Elie Wiesel begins Night, his fictionalized autobiographical memoir of the Holocaust, with a description of Moshe the Beadle, an insignificant figure in a small town in Transylvania who taught the narrator about the Kabbalah. Quote, they called him Moshe the Beadle, as though he had never had a surname in his life.
He was a man of all work at a Hasidic synagogue. The Jews of Sighet, that little town in Transylvania where I spent my childhood, were very fond of him. He was very poor and lived humbly. He was a past master in the art of making himself insignificant, of seeming invisible. I loved his great dreaming eyes, their gaze lost in the distance, unquote.
But Moshe is expelled in early 1942, because he is a foreign Jew, and is not heard of for several months. He unexpectedly returns to tell of his miraculous escape from the Gestapo slaughter of Jews in the Polish forests, but no one believes him. Moshe cries, quote, Jews, listen to me. Only listen to me, unquote. Everyone assumes that he has gone mad. And the narrator, who's still a young boy, recalls asking him, quote, why are you so anxious that people should believe what you say? In your place, I shouldn't care whether they believe me or not, unquote.
Let us consider the significance of Moshe the Beadle. For one thing, Wiesel is using him as a metonymy for himself and his present role as narrator who is, as he writes, calling on us to listen to his words as he tells his relentless tale of his own miraculous escape from the Nazi terror. Implicitly, he is urging us that it is our ethical responsibility not to turn away from the witnessing voice-- Moshe, Wiesel himself, indeed, all those who have seen specifically the Holocaust, and metaphorically, man's inhumanity to man, whether it occurs in Kosovo, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, or Somalia.
Night is a narrative that traces the dissolution of the Jewish community in Sighet-- the ghettos, deportations, concentration camps, crematoriums, death marches, and ultimately, liberation. Distilling memoir into narrative form, Night traces the growth of adolescent courage and the weakening, questioning, and notwithstanding his praying during the death march, finally, the loss of religious faith.
Wisel's original Yiddish title translates in English to, quote, and the world remained silent, unquote. He distilled 862 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish edition, and the French publisher further edited it ot 178 pages. I am interested not in indicting Wisel for transforming his nominalistic memoir into novelistic form, but in how, in response to publishing circumstances and perhaps his own transformation, he reconfigured an existential novel about the descent into moral night into a somewhat affirmative re-emergence to life.
While the narrator is a 15-year-old boy, Wiesel was born in 1928 and would have been 16 for most of the 1945, '44, '45 period. Is not this age discrepancy-- a seemingly insignificant detail-- one reason why we ought to think of Night as a novel as well as a memoir?
In Night, we see dramatized the process of the narrator's developing into his role of ethical witness in the face of historical forces that would obliterate his humanity, his individuality, and his voice. Notwithstanding, the grotesque efficiency of Nazi technology in the death camps- especially the gas chambers and crematoria-- the narrator recreates himself through language.
In the sense of the technological fulfillment of an ordered state that subordinated individual rights to the national purpose of the state, Nazi ideology has been thought of as a product of industrial and technological modernism. For those like Wiesel, who have experienced the Holocaust firsthand, for whom Auschwitz is not a metaphor but a memory, language is more than the free play of signifiers. For these people and others on the political edge, their very telling, their very living testifies to will, agency, and a desire to survive that resists and renders morally irrelevant simple, positivistic explanations arguing that an author's language is culturally produced.
One might ask why Wiesel writes. For one thing, it is to bear witness. For another, it is an act of self-therapy. For a third, it is a kind of transference. And as the dedication stresses, quote, in memory of my parents and of my little sister Sepora, unquote, it is an act of homage.
Furthermore, in psychoanalytic linguistic terms, the narrator's telling is a resistance to the way in which the word "Jew" was culturally produced to mean inferior people who are progressively discounted, deprived of basic rights of citizens, labeled with the yellow Star of David, imprisoned, enslaved, and killed. We might recall how all male German Jews were required to take the middle name Israel, all females the middle name Sarah. Perhaps we should, for a moment, think of the Wiesel text as a physical object and note its slimness, its titlist chapters, its break between antidotes.
We wonder what could be added in those white spaces, whether his loss of faith, for example, is gradual. But the slim volume, the white spaces, become a kind of correlative or metaphor to emptiness, to his starved stomach. The short paragraphs give a kind of cinematic effect, as if the paragraphs were like frames in an evolving film. The very simplicity-- the almost childlike quality of the imagery-- gives the work its parabolic quality.
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In this room we shall examine the relationship among memory, imagination, and telling of the Holocaust in specific examples of memoirs, diaries, novels, fables, and cartoons. Not only will we discuss the powerful narratives of witnesses such as Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank, but also important novels, fables and cartoons about the Holocaust. Our goal is to understand the diverse ways the Holocaust has been rendered and how those ways of telling have shaped our understanding of the events of the 1933-45 period in Europe.
This video is part 4 of 11 in the Imagining the Holocaust series.