A Long Night's Journey into Light

Justin Cober-Lake

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]

Next-Day Reading
Whether due to Oprah or someone else, you've picked up and read your copy of Night. Now what? I have no interest in constructing a canon and arguing for which books are better than others. My interest is strictly in getting you to read and to think on the subject. So, here are 10 books of various kinds in no particular order.

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
The title explains exactly what this book details. After Wiesel's work, Levi's book is probably the best-known piece of survivor literature. The title translation fails it, though -- the original Italian could be read as If This Is a Man, which more correctly reflects Levi's concern not with surviving but with maintaining humanity in himself and in his conception of those around him. Primo Levi wrote a number of important books and then killed himself.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
Reporting on the Nuremburg Trials, Arendt rejects the idea that Adolf Eichmann was a logistical mastermind and an evil genius who made sure the trains ran on time. He was, she argues, a simple cog. There's nothing grand and hideous about the ultimate evil in Arendt's view -- its origins are in a bovine vapidity. Arendt's representation of Eichmann works against almost any other one you'll see, forcing a re-consideration not only of who this man was, but what it means and what it takes to be evil.

An Estate of Memory by Ilona Karmel
Karmel's complex novel follows the lives of several women from various backgrounds as they try to stay alive through deportation and concentration camp life. Karmel matches the mess of the times with a narrative voice that conceals and distorts, making truth (sometimes even fact) unreachable. By creating dynamic characters, she draws you into a vivid depiction of acts that fortunately aren't unspeakable any more.

The Assault by Harry Mulisch
It's cliche for those of us who have lived normal lives to say the past haunts us, so how much more intense would it be for a survivor? Mulisch explores issues of memory (always a central theme in Holocaust considerations) inside a smart, tight narrative. He also points out the impossibility of making a moral choice in certain situations, a condition that arises under the direst circumstances.

Conscience and Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust by Eva Fogelman
You'll need some rescuer stories at some point. The further to one extreme you travel, the futher it's possible to go to the other, and we need some hope and some nobility. But if Fogelman simply collected stories of rescue, I wouldn't recommend it. She does that, but she also analyzes the rescuer psyche, exploring concerns of morality, ideology, and even professional concerns. Because the why is important, too.

Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
Goldhagen's massive scholarly text has fallen out of favor -- it's more a starting point for debate than a definitive statement. Goldhagen loses his argument (that Germans had something fundamental about them that enabled the Holocaust to happen) in internal contradictions, repetitive structure, and analytical shortcomings, but his research is extensive and his anecdotes, while not always supporting his argument, are useful. Even if you reject his position, you'll want to know it, because it comes up again and again.

Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning
Browning offers a fairly convincing rebuttal to Goldhagen, arguing that members of German killing squads were essentially ordinary people who carried out genocide because of their social conditions (primarily peer pressure and the demands of authority). Browning's study focuses on one particular battalion, but his argument suggests that the genocide could happen anywhere.

Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews by Eva Hoffman
Here's your historical background text, because if you grew up a goy in the late 20th century US, how do you know what a Shtetl is? Or the history of European anti-Semitism? Hoffman lays out a particular case study of one Polish shtetl to examine the complex ways that Jews and Poles interacted, and the shifting moral issues that arose. By the end of the war, nearly all of the town's 4000 Jews had been murdered. Like Goldhagen and Browning, Hoffman seeks to understand the types of people that would have been involved, and she resists a simple understanding.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Foer knows how important it is to laugh at all times, but he also know how humor makes tragedy even more devastating. He runs much of his story through a narrator every bit as idiosyncratic and more lovable than those of Motherless Brooklyn or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, turning a straightforward narrative into a mystery and a meditation on horror and escape. Here's an engaging way to let yourself hurt, and to hope you can bleed it out.

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power
If I had any pull, this book would be required reading for anyone even remotely involved with any government anywhere. Power dissects the US response (usual too little, too late) to genocide throughout the 20th century and across the globe. Her mostly detached journalistic style only adds to the horror. I've rarely been so outraged at the world while reading, and probably never felt it so important to continue. Decades of saying "Never Again" have masked our tacit "Always Whenever". If things can't change, all this effort is wasted. I'm scared.

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.

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