Half a century after its writing, Elie Wiesel's Night finds a renewed prominence thanks to Oprah, but its importance has never diminished. Justin Cober-Lake looks back at Wiesel's book and recommends others on the Holocaust and its continued relevance.
A Long Night's Journey into Light
[30 March 2006]
by Justin Cober-Lake
When I had dinner with Elie Wiesel, I was struck by how tired he seemed. I chalked it up to the busy day. He had flown into Gettysburg, PA from Boston and immediately had a Q&A session with about 100 undergraduates and then headed off for a relatively formal dinner with a campus-wide lecture looming. Surely anyone would be tired on a day like that, and his inquisitiveness made me think he must be in good spirits (he led the conversation throughout dinner by asking questions, except when he paused to let me, the only student present, ask him questions related to my thesis). Reading his work leads to the conclusion that he's naturally curious and places a high value on questioning, so perhaps that was no indicator of his mood. And he did seem really tired.
After dinner, we made the cross-campus trek for the evening's lecture, titled something like "Against Indifference". For Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, the events of 60 years ago would never be far from discussion, but tonight he was focusing not on the Holocaust, but on that night he spoke in more general terms about each person's need to continually fight evil, be it genocide or something else (or indifference itself). I was captivated the entire time, but suddenly felt drilled when Wiesel said that if you choose not to be indifferent, you will never have an hour's rest in your life.
It took 10 years from the liberation of the camps until Night was begun, and several more until it was published, not getting an English edition until 1960. Wiesel tells his tale of survival and de-humanization quickly and succinctly. The horrors (cliched and useless as that word has become) of the Holocaust (see the aside for "horrors") speak for themselves. After a decade of silence, Night became one of the first and one of the most important pieces of Holocaust literature, with millions of copies in circulation.
For years no one dared to criticize Wiesel or his writing, but starting near the end of the 20th century, scholars began debating the merits of Night. That it is a stunning and brutal narrative is rarely debated, but considerations of it as a mediated text have increased.
Oprah's recent selection of Night for her book club might seem a bit odd, then, considering how many people worldwide have already read it, and given her recent troubles with memoir selection. Although debate and criticism of the text has picked up in the recent past, Night remains mostly untouchable, as does Nobel Peace Prize winner Wiesel. It's a safe choice for Oprah -- resilience in returning to memoir, but relative protection in choosing this one.
Except when denial steals the spotlight, public Holocaust reading is always a good thing, especially if it leads to debate (even if it's just genre considerations like "What constitutes memoir?"). I feel ridiculous in my need to point this out, like I'm saying "Racism is bad" and thinking it's insightful, but since details of the Holocaust came out, we've rallied behind the phrase "Never again" and let the slaughter continue on unabated, under more acceptable names like "civil war" or "ethnic cleansing". What was once unspeakable became speakable, and has now been lost on discarded in-office memos at all levels of governments. The new inexpressible is rage at political administrations; the old unspeakable is just ignored.
Oprah's timing (when this topic needs to always be on our minds) is impeccable. Just a month after she announced Night as her new reading pick, former Yugoslavian and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic died of an apparent heart attack while on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity. News programs broadcast coverage of his body being transported to his familial home, amid an estimated 50,000-100,000 supporters turned out to show their support. Despite Milosevic's years of terror, he's still a beloved figure, and maintains international apologists like political scientists Michael Parenti.
In some ways, not much has changed since Wiesel came out of Buchenwald (still at the beginning of a long night), so Oprah's risk-free choice is still a substantial one. To resist genocide (that's seriously a concern?), we have to keep it on our minds, and there are few ways better to do that than by reading, or re-reading, Night.