Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016) wrote many books but none so important as Night. first published in 1956. It is the clear and horrifyingly true story of Wiesel’s evacuation from a Hungarian ghetto and imprisonment in Auschwitz.
In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer – or my life, period – would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.
This most essential testimony of the 20th century is about the loss of family, life, hope, all things precious and loved.
At that moment in time, all that mattered to me was my daily bowl of soup, my crust of stale bread. The bread, the soup – those were my entire life. I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach was measuring time.
It is exceptional writing, Wiesel mines the most raw nerve of truth: not just that this happened, but – uniquely – how it happened. His own experience distorted time, measurement of self, expectation of what was possible, and especially, it distorted his own morality, an impossible luxury in the face of dehumanizing pain.
When his father finally dies in the Camp, Wiesel writes the most heartbreaking lines of the book:
No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered. I did not weep and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last! …
Wiesel won the Nobel Prize for Literature, his bravery and self-reflective frankness recognized. In his acceptance speech, given in 1986, he wrote:
Do I have the right to accept this great honor on their behalf. I do not. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions. And yet I sense their presence. I always do – and at this moment more than ever.
Read more on the delicate – but imperative – balance between speaking of the dead and speaking for them in Carrying the Burden of Witness. An interesting book to read alongside Night (not that it needs accompaniment) is Susan Sontag’s critical essay of the limits of empathy when we view the pain of others.