most were not very creditable. Elie Wiesel’s essay, “The America I Loved” published in Parade magazine, sheds important light on the humanitarian efforts in these vulnerable areas, such as Vietnam and Iraq, from the perspective of a Holocaust survivor. Elie Wiesel’s background makes him a creditable author to listen to. He was born on September 30, 1928 in a small town that is now considered a part of Romania. Growing up he followed the Jewish faith and at the age of 15, Wiesel and his family were forced by the Nazis to go to Auschwitz, one of the largest and most commonly known concentration camps. The Nazi’s were taught to have extreme hatred towards groups outside of their own culture, especially followers of Judaism, and they were unable to appreciate diversity. Wiesel spent nearly an entire year under Nazi control until he was set free by American troops on April 11, 1945. In the essay “The America I Love”, Wiesel describes the American troops on that day by saying they were “bewildered, disbelieving… they looked at us, just liberated, and did not know what to do or say. Survivors snatched from the dark throes of death, we were empty of all hope- too weak, too emaciated to hug them or even speak to them. Like lost children, the American soldiers wept and wept” (78). He is including this flashback of his life because it gives himself more creditably, as a writer, on the topic of military intervention and therefore makes his essay more meaningful. His essay informs people that America needs to keep its current foreign policy of participating in conflicts where a group of people are living in terror. In his flashback, he specifically shares the part about the emotions of the American soldiers who rescued the Jews because it signifies the morals by which the people in the United States adhere, most noticeably freedom. After his release from Nazi captivity, Wiesel moved to the United States and “from that
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