- "As he roosts on his pile of gold
amid the abuse of Oprah and the literary world, Frey can comfort himself
with the thought that Night is not how "it really was", and that
even though there is a vast gulf between what Wiesel actually endured and
Frey's lies about his own life, when it comes making literature he and
Wiesel were both in the business of artistic and emotional manipulation,
of dressing fiction up as truth."
- Truth and Fiction in Elie
Is Frey or Wiesel the Bigger Moral Poseur?
- By Alexander Cockburn
- When in trouble, head for Auschwitz,
preferably in the company of Elie Wiesel. It's as foolproof a character
reference as is available today, at least within the Judeo-Christian sphere
of moral influence. One can easily see why Oprah Winfrey and her advisers
saw an Auschwitz excursion in the company of Wiesel as a sure-fire antidote
to salve the wounds sustained by Oprah's Book Club when it turned out that
James Frey had faked significant slabs of his own supposedly autobiographical
saga of moral regeneration, A Million Little Pieces.
- Published in 2003, Frey's irksome book
swiftly became a cult classic. (The present author was offered it in the
summer of 2004 by a young relative, presumably to assist in his moral regeneration,
but after glancing through a few pages returned it, on the grounds that
it wasn't his kind of thing.) Winfrey picked it for her Book Club in September
2005, and it rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists.
- For Frey the sky fell in when, on January
7, 2006, the Smoking Gun website published documents showing that Frey
had fabricated many facts about himself, including a criminal record. There
were later charges of plagiarism. Frey ran through a benign gauntlet of
trial-by-Larry King on January 11, and Oprah called in to stand by her
Pick of the Month. She said that what mattered was not whether Frey's book
was true (the Fundamentalist claim for the Holy Bible) but its value as
a therapeutic tool (the modern Anglican position on the Good Book).
- But by now every columnist and books
page editor in America was wrestling the truth-or-fiction issue to the
ground. Oprah turned on Frey. On her show on January 26, he clung to the
ropes, offering the excuse that the "demons" that had driven
him to drink and drugs had also driven him into claiming that everything
he wrote about himself was true. Publishers including Random House, which
has made millions off him, had rejected the book when he'd initially offered
it as a "fiction novel". Oprah brushed this aside.
- "Say it's all true" is what
demons often whisper in an author's ear. Ask T.E. Lawrence. Did the Bey
of Deraa really rape him? Lawrence suggests it in the Seven Pillars of
Wisdom in paragraphs of fervent masochistic reminiscence. This and other
adventures in Lawrence's account of British scheming in Mesopotamia against
the Ottomans met with the ecstatic admiration of the Oxford-based equivalent
of Oprah's Book Club back in the early 1920s, after Lawrence had the 350,000-word
"memoir" privately printed and circulated. He'd written an earlier
version in 1919 but claimed this had been stolen while he was changing
trains in Reading, on the way to Oxford from London. (Reading has surely
been the site of more supposed thefts and losses of "completed manuscripts"
and PhD dissertations -- "I didn't make a copy!" -- than any
railway station in the world.)
- Half a century later it occurred to Colin
Simpson and Phillip Knightley of the London Sunday Times to ask the supposed
rapist for his side of the story. They hurried off to Turkey and tracked
down the town to which the Bey had retired, arriving at his home only to
learn he'd died not long before. Relatives told the British reporters that
the Bey would not have found Lawrence appetizing prey. The Turk was a noted
womanizer, and when in Mesopotamia was always getting the clap from consorting
with whores on his excursions to Damascus.
- It's fun to think of Oprah grilling Lawrence
about his claims, freshly exposed on Smoking Gun, telling him she felt
"really duped" but that, "more importantly, I feel that
you betrayed millions of Orientalizing masochists who believed you".
- But hardly had Frey been cast down from
the eminence of Amazon.com's top bestseller before he was replaced at number
one by the new pick of Oprah's Book Club, Elie Wiesel's Night, which had
the good fortune to see republication at this fraught moment in Oprah's
literary affairs. Simultaneous with the Night selection came news that
Oprah Winfrey and Elie Wiesel would shortly be visiting Auschwitz together,
from which vantage point Oprah, with the lugubrious Wiesel at her side,
could emphasize for her ABC-TV audience that there is truth and there is
fiction, that Auschwitz is historical truth at its bleakest and most terrifying,
that Night is a truthful account and that Wiesel is the human embodiment
of truthful witness.
- The trouble here is that in its central,
most crucial scene, Night isn't historically true, and at least two other
important episodes are almost certainly fiction. Below, I cite views, vigorously
expressed to me in recent weeks by a concentration camp survivor, Eli Pfefferkorn,
who worked with Wiesel for many years; also by Raul Hilberg. Hilberg is
the world's leading authority on the Nazi Holocaust. An expanded version
of his classic three-volume study, The Destruction of the European Jews,
was recently reissued by Yale University Press. Wiesel personally enlisted
Hilberg to be the historical expert on the United States Holocaust Commission.
- If absolute truth to history is the standard,
Pfefferkorn says, then Night doesn't make the grade. Wiesel made things
up, in a way that his many subsequent detractors could identify as not
untypical of his modus operandi: grasping with deft assurance what people
important to his future would want to hear and, by the same token, would
not want to hear.
- The book that became Night was originally
a much longer account, published in Yiddish in 1956, under the title Un
di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). Wiesel was living
in Paris at the time. By 1958 he had translated his book from Yiddish into
French, publishing it in that year under the title La Nuit. Wiesel says
it was severely cut down in length by Jerome Lindon, the chief editor at
Editions de Minuit. In 1960 came the English translation, Night, published
by Hill & Wang. The 2006 edition of Night is translated from the 1958
French version by Wiesel's wife, Marion, and in the introduction Wiesel
says he has "been able to correct and revise a number of important
- In the New York Times for January 17,
Michiko Kakutani wrote in her usual plodding prose, with her usual aversion
to any unconventional thought, that "Mr. Frey's embellishments of
the truth, his cavalier assertion that the 'writer of a memoir is retailing
a subjective story,' his casual attitude about how people remember the
past -- all stand in shocking contrast to the apprehension of memory as
a sacred act that is embodied in Oprah Winfrey's new selection for her
book club, announced yesterday: Night, Elie Wiesel's devastating 1960 account
of his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald."
- Amazon.com got the message quickly enough.
The site had been categorizing the new edition of Night under "fiction
and literature" but, under the categorical imperative of Kakutani's
"memory as a sacred act" or a phone call from Wiesel's publisher,
hastily switched it to "biography and memoir". Within hours it
had reached number 3 on Amazon's bestseller list. That same evening, January
17, Night topped both the "biography" and "fiction"
bestseller lists on BarnesandNoble.com.
- Nonetheless, over the next few days there
were articles in the Jewish Forward and in the New York Times, also a piece
on NPR, saying that Night should not be taken as unvarnished documentary.
In the Forward article, published January 20, challengingly titled "Six
Million Little Pieces?", Joshua Cohen reminded Forward readers that
in 1996, Naomi Seidman, a Jewish Studies professor at the Graduate Theological
Union in Berkeley, California, had compared the original 1956 Yiddish version
of the book with the subsequent, drastically edited translation.
- "According to Seidman's account,
published in the scholarly journal Jewish Social Studies", Cohen wrote,
"Wiesel substantially rewrote the work between editions -- suggesting
that the strident and vengeful tone of the Yiddish original was converted
into a continental, angst-ridden existentialism more fitting to Wiesel's
emerging role as an ambassador of culture and conscience. Most important,
Seidman wrote that Wiesel altered several facts in the later edition, in
some cases offering accounts of pivotal moments that conflicted with the
earlier version. (For example, in the French, the young Wiesel, having
been liberated from Buchenwald, is recuperating in a hospital; he looks
into a mirror and writes that he saw a corpse staring back at him. In the
earlier Yiddish, Wiesel holds that upon seeing his reflection he smashed
the mirror and then passed out, after which 'my health began to improve.')"
- That said, Cohen emphasized that whereas
"Frey, for one, seems to have falsified the facts of his life in order
to satisfy ego and the demands of the market, Wiesel's liberties seem more
like reconsiderations, his process less revision than interpretation. Reading
Night, one encounters the birth of thought about the Holocaust - the future
of history, concomitant with its study. In both versions, the book's intent
is to engage not the undeniability of the Holocaust, but the man who has
undeniably emerged from its horror."
- This reverent tone about Wiesel and his
work is customary. People mostly write about him and his work with the
muted awe of British tourists reading guidebooks to each other in a French
cathedral. In The Jewish Press for February 1, Andrew Silow Carroll was
a bit friskier. He cited Wiesel as declaring to the New York Times that
Night "is not a novel at all. All the people I describe were with
me there. I object angrily if someone mentions it as a novel." And
yet, Silow Carroll went on, "in the past, Wiesel hasn't helped matters
in this regard. In 1972, Hill & Wang packaged Night with two other
books, Dawn and The Accident, which Wiesel clearly identified as novels.
The set's cover refers to the works as 'Three Tales by Elie Wiesel.' In
a later edition of the same volume, Wiesel refers to all three books as
'narratives,' although he calls Night a 'testimony,' and the other two
- There are some rather comical instances
of Wiesel's relaxed attitude to autobiographical truth, as excavated in
Norman Finkelstein's book, The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth. Wiesel
was one of Goldhagen's main supporters. In his 1995 memoir, All Rivers
Run to the Sea Wiesel writes that at the age of 18, recently liberated
from Auschwitz, "I read The Critique of Pure Reason--don't laugh!--in
Yiddish." Finkelstein comments, "Leaving aside Wiesel's acknowledgement
that at the time ''I was wholly ignorant of Yiddish grammar' The Critique
of Pure Reason was never translated into Yiddish." Imagine the lacerations
Frey would have endured for making that sort of boast.
- Though sales have now soared, I'm not
sure how many people will read Night now, beyond buying the new edition
as a gesture of solidarity with Oprah and survivors of the Holocaust. It
doesn't take a background in literary criticism to see that Night is artfully
fashioned as a kind of symbolic narrative about the relationship between
sons and fathers (there are four such portraits in the short book) and,
crucially, between the Christian God (the Father) and his Son. The style
seems influenced by Albert Camus, particularly L'Etranger. Camus won the
Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, one of the youngest recipients ever.
This was the time during which Wiesel was reworking his Yiddish narrative
into the far more terse, Camusian work, with its Camusian title.
- As a piece of historical witness to the
experience of the inmates, the doomed and those who survived inside Auschwitz
and Buchenwald, there are books far superior to Night, starting with Primo
Levi's writings, or the late Ella Lingens-Reiner's extraordinary memoir
of Auschwitz, Prisoners of Fear, published in 1948. Night's focus is extremely
narrow, primarily on the main character, Eliezer, and his father. One learns
with a certain surprise that though Wiesel's sister Tzipora died in the
camps, two other sisters survived. In the new edition, Wiesel doesn't mention
- Night certainly contains none of the
context offered by Levi or Lingens-Reiner, or much more rfecently, by Kenneth
Waltzer, professor of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University, who
is writing a book called The Rescue of Children at Buchenwald and whose
interesting letter was published in Forward at the end of February:
- "The January 20 article on Oprah
Winfrey's selection of Elie Wiesel's Night for her Book Club was on the
mark ('Six Million Little Pieces?'). Any memoir is a reconstruction shaped
by purpose and audience rather than a direct statement of memory -- and
even Wiesel's Night is not an exception.
- "Night focuses primarily on the
relation of father and son in Auschwitz and in Buchenwald. When Wiesel
loses his father in January 1945 at Buchenwald, he drifts into a listlessness
and fog from which he emerged only after liberation. He recalls in Night
only the terrible final days of the camp, in April 1945, when the Nazis
sought to evacuate Jewish prisoners and then all prisoners.
- "Wiesel writes of his relation with
his father, the presence of God, and his own survival and its meaning.
He does not describe the social context in which he existed during the
final months. The barracks, his place in the camp, his relation to others
-- other prisoners, Jews, boys -- remain murky.
- "What is omitted in Night is that
the 16-year-old was placed in a special barracks created by the clandestine
underground as part of a strategy of saving youth. Block 66 was located
in the deepest part of the disease-infested little camp and beyond the
normal Nazi S.S. gaze. It was overseen by Czech Communist Antonin Kalina
and by his deputy, Gustav Schiller, a Polish Jewish Communist.
- "Schiller, who appears briefly in
Night, was a rough father figure and mentor, especially for the Polish-Jewish
boys and many Czech-Jewish boys; but he was less liked, and even feared,
by Hungarian- and Romanian-Jewish boys, especially religious boys, including
Wiesel. He appears in Night as a distant figure, armed with a truncheon.
- "After January 1945, the underground
concentrated all children and youth that could be fit into this windowless
barracks -- more than 600 in total. Younger children were protected elsewhere.
When the U.S. Third Army arrived April 11, 1945, more than 900 children
and youth were found among 21,000 remaining prisoners.
- "Wiesel since has acknowledged the
role played by the clandestine underground but did not attend to it in
Night. Fellow barracks members recall being protected from work and getting
extra food. They recall efforts by their mentors to raise their horizons.
They also recall heroic intervention by Kalina or by Schiller during the
final days to protect them.
- "Even then, many boys were lined
up at the gate, to be led out April 10. However, American planes flew overhead,
sirens sounded, the guards ran and Kalina, who was with them, ordered the
boys back to the barracks. They were still in the barracks the next day
when units of the U.S. Third Army broke through the barbed-wire fences.
- "Wiesel's Night is about becoming
alone. But Wiesel was also among hundreds of children and youth aided by
a purposeful effort at rescue inside a concentration camp."
- Forward slightly trimmed Waltzer's contribution,
from an article to a letter. In the fuller version, which he has kindly
supplied, Professor Waltzer wrote his last paragraph as follows:
- "In Night, Wiesel writes about viewing
himself in the mirror after liberation and seeing a corpse gazing back
at him. But another picture taken after liberation shows Wiesel marching
out of the camp, fourth on the left, among a phalanx of youth, moving together,
heads high, a group guided by prisoners who had helped save them."
- A photograph accompanying Waltzer's text,
credited to Jack Werber, of Great Neck, New York, shows exactly that. The
young Wiesel's head is high, like the others'. But this parable of a triumph
for human solidarity was absolutely contrary to the parable Wiesel was
set on rewriting in French from the Yiddish volume. In the late 1950s a
man with instincts as finely tuned as Wiesel's to useful frequencies on
the political dial probably would not have thought it advantageous to dwell
on the heroic role of Communists in the death camps. All the more is this
true in recent years, when Wiesel's most celebrated moments have come when
hunkering down for sessions of amiable moral counsel with Ronald Reagan
(who wanted to pretend that the SS should be retrospectively forgiven because,
after all, they weren't Communists and fought the Great Satan) and George
Bush, on whom Wiesel urged the war on Iraq as a necessary moral act, declaring
that "the world faced a moral crisis similar to 1938" and "the
choice is simple".
- This is not the first time bombing has
elicited an endorsement from the great moral standard-bearer. In 1999,
as NATO's bombs descended on Yugoslavia, blowing up civilians on train
or bus, as well as journalists in their broadcasting studio, Wiesel was
questioned by Wolf Blitzer on CNN's Larry King Live. Declared one government
toady to another: "I think it [the bombing] had to be done, because
all the other options had been explored." This balderdash put Wiesel,
morally speaking, on a par with Cardinal Spellman, blessing the B-52s as
they set off to drop napalm on children in the Vietnam era.
- For a decidedly irreverent assessment
of Night's merits On February 10, 2006, Candian tv viewers were able, in
February, to watch and hear the former editor of Harper's magazine, Lewis
Lapham, delivering a lecture at the University of Ottawa, on the invitation
of the university's Graduate Students Association. Lapham's lecture, entitled
"The Politicization of Research," was carried on C-PAC, Canada's
parliamentary TV channel, several times in the days that followed. In the
Q and A session after the lecture, in response to an enquiry about the
decline in the quality of ediucation, Lapham replied:
- "I have had three children; my youngest
is now 25, my eldest is 32. They all went through a very high-end American
both secondary schools and colleges. And the syllabus of books that they
were given in the English courses were terrible. I mean, they were all
- "There was a big fuss about Oprah
Winfrey and the James Frey book, and she's now going to put on [her TV
show] Elie Wiesel's Night. This is really one of the worst books I have
ever read, and I've had to read it three times to my three children; and
it's junk. But it's the kind of junk that has become very de rigeur in
American universities. It's a propaganda poster. With the kind of books
the kids are given to read, I mean, it would turn them off books forever.
No wonder! Because they are being given tracts. And, the big subject of
course is victimology."
- One of the perennially fascinating things
about Wiesel is the preternatural alertness of his antennae for the opportune
audience, his sense of what will, so to speak, "play" usefully
for him. This brings us, by way of Eli Pfefferkorn, to Francois Mauriac.
- These days Eli Pfefferkorn, age 77, lives
in Toronto. A man, on the evidence of several phone conversations, of alert
intelligence and charm, he too is a concentration camp survivor. Originally
from Poland, he spent seven weeks in Maidanek, then in three labor camps,
then in Buchenwald, then in Rehmsdorf. Near the end of the war he endured
a death march to Theresienstadt in Moravia, where the surviving inmates
were liberated by the Red Army on May 8, 1945. Pfefferkorn's parents perished
in other camps, and he tells me he owes his life to his mother, who shook
his hand loose from hers when the family was about to be deported, and
told the 13-year-old boy to scram.
- Pfefferkorn eventually came to the United
States, taught, and spent some time working with Wiesel on the conceptual
design of the Holocaust museum. Once an uncritical admirer, his present
estimate of Wiesel is not favorable, and he sets his views forth at length
in a fascinating manuscript he is preparing to submit to publishers. He
was kind enough to send me some chapters. By no means short-changing Wiesel
on what he regards as his genuine achievements, Pfefferkorn can be unsparing:
"He's become a eulogist of the dead but he doesn't raise his mellifluous
voice against the wrong done to survivors, 35 per cent of them below the
poverty line in the US."
- There are piercing passages in Pfefferkorn's
memoir concerning Wiesel's opportunism and betrayals in the murky battles
over the design of the Holocaust Museum, and above all in his artful pursuit
of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he was awarded in 1986. "Would Wiesel,
Pfefferkorn asks, "ever have received this prize for his work as a
journalist?" Pfefferkorn answers his question, "It's hard to
imagine. No. Wiesel got the prize because he elevated himself as the spokesman
for the survivors. His mostly absurd pretensions to be a 'peace missionary',
had nothing to do with it."
- Then, once he had the prize he so fiercely
pursued, Wiesel gradually, but consistently--so Pfefferkorn stresses--"alienated
himself from the survivors".
- In Night, Pfefferkorn isolates a number
of episodes in which he makes a convincing case that Wiesel dumped truth
in favor of fiction. The two I cite here involve a boy playing a violin
amidst a death march, and the second is one of Night's most famous scenes,
the hanging of three inmates.
- Of the first episode, Pfefferkorn writes:
- "The story of the 'violin episode'
takes place during the death march from Auschwitz to Buchenwald with a
short gap at Gleiwitz in January of 1945. Mercilessly driven by the SS
guards, stragglers were shot at and shoved to the side road. The columns
of inmates arrived in Gleiwitz, after having dragged themselves through
the snow-swept roads in freezing temperatures for about fifty kilometers.
Immediately upon arrival, they were herded into barns. Drained, they dropped
to the floor -- the dead, the dying and the partially living piled one
on the other.
- "Under this heap of crushed humanity
laid Juliek, cradling a violin, which he has carried all the way from Auschwitz
to Gleiwitz. Eliezer, somehow, stumbles on Juliek, "...the boy from
Warsaw who played in the band at Buna... 'How do you feel, Juliek?' I asked,
less to know the answer than to hear that he could speak, that he was alive.
'All right, Eliezer ... I'm getting on all right ... hardly any air ...
worn out. My feet are swollen. It's good to rest, but my violin...'
- "Eliezer -- the inmate -- wonders,
'What use was the violin here?' Wiesel -- the memoirist -- does not find
it necessary to give an answer to the question. Such an answer, I assume,
should be of interest to the reader for if Wiesel were to provide an answer,
the veracity of the story would dissolve like the morning mist in the Sinai
desert. Maintaining hold on a violin as one marched the March of Death
is highly improbable. However, a violin in the midst of human debris strains
the imagination and questions memory. How did Juliek hold on to the violin
on the death journey? Deprived of food and drink, when each step stubbornly
refused to follow the next one, how did Juliek manage to clutch the violin
in his numb fingers, let alone play Beethoven on it? Would the SS escorts
have let him keep it?
- "And from this anus mundi, suddenly
the melody of a Beethoven concerto is heard, wafting through the corpses,
the groans of the dying, the stench of the dead. Eliezer had never heard
sounds so pure. 'In such a silence. It was pitch dark. I could only hear
the violin, it was though Juliek's soul were the bow. He was playing his
life. The whole life was gliding on his strings -- his lost hopes, his
charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play
again.' This powerful and emotionally moving scene, celebrating the triumph
of the human spirit over the grinding SS machinery is the very stuff that
heroic fiction is made of. But is it a memoir factually recorded? Obviously,
Wiesel's putative memoir, written while on a boat to Brazil, is but a recollection
of experiences seen through the eye of his creative imagination. And yet,
the melancholy melodies that came out of Juliek's violin were the first
strains of a myth orchestrated by Wiesel and his disciples, over a period
of thirty years."
- A major scene in Night, one that contributed
hugely to the book's success in the West, and its impact on many Christians
starting with Francois Mauriac, was the execution of three inmates in the
Buna work camp. As Pfefferkorn writes, "The fascination of Christian
theologians with the Wiesel phenomenon must be traced back to a hanging
that the 16-year-old Eliezer witnessed in Auschwitz."
- In the incident, two adults and a little
boy are being led to the gallows. The little boy refused to betray fellow
inmates who have been involved in an act of sabotage; to protect his fellow
inmates, the boy is willing to pay with his life. Each one climbs to his
chair and his neck is slipped into the rope's noose. The scene continues
as follows in the 1960 English version of Night:
- "The three victims mounted together
onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within
the nooses. 'Long live Liberty!' cried the adults. But the child was silent.
- "'Where is God? Where is He?' someone
behind me asked. At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs
tipped over. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun
- "'Bare your heads!' yelled the head
of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. 'Cover your heads!'
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues
hung swollen, blue tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so
light, the child was still alive.... For more than half an hour he stayed
there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our
eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when
I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: 'Where is God now?' And I heard
a voice within me answer him: 'Where is He? Here He is -- He is hanging
here on this gallows'"
- Not surprisingly, the graphically described
hanging scene has been etched into the imagination of the Christian theologians
because of the numerous parallels to the Crucifixion of Jesus.
- Now, while he was working on the memoir,
La Nuit, Wiesel had cause, on behalf of an Israeli newspaper, to visit
and interview Francois Mauriac, the Catholic writer and Nobel Laureate
in literature. They got on well. Then Wiesel gave him the manuscript of
La Nuit. Mauriac found in it an answer to his own anguish at descriptions
of the mass slaughters in the death camps, particularly of children.
- Mauriac fastened instantly on, in Pfefferkorn's
words, "a resemblance between the crucifixion and Wiesel's description
of the young boy's hanging. In response to Wiesel's questioning of God's
benevolence and man's humanness, Mauriac writes the following in his Foreword
to Night: 'And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give
my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that
angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged
child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother,
who may have resembled him -- the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered
- Pfefferkorn continues:
- "The hanged child dangling on the
rope is reflected in Eliezer's eyes, whose image resembles that of the
crucified Jesus. Thus in one stroke, Mauriac has drawn a triptych reminiscent
of the medieval paintings, making young Eliezer the link connecting the
two watershed events in the history of Western civilization, namely the
Crucifixion and the Holocaust. Mauriac leaves no doubt as to his Christological
interpretation of the Auschwitz hanging. In the year 1960, he published
a biography of Christ entitled The Son of Man dedicated to 'E.W. who was
a crucified Jewish child, who stands for many others.'
- "Mauriac explains what it was in
his interview with Wiesel that drew him so powerfully to the young Israeli:
'That look, as if a Lazarus risen from the dead, yet still a prisoner within
the grim confines where he had strayed, stumbling among the shameful corpses.'
Wiesel's painfully gaunt demeanor set against the backdrop of the concentration
camps' corpses have inspired a generation of Christian theologians to view
Wiesel as a latter day Lazarus.
- "It is highly speculative to suggest
that from the very inception of his writing, Wiesel consciously laboured
to present himself to the Christian world as a composite of a Christ Lazarus
figure. However, once the seeds of the myth were sown in Paris at Mauriac's
instigation, and took roots in the soil of Christian America, Wiesel has
done his share to encourage the 'Lazarus risen from the dead parallel.'
But Wiesel has done so more by gesture than act, silence than utterance,
indirection than direct statement. The unspoken, the mute, the covert are
his metier; albeit an ambiguity laced through with shrewd intelligence
that would make many a professional diplomat envious."
- In a letter to David Hirsch dated October
6, 1994, Alfred Kazin writes that at the beginning of their friendship,
"I liked him [Wiesel] enormously, and I was in awe of him because
of his suffering in Auschwitz." But at the same time "... it
was impossible, when he expanded at length about his experiences under
the Nazis, it was impossible to miss the fact that he was a mystifier".
- One who says he directly observed the
hanging scene described by Wiesel was Zygfryd Halbereich, who testified
at the Auschwitz State Museum on October 19, 1973. Halbereich's testimony
was matter-of-fact, clear and direct. He was acquainted with the three
inmates and knew about their escape plans.
- "On the whole," Pfefferkorn
writes, "Halbereich's testimony is in agreement with Wiesel's narrative,
and differs only in one minor detail. But this is an inconsequential disagreement
that does not change the substance of the hanging story. What does affect
it, however, is the age of one of the condemned, as given by Wiesel. And
the age of the condemned is the crux of the matter.
- "In the original Yiddish Un di Velt
Hot Geshvign and in the French and the English translations, one of the
three condemned is frequently referred to as a child or a young boy. Halbereich
is silent about the ages of the condemned, and this omission is surprising.
For in Wiesel's painfully elaborate description of the hanging, the young
boy's execution stirred up deep emotions among the inmates standing on
the roll call. The Kapo who was assigned to administer the hanging ' excused
himself from serving as a hangman. He did not want to hang a child.' A
Kapo's refusal to obey an SS order was tantamount to a death sentence.
His extraordinary behaviour would have certainly registered with Halbereich,
whose testimony is meticulously detailed. Halbereich's silence on the Kappo's
courage calls into question Wiesel's account of the hanging. One of the
skeptics is the known Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg, who is, in his own
words, a seeker of truth.
- "Cautious by temperament and scholarly
discipline, Hilberg gingerly raises the issue related to the hanging scene.
In a review written for the Boston Globe about Wiesel's autobiographical
book All Rivers Run to the Sea, Hilberg makes mention of the three hangings.
'Describing the incident in his [Wiesel's] book Night,' Hilberg notes,
'he recalled someone behind him asking: Where is God? At that moment Wiesel
believed that one of the three was a boy, and in his mind identified the
child with God.' Citing Kazin's contention that the entire event is fiction,
Hilberg concludes, 'To be sure, the doubters may claim a concession.'"
- Pfefferkorn's considered judgement is
harsh on Wiesel's claims for the absolute truth to life of Night:
- "If the hanging scene turns out
contrary to Wiesel's description in his purported memoir Night, a fictionalized
episode as Kazin claimed and surmised from Halbereich's testimony, then
Wiesel's entire moral and theological edifice collapses, bringing down
with it the 'Suffering Servant' theology, which first gave him recognition
and eventually led him to fame.
- "Though it is virtually impossible
to verify the exact ages of the condemned, it must be noted, as Hilberg
observed, that in Wiesel's recent autobiography 'the suffering body is
no longer that of a boy.'"
- Quite aside from the theological questions,
part of the impact of the scene derives from Wiesel's description of this
boy whose weight was too insubstantial for the noose to swiftly strangle
him. Does this, in the last analysis, really matter? It does if you are
disobligingly contrasting Frey to Wiesel's "apprehension of memory
as a sacred act". All the same, I don't suppose Smoking Gun would
ever gleefully feature the third victim's birth certificate.
- After talking to Eli Pfferkorn and reading
chapters from his memoir, I called Raul Hilberg, now 80, at his home in
- "From a purely academic viewpoint",
Hilberg began, "it would be interesting to have a scholarly edition,
comparing the Yiddish version with subsequent translations and editions,
with appropriate footnotes, Wiesel's comments etc. He was addressing two
entirely different audiences, the first being the Yiddish-speaking Jews,
members of the world of his youth whom he addressed in nineteenth-century
terms. There's more detail, more comment. I made that suggestion to Wiesel
and he didn't react favorably."
- Hilberg turned to the crucial scene:
"I have a version of the hanging from an old survivor with the names
of all three adults." That survivor had said that there was no boy
among the three. Hilberg mentioned this in a review of Night , in which,
he told me, "I made no secret of our differences. But whereas it [the
age of the central figure in the hanging] may seem somewhat small, it makes
a very big difference to Christians, particularly Catholics, because it's
very clear that mystics are intensely interested in the scene because it
seems to replicate the crucifixion. It made a considerable impact. So the
fact that this figure may not have been a boy at all is disturbing."
- "It would appear", Hilberg
went on, "from the record I have, that some witnesses have questioned
whether this scene took place at all. I have a long statement by an older
man, a man whom I judge to be quite trustworthy, though one must always
remember that things are sometimes observed or heard about later. I talked
recently to a survivor of that section of the camp who said it [the hanging
of the three] didn't take place, but maybe it took place earlier. I don't
know. Dating these tings is hard for survivors. Some have doubted this
would have taken place. Buna was a work camp, so this other survivor, a
PhD in history and a very intelligent man, didn't believe it. I said to
him, 'How do you know this didn't happen?' I consider it not only a possibility
but plausible. But age is a big issue to some people. That's something
he did not discuss in the new edition of the book."
- "Wiesel's is the most read of all
Auschwitz memoirs", Hilberg remarked, "not only because of its
brevity but because it has something mystic, surrealistic in it."
He mentioned the episode of the little boy playing the violin, and said
how it evoked images from the Russian-Jewish mystic painter Chagall, also
of Fiddler on the Roof.
- "Wiesel comes from Sighet, a city
in Romania. In Sighet there were many religious Jews, also Ukrainians.
Much of Sighet was rather primitive at the time Wiesel was growing up.
Most roads were not paved. It was shtetl life. However an assimilated group
of Jews was emerging. I went there when I was 11, in 1937, and spent the
summer. There was a tennis court, very middle-class. My aunt and her husband,
a Sigheti, manufactured violins in Sighet where there was a major tradition
of violin playing. I heard quartets in our garden. Wiesel's parents had
a store. So in some respects Sighet was very nineteenth century, and in
others there were all the earmarks of a group of Jews emerging into the
twentieth century who were evidently wide awake to modern civilization.
So was the violin scene realistic, or was it a fantasy? Certainly, for
Jews the violin was the instrument of choice. It was portable.
- "So I would not say that the violin
scene is impossible, even though I know someone from the death march who
said it was utterly impossible. He was in Auschwitz, also Wiesel's age.
But that still doesn't mean it didn't happen. Nothing is inconceivable.
- "The model of all survivor accounts
is of an idyllic childhood, then the hell of the Holocaust, then since
they survived they underline the fact that it was only by luck they survived.
With Wiesel, his original title was And the World Was Silent. It's accusatory.
Night is more surreal and mystic. It goes back to Middle Ages. Wiesel fits
right into that style. It's not a novel, but what it does have is the imprint
of someone who wants to leave behind the impression that if you weren't
there, you cannot know what it was like, but then that dooms trying to
write what it was like."
- I asked Hilberg what accounts of the
death camps and the Holocaust did he admire most. "That really depends
on the reader. I don't have that kind of favorite. For my purposes, obviously
they have to be correct. There's an account by Filip Mueller, who was on
the gas chamber detail in Auschwitz in 1942, written in collaboration with
two people: Eyewitness Auschwitz. It has to be read with care. Another
book is Rudolf Vrba's I Cannot Forgive, written with Alan Bestic. Vrba
escaped from Auschwitz. He became professor of pharmacology at the University
of British Columbia. This is the most remarkable of survivors, a man of
absolutely incredible energy and abilities. In sheer ability to cope with
the situation, this man is beyond belief."
- I didn't press the point, but Hilberg,
who stressed to me that he admires Wiesel, did not include Night in this
little list. A clue to this omission may be found in Hilberg's often acrid
memoir, The Politics of Memory, published in 1996. In the chapter "Questionable
Practices", notable for a devastating account of underhand behavior
by Hannah Arendt, Hilberg discusses "areas of inappropriateness or
illegitimacy". "I try to nod wisely when when poets or novelists
step forward with their art, which in its very nature is much less disguised
than mine. Nor am I disturbed when popularizers of history excavate the
monographs of the footnote writers [among whom Hilberg included himself]
and, distilling the contents, highlight story and drama for a large reading
public.There are, however, limits Among the practices that give me discomfort
is the creation of a story in which historical facts are altered deliberately
for the sake of plot and adventure"
- Then a page later Hilberg continues,
"If counterfactual stories are frequent enough, kitsch is truly rampant.
The philistines in my field are truly everywhere. I am surrounded by the
commonplace, platitudes, and clichés.The first German publisher
of a small volume, containing my introduction and documents about the railroads
[viz. their role in the destruction of the Jews] inserted a poem for which,
he said, he had paid good money, describing human beings in freight cars
including children whose eyes glowed like coal . The manipulation of history
is a kind of spoilage and kitsch is debasement."
- Reading those lines, my mind did go at
once to some of the scenes in Night --Juliek playing his violin on the
death march for example--which hover on the edge of kitsch or, to take
a less forgiving view, plunge into it.
- "In 1981", Pfefferkorn remembers,
"Wiesel invited me to give a talk to his seminar students at Boston
University. In the course of my talk, I discussed the relationship between
memory and imagination in a number of literary works. I then pointed out
the literary devices he used in Night, devices, I stressed, that make the
memoir a compelling read. Wiesel's reaction to my comments were swift as
lightning. I had never seen him as angry before or since. In the presence
of John Silber, the then President of Boston University, and my own Brown
University students whom I invited, he lost his composure, lashing out
at me for daring to question the literalness of the memoir. In Wiesel's
eyes, as in the eyes of his disciples, Night assumed a level of sacrosanctity,
next in importance to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. In terms of
veracity, it is a factually recorded work, virtually meeting Leopold von
Ranke's benchmark of historical accounts: Wie es eigentlich gewessen, how
it really was."
- As he roosts on his pile of gold amid
the abuse of Oprah and the literary world, Frey can comfort himself with
the thought that Night is not how "it really was", and that even
though there is a vast gulf between what Wiesel actually endured and Frey's
lies about his own life, when it comes making literature he and Wiesel
were both in the business of artistic and emotional manipulation, of dressing
fiction up as truth.
- As Pfefferkorn stresses, you didn't survive
in the death camps just by luck. "Securing a spot in a desirable labor
detail, for instance, involved shoving to the head of the line, seen as
a risk worth taking. Upon encountering opposition, however, one had to
know when to retreat into the chameleon-pyjama-like background of the concentration
camp. This was also true about lining up for soup. Finding the right spot
in the line could mean a thicker bowl of soup -which may add a week's longevity,
but this entailed rough elbowing, as well as timing."
- Pfefferkorn says now that one of the
greatest disappointments of his life was Wiesel's "betrayal"--Pfefferkorn's
word" of the survivors. Looking at the man's career overall, I'd say
that as a moral fabulist, Wiesel has far more than Frey to answer for.
Should not Oprah ask him about the millions he could have helped with the
moral stature won by the Nobel peace prize he so unrelentingly campaigned
for with his rough elbows, but whom he has betrayed for reasons of base
- Although the Nobel committee extolled
him as a "messenger to mankind" it is difficult to find examples
of Wiesel sending any message on behalf of those victimized by the policies
of the United States, and virtually impossible when it comes to victims
- Wiesel's pusillanimity was well illustrated
in an interview with The National Jewish Post & Opinion for November
19, 1982. Asked about the massacre of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila,
he said he felt "sad". Lest anyone leap to the erroneous conclusion
that Wiesel was at last expressing sadness for the victims of Israel's
invasion -- he remained silent throughout the bombing of Beirut -- Wiesel
added that this sadness was "with Israel, and not against Israel".
As he put it, "After all, the Israeli soldiers did not kill".
He also writes, in Against Silence, vol 2, "Would it not have been
better to have offered Israel unreserved support, regardless of the suffering
endured by the population of Beirut."
- In 1985, Wiesel was asked by a reporter
from Ha'aretz about Israel's aid to the military junta in Guatemala. By
way of response Wiesel remarked that he had received a letter from a Nobel
laureate (Salvador Luria of M.I.T. had written to him on this subject a
month earlier) documenting Israel's contributions to mass murder in Guatemala
and urging Wiesel to act privately to pressure Israel. Wiesel "sighed",
the Ha'aretz reporter wrote, and said, "I usually answer at once,
but what can I answer him."
- Wiesel could, I suppose, argue that a
sigh constitutes a technical breach of silence, but why did he not go further?
- In an interview published in the second
volume of Against Silence, Wiesel says that, as a Diaspora Jew, the "price
I chose to pay for not living in Israel . . . is not to criticize Israel
from outside its borders." In another interview, published in the
London Jewish Chronicle for September 10, 1982, he lamented criticism of
Israel during the Lebanon invasion and asked these rhetorical questions:
- "Was it necessary to criticize the
Israeli government, notwithstanding the spate of lies disseminated in the
press? Or would it not have been better to have offered Israel unreserved
support, regardless of the suffering endured by the population of Beirut?
In the face of hatred, our love for Israel ought to have deepened, become
more whole-hearted, and our faith in Israel more compelling, more true."
- It's unclear how many times, if any,
Wiesel has ventured criticism inside Israel's borders. Wiesel himself mentions
one occasion on which he exerted what is usually called quiet pressure.
- Commentary on Wiesel in the Hebrew-language
press in Israel following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 was
been more robust than the statutory honorifics printed in the United States.
In Davar, for example, a reporter named Miri Paz discussed the troubled
course of a conference on holocaust and genocide held in Israel in the
summer of 1982. Responding to the urgings of the Turkish government, the
Israeli Foreign Ministry demanded the removal of six items on the agenda
concerning the Armenian genocide. Several people on the conference's organizing
committee, including its chair, Professor Israel Charny, refused to bend
to such interference. But Wiesel, who headed the conference, did weaken.
He pulled out of the conference, explaining, in Paz's words, that "as
a Jew he cannot act against the government of Israel".
- In Koteret Rashit, a liberal weekly,
the Israeli journalist Tom Segev wrote of Wiesel:
- "He is always careful not to criticize
his nation. . . . What does he have to say about the situation in the territories?
When people from Peace Now asked him to criticize the Lebanese War he evaded
the request. He's never been in the habit of standing up seriously against
Israeli leaders. . . . What in fact has he done to realize his fine intentions?
Bob Geldof has done more. . . . How nice it would have been if they had
divided the prize among those truly good people of the world, those still
alive, those people who endangered their lives at the time of the Holocaust
in order to save Jews.
- "Who symbolizes the lesson of the
Holocaust as they do?
- "Who is as worthy of the respect
of the world as they are?"
- Footnote: An earlier version of this
article appeared in the CounterPunch newsletter, #3/4, in February of this