Sebastian Schirrmeister on Reading Elie Wiesel in Yiddish

In his famous preface to Elie Wiesel’s seminal Shoah memoir La Nuit (1958), the novelist and Nobel laureate François Mauriac offers an enthusiastic and disturbingly Catholic reading of Wiesel’s experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Promoting the writing of an unknown, stateless, young Jewish journalist to the French public, Mauriac paints an almost saintly picture of a “Lazarus risen from the dead” and unabashedly likens Jewish suffering in the camps to “the cross”. He casually drops in a reference to one of the few well-known Shoah testimonies of that time, expressing the hope that readers of La Nuit “should be as numerous as those reading The Diary of Anne Frank”. Over the decades, Mauriac’s preface has become virtually inseparable from Wiesel’s text and is included in most of its various translations and editions. It continues to exert its paratextual power as a “threshold of interpretation” (G. Genette) and to evoke an association with Anne Frank even before the reader reaches the first sentence of Wiesel’s own narrative.

There is much one could say about the historical and literary comparability of these two texts in particular and about the pitfalls of comparing traumatic experiences in general. However, in terms of canonicity these two texts undoubtedly occupy a similar place in the globalized memory of the Shoah. There is hardly a Shoah literature class that would not address at least one of the two texts. They possess the power to shape the image of the Shoah and its victims in the minds of young readers who grow more and more distant from the historical events with each generation (and with the passing of the last survivors). It is because of their memorial ‘impact factor’, that these works demand careful and thorough scrutiny of the textual sources and of the actors and circumstances involved in their publication. Whereas the critical edition of The Diaries of Anne Frank is well underway here at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg, to the best of my knowledge there is no such project for Wiesel’s La Nuit, even though the text comes with an intriguing, complex, and conflicting history of revisions, omissions, editions, and translations – with the author himself being one among many parties involved in the continuous transformation of the text.

A brief history: Reportedly written in a frenzy during a passage to South America in 1955, an unredacted Yiddish manuscript of 862 pages was left with Mark Turkov who ran a Yiddish language publishing house in Buenos Aires. He edited the manuscript and published a 245-page book titled …un di velt hot geshvign […And the World Kept Silent] in 1956. Two years later and after many failed attempts with French publishers, Jérôme Lindon of Éditions de Minuit agreed to publish Wiesel’s own French translation– accompanied and ‘valorized’ by Mauriac’s preface. At the insistent demands of the publisher, La Nuit ended up significantly shorter and much sparser in style than its Yiddish precursor. But more importantly, it was written in a language foreign to the author. Wiesel only started to learn French after his liberation. However, it is La Nuit or more precisely Stella Rodway’s English translation Night (1960) that paved the way for international success and has been the point of reference for almost half a century. Only in 2006, Wiesel authorized a new English translation by his wife Marion that allowed him “to correct and revise a number of important details” as he puts it in his own explanatory preface, which includes some passages omitted from the Yiddish version. The 2006 translation also revised some of the Christian undertones of La Nuit. The Jews of Wiesel’s hometown Sighet returned finally to celebrating Passover and Shavuot instead of Easter and Pentecost. Unfortunately, German readers are still left with Curt Meyer-Clason’s disputable translation from 1962, in which – among many other artifacts of translation – the writing above the Auschwitz gate reads “Arbeit ist Freiheit”, a literal translation of “Le travail, c’est la liberté”. (At least Martin Walser’s preface to the first German edition was dropped from later reprints, after his infamous speech at the Paulskirche in 1998.) And finally, the discovery of an unfinished Hebrew draft from the 1950s made waves in the Israeli press in 2016 and rounded off the multiplicity of versions – for the time being.

Knowing all this, a literary scholar in 2020 who happens to be interested in, say, the motif of revenge or the lack thereof in Wiesel’s writing, cannot in good conscience rely on his first acquaintance with Night in a Shoah literature class at the University of Haifa more than ten years ago. Nor even on the copy of the text that he kept. He needs to research and to re-read. Since the original Yiddish manuscript is now lost and the Hebrew manuscript safely (and remotely) stored in Wiesel’s personal estate, reading the 1956 Buenos Aires publication …un di velt hot geshvign seemed to me a good place to start. It proved to be challenging. Despite the blessings of mass digitization, some texts are still surprisingly hard to come by. Though the book I was looking for had been digitized years ago and is listed in the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library, for some reason, current copyright restrictions still make the digital document virtually inaccessible. When I eventually received the only hard copy available for inter-library loan within Germany, it was a printout from the Spielberg Library scan. What a wonderful waste of time!

But why read Wiesel in Yiddish in the first place? What are the benefits of spending days deciphering the blurry print of a forgotten text in an obscure language while its more concise, more accessible and internationally acclaimed younger sibling from Paris (1958) continues to fuel advanced scholarly discussions? I will not expand on the countless differences small and large, the deleted scenes and sentences, the altered descriptions and divergent conclusions, the variance in value attached to topics like faith, guilt, international ignorance and Jewish self-delusion. Nor will I dignify the absurd accusations drawn from inconsistencies and discrepancies in Wiesel’s account with further discussion. Instead, I want to reflect briefly on the mere fact that when Wiesel broke his vow of silence ten years after the liberation from Buchenwald, it was in Yiddish. 

In his autobiography Tous les fleuves vont à la mer (1994), Wiesel writes about the Yiddish language: “There are songs that can be sung only in Yiddish, […] stories whose charm and secret, sadness and nostalgia, can be conveyed in Yiddish alone. I love Yiddish because it has been with me from the cradle. It was in Yiddish that I spoke my first words and expressed my first fears. […] I need Yiddish to laugh and cry, to celebrate and express regret, to delve into my memories anew. Is there a better language for evoking the past, with all its horror? Without Yiddish the literature of the Holocaust would have no soul. I know that had I not written my first account in Yiddish, I would have written no others.” Yiddish is more than just the accidental mother tongue of the author, it is the language of a lost Jewish cultural reality in Eastern Europe. It is, as the passage above makes very clear, inextricably tied to the writer’s memory, his identity and his emotional arsenal. Thus, a testimony written in Yiddish can be considered significantly ‘closer’ to the perspective of Wiesel’s adolescent self than an abridged translation by the author into a foreign language. ‘Authenticity’ may be a rather grand term when it comes to representations of the Shoah, but the fact that varieties of Yiddish interspersed with other languages used to serve as “camp language” especially among the Jewish prisoners only strengthens the apparent proximity between event, experience, and narration. Another crucial consequence of writing in Yiddish is the tacit assumption of a fairly distinct and predictable readership. With few odd exceptions, a text in that language would be exclusively accessible to readers with a shared Jewish-European background. The implied familiarity between author and imagined readership certainly accounts for the unfiltered expression of negative emotions, and the moral turmoil and bitter accusations that one might prefer to utter only ‘in private’. 

There is one further aspect that surmounts – at least for the literary scholar – issues of proximity and adequacy: the specific poeticity of the Yiddish language. In the revised English translation, Wiesel’s reaction to his father’s laconic dismissal of the yellow star reads like this: “‘The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal…’ (Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)” In its Yiddish original, Wiesel’s wrestling with historical contingency is more elaborate, more figurative and more painful: “a gele late? – hot er gesogt – mele, m’shtarbt nisht fun dem… oy, fater! oy shtarbt men fun dem! fun vos den bistu geshtorbn, oyb nisht tsulib dem alem vos di o, gele late hot mit sikh mitgeshlept? volst demolt gezen, volt men dir demolt dertseylt, demolt in same onheyb […] vifil sakones es shtekn in der o, kleyner, nishtiker gzire, tsi volstu umgekumen shpeter? nisht farentferte fragn.” [A yellow star? – he said – So what, one doesn’t die from that… Oy, father! Oy, one does die from that! What else did you die from, if not because of everything the yellow star has brought about? If you had seen back then, if one had told you back then, back then in the very beginning […], how many perils are hidden in such a small, inane decree, would you have perished later? Unanswered questions.]

One could give many more examples. I want only to highlight the recurring, leitmotif-like phrase “keynmol wel ikh nisht fargesen” [Never will I (not) forget] whose inner resolve and despair, intensified by the double negative, simply cannot be matched by the dry and externalized (and overcited) “never shall I forget” of the English translation. Maybe it is the unique linguistic blend of German, Hebrew and Slavic components with its idiosyncratic sound and syntax that particularly appeals to the German native speaker who has developed an affinity for Modern Hebrew. But I cannot help but marvel at the beauty and sweetness of the language which stands in such contrast to the horrors it conveys. Never shall I forget the aesthetic pleasure nor the moral discomfort I felt when reading Wiesel in Yiddish. …un di velt hot geshvign does not accommodate its reader, it does not mitigate the anguish of its narrator and it does not acquit anyone of historical responsibility.

And what about revenge? Obviously, it is vibrantly present throughout the text. The overwhelming urge to avenge is deeply felt. The raging desire for payback is vehemently verbalized. It is by far less curtailed, less restrained, less domesticated than in La Nuit. And the closing realization that after the liberation there was “no thought of revenge […] only of bread” (a sinister reminder of B. Brecht’s verse “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.”) is met with a sentiment you will not find in the French version: disappointment. Hopefully, one day you will be able to read more about all this in my book.