Books no longer have the power they once did.
Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.
THE READER would be entitled to ask: Why this new translation,
since the earlier one has been around for forty-five years? If it is
not faithful or not good enough, why did I wait so long to replace
it with one better and closer to the original?
In response, I would say only that back then, I was an unknown
writer who was just getting started. My English was far
from good. When my British publisher told me that he had found
a translator, I was pleased. I later read the translation and it
seemed all right. I never reread it. Since then, many of my other
works have been translated by Marion, my wife, who knows my
voice and how to transmit it better than anyone else. I am fortunate:
when Farrar, Straus and Giroux asked her to prepare a new
translation, she accepted. I am convinced that the readers will appreciate
her work. In fact, as a result of her rigorous editing, I was
able to correct and revise a number of important details.
And so, as I reread this text written so long ago, I am glad that
I did not wait any longer. And yet, I still wonder: Have I used the
right words? I speak of my first night over there. The discovery of
the reality inside the barbed wire. The warnings of a “veteran”
inmate, counseling my father and myself to lie about our ages: my
father was to make himself younger, and I older. The selection.
The march toward the chimneys looming in the distance under
an indifferent sky. The infants thrown into fiery di tches… I did
not say that they were alive, but that was what I thought. But then
I convinced myself: no, they were dead, otherwise I surely would
have lost my mind. And yet fellow inmates also saw them; they
were alive when they were thrown into the flames. Historians,
among them Telford Taylor, confirmed it. And yet somehow I did
not lose my mind.
BEFORE CONCLUDING this introduction, I believe it important to
emphasize how strongly I feel that books, just like people, have a
destiny. Some invite sorrow, others joy, some both.
Earlier, I described the difficulties encountered by Night before
its publication in French, forty-seven years ago. Despite
overwhelmingly favorable reviews, the book sold poorly. The subject
was considered morbid and interested no one. If a rabbi happened
to mention the book in his sermon, there were always
people ready to complain that it was senseless to “burden our
children with the tragedies of the Jewish past.”
Since then, much has changed. Night has been received in
ways that I never expected. Today, students in high schools and
colleges in the United States and elsewhere read it as part of their
How to explain this phenomenon? First of all, there has been
a powerful change in the public’s attitude. In the fifties and
sixties, adults born before or during World War II showed
a careless and patronizing indifference toward what is so inadequately
called the Holocaust. That is no longer true.
Back then, few publishers had the courage to publish books
on that subject.
Today, such works are on most book lists. The same is true in
academia. Back then, few schools offered courses on the subject.
Today, many do. And, strangely, those courses are particularly
popular. The topic of Auschwitz has become part of mainstream
culture. There are films, plays, novels, international conferences,
exhibitions, annual ceremonies with the participation of the nation’s
officialdom. The most striking example is that of the
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.;
it has received more than twenty-two million visitors since its
inauguration in 1993.
This may be because the public knows that the number of
survivors is shrinking daily, and is fascinated by the idea of sharing
memories that will soon be lost. For in the end, it is all about
memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.
For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to
bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive
future generations of a past that belongs to our collective
memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to
forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.
SOMETIMES I AM ASKED if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I
answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know
if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. What I do know is
that there is “response” in responsibility. When we speak of this
era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, “responsibility”
is the key word.
The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today,
for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not
want his past to become their future.
by François Mauriac
FOREIGN JOURNALISTS frequently come to see me. I am
wary of them, torn as I am between my desire to speak to
them freely and the fear of putting weapons into the
hands of interviewers whose attitude toward France I do not
know. During these encounters, I tend to be on my guard.
That particular morning, the young Jew who came to interview
me on behalf of a Tel Aviv daily won me over from the first
moment. Our conversation very quickly became more personal.
Soon I was sharing with him memories from the time of the Occupation.
It is not always the events that have touched us personally
that affect us the most. I confided to my young visitor that nothing
I had witnessed during that dark period had marked me as
deeply as the image of cattle cars filled with Jewish children at
the Austerlitz train s t a t ion…Yet I did not even see them with
my own eyes. It was my wife who described them to me, still under
the shock of the horror she had felt. At that time we knew
nothing about the Nazis’ extermination methods. And who could
have imagined such things! But these lambs torn from their
mothers, that was an outrage far beyond anything we would have
thought possible. I believe that on that day, I first became aware
of the mystery of the iniquity whose exposure marked the end of
an era and the beginning of another. The dream conceived by
Western man in the eighteenth century, whose dawn he thought
he had glimpsed in 1789, and which until August 2, 1914, had become
stronger with the advent of the Enlightenment and scientific
discoveries—that dream finally vanished for me before those
trainloads of small children. And yet I was still thousands of miles
away from imagining that these children were destined to feed
the gas chambers and crematoria.
This, then, was what I probably told this journalist. And when
I said, with a sigh, “I have thought of these children so many
times!” he told me, “I was one of them.” He was one of them!
He had seen his mother, a beloved little sister, and most of his
family, except his father and two other sisters, disappear in a
furnace fueled by living creatures. As for his father, the boy had
to witness his martyrdom day after day and, finally, his agony
and death. And what a death! The circumstances of it are narrated
in this book, and I shall allow readers—who should be as numerous
as those reading The Diary of Anne Frank—to discover them
for themselves as well as by what miracle the child himself
I maintain therefore that this personal record, coming as it
does after so many others and describing an abomination such as
we might have thought no longer had any secrets for us, is different,
distinct, and unique nevertheless. The fate of the Jews of the
small town in Transylvania called Sighet; their blindness as they
confronted a destiny from which they would have still had time
to flee; the inconceivable passivity with which they surrendered
to it, deaf to the warnings and pleas of a witness who, having escaped
the massacre, relates to them what he has seen with his
own eyes, but they refuse to believe him and call him a madman—
this set of circumstances would surely have sufficed to inspire
a book to which, I believe, no other can be compared.
It is, however, another aspect of this extraordinary book that
has held my attention. The child who tells us his story here was
one of God’s chosen. From the time he began to think, he lived
only for God, studying the Talmud, eager to be initiated into the
Kabbalah, wholly dedicated to the Almighty. Have we ever considered
the consequence of a less visible, less striking abomination,
yet the worst of all, for those of us who have faith: the death
of God in the soul of a child who suddenly faces absolute evil?
Let us try to imagine what goes on in his mind as his eyes
watch rings of black smoke unfurl in the sky, smoke that emanates
from the furnaces into which his little sister and his mother
had been thrown after thousands of other victims:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned
my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose
bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me
for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God
and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to
live as long as God Himself.
It was then that I understood what had first appealed to me
about this young Jew: the gaze of a Lazarus risen from the dead