“I have tried to keep memory alive… I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”
– Elie Wiesel
The power of storytelling
From the mid-1950s, when he first penned the massive manuscript that would become his slim, stark, seminal work of Holocaust literature, Night, Elie Wiesel dedicated his life to humanizing one of the most horrific chapters in world history.
Writer, teacher, political activist and Nobel Peace Laureate, Wiesel was born in 1928 in what is now Romania. During the Holocaust, at age 15, he and his family were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. One of his sisters and his mother died there. He and his father were later sent to Buchenwald, another camp, where his father died. Allied troops liberated the camp in 1945, and Wiesel and two of his sisters survived.
For over a decade, Wiesel, like many Holocaust survivors, kept silent about his experience. Seeing the anguish this burden caused, an acquaintance (the distinguished French writer Francois Mauriac) encouraged Wiesel to start writing about what had happened to him. Wiesel was working as a journalist at the time. On a boat to Brazil for an assignment, he started telling his story. By the time he’d arrived at this destination, Wiesel had nearly 900 pages furiously written in Yiddish.
This manuscript would undergo a few transformations before being published first in French in 1958 as the devastating and elegant La Nuit, then in English 1960 as Night. The 116 page book – categorized as a non-fiction novel, a fictionalized memoir, an autobiographical novel – was considered a deposition by its author.
Night has since sold over six million copies in the United States, and is available in more than 30 languages. Wiesel went on to write a total of 57 books – including collections of essays, memoirs, novels, and plays – often eloquently blurring the line between literary art and historical record, throughout his career. (For insightful analysis on this topic, see Jordana L. Nissen’s dissertation, “Memory and remembrance in selected nonfiction works of Elie Wiesel” on ProQuest Central).
Inspiring others to break their silence
In his commitment to ensure that the murder of six million Jews would never be forgotten, Wiesel also encouraged others to share their memories and tell their stories.
Much like Wiesel, Clara Isaacman kept her experiences to herself. Upon coming to the U.S. in 1946, Isaacman was stunned to discover people didn’t speak at all about the Holocaust. The subject was considered taboo. So for 20 years, Isaacman recalled in her interview with the USC Shoah Foundation, nobody knew she was a survivor.
Until she met Wiesel.
Write, he told her. Like Mauriac had told him.
At first, Isaacman was reluctant. “You have written for all of us,” she remembered telling Wiesel over dinner. “What can I say that you haven’t said yet?”
A long conversation ensued, with Wiesel finally convincing Isaacman: “What you can write, I can’t. And what I can write, you can’t. So go home, and write.”
In 1984, Isaacman published Clara’s Story, her own memoir of the years she and her family spent hiding in Belgium during World War II.
Continuing the legacy
When Wiesel died on July 3, 2016, Time magazine reported the president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Julius Berman, said in a statement:
“We are losing survivors, like Elie, with first-hand accounts of the Holocaust every day. For this reason it is incumbent on us to record, document and represent survivors’ experiences and keep them in the public consciousness, lest we forget the depths to which society is capable of sinking.”
According to the Claims Conference, there are only about 100,000 Jews still alive today who were in camps, ghettos and in hiding under Nazi occupation.
Keeping the stories of these survivors – not just of the Holocaust, but wherever there has been violence, repression, racism – in the public consciousness was Wiesel’s life’s work. In honoring his legacy of remembrance, it is imperative to ensure that those who have been silenced are given a voice so not only are their stories told, but so that they can also be heard.
And in hearing them, they can inspire us to speak up against hate and cruelty in all forms, and continue Wiesel’s charge to prevent such atrocities from happening again.
“Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
– Elie Wiesel