- Revisiting Wiesel’s Night in Yiddish, French, and English
The Yiddish Ur-Text of Night
Elie Wiesel’s Night, first published in French in 1958 as La nuit, is widely regarded as a classic, or even as the archetypal, survivor account. Yet for a long time, editions of the book left out an important fact: it is the reworking of a Yiddish text Wiesel had published two years earlier in Buenos Aires, under the title . . . Un di velt hot geshvign — “ . . . And the World Was Silent” (note the suspension marks, often left out in quotations). In this paper, I shall engage with some interpretations of differences across varying versions of the text, and then offer another perspective.1
The existence of a Yiddish pre-original or Ur-Text is addressed in Wiesel’s preface to the new English edition of 2006, which superseded the 1960 translation by Stella Rodway. This new version, done by the writer’s wife, Marion, in consultation with him, is not simply an improved translation, removing linguistic inaccuracies that cropped up in the previous versions. It also includes authorial emendations in the interest of greater factuality. A year later, in 2007, a new French version appeared that translates, and adapts somewhat, the new English preface by the author, also reproducing the authorial corrections. So, as is often the case with canonical works, there are several authoritative versions of the text, or in a sense, several “originals,” in all of which the author was involved to varying degrees: the 1956 Yiddish text, the 1958 French version that significantly reworks that text, the 2006 English Night that corrects the earlier translation, and La nuit of 2007 that draws upon the new English text.
Why, in the preface to the English edition of 2006 (mirrored by that to the French version of 2007), did Wiesel finally incorporate information [End Page 127] about the Yiddish pre-original? One reason for the change may be that in the nearly fifty years since the first versions of the book, what Yiddish had lost in numbers of speakers it gained in prestige. Already in the first volume of his memoirs in 1994, Wiesel had spoken of the process whereby . . . Un di velt hot geshvign had morphed into La nuit (1995: 319–23).
The issues of factual inaccuracy in the text of Night, and of inconsistency across its editions, go beyond the halls of academia. The 2006 edition was showcased by American TV talk show hostess Oprah Winfrey for her book club, presumably to correct damage caused by her earlier featuring of a memoir, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, that turned out to be a falsification (Wyatt). Yet as Ruth Franklin, literary critic for The New Republic, noted, “Night is an imperfect ambassador for the infallibility of the memoir, owing to the fact that it has been treated very often as a novel — by journalists, by scholars, and even by its publishers” (2011: 71). Some queries regarding contradictions and possible omissions are reasonable enough: was Wiesel 15 years old or younger when he arrived at Auschwitz? (Wyatt). Did he receive help there from a communist resistance network that he failed to acknowledge for political reasons? (Cockburn). Other questions seem far more lurid: were the infants whom Wiesel reports having seen tossed into flaming pits alive or already dead? Did the young people squeezed into the train to Ausch- witz have actual sex or did they merely pet? About such ponderings, Franklin asks: “One cannot seriously worry about whether babies were burned alive or dead at Auschwitz without losing something of one’s own humanity. Is it not enough to know that they were burned at all?” (2006). And regarding possible sexual improprieties committed by the youth in the inhuman convoy to Auschwitz, Susan Suleiman wonders, “Will we ever know (and do we want to?) exactly who touched whom in that wagon and how?” (177).
Far more contentious is Alexander Cockburn’s critique of Night, published at the time of the new English translation of 2006. Besides accusing Wiesel of not mentioning helpful communist resisters, Cock-burn follows Norman Finkelstein in combining challenges to Wiesel’s factuality with reproach for his refusal...