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 rawest nerve of truth: not just that this happened, but—uniquely—how it happened.
His experience distorted time, measurement of self, and an expectation of what was possible, and, especially, it distorted his own morality, an impossible luxury in the face of dehumanizing pain.
Although Wiesel survives, his family and especially his father, with whom he stayed, die in Auschwitz. His father’s death comes after a long period of suffering. I find it the most painful and most honest passage of Night:
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!
Although Night was not initially well-received, it was eventually published in 1956. Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize for his bravery and self-reflective frankness. In his 1986 acceptance speech, 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 companion to Night is Susan Sontag’s critical essay on the limits of empathy when we view the pain of others. And, of course, George Orwell’s journal Down and Out in Paris and London, where he learned first-hand how a body reduced to hunger suffers and shuts down—physically and morally.1
Reading Night is a unique experience. It’s a book that expands consciousness to the dark depths of humanity. It’s a similar experience reading Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings or James Baldwin’s memoir of being Black in America Notes of a Native Son. You will not be unchanged. Read Wiesel’s full Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech here.