The Atlantic

The Many Holocausts

In the aftermath of the Shoah, different nations embraced different narratives of the tragedy. Today, though, the world needs to hear all of these complementary messages.
Source: Axel Schmidt / Reuters

Almost inconceivably, the two most acclaimed Holocaust writers were imprisoned in the same Auschwitz sub-camp, Monowitz, at the same time. Some survivors even remembered them occupying the same block. There, they suffered the same unspeakable deprivations, the deadly cold, disease, hunger, and dehumanization. In that insanely polyglot place, they both learned the lifesaving lingua franca—German—and miraculously passed through selections. And even after liberation, when tens of thousands still died, they somehow endured.

Yet, despite all their shared horrors, Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi emerged with profoundly different versions of the Holocaust’s meaning and lessons. Their memoirs made them national icons, not only because of the compelling voices in which they were told, but even more so because of what their audiences were willing to hear.

Americans would not have listened to the enraged Wiesel who staggered out of Germany’s Buchenwald concentration camp, one of the relative few to have survived the agonizing march from Poland. In the first drafts of what would become his classic, Night, Wiesel expressed fury at the Germans, his family’s Christian neighbors, Jewish collaborators inside the camps, indifferent Jews overseas, and especially God. He described desperate sexual encounters among prisoners likely to die and the rape of German women by newly liberated survivors. Virtually all of this rawness was excised from La Nuit, first published in 1958, under the mentorship of the French Catholic humanist François Charles Mauriac. As noted by the critics Ruth Franklin, Ron Rosenbaum, and others, Mauriac condensed an embittered 865-page Yiddish manuscript into 254 pages of literary French all but drained of acrimony. The need for revenge was replaced by acceptance of the silent martyrdom traditionally preferred by the Church. Originally a cry of despair, the description of a Jewish boy’s hanging by the SS became, in Wiesel’s new homogenized version, a parable of saintly suffering.

Nevertheless, could scarcely was selected by Oprah’s Book Club and spent 18 months at the top of the Best Seller List. Wiesel was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nobel Peace Prize. An entire generation of American high-school students learned about the Holocaust almost exclusively from .

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