One Book, One Chicago program chose Elie Wiesel's 'Night'
An Atrocity Against History, and the Peopleby Arthur R. Butz
The Chicago Public Library's program "One Book, One Chicago" has chosen, for 2002, Elie Wiesel's Night, a little book that purports to be an account of this Jew's experiences at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and other camps after deportation in 1944 at age 15. The general idea is that we here in the Chicago area should be reading and talking about this book during April. This program is one year old; the selection for 2001 was Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Bookstores have been stocking up.1
As first published in Yiddish in Buenos Aires in 1956 the book was 245 pages in length. It was edited considerably for the 1958 French version, La Nuit, which runs to 158 pages. The English translation, published in 1960, is close to the French and runs to about 125 pages. The Yiddish differs from the French most strikingly in that a lust for revenge, strongly expressed in the former, was removed for publication of the latter, which was expedited by the French Catholic writer François Mauriac. Wiesel later explained that "survivors had forced themselves to sublimate their mandate for revenge." On this Naomi Seidman commented "There is something disingenuous, it seems to me, about Wiesel's description of the Jews as having 'sublimate[d] their mandate for revenge.' This sublimation, after all, was Wiesel's ticket into the literature of non-Jewish Europe."2
I recommend reading Robert Faurisson's leaflet about Elie Wiesel. It is atrocious that Wiesel, and his book, are taken seriously, but it is inevitable that some truth come through even there. For example, Wiesel relates in Ch. 5 of Night that, when his foot became swollen he went to the camp hospital which "was not bad at all" for an operation on it. Shortly after the operation, while he was still in the hospital, the approach of the Soviets made the evacuation of the camp imminent. He had the option of staying in the hospital, with his father entered as a patient or nurse, but he chose rather that both join the evacuation, on a predictably difficult journey to another German concentration camp in Germany. He says he heard rumors that those who stayed behind would be killed by the Germans, so he calculated that he and his father had better chances if they remained with the Germans, even through an arduous journey on a healing foot, rather than stay to await the Soviet takeover of the camp. None of that borscht for him.
The noteworthy points of that story are (1) there was a hospital at Auschwitz where ill Jews could go for treatment and (2) Wiesel feared that he would be killed if he did not go with the Germans. That data only make sense on the assumption that the Germans were not exterminating Jews.
His story also passes along the claim, common among the "eye witnesses", that the crematoria at Auschwitz belched flames from the chimneys (Ch. 3). Crematoria do not operate that way, and such flames are not seen on any of the aerial photos3 of the camp that the Allies were taking at the time. His claim to have seen piles of children being burned by the Germans at Auschwitz (also not to be found in the aerial photos) is lifted from the Talmud, with the Romans replaced by the Germans.4
One should wonder if Wiesel understands the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. A famous claim of his, first published in 1968, was in the context of his story of a massacre of Jews at the Babi Yar site in Ukraine: "Eye-witnesses say that for months after the killings the ground continued to spurt geysers of blood."5 John Silber, Chancellor of Boston University (where Wiesel is a professor), attempted to defend Wiesel by insisting "Nowhere did Elie Wiesel claim to see geysers of blood, only that he heard these reported."6 That doesn't work because the context clearly would have us believe the "geysers of blood" claim. Also, Wiesel repeated this years later, with some embellishment, again leaving no doubt that he intended it to be believed: "Later, I learn from a witness that, for month after month, the ground never stopped trembling; and that, from time to time, geysers of blood spurted from it."7
Wiesel's wild yarns are not confined to his "Holocaust" writings. In a 1997 interview he claimed that in 1956 he was hit by a taxi in Times Square in Manhattan: "I flew an entire block . . . . I was hit at 45th Street and Broadway, and the ambulance picked me up at 44th. It sounds crazy. But I was totally messed up."8
When somebody says "I have coffee coming out my ears," it is understood that this is hyperbole. With Wiesel, his contexts give no support to such an interpretation. Thus I can imagine only one defense for Wiesel: he does not understand the distinction between fiction and fact. He has another, but related, defense, which he says he gave in Tel Aviv to a Rebbe (a Hasidic leader), who wondered if he was "writing lies". He says he answered the Rebbe with "Some events do take place but are not true; others are - although they never occurred."9 With this he wished, for motivations that seem obvious, to place his accounts beyond historical critical scrutiny.
Though Wiesel was indeed an inmate at Auschwitz, his Night is so obviously fiction that Daniel R. Schwarz, in his 1999 book Imagining the Holocaust, designated it "Holocaust fiction" whose pages "blur the line between fiction and fact". It is disturbing, but instructive, that Schwarz nevertheless believes Night a worthy book. He declares it "an eloquent testimony depending on human agency and ethical commitment ... Holocaust fiction — like Night — ... believes at least hypothetically in essential truths."10
Schwarz is not alone in classifying Night as a novel. All of the Chicago Tribune stories I cited above, though admiring of the book, describe it as a "novel" or "autobiographical novel". Prof. Gary K. Wolfe of Roosevelt University describes it as a "memoir/novella (which) is not merely a historical document that seeks to teach us; it's also a passionate work of art that seeks to make us more human."11 Bear in mind that there is no stipulation, in the book itself, that it is a novel, or that some of the events depicted did not happen.
All of this reminds me of the "Binjamin Wilkomirski" case, which I have written about elsewhere.12 This person is a Swiss gentile, Bruno Dössekker, who never came near a German concentration camp in wartime, but published an acclaimed purported memoir of the ordeals of a certain Jew Binjamin Wilkomirski, at Majdanek, Auschwitz, and other camps. When he was exposed as a fraud, many important supporters remained loyal to him, on the grounds, roughly speaking, that his account sounded powerful. I am thinking of Yisrael Gutman and Lea Balint of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the American Orthopsychiatric Association, and Dori Lamb of Yale's Holocaust-testimony video archive.
Superficially it will appear that Wiesel's case is not comparable, since he is a Jew who was interned at Auschwitz. However Schwarz and the others who concede Night is a novel force us see great similarity, since they defend Wiesel's book the way Wilkomirski was defended even by supposed experts on "survivors", and even after Wilkomirski was exposed as a complete phony. They note what any reasonable person will see, namely, a considerable part of Wiesel's story is fiction, but they believe the art of Wiesel's presentation is worthy. The obstinate defenders of Wilkomirski will find their view resonated here. Others will condemn fantasy when it attempts to disguise itself, or is accepted, as history or biography. To put it another way, an account that is offered or accepted as truthful must be judged on that basis before purely artistic merits are considered. We must condemn works that "blur the line between fiction and fact"; let them be one or the other.
If those who concede Night is a novel, but praise it, are to be classed with Gutman et. al., then should the generality of other commentators on Wiesel be put in the class of Daniel Ganzfried and others who exposed and condemned the impostor Wilkomirski? Not at all. Wiesel enjoys great adulation and the only nay sayers are we revisionists. There are many who use the fig leaf of a fact, that Wiesel is not a complete fraud, to evade acknowledging that he is a fraud for practical purposes. For example Alan Rosen of Bar-Ilan University is very upset with Schwarz for saying Night is a novel because "Wiesel characterizes Night as a memoir; his readers know Night as a memoir".13
Anybody with the responsibility and training to read critically easily sees, if he is willing, that Wiesel's account is is not a memoir but fiction, as ought to be presumed in any case from Wiesel's explicit denial of the usual correspondence between "occurred" and "true". However Rosen is right that "readers know Night as a memoir". That is, in the popular culture Wiesel is peddled as truth, and apparently accepted as such by many. Thus as a result of the Chicago Public Library's selection of Night, thousands of ordinary people in the Chicago area will infer that the account given there is true, although serious critics who work on both sides of the "Holocaust" question easily see that it is not. That is the atrocity against history, and the people, that the Chicago Public Library has committed by promoting Wiesel's Night.
Postscript of 8 June 2002: For a different point of view on Elie Wiesel, consider that of Kenneth Bialkin, President of the American Jewish Historical Society. At a 9 May 2002 dinner of the Society, honoring Wiesel, he said "Elie is the diamond in the tiara of the Jewish community."14
- Chicago Tribune, 8, 9, 11 February, 5 April, 2002.
- Naomi Seidman, "Elie Wiesel and the Scandal of Jewish Rage," Jewish Social Studies, vol. 3, no. 1, Fall 1996, pp. 1-5,15.
- The link is provided as a source of photos only. I do not necessarily endorse the analysis or conclusions given there.
- I discussed the Talmudic features of the Holocaust yarns in The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, pp. 246f. Wiesel has been immersed in Talmud, as discussed in the NY Times, 10 Nov. 1989, in a review of a PBS - TV interview of Wiesel, and as discussed in the Chicago Tribune, 31 December 1995, book review section, pp. 1f. The Talmud stuff about the 64 million Jewish children holocausted by the Romans is reproduced by Yigael Yadin, Bar-Kokhba, Random House, NY, 1971, p. 257.
- Elie Wiesel, The Jews of Silence, Vallentine, Mitchell, London, 1968, p. 37.
- Silber's comments are laughable when he tries to defend Wiesel's statement that Jews "should set apart a zone of hate -- healthy, virile hate -- for what the German personifies and for what persists in the German." Silber would have us believe that the verbs are not in the present tense. The statement is in Wiesel's book Legends of Our Time, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, NY, 1968, at the conclusion of the essay "Appointment With Hate". The gist of the essay is that Jews do not hate Germans but should.
- Elie Wiesel, Paroles d'étranger, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1982, p. 86.
- NY Times, 5 March 1997, sec. C, p. 1.
- Introduction to Legends of Our Time, p. viii.
- Daniel R. Schwarz, Imagining the Holocaust, St. Martin's, NY, 1999, pp. 53-56.
- Chicago Tribune, 17 Feb. 2002, sec. 2, pp. 1,3.
- Journal of Historical Review, vol. 19, no. 6, Nov./Dec. 2000, pp. 12-25.
- Rosen's review of Schwarz (which he spells "Schwartz") is in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, Winter 2001, pp. 520-523.
- Forward (Jewish weekly), 31 May 2002, p. 16.
6 April 2002. Postscript added 8 June 2002.