After the Death Camps
by Elie Wiesel.
Translated from the French by Frances Frenaye. Hill and Wang. 90 pp. $3.00.
Readers of COMMENTARY may recall Mr. Wiesel’s Night, his heart-rending account of his years in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In retelling so nakedly the horror, humiliation, and guilt of his concentration camp life, Mr. Wiesel’s memoir seems to humble itself before the facts of this experience as before a divinity, the only divinity to survive Buchenwald with him. To faithfully set down what happened was not for Mr. Wiesel, one feels, to give testimony—it was to record a holy scripture. And what did this god of the concentration camp utter? He said, I died, and I am the death-in-life of a degradation and guilt so great they are no longer conceivable, personal, but have become a total desolation; to have forgotten so easily the wreaths of crematory smoke that were my mother and sisters, to have seen a son kill his father in order to tear a bit of bread from his mouth, to have seen another run on to leave his straggling father to the snow or an SS bullet, to have vowed never to betray my father and then to have felt relieved by his death, and, at the liberation, to have thought only of food and not of revenge—this is to die. Even a mere reader of Night must feel himself robbed of the earth, set adrift in some nowhere out in the vacant spaces, must feel that he died and that there is no door anywhere through which he might be admitted to life.
Elisha, the narrator of Mr. Wiesel’s short novel, Dawn—the second volume in a projected trilogy—is an eighteen-year-old with a past, or rather, hiatus, similar to that described in Night. Recruited into an Israeli terrorist group, he is charged with executing an English officer taken hostage against the prospective hanging of a captured terrorist. And the novel consists of Elisha’s twilight-to-dawn deathwatch during which what is at stake for him in becoming a murderer is examined. Such a situation immediately suggests the existentialist genre, and so Mr. Wiesel has chosen to cast his novel. Unhappily, for the genre is dated, and, more important, its drama of self-confrontation is at odds both with Elisha’s meditative quality and with his predicament. The essence of this genre is the double act, the first a fall and the second its redemption. In the terms of the genre, the first act is mere behavior (the will overcome by the world) which is rescued in the second or “true” act, where the will frees itself by consciously affirming the consequences. The character does not act into his acts—he awakes to them as to faits accomplis—but only into the situation they have provoked. So here in Dawn, Elisha’s voice is detonalized by his Stranger-like “for some reasons” and, like other existentialist murderers, he pulls the trigger only because the gun is in his hand. But all this seems mannered, for it hardly fits with Elisha’s intense brooding over the act he will commit. Again, partly because the novel has said it all already, the moral rescue does not take place, the execution does not become a datum for interpretation, it is an end, a further dying for Elisha.
Though there is much that is excellent here—honest, sensitive, densely and finely wrought—Dawn is seldom moving. Rather, in its paralysis of tone, its unrelieved somberness, its funereal pace, abstractness, heavily stressed tension, it is agonizingly obsessive. I doubt that this derives from a fault of talent or an impatience with making fictions. If Elisha is not a character but the locus of a problem, if his Israeli comrades are mere cardboard and the English officer is made a stock figure and denied any sort of sensuous or moral effulgence in his final meeting with Elisha, it is because the scripture-recording intention, present here as in Night, conflicts with the sociability, liveliness, and affirmation inherent in the making of fictions and in artistic form itself. The refrain attached to Elisha is, “Poor boy, poor boy.” This is no ordinary self-pity, but one so profound that it is a mourning for one’s own death—a mourning so intense that self-pity would represent a first step toward life. Elisha says of himself, “I had died and come back to the earth, dead,” and the ghosts of the dead with whom Elisha lives are almost the only thing in Dawn that Mr. Wiesel touches lightly, lovingly. He makes no attempt to portray Elisha as an “eighteen-year-old,” but then, as a character in The Idiot notes, the dead are without age.
Now, this desolation of mourning is alien to the general moral problem insistently posed in the novel: that of Jewish quietism and moral aspiration faced with the task of wresting a haven for itself. Elisha has little political awareness or idealism: he joins the terrorist group because he is “a living graveyard,” because he “had no more friends to lose.” Elisha’s specific tragedy, then, does not reside in his violation of the Sixth Commandment, nor in his break with traditional Jewish passivity; his tragedy is that the “Messianic world” of the terrorist group, “where not a single act was wasted or a single glance lost,” betrays him into a final confirmation of his guilt. The fatherly English officer he executes is not the surrogate of a rite de passage—he is closer to the betrayed fathers of Night—and Elisha shoots him not, in the conventional mode, in the neck, but through the heart. The desolation is complete: “I have killed Elisha,” he says, and his ghosts, those “millions of spiritual creatures,” depart. No Meshulah can now emerge to answer Elisha’s palpitant expectancy; this last life that whispered within him has been silenced, and he must remain a “question mark.” A dawn rises
the color of stagnant water. Soon there was only a tattered fragment of darkness, hanging in midair, the other side of the window. Fear caught my throat. The tattered fragment of the darkness had a face. Looking at it, I understood the reason for my fear. The face was my own.
If the idea of universal guilt has any serious content it is that supplied by Night and Dawn: total devastation, universal orphanhood. But this cannot be chosen or induced—and who could want to pay such a price in order to rescue this notion from glibness and sentimentality? Nevertheless, the case of Elisha reads like an enlargement of our own nihilism. For him—and so it is in Night—”God died at Auschwitz.” And “if God is dead, then all is permitted”; here we must add, but nothing is desired, for the good and desire imply one another. The adolescent Wiesel liberated from Buchenwald is only hungry, and Elisha is less confused about values than simply wantless. The effect of such wantlessness is, finally, to render all moral issues irrelevant.