Elie Wiesel, “Why I Write:
Making No Become Yes”
do I write?
in order not to go mad. Or, on the
contrary, to touch the bottom of madness.
Like Samuel Beckett, the survivor expresses himself “en
cause”—out of desperation.
of the solitude of the survivor, the great Yiddish and
Hebrew poet and thinker
Aaron Zeitlin addresses those—his father, his brother, his
died and left him: “You have abandoned me,” he says to
them. “You are together, without me. I am here.
Alone. And I make words.”
do I, just like him. I also say words,
write words, reluctantly.
are easier occupations, far more pleasant ones.
But for the survivor, writing is not a profession, but an
duty. Camus calls it “an honor.” As he puts it: “I
entered literature through
worship.” Other writers have said they
did so through anger, through love.
Speaking for myself, I would say—through
was by seeking, by probing silence that I began to discover
the perils and
power of the word. I never intended to
be a philosopher, or a theologian. The
only role I sought was that of witness.
I believed that, having survived by chance, I was duty-bound
meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life.
I knew the story had to be told. Not to transmit an
experience is to betray
it. This is what Jewish tradition
teaches us. But how to do this? “When Israel is in
exile, so is the
word,” says the Zohar. The word has
deserted the meaning it was intended to convey—impossible
to make them
coincide. The displacement, the shift,
was never more true than right after the upheaval. We all
knew that we could never, never say
what had to be said, that we could never express in words,
words, our experience of madness on an absolute scale. The
walk through flaming night, the silence
before and after the selection, the monotonous praying of
the condemned, the
Kaddish of the dying, the fear and hunger of the sick, the
shame and suffering,
the haunted eyes, the demented stares. I
thought that I would never be able to speak of them. All
words seemed inadequate, worn, foolish,
lifeless, whereas I wanted them to be searing.
was I to discover a fresh vocabulary, a primeval language?
The language of night was not human, it was
primitive, almost animal—hoarse shouting, screams, muffled
howling, the sound of beating. A brute
strikes out wildly, a body falls. An
officer raises his arm and a whole community walks toward a
common grave. A solider shrugs his shoulders, and a
thousand families are torn apart, to be reunited only by
death. This was the concentration camp
language. It negated all other language
and took its place. Rather than a link,
it became a wall. Could it be
surmounted? Could the reader be brought
to the other side? I knew the answer was
negative, and yet I knew that “no” had to become
“yes.” It was the last wish of the dead.
fear of forgetting remains the main obsession of all those
who have passed
through the universe of the damned. The
enemy counted on people’s incredulity and forgetfulness.
How could one foil this plot? And if memory grew hollow,
substance, what would happen to all we had accumulated along
the way? Remember, said the father to his son, and the
son to his friend. Gather the names, the
faces, the tears. We had all taken an
oath: “If, by some miracle, I emerge alive, I will devote
my life to testifying
on behalf of those whose shadow will fall on mine forever
is why I write certain things rather than others—to remain
course, there are times of doubt for the survivor, times
when one gives in to
weakness, or longs for comfort. I hear a
voice within me telling me to stop mourning the past. I
too want to sing of love and of its
magic. I too want to celebrate the sun,
and the dawn that heralds the sun. I
would like to shout, and shout loudly: “Listen, listen
well! I too am capable of victory, do you
hear? I too am open to laughter and
joy! I want to stride, head high, my
face unguarded, without having to point to the ashes over
there on the horizon,
without having to tampers with facts to hide their tragic
ugliness. For a man born blind, God himself is blind,
but look, I see, I am not blind.” One
feels like shouting this, but the shout changes to a
murmur. One must make a choice; one must remain
faithful. A big word, I know. Nevertheless, I use it, it
suits me. Having written the things I have written, I
feel I can afford no longer to play with words.
If I say that the writer in me wants to remain loyal, it is
is true. This sentiment moves all
survivors; they owe nothing to anyone; but everything to the
owe them my roots and my memory. I am
duty-bound to serve as their emissary, transmitting the
history of their
disappearance, even if it disturbs, even if it brings
pain. Not to do so would be to betray them, and
thus myself. And since I am incapable of
communicating their cry by shouting, I simply look at
them. I see them and I write.
writing, I question them as I question myself.
I believe I have said it before, elsewhere. I write to
understand as much as to be
understood. Will I succeed one day? Wherever one starts,
one reaches darkness. God? He
remains the God of darkness. Man? The source of
darkness. The killers’ derision, their victims’ tears,
the onlookers’’ indifference, their complicity and
complacency—the divine role
in all that I do not understand. A
million children massacred—I shall never
children—they haunt my writings. I see
them again and again. I shall always see
them. Hounded, humiliated, bent like the
old men who surround them as though to protect them, unable
to do so. They are thirsty, the children, and there is
no one to give them water. They are
hungry, but there is no one to give them a crust of bread.
They are afraid, and there is no one to
walk in the middle of the roads, the vagabonds.
They are on the way to the station, and they will never
return. In sealed cards, without air or food, they
travel toward another world. They guess where
they are going, they know it, and they keep silent. Tense,
thoughtful, they listen to the wind,
the call of death in the distance.
these children, these old people, I see them.
I never stop seeing them. I
belong to them.
they, to whom do they belong?
tend to think that a murderer weakens when facing a child.
The child reawakens the killer’s lost
humanity. The killer can no longer kill
the child before him, the child inside him.
with us it happened differently. Our
Jewish children had no effect upon the killers.
Nor upon the world. Nor upon God.
think of them, I think of their childhood.
Their childhood is a small Jewish town, and this town is no
more. They frighten me; they reflect an image of
myself, one that I pursue and run from at the same
time—the image of a Jewish
adolescent who knew no fear, except the fear of God, whose
faith was whole, comforting,
and not marked by anxiety.
I do not understand. And if I write, it
is to warn the readers that he will not understand either.
“You will not understand, you will not
understand,” were the words heard everywhere during the
reign of night. I can only echo them. You, who never
lived under a sky of blood,
will never know what it was like. Even
if you read all the books ever written, even if you listen
to all the
testimonies ever given, you will remain on this side of the
wall, you will view
the agony and death of a people from afar, through the
screen of a memory that
is not your own.
admission of impotence and guilt? I do
not know. All I know is that Treblinka
and Auschwitz cannot be told. And yet I have tried. God
knows I have tried.
I attempted to much or not enough? Among some twenty-five
volumes, only three
or four penetrate the phantasmagoric realm of the dead. In
my other books, through my other books, I
have tried to follow other roads. For it
is dangerous to linger among the dead, they hold on to you
and you run the risk
of speaking only to them. And so I have
forced myself to turn away form them and study other
periods, explore other
destinies and teach other tales—the Bible and the Talmud,
Hasidism and its
fervor, the shtetl and its songs, Jerusalem and its echoes,
the Russian Jews
and their anguish, their awakening, their courage. At
times, it has seemed to me that I was
speaking of other things with the sole purpose of keeping
personal experience—unspoken. At times I
have wondered: And what if I was wrong?
Perhaps I should not have heeded my own advice and stayed in
with the dead.
then, I have not forgotten the dead.
They have their rightful place even in the works about the
capitals Ruzhany and Korets, and Jerusalem. Even in my
biblical and Midrashic tales, I
pursue their presence, mute and motionless.
The presence of the dead then beckons in such tangible ways
affects even the most removed characters.
Thus they appear on Mount
Moriah, where Abraham is
about to sacrifice his son, a burnt offering to their common
God. They appear on Mount Nebo,
where Moses enters solitude and death.
They appear in Hasidic and Talmudic legends in which victims
need defending against forces that would crush them.
Technically, so to speak, they are of course
elsewhere, in time and space, but on a deeper, truer plane,
the dead are part
of every story, of every scene.
what is the connection?” you will ask.
Believe me, there is one. After
Auschwitz everything brings us back to Auschwitz. When I
speak of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
when I invoke Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Akiba, it
is the better to
understand them in the light of Auschwitz. As for the
Maggid of Mezeritch and his
disciples, it is in order to encounter the followers of
their followers that I
reconstruct their spellbound, spellbinding universe. I
like to imagine them alive, exuberant,
celebrating life and hope. Their
happiness is as necessary to me as it was once to
yet—how did they mange to keep their faith intact? How
did they manage to sing as they went to
meet the Angel of Death? I know Hasidim
who never vacillated—I respect their strength.
I know others who chose rebellion, protest, rage—I respect
courage. For there comes a time when
only those who do not believe in God will not cry out to him
in wrath and
not judge either group. Even the heroes
perished as martyrs, even the martyrs died as heroes. Who
would dare oppose knives to prayers? The faith of some
matters as much as the
strength of others. It is not ours to
judge, it is only ours to tell the tale.
where is one to begin? Whom is one to
include? One meets a Hasid in all my
novels. And a child. And an old man. And a beggar.
And a madman. They are all part of my inner landscape.
The reason why? Pursued and persecuted by the killers, I
offer them shelter. The enemy wanted to
create a society purged of their presence, and I have
brought some of them back. The world denied them,
repudiated them, so I
let them live at least within the feverish dreams of my
is for them that I write, and yet the survivor may
experience remorse. He has tried to bear witness; it was
the liberation, we had illusions. We
were convinced that a new world would be built upon the
ruins of Europe. A new civilization
would see the light. No more wars, no
more hate, no more intolerance, no fanaticism.
And all this because the witnesses would speak. And speak
they did, to no avail.
will continue, for they cannot do otherwise.
When man, in his grief, falls silent, Goethe says, then God
the strength to sing his sorrows. From
that moment on, he may no longer choose not to sing, whether
his song is heard
or not. What matters is to struggle
against silence with words, or through another form of
silence. What matters is to gather a smile here and
there, a tear here and there, a word here and there, and
thus justify the faith
placed in you, a long time ago, by so many victims.
do I write? To wrench those victims from
oblivion. To help the dead vanquish
Translated from the French by
Rosette C. Lamont.