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Elie Wiesel’s “Commentaries” on His Eyewitness Account

 a  “Written between 1955 and 1960, these three narratives were created separately. Though the first is a testimony, the other two serve only as commentaries. However, they are all written in the first person. In ‘Night,’ it is the ‘I’ who speaks; in the other two, it is the ‘I’ who listens and questions.”

(Elie Wiesel: Night / Dawn / Day (Northvale, NJ/London: Aronson, 1987), p. 3.)

After his eyewitness account La Nuit (1958, Engl. Night, 1960), Elie Wiesel wrote two novels, L’aube (1960, Engl. Dawn, 1961) and Le jour (1961, Engl. Day, 1962). Both have to do with the situation of the survivor who is repeatedly troubled by his memories, the imprints left on him by Auschwitz, in present-day situations. Not only the series of times of day from which the three books take their titles, but also the fact that they later appeared as a trilogy in a single volume points to a kinship among them. However, they do not form a “largely autobiographical trilogy”[1] with a protagonist who remains constant throughout,[2] as claimed by the publisher of the German edition, which in addition is misleadingly titled Die Nacht zu begraben, Elischa (To Bury the Night, Elisha). In fact, the two novels are linked with Night by an existential crisis of the respective protagonists based on what was experienced in Auschwitz in relation to the present situation in the novel, which leads to debates about what way of life and thus what behavior could be possible morally, in social dealings, after Auschwitz. To that extent, the two postwar novels can be identified and read as “commentaries” on Wiesel’s testimony.  a 


Both concentrate very heavily indeed on the emotions and feelings, the self-doubts and questions of the respective first-person narrators. In Dawn, Elisha is a member of a Jewish underground movement in the British Mandate of Palestine. The group has taken a British officer hostage, and he is to be shot at dawn; one of their own, who was condemned to death by the Mandate authority, is scheduled for execution at the very same time. This is meant to prove to the British and the rest of the world that the Jews in Palestine are no longer willing to act like victims, but will resist. Elisha is supposed to carry out the shooting. All night long he struggles with himself, wondering what he should do, whether he should kill, what this will do to him, how it will change him. In the course of this, he is visited and accompanied by the spirits of numerous relatives and friends from his hometown who were murdered in Auschwitz. They include a 15-year-old boy: Elisha himself in Auschwitz, or his disembodied spirit who remained in Auschwitz. The latter can also be interpreted as the image in the mirror at the end of Night, when Eliezer sees himself as the dead person he also could have been.


While Dawn grapples with the possibility of dealing with death, with killing, after Auschwitz, Day could be read as a literary commentary on the possibility or impossibility of dealing with life, and thus with love. Here the first-person narrator has had a serious accident; he is hospitalized and must try to accept that his life has been saved, for what everyone believes was an accident was actually a suicide attempt. In this novel, too, the thoughts of the first-person narrator dwell on the victims of Auschwitz, on people he lost there—his mother, Sarah, and Grandma Nissel—and on a young survivor, Sarah, whom he met in Paris after the war. Above all, however, he faces the attempt to get involved in a love affair with a woman named Kathleen. In Elie Wiesel’s world of the “lonely man,” the woman has the sole function of a healing force, a possible fulfillment of the masculine desire for life. She stands in opposition to the first-person narrator’s mirror image, which is present both in Night and in Dawn as an image of night, of death. The loving woman makes it possible to overcome the night.


Both novels offer—as do some of Wiesel’s later novels, in a different way—reflections on the changes, as well as existential situations, that the survivor encounters after liberation from the camp and that he must confront with awareness, though he remains caught in the shadow world of the camp. The strength of the “commentary novel” as opposed to commentary that is not in the style of a novel is manifested in the openness of the two texts to these questions about the “right” mode of conduct, and in the manner in which they present “thought-images” (Denkbilder) to the readers.

(MN; transl. KL)


Wiesel Elie: La Nuit… L’Aube. Le Jour. Paris: Seuil, 1969.

Wiesel, Elie: Night / Dawn / Day. Northvale, NJ/London: Aronson, 1987.

Wiesel, Elie: Die Nacht zu begraben, Elischa [1962]. München: LangenMüller, 2005. (accessed on September 9, 2008).

[1] (accessed on September 9, 2008). The German publisher, LangenMüller-Verlag, goes so far in its short description of the book as to equate Jewish underground groups in Palestine before the founding of the State of Israel with the National Socialists: “At the age of 15, Elisha, his family, and his friends are taken to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. He alone survives this terrible time. After the war ends, he is on the other side: in Palestine, as a member of a Jewish terror group.” (ibid.) (Translated by KL)

[2] Although Day has autobiographical underpinnings in an accident suffered by Wiesel, it would be wrong to read the novel as autobiography. Such a reading is completely incorrect in the case of Dawn, and likewise, it is erroneous to maintain that the first-person narrators in the two novels are one and the same.