Wiesel, Elie (Vol. 165)
Elie Wiesel 1928-
(Full name Eliezer Wiesel) Romanian-born American novelist, memoirist, journalist, short story writer, essayist, nonfiction writer, children's writer, and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of Wiesel's career through 2001. See also Elie Wiesel Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 5, 11.
A survivor of the Nazi concentration camps and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Wiesel is one of the most acclaimed authors of Holocaust literature and an eloquent spokesperson for contemporary Judaism. Throughout his career he has delineated the horror of the concentration camps and has explored the apparent indifference of God, ultimately reaffirming his life and faith. His lyrical, impressionistic novels, written primarily in French, frequently juxtapose past and present to examine the effect of the Holocaust on Jews, both as individuals and as a people. Although Wiesel focuses strongly on the experience of Jews, his work also speaks for all persecuted people, and, by extension, for humanity itself.
Wiesel was born in Sighet, Romania, a well-known center of Jewish cultural life in the region of Transylvania. His parents encouraged his interest in the Hebrew and Yiddish languages as well as in the teachings of the Hasidic masters and the traditions of the Torah, Talmud, and Kabbala. In the spring of 1944, Nazi forces deported Wiesel, then fifteen years old, and his family to the Birkenau concentration camp. Separated from his mother and sisters upon arrival, he was then sent with his father to Auschwitz. When Soviet troops neared the concentration camp in 1945, the inmates were forced to march to Buchenwald; Wiesel's father died of dysentery and starvation soon thereafter. Upon being liberated in April of that year, Wiesel learned that his mother and younger sister had perished in the gas chambers. His older sisters, however, had survived, and years later they and Wiesel were reunited. Following his release, Wiesel hoped to leave for the then-British state of Palestine, but immigration restrictions proved insurmountable, and he was placed on a train with other Jewish orphans bound for Belgium. The train was rerouted to France at the insistence of General Charles de Gaulle. Living at first in Normandy, Wiesel eventually moved to Paris, where he studied literature at the Sorbonne. He later became a journalist for the French-Jewish periodical Arche and was sent to cover the formation of the Israeli state. In 1952 he left Arche to work for Yediot Ahronot, a newspaper in Tel Aviv, Israel. Two years later he was assigned to interview Françcois Mauriac, the well-known Roman Catholic novelist and Nobel Laureate, who persuaded Wiesel to break his vow of silence concerning his concentration camp experience and to bear witness for those who had died. The resulting eight-hundred-page memoir, Un di velt hot geshvign (1956), was transformed over two years into the much shorter text of La Nuit (Night), which has become regarded as one of the most powerful works in Holocaust literature. In 1956 Wiesel traveled to New York City as Yediot Ahronot's United Nations correspondent and was struck by a taxicab. Compelled by his long convalescence to remain in the United States, Wiesel applied for and received U.S. citizenship when his French travel papers expired. In 1969 he married Marion Erster Rose, a fellow Holocaust survivor who is now the primary English translator of his works. With the success of his writings, Wiesel has emerged as an important moral voice on issues concerning religion, human rights, and the Middle East. He now serves as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University.
A powerful, moving account of his experiences at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Night expresses Wiesel's feelings of guilt as a Holocaust survivor and his anger at God for having allowed people to be destroyed despite their faithfulness to God's law. These emotions also inform Wiesel's two subsequent novels, L'aube (1961; Dawn) and Le jour (1961; The Accident), which revolve around survivors who must find some meaning in the Holocaust before they can regain their faith in God and humanity. In Dawn a young survivor becomes a terrorist in the war to free Palestine from British rule yet discovers that he has forsaken his religious ideals in the process. The Accident is about an Israeli foreign correspondent who, after being struck by a taxicab, gradually realizes that his subconscious guilt as a concentration camp survivor has led him to seek his own death. Wiesel's later novels elaborate on the theme of self-discovery and examine such moral issues as the choice between death and life, indifference and responsibility, and suffering and love. In La ville de la chance (1962; The Town beyond the Wall) a Holocaust survivor returns to Hungary to confront his former Nazi guard, only to discover that revenge and madness are merely denials of his own moral responsibility. The Jewish survivor of Les portes de la foret (1964; The Gates of the Forest) changes his perception of his relationship to the world when he realizes that he has imprisoned himself in his pain and memories. The protagonist ultimately accepts that suffering must lead to an embracement of others, not a rejection of life. Le cinquième fils (1983; The Fifth Son) examines the impact of the Holocaust on the children of survivors, telling the story of a young Jewish American who travels to Europe with plans to kill his father's persecutor. He relents in his pursuit, however, when he is faced with the man's incomprehension of his deeds. Wiesel further explores the themes of guilt, innocence, and history in Le juges (1999; The Judges) a novel set in the confines of a Connecticut house. Five airline passengers are stranded in the house during a snowstorm when their flight from New York to Tel Aviv is grounded. The passengers are at the mercy of a sadistic host who calls himself the Judge, and who decrees that one of them will die by morning. As the night progresses the passengers examine their lives and ambitions, as Wiesel ponders philosophical questions about the nature of good and evil. Wiesel's mythopoeic plays Zalmen; ou la folie de Dieu (1966; Zalmen, or the Madness of God) and Le procès de Shamgorod (1979; The Trial of God) address the notion of a cruel and unjust God and weigh human responsibility for God's judgments.
In the mid-1960s Wiesel extended his commitment to speak for the persecuted by focusing his nonfiction works on contemporary Jewish victims of oppression. Le Juifs du silence (1966; The Jews of Silence) is both an eyewitness report of Jewish persecution in the former Soviet Union and a plea for global Jewish solidarity. Wiesel further examines the political and moral effects of apathy upon today's oppressed people in the stories and autobiographical fragments collected in Le chant des morts (1966; Legends of Our Time) and Entre deux soleils (1970; One Generation after). Although Wiesel states in One Generation after that the world has learned nothing from the Holocaust, he also emphasizes the need for the modern Jew to impose a meaning on these events and draw comfort from their nameless, faceless pain. This idea is again explored in Un juif aujourd'hui (1977; A Jew Today), a collection of autobiographical sketches, essays, and dialogues in which Wiesel expresses shame for the past and a cautious hope for the future. Wiesel has additionally addressed the affirmative aspects of Judaism through his humanistic examinations of Jewish biblical figures and legends. Beginning with Celebration hassidique: Portraits et legendes (1972; Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters), Wiesel expounds on his belief that Hasidism's modern relevance lies in its example of how to live joyfully in an incomprehensible and absurd universe. Ensuing collections of Wiesel's biblical portraits, based on lectures delivered at various international universities, include Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy (1978), Five Biblical Portraits (1981), and Contre la mélancholie (1982; Somewhere a Master). In recent years, he has published two additional volumes of memoirs—Tous les fleuves vont a la mer (1994; All Rivers Run to the Sea) and And the Sea Is Never Full 1969- (1999).
Wiesel's works have often generated disagreement among critics. While some reviewers have considered his plots and characters to be mere vehicles for his moral, religious, and philosophical concerns, many have praised his sensitive insight into human behavior, his candor, and his ability to objectively examine the Holocaust and its effect upon modern Jewish thought. Commentators have explored Wiesel's dominant thematic concerns, such as man's inhumanity to man, the importance of memory and faith, and the effect of the Holocaust on the survivors as well as the next generation of Jews. Reviewers have frequently lauded Wiesel's examinations of such complex themes as life, death, guilt, and forgiveness in his fiction. Commenting on The Judges, Jonathan Rosen has stated “Evil is a real presence in Mr. Wiesel's novel, though he seems most interested in the response to evil, and it is this that gives his book its metaphysical tension.” Although some reviewers have faulted Wiesel's novels—including The Judges—for their inattention to minor details, numerous critics have praised the underlying questions and larger themes present in Wiesel's writing. Though his detractors have argued that much of his writing—especially works such as Dawn—are more polemic than artistic, a majority of commentators have agreed that Wiesel's fiction has a riveting emotional core. Praise for his memoir Night has been almost universal from both critics and readers alike. Despite this range of critical opinion, Wiesel's fiction has been widely regarded as among the most passionate and powerful of all Holocaust writing.
*Un di velt hot geshvign [abridged and translated as La Nuit and Night] (memoirs) 1956
L'aube [Dawn] (novel) 1961
Le jour [The Accident] (novel) 1961
La ville de la chance [The Town beyond the Wall] (novel) 1962
Les portes de la foret [The Gates of the Forest] (novel) 1964
Le juifs du silence [The Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry] (nonfiction) 1966
Le chant des mortes [Legends of Our Time] (nonfiction) 1966
Zalman; ou, la folie de Dieu [Zalman; or, the Madness of God] (play) 1966
Le Mendiant de Jerusalem [A Beggar in Jerusalem] (novel) 1968
Entre deux soleils [One Generation after] (nonfiction) 1970
Celebration hassidique: Portraits et legendes [Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters] (legends and parables) 1972
Un juif aujourd'hui [A Jew Today] (nonfiction) 1977
Four Hasidic Masters and Their Struggle against Melancholy (nonfiction) 1978
Le procès de Shamgorod (tel qu'il se déroula le 25 février 1649) [The Trial of God (as It Was Held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod)] (play) 1979...
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SOURCE: Ivry, Itzhak. “Memory of Torment.” Saturday Review 43, no. 51 (17 December 1960): 23-4.
[In the following review of Night, Ivry provides a brief plot synopsis and asserts that the memoir is a powerful and important recounting of life in the Nazi concentration camps. He also reviews Herbert Agar's book The Saving Remnant.]
Children's shoes are a touching sight when piled up in a concentration camp storehouse, and a child's reaction to the twentieth century's greatest calamity is especially poignant. This may be why The Diary of Anne Frank emerged as one of the most unforgettable documents of the period. A child's response to life in the Oswiecim (Auschwitz) concentration camp is presented by Elie Wiesel in Night, which was written originally in French and has been ably translated into English by Stella Rodway. It contains a moving foreword by François Mauriac, who was stunned when—after remarking, “How often have I thought of the children in the concentration camps”—he heard Mr. Wiesel reply quietly, “I was one of them.”
Mr. Wiesel was but a child, a deeply religious one, in the Hungarian Jewish community of Sighet when the maelstrom of war and destruction threw him into Oswiecim. And he was naïve—but not more naïve than most of the members of his community. “The Germans were already in the town,” he recalls. “The Fascists were...
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SOURCE: Elman, Richard M. “Parable of Faith.” New Republic 151, no. 10 (15 September 1964): 32, 34.
[In the following review, Elman praises The Town beyond the Wall, calling it “an existential parable of faith.”]
Evil is human; weakness is human; indifference is not.
Even in his literary expression the Jew remains cosmopolitan. Despite the creation of a Jewish state, the reinvigoration of the Hebrew language, writers continue to express themselves as Jews in the various tongues of the Diaspora; and their imaginations seem forever fixed on a Europe that is in ashes. In a recent Commentary, Isaac Bashevis Singer explained: “Demons symbolize the world for me, and by that I mean human beings and human behavior.” Surely it is not accidental that this surviving Yiddish master should now be achieving world-wide recognition (including a West German nomination for the Prix Formentor) at a time when the conscience of the western world is again trying to confront the premeditated murder of six million Jews. Nor is it merely coincidence that Elie Wiesel who survived the death camps—a Yiddish speaking Jew from Hungary—should address us during this period with the French idiom of Camus. If some Christians are still testing the relevance of their faith against the proven apathies of their spiritual...
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SOURCE: Laqueur, Walter. “People without a Country.” New York Review of Books 8, no. 5 (23 March 1967): 23-4.
[In the following review, Laqueur compliments The Jews of Silence as a moving account of Soviet Jewry in the mid-1960s.]
It is still widely believed that everything that happens in the Soviet Union is planned according to some overall theoretical blueprint. Reality is more complex; in their internal policies Soviet leaders have been so preoccupied with economic problems that they have hardly been able in recent decades to pause for reflection and re-examination of anything except the most urgent issues. This much, at any rate, they seem to have in common with political leaders in democratic countries.
There is far less deliberation and planning in the non-economic sphere and far more improvisation than is usually thought. Basic ideological tenets exist, but these are often out-of-date and inapplicable in a modern society. In the absence of a clearly thought-out policy, decisions are usually deferred, or, if that is impossible, adopted on a trial-and-error basis. This goes for many cultural and social problems; it also applies to the present status and the future position of non-Russians in the Soviet Union, of which (one often forgets) there are some 100 million. Since Stalin wrote on the national question in 1913 there has not been much authoritative guidance, and...
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SOURCE: Bandler, Michael J. “Why Auschwitz? The Answer: Silence.” Christian Science Monitor (21 November 1968): 9.
[In the following review, Bandler praises Wiesel's courage, insight, and compassion in addressing the Holocaust and its aftermath, particularly in Legends of Our Time.]
In this era of good feelings between Jew and non-Jew—a period of forgiveness, reparations, and recognition of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state—it becomes easy to forget the events of 25 years ago in Central Europe. The memory of six million is sometimes invoked, but with it some doubt and uncertainty often lingers: did six million really go to their deaths, and if so, why did they go without a strong fight?
[In Legends of Our Time] Elie Wiesel, the literary laureate of the holocaust, the sweetest singer of the most bitter and tragic era of our times, has tackled these questions with a force and stylistic drive that leaves the reader stunned, and should lead to a rethinking of each person's private involvement. As a Jew and as a survivor of the concentration camps, he has searched his soul for the explanation of what transpired there and why. Having reached an understanding, if not an explanation, he shares it with his many devotees.
Wiesel's key sections in the book stem from the evidence presented and omitted at the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. “The role played...
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SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Victims of Survival.” New York Review of Books 21, no. 1 (7 February 1974): 10-12.
[In the following excerpt, Wood offers an unfavorable assessment of The Oath.]
Survival. The defensive myth of a long-persecuted people becomes an oblique apology to those who failed to survive, to those who got “lost.” Singer's woman who loses herself is really terrified of losing her child, since she loses everything else. A mother in Elie Wiesel's The Oath does lose a child in the camps, obeys an order to be separated from him and never sees him again. This the central, poignant moment in the book, the source of its anguish and its questions. “I don't understand,” a boy says to his father. “God's role in the camps—explain it to me.” And again: “You. And Mother. Both of you. How did you do it—how did you survive?”
The survivors by their very survival lose the right to speak directly of the dead, those millions who constitute, as Singer says, “a treasure of individuality that no literature dare try to bring back.” They can't be resurrected, they can only be celebrated in the lives of others, in the resilience of the race. For Wiesel, who is not really a novelist, the issue becomes a problem in moral philosophy, to be explored in a fable. The Jews are the “people of memory,” have always felt that forgetting “constituted a crime against...
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SOURCE: Joseloff, Samuel H. “Link and Promise: The Works of Elie Wiesel.” Southern Humanities Review 8, no. 2 (spring 1974): 163-70.
[In the following essay, Joseloff traces Wiesel's literary development throughout his career.]
For whoever lives through a trial, or takes part in an event that weighs on man's destiny or frees him, is duty-bound to transmit what he has seen, felt and feared. The Jew has always been obsessed by this obligation. He has always known that to live an experience or create a vision, and not transform it into link and promise, is to turn it into a gift to death.
(“To a Young Jew of Today,” One Generation After)
The year is 1944; the place is Sighet, Hungary. The Jews in this town feel secure, for with the good news from the Russian front, it seems that Hitler's barbarians will at last be defeated. Then their illusions are shattered. German and Hungarian police appear in Sighet; and Elie Wiesel, a sensitive, intelligent, spiritual adolescent, is locked in a cattle car with the other Jews of his hometown and taken on a journey to a terrifying kingdom of night. In Auschwitz and Buchenwald this young boy is forced to watch a cart full of babies thrown into a furnace, to see a father and son attack each other like starving animals for a crust of bread, and to stand by helplessly and without tears as...
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SOURCE: Green, Mary Jean. “Witness to the Absurd: Elie Wiesel and the French Existentialists.” Renascence 29, no. 4 (summer 1977): 170-84.
[In the following essay, Green considers the influence of French existentialism—particularly the work of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre—on Wiesel's fiction.]
Elie Wiesel has gained a certain reputation in America as a “Jewish writer,” a survivor of the Holocaust and a teller of Hasidic tales. As the sales of his books in English translation far surpass those of the original French editions, the fact that Wiesel wrote his novels in French is in danger of being quietly forgotten. Yet, although Wiesel first came to France only in his late teens after his liberation from Buchenwald, his contact with French literature and thought had a considerable influence on his novels. In fact, the central concerns of Wiesel's novels reflect those of the French existentialists, principally Camus and Sartre, who dominated the Parisian literary scene to which Wiesel was exposed in the late 1940's.
In making the themes of these French authors part of his own literary creation, Wiesel has woven them together with the memories of his concentration camp experiences and the Hasidic tales of his childhood to produce a new form which does not immediately reveal its existentialist sources.1 It is important, however, to unravel these strands from the...
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SOURCE: Estess, Ted L. “Choosing Life: An Interpretation of Elie Wiesel's The Oath.” Soundings 61, no. 1 (spring 1978): 67-86.
[In the following essay, Estess provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Oath, viewing the novel as Wiesel's most satisfying novel to date.]
In a recent lecture Elie Wiesel remarked that the task of the artist is “to ask questions. That is what he must do and all he can do. For he, too, has no answers.”1 Consonant with this artistic self-understanding, Wiesel's literature sets forth the fundamental questions of human existence in the starkest of terms. Life or death, hope or despair, love or hate, involvement or indifference, community or isolation, God or man—Wiesel often positions his characters before these alternatives and confronts them with the Biblical injunction, “Choose you this day. …”2
Wiesel's literature does not always, indeed, typically it does not, render unambiguous decisions or answers. There is even a strong censure on the effort of thought to force clear-cut solutions to existential crises. Rather than disposing of issues intellectualistically, Wiesel's protagonists often struggle to come to terms with contradictions in the depths of the self; they often pursue the reflective process to the point at which the force of opposition is dispelled or contained within the wholeness of the...
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SOURCE: Sherwin, Byron L. “Jewish Messianism and Elie Wiesel.” Notre Dame English Journal 11, no. 1 (October 1978): 33-46.
[In the following essay, Sherwin discusses Wiesel as a Jewish author and examines his “utilization of the sources and themes which constitute classical Jewish Messianism.”]
JEWISH NOVELISTS AND THEIR JUDAISM
There are three varieties of Jewish authors. One kind writes neither out of his Jewish experience nor out of his Judaism. This type of writer rejects what he is an sometimes will write anti-Semitically and with distinct Christian symbolism in order to flaunt his “liberation” from geneological ties. An example of this variety would be Nathanael West.1
A second variety of Jewish author writes out of his Jewish experience but not out of Judaism. This is the dominant category in America. An example of this kind would be Philip Roth.2 Members of this class are often characterized as “Eastern, liberal, academic—in short, ‘Jewish.’”3 This brand of writer often writes about Judaism. He often expresses a self-confident ignorance sometimes joined by an arrogance bred of self-hatred.4 His standards for defining what is authentic to the Jewish people and to the Jewish religion are often sociological generalizations and personal interpretations of questionable ethnic peculiarities....
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SOURCE: Roth, John K. “Images of God: Reflections from Elie Wiesel's Four Hasidic Masters and A Jew Today.” Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea 54, no. 215 (December 1979): 419-23.
[In the following essay, Roth explores the images of God found in Four Hasidic Masters and A Jew Today.]
Elie Wiesel is a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. He is also a storyteller struggling relentlessly with the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews. Author of nearly twenty books, Wiesel employs varied forms of prose and poetry, fact and fiction, to interrogate the Holocaust in ways that honor the victims and teach the living. Drawing extensively on Jewish legend and tradition, he creates literature of lasting power and moral authority. Two recent examples are Four Hasidic Masters and A Jew Today. These works can be read in many ways, but we shall focus here on the “images of God” they reflect.
Pinhas of Koretz, Barukh of Medzebozh, the Seer of Lublin, and Naphtali of Ropshitz—Wiesel's “four Hasidic masters”—take seriously that their lives are and must be images of God. As Wiesel portrays each of these teachers, his book becomes a classic Hasidic tale about friendship and hope against overwhelming odds. Its strategy is not to provide resolutions but to provoke men and women to make their own quest so that no one is left alone after Auschwitz.
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SOURCE: Brown, Robert McAfee. “The Power of the Tale.” Christian Century 48, no. 20 (3-10 June 1981): 649-52.
[In the following essay, Brown suggests ways for readers to approach Wiesel's The Testament.]
If Elie Wiesel wanted to communicate through systematic reflection, he would write systematic reflections. He doesn't. He tells tales. And although the corpus of his writings includes three books of essays and an account of a visit to Russia along with all the novels, the retellings of biblical and Hasidic tales, the dialogues, the verse and the drama, it is story that is his major medium of communication.
The cruelest blow a reader could inflict on a teller of tales would be to reduce his tales to a series of systematic reflections, betraying him with the words, “Now this is what he really meant.” The greatest tribute one could pay would be to start talking (or writing) about a tale, and discover at the end of the exercise that all one had succeeded in doing was retelling the tale itself, without embellishment.
But that would also constitute betrayal, since (in Wiesel's case at least) no tale comes off so well at second hand.
So, without either reducing the tale to systematic reflection (and betraying the teller), or retelling it in an inferior way (and betraying the tale itself), how is one to respond to Wiesel's newest and...
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SOURCE: Diamond, Denis. “Elie Wiesel: Reconciling the Irreconcilable.” World Literature Today 57, no. 2 (spring 1983): 228-33.
[In the following essay, Diamond surveys the defining characteristics of Wiesel's body of work.]
Artists are praised when what they have created is described as their world. Elie Wiesel would defy anyone to write of “Wiesel's Auschwitz.” And yet, nobody has made that place more present than he, or has done so more relentlessly, more remorselessly, more persistently. That being the case, it becomes impossible to expect his work to do what he has said cannot be done: to concretize the mystery.
One generation later it can still be said, and must now be affirmed: there is no such thing as literature of the Holocaust, nor can there be. … Those who have not lived through the experience will never know; those who have will never tell; not really, not completely. … The very attempt to write such a novel is blasphemy.1
Wiesel has produced a body of writing which is a meditation on humanity, on God, on humanity and God and on their shared world. His literature of radical survival by the victims of ultimate persecution is a protest and an attempt to discern the ways in which life may be lived in the face of sovereign absurdity: “We must invent reason; we must create beauty out of...
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SOURCE: Pfefferkorn, Eli. “Elie Wiesel: The Inward Eyewitness in The Testament.” Modern Language Studies 14, no. 1 (winter 1984): 3-10.
[In the following essay, Pfefferkorn underscores the role of verisimilitude in Wiesel's oeuvre.]
Among the various factors that shape Elie Wiesel's poetic vision, verisimilitude is probably one of the most decisive. Whether drawing on his own concentration camp experiences or on other witness accounts, or on historical documentation, Wiesel goes to great lengths to set the plots of his stories in realistic backgrounds. This faithfulness to historical veracity seems to emanate from the impulse to bear witness, which has become his life's commitment. Wiesel regards individual testimony, carried by word of mouth or inscribed in letters, as a cumulative process in which collective memory is tantamount to ethnic survival; oblivion, in contrast, equates with the death of a people and its culture.
The underlying triple connection between memory, testimony and survival, undoubtedly valid at all times, assumes a meaning of immediate urgency in the context of the Holocaust. In Conversation with Elie Wiesel, the interviewee conveys some of the awesomeness involved in bearing witness:
Recently I reread the chronicles written by historians in the ghettos: Ringelblum, Kaplan. They were all young and all became...
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SOURCE: Cedars, Marie M. “Silence and Against Silence: The Two Voices of Elie Wiesel.” Cross Currents 36, no. 3 (fall 1986): 257-66.
[In the following essay, Cedars traces Wiesel's development as a writer and political activist.]
Against Silence epitomizes Elie Wiesel's obsession: to sensitize people to the injustices that afflict their contemporaries. Having suffered from the silence of others' indifference, he spends his life speaking out against inhumanity everywhere. Now his Nobel Peace Prize signals that people are listening. It gives him reason for hope. “It is not for prizes that one works,” he replied, when asked if the award would change him. To Wiesel, who was notified of the award at the close of Yom Kippur, the prize means “a new beginning. … It is a possibility to speak louder.”1
Although Wiesel is best known for his untiring efforts to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive in order to prevent its recurrence, he has earned further renown and admiration for turning that experience towards positive action:
… because we have known hunger, it is up to us to battle against hunger. Because we have sustained humiliation, it is incumbent upon us to oppose humiliation. Because we have glimpsed the ugliest side of humanity, we must appeal to its most noble aspect.2
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SOURCE: Wiesel, Elie, Robert Franciosi, and Brian Shaffer. “An Interview with Elie Wiesel.” Contemporary Literature 28, no. 3 (fall 1987): 281-300.
[In the following interview, Wiesel discusses his literary philosophy, the role of history in his work, and the impact of Holocaust literature.]
The public and private worlds of Elie Wiesel seemed to come together as we talked in his Manhattan office. From the tenth floor we could hear sounds of heavy construction, of automobiles, of the noises that Wiesel says “characterize our generation.” In the midst of this Wiesel himself was a figure of calm with a voice that barely rose above the din.
It is a refreshing and unusual experience to speak with a writer of truly international fame extending well beyond the literary sphere, who nevertheless possesses an inherent reticence of manner and speech. Elie Wiesel is not a broker of the casual word in an era in which literary success sometimes seems to depend more on glib public relations than on a bond between author and reader. Wiesel remains committed to the sanctity and mystery of language—even when called upon to enter the public realm. One senses his discomfort in this public role, be it before the President of the United States or at a reception sponsored by a local Hillel House. Such discomfort, however, has not prevented him from speaking eloquently and compellingly for justice,...
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SOURCE: Moss, Stanley. “Adam and Cain in the Madhouse.” New York Times Book Review (10 July 1988): 12.
[In the following review, Moss offers a favorable assessment of Twilight.]
Among his books, Elie Wiesel has given us Dawn, Night and now Twilight. The day of the spirit does not necessarily follow the earth around the sun.
His novella Dawn has grown in importance. Among its messages, it warns us that we must never do what its central character, an 18-year-old Jewish soldier, does: he goes from being a victim to being an executioner. Night is early autobiography: the terrible telling and remembering of Mr. Wiesel's own boyhood and concentration camp experiences, including the death of his father, mother and 7-year-old sister before his eyes. It is a necessary and unforgettable book in which the author makes fact visionary. In the barracks of terror, Mr. Wiesel's belief was corroded. The world no longer represented God's mind.
In Twilight, Mr. Wiesel repairs his own shattered imagination; shards are joined on which were imprinted Hasidic tales, parts of the kabbala, the Talmud and the Bible and memories of the horrors of his life.
Everything Mr. Wiesel writes is written in the spirit of his early Hasidic training. He and his fellow students were taught that the coming of the Messiah depended on how they...
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SOURCE: Vanderwerken, David L. “Wiesel's Night as Anti-Bildungsroman.” Modern Jewish Studies 7, no. 4 (1990): 57-63.
[In the following essay, Vanderwerken argues that Night is an example of the bildungsroman genre, reversed and “turned inside out.”]
One of our most familiar fictional forms is the story of a young person's initiation into adulthood. That the form remains rich, inexhaustible, and compelling can be confirmed by pointing to the success of The World According to Garp, for one. Although specifically coined to describe a certain tradition of German novel deriving from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, “Bildungsroman”—while untranslateable into English—has become our flexible label for hundreds of works that treat a youth's apprenticeship to life. As Martin Swales has shown in The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse, considerable definitional variance exists even within the German tradition. Jerome H. Buckley's survey of British appropriations of the form, Season of Youth: The Bildungsroman from Dickens to Golding, further demonstrates the form's suppleness. The latitude our English usage of the word allows does not mean that the term is so elastic as to be meaningless. Certain general patterns remain constant in works so apparently diverse as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Stendhal's The Red and the...
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SOURCE: Lazarus, Joyce. “Elie Wiesel's La Nuit and L'Oublié: In Pursuit of Silence.” Essays in French Literature, no. 28 (November 1991): 87-94.
[In the following essay, Lazarus underscores the role of silence as a predominant metaphor and structural device in Night and The Forgotten.]
One of the striking characteristics of the writings of Elie Wiesel is his ambivalent attitude toward language, and the predominant role of silence in his works. For Wiesel, despite his more than thirty books on this subject, the experience of the Holocaust is still inexpressible and beyond language. “Words have lost their innocence and their power”1 since the Holocaust. Since language was used to implement the Final Solution, words can never again be completely trusted. Yet in his commitment to truth, to bear witness to the millions of victims of the Holocaust, Wiesel finds that language, however imperfect it is, is man's only available tool. Through the right choice of words, there is the hope of sparing future generations the horrors of another Holocaust.
Language in Wiesel's novels is terse, highly condensed, and unadorned by wordplay. Influenced by the writings of the Eastern European World War II ghettos, Wiesel creates a sense of urgency by employing the sparse vocabulary of those living on the edge of existence. Attempting to convey the infinite solitude of...
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SOURCE: Roth, John K. “From Night to Twilight: A Philosopher's Reading of Elie Wiesel.” Religion and Literature 24, no. 1 (spring 1992): 59-73.
[In the following essay, Roth delineates the major thematic concerns of Wiesel's oeuvre.]
Everything to do with Auschwitz must, in the end, lead into darkness.
Plato and Aristotle, Hume and Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard, James, Camus, and Wittgenstein—these great masters of philosophy move me. Philosophically, however, no writer disturbs and provokes me more than one who claims he “never intended to be a philosopher.”1 Whenever I read a book by Elie Wiesel, survivor of the Holocaust, the Nazi attempt to annihilate the Jews, I feel compelled to respond in writing of my own. No other author affects me quite that way. For more than twenty years I have been doing a philosopher's reading of Elie Wiesel. On this occasion I write because I have just reread, as I do annually, his first book, La Nuit (1958; translated as Night, 1960), and also because his novel Le Crépuscule au loin (1987; translated as Twilight, 1988) has been on my mind. Twilight complements, not to say completes, a quest begun with Night and pursued in everything else that Wiesel has written in between.
THE DOMAIN OF MADNESS...
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SOURCE: Booth, David. “The Role of the Storyteller—Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel.” Judaism 42, no. 167 (summer 1993): 298-312.
[In the following essay, Booth explores the changing of Jewish mythology, comparing the work of Sholem Aleichem and Wiesel.]
The Aggadah is a Garden Of such childlike airy fancy. And the young Talmudic scholar— When his heart felt dry and dusty,
Musty from noisy squabbling over the Halakhah, over Quarrels on the plaguy egg That a hen laid on a feast day
Or about some other question Equally profound—the youngster Fled for solace of the spirit To the blossom filled Agaddah
—Heinrich Heine, Hebrew Melodies1
Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, explores the manner in which literature functions to help communities maintain their cohesiveness in times of crisis. A crisis, for Fussell, is a time in which old myths break down in the light of new events. His book explores the collapse of the myth of Progress during the Great War, and how literature served both to destroy old myths and create new ones. Judaism faces a similar breakdown in its central myths, that started with the Enlightenment and culminated in the Holocaust. Modern Jewish literature responds to this crisis by reformulating the older mythology of classical Jewish literature into a modern vein. Comparing the work...
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SOURCE: Sibelman, Simon P. “Phylacteries as Metaphor in Elie Wiesel's Le Testament d'un poète juif assassiné.” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 18, no. 2 (summer 1994): 267-75.
[In the following essay, Sibelman argues that Wiesel's work is a search for and affirmation of his commitment to his Jewish heritage.]
The novels of the Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, were initially read as eloquent expressions of remembrance and witnessing to the massacred millions who perished in Hitler's inferno. Wiesel has himself stated, however, that his writing is an attempt to rediscover the boy he happened to be, the profoundly religious yeshiva boher (Jewish student of religious texts) whose God and world were rent asunder by the events of the Holocaust. Each novel is likewise replete with the language, symbols, and meta-structural techniques firmly placing his oeuvre in both the universal and Jewish traditions of lamentation literature. I would argue, moreover, that Wiesel's novels and entire literary universe are also profound expressions of Jewishness and of the author's fundamental belief that post-Auschwitz Jewry must draw nearer to its authentic roots and affirm a personal commitment to Jewishness/Judaism and not simply to membership in the Jewish people.
In his slim volume, On Jewish Learning, Franz Rosenzweig sought to define this notion of Jewishness...
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SOURCE: Lazarus, Joyce B. “Expanding Time: The Art of Elie Wiesel in The Gates of the Forest.” Modern Language Studies 24, no. 4 (fall 1994): 39-46.
[In the following essay, Lazarus analyzes Wiesel's treatment of time in his novel The Gates of the Forest.]
Master teller of tales, witness testifying to the human condition as seen through the Jewish condition, Elie Wiesel writes with an urgency that summons his readers to respond. For Wiesel, the world has still learned nothing from Auschwitz; barbaric cruelty and oppression of humanity are evident everywhere. Using one of his favorite metaphors, Wiesel describes humanity as riding a train that is about to reach a precipice. “And we, the survivors (of the Holocaust) are trying to pull the alarm. They won't listen. Even today, those who listen don't really listen.”1
To transmit his view of a world radically transformed by Auschwitz, Wiesel turns to unique narrative strategies in his fiction. Beginning with his memoir, Night,2 and continuing through over a dozen novels, Wiesel has altered the concept of time as an underlying structural principle of fiction.3 This essay will focus on some of the most striking ways in which Wiesel changes the dimension of time in his novel, The Gates of the Forest,4 to reflect his vision of “l'univers concentrationnaire.”
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SOURCE: Horn, Pierre L. Review of Tous les fleuves vont á la mer, by Elie Wiesel. World Literature Today 69, no. 3 (summer 1995): 553.
[In the following review, Horn offers a laudatory assessment of All Rivers Run to the Sea.]
Taking the title of his autobiography [All Rivers Run to the Sea] from Ecclesiastes, Elie Wiesel presents the important people and events of his life, beginning with his childhood and culminating in his 1969 marriage in Jerusalem under the watchful eye of his parents and little sister, all exterminated during the Holocaust. Born in the Carpathian town of Sighet, Wiesel through stories and remembrances tells of a family full of piety and moral courage, of modesty and selfless devotion to Judaism. From his mother and grandmother he learned goodness and love, from his grandfather the Jewish legends he would later use in fiction and essays, from his father rectitude and altruism. His teachers, in his youth as well as in adulthood and middle age, inculcated in him a reverence for learning, an exactness in biblical or philosophical discourse, and above all the joy, sadness, and truth of the old masters.
World War II and its persecutions of the Jews shattered the author's idyllic shtetl world forever, as he and his were carted off to Auschwitz. (Only two older sisters survived.) Unable to understand the cruelty of a civilized people, angry at those who did...
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SOURCE: Young, James E. “Parables of a Survivor.” New Leader 78, no. 10 (18 December 1995): 17-19.
[In the following review, Young maintains that All Rivers Run to the Sea is part spiritual memoir, part bildungsroman, and “a remarkably self-reflexive if not always self-revealing memoir.”]
How did Elie Wiesel, of all the thousands of Holocaust survivors, become a living icon of that catastrophe, and why? How deliberate was his ascension, how accidental? What has it meant for Wiesel to commit his life to memory of the Holocaust, only to reap a seemingly endless bounty of celebrity, adulation, and material rewards? All Rivers Run to the Sea, the first of two planned volumes of his memoirs, may not explicitly answer these impossible questions, but it does allow subtle and elliptical answers to come gradually into view. Part spiritual Bildungsroman and part parable, this book is also a loosely woven blend of Wiesel's considerable talents as a canny journalist and storyteller; it is a remarkably self-reflexive if not always self-revealing memoir.
Just as the author's early, searing portrait of survival in Night depicts the de-education of a pious Jewish child in the maw of Auschwitz, this new, more worldly work accounts for the child's return to life and his postwar re-education. It traces his journey from a fondly remembered shtetl into the abyss of...
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SOURCE: Avni, Ora. “Beyond Psychoanalysis: Elie Wiesel's Night in Historical Perspective.” In Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and “the Jewish Question” in France, edited by Lawrence D. Kritzman, pp. 203-18. New York: Routledge, 1995.
[In the following essay, Avni addresses the impact of and reaction to Holocaust narratives by discussing the opening section of Wiesel's Night.]
Night is the story of a young boy's journey through hell, as he is taken first to a ghetto, and then to Auschwitz and Buchenwald. It is a story of survival and of death: survival of the young narrator himself, but death of the world as he knew it.1 It is therefore a negative Bildungsroman, in which the character does not end up, as expected, fit for life in society, but on the contrary, a living dead, unfit for life as defined by his community.
Its opening focuses not so much on the boy, however, as on a foreigner, Moshe the Beadle, a wretched yet good-natured and lovable dreamer, versed in Jewish mysticism. When the town's foreign Jews are deported by the Nazis to an unknown destination, he leaves with them; but he comes back. Having miraculously survived the murder of his convoy, he hurries back to warn the others. No longer singing, humming, or praying, he plods from door to door, desperately repeating the same stories of calm and dispassionate killings. But, despite...
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SOURCE: Danks, Carol. “Using the Literature of Elie Wiesel and Selected Poetry to Teach the Holocaust in the Secondary School History Classroom.” Social Studies 87, no. 3 (May-June 1996): 101-05.
[In the following essay, Danks recommends Night as a tool to teach high school students about the Holocaust, contending that the work exposes students to such multiple realms as historical, geographical, and personal relations and development.]
“Our entry into the world of the Holocaust thus depends on who tells the tale—and how,” says Lawrence Langer in his Versions of Survival (Langer 1982, 5). Although Langer is specifically referring to survivor accounts and the relationship between events and memory, his statement also relates to teaching about the Holocaust. How we as teachers help students deal with the world of the Holocaust depends, in part, on our decisions about who “tells the tale” and how.
Secondary history textbooks have a reputation among many students for being dry statements of facts, held together with string rather than the sinew of living human beings. These same textbooks generally devote very little space to the events of the Holocaust. This absence creates a challenge for teachers who want to help students begin to grasp the important events and reactions to this dark period of human history. One of the most effective ways to teach the history...
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SOURCE: Wiesel, Elie, and Tikkun. “An Interview with Elie Wiesel.” Tikkun 14, no. 4 (July-August 1999): 33-5.
[In the following interview, Wiesel discusses the political situation in Kosovo and the moral responsibilities of the United States in regional conflicts.]
Nobel Peace Prize winner and Boston University Professor Elie Wiesel has worked on behalf of oppressed people for much of his adult life. His more than forty books include A Beggar in Jerusalem, The Testament and The Fifth Son. The English translation of the second volume of his memoirs, Et la mer n'est pas remplie, will be published by Knopf in the fall of 1999.
[Tikkun]: How ought we to be reacting to the situation in Kosovo?
[Wiesel]: We should be reacting morally. A Jewish approach ought to be a moral approach—particularly when other people suffer. The only moral path is to show compassion and take the side of the victims.
We know who the victims are in Kosovo—and also who the victimizers are. We've known for many years about Milosevic and his capacity for evil. The Jewish community should mobilize themselves and help the victims who are now in Macedonia or Albania.
I don't think we should allow Milosevic to have his way and create a Kosovo free of ethnic Albanians. So the intervention on the part of other...
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SOURCE: Rosenfeld, Alvin. “A Commitment to Memory.” New Leader 82, no. 15 (13 December 1999): 24-5.
[In the following review, Rosenfeld emphasizes the role of memory in And the Sea is Never Full.]
In this second installment [And the Sea is Never Full] of Elie Wiesel's memoirs, following All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995), memory extends beyond the personal to matters of history, politics, ethics, and religion. So while this is a book of often vivid autobiographical reflection, it is also something more—an anguished probing of the links between memory and traumatic event, memory and justice, memory and the quest for a common morality.
Readers of Wiesel's previous works will have no trouble recognizing the source of his intense commitment to the preservation and transmission of memory. From the publication in 1958 of his first book, Night, Wiesel has taken upon himself the sorrowful burden of being a moral witness to the past. His own early years were shaped by the catastrophe of Nazi Germany, which tore apart the traditional Jewish world he was born into, destroyed much of his family and community, and threw into crisis everything that once gave meaning to his life.
Wiesel knows from brutal personal experience that the trauma triggered by this murderous era is hardly over, and in his many books and public speeches he has shown an uncommon,...
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SOURCE: Lambert, Carole J. Review of And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969-, by Elie Wiesel. Southern Humanities Review 35, no. 3 (summer 2001): 301-04.
[In the following favorable review of And the Sea Is Never Full, Lambert maintains that Wiesel “succeeds in humbly but honestly presenting himself as, indeed, a survivor who has circumnavigated both the camps and world political intrigues with his values intact and his wisdom ready to be shared with others.”]
It is very difficult for a novelist, biographer, or memoirist to portray a genuinely good person in an interesting way. Denied the shocking marital infidelities and political scandals that create best-selling “pathography,” this beneficent protagonist's evolution from childlike innocence to sophisticated integrity, seasoned by bitter months in concentration camps, should not be a bestseller. Nevertheless, Elie Wiesel succeeds in humbly but honestly presenting himself as, indeed, a survivor who has circumnavigated both the camps and world political intrigues with his values intact and his wisdom ready to be shared with others.
A sequel to Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea, And the Sea Is Never Full: Memoirs, 1969- begins in Jerusalem with Wiesel's marriage at age forty to the beautiful, gifted Marion, followed by increasing commitment to Jewish political causes and broader human rights...
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Friedman, Maurice. “Elie Wiesel's Messianism of the Unredeemed.” Judaism 38, no. 151 (summer 1989): 310-19.
Friedman explores the role of Jewish Messianism in Wiesel's work.
Garber, Frederick. “The Art of Elie Wiesel.” Judaism 22, no. 87 (summer 1973): 301-08.
Garber evaluates Wiesel's literary accomplishments.
Goldsmith, Arnold. “Elie Wiesel, Rabbi Judah Lowe, and the Golem of Prague.” In Studies in American Jewish Literature, Number 5: The Varieties of Jewish Experience, edited by Daniel Walden, pp. 15-28. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.
Goldsmith explores Wiesel's reliance on the Golem myth in his The Golem, The Story of a Legend.
Hall, Barbara. “Weighty Memories.” Christian Science Monitor (19 October 1990): 13.
Hall offers a positive assessment of From the Kingdom of Memory.
Leiter, Robert. “Perhaps You Wonder Why I Called You Here.” New York Times Book Review (25 August 2002): 15.
Leiter faults The Judges for its contrived setting, typecast characters, and stilted dialogue among other shortcomings, but praises the work for its ability to pull readers along to the ending.
Merkin, Daphne. “Witness to the Holocaust.”...
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