Elie Wiesel survived Auschwitz to give us a vivid glimpse of the ‘kingdom of night’

Elie Wiesel in 2012 after being named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. EPA/Justin Lane

There is huge symbolism in the death of Elie Wiesel. He is not simply a survivor of the Holocaust; he became the best-known chronicler of it, too – and in 1986 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Wiesel, who died on July 2 aged 87, emerged as the voice of Holocaust survivors in part because his short memoir, Night, was published at what, in retrospect, was the right time.

Written originally in Yiddish – and then reworked and published first in French in 1958 and then in English in 1960 – Night emerged on the cusp of growing interest in the events of the Holocaust in general and Auschwitz in particular.

The 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem was pivotal in bringing events such as the deportation of Jews like Wiesel living in wartime Hungary to the awareness of the Israeli public and the wider world. Initially, it had been the western camps, including Belsen, that had dominated awareness after the liberation in the 1940s. But by the 1960s, it was Auschwitz – and the industrialised killing in its gas chambers – that emerged as the motif. It was Auschwitz where Wiesel, along with more than 400,000 other Jews from wartime Hungary, was taken.

Night is a powerfully simple narrative given the nature of his experiences. Wiesel’s story of being forced into the ghetto, crammed into cattle cars, separated from his mother on the selection ramp in Birkenau and then moved through a succession of camps, is a relatively typical story of Hungarian survivors who were teenagers or early 20s at the time.

Child survivors of Auschwitz. By Alexander Voronzow/ USHMM/Belarusian State Archive of Documentary Film and Photography, CC BY

Captured in the photographs that make up the Auschwitz Album, this national deportation above all others came to represent the Holocaust. More recently, our awareness has moved further eastwards to include the mass killing of Polish Jews in the Operation Reinhard camps of Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor in 1942, and the shootings of Jews in Soviet territory in the second half of 1941.

Making sense of evil

But while the historical context goes some way towards explaining why Night has emerged as a singular Holocaust memoir, there is also a need to think about the memoir itself.

Sparsely and brilliantly written, Night captures the moment of familial separation on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau with the haunting line:

‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’ … Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother.

Wiesel was working as a journalist in France when he wrote Night. He was a gifted writer and not simply a survivor. As he narrated his past, Wiesel did more than simply describe – however powerfully – the events that unfolded around him. He also interpreted them, desperately trying to make sense of them both for himself and his audience.

Voice from hell

Auschwitz became a place where the anchors of his world were loosed. His once devout faith in God was tested and found wanting. Night is not simply a description of the violence of Auschwitz, but a meditation on the vexed question of theodicy – the idea that God must exist as a counter to extreme evil – that the Holocaust brings to the fore with particular force.

Birkenau: human remnants.

But Night not only reveals Wiesel’s wrestling with his understanding of God. It also shows a world of reversal where sons look after fathers and others abandon them in order to survive. Whether to protect or abandon his father becomes for Wiesel an overwhelming concern. Night doesn’t only offer us a glimpse of Auschwitz, it also allows us into the interior world of a teenage boy in Auschwitz and beyond.

For the rest of his life, Wiesel powerfully argued that survivors had a privileged insight into the places and events of the Holocaust by dint of having dwelt a while in what he called the “kingdom of night” – a place he felt that he had never fully left. It was this place that continued to pervade his words and made his a compelling voice in the second half of the 20th century.

His death is a reminder that a time is coming when the last survivor of that kingdom of night will die and our flesh-and-blood connection to that place – and those events – will be severed. Memory will be replaced by history and memoir.