Truth and Fiction in Elie Wiesel’s “Night”
Alex Cockburn, Counterpunch, Jul 1 2016
Footnote: an earlier version of this essay ran in CounterPunch newsletter for Feb 2006, #3/4.
When in trouble, head for Auschwitz, preferably in the company of Elie Wiesel. It’s as foolproof a character reference as is available today, at least within the Judeo-Christian sphere of moral influence. One can easily see why Oprah Winfrey and her advisers saw an Auschwitz excursion in the company of Wiesel as a sure-fire antidote to salve the wounds sustained by Oprah’s Book Club when it turned out that James Frey had faked significant slabs of his own supposedly autobiographical saga of moral regeneration, A Million Little Pieces. Published in 2003, Frey’s irksome book swiftly became a cult classic. The present author was offered it in the summer of 2004 by a young relative, presumably to assist in his moral regeneration, but after glancing through a few pages returned it, on the grounds that it wasn’t his kind of thing. Winfrey picked it for her Book Club in September 2005, and it rocketed to the top of the best-seller lists. For Frey the sky fell in when, on Jan 7 2006, the Smoking Gun website published documents showing that Frey had fabricated many facts about himself, including a criminal record. There were later charges of plagiarism. Frey ran through a benign gauntlet of trial-by-Larry King on Jan 11, and Oprah called in to stand by her Pick of the Month. She said that what mattered was not whether Frey’s book was true (the Fundamentalist claim for the Holy Bible) but its value as a therapeutic tool (the modern Anglican position on the Good Book). But by now every columnist and books page editor in Pindostan was wrestling the truth-or-fiction issue to the ground. Oprah turned on Frey. On her show on Jan 26, he clung to the ropes, offering the excuse that the “demons” that had driven him to drink and drugs had also driven him into claiming that everything he wrote about himself was true. Publishers including Random House, which has made millions off him, had rejected the book when he’d initially offered it as a “fiction novel.” Oprah brushed this aside.
“Say it’s all true” is what demons often whisper in an author’s ear. Ask T E Lawrence. Did the Bey of Deraa really rape him? Lawrence suggests it in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom in paragraphs of fervent masochistic reminiscence. This and other adventures in Lawrence’s account of British scheming in Mesopotamia against the Ottomans met with the ecstatic admiration of the Oxford-based equivalent of Oprah’s Book Club back in the early 1920s, after Lawrence had the 350,000-word “memoir” privately printed and circulated. He’d written an earlier version in 1919 but claimed this had been stolen while he was changing trains in Reading, on the way to Oxford from London. Reading has surely been the site of more supposed thefts and losses of “completed manuscripts” and PhD dissertations (“I didn’t make a copy!”) than any railway station in the world. Half a century later, it occurred to Colin Simpson and Phillip Knightley of the London Sunday Times to ask the supposed rapist for his side of the story. They hurried off to Turkey and tracked down the town to which the Bey had retired, arriving at his home only to learn he’d died not long before. Relatives told the British reporters that the Bey would not have found Lawrence appetizing prey. The Turk was a noted womanizer, and when in Mesopotamia was always getting the clap from consorting with whores on his excursions to Damascus. It’s fun to think of Oprah grilling Lawrence about his claims, freshly exposed on Smoking Gun, telling him she felt “really duped” but that, “more importantly, I feel that you betrayed millions of Orientalizing masochists who believed you.”
But hardly had Frey been cast down from the eminence of Amazon.com’s top bestseller before he was replaced at #1 by the new pick of Oprah’s Book Club, Elie Wiesel’s Night, which had the good fortune to see republication at this fraught moment in Oprah’s literary affairs. Simultaneous with the Night selection came news that Oprah Winfrey and Elie Wiesel would shortly be visiting Auschwitz together, from which vantage point Oprah, with the lugubrious Wiesel at her side, could emphasize for her ABC-TV audience that there is truth and there is fiction, that Auschwitz is historical truth at its bleakest and most terrifying, that Night is a truthful account and that Wiesel is the human embodiment of truthful witness. The trouble here is that in its central, most crucial scene, Night isn’t historically true, and at least two other important episodes are almost certainly fiction. Below, I cite views, vigorously expressed to me in recent weeks by a concentration camp survivor, Eli Pfefferkorn, who worked with Wiesel for many years; also by Raul Hilberg. Hilberg is the world’s leading authority on the Nazi Holocaust. An expanded version of his classic three-volume study, The Destruction of the European Jews, was recently reissued by Yale University Press. Wiesel personally enlisted Hilberg to be the historical expert on the Pindostani Holocaust Commission. If absolute truth to history is the standard, Pfefferkorn says, then Night doesn’t make the grade. Wiesel made things up, in a way that his many subsequent detractors could identify as not untypical of his modus operandi: grasping with deft assurance what people important to his future would want to hear and, by the same token, would not want to hear. The book that became Night was originally a much longer account, published in Yiddish in 1956, under the title Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). Wiesel was living in Paris at the time. By 1958 he had translated his book from Yiddish into French, publishing it in that year under the title La Nuit. Wiesel says it was severely cut down in length by Jerome Lindon, the chief editor at Editions de Minuit. In 1960 came the English translation, Night, published by Hill & Wang. The 2006 edition of Night is translated from the 1958 French version by Wiesel’s wife, Marion, and in the introduction Wiesel says he has “been able to correct and revise a number of important details.” In the NYT for Jan 17, Michiko Kakutani wrote in her usual plodding prose, with her usual aversion to any unconventional thought:
Mr Frey’s embellishments of the truth, his cavalier assertion that the ‘writer of a memoir is retailing a subjective story,’ his casual attitude about how people remember the past, all stand in shocking contrast to the apprehension of memory as a sacred act that is embodied in Oprah Winfrey’s new selection for her book club, announced yesterday: Night, Elie Wiesel’s devastating 1960 account of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Amazon.com got the message quickly enough. The site had been categorizing the new edition of Night under “fiction and literature,” but under the categorical imperative of Kakutani’s “memory as a sacred act” or a phone call from Wiesel’s publisher, hastily switched it to “biography and memoir.” Within hours, it had reached #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list. That same evening, Jan 17, Night topped both the “biography” and “fiction” bestseller lists on BarnesandNoble.com. Nonetheless, over the next few days there were articles in the Forward and in the NYT, also a piece on NPR, saying that Night should not be taken as unvarnished documentary. In the Forward article, published Jan 20, challengingly titled “Six Million Little Pieces?”, Joshua Cohen reminded Forward readers that in 1996, Naomi Seidman, a Jewish Studies professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, had compared the original 1956 Yiddish version of the book with the subsequent, drastically edited translation. Cohen wrote:
According to Seidman’s account, published in the scholarly journal Jewish Social Studies, Wiesel substantially rewrote the work between editions, suggesting that the strident and vengeful tone of the Yiddish original was converted into a continental, angst-ridden existentialism more fitting to Wiesel’s emerging role as an ambassador of culture and conscience. Most important, Seidman wrote that Wiesel altered several facts in the later edition, in some cases offering accounts of pivotal moments that conflicted with the earlier version. For example, in the French, the young Wiesel, having been liberated from Buchenwald, is recuperating in a hospital. He looks into a mirror and writes that he saw a corpse staring back at him. In the earlier Yiddish, Wiesel holds that upon seeing his reflection he smashed the mirror and then passed out, after which ‘my health began to improve.’
That said, Cohen emphasized:
[Whereas] Frey for one seems to have falsified the facts of his life in order to satisfy ego and the demands of the market, Wiesel’s liberties seem more like reconsiderations, his process less revision than interpretation. Reading Night, one encounters the birth of thought about the Holocaust, the future of history, concomitant with its study. In both versions, the book’s intent is to engage not the undeniability of the Holocaust, but the man who has undeniably emerged from its horror.
This reverent tone about Wiesel and his work is customary. People mostly write about him and his work with the muted awe of British tourists reading guidebooks to each other in a French cathedral. In the Jewish Press for Feb 1, Andrew Silow Carroll was a bit friskier. He cited Wiesel as declaring to the NYT:
[Night] is not a novel at all. All the people I describe were with me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel. [And yet] In the past, Wiesel hasn’t helped matters in this regard. In 1972, Hill & Wang packaged Night with two other books, Dawn and The Accident, which Wiesel clearly identified as novels. The set’s cover refers to the works as ‘Three Tales by Elie Wiesel.’ In a later edition of the same volume, Wiesel refers to all three books as ‘narratives,’ although he calls Night a ‘testimony,’ and the other two ‘commentaries.’
There are some rather comical instances of Wiesel’s relaxed attitude to autobiographical truth, as excavated in Norman Finkelstein’s book, The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. Wiesel was one of Goldhagen’s main supporters. In his 1995 memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel writes that at the age of 18, recently liberated from Auschwitz, “I read The Critique of Pure Reason, don’t laugh! in Yiddish.” Finkelstein comments:
Leaving aside Wiesel’s acknowledgement that at the time “I was wholly ignorant of Yiddish grammar,” The Critique of Pure Reason was never translated into Yiddish.
Imagine the lacerations Frey would have endured for making that sort of empty boast. Though sales have now soared, I’m not sure how many people will read Night now, beyond buying the new edition as a gesture of solidarity with Oprah and survivors of the Holocaust. It doesn’t take a background in literary criticism to see that Night is artfully fashioned as a kind of symbolic narrative about the relationship between sons and fathers (there are four such portraits in the short book) and, crucially, between the Christian God (the Father) and his Son. The style seems influenced by Albert Camus, particularly L’Etranger. Camus won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, one of the youngest recipients ever. This was the time during which Wiesel was reworking his Yiddish narrative into the far more terse, Camusian work, with its Camusian title. As a piece of historical witness to the experience of the inmates, the doomed and those who survived inside Auschwitz and Buchenwald, there are books far superior to Night, starting with Primo Levi’s writings, or the late Ella Lingens-Reiner’s extraordinary memoir of Auschwitz, Prisoners of Fear, published in 1948. Night’s focus is extremely narrow, primarily on the main character, Eliezer, and his father. One learns with a certain surprise that though Wiesel’s sister Tzipora died in the camps, two other sisters survived. In the new edition, Wiesel doesn’t mention them. Night certainly contains none of the context offered by Levi or Lingens-Reiner, or much more recently, by Kenneth Waltzer, professor of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, who is writing a book called The Rescue of Children at Buchenwald and whose interesting letter was published in Forward at the end of February:
The Jan 20 article on Oprah Winfrey’s selection of Elie Wiesel’s Night for her Book Club was on the mark (‘Six Million Little Pieces?’). Any memoir is a reconstruction shaped by purpose and audience rather than a direct statement of memory, and even Wiesel’s Night is not an exception. Night focuses primarily on the relation of father and son in Auschwitz and in Buchenwald. When Wiesel loses his father in Jan 1945 at Buchenwald, he drifts into a listlessness and fog from which he emerged only after liberation. He recalls in Night only the terrible final days of the camp, in April 1945, when the Nazis sought to evacuate Jewish prisoners and then all prisoners. Wiesel writes of his relation with his father, the presence of God, and his own survival and its meaning. He does not describe the social context in which he existed during the final months. The barracks, his place in the camp, his relation to others, other prisoners, Jews, boys, remain murky. What is omitted in Night is that the 16-year-old was placed in a special barracks created by the clandestine underground as part of a strategy of saving youth. Block 66 was located in the deepest part of the disease-infested little camp and beyond the normal Nazi SS gaze. It was overseen by Czech Communist Antonin Kalina and by his deputy, Gustav Schiller, a Polish Jewish Communist. Schiller, who appears briefly in Night, was a rough father figure and mentor, especially for the Polish-Jewish boys and many Czech-Jewish boys; but he was less liked, and even feared, by Hungarian- and Romanian-Jewish boys, especially religious boys, including Wiesel. He appears in Night as a distant figure, armed with a truncheon. After Jan 1945, the underground concentrated all children and youth that could be fit into this windowless barracks, more than 600 in total. Younger children were protected elsewhere. When the Pindosi Third Army arrived Apr 11 1945, more than 900 children and youth were found among 21,000 remaining prisoners. Wiesel since has acknowledged the role played by the clandestine underground but did not attend to it in Night. Fellow barracks members recall being protected from work and getting extra food. They recall efforts by their mentors to raise their horizons. They also recall heroic intervention by Kalina or by Schiller during the final days to protect them. Even then, many boys were lined up at the gate, to be led out April 10. However, American planes flew overhead, sirens sounded, the guards ran and Kalina, who was with them, ordered the boys back to the barracks. They were still in the barracks the next day when units of the Pindo Third Army broke through the barbed-wire fences. Wiesel’s Night is about becoming alone. But Wiesel was also among hundreds of children and youth aided by a purposeful effort at rescue inside a concentration camp.
Forward slightly trimmed Waltzer’s contribution, from an article to a letter. In the fuller version, which he has kindly supplied, Professor Waltzer wrote his last paragraph as follows:
In Night, Wiesel writes about viewing himself in the mirror after liberation and seeing a corpse gazing back at him. But another picture taken after liberation shows Wiesel marching out of the camp, fourth on the left, among a phalanx of youth, moving together, heads high, a group guided by prisoners who had helped save them.
A photograph accompanying Waltzer’s text, credited to Jack Werber, of Great Neck, New York, shows exactly that. The young Wiesel’s head is high, like the others. But this parable of a triumph for human solidarity was absolutely contrary to the parable Wiesel was set on rewriting in French from the Yiddish volume. In the late 1950s a man with instincts as finely tuned as Wiesel’s to useful frequencies on the political dial probably would not have thought it advantageous to dwell on the heroic role of Communists in the death camps. All the more is this true in recent years, when Wiesel’s most celebrated moments have come when hunkering down for sessions of amiable moral counsel with Ronald Reagan, who wanted to pretend that the SS should be retrospectively forgiven, because after all they weren’t Communists and fought the Great Satan) and George Bush, on whom Wiesel urged the war on Iraq as a necessary moral act, declaring that “the world faced a moral crisis similar to 1938,” and “the choice is simple.” This is not the first time bombing has elicited a positive endorsement from the great moral standard-bearer. In 1999, as NATO’s bombs descended on Yugoslavia, blowing up civilians on train and bus, as well as journalists in their broadcasting studio, Wiesel was questioned by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Larry King Live. Declared one government toady to another:
I think it had to be done, because all the other options had been explored.
This balderdash put Wiesel, morally speaking, on a par with Cardinal Spellman, blessing the B-52s as they set off to drop napalm on children in the Vietnam era. For a decidedly irreverent assessment of Night’s merits On Feb 10 2006, Canadian TV viewers were able to watch and hear the former editor of Harper’s magazine, Lewis Latham, delivering a lecture at the University of Ottawa on the invitation of the university’s Graduate Students Association. Lapham’s lecture, entitled “The Politicization of Research,” was carried on CPAC, Canada’s parliamentary TV channel, several times in the days that followed. In the Q and A session after the lecture, in response to an enquiry about the decline in the quality of education, Lapham replied:
I have had three children. My youngest is now 25, my eldest is 32. They all went through a very high-end Pindosi education, both secondary schools and colleges. The syllabus of books that they were given in the English courses was terrible. I mean, the books were all tracts. There was a big fuss about Oprah Winfrey and the James Frey book, and she’s now going to put on Elie Wiesel’s Night. This is really one of the worst books I have ever read, and I’ve had to read it three times to my three children; and it’s junk. But it’s the kind of junk that has become very de rigeur in Pindosi universities. It’s a propaganda poster. With the kind of books the kids are given to read, I mean, it would turn them off books forever. No wonder! Because they are being given tracts. And, the big subject of course is victimology.
One of the perennially fascinating things about Wiesel is the preternatural sensitivity of his antennae for the opportune audience, his sense of what will, so to speak, “play” usefully for him. This brings us, by way of Eli Pfefferkorn, to Francois Mauriac. These days Eli Pfefferkorn, age 77, lives in Toronto. A man, on the evidence of several phone conversations, of alert intelligence and charm, he too is a concentration camp survivor. Originally from Poland, he spent seven weeks in Maijdanek, then in three labour camps, then in Buchenwald, then in Rehmsdorf. Near the end of the war he endured a death march to Theresienstadt in Moravia, where the surviving inmates were liberated by the Red Army on May 8 1945. Pfefferkorn’s parents perished in other camps, and he tells me he owes his life to his mother, who shook his hand loose from hers when the family was about to be deported, and told the 13-year-old boy to scram. Pfefferkorn eventually came to Pindostan, taught and spent some time working with Wiesel on the conceptual design of the Holocaust museum. Once an uncritical admirer, his present estimate of Wiesel is not favourable and he sets his views forth at length in a fascinating manuscript he is preparing to submit to publishers. He was kind enough to send me some chapters. By no means short-changing Wiesel on what he regards as his genuine achievements, Pfefferkorn can be unsparing:
He’s become a eulogist of the dead, but he doesn’t raise his mellifluous voice against the wrong done to survivors, 35% of them below the poverty line in Pindostan.
There are piercing passages in Pfefferkorn’s memoir concerning Wiesel’s opportunism and betrayals in the murky battles over the design of the Holocaust Museum, and above all in his artful pursuit of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 1986. Pfefferkorn asks:
Would Wiesel ever have received this prize for his work as a journalist?
Pfefferkorn answers his question:
It’s hard to imagine. No. Wiesel got the prize because he elevated himself as the spokesman for the survivors. His mostly absurd pretensions to be a ‘peace missionary’, had nothing to do with it.
Then, once he had the prize he so fiercely pursued, Wiesel gradually, but consistently so Pfefferkorn stresses “alienated himself from the survivors.” In Night, Pfefferkorn isolates a number of episodes in which he makes a convincing case that Wiesel dumped truth in favour of fiction. The two I cite here involve a boy playing a violin amidst a death march, and the second is one of Night’s most famous scenes, the hanging of three inmates. Of the first episode, Pfefferkorn writes:
The story of the ‘violin episode’ takes place during the death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald with a short gap at Gleiwitz in Jan 1945. Mercilessly driven by the SS guards, stragglers were shot at and shoved to the side (of the) road. The columns of inmates arrived in Gleiwitz, after having dragged themselves through the snow-swept roads in freezing temperatures for about 50 km. Immediately upon arrival, they were herded into barns. Drained, they dropped to the floor, the dead, the dying and the partially living piled one on the other. Under this heap of crushed humanity laid Juliek, cradling a violin, which he has carried all the way from Auschwitz to Gleiwitz. Eliezer somehow stumbles on Juliek, “the boy from Warsaw who played in the band at Buna. … ‘How do you feel, Juliek?’ I asked, less to know the answer than to hear that he could speak, that he was alive. ‘All right, Eliezer … I’m getting on all right … hardly any air … worn out. My feet are swollen. It’s good to rest, but my violin.” Eliezer, the inmate, wonders, ‘What use was the violin here?’ Wiesel does not find it necessary to give an answer to the question. Such an answer, I assume, should be of interest to the reader, for if Wiesel were to provide an answer, the veracity of the story would dissolve like the morning mist in the Sinai. Maintaining hold on a violin as one marched the March of Death is highly improbable. However, a violin in the midst of human debris strains the imagination and questions memory. How did Juliek hold on to the violin on the death journey? Deprived of food and drink, when each step stubbornly refused to follow the next one, how did Juliek manage to clutch the violin in his numb fingers, let alone play Beethoven on it? Would the SS escorts have let him keep it? Also, as an Irish reader of a draft of this article remarked to me: “As a professional musician, who has played a wide variety of string instruments for 40 years, including fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin, I immediately thought, How did the violin strings survive the severely cold temperatures and the long march? It’s a minor point perhaps, but very improbable, especially since it was 1945 and they were not modern strings.
And from this anus mundi, suddenly the melody of a Beethoven concerto is heard, wafting through the corpses, the groans of the dying, the stench of the dead. Eliezer had never heard sounds so pure. ‘In such a silence. It was pitch dark. I could only hear the violin, it was as though Juliek’s soul were the bow. He was playing his life. The whole life was gliding on his strings: his lost hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play again.’ This powerful and emotionally moving scene, celebrating the triumph of the human spirit over the grinding SS machinery, is the very stuff that heroic fiction is made of. But is it a memoir factually recorded? Obviously, Wiesel’s putative memoir, written while on a boat to Brazil, is but a recollection of experiences seen through the eye of his creative imagination. And yet, the melancholy melodies that came out of Juliek’s violin were the first strains of a myth orchestrated by Wiesel and his disciples over a period of thirty years.
A major scene in Night, one that contributed hugely to the book’s success in the West, and its impact on many Christians starting with Francois Mauriac, was the execution of three inmates in the Buna work camp. As Pfefferkorn writes:
The fascination of Christian theologians with the Wiesel phenomenon must be traced back to a hanging that the 16-year-old Eliezer witnessed in Auschwitz.
In the incident, two adults and a little boy are being led to the gallows. The little boy refused to betray fellow inmates who have been involved in an act of sabotage; to protect his fellow inmates, the boy is willing to pay with his life. Each one climbs to his chair and his neck is slipped into the rope’s noose. The scene continues as follows in the 1960 English version of Night:
The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. ‘Long live Liberty!’ cried the adults. But the child was silent. ‘Where is God? Where is He?’ someone behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. ‘Bare your heads!’ yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. ‘Cover your heads!’ Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive. … For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is! He is hanging here on this gallows!’
Not surprisingly, the graphically described hanging scene has been etched into the imagination of the Christian theologians because of the numerous parallels to the Crucifixion of Jesus. Now, while he was working on the memoir, La Nuit, Wiesel had cause, on behalf of an Israeli newspaper, to visit and interview Francois Mauriac, the Catholic writer and Nobel Laureate in literature. They got on well. Then Wiesel gave him the manuscript of La Nuit. Mauriac found in it an answer to his own anguish at descriptions of the mass slaughters in the death camps, particularly of children. In Pfefferkorn’s words:
[Mauriac fastened instantly on] a resemblance between the crucifixion and Wiesel’s description of the young boy’s hanging. In response to Wiesel’s questioning of God’s benevolence and man’s humanness, Mauriac writes the following in his Foreword to Night: ‘And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him: the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world?’
The hanged child dangling on the rope is reflected in Eliezer’s eyes, whose image resembles that of the crucified Jesus. Thus in one stroke, Mauriac has drawn a triptych reminiscent of the medieval paintings, making young Eliezer the link connecting the two watershed events in the history of Western civilization, namely the Crucifixion and the Holocaust. Mauriac leaves no doubt as to his Christological interpretation of the Auschwitz hanging. In the year 1960, he published a biography of Christ entitled The Son of Man dedicated to ‘E W who was a crucified Jewish child, who stands for many others.’ Mauriac explains what it was in his interview with Wiesel that drew him so powerfully to the young Israeli: ‘That look, as if a Lazarus risen from the dead, yet still a prisoner within the grim confines where he had strayed, stumbling among the shameful corpses.’
Wiesel’s painfully gaunt demeanour set against the backdrop of the concentration camps’ corpses have inspired a generation of Christian theologians to view Wiesel as a latter day Lazarus.
It is highly speculative to suggest that from the very inception of his writing, Wiesel consciously laboured to present himself to the Christian world as a composite of a Christ/Lazarus figure. However, once the seeds of the myth were sown in Paris at Mauriac’s instigation, and took roots in the soil of Christian Pindostan, Wiesel has done his share to encourage the ‘Lazarus risen from the dead parallel.’ But Wiesel has done so more by gesture than act, silence than utterance, indirection than direct statement. The unspoken, the mute, the covert are his metier; albeit an ambiguity laced through with shrewd intelligence that would make many a professional diplomat envious.
In a letter to David Hirsch dated Oct 6 1994, Alfred Kazin writes that at the beginning of their friendship:
I liked him enormously, and I was in awe of him because of his suffering in Auschwitz. But at the same time … it was impossible, when he expanded at length about his experiences under the Nazis, it was impossible to miss the fact that he was a mystifier.
One who says he directly observed the hanging scene described by Wiesel was Zygfryd Halbereich, who testified at the Auschwitz State Museum on Oct 19, 1973. Halbereich’s testimony was matter-of-fact, clear and direct. He was acquainted with the three inmates and knew about their escape plans. Pfefferkorn writes:
On the whole, Halbereich’s testimony is in agreement with Wiesel’s narrative, and differs only in one minor detail. But this is an inconsequential disagreement that does not change the substance of the hanging story. What does affect it, however, is the age of one of the condemned, as given by Wiesel. And the age of the condemned is the crux of the matter. In the original Yiddish Un di Velt Hot Geshvign and in the French and the English translations, one of the three condemned is frequently referred to as a child or a young boy. Halbereich is silent about the ages of the condemned, and this omission is surprising. For in Wiesel’s painfully elaborate description of the hanging, the young boy’s execution stirred up deep emotions among the inmates standing on the roll call. The Kapo who was assigned to administer the hanging ‘excused himself from serving as a hangman. He did not want to hang a child.’ A Kapo’s refusal to obey an SS order was tantamount to a death sentence. His extraordinary behaviour would have certainly registered with Halbereich, whose testimony is meticulously detailed. Halbereich’s silence on the Kapo’s courage calls into question Wiesel’s account of the hanging. One of the skeptics is the known Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, who is, in his own words, a seeker of truth. Cautious by temperament and scholarly discipline, Hilberg gingerly raises the issue related to the hanging scene. In a review written for the Boston Globe about Wiesel’s autobiographical book All Rivers Run to the Sea, Hilberg makes mention of the three hangings. ‘Describing the incident in his book Night,’ Hilberg notes, ‘he recalled someone behind him asking: Where is God? At that moment Wiesel believed that one of the three was a boy, and in his mind identified the child with God.’ Citing Kazin’s contention that the entire event is fiction, Hilberg concludes, ‘To be sure, the doubters may claim a concession.’
Pfefferkorn’s considered judgement is harsh on Wiesel’s claims for the absolute truth to life of Night:
If the hanging scene turns out contrary to Wiesel’s description in his purported memoir Night, a fictionalized episode as Kazin claimed and surmised from Halbereich’s testimony, then Wiesel’s entire moral and theological edifice collapses, bringing down with it the ‘Suffering Servant’ theology which first gave him recognition and eventually led him to fame. Though it is virtually impossible to verify the exact ages of the condemned, it must be noted, as Hilberg observed, that in Wiesel’s recent autobiography ‘the suffering body is no longer that of a boy.’
Quite aside from the theological questions, part of the impact of the scene derives from Wiesel’s description of this boy whose weight was too insubstantial for the noose to swiftly strangle him. Does this, in the last analysis, really matter? It does if you are disobligingly contrasting Frey to Wiesel’s “apprehension of memory as a sacred act.” All the same, I don’t suppose Smoking Gun would ever gleefully feature the third victim’s birth certificate. After talking to Eli Pfefferkorn and reading chapters from his memoir, I called Raul Hilberg, now 80, at his home in Burlington, Vermont. Hilberg began:
From a purely academic viewpoint, it would be interesting to have a scholarly edition, comparing the Yiddish version with subsequent translations and editions, with appropriate footnotes, Wiesel’s comments, etc. He was addressing two entirely different audiences, the first being the Yiddish-speaking Jews, members of the world of his youth, whom he addressed in nineteenth-century terms. There’s more detail, more comment. I made that suggestion to Wiesel and he didn’t react favourably. … I have a version of the hanging from an old survivor with the names of all three adults.
That survivor had said that there was no boy among the three. Hilberg mentioned this in a review of Night, in which, he told me:
I made no secret of our differences. But whereas it may seem somewhat small, it makes a very big difference to Christians, particularly Catholics, because it’s very clear that mystics are intensely interested in the scene, because it seems to replicate the crucifixion. It made a considerable impact. So the fact that this figure may not have been a boy at all is disturbing. It would appear from the record I have, that some witnesses have questioned whether this scene took place at all. I have a long statement by an older man, a man whom I judge to be quite trustworthy, though one must always remember that things are sometimes observed or heard about later. I talked recently to a survivor of that section of the camp who said it didn’t take place, but maybe it took place earlier. I don’t know. Dating these things is hard for survivors. Some have doubted this would have taken place. Buna was a work camp, so this other survivor, a PhD in history and a very intelligent man, didn’t believe it. I said to him, ‘How do you know this didn’t happen?’ I consider it not only a possibility but plausible. But age is a big issue to some people. That’s something he did not discuss in the new edition of the book. Wiesel’s is the most read of all Auschwitz memoirs, not only because of its brevity but because it has something mystic, surrealistic in it.
Hilberg mentioned the episode of the little boy playing the violin, and said how it evoked images from the Russian-Jewish mystic painter Chagall, also of Fiddler on the Roof. He says:
Wiesel comes from Sighet, a city in Romania. In Sighet there were many religious Jews, also Ukrainians. Much of Sighet was rather primitive at the time Wiesel was growing up. Most roads were not paved. It was shtetl life. However an assimilated group of Jews was emerging. I went there when I was 11, in 1937, and spent the summer. There was a tennis court, very middle-class. My aunt and her husband, a Sigheti, manufactured violins in Sighet where there was a major tradition of violin playing. I heard quartets in our garden. Wiesel’s parents had a store. So in some respects Sighet was very nineteenth century, and in others there were all the earmarks of a group of Jews emerging into the twentieth century who were evidently wide awake to modern civilization. So was the violin scene realistic, or was it a fantasy? Certainly, for Jews the violin was the instrument of choice. It was portable. So I would not say that the violin scene is impossible, even though I know someone from the death march who said it was utterly impossible. He was in Auschwitz, also Wiesel’s age. But that still doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Nothing is inconceivable. The model of all survivor accounts is of an idyllic childhood, then the hell of the Holocaust, then since they survived they underline the fact that it was only by luck they survived. With Wiesel, his original title was And the World Was Silent. It’s accusatory. Night is more surreal and mystic. It goes back to Middle Ages. Wiesel fits right into that style. It’s not a novel, but what it does have is the imprint of someone who wants to leave behind the impression that if you weren’t there, you cannot know what it was like, but then that dooms trying to write what it was like.
I asked Hilberg what accounts of the death camps and the Holocaust did he admire most. Hilberg replied:
That really depends on the reader. I don’t have that kind of favourite. For my purposes, obviously they have to be correct. There’s an account by Filip Mueller, who was on the gas chamber detail in Auschwitz in 1942, written in collaboration with two people: Eyewitness Auschwitz. It has to be read with care. Another book is Rudolf Vrba’s I Cannot Forgive, written with Alan Bestic. Vrba escaped from Auschwitz. He became professor of pharmacology at the University of British Columbia. This is the most remarkable of survivors, a man of absolutely incredible energy and abilities. In sheer ability to cope with the situation, this man is beyond belief.
I didn’t press the point, but Hilberg, who stressed to me that he admires Wiesel, did not include Night in this little list. A clue to this omission may be found in Hilberg’s often acrid memoir, The Politics of Memory, published in 1996. In the chapter “Questionable Practices”, notable for a devastating account of underhanded behaviour by Hannah Arendt, Hilberg discusses “areas of inappropriateness or illegitimacy.” He says:
I try to nod wisely when poets or novelists step forward with their art, which in its very nature is much less disguised than mine. Nor am I disturbed when popularizers of history excavate the monographs of the footnote writers and, distilling the contents, highlight story and drama for a large reading public. There are, however, limits. Among the practices that give me discomfort is the creation of a story in which historical facts are altered deliberately for the sake of plot and adventure. … If counterfactual stories are frequent enough, kitsch is truly rampant. The philistines in my field are truly everywhere. I am surrounded by the commonplace, platitudes, and clichés.The first German publisher of a small volume, containing my introduction and documents about the railroads inserted a poem for which, he said, he had paid good money, describing human beings in freight cars including children whose eyes glowed like coal. The manipulation of history is a kind of spoilage and kitsch is debasement.
Reading those lines, my mind did go at once to some of the scenes in Night, of Juliek playing his violin on the death march for example, which hover on the edge of kitsch or, to take a less forgiving view, plunge into it. Pfefferkorn remembers:
In 1981, Wiesel invited me to give a talk to his seminar students at Boston University. In the course of my talk, I discussed the relationship between memory and imagination in a number of literary works. I then pointed out the literary devices he used in Night: devices, I stressed, that make the memoir a compelling read. Wiesel’s reaction to my comments was swift as lightning. I had never seen him as angry before or since. In the presence of John Silber, the then-President of Boston University, and my own Brown University students whom I invited, he lost his composure, lashing out at me for daring to question the literalness of the memoir. In Wiesel’s eyes, as in the eyes of his disciples, Night assumed a level of sacrosanctity, next in importance to the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai. In terms of veracity, it is a factually recorded work, virtually meeting Leopold von Ranke’s benchmark of historical accounts: Wie es eigentlich gewessen, how it really was.
As he roosts on his pile of gold amid the abuse of Oprah and the literary world, Frey can comfort himself with the thought that even though there is a vast gulf between what Wiesel actually endured and Frey’s lies about his own life, when it comes to making literature he and Wiesel were both in the business of artistic and emotional manipulation, of dressing fiction up as truth. As Pfefferkorn stresses, you didn’t survive in the death camps just by luck:
Securing a spot in a desirable labour detail, for instance, involved shoving to the head of the line, seen as a risk worth taking. Upon encountering opposition, however, one had to know when to retreat into the chameleon-pyjama-like background of the concentration camp. This was also true about lining up for soup. Finding the right spot in the line could mean a thicker bowl of soup, which may add a week’s longevity, but this entailed rough elbowing, as well as timing.
Pfefferkorn says now that one of the greatest disappointments of his life was Wiesel’s “betrayal” (Pfefferkorn’s word) of the survivors. Looking at the man’s career overall, I’d say that as a moral fabulist, Wiesel has far more than Frey to answer for. Should not Oprah ask him about the millions he could have helped with the moral stature won by the Nobel peace prize he so unrelentingly campaigned for with his rough elbows, but whom he has betrayed for reasons of base political calculation? Although the Nobel committee extolled him as a “messenger to mankind,” it is difficult to find examples of Wiesel sending any message on behalf of those victimized by the policies of Pindostan, and virtually impossible when it comes to victims of Israel. Wiesel’s pusillanimity was well illustrated in an interview with The National Jewish Post & Opinion for Nov 19 1982. Asked about the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, he said he felt “sad.” Lest anyone leap to the conclusion that Wiesel was at last expressing sadness for the victims of Israel’s invasion, Wiesel added that this sadness was “with Israel, and not against Israel.” As he put it, “After all, the Israeli soldiers did not kill.” Wiesel remained silent throughout the bombing of Beirut. In 1985, Wiesel was asked by a reporter from Ha’aretz about Israel’s aid to the military junta in Guatemala. By way of response Wiesel remarked that he had received a letter from a Nobel laureate documenting Israel’s contributions to mass murder in Guatemala and urging Wiesel to act privately to pressure Israel. Salvador Luria of MIT had written to him on this subject a month earlier. Wiesel “sighed”, the Ha’aretz reporter wrote, and said:
I usually answer at once, but what can I answer him.
Wiesel could, I suppose, argue that a sigh constitutes a technical breach of silence, but why did he not go further? In an interview published in the second volume of Against Silence, Wiesel says that as a Diaspora Jew, the “price I chose to pay for not living in Israel … is not to criticize Israel from outside its borders.” In another interview, published in the London Jewish Chronicle for Sep 10 1982, he lamented criticism of Israel during the Lebanon invasion and asked these rhetorical questions:
Was it necessary to criticize the Israeli government, notwithstanding the spate of lies disseminated in the press? Or would it not have been better to have offered Israel unreserved support, regardless of the suffering endured by the population of Beirut? In the face of hatred, our love for Israel ought to have deepened, become more whole-hearted, and our faith in Israel more compelling, more true.
It’s unclear how many times, if any, Wiesel has ventured criticism inside Israel’s borders. Wiesel himself mentions one occasion on which he exerted what is usually called quiet pressure. Commentary on Wiesel in the Hebrew-language press in Israel following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 was more robust than the statutory honorifics printed in Pindostan. In Davar, for example, a reporter named Miri Paz discussed the troubled course of a conference on holocaust and genocide held in Israel in the summer of 1982. Responding to the urgings of the Turkish government, the Israeli Foreign Ministry demanded the removal of six items on the agenda concerning the Armenian genocide. Several people on the conference’s organizing committee, including its chair, Professor Israel Charny, refused to bend to such interference. But Wiesel, who headed the conference, did weaken. He pulled out of the conference, explaining in Paz’s words, that “as a Jew he cannot act against the government of Israel.” In Koteret Rashit, a liberal weekly, Tom Segev wrote of Wiesel:
He is always careful not to criticize his nation. … What does he have to say about the situation in the territories? When people from Peace Now asked him to criticize the Lebanese War, he evaded the request. He’s never been in the habit of standing up seriously against Israeli leaders. … What in fact has he done to realize his fine intentions? Bob Geldof has done more. … How nice it would have been if they had divided the prize among those truly good people of the world, those still alive, those people who endangered their lives at the time of the Holocaust in order to save Jews. Who symbolizes the lesson of the Holocaust as they do? Who is as worthy of the respect of the world as they are?