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Roald Dahl

The book Night details Elie Wiesel’s experiences during the Holocaust in four separate camps between the time he entered when he was 14 years old in 1941 and the time he left as the only survivor of his family of 7 in 1945 at the age of 16. Wiesel entered as a naive boy steeped in Jewish lore who had never left the small Romanian village of Sighet, where he was born. Skeptical of the existence of a caring God and finding himself alone, Wiesel left penniless and friendless in an alien universe.

In the “Preface to the New Translation” (2006) that had been translated by Marion Wiesel, Elie's wife, Wiesel writes that his intention in writing the book had been to fulfill what he believed was his mission in life—namely, to bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. This is why his first and longer treatise had been called “Und der Velt hut Geshvigen,” or “And the world remained silent,” suggesting that international politics had ignored the monstrosities of the Nazis and allowed them to continue their inhuman acts.

Wiesel also describes his helplessness in translating the realities of the Holocaust into “regular” words. How could he convey into speech the atmosphere of the last cattle ride for instance—or, for that matter, the terror of those massed up for selection? How would he express his separation from a “beautiful, well-behaved Jewish little girl with golden hair and a sad smile” (p. ix) whom, he was later informed, was incinerated in the crematoria clutching the hand of her mother upon arrival? Ultimately, the essence of Auschwitz could never be translated into words, but Wiesel knew that he had to try. Thus he persevered and was rejected by major publishers, both French and American, despite the unflagging efforts of his patron, Francois Mauriac.

There was much from the Yiddish version that Wiesel had to omit for the English abridgment to be accepted. Many found it too morose and cynical, and the original Yiddish version ended with a gloomy meditation on the present, noting that there were Holocaust deniers in Germany, France, America, and other parts of the world who were given credence; that the world preferred to ignore the uncomfortable existence of the Holocaust; that many of the most notorious murderers were alive today, sheltered in countries such as Brazil; that war criminals still stroll through Germany's streets; and that “those who kept silent yesterday will keep silent tomorrow” (xiii).

Forty-seven years ago (as Wiesel remarked in 2006), Night sold poorly. History has changed since that time, however. In the past, people in general—and Jews in particular—would often refrain from speaking about the Holocaust, not wanting to traumatize their children. Few publishers dared publish on the subject; they knew that readership was meager. Today, the Holocaust is a staple of most book lists. There are museums, films, documentaries, plays, and international conferences that publicize the tragedy and ensure that the public does not forget. Night today has received a new reception.

Biography of Elie Wiesel

Eli Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, which, then part of Hungary, now belongs to Romania. Fifteen years old when transported to Auschwitz, Wiesel’s mother and younger sister (Tzipproah) perished while his two older sisters (Hilda and Beatrice) survived and live today in North America and Canada. After going through two more camps, Wiesel and his father ended up in Buchenwald, where his father died from dysentery, starvation, and delirium shortly before the camp was liberated by the Red Army in April 1945.

After the war, Wiesel studied in Paris and became a journalist where, during an interview in 1952, he met the renowned Nobel Laureate French writer Francois Mauriac, who persuaded him to chronicle his experiences in the death camps. This produced Night (La Nuit), the acclaimed memoir which has since been translated into more than 30 languages.

Night has been succeeded by more than 50 books of fiction and nonfiction, including A Beggar in Jerusalem (Prix Médicis winner), The Testament (Prix Livre Inter winner), The Fifth Son (winner of the Grand Prize in Literature from the City of Paris), two memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea (which described Wiesel’s life up to the year 1969) and And the Sea is Never Full (which covered 1969 to 1999), and the recent The Sonderberg Case.

Elie Wiesel has received countless honorary awards, distinctions, and responsibilities. He was allegedly offered the presidency in Israel (Hoffman, 2006); has received more than 100 honorary degrees; has been appointed Chairman of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust; became the Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council; is the President of The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, an organization whose mission “is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialog and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality” (http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/aboutus.aspx).

Determined that irrational hatred must never again be allowed to fester, Wiesel has made it his life’s mission to fight bigotry everywhere. This includes defending “the cause of Soviet Jews, Nicaragua's Miskito Indians, Argentina’s Desaparecidos, Cambodian refugees, the Kurds, victims of famine and genocide in Africa, of apartheid in South Africa, and victims of war in the former Yugoslavia” (http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/eliewiesel.aspx), as well as establishing the Beit Tzipora Centers for Study and Enrichment, which focus on giving Ethiopian-born Jews a head start in education and in defending Israel. Wiesel also serves as member of the International Council of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation and as a member of the International Advisory Board of NGO Monitor.

A renowned teacher, Wiesel serves as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University. Wiesel previously served as Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at the City University of New York (1972-76) and the first Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University (1982-83).

Wiesel’s awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the National Humanities Medal, the Medal of Liberty, and the Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. In 1986, Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his campaigns against racism and bigotry. In 2006, he was knighted in London in recognition of his work toward raising Holocaust education in the United Kingdom (Cohen, 2006).

History of Night

Night (La Nuit) was first written at the urgings of Mauriac as a 900-page memoir Un di Velt hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent) in Yiddish. This was published in abridged form in Buenos Aires, and later a still short summary metamorphosed in to La Nuit, which was translated into more than 30 languages, including the English Night.

There are contradictory accounts regarding when Wiesel first wrote Night. The first was that he wrote it in 1954 on his visit to Brazil as correspondent of missionary activities. He was at first reluctant to cover his memoirs “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 regain possession of my memory” (Wiesel, 1979, p. 15). Nonetheless, on the ship he pegged away at his typewriter, obsessed with the duty of recording it:

I wrote feverishly, breathlessly, without rereading. I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying, to justify my own survival . . . My vow of silence would soon be fulfilled; next year would mark the tenth anniversary of my liberation . . . The pages piled up on my bed. I slept fitfully, never participating in the ship's activities, constantly pounding away on my little portable, oblivious of my fellow passengers . . . (Rivers, p. 240).

Night’s success was slow. The Yiddish version barely sold. He had difficulty finding a publisher. Wiesel stumbled upon Mauriac’s support by pure error but, even then, only a few copies were published at first, and it took a while until Wiesel found Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang, who agreed to pay a $100 pro forma advance and published it in September 1960 in the US as Night. Again and again, it was said that the book was too morbid, and although different from others on the same theme (it was influenced by the French existentialist style), publishers and readers found it too morose and short. The agent was Georges Borchardt, who remains Wiesel’s agent today.

That the book received the success that it did serves as an inspirational tale of the importance of tenacity and the moral that publishing success depends on the spirit of the times. The book sold only 1046 copies in its first months but attracted media publicity and interviews with personalities such as Saul Bellow. The English translation generated 3000 copies during its first three years, but by 2006 was selling approximately six million copies annually in the United States alone. Part of this success was due to the fact that in that same year, Oprah Winfrey chose it to carry her book club logo. The book underwent a new translation by Marion Wiesel, Wiesel’s wife, and a new preface by Wiesel. As a result, the book ranked first on the New York Times bestseller list for paperback nonfiction, as well as becoming the Oprah Book Club's third overall bestseller.

Night is the first book in the trilogy—Night, Dawn and Day—marking Wiesel’s transition from darkness to light. As Wiesel commented:

In Night, I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end—man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night. (Reichek, 1976, p. 46.)

Scholars of Night have been unsure as to its literary genre. Some see it as a novel or autobiography, or somewhere along that spectrum, while others call it testimony (e.g., Weissman, 2004, pp. 65–67). Wiesel himself resolutely denies that it is a novel, calling it instead his deposition (Rivers, p. 79). Ultimately, it may be just a novel piece of writing that combines memoir with philosophy written in an existentialist style about the meaninglessness of life, the bestiality of man, and the nonexistence of God.

Compounded with the novel’s contradictions is the fact that the Yiddish and English versions are written with slightly differing accounts: the Yiddish version, including details Jewish revenge that occurred slightly after Buchenwald was liberated (in the form of, for example, raping German girls), while the English version emphasizes that the Jewish men slept with girls but did not perpetrate revenge. This was, possibly, due to the advice of Mauriac, a Roman Catholic (Seidman, 1996).

In the foreword to the book, Mauriac describes how he had first seen Wiesel, a journalist who came to interview him. Mauriac confided in Wiesel that he had been touched by the cattle cars of young Jewish children that his wife had seen at the Austerliz train station, and Wiesel remarked that he had been one of the children aboard a cattle car. Mauriac was taken by Wiesel and his tale and urged him to publish it. He remained his indefatigable patron to the end.

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