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Elie Wiesel’s Witness Accounts: Memoir and Literary Composition

 a  “I knew that the role of the survivor was to testify. Only I did not know how. I lacked experience. I lacked a framework. I mistrusted the tools, the procedures. Should one say it all or hold it all back? Should one shout or whisper? Place the emphasis on those who were gone or on their heirs? How does one describe the indescribable? How does one use restraint in re-creating the fall of mankind and the eclipse of the gods? And then, how can one be sure that the words, once uttered, will not betray, distort the message they bear? So heavy was my anguish that I made a vow: not to speak, not to touch upon the essential for at least ten years. Long enough to see clearly. Long enough to listen to the voices crying inside my own. Long enough to regain possession of my memory. Long enough to unite the language of man with the silence of the dead.”

(Elie Wiesel: “An Interview Unlike Any Other.” In: A Jew Today (New York: Random House, 1978), pp. 14–26, here p. 15.)

 b  “I spent most of the voyage in my cabin working. I was writing my account of the concentration camp years—in Yiddish. I wrote feverishly, breathlessly, without rereading. I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival. I wrote to speak to those who were gone. As long as I spoke to them, they would live on, at least in my memory. My vow of silence would soon be fulfilled; next year would mark the tenth anniversary of my liberation. I was going to have to open the gates of memory, to break the silence while safeguarding it.”

(Wiesel, Elie: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 239–240.)


 c  “There followed days and nights of traveling. Occasionally, we would pass through German towns. Usually, very early in the morning. German laborers were going to work. They would stop and look at us without surprise. One day when we had come to a stop, a worker took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought desperately over a few crumbs. The workers watched the spectacle with great interest. Years later, I witnessed a similar spectacle in Aden. Our ship’s passengers amused themselves by throwing coins to the ‘natives,’ who dove to retrieve them. An elegant Parisian lady took great pleasure in this game. When I noticed two children desperately fighting in the water, one trying to strangle the other, I implored the lady: ‘Please, don’t throw any more coins!’ ‘Why not?’ said she. ‘I like to give charity...’ In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails. A crowd of workmen and curious passersby had formed all along the train. They had undoubtedly never seen a train with this kind of cargo. Soon, pieces of bread were falling into the wagons from all sides. And the spectators observed these emaciated creatures ready to kill for a crust of bread.”

(Elie Wiesel: Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), pp. 100–101.)
 d  “On the third night, as we were sleeping, some of us sitting, huddled against each other, some of us standing, a piercing cry broke the silence: ‘Fire! I see a fire! I see a fire!’ There was a moment of panic. Who had screamed? It was Mrs. Schächter. Standing in the middle of the car, in the faint light filtering through the windows, she looked like a withered tree in a field of wheat. She was howling, pointing through the window: ‘Look! Look at this fire! This terrible fire! Have mercy on me!’ Some pressed against the bars to see. There was nothing. Only the darkness of night. It took us a long time to recover from this harsh awakening. We were still trembling, and with every screech of the wheels, we felt the abyss opening beneath us. Unable to still our anguish, we tried to reassure each other: ‘She is mad, poor woman...’ Someone had placed a damp rag on her forehead. But she nevertheless continued to scream: ‘Fire! I see a fire!’”
(Elie Wiesel: Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), pp. 24–25.)
 e  A critical assessment of this “discourse on the unsayable” is given by Naomi Seidman: “What remains outside of this proliferating discourse on the unsayable is not what cannot be spoken but what cannot be spoken in French. And this is not the ‘silence of the dead’ but rather the scandal of the living, the scandal of Jewish rage and unwillingness to embody suffering and victimization.”
(Naomi Seidman: “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage.” In: Jewish Social Studies 3 (1996), No. 1, pp. 1–19, here p. 8.)
 f  “Now, ten years after Buchenwald, I see that the world is forgetting. Germany is a sovereign state. The German army has been resurrected. Ilse Koch, the cheerfully sadistic ‘Bitch of Buchenwald,’ has children and is happy. War criminals stroll on the streets of Hamburg and Munich. The past is being erased. Forgotten.”
(Eliezer Wiesel: ... און די וועלט האָט געשוויגן [...and the World Remained Silent] (Buenos Aires: Union Central Israelita Polaca en la Argentina, 1956), p. 245. (Transl. KL))

In essays and in his autobiography, too, Elie Wiesel tells how he vowed after liberation in 1945 that he would remain silent for 10 years, to make certain that what he was going to say would be true—and during this time to unite the language of man with the silence of the dead.  a  In 1954, on board a ship sailing from France to Brazil, he wrote down his memoirs, “to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival.”[1]  b  In Buenos Aires he gave this manuscript, written in Yiddish, to the publisher Mark Turkow, who published it in 1956 as ... און די וועלט האָט געשוויגן (…Un di Velt Hot Geshvign; And the World Remained Silent). Wiesel reworked his account and cut it down heavily for the French version, called La Nuit (Engl. Night, 1960), which was published by Éditions de Minuit in 1958 with the support of François Mauriac, who also wrote the preface. This edition, the basis of numerous translations and of the way Elie Wiesel’s story was received internationally, especially in the United States, established his significance as a public figure. Interestingly, the Yiddish account gives a different version of Elie Wiesel’s handling of his memories right after liberation: “I stayed in bed for several days [in Buchenwald, in the infirmary], jotting down notes for the work that you, dear reader, now hold in your hands.”[2]


The Yiddish account appeared as the 117th volume in a series called דאָס פּוילישע יידנטום (Dos Poylishe Yidntum; Polish Jewry), in which several other survivor testimonies had already appeared. Thus he took his place in an already existing genre—Yiddish memoirs of the Holocaust—which placed great value on documentation, on historical details and giving the names of victims of the Holocaust. The French edition, by contrast, lacks this genre-specific background and speaks to a mostly Christian audience, and the historical, documentary aspect recedes here in favor of the literary.[3] Thus, in Naomi Seidman’s words, a “Yiddish documentary testimony” turned into a “mytho-poetic narrative” of the Holocaust that develops a strong literary impact.[4]


The Yiddish account is divided into eight chapters, beginning with remarks on the historical situation in Sighet, Transsylvania; the period of the German military invasion and thus the start of the deportations; and the Jewish population’s misjudgement of the situation. The images of deportation left a deep impression in the memory of the narrator, as he explains. In contrast, the story in Night begins much more abruptly, by introducing the character of the synagogue sexton Moshe, who warns the Wiesel family but is not taken seriously. Night consists of many short narrative segments that are separated by blank spaces: moments of silence. In this way they produce impressive scenes that concentrate on the experience of Eliezer, the first-person narrator, and on images and actions. Wiesel thus creates a host of vivid scenes instead of interpreting the happenings themselves in detail or placing them in context; the thing portrayed speaks “for itself” in the form of its portrayal. Only occasionally do reflections from the narrator’s retrospective point of view break through Eliezer’s directly presented intellectual world.  c 


Thus we learn about the deportation from Sighet to Auschwitz, about numerous events and aspects of life in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp, where Eliezer and his father are sent by the SS after the selection process in Auschwitz, about the death march in which they are forced to take part, and finally about his father’s death in the Buchenwald concentration camp. In the course of this, Wiesel constructs literary images, such as Mrs. Schächter’s vision of a fiery glow in the deportation train  d , that align with the habits of reception common to readers of narrative literature so as to suggest to the reading audience additional possibilities of interpretation besides what is concretely related, be they centered on the progress of the action as events predetermined by fate, as in the case of the vision of fire with its mythical overtones, or on a cultural and theological conceptual and interpretive framework that goes beyond the present text. Night thus goes beyond the immediate personal aim of a survivor to bear witness to his story. Branded on readers’ memories are literary images that challenge them to reflect on the meaning of the Holocaust for the life of every human being—not only that of the one survivor giving this account. At the same time, in Night Wiesel repeatedly emphasizes the meaning of silence: a preservation of what is unsayable about Auschwitz. The resulting mystification of Auschwitz, particularly in Wiesel’s later writings, continues to be viewed quite critically.  e 


The literary revision of the original account given in Night becomes clear when one compares the two versions of the concluding scene of Wiesel’s testimony: In the days following the liberation of Buchenwald, Eliezer contracts food poisoning and hovers between life and death for two weeks. Gathering all his strength, he gets out of bed, looks in the mirror, and sees a skeleton staring back. “It was the image of myself after my death. It was at that instant that the will to live awakened in me.”[5] Eliezer smashes the mirror and collapses, but now he gets better, though the doctors had already given up on him. In conclusion, the narrator expresses the rage he feels when he sees that the world is already forgetting the Holocaust and the German perpetrators can live as if nothing had happened  f , and his doubt that a survivor’s account can change that situation in any way. While the Yiddish Eliezer breaks with his past in order to live, we read in Night:


“From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.

The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.”[6]


These are also the final sentences of the book. The narrator leaves the readers with the image of the dead man that Eliezer could have been, and by so doing points to the many whose lives were not saved. The dead of Auschwitz leave behind pending questions for the future, just as the dead never fade from the memory of the survivor. Night does not end with a report on what became of Eliezer after liberation, as many survivor accounts do; the text offers no “after liberation,” but instead creates a powerful literary image intended to act on the readers, on their secondary memory of the Holocaust as it is depicted by Wiesel. The “literarization” of his account of survival does no harm to its substance; instead, its effect and far-reaching reception seem to spring precisely from the literary styling of what Eliezer witnesses in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

(MN; transl. KL)


Renz, Werner: “Elie Wiesel neu übersetzen.” In: Newsletter zur Geschichte und Wirkung des Holocaust. Informationen des Fritz Bauer Instituts 33 (2008), p.84.

Seidman, Naomi: “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage.” In: Jewish Social Studies 3 (1996), No. 1, pp. 1–19.

Wiesel, Eliezer: ... און די וועלט האָט געשוויגן […and the World Remained Silent]. Buenos Aires: Union Central Israelita Polaca en la Argentina, 1956.

Wiesel, Elie: La Nuit. Préface de François Mauriac. Paris: Minuit, 1958.

Wiesel, Elie: Night. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.
Wiesel, Elie: “An Interview Unlike Any Other.” In: A Jew Today. New York: Random House, 1978, pp. 14–26.
Wiesel, Elie: Tous les fleuves vont à la mer.
Mémoires Vol. 1. Paris: Seuil, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969. London: HarperCollins, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie: „Et la mer n’est pas remplie…“. Mémoires Vol. 2. Paris: Seuil, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie: And the Sea Is Never Full. Memoirs, 1969–. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

[1] Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 239.

[2] Wiesel, Eliezer: ... און די וועלט האָט געשוויגן[…and the World Remained Silent] (Buenos Aires: Union Central Israelita Polaca en la Argentina, 1956), p. 245. (Translated by MN/KL)

[3] A change was also made in the dedication. While Night is “In memory of my parents and of my little sister, Tzipora,” the Yiddish original contains this dedication: “The book is dedicated to the eternal memory of my mother, Sarah, my father, Shlomo, and my little sister, Tzipora—who were killed by the German murderers.”

[4] Naomi Seidman: “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage.” In: Jewish Social Studies 3 (1996), No. 1, pp. 1–19, here p. 5.

[5] Wiesel: און די וועלט, p. 244.

[6] Elie Wiesel: Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 115.