Wiesel’s is a Jewish story, but it is not only a Jewish story. As Wiesel has noted, “The Jewish and human condition become one—a concentric circle, one within the other, not one against the other or one replacing the other.” The Holocaust is a universal, not an ethnic tragedy, in the same way that Othello’s tragedy is also Iago’s, that Agamemnon’s is also Orestes’. As Chaim Grade has said, in the Holocaust one-third of every person died. This disaster makes manifest the substitution of ideology for compassion, of technology for humanity, that has come to characterize the twentieth century. Biafra, Cambodia, Bangladesh; Auschwitz, Treblinka, Babi Yar; Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—the killing fields take many names, many forms, but all warn of the Final Solution through nuclear war.
Signs of the book’s universal appeal include the reception of the prestigious Medicis Prize (1969) and sales of more than 100,000 copies in French alone. Readers and writers alike have acknowledged Wiesel’s power, for they recognize the Jewish experience as at once common and unique. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that modern man’s greatest need is to bear witness to his time and to himself. In his Nobel Prize address, William Faulkner expressed an idea similar to Wiesel’s when he concluded with the statement: “The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.” Each person must become a witness by telling another’s story, for then, as Albert Camus has noted, “the tree is justified, love is born.” To remain silent is no longer to be an innocent bystander; it is to become a conspirator with the forces of evil, and ultimately it is also to commit suicide.