Elie Wiesel. Night. Hill & Wang, 1960.
Review by Rebecca Stuhr
Wiesel’s slim autobiographical novel tells the story of the fate of the Jews in the small village of Sighet, Transylvania. Late in the war, the Nazis arrive in his village and begin the process of systematically restricting the movements of the Jewish citizens, moving them into ghettos and then deporting them to the concentration camps. Wiesel describes his community as living in denial, choosing not to believe the horrific stories that have come to them over the years of Nazi rule and the war in Europe. Even as the German soldiers move into their village, the Jews of Sighet hang on to their belief that these stories cannot be true. Eli is a devout child who studies the holy texts. His faith and connection to his religion and culture are strong. In Wiesel’s novel of deportation, imprisonment, and release, he also documents his loss of faith and his disaffection from God. But, even so, just as he cannot let go of his will to live, he never entirely loses his connection to God. Eli is ashamed when he feels the burden of his dying father, but even this guilt attests to the remnants of human feeling inside of him—surviving the everyday body and soul crushing horror of existence in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
A recent essay in the New York Times by Rachel Donadio notes the novel’s recent 80 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s recent promotion. Donadio provides a publishing history of Night. Wiesel originally wrote it in Yiddish and translated it into French before making it available to an American market in English. Wiesel’s is among the earliest of published memoirs of the Holocaust, and most publishers felt that their audiences were not looking for this kind of book. 15 publishers rejected his book before Hill & Wang took it on. Donadio writes that Wiesel received the criticism of not being Jewish enough—“universalizing” and “Christianizing” the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust. It is hard to imagine that Wiesel sought to sanitize his experience or to produce something that would meet the approval of a mass audience for personal gain. His book sold modestly at first, and, as Holocaust studies became more common in schools and on campuses, teachers and professors adopted it for classroom reading.