Opinion: Power of Wiesel’s words undeniable

Mark Oprea

A wave of silence flew over the crowd as Elie Wiesel began to talk last Thursday in the M.A.C. Center. His white hair ran wild — confirming that he “doesn’t sleep much” — as he sat with a calm countenance onstage. There was an indescribable feeling that filled the arena. Wiesel looked upon the crowd like a Jewish sage as he spoke about his unique experience in the Holocaust, as recorded in his testimony, “Night.”Yet something happened to me a few days before the event that reshaped my outlook for Wiesel’s presentation.I was contacted by a man who recommended that I should not have esteemed Wiesel as much as I did in my previous column. This “intellectually inclined” gentleman, who claims to have “lived all [his] life in a heavily Jewish community” with a Jewish wife and children, has devoted a decent portion of it to “debunking” one of the nationality’s most prestigious figures. He believes that Wiesel’s account of his Holocaust experiences is “not creditable”; that “Night” should remain a work of fiction rather than an autobiography.I was initially appalled at how someone could slander a man like Wiesel. How can anyone actually denounce the forceful words that lie in Wiesel’s testimony of the Holocaust?According to sociologist Ted Goertzel, skepticism from Holocaust “revisionists,” as these skeptics call themselves, can be “reduced to an argument about the meaning of words.” Revisionists may scrutinize Wiesel’s “Night” and use his own language to exploit the flexibility of history, with intentions to prove their own idealized views. This is where credibility comes into question again, as qualities of anti-Semitism — whether existent or not — will always be involved with such accusations.In 2006, when a new translation of “Night” hit the market, distributors opted to switch the genre of the book from a novel to a memoir — probably the result of Oprah Winfrey adding it to her Book Club list. Although the new edition revised and corrected a number of important details, Wiesel responded by saying that “at no point did [it] change the meaning of anything in the book.”The meaning of Wiesel’s words surely struck each and every one of those who have read “Night,” even if it may not be entirely a historical account. Wiesel is a writer, not a historian; he is writing more to communicate emotion, not hard facts. Even Wiesel himself spoke about this notion of forgetting in his recent talk, declaring that “maybe all my writing … is to tell the reader that I tried [to remember].”Wiesel’s final message of “becoming a witness” is his way of saying “learn from my anguish, whatever it may teach you.” An idea such as “finding meaning in suffering” or “creating hope” need not be contaminated with any political agenda, racial bias or harsh historical criticism. There is no denying the vigor that Wiesel’s words themselves have for every person that is willing to listen to them.What Wiesel and other survivors experienced is undeniably difficult to put into any language, and ineffable to those ignorant of what it actually means to survive the Holocaust. As Wiesel says in his preface to “Night”: “Only those who experienced Auschwitz know what it was. Others will never know.”Whether fact or fiction, Wiesel has a message that holds true for all of us.Mark Oprea is a junior English major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].