Days after Oprah Winfrey’s last Book Club selection was unmasked as fraud, triggering a national conversation among literati and lay readers alike about the definition and significance of memoir, the talk show host and cultural arbiter announced her next choice: “Night,” Elie Wiesel’s seminal autobiographical account of his experience during the Holocaust.
But there is a problem. As E.J. Kessler reported in these pages, even “Night” has raised red flags. In 1996, Naomi Seidman, a Jewish Studies professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., compared the original 1956 Yiddish version of the book, then titled “Un di velt hot geshvign” (“And the World Kept Silent”), with the later 158-page French version (“La Nuit”), which is the text that was translated and constitutes the Oprah-book as we now know it. According to Seidman’s account, published in the scholarly journal Jewish Social Studies, Wiesel substantially rewrote the work between editions — suggesting that the strident and vengeful tone of the Yiddish original was converted into a continental, angst-ridden existentialism more fitting to Wiesel’s emerging role as an ambassador of culture and conscience. Most important, Seidman wrote that Wiesel altered several facts in the later edition, in some cases offering accounts of pivotal moments that conflicted with the earlier version. (For example, in the French, the young Wiesel, having been liberated from Buchenwald, is recuperating in a hospital; he looks into a mirror and writes that he saw a corpse staring back at him. In the earlier Yiddish, Wiesel holds that upon seeing his reflection he smashed the mirror and then passed out, after which “my health began to improve.”)
As we are about to enter a world in which no survivor of the Holocaust will be left alive to give testimony firsthand, the record of witnesses becomes all the more critical.