(Reposted from My Urban Kvetch)
“Night” is Wiesel’s chronicle of his family’s placement in the Auschwitz death camp, and was his first of more than 40 books, essays and plays. An accomplished work of prose, the book has often been called a novel, including by the study guide CliffsNotes. But Wiesel’s foundation labels it a memoir, as does the book’s publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
I remember Night. I read it in elementary school as part of our school’s extensive Holocaust curriculum. In fact, it was one of a series of books that a fifth- or sixth-grader probably had no business reading. Mature subject matter, as they might term it today. But back then it was required reading; part of the immersion into the history of the Holocaust era. We read Simon Wiesenthal, and Lucy Dawidovicz, and Yaffa Eliach (who one day would be the academic advisor on the series that included my first book). We read and did projects about the death camps, and the Judenrats, and the ghettos, and the Einsatzgruppen. We saw movies like Holocaust and parts of Shoah. Our education, and the absorption of both word and image relating to the Holocaust, was almost automatic, or scripted…literally, in the case of an eighth-grade show we were drafted to write and perform ourselves.
Our cantata (first time any of us had ever heard that word, I assure you) was based on the works we had read, dramatized and paraphrased in our own words. It was story retellings punctuated by Yiddish songs about villages burning and Jews who escaped from the certain death of the camps into the probable death of the forests to become partisans. There was this one line in the script…because it was uttered by one of the more dramatically inclined girls in our class, and because (as the author of that line readily admits today, it was a little heavy-handed) I still remember it: “Hanukkah? In a death camp? Hanukkah? Surrounded by nothing but the smell of burning bodies 24 hours a day?” That line was so over-the-top, when it came to the writing and its delivery, that it was the object of scorn for many of the (“dude, drama is stupid”) boys in the class. But that I could write a line like that was an indicator that I really wasn’t absorbing the emotional gravity of the historical facts. I’m not sure any of us were really ready to.
Night was different…it was beautifully, lyrically, poetically written. And although it was (or seemed) fictionalized, it also resonated more deeply; in the well-craftedness of it all, by appreciating the artistry of the narrative, it also became that much more haunting. When I had nightmares, the images that plagued me were not the piles of bodies in death camps. They were the images from Wiesel’s book; told by one young man as he experienced the complete subversion of any sense of normalcy and reality, and a descent not into madness, but into a darkened reality without hope, with death as constant companion as well as eventual and imminent fate.
What will Oprah’s audience do with Night? Time will tell. But I’m looking forward to finding out. And I’m wondering if, reading it as adults, they’ll be more or less impressed by the art of it, and whether a maturer mind is haunted as much by the words today as mine was when I was 11.