Noting his trepidation regarding interviews with foreign journalists, François Mauriac recounts his encounter with a journalist from Tel Aviv, later revealed to be Night’s author, Elie Wiesel. Once the conversation began, Mauriac’s fears were allayed by the intimate nature of the interview. The two talked about the Nazi occupation of France (1940–1944) during World War II. Mauriac notes that his most haunting memories of the Occupation involve events he did not directly witness—his wife told him about seeing trainloads of Jewish children awaiting deportation at Austerlitz station in Paris. Even though he could not imagine the horror that awaited these prisoners, the image of them packed into trains was enough to shatter his illusions about the progress of Western civilization. He refers to the French Revolution (1789) as an unfulfilled promise of progress, a dream that was initially fractured by the outbreak of World War I (Germany declared war on August 2, 1914) and then smashed by the horrors of the Holocaust.
Wiesel then revealed to Mauriac that he was one of the children in those cattle cars, and Mauriac begins discussing the strengths of Night. He talks about the power of Wiesel’s story: like the memoir of Anne Frank, a German Jew who died in a concentration camp, it is a deeply personal story, bearing painfully intimate witness to the horrors of World War II. He explains that Wiesel has given a human face to the suffering of the Holocaust by telling his own “different, distinct, unique” account of events. As an individual chronicle of life under the Nazis, Mauriac argues, the work merits attention as an incomparable story.
Mauriac adds that Wiesel’s narrative possesses an even more engaging, spiritual dimension. Mauriac focuses on the narrator’s struggles with God and religion as the most striking aspect of the work. Quoting one of Night’s most famous passages (the “Never shall I forget that night” passage that occurs after the narrator’s arrival at Auschwitz), Mauriac explains that he was intensely affected by the narrator’s loss of faith, and that this crisis of faith is a profoundly troubling legacy of the Holocaust. As a deeply believing Christian, he writes, he wanted to explain to Wiesel that he views suffering as the cornerstone of faith, not as an impediment to trust in God. He wishes he had been able to explain to Wiesel his faith, trust in God’s grace, and confidence in eternal mercy. But, Mauriac concludes, the power of Wiesel’s story, particularly the depth of his spiritual crisis, overwhelmed him, and, struck speechless, he “embrace[d] him, weeping.”
François Mauriac (1885–1970) was a French writer, author of novels, poems, essays, journalism, and plays, and winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was a devout Roman Catholic whose writings often focus on the struggle between good and evil within human nature and the importance of faith. During World War II, Mauriac’s vociferous criticism of the Nazis forced him to go into hiding. He later became a staunch supporter of Charles de Gaulle, the French hero who helped liberate his nation from Nazi occupation in 1944.
According to most accounts, it was Mauriac who persuaded Wiesel to write and publish Night. Wiesel had imposed a vow of silence upon himself regarding his experiences in the camps, but Mauriac convinced Wiesel of the importance of sharing his story. Along these lines, it is worth noting that some critics—definitely a minority—feel that Wiesel altered his manuscript to conform to Mauriac’s emphasis on bearing witness and the crisis of faith. According to these critics, Wiesel’s original manuscript, the voluminous Yiddish version of more than 800 pages titled Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), is much fiercer in tone than Night. These same critics argue that Mauriac’s influence caused Wiesel to remove the manuscript’s vitriol and its demands for retribution in favor of a more somber, reflective, and harrowing—and consequently more palatable and sympathetic—tone.
These criticisms aside, Mauriac’s foreword insightfully points to the true strengths of Wiesel’s work. Night is a terrifyingly personal account of horrific events. As Mauriac points out, the Nazi atrocities were so unimaginable and inconceivable that, merely by bearing witness, Wiesel is performing an invaluable service to humanity. As Mauriac illustrates with the anecdote about his wife, we cannot always see firsthand the horrible suffering of the world, but it is imperative that we are told about it and recognize its horror. As he notes, “It is not always the events we have been directly involved in that affect us the most.” By bearing witness, by sharing his incredibly painful and personal story, Wiesel enables us to better understand a horrific historical moment that is impossible to imagine in the abstract.
Mauriac also focuses on the power of the narrator’s crisis of faith and the loss of his faith in God. This loss of faith, however, is not quite as complete as Mauriac suggests. Wiesel’s struggles with God are much more complex than a simple journey from complete faith to a belief that God no longer exists. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Mauriac frames Wiesel’s loss of faith as, paradoxically, an affirmation of Christian conceptions of God. Mauriac explains that the idea of suffering, of pain and persecution, is fundamental to his conceptions of Jesus Christ and his religious beliefs. Christians, he argues, accept that the world is full of suffering, and this recognition of suffering increases belief in grace. Because the world is so corrupt, he implies, a Christian is able to believe more fully in the purity of divine law and mercy. But, in the end, Mauriac acknowledges that the basic human emotions he feels when presented with Wiesel’s story overwhelm such a theoretical argument. Night is remarkable for its intellectual, spiritual, and theological depth, but its greatest power, it is clear, lies in its emotional candor.