Genocide In Elie Wiesel’s Night, edited by Louise Hawker
In reading this book, which is itself longer than the book it is about, as is sometimes the case with critical efforts like this one, I found myself missing the clear and haunting prose of the original. To be sure, this book has some worthwhile things to say about Elie Wiesel’s Night, but it does not say them as eloquently and as movingly as the book itself. This is not too surprising for a variety of reasons. For one, the authors included here are not nearly as good at writing as Wiesel is, even if his writing inhabits a fairly small emotional territory and that a grim one. For another, though, this is a book about social issues and as such this book is loaded with all kinds of unpleasant and unpalatable political aspects in spite of itself. To be sure, Night is worthy of being looked at when it comes to social issues, but the book itself does not do as good a job as it thinks it does in terms of recognizing the importance of the Holocaust and related genocides or in changing a decidedly unpleasant feeling about it to any sort of meaningful response on the part of ordinary people without a great deal of power.
This book of not quite 200 pages in length begins with a discussion of Elie Wiesel’s background, with essays on his life, the themes that characterize Wiesel’s life, his honor as a witness for truth and justice, and a set of problematic conditions that must be met for Weisel to consider it possible for Jewish-Christian dialogue to be met. I must admit I am not willing that these conditions be met, nor do I think that they would be met on the side of Jews either for their own view of Christians. Moving on from this, the book then provides eleven essays about Genocide in Night, the main topic of the book. We see essays about Night as the reverse of the coming-of-age tale, look at the loss of faith in the midst of genocide, plumb the unfathomable depths of the Holocaust, discuss the way that the Jewish community of Sighet was unable to process reports of genocide, look at night as a metaphor, discuss the loss of humanity to victims of trauma, consider the way that Wiesel induces his readers to become witnesses of the horror through his own narrative, discuss the societal breakdown during deportation and transportation of victims, discuss God’s failure to protect Jews, ponder the meaningful silences that communicate what cannot be spoken, and look at memory as a sign of recovery. The book then closes with four essays that look at contemporary perspectives on genocide, including the Armenian genocide, a genocide I was unaware of in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, the genocide(s) in the Sudan, and discuss the way that mass human tragedy numbs the ability of individuals to react.
In reading a book like this, my question is generally, “What am I supposed to do about this?” I don’t accept money from pro-Sudan advertising efforts to paint a prettier picture than that of harassed and butchered people of Darfur. The decision is not in my hands whether or not to protect the Kurds of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey from the horrors wished by the governments of those nations, although I believe such people ought to be protected and given their own nation-state, predicated on full rights and safety being provided to Assyrians, Yazidis, and other minority populations in those areas. Perhaps they assume that ordinary people should speak up about these things and should make themselves aware of the suffering going on in the world (and near to them) so as to be humane in just in their own dealings and to put pressure on our governments to reflect our own enlightened humanity? Is this what is expected of us? Otherwise, much of this book amounts to virtue signalling that we are against genocide and oppression, making us feel like better people but not doing a lot for those who are under genocidal regimes.