may be considered more of a memoir than a novel. Nevertheless, since Wiesel employs various literary devices to make his story effective, it is important to examine how his techniques are different from those used in a novel. One important difference is that a novel typically concerns itself with creating a convincing fictional story, explaining the causes and effects of everything that occurs within its fictional world, tying up loose ends, and fleshing out all of its characters. Night, however, is concerned solely with Wiesel’s personal experience. Whatever events lie outside the narrator’s direct observation vanish from the work’s perspective. After Eliezer is separated from his mother and sister, for example, he never speaks about them again, and we never learn their fate. Night also has other literary elements. The narrator’s chance encounter in the Métro with a French woman he had known while working in the concentration camps is an encounter that usually occurs in fiction. And carefully chosen poetic language reinforces detail throughout the work. Night’s literary qualities, particularly the limited perspective of a first-person narrator, give us a subjective, deeply personal impression of the horrors of the Holocaust.