(It was really difficult to find Marion Wiesel’s name as the translator of this edition – Elie Wiesel mentions in his note on the text that his wife translated it but her name seems to be nowhere in the Kindle edition. Publishers: name translators.)
Holocaust memoirs are a genre of writing that I never thought I’d ever be familiar with, so this is a very strange place for me to be in. I say familiar, but it never really becomes familiar in some ways. There’s always something new, everyone’s lives are different. Everyone’s lives were different, whether they got to share their stories or not. I read this one in French because I need to keep my hand in, and because the French version was published before the English, which was a good enough arbitrary reason for me to read it instead (the original was in Hebrew).
La Nuit was shorter than I thought it would be, especially given that the original-original manuscript was over 800 pages long. I can’t imagine shortening such a thing, and apparently it’s not clear how much is “pure” memoir. This shortened work is short like a punch in the gut is short. Wiesel was caught up in the Holocaust unfairly close to the end of the war, like so many of the people whose stories I’ve read recently, the sort of date where from here it feels like if they’d just managed to hold out a little longer… But that decision was out of their hands, and squarely in the hands of the German government and army, who it’s important to remember – the Holocaust was not some natural disaster that people were unlucky to get caught up in, and I’m trying not to phrase it that way.
Wiesel was from Romania and I’ve read stories from Hungary, Czechoslovakia (as it was), Poland, Austria… but there’s a recognisable pattern to how it starts. It’s not a natural disaster – it’s a method. (And you think, what would I have done? Would I have stayed? Would I have complied? If I was on the other side, would I have let it happen and said nothing? Would I have complained quietly? Would I have been secretly relieved? You don’t know, you can’t know, and you hopefully will never know. Wiesel is very clear that people who weren’t there can’t understand, and he’s right.)
In La Nuit there is even a warning, when the gentle old religious tramp, the first to be ejected from the village, returns after a daring escape to warn the village of what is coming. He isn’t believed. Heartbreaking but inevitable – what would you think if someone came to your home and told you tales of cruelty that were so hard to believe that when they were eventually proven true they would be seared into the collective consciousness of a continent? And the gentle old religious tramp is, after all, a tramp, and his ejection was met with a sort of shrug. First they went for the sorts of people that other people didn’t mind seeing the backs of, or who wouldn’t be missed.
If you weren’t there, you can’t understand.
People make Holocaust comparisons all the time nowadays. Some people get annoyed when they do it, others get angry when people get annoyed at it. I don’t know how I feel about it? On one hand, it’s often tiresome, almost always comes across as lazy and facile, and is invariably a bad comparison, because we lack the social and global context – we were not there. The Holocaust isn’t a “genre” of disaster. It’s not a cautionary tale or abstract idea – it’s a specific thing that happened to specific, named people.
On the other hand, I recognise that it comes from a very well-meaning place. It’s how people show they don’t want anything like the Holocaust to ever happen again, by ringing the warning bells and pointing out the red flags. I feel like some of the language people use – especially regarding how the Holocaust came about – is unhelpful (there was no similar “we mustn’t let the Holocaust happen again” instinct before the Holocaust), and also we might consider that some atrocities may not look like the Holocaust at all. Anyway. Tangent over.
One aspect of Wiesel’s story that I hadn’t come across in other books was his profound faith. All the women in Wendy Holden’s Born Survivors were non-religious, for instance. Wiesel is the first really religious Holocaust survivor’s story I’ve read. And it’s a different experience (beyond the difference of everyone’s individual experience), isn’t it? I’ve been trying to phrase this in a good way, and I’m not sure I’ve managed it, but here goes anyway. I can imagine that for non-religious or atheist Jewish people it might have felt like an added unfairness, like something that shouldn’t have applied to them (not that it should have applied to anyone). For Wiesel, his faith is almost an extra torture in the concentration camp. On top of the physical and mental abuse there’s a struggle to understand how this could happen, how this could be allowed to happen. There are still religious people in the concentration camp, and some of them seem to find solace in each other, but Wiesel can’t. He can’t reconcile God with the Holocaust. He wasn’t just devout, he wanted to dedicate his life to religion. He enjoyed tackling thorny theological debates. Religion was where he was happiest, and he writes very movingly of his struggles with his faith once thrown into a concentration camp.
By the way, it’s kind of hard to separate “Elie Wiesel the writer” from “Elie Wiesel the character” so I’m not really making an attempt at it. I don’t know enough about Wiesel’s life or the writing of La Nuit to really say, so I’m just taking it at face value.
So, linguistically, I found the book easy to read (it was noticeably more difficult to read the preface by François Mauriac), and I can’t even begin to appreciate the work it must have taken to cut down the original Hebrew manuscript to the French text. Wiesel writes about the brutality and ugliness of the concentration camps more openly than I saw in other accounts (especially between prisoners) and is brutally honest about his own thoughts and behaviour, even when he’s ashamed by them. He’s hard on himself, harder than I think any outsider would be on him given the circumstances. He was an incredibly good son to his father. I know it’s not really the point for me to be saying this, but still, I think it bears being said.
Anyway, sorry for the frankly underwhelming review of this book. I know that it’s a set text in a lot of US curricula, so I’ve probably missed some really big, obvious things in my reading. Having that guidance on reading and getting into difficult books is probably the biggest thing I miss from school.