Since the appearance in 1956 of Un di Velt hot geshvign (in French as La Nuit, 1958; Night, 1960), Elie Wiesel (vee-ZEHL) has published many works of fiction and nonfiction. Among these are Les Juifs du silence(1966; The Jews of Silence, 1966), a personal testimony of his trip to Russia; Le Chant des morts (1966; Legends of Our Time, 1968), Entre deux soleils (1970; One Generation After, 1970), and Un Juif aujourd’hui (1977; A Jew Today, 1978), collections of essays and short stories; several volumes of biblical portraits and Hasidic tales; the plays Zalmen: Ou, La Folie de Dieu (pb. 1968; Zalmen: Or, The Madness of God, 1974) and Le Procès de Shamgorod tel qu’il se déroula le 25 février 1649 (pb. 1979; The Trial of God: As It Was Held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod, 1979); and a cantata, Ani Maamin: Un Chant perdu et retrouvé (1973; Ani Maamin: A Song Lost and Found Again, 1973). Some of his later works, the biblical portraits and Hasidic tales, although written in French, were originally published in the English translation by his wife, Marion Wiesel.
Elie Wiesel is one of the most important figures in the genre known as “the literature of the Holocaust.” He brings to literature a new literary vocabulary, rooted in the Bible, that is at once mystical, legalistic, theological, and historical. As a survivor of the Holocaust, Wiesel considers himself to be a messenger from the dead to the living, and, as a witness, he bears testimony both to the unfathomable events of the death camps and to the current, unfolding history of his people. Wiesel’s work, parochial in context, is universal in perception. It speaks to all humankind, for all participated, either actively or silently, in the supreme trial of their humanity. He views the Holocaust as touching upon every facet of one’s life and interests, and he perceives humanity’s major problem to be survival in the post-Holocaust world.
As a writer, Wiesel is preoccupied with the inadequacy of language, but not in the abstract manner of many contemporary writers. Language affirms a belief in humankind and attests its grandeur. The Holocaust negates humanity. It represents a misuse of language; the failure of imagination; the rule of the depraved; the suspension of the senses, of beliefs, of time; the inversion of order. To capture the Holocaust in language is to impose upon it a decorum that in itself is a betrayal of those victimized by this satanic maelstrom. Wiesel believed, when he began to write, that the tale nevertheless must be told, because the murderer murders not only his victim but also himself. He says, “At Auschwitz, not only man died, but also the idea of man.” Awareness of the Holocaust may save the world from self-obliteration.
Wiesel raises questions that are unanswerable, questions intended to arouse the consciousness of a people, the progeny of the indifferent observers of the decade of the 1940’s. He also vies with God, not as a defiant disbeliever but as a believer in the biblical tradition of the prophets who have challenged God, remonstrated with him, and protested heavenly decrees. There is no gaiety in Wiesel’s works. There is laughter, but it is not a joyous laughter. It is the laughter of a madman defying his creator. Writers, theologians, and humanists of all faiths have attempted to come to terms with the problems that Wiesel presents.
Writing, for Wiesel, is not simply intended as a moral lesson for the post-Holocaust generations. It is also, and perhaps primarily—as he explains in the essay “Mes Maîtres” (“My Teachers”), in Legends of Our Time—a monument to the unburied dead, to the millions whose celestial cemeteries are bereft of tombstones.
Wiesel’s first publication, Night , is in the form of a memoir of his Holocaust experiences. Wiesel did not have an easy time publishing his...
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