(Reposted from My Urban Kvetch)

As of about two hours ago, the news hit the web that Oprah has selected a new book for her celebrated book club: Night, by Elie Wiesel:

“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.

About the author

Esther Kustanowitz

For more posts by Esther, see EstherK.com, MyUrbanKvetch.com and JDatersAnonymous.com.

14 Comments

  • so this news actually hit the web yesterday, in the New York Times book section, but never mind that. Considering the fact that some guy (a college student approaching, if not in, his twenties) in my European nationalism class actually asked out loud if Hitler had exterminated the entirety of the Polish population, I think it’s a good thing that Oprah has chosen this book. I agree with her 100% that it should be required reading for everyone. As for what they will do with it, who can say. It’s a devastating book, but really beautifully written. I actually got to see/hear Elie Wiesel speak at my university, and he’s amazing. If anyone has such an opportunity, I can’t recommend the experience too highly. I was assigned the book in seventh grade and I, too, am inclined to believe that most seventh graders are not mentally/emotionally prepared for such a reading, never mind fifth and sixth graders. Anyway, word on the street is that the new translation is better, so I’ll be picking that up.

  • Polish. gentiles included. all of Poland, as far as this guy was concernted, was decimated.

  • Ofri: Well, I guess that’s better than him thinking no one died, right? (Sorry, black humor.)

    General:

    Some part of me is really worried by how this will turn out. Looking at some of Oprah’s other book choices…well…I get nervous. On the other hand, she’s the best thing to happen to reading aside from Harry Potter, in terms of sheer numbers. I hope that the people who read this with her will…I dunno. Get it. Somehow.

  • Oprah’s probably looking for a work with unquestioned accuracy after the whole “A Million Little Pieces” debacle. So Night is a good choice, unless her book club is popular in Iran.

  • I stopped by the B&N next to my shul to pick up a copy of “Everything is Illuminated”, and I noticed a new & fancy edition of “Night” prominently placed throughout the store, along with this hecksher-looking “Oprah reading club” sticker on it.

  • BA, I would argue that the timing has more to do with the release of the new and supposedly improved (so says Elie Wiesel) translation than the recent controversy surrounding A Million Little Pieces. Who knows?

  • I was also wondering if it anything to do with her Post-“A Million Little Pieces”-Stress-Disorder.

    I too am keen to see how her readership will respond…

  • Ofri: Perhaps, but this quotation from the publisher seems pretty responsive to “A Million Little Frauds”…

    “There has never been any controversy about this book,” says Jeff Seroy, a spokesman for publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “It’s widely used in classrooms and, next to Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, it’s one of the most widely read books on the Holocaust.”

  • I just finished reading “Night,” the novel really caught my attention. I learned many things about the Holocaust that I did not know. It is unbelievable how the Jews were treated. I don’t understand how anyone could treat any human the way that the SS officers treated them.

  • I thought that the novel Night was so great. It made me think about the things that go on today in our own lives. And I hope they keep reading the novel all over the world.

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