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
 d├ęsepoir de
 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
 friends—who have
 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
 occupation, a
 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
 to give
 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,
 is irrevocable.

 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,
 coherent, intelligible
 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
 moaning, savage
 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,
 empty of
 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
 and ever.”

 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
 because it
 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
 reassure them. 

 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
 the essential—the
 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
 my world
 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
 that it
 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
 all in

 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
 gives him
 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.