the observer Sun 20 December 2009
Elie Wiesel was 15 when the Nazis came for the 15,000 Jews of his hometown of Sighet, Transylvania, in May 1944. Upon arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, his mother and sister were murdered within hours, while he was put to work as a slave labourer. Eight months later, the Germans evacuated the camp and forced the survivors on a death march that ended at Buchenwald. Wiesel was one of the few still alive when the Americans arrived in April 1945.
One of the most horrifying memoirs ever written, Night was first published in English in 1960. To mark Wiesel's 80th birthday, the Nobel laureate's wife, Marion, has produced a new translation. In stark, simple language, he describes what happened to him and to his family. It is hard to imagine anything more hellish than the picture he paints of his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau: "Huge flames were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children."
Throughout, Wiesel conveys a collective sense of disbelief that "disciplined, educated men" could commit such crimes. In a key scene, he tells how one of Sighet's Jews, Moishe, had been deported to Poland in 1942. Moishe and his companions had dug their own graves before being shot and left for dead. But Moishe had somehow survived and returned to Sighet to warn his friends. Yet nobody would believe him.
As the events of the 1940s slip ever further away, they become harder to comprehend and imagine. In his foreword, Wiesel explains why he felt compelled to write Night, saying his "duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living". He has done more than most to keep alive their memory.