Move to France
Wiesel wanted to move to Palestine after his release, but because of British immigration restrictions was sent instead by the Oeuvre au Secours aux Enfants (Children's Rescue Service) to Belgium, then Normandy. In Normandy he learned that his two older sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, had survived. From 1947 to 1950 he studied the Talmud, philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne, where he was influenced by the existentialists, attending lectures by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Buber. He also taught Hebrew, and worked as a translator for the Yiddish weekly Zion in Kamf. In 1948, when he was 19, he was sent to Israel as a war correspondent by the French newspaper L'arche, and after the Sorbonne became chief foreign correspondent of the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
1954: Un di Velt Hot Geshvign
Wiesel wrote in 1979 that he kept his story to himself for ten years. In 1954 he wanted to interview the French prime minister, Pierre Mendès-France, and approached the novelist François Mauriac, a friend of Mendès-France, for an introduction. He writes: "The problem was that [Mauriac] was in love with Jesus. He was the most decent person I ever met in that field ... and he was in love with Jesus. ... Whatever I would ask – Jesus. Finally, I said, 'What about Mendès-France?' He said that Mendès-France, like Jesus, was suffering ..."When he said Jesus again I couldn't take it, and for the only time in my life I was discourteous, which I regret to this day. I said, "Mr. Mauriac," we called him Maître, "ten years or so ago, I have seen children, hundreds of Jewish children, who suffered more than Jesus did on his cross and we do not speak about it." I felt all of a sudden so embarrassed. I closed my notebook and went to the elevator. He ran after me. He pulled me back; he sat down in his chair, and I in mine, and he began weeping. ... And then, at the end, without saying anything, he simply said, "You know, maybe you should talk about it."
Wiesel started writing on board a ship to Brazil, where he had been assigned to cover Christian missionaries within Jewish communities, and by the end of the journey had completed an 862-page manuscript. He was introduced on the ship to Yehudit Moretzka, a Yiddish singer travelling with Mark Turkov, a publisher of Yiddish texts. Turkov asked if he could read Wiesel's manuscript. It is unclear who edited the text for publication. Wiesel wrote in All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995) that he handed Turkov his only copy and that it was never returned, but also that he (Wiesel) "cut down the original manuscript from 862 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish edition."
Turkov's Tzentral Varband fun Polishe Yidn in Argentina (Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina) published the book in 1956 in Buenos Aires as the 245-page Un di velt hot geshvign ("And the World Remained Silent"). It was the 117th book in a 176-volume series of Yiddish memoirs of Poland and the war, Dos poylishe yidntum (Polish Jewry, 1946–1966). Ruth Wisse writes that Un di Velt Hot Geshvign stood out from the rest of the series, which survivors wrote as memorials to their dead, as a "highly selective and isolating literary narrative".
1958: La Nuit
Wiesel translated Un di Velt Hot Geshvign into French, and in 1955 sent it to Mauriac. Even with Mauriac's help they had difficulty finding a publisher; Wiesel has said they found it too morbid. Jérôme Lindon of Les Éditions de Minuit, Samuel Beckett's publisher, agreed to handle it. Lindon edited the text down to 178 pages. Published as La Nuit, a title chosen by Lindon, it had a preface by Mauriac, and was dedicated to Chlomo, Sarah and Tzipora.
Wiesel's New York agent, Georges Borchardt, encountered the same difficulty finding a publisher in the United States. In 1960 Arthur Wang of Hill & Wang in New York – who Wiesel writes "believed in literature as others believe in God" – paid a $100 pro-forma advance, and published a 116-page English translation by Stella Rodway that year as Night. The first 18 months saw 1,046 copies sell at $3 each, and it took three years to sell the first print run of 3,000 copies, but the book attracted interest from reviewers, leading to television interviews and meetings with literary figures like Saul Bellow.
By 1997 Night was selling 300,000 copies a year in the United States. By 2011 it had sold six million copies in that country, and was available in 30 languages. Sales increased in January 2006 when it was chosen for Oprah's Book Club. Republished with a new translation by Marion Wiesel, Wiesel's wife, and a new preface by Wiesel, it sat at no. 1 in The New York Times bestseller list for paperback non-fiction for 18 months from 13 February 2006, until the newspaper decided to remove it. It became the club's third bestseller to date, with over two million sales of the Book Club edition by May 2011.
Reviewers have had difficulty reading Night as an eyewitness account. It has been categorized as a novel, autobiography, autobiographical novel, non-fictional novel, semi-fictional memoir, fictional-autobiographical novel, fictionalized autobiographical memoir and memoir-novel. Ellen Fine described it as témoignage (testimony). Wiesel called it his deposition.
Literary critic Ruth Franklin writes that Night's impact stems from its minimalist construction. The 1956 Yiddish version, at 865 pages, was a long and angry historical work. In preparation for the French edition, Wiesel's editors pruned without mercy. Franklin argues that the power of the narrative was achieved at the cost of literal truth, and that to insist that the work is purely factual is to ignore its literary sophistication. Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer argues similarly that Wiesel evokes, rather than describes:Weisel's account is ballasted with the freight of fiction: scenic organization, characterization through dialogue, periodic climaxes, elimination of superfluous or repetitive episodes, and especially an ability to arouse the empathy of his readers, which is an elusive ideal of the writer bound by fidelity to fact."
Franklin writes that Night is the account of the 15-year-old Eliezer, a "semi-fictional construct," told by the 25-year-old Elie Wiesel. This allows the 15-year-old to tell his story from "the post-Holocaust vantage point" of Night's readers. In a comparative analysis of the Yiddish and French texts, Naomi Seidman, professor of Jewish culture, concludes that there are two survivors in Wiesel's writing, a Yiddish and French. In re-writing rather than simply translating Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, Wiesel replaced an angry survivor who regards "testimony as a refutation of what the Nazis did to the Jews," with one "haunted by death, whose primary complaint is directed against God ..." Night transformed the Holocaust into a religious event.
Seidman argues that the Yiddish version was for Jewish readers, who wanted to hear about revenge, but the anger was removed for the largely Christian readership of the French translation. In the Yiddish edition, for example, when Buchenwald was liberated: "Early the next day Jewish boys ran off to Weimar to steal clothing and potatoes. And to rape German shiksas [un tsu fargvaldikn daytshe shikses]." In the 1958 French and 1960 English editions: "On the following morning, some of the young men went to Weimar to get some potatoes and clothes – and to sleep with girls [coucher avec des filles]. But of revenge, not a sign."
Franklin writes that Oprah Winfrey's promotion of Night came at a difficult time for the genre of memoir, after a previous book-club author, James Frey, was found to have fabricated parts of his autobiography, A Million Little Pieces. She argues that Winfrey's choice of Night may have been intended to restore the book club's credibility. Night has a useful lesson to teach, Franklin writes, about the complexities of memoir and memory.
Wiesel tells a story about a visit to a Rebbe, a Hasidic rabbi, he had not seen for 20 years. The Rebbe is upset to learn that Wiesel has become a writer, and wants to know what he writes. "Stories," Wiesel tells him, " ... true stories":About people you knew? "Yes, about people I might have known." About things that happened? "Yes, about things that happened or could have happened." But they did not? "No, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end." The Rebbe leaned forward as if to measure me up and said with more sorrow than anger: That means you are writing lies! I did not answer immediately. The scolded child within me had nothing to say in his defense. Yet, I had to justify myself: "Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are – although they never occurred."