Finally, in 1959, Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang agreed to take on “Night.” The first reviews were positive. Gertrude Samuels, writing in the Book Review, called it a “slim volume of terrifying power.” Alfred Kazin, writing in The Reporter, said Wiesel’s account of his loss of faith had a “particular poignancy.” After the Kazin review, the book “got great reviews all over America, but it didn’t influence the sales,” Wiesel said.
The trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 brought the Holocaust into the mainstream of American consciousness. Other survivors began writing their stories — but with higher visibility came the first glimmerings of criticism. In a roundup of Holocaust literature in Commentary in 1964, the critic A. Alvarez said “Night” was “beyond criticism” as a “human document,” but called it “a failure as a work of art.” Wiesel, he argued, had failed to “create a coherent artistic world out of one which was the deliberate negation of all values.”
By the early ’70s, the Holocaust had become a topic of study in universities, spurred in part by the rise of “ethnic studies” more generally and a surge of interest in Jewish history after Israel’s dramatic military victory in the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973. Wiesel, who had moved to New York in the mid-’50s, began lecturing regularly at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan and teaching at the City University of New York. (Since 1976 he has taught at Boston University.)
Although his books were all reviewed respectfully, some critics questioned Wiesel’s role as a self-appointed witness. “His personal project has been to keep the wounds of Auschwitz open by repeatedly pouring the salt of new literary reconstructions upon them, and thus to prevent the collective Jewish memory — and his own — from quietly letting the wounds heal,” Leon Wieseltier, now the literary editor of The New Republic, wrote in Commentary in 1974. Reviewing Wiesel’s novel “The Oath,” about a pogrom, Wieseltier criticized Wiesel for “turning history into legend.” His characters were “archetypes of the varieties of Jewish pain,” Wieseltier wrote, so “what remains is ... a kind of elaborate superficiality which does justice neither to the author’s intentions nor to his terrible subject matter.”
In 1978, President Carter appointed Wiesel to a commission that eventually created the Holocaust Museum. In Wiesel’s mind, the “real breakthrough” that brought “Night” into wide view came in 1985, when he spoke out against President Reagan’s planned visit to the Bitburg military cemetery in Germany, where SS members were buried. While Reagan was awarding him a Congressional Gold Medal at the White House, Wiesel told him: “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.” The next day, Wiesel’s words were on front pages worldwide. (Reagan still made the trip.)
Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. The Nobel committee called Wiesel “a messenger to mankind,” teaching “peace, atonement and human dignity.” Wiesel’s “commitment, which originated in the sufferings of the Jewish people, has been widened to embrace all repressed peoples and races.” By the late ’90s, “Night” was a standard high school and college text, selling around 400,000 copies a year.
Yet some critics have homed in on the very qualities that have helped “Night” find a broad readership. Some have criticized Wiesel for universalizing — and even Christianizing — Jewish suffering. In “The Holocaust in American Life” (1999), the historian Peter Novick cites crucifixion imagery in “Night” as evidence of the “un-Jewish” or Christian tenor to much Holocaust commemoration. Others have suggested Wiesel may have revised the book to appeal to non-Jewish readers. In a 1996 essay, Naomi Seidman, a Jewish studies professor at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, detected strong notes of vengeance in the Yiddish version. In the final scene, after the camp has been liberated, Wiesel writes of young men going into Weimar “to rape German girls.” But there’s no mention of rape in the subsequent French or English translations. Wiesel said his thinking had changed between versions. “It would have been a disgrace to reduce such an event to simple vengeance.”
To Lawrence L. Langer, an eminent scholar of Holocaust literature and a friend of Wiesel’s, what sets “Night” apart is a moral honesty that “helps undermine the sentimental responses to the Holocaust.” To Langer, “Night” remains an essential companion — or antidote — to “The Diary of Anne Frank.” That book, with its ringing declaration that “I still believe that people are really good at heart,” is “easy for teachers to teach,” Langer said, but “from the text you don’t know what happened when she died of typhus, half-starved at Bergen-Belsen.” Wiesel takes a similar view. “Where Anne Frank’s book ends,” he said, “mine begins.”Continue reading the main story
Days after saying that the "underlying message" of a memoir was more important than its truth, Oprah Winfrey announced yesterday that her next book club selection was "Night," the autobiographical account of life in the Nazi death camps by Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has tirelessly campaigned to keep alive the memory of the Holocaust.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Wiesel said that "Night" is a true account of the horrors that he witnessed as a young man at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the camps where his mother, sister and father were killed. He said that he and Ms. Winfrey are scheduled to visit Auschwitz together later this month.
Mr. Wiesel will also appear on a segment of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to be taped in February that will feature winners of a national high school essay contest based on the book. In announcing the selection, Ms. Winfrey said the book "should be required reading for all humanity."
The edition of "Night" selected by Ms. Winfrey is a new translation by Marion Wiesel, the author's wife and longtime translator, from the original Yiddish manuscript, which Mr. Wiesel wrote in 1955 and 1956. The new translation is being published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which owns Hill & Wang, the publisher of the first English-language edition, a 1960 translation from a volume first published in French.
The book includes a new preface by Mr. Wiesel explaining the differences between earlier editions and the new version, which Mr. Wiesel calls "better and closer to the original." Farrar, Straus & Giroux has printed both a hardcover and a paperback version of the new book and is distributing a combined one million copies, said Jeff Seroy, a senior vice president at the publisher.Continue reading the main story