Elie Wiesel: a great moral voice is silent

Auschwitz survivor: a great writer and Nobel peace prize winner died this weekend aged 87. © PA

The author of Night, an eye-witness account of the Holocaust, has died. His work raises a hard question about how to approach truth: direct testimony or the power of imaginative fiction?

In 1944 the Jews of Sighet were loaded onto trains, leaving their homes forever. They did not know their destination. Among them was 15-year-old Elie Wiesel.

After days of tortuous travel in wagons so cramped there was no space to sit down, their train finally stopped. Wiesel writes ‘In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.’

The selection process was next. Around 90% of those on the train were dead within hours. Women, children, the elderly and the sick were directed one way, and men deemed fit for work went another. It was the last time Wiesel saw his mother and his sisters. One lie saved him: when asked his age he said he was 18; had the teenager told the truth, his testimony would never have been written.

Instead of death in the hell of a gas chamber, Elie Wiesel died on Saturday in the USA, his adopted home. Barack Obama called him ‘one of the great moral voices of our time’. The President of the World Jewish Congress said he was ‘a beacon of light’.

Night is the most famous of Wiesel’s 57 books. It sets the scene of small-town Jewish life in Eastern Europe, before describing the ever-increasing abuse the Jews faced, from being stripped of their possessions, to the ghettos, to the deportation and finally to murder. Wiesel also saw his father die just a few weeks before the liberation of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, to which they had been moved.

His writing style was plain, stark and powerful. In sentences short and simple he depicts scenes of unimaginable horror. The account is all the more powerful because it is true. The Holocaust really did happen, in just the way Wiesel describes.

Great fiction has had a huge impact on culture, but in many ways the non-fiction tradition, from works such as Night to the Gospels in the Bible, have been even more important.

Bearing witness

Especially when it comes to the Holocaust, some prize factual accuracy, the ‘testimony’ of witnesses, above all other kinds of writing. Wiesel’s testimony will serve as a lesson and a warning for future generations long after his death. This was his life’s work.

Others look to a deeper understanding of human motivations and actions. For example Ruth Franklin, the literary critic, stands firmly in defence of the imagination as a way to illuminate the truth. Only through imagination can we really enter into the hearts and minds of readers.

You Decide

  1. Is it more important to read fiction or non-fiction?
  2. The Holocaust is often called ‘a unique evil’. To what extent do you agree with that description?

Activities

  1. Write down your five favourite books and films and see how many of them are fiction or are based on a true story.
  2. The first link in Become An Expert is an excerpt from Night, where all eight sentences start with the word ‘Never’. Try and learn it off by heart.

Some People Say...

“Nothing like the Holocaust will ever happen again.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This was all a very long time ago. Does it really still matter?
Well it wasn’t that long ago. It is 71 years since the end of the Holocaust, so many people who are still alive now remember it. And it matters hugely, because it was a most terrible example of how evil humans can be. And while nothing quite like the Holocaust has happened since, the 1994 Rwandan Genocide as well as the recent Yazidi genocide by Islamic State both have parallels with the murder of 6m Jews during the second world war.
How else can I learn about the Holocaust?
If This Is a Man by Primo Levi is, like Night, a first-hand account of a Jew who was taken to Auschwitz. The Pianist and Schindler’s List are two excellent Oscar-winning films on the subject and are both well worth watching.

Word Watch

1944
The concentration and extermination camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau were at their most murderously effective in 1944 when the mass deportation of Hungary’s Jews took place. Between May and July of that year 437,000 Jews were taken to Auschwitz, most of whom died soon after arriving.
Sighet
Sighet used to be in Hungary, but is now the town of Sighetu Marmației in modern-day Romania.
Birkenau
Birkenau was the part of the Auschwitz complex where most of the gas chambers were situated.
Buchenwald
The largest concentration camp on German soil, Buchenwald was primarily a prison camp rather than a place solely designed to murder.
Gospels
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the first four books of the New Testament and provide most of the descriptions of the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ.

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