Elie Wiesel’s Early Work: Four Novels
A Talmudic question has much intrigued me: Two men are stranded in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man has the right to drink it.
Elie Wiesel in a lecture he delivered on Rabbi Akiva said, “Rabbi Akiva was very hard, very hard on the survivor.”
Elie Wiesel’s early novels bear out this view and the struggles of the one who has survived.
You might expect that I would begin to discuss Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) by reviewing his biography with the help of critics, reviewers, and, of course, biographers, as Wiesel is now perhaps more well-known for his Nobel Peace Prize, among a host of others, and the work he did as a Jewish activist for the greater part of his life than for his first four novels.
I argue here that another way to capture the man and the experiences that formed him and the work he did for the greater part of his life is to look at his early writing, Night and the three novels that came in quick succession in the 1960’s.
Night, first published in 1958, is a brief, salient hundred-page “testimony,” as Wiesel has called it, that was originally nine hundred pages. Here the reader by no means finds the life of Elie Wiesel—but he finds a largely autobiographical account of what was arguably the central event in his life: Auschwitz. From this telling of the horrors of the concentration camp, we learn that a man’s past and future may be tortured by an experience of this magnitude. Night gives us striking insight into the child before Auschwitz and the child-man who survives it.
We meet Eliezer, the central character of Night, in 1941 when he was a twelve-year-old boy, a Hasidic Jew, who lives in Sighet, a town in Transylvania. He was an unusual boy, one touched by a mystical belief in God. Eliezer is the narrator of the novel and he tells us,
I was twelve. I believed profoundly. During the day I studied Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the temple.
He wanted to study and learn all, to go beyond the Talmud to the cabbala with his Master Moché, the Beadle, who guides him in his study. Moché told this young boy,
Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him. That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand his answers. We can’t understand them. Because they come from the depths of the soul, and they stay there until death. You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself.
Elie Weisel, it seems to me, is concerned in this novel, as in the other early three that I will discuss here, with the search for God as a search for man’s identity.
When Eliezer was fifteen, he was faced with the horror of the Nazi concentration camps. More than the physical horror of any of the events in the camp was the horror of this mystical boy’s loss of faith and, perhaps as a result, loss of his identity, his place in life, his purpose on earth. Suddenly he was herded into a wagon with other Jews and suddenly “the world was a cattle wagon hermetically sealed.” We see how the absurd began to encroach on this boy’s life once filled with love of God. When they arrived:
In front of us flames. In the air that smell of burning flesh. … We had arrived at Berkinau, reception center for Auschwitz.
The child began to cry, ‘Where is God?’ with no affirmation of His existence in this environment. Prayer soon had little meaning for him. He tells us that some of the others talked of God and of the hope of deliverance.
But I had ceased to pray. How I sympathized with Job! I did not deny God’s existence, but I doubted His absolute justice.
Eliezer cried out against God who was silent while children burned in the pits.
I was the accuser. God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone—terribly alone in world without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long.
As Eliezer struggled with God, he struggled with his identity.
Eliezer’s relationship with his father became his only meaningful hold on life. They must stay together. They must live together. When Eliezer would not give up his gold crowned tooth, Frankel, the foreman, eventually obtained it by berating and assaulting the boy’s father. The importance of their staying alive together is seen when Eliezer and his father were forced to run with others from the camp as the Russians were to invade shortly. Eliezer had a wound on his foot. The pains were horrible and death welcome.
My father’s presence was the only thing that stopped me. … He was running at my side, out of breath, at the end of his strength, at his wit’s end. I had no right to let myself die. What would he do without me? I was his only support.
This love for his father struggles against the dehumanization that begins to envelop all. Eliezer saw men trampled underfoot, dying as the prisoners were forced to travel. But no one paid attention. He lived among corpses as winter progressed and in every stiffened corpse, he saw himself. He heard of the old rabbi who lost his son in a crowd after three years of sticking together. And he realized that the son had wanted to get rid of his father, to free himself of the burden of an old man.
And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.
When he was fifteen he watched a son and father fight over a morsel of bread amid the indifference of the others until both lay side by side, dead.
Indeed, it was difficult for this young boy to fight dehumanization. One day he watched his father being beaten with an iron bar.
I had watched the whole scene without moving. I kept quiet. In fact I was thinking of how to get farther away so that I would not be hit myself. … That is what concentration camp life had made of me.
When his father became ill, momentarily, he wished that he could get rid of this dead weight to survive himself. He became overwhelmed with shame, shame that would last forever. But again, when his father was near death and was dealt a violent blow by an officer, Eliezer tells us,
I did not move. I was afraid. My body was afraid of also receiving a blow.
This child survives to see himself in a mirror and to comment that “from the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes as they stared into mine has never left me.” The mystic soul of a twelve-year-old becomes the ravaged soul of a man, a man who says,
Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
The novel focuses on how the inhumanity of the camps demeaned those who survived, how it could and, in many cases, did destroy every shred of self-respect, every belief in the significance of one’s identity.
The story of the effects of this experience is told and retold in the next three novels Wiesel wrote in the 1960s.
In Dawn, we see that neither the horrors of life nor the struggle with God end with liberation from the concentration camp. Elisha is an eighteen-year-old man who comes to Palestine to fight for the liberation of Israel. As a member of the Movement, he is to kill at dawn, John Dawson, an English officer. Dawson is being held as hostage for David ben Moshe, a Jewish revolutionary who will die at dawn at the hands of the English.
In the hours before he must kill John Dawson, Elisha confronted himself and God. Once again the search for God seems a search for self. Once again the rejection of God seems a rejection of the individual’s meaningful existence. To Elisha, God is one who closes his eyes to human pain and suffering. Elisha’s master has told him that “God has from time to time shown Himself to us in the face of a child.” He looks at the sky hoping to see the child. Nothing is there. His family, all dead, appear to him as he contemplates the execution. His mother appears in his mind and he cries to her that he is not a murderer but a soldier, a fighter for freedom. His conflict, his decision to be a murderer to find a new hope for the Jews, leads him once again to confront God.
Don’t judge me. Judge God. He created the universe and made justice stem from injustice. He brought it about that a people should attain happiness through tears, that the freedom of a nation, like that of a man, should be a monument built upon a pile, a foundation of dead bodies ….
If only Elisha could judge God and not himself. But for this man and perhaps for this author, the rejection of God is the rejection of self. The killing of a man is the killing of oneself. The killing of a man is the killing of God. He meets John Dawson.
There was something age-old in our situation. We were alone not only in the cell, but in the world as well, he seated, I standing, the victim and the executioner. We were the first—or the last—men of creation; certainly we were alone. And God? He was present somewhere. Perhaps He was incarnate in the liking with which John Dawson inspired me. The lack of hate between executioner and victim, perhaps this is God.
The irrationality of his situation is impressed upon him. It would have been easier to hate Dawson, to have a reason to kill him.
Why do I try to hate you, John Dawson? Because my people have never known how to hate. Their tragedy, throughout the centuries, has stemmed from their inability to hate those who have humiliated and from time to time exterminated them. Now our only chance lies in hating you, in learning the necessity and the art of hate. Otherwise, John Dawson, our future will only be an extension of the past, and the Messiah will wait indefinitely for his deliverance.
He kills John Dawson, saying to himself, “I’ve killed. I’ve killed Elisha.” He’s found God and himself for a moment in his meeting with John Dawson, but the exigencies of his world demand the death of Dawson, the rejection of God, and the death perhaps of his soul so that, symbolically, Wiesel appears to be saying, his people might survive. The irrationality is tantamount as we are left with the thought that the oppressed becomes the oppressor.
The Accident (Le Jour in the original) poignantly portrays the inability of a man, who has survived the camps, to live in the present, let alone prepare for a more hopeful future. The narrator of this novel is an Israeli correspondent at the United Nations who is struck by a taxi on a New York street. As he recuperates from the accident we learn that past remembrances of Nazi terror have stifled his life, led him vituperatively to abuse God, and indeed to desire his own death. The man who fought for a future Israel in Dawn becomes a corpse of a man in The Accident. The epigraph of the novel underlines the overwhelming power of the past:
“I was once more struck by the truth of the ancient saying: Man’s heart is a ditch full of blood. The loved ones who have died throw themselves down on the bank of this ditch to drink the blood and so come to life again; the dearer they are to you, the more of your blood they drink.” Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek.
The narrator is unable to live a life in the present. Kathleen is one of three people who attempt to open the world of living to him. She offers love. But love has little meaning and no power for a man engulfed by his past. Love demands a future; it is hope. The narrator tells us that “love is the very proof of God’s existence,” and for him there is no God. Kathleen continues to try to make him taste the pleasures of life, refuses to understand “that the dead are invincible.” Wiesel asserts that all those who survived the concentration camps are marked. They will forever be unlike other men.
Anyone who has seen what they have seen cannot be like the others, cannot laugh, love, pray, bargain, suffer, have fun, or forget. Like the others. You have to watch them carefully when they pass by an innocent looking smokestack, or when they lift a piece of bread to their mouths. Something in them shudders and makes you turn your eyes away. These people have been amputated.
He tries to hide his suffering with silence, but his silence is ominous and reveals to Kathleen as to others that “what counts is the past.” He concludes that “a man who has suffered more than others and differently, should live apart”—apart from life, love, and God.
This man refuses to turn to God for solace. He rejects His existence. The rejection is not the struggle of the mystic in Night who is betrayed.
It is a rejection filled with a repugnance for God that cannot be transmuted into the affirmative temporal life of, for example, Camus’s doctor in The Plague. Here I compare Wiesel’s despair to that of Camus, as Wiesel admits to having been a deep reader of his work in his 1978 interview with The Paris Review: “In those times [when he was living in Paris] a new Camus was an event in your life.” And later in the interview, “I believe in creative reading. That’s what I am trying to teach—creative reading. I’d assign the Scripture and Midrash, Ovid and Kafka, Thomas Mann and Camus, Plato and André Schwarz-Bart. “
One is tempted to compare Night to Camus’s The Stranger, but I agree with Wiesel’s own description of his book as “testimony” and consider Camus’s early book, clearly a novel.
And, I introduce Camus, if you’ll forgive the digression, because I plan to write an essay on his influence on my own thinking for FactsandArts.com in the near future, but more importantly here, because Wiesel himself quotes Camus in The Accident.
Weisel’s narrator in The Accident sees self-torture in man’s belief in God.
Man prefers to blame himself for all possible sins and crimes rather than come to the conclusion that God is capable of the most flagrant injustice.
One event that lingers in the narrator’s mind and reinforces his despair is his meeting in Paris with a prostitute who tells him that at the age of twelve she was made a toy of German officers of the concentration camps. To our narrator, “God likes to sleep with twelve-year-old girls.” His intense hate for God is not hidden by his silence but is revealed even in his face.
As Camus said in The Fall, “[A]fter a certain age every man is responsible for his face.”
When Gyula, the narrator’s artist friend, paints his portrait, the eyes “belonged to a man who had seen God commit the most unforgivable crime: to kill without reason.” This hate for God paralyzes his life, destroys his desire for existence.
He welcomes death. The significance of the accident lies in the fact that the narrator has seen the taxi that struck him. He chose not to avoid it. This suicidal inclination was not momentary. The sea makes him think of death. He contemplated suicide while onboard ship.
I contrast Wiesel’s portrayal here to Camus’s affirmative image of the sea representing pleasure and freedom.
He recovers from the accident that he did not attempt to avoid only through the skill of the doctor and not through any will to live of his own. The doctor considers death his personal enemy and accuses the narrator of having been on the side of the enemy during the operation that miraculously saved his life. Life for him is defined by death, not a confrontation that affirms life. In every event, he sees his life negated: Gyula had painted the portrait to shake his friend from his paralysis but the face of horror appears in this portrait. Gyula burns the canvas as if this act will eradicate the past that paralyses his friend’s life. But even in this action, the narrator is reminded. As Gyula leaves, the narrator, pained and crying, thinks “he [Gyula] had forgotten to take along the ashes.” The novel ends on this link to those burned in the ovens of Auschwitz.
In The Town Beyond the Wall, the central character, Michael, resumes the dialogue with God, so vehemently rejected by The Accident. Although the future is uncertain, there is hope for Michael and there is meaning. Michael meets a man named Pedro, becomes friends with him, and learns that this man can smuggle him into the city of his birth in Hungary. He wishes to see once again the faces of those who watched passively while the Jews were collected for slaughter and captivity. Once in the city, he is captured by the Soviet police and tortured by being compelled to stand for three days in a vertical box. The police want the name of the person who helped Michael. Michael refuses to betray Pedro and eventually is placed in a cell with two other men. During the three days of “praying,” what the police call his torture, for Jews pray standing, Michael reviews his life and his beliefs.
Michael never ceased resenting Job. That Biblical rebel should never have given in.
At the last moment he should have reared up, shaken a fist, and with a resounding bellow defied that transcendent, inhuman justice in which suffering has no weight in the balance.
Michael claims that he needs an answer in human terms. But this desire to understand fully is to ask man to be more than man—perhaps to be God. It is a search which may lead man to desire death, as the narrator of The Accident does, or to end in madness.
Michael brushes with madness when, in Paris, a young boy, Yankel, who had been a favorite of the Germans in the concentration camp and thus is somewhat odious to Michael, is hit by a car. Michael is notified since Yankel cared for no one else in Paris. Michael watches the child die and is shaken by the absurdity of the death.
He wanted to pit himself against the angel as Jacob had: fell him with a blow, transfer him. One gesture, just one, but a gesture in proportion to his misery.
Michael tells his friend Pedro of this incident and admits that he was on the verge of madness as he searched for an absolute value.
It is through Pedro, however, that Michael begins to limit his goals to the human potential. He realizes that “the man who chooses death is following an impulse of liberation from the self; so is the man who chooses madness. Each is trying to escape being a man. Pedro responds to Michael with words that later come to Michael’s aid and give him hope.
“You frighten me,” Pedro said. “You want to eliminate suffering by pushing it to its extreme: to madness. To say, ‘I suffer, therefore I am’ is to become the enemy of man. What you must say is ‘I suffer, therefore, you are.’ Camus wrote somewhere that to protest against a universe of unhappiness you had to create happiness. That’s an arrow pointing the way: it leads to another human being. And not via absurdity.”
Pedro demonstrates the meaning of his words when he tells Michael that he will suffer for him and when he explains the deep meaning of their friendship by saying to Michael, “From now on you can say ‘I am Pedro,’ and I, ‘I am Michael.’” This is an exchange between men who live as men aspiring to be men and not God.
Michael intimately realizes the meaning of Pedro’s words when he is left alone with a young boy who has succumbed to madness in his resolve of total silence. Michael fights to release the boy from this bondage. What Michael has learned is evident in his words to the child:
“I know, little one: it isn’t easy to live always under a question mark. But who says that the essential question of man has an answer? The essence of man is to be a question, and the essence of the question is to be without answer.”
But the way to live under this question mark is to cling to humanity and not to attempt to transcend human potential:
It’s in humanity itself that we find both our question and the strength to keep it within limits—or on the contrary to make it universal. To flee to a sort of Nirvana—whether through a considered indifference or through a sick apathy—is to oppose humanity in the most absurd, useless and comfortable manner possible. A man is a man only when he is among men. It’s harder to remain human than to try to leap beyond humanity. Accept that difficulty. Tell yourself that even God admits His weakness before the image he has created.
This mad boy, soon to be well, and Michael will exchange names. Michael will become Eliezer, meaning ‘God has granted my prayer,’ and Eliezer will become Michael.
I am moved to believe that Elie Wiesel is this Eliezer who finds God and himself once again.
Having read and lived Wiesel’s first four novels, I have seen the mystic child lose his faith and his desire for life. But I have also seen him struggle with courage to regain that life and belief in God. I have seen him relive his past and pay homage to those burned in the pits of the concentration camps.
I admire the tragedy and dignity of the man who, though enveloped with memories of horror, is able to say to all men who have suffered and all men who remember, as Wiesel says in The Town Beyond the Wall, the last of the books I discuss here, “I know: the paths of the soul, overgrown, often know only night, a very vast, very barren night, without landscapes. And yet I tell you: we’ll get out. The most glorious works of man are born of that night.”
Night, translated by Stella Rodway, 1960.
Dawn, translated by Frances Frenaye, 1961.
The Accident, translated by Anne Borchardt, 1962.
The Town Beyond the Wall, translated by Frances Frenaye, 1966.
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