Maybe Talk About It

Night is an enduring survivor testimony about suffering and evil during the Holocaust. It exemplifies the impact a single listener—such as you—can have on a survivor who holds an untold story in silence, close to a broken and hidden heart.

Teresa Pitt Green

Elie Wiesel first published his book, now known as Night, in Yiddish in 1956 under the title And the World Stayed Silent. He related his lived experience of suffering and horror in an urban Jewish ghetto and, later, in Auschwitz and Buchwald before being liberated in 1945. Night became a testimony that spoke for millions silenced in National Socialist (Nazi) death camps. The book’s success portrays its influence, with over nine million copies sold in the U.S. and with 30 translations in world distribution.

This story may never have been told without an enlightened listener.

As recounted by Wiesel later in his life, he told no one about his experience for years. He emerged from the camp with little or no family. The death of Wiesel’s father would become a harrowing part of Night. His mother and almost all his family perished there. He learned only later that two of his sisters had survived.

Wiesel traveled quickly to find a place to start a new life, blending into the universally traumatized population of post-war Europe. There were no detailed testimonies of life in the camps being shared over coffees or with friends. Details of the lived experience of death camps lacked immediacy for people around him, who were pulling their own lives out of the ruins of war. News reports of war-crime investigations and trials began to create a sense of the horror, but the world was grappling with its own daily struggle.

Wiesel found work as a teacher, tutor, and translator. He studied at the Sorbonne. He became a war correspondent, still confiding in no one. His free hours seem to have been spent writing out pieces of his story. His manuscript grew to over 850 pages. He carried it with him everywhere. Into this work, he poured his raw rage, agony, and memories, his accusations against God. He trusted the interior struggle of grief only to the page and not to people. Ten years passed.

Weisel’s full story evokes universal themes in the survivor experience. Silence about experience. Isolating grief. Therapeutic writing. Work in danger. Fractured family. Rebuilding. Then came the trigger event and rage. It was 1954. Wiesel was about to encounter someone able to hear his pain and respond with humanity. This person is what Alice Miller would later describe in 1988 as the “enlightened witness.”[1]

How did this come about? Wiesel was on an assignment which required him to interview the French leader and renowned Catholic Francois Mauriac. Mauriac was a world-famous French novelist, playwright, poet, critic and journalist. Influential with French political leaders, Mauriac was as prominent an individual as could be found in post-war France. He was a member of the prestigious (and elite) Academy Francaise before the war. He had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature and would soon be awarded the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor. Wiesel worked hard to get the interview.

Wiesel began posing questions about world affairs. Mauriac continued to respond with answers in relation to suffering, and through suffering to Jesus. Mauriac was inadvertently triggering Wiesel’s personal experience of, as Night later described, God being murdered in the camp with those tortured, starved, gassed, hanged, or incinerated there. Before this giant in French culture, Wiesel exploded.

“When he <Mauriac> said Jesus again I couldn’t take it, and for the only time in my life I was discourteous, which I regret to this day,” Wiesel recounted saying, then, he shocked himself by breaking his years of silence spontaneously in his anger, saying,

I have seen children, hundreds of Jewish children, who suffered more than Jesus did on his cross and we do not speak about it.

Elie Wiesel to Francois Mauriac

Two things then happened. Wiesel fled the interview which he had worked so hard to win. Mauriac ran after him, brought him back to the office, and wept before him. After a while, Mauriac collected himself and said only, “You know, maybe you should talk about it.”

The rest is history.

Wiesel redoubled work on his giant manuscript which he began to share with Mauriac and others. The book found its way into different translations in different forms and lengths. For years, publishers of many nations rejected it for its unfashionable, depressing, or noncommercial message. In its first year, the 1960 English translation sold but a few copies. Most importantly, the untold story had finally been told and could be heard because of an enlightened witness. A Christian witness.

As survivors know, in our own lives and in our world, truth planted as a stake in the ground flourishes with the life of a mighty tree. That tree is the tree of life. Our lives. Our well lives.

Teresa Pitt Green

Within 50 years of first publication, Night had been read by tens of millions. The boy in Night grew to be an internationally renowned advocate for human rights and Holocaust remembrance. But it all started with Wiesel’s fury and escape—and the unflinching Christian witness who encouraged him to break the silence and speak the truth to a distracted, even disinterested, world.

The impact of the story any one person tells does not have to reach the globe in 30 translations or millions of copies. What it needs to do, above all, is release the survivor gripping it close in silence, unheard and isolated. What it can then do, once heard, is free the victim and, beyond, help heal people in unexpected places and unexpected ways–one at a time, person to person, heart to heart.

SOURCE: This article is drawn from two sources: Elie Wiesel Interview recorded and archived in the Academy of Achievement (Original June 29, 1996) and Elie Wiesel All Rivers Run to the Sea, published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group (1995, New York).

[1] Miller, Alice. (1988) Banished Witness. The importance of Miller’s coined phrase “enlightened witness” is that her work and writing were grappling with Wiesel’s experiences. She, too, experienced child trauma in internment as a Jewish girl during the National Socialist occupation of most of Europe during World War II.

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