1982 Bantam Books edition, with the original
1960 English translation and cover adapted from the 1958 French edition
|1956: Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (Yiddish). Buenos Aires: Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina, 245 pages.|
|First translation||1958: La Nuit (French). Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 178 pages.|
Published in English
|1960: Night. New York: Hill & Wang; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 116 pages.|
|ISBN||0-8090-7350-1 (Stella Rodway translation. New York: Hill & Wang, 1960.)|
ISBN 0-553-27253-5 (Stella Rodway translation. New York: Bantam Books, 1982.)
ISBN 0-374-50001-0 (Marion Wiesel translation. New York: Hill & Wang/Oprah Book Club, 2006.)
|LC Class||D811 W4823 1960 (Hill & Wang, 1960)|
|Followed by||Dawn (1961), Day (1962)|
Night (1960) is a work by Elie Wiesel about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust toward the end of the Second World War. In just over 100 pages of sparse and fragmented narrative, Wiesel writes about the death of God and his own increasing disgust with humanity, reflected in the inversion of the parent–child relationship, as his father declines to a helpless state and Wiesel becomes his resentful teenage caregiver. "If only I could get rid of this dead weight ... Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever." In Night everything is inverted, every value destroyed. "Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends", a kapo tells him. "Everyone lives and dies for himself alone."
Wiesel was 16 when Buchenwald was liberated by the United States Army in April 1945, too late for his father, who died after a beating while Wiesel lay silently on the bunk above for fear of being beaten too. He moved to Paris after the war and in 1954 completed an 862-page manuscript in Yiddish about his experiences, published in Argentina as the 245-page Un di velt hot geshvign ("And the World Remained Silent"). The novelist François Mauriac helped him find a French publisher. Les Éditions de Minuit published 178 pages as La Nuit in 1958, and in 1960 Hill & Wang in New York published a 116-page translation as Night.
Fifty years later the book had been translated into 30 languages, and now ranks as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature. It remains unclear how much of Night is memoir. Wiesel called it his deposition, but scholars have had difficulty approaching it as an unvarnished account. The literary critic Ruth Franklin writes that the pruning of the text from Yiddish to French transformed an angry historical account into a work of art.
Night is the first in a trilogy—Night, Dawn, Day—marking Wiesel's transition during and after the Holocaust from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall. "In Night," he said, "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."
Elie Wiesel was born on 30 September 1928 in Sighet, a town in the Carpathian mountains of northern Transylvania, to Chlomo Wiesel, a shopkeeper, and his wife, Sarah, née Feig. The family lived in a community of 10,000–20,000 mostly Orthodox Jews. Northern Transylvania had been annexed by Hungary in 1940, and restrictions on Jews were already in place, but the period Wiesel discusses at the beginning of the book, 1941–1943, was a relatively calm one for the Jewish population.
That changed at midnight on Sunday, 18 March 1944, with the invasion of Hungary by Nazi Germany, and the arrival in Budapest of SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann to oversee the deportation of the country's Jews. From 5 April Jews over the age of six had to wear a 10 x 10 cm (3.8 x 3.8 in) yellow badge on the upper-left side of their coats or jackets. Jews had to declare the value of their property, and were forbidden from moving home, travelling, owning cars or radios, listening to foreign radio stations, or using the telephone. Jewish authors could no longer be published, their books were removed from libraries, and Jewish civil servants, journalists and lawyers were sacked.
As the Allies prepared for the liberation of Europe, the mass deportations began at a rate of four trains a day from Hungary to the Auschwitz concentration camp in German-occupied Poland, each train carrying around 3,000 people. Between 15 May and 8 July 1944, 437,402 Hungarian Jews are recorded as having been sent there on 147 trains, most gassed on arrival. The transports comprised most of the Jewish population outside Budapest, the Hungarian capital.
Between 16 May and 27 June, 131,641 Jews were deported from northern Transylvania. Wiesel, his parents and sisters—older sisters Hilda and Beatrice and seven-year-old Tzipora—were among them. On arrival Jews were "selected" for the death or forced labour; to be sent to the left meant work, to the right, the gas chamber. Sarah and Tzipora were sent to the gas chamber. Hilda and Beatrice survived, separated from the rest of the family. Wiesel and Chlomo managed to stay together, surviving forced labour and a death march to another concentration camp, Buchenwald, near Weimar. Chlomo died there in January 1945, three months before the 6th Armored Division of the United States Army arrived to liberate the camp.
Night opens in Sighet in 1941. The book's narrator is Eliezer, an Orthodox Jewish teenager who studies the Talmud by day, and by night "weep[s] over the destruction of the Temple". To the disapproval of his father, Eliezer spends time discussing the Kabbalah with Moshe[a] the Beadle, caretaker of the Hasidic shtiebel (house of prayer).
In June 1941 the Hungarian government expelled Jews unable to prove their citizenship. Moshe is crammed onto a cattle train and taken to Poland. He manages to escape, saved by God, he believes, so that he might save the Jews of Sighet. He returns to the village to tell what he calls the "story of his own death", running from one house to the next: "Jews, listen to me! It's all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me!"
When the train crossed into Poland, he tells them, it was taken over by the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Jews were transferred to trucks, then driven to a forest in Galicia, near Kolomay, where they were forced to dig pits. When they had finished, each prisoner had to approach the hole, present his neck, and was shot. Babies were thrown into the air and used as targets by machine gunners. He tells them about Malka, the young girl who took three days to die, and Tobias, the tailor who begged to be killed before his sons; and how he, Moshe, was shot in the leg and taken for dead. But the Jews of Sighet would not listen, making Moshe Night's first unheeded witness.
The Germans arrived in Sighet around 21 March 1944, and shortly after Passover (8–14 April that year) arrested the community leaders. Jews had to hand over their valuables, were not allowed to visit restaurants or leave home after six in the evening, and had to wear the yellow star at all times. Eliezer's father makes light of it:
The SS transfer the Jews to one of two ghettos, each with its own council or Judenrat, which appoints Jewish police; there is also an office for social assistance, a labor committee, and a hygiene department. Eliezer's house on a corner of Serpent Street is in the larger ghetto in the town centre, so his family can stay in their home, although the windows on the non-ghetto side have to be boarded up. He is happy at first: "We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. ... The general opinion was that we were going to remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Then everything would be as before. It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto—it was illusion."
In May 1944 the Judenrat is told the ghettos will be closed with immediate effect and the residents deported. Eliezer's family is moved at first to the smaller ghetto, but they are not told their final destination, only that they may each take a few personal belongings. The Hungarian police, wielding truncheons and rifle butts, march Eliezer's neighbours through the streets. "It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today."
Eliezer and his family are crammed into a closed cattle wagon with 80 others. On the third night one woman, Madame Schächter—Night's second unheeded witness—becomes hysterical, screaming that she can see flames, until the others beat her. Men and women are separated on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp within the Auschwitz complex. Eliezer and his father are "selected" to go to the left, which meant forced labour; his mother, Hilda, Beatrice and Tzipora to the right, the gas chamber. Hilda and Beatrice managed to survive.
The remainder of Night describes Eliezer's efforts not to be parted from his father, not even to lose sight of him; his grief and shame at witnessing his father's decline into helplessness; and as their relationship changes and the young man becomes the older man's caregiver, his resentment and guilt, because his father's existence threatens his own. The stronger Eliezer's need to survive, the weaker the bonds that tie him to other people.
His loss of faith in human relationships is mirrored in his loss of faith in God. During the first night, as he and his father wait in line, he watches a lorry deliver its load of children into the fire. While his father recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead—Wiesel writes that in the long history of the Jews, he does not know whether people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves—Eliezer considers throwing himself against the electric fence. At that moment he and his father are ordered to go to their barracks. But Eliezer is already destroyed. "[T]he student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me." There follows a passage that Ellen Fine writes contains the main themes of Night—the death of God and innocence, and the défaite du moi, or dissolution of the self, a recurring motif in Holocaust literature:
With the loss of self goes Eliezer's sense of time: "I glanced at my father. How he had changed! ... So much had happened within such a few hours that I had lost all sense of time. When had we left our houses? And the ghetto? And the train? Was it only a week? One night – one single night?"
In or around August 1944 Eliezer and his father are transferred from Birkenau to the work camp at Monowitz (also known as Buna and Auschwitz III), their lives reduced to the avoidance of violence and the search for food. Their only joy is when the Americans bomb the camp. God is not lost to Eliezer entirely. During the hanging of a child, which the camp is forced to watch, he hears someone ask: Where is God? Where is he? Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy dies slowly. Wiesel files past him, sees his tongue still pink and his eyes clear.
Fine writes that this is the central event in Night, a religious sacrifice—the binding of Isaac and crucifixion of Jesus—described by Alfred Kazin as the literal death of God. Afterwards the inmates celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but Eliezer cannot take part: "Blessed be God's name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled."
In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, the Germans decide to flee, taking 60,000 inmates on a death march to concentration camps in Germany. Eliezer and his father are marched to Gleiwitz to be put on a freight train to Buchenwald, a camp near Weimar, 350 miles (563 km) from Auschwitz.
Resting in a shed after marching 50 miles (80 km), Rabbi Eliahou asks if anyone has seen his son. They had stuck together for three years, "always near each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer", but the rabbi had lost sight of him in the crowd and was now scratching through the snow looking for his son's corpse. "I hadn't any strength left for running. And my son didn't notice. That's all I know." Eliezer does not tell the man that his son had indeed noticed his father limping, and had run faster, letting the distance between them grow: "And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done."
The inmates spend two days and nights in Gleiwitz locked inside cramped barracks without food, water or heat, sleeping on top of one another, so that each morning the living wake with the dead underneath them. There is more marching to the train station and onto a cattle wagon with no roof. They travel for ten days and nights, with only the snow falling on them for water. Of the 100 in Eliezer's wagon, 12 survive the journey. The living make space by throwing the dead onto the tracks:
The Germans are waiting with megaphones and orders to head for a hot bath. Wiesel is desperate for the heat of the water, but his father sinks into the snow. "I could have wept with rage ... I showed him the corpses all around him; they too had wanted to rest here ... I yelled against the wind ... I felt I was not arguing with him, but with death itself, with the death he had already chosen." An alert sounds, the camp lights go out, and Eliezer, exhausted, follows the crowd to the barracks, leaving his father behind. He wakes at dawn on a wooden bunk, remembering that he has a father, and goes in search of him.
His father is in another block, sick with dysentery. The other men in his bunk, a Frenchman and a Pole, attack him because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself. Eliezer is unable to protect him. "Another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost." Begging for water one night from his bunk, where he has lain for a week, Chlomo is beaten on the head with a truncheon by an SS officer for making too much noise. Eliezer lies in the bunk above and does nothing for fear of being beaten too. He hears his father make a rattling noise, "Eliezer". In the morning, 29 January 1945, he finds another man in his father's place. The Kapos had come before dawn and taken Chlomo to the crematorium.
Chlomo missed his freedom by three months. The Soviets had liberated Auschwitz 11 days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. Eliezer is transferred to the children's block where he stays with 600 others, dreaming of soup. On 5 April 1945 the inmates are told the camp is to be liquidated and they are to be moved—another death march. On 11 April, with 20,000 inmates still inside, a resistance movement inside the camp attacks the remaining SS officers and takes control. At six o'clock that evening, an American tank arrives at the gates, and behind it the Sixth Armored Division of the United States Third Army.
Wiesel wanted to move to Palestine after his release, but because of British immigration restrictions was sent instead by the Oeuvre au Secours aux Enfants (Children's Rescue Service) to Belgium, then Normandy. In Normandy he learned that his two older sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, had survived. From 1947 to 1950 he studied the Talmud, philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne, where he was influenced by the existentialists, attending lectures by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Buber. He also taught Hebrew, and worked as a translator for the Yiddish weekly Zion in Kamf. In 1948, when he was 19, he was sent to Israel as a war correspondent by the French newspaper L'arche, and after the Sorbonne became chief foreign correspondent of the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
Wiesel wrote in 1979 that he kept his story to himself for ten years. In 1954 he wanted to interview the French prime minister, Pierre Mendès-France, and approached the novelist François Mauriac, a friend of Mendès-France, for an introduction. Wiesel wrote that Mauriac kept mentioning Jesus: "Whatever I would ask – Jesus. Finally, I said, 'What about Mendès-France?' He said that Mendès-France, like Jesus, was suffering ..."
Wiesel started writing on board a ship to Brazil, where he had been assigned to cover Christian missionaries within Jewish communities, and by the end of the journey had completed an 862-page manuscript. He was introduced on the ship to Yehudit Moretzka, a Yiddish singer travelling with Mark Turkov, a publisher of Yiddish texts. Turkov asked if he could read Wiesel's manuscript. It is unclear who edited the text for publication. Wiesel wrote in All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995) that he handed Turkov his only copy and that it was never returned, but also that he (Wiesel) "cut down the original manuscript from 862 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish edition."[b]
Turkov's Tzentral Varband für Polishe Yidn in Argentina (Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina) published the book in 1956 in Buenos Aires as the 245-page Un di velt hot geshvign ("And the World Remained Silent"). It was the 117th book in a 176-volume series of Yiddish memoirs of Poland and the war, Dos poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry, 1946–1966). Ruth Wisse writes that Un di Velt Hot Geshvign stood out from the rest of the series, which survivors wrote as memorials to their dead, as a "highly selective and isolating literary narrative."
Wiesel translated Un di Velt Hot Geshvign into French and in 1955 sent it to Mauriac. Even with Mauriac's help they had difficulty finding a publisher; Wiesel said they found it too morbid. Jérôme Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit, Samuel Beckett's publisher, agreed to handle it. Lindon edited the text down to 178 pages. Published as La Nuit, a title chosen by Lindon, it had a preface by Mauriac and was dedicated to Chlomo, Sarah and Tzipora.
Wiesel's New York agent, Georges Borchardt, encountered the same difficulty finding a publisher in the United States. In 1960 Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York—who Wiesel writes "believed in literature as others believe in God"—paid a $100 pro-forma advance and published that year a 116-page English translation by Stella Rodway as Night. The first 18 months saw 1,046 copies sell at $3 each, and it took three years to sell the first print run of 3,000 copies, but the book attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews and meetings with literary figures like Saul Bellow.
By 1997 Night was selling 300,000 copies a year in the United States. By 2011 it had sold six million copies in that country, and was available in 30 languages. Sales increased in January 2006 when it was chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Republished with a new translation by Marion Wiesel, Wiesel's wife, and a new preface by Wiesel, it sat at no. 1 in The New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction for 18 months from 13 February 2006, until the newspaper decided to remove it. It became the club's third bestseller to date, with over two million sales of the Book Club edition by May 2011.
Reviewers have had difficulty reading Night as an eyewitness account. It has been categorized as a novel, autobiography, autobiographical novel, non-fictional novel, semi-fictional memoir, fictional-autobiographical novel, fictionalized autobiographical memoir and memoir-novel. Ellen Fine described it as témoignage (testimony). Wiesel called it his deposition.
Literary critic Ruth Franklin writes that Night's impact stems from its minimalist construction. The 1956 Yiddish version, at 865 pages, was a long and angry historical work. In preparation for the French edition, Wiesel's editors pruned without mercy. Franklin argues that the power of the narrative was achieved at the cost of literal truth, and that to insist that the work is purely factual is to ignore its literary sophistication. Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer argues similarly that Wiesel evokes, rather than describes: "Wiesel's account is ballasted with the freight of fiction: scenic organization, characterization through dialogue, periodic climaxes, elimination of superfluous or repetitive episodes, and especially an ability to arouse the empathy of his readers, which is an elusive ideal of the writer bound by fidelity to fact."
Franklin writes that Night is the account of the 15-year-old Eliezer, a "semi-fictional construct", told by the 25-year-old Elie Wiesel. This allows the 15-year-old to tell his story from "the post-Holocaust vantage point" of Night's readers. In a comparative analysis of the Yiddish and French texts, Naomi Seidman, professor of Jewish culture, concludes that there are two survivors in Wiesel's writing, a Yiddish and French. In re-writing rather than simply translating Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, Wiesel replaced an angry survivor who regards "testimony as a refutation of what the Nazis did to the Jews," with one "haunted by death, whose primary complaint is directed against God ..." Night transformed the Holocaust into a religious event.
Seidman argues that the Yiddish version was for Jewish readers, who wanted to hear about revenge, but the anger was removed for the largely Christian readership of the French translation. In the Yiddish edition, for example, when Buchenwald was liberated: "Early the next day Jewish boys ran off to Weimar to steal clothing and potatoes. And to rape German shiksas [un tsu fargvaldikn daytshe shikses]." In the 1958 French and 1960 English editions, this became: "On the following morning, some of the young men went to Weimar to get some potatoes and clothes—and to sleep with girls [coucher avec des filles]. But of revenge, not a sign."
Oprah Winfrey's promotion of Night came at a difficult time for the genre of memoir, Franklin writes, after a previous book-club author, James Frey, was found to have fabricated parts of his autobiography, A Million Little Pieces (2003). She argues that Winfrey's choice of Night may have been intended to restore the book club's credibility.
Wiesel wrote in 1967 about a visit to a Rebbe, a Hasidic rabbi, he had not seen for 20 years. The Rebbe is upset to learn that Wiesel has become a writer, and wants to know what he writes. "Stories," Wiesel tells him, " ... true stories":
Wiesel 2010, 319: "I had cut down the original manuscript from 862 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish edition."
Donadio, Rachel (20 January 2008). "The Story of Night", The New York Times.