This text is an excerpt from Forms of Exile in Jewish Literature and Thought Twentieth-Century Central Europe and Movement to America by Professor Bronislava Volková, Indiana University, Bloomington. The book is published by Academic Studies Press in 2021 (www.academicstudiespress.com).
While Weiss’s play (The Investigation, 1965) is written as a mixture of documentary and fiction and is clearly a major avant-garde literary achievement portraying a loss of humanity and the absence of conscience in the face of it, there are a number of intimate documentary accounts of the horrors of the Holocaust by survivors. To name a few: the Italian fighter for humanism Primo Levi; the tireless Galician Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal; the German-language Romanian poet Paul Celan; and the Hungarian Nobel Laureate Imre Kertész. They all belong to the genre of Holocaust literature, which portrays a form of exile as bearing witness in the most general sense of the word—yet each brings their own special emphasis and insight. Each portrayal of the Holocaust is individual. There are as many Holocausts as there are people.
In order to bear witness, one must consciously remove oneself from being an actor or victim in life, to step aside, so to speak, in the interest of an objective portrayal of what happened. Wiesel, Levi, and Wiesenthal, whom we shall devote the next studies to, are not writers whose main ambition is to bring a new form of literary achievement into the world; rather, they are autobiographical, documentary writers, whose main goal it is to share with the world their shattering experiences and interpretations. They are writers on a personal mission. They are the authors of a number of works on the topic, yet we shall focus only on selected ones.
The most well known of these works is Elie Wiesel’s (b. 1928, Sighet, Romania, d. 2016 in New York City) famous memoir Night. The French original was published in 1958, after the first printing of the novel appeared in Yiddish in Buenos Aires under the title Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent, 1954). The English translation, which followed four years later in the US, sold eventually ten million copies and was translated into thirty languages.
Wiesel was born in Romanian Transylvania and received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He also received many other prestigious prizes and honorary doctorates. He spent the latter part of his life (from 1955 onwards) in New York and Boston as a professor at the City University of New York and at the Boston University. He was a prolific political activist and a founder of the New York Human Rights Foundation. He is a foremost example of a major European literary and intellectual figure moving to the US and later on becoming obliterated by the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, whose countries moved from one harsh persecution and oppression to another, even more long lasting. Authors are often required to leave their mother tongue behind and adopt a new language. Jewish writers are the most frequent examples of this, as they are often the ones who have the courage to leave their country and start a new life in a totally different environment. There, they are able to truly and fully express their talent and ideas and bring a new perspective to the world with an authenticity often lacking in national, narrowly conceived literatures.
Wiesel was the author of fifty-seven books, among which his memoir Night, describing his experiences as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, takes a special place. His family spoke Yiddish, but also German, Hungarian, and Romanian. Two of his sisters survived the war and were reunited with Wiesel at a French orphanage. His parents and younger sister perished. Wiesel’s father was, according to Wiesel, beaten to death in front of his own eyes by a Nazi for suffering from dysentery, starvation, and exhaustion just a few months before the liberation of Buchenwald, where he and his son had ended up after a death march. After the war, Wiesel became a journalist and wrote for Israeli and French newspapers.
Night was originally turned down by fifteen publishers, even though it was proposed to them by the great French Catholic writer and journalist François Mauriac, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, before the small firm Hill and Wang finally accepted it. Night is a case study in how a book can create a genre, how a writer becomes an icon, and how the Holocaust was absorbed into the American experience. Night was one of the first books to raise the question: “Where was God in Auschwitz?” This question does not, however, receive a satisfactory answer. Some critics of Wiesel’s work feel that he even failed on this issue, in order to appeal to the largely Christian world around him and under the influence of his catholic helper François Mauriac. They argue that he sublimated his rage at the perpetrators, and thus at God, for allowing such bestialities to be committed. By casting himself as a suffering, but not raging, victim, he was able to be less offensive to his readers.1
A similar reading emerges from Naomi Seidman’s comparison of the original Yiddish, Buenos Aires version of Night and the French one that found such fame: “What remains outside this proliferating discourse on the un-sayable is not what cannot be spoken but what cannot be spoken in French. And this is not the ‘silence of the dead’ but rather the scandal of the living, the scandal of Jewish rage and unwillingness to embody suffering and victimization.”2 According to Seidman, in order to reach larger audiences, Wiesel sacrificed the anger of the Yiddish boy and became the personification of suffering silence acceptable to the Christian world.
Auschwitz has become more than just a place: it has become a shorthand for the Shoah, a common metaphor for uncommon evil, the almost platitudinous sign for hell on earth. Night is exquisitely constructed. Every sentence feels weighted and deliberate, every episode carefully chosen and delineated. It is also shockingly brief; a story as fundamentally brutal as this one would become grotesque if cluttered by embellishments. It is also devoid of rational explanations or cynicism. It reads as the innocent narration of a young boy, who had no idea of what was coming. It compels the reader to become a witness to the unthinkable and absorb it inwardly.
Night is not a novel and it is not exactly a memoir either. It has a hybrid form, which balances fidelity to events and literariness. The facts depicted are stranger than fiction. The English title itself was changed from the original Yiddish in order to capture the darkness of the camp as well as the spiritual darkness of the world during and after WWII. The original version of the book was more than 800 pages, while the French publication was only 121 pages. Wiesel took out all the parts where he expressed his feelings about the Holocaust in the face of its denial, as well as any moralizing. Wiesel’s memoir is a genuine artistic achievement and as such it is naturally not a simply a literal description of facts, but is also austerely poetic. It simplifies the story into a kind of parable. It succeeds in individualizing the existential, depersonalized experience of the Holocaust, which made it possible for so many readers to start empathizing. In this way it is like The Diary of Anne Frank,3 which is easier to relate to, as it is the diary of a young girl in a chamber awaiting hell and thus does not force the reader to face the absolute horror of what succeeded.
The power of Night comes from the dramatic contrast between the thoughts and fears of the victims and their apathy in response. It offers not only a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, but also an eloquent personal and philosophical treatise about what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be. It is interesting to note that the book omits to tell us about Wiesel’s sisters and mother or what happened in the immediate aftermath of the liberation.
The book clearly invites many questions. In the first place, whether the Enlightenment came to an end with the Shoah. Was it the result of totalitarianism or mass society, where the individual has become depersonalized, colonized, and alienated by huge forces that escape our understanding and control? Could anything have been done to prevent the genocide? Did the perpetrators have options or were they forced to simply follow orders? Similar questions were asked at the end of the Communist era and are still debated today. Is there personal responsibility? What is its extent? Is the victim to be blamed? Could the Jews foresee what was coming and could they have prevented it by an escape? Whom are we obliged to help? It has been proved that indifference is complicity, yet there are genocides happening all over the world today and we remain largely indifferent to them as long as they do not touch us personally.
The US often positions itself as the protector of law and security around the world, but it has no consistent policy or ability to prevent the horrors of lawlessness. Genocide and war crimes are clearly defined nowadays, but we fail to respond in effective ways. I feel that we must study what produces the authoritarian personality and what produces prejudice. We have known for a long time that prejudice against Jews is based predominantly on Jews being presented as God killers, as Zionist conspirators who want to take over the world (as purported in the fake document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), as contaminators of pure Aryan blood, as the chosen nation, and so forth. Yet, Jews are not the only ones currently being subjected to extermination.
The mechanization of the complete destruction of an entire race organized and carried out by a state, shows how reason is something that can be abused in a vile way. It can be twisted and then used to defend bestiality. The Soviet gulags and the Nazi camps had many similarities.
According to Primo Levi, the death rate in the gulags was about thirty percent, while in the Nazi camps it was ninety to ninety-eight percent. The aim of the death camps was pure annihilation of a certain race, not only of individuals opposing a certain ideology or state form. So there is both a great similarity as well as difference between the two systems. Writers bearing personal witness have had a great impact helping people attempt to understand something that is almost unimaginable.
Elie Wiesel created a purpose for his life as a survivor:
My universe is the universe of the survivor. Writing is a duty for me as a survivor. I entered literature through silence; I seek the role of witness, and I am duty bound to justify each moment of my life as a survivor. Not to transmit my experience is to betray that experience. Words can never express the inexpressible; language is finally inadequate, but we do know of the beauty of literature. We must give truth a name, force man to look. The fear that man will forget, that I will forget, that is my obsession. Literature is the presence of the absence. Since I live, I must be faithful to the memory. Though I want to celebrate the sun, to sing of love, I must be the emissary of the dead, even though the role is painful.4
Bearing witness prevents mankind from forgetting and this must not be left undone, according to Elie Wiesel.
Marie Cedars writes that “silence is the language of Wiesel’s first book, Night, as it documents the camp experience that killed his faith ‘forever.’” Such is the claim in her article from 1986. She continues: “Its neutral tone is the language of the witness. Silence as a mood, silence as a mysterious presence, remains in Wiesel’s books, even while he moves from despair to affirmation of literature and life and as he continues to probe the unanswered questions of human cruelty and God’s silence.”5
Peter Manseau recapitulates the differences between the Wiesel’s original Yiddish book, written immediately at the end of the Holocaust, and the translation of Night presented to the world more than a decade later. He believes that rather than suppress the Jewish rage (as claimed by Seidman), Wiesel imposes “a theological frame on the story.”6 He goes on: “Wiesel has created a mouthpiece for his theology. It is a unique Holocaust theology, a theology of questions without answers: one that equates knowledge of the depths of man’s depravity with knowledge of the heights of man’s wisdom.” Thus, the main message of the book is shifted from man’s depravity to God’s silence interpreted as wisdom. Manseau believes that this is shortchanging the meaning that can be found in the excruciating experience: “If we continue to speak of atrocity in religious terms we will never take full responsibility for it. And so we will never learn. And so it will continue to be denied. And so it will happen again.”7
Another way in which the pain of what happened has been circumvented is by predominantly focusing on children as survivors or witnesses of the Holocaust. Mark Anderson proposes that this “allowed for mainstream, Christian identification with the Jewish victims, thus facilitating a crucial breakthrough in public recognition of the Jewish tragedy. But it also depoliticized and sacralized the Holocaust, filed off the rough edges of the Jewish protagonists, and sought reconciliation rather than confrontation with the gentile world that had assisted Hitler’s genocidal plan by remaining silent.”8
The question remains as to whether Wiesel’s masterpiece can continue to have an effect on future generations, those who will be far removed from the historical environment described by him.
Notes: 1 See Ron Rosenbaum,” “Elie Wiesel’s Secret,” Tablet, September 28, 2018, https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/elie-wiesels-secret. 2 Naomi Seidman, “Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage,” Jewish Social Studies 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1996): 8. 3 First published in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in Dutch in 1947, the English translation—Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, trans. Valentine Mitchell (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1952) received widespread critical and popular attention. It was translated into sixty languages. 4 Heidi Ann Walker, and Elie Wiesel, “Why and How I Write: An Interview with Elie Wiesel,” Journal of Education 162, no. 2 (Spring 1980): 58. 5 Marie M. Cedars, review of Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel, by Irwing Abrahamson, Cross Currents 36, no. 3 (Fall 1986): 258-9. 6 Peter Manseau, “Revising Night: Elie Wiesel and the Hazards of Holocaust Theology,” Cross Currents 56, no. 3 (Fall 2006): 396. 7 Ibid.: 399. 8 Mark M. Anderson, “The Child Victim as Witness to the Holocaust: An American Story?,” Jewish Social Studies 14, no. 1 (Fall 2007), pp. 1–22.
About the Author
Bronislava Volková is a bilingual poet, semiotician, translator, collagist, essayist and Professor Emerita of Indiana University, Bloomington, USA, where she was a Director of the Czech Program at the Slavic Department for thirty years. She is a member of Czech and American PEN Club. She went into exile in 1974, taught at the Universities of Cologne and Marburg and subsequently at Harvard and University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She has published eleven books of existential and metaphysical poetry in Czech and seven bilingual editions illustrated with her own collages. She is also the author of two books on linguistic and literary semiotics (Emotive Signs in Language, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 1987 and A Feminist’s Semiotic Odyssey through Czech Literature, Edwin Mellen Press, N.Y., 1997), as well as the leading co-author of a large anthology of Czech poetry translations Up The Devil’s Back: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th Century Czech Poetry (with Clarice Cloutier), Slavica Publishers, 2008. Her scholarly publications include topics of Czech poetry, Czech popular culture, issues of exile, gender, implied author values and emotive signs. Her poetry has been translated into twelve languages and her selected poems appeared in book form in six of them. She has also received a number of international literary and cultural awards. Currently, she is publishing abook Forms of Exile in Jewish Literature and Thought (Twentieth-Century Central Europe and Migration to America).
More at www.bronislavavolkova.com