A Single Night

Elie Wiesel was born on this day in 1928, and on this day in 1946 the verdicts in the first of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials were registered, the twenty-two judgments — 3 acquittals, 7 prison terms, 12 death sentences — read in open court the next day. It’s been over a half-century since Wiesel’s Night was published, and it is still the definitive Holocaust book for many — its pre-eminence perhaps guaranteed for the near future, the book having been a recent Oprah pick. While he is still widely respected, whether as survivor, spokesperson or fund-raiser, Wiesel himself has been recently attacked — for being a “contemptible poseur and windbag” in his politics (Christopher Hitchens), or for having become wealthy through “the Holocaust industry” (Daniel Finkelstein). In his 1986 Nobel address, Wiesel said that his only crime was credulousness:

After the war we reassured ourselves that it would be enough to relate a single night in Treblinka, to tell of the cruelty, the senselessness of murder, and the outrage born of indifference: it would be enough to find the right word and the propitious moment to say it, to shake humanity out of its indifference and keep the torturer from torturing ever again. We thought it would be enough to read the world a poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt ghetto to ensure that no child anywhere would ever again have to endure hunger or fear. It would be enough to describe a death-camp “Selection,” to prevent the human right to dignity from ever being violated again.
We thought it would be enough to tell of the tidal wave of hatred which broke over the Jewish people for men everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is “different” — whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Moslem – anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually. A naive undertaking? Of course….

In his Preface to the most recent edition of Night, Wiesel does make a self-accusation, one kept out of his book as too personal. His single worst night in the camps, and “the most horrendous of my life,” was when he attempted to preserve himself by denying comfort to his failing father:

I heard his voice, grasped the meaning of his words and the tragic dimension of the moment, yet I did not move. It had been his last wish to have me next to him in his agony, [but] I was afraid. Afraid of the blows. …I remained flat on my back, asking God to make my father stop calling my name, to make him stop crying. So afraid was I to incur the wrath of the SS.