Lexicon Valley

Elie Wiesel’s Profound and Paradoxical Language of Silence

Elie Wiesel.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize–winning Holocaust survivor who died last week at 87, was a prolific author. He was an outspoken activist. He was a distinguished professor and lifelong student of long-standing cultural and religious traditions of storytelling.

Yet in a 2006 interview, Wiesel shared that when Orson Welles approached him about making a film adaptation of Night, his masterful autobiographical account of the Holocaust, he refused. He wrote silences between his words, he explained, and film left no room for those silences.

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Silence was the paradoxical language Wiesel developed in complex ways throughout his work and life. “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence,” recalls his narrator and stand-in, Eliezer, in Night, “which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.” Wiesel didn’t speak to that nocturnal silence until 10 years after he was freed from Auschwitz. Writing and abandoning a 600-page thesis at the Sorbonne, he turned to a different form of testimony: journalism.

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Why was he silent on the Holocaust? “I was afraid of language,” Wiesel remarked. He needed to be sure he was using the right words. He described this groping, aching search for language in his preface to the 2006 translation of Night. His thinking here is worth a longer look:

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Convinced that this period in history would be judged one day, I knew that I must bear witness. I also knew that, while I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle. It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language. But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy? Hunger—thirst—fear—transport—selection—fire—chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else. Writing in my mother tongue—at that point close to extinction—I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was “it”? “It” was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned.

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Wiesel pushed on, and “trusted the silence that envelops and transcends words.” He drafted a nearly 900-page literary memoir in Yiddish: Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, or And the World Remained Silent. It was edited down and published in 1956, further pared to just over 100 trenchant pages in its subsequent French and English translations as Night. This work was his creative core; the rest of those silenced pages, the rest of his corpus, radiated outward like tree rings and talmudic commentary in his future writing.

But what was this strange and mystical enveloping, transcending silence Wiesel spoke of? For one, it’s the silence of the victims. The Holocaust had silenced his language, culture, history, family, faith, identity—the lives of more than 6 million Jews.

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It’s also the silence of the ineffable. No words can ever properly articulate the Holocaust: It “cannot be described, it cannot be communicated, it is unexplainable,” Wiesel said. “To me it is a mystical event. I have the feeling almost of sin when I speak about it.” The Holocaust’s truth lies beyond language, a reality accessed only through direct, first-hand experience.

And it is the silence of disbelief. It’s our loss of words when we can’t fathom an evil that so defies imagination or understanding. It’s the silence of denial, as the Nazis tried to keep the Holocaust a state secret. It’s the silence of indifference: “How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent?” Eliezer wonders in Night. We don’t have an answer to this urgent question. We only have silence.

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Wiesel’s silence is also cosmic silence. Wiesel grappled with how God could do or say nothing in the face of such suffering. For him, this silence demanded we protest, mock, and deny God. In speaking out against God, we speak up for humanity, refusing to be silenced by despair and destruction, refusing to remain silent about iniquities and injustices. In Night, Wiesel at one point defies his Yom Kippur fast—and more: “There was no longer reason for me to fast. I no longer accepted God’s silence.” According to Wiesel’s complicated theology, this protestation ultimately affirms God in spite of God. A voice transcends the silence, in spite of the silence.

Wiesel even understood silence as its own form of action. As he painted it for the American Academy of Achievement:

You can be a silent witness, which means silence itself can become a way of communication. There is so much in silence. There is an archeology of silence. There is a geography of silence. There is a theology of silence. There is a history of silence. Silence is universal and you can work within it, within its own parameters and its own context, and make that silence into a testimony. Job was silent after he lost his children and everything, his fortune and his health. Job, for seven days and seven nights he was silent, and his three friends who came to visit him were also silent. That must have been a powerful silence, a brilliant silence.

Simon Sibelman, in his sweeping Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel, concludes Wiesel’s silence possesses an “innate positive ontology”: Emerging from the silencing devastation of the Holocaust is a regenerative and redemptive silence. Sibelman’s metaphysics can be as daunting as Wiesel’s mysticism, but we can feel the effects of this silence where it matters most: in his actual text.

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Sibelman directs us to ways Wiesel uses silence as a literary technique, like a musician building a melody as much on rests as on notes. Consider this momentous passage in Night, when Eliezer, watching a child slowly die by hanging one day in camp, overhears a fellow observer:

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Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“For God’s sake, where is God?”

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…”

That night, the soup tasted of corpses.

Wiesel’s diction is sparing and telegraphic but still conjures up ghastly images and provocative ideas in its terseness. He frequently pauses with punctuation, as if giving us time to catch our breath or compelling us to listen closely to the diastole and systole of each syllable. His lines are short and end-stopped, or suddenly break off to leave entire philosophies unsaid in the chasm of ellipsis. Wiesel’s prose becomes poetry, disclosing meaning as much through absence as through presence, as much through silence as through sound.

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And finally, we can see how Wiesel develops his rich language of silence by the many ways he uses the word silence. Sticking with his seminal Night, silence acts a character who speaks many lines throughout the story. We watch families share final meals in silence. We hear mothers and children cry themselves into silence in cattle cars. We observe men avoid (or survive) beatings by staying silent. We witness Nazi officers tell their prisoners to be silent. We watch wise fathers fall silent, unable to answer their sons’ questions. Night is described as silent. Death is described as silent. Silence is heavy. Silence is oppressive. Silence is defiant. Silence is indifferent. God is silent. The sky, watching over all the world and the ashes of the Holocaust’s too many victims, is silent.

Wiesel’s language of silence is loud and restive, embracing complex and often contradictory forces. But in the end, Wiesel’s refusal to be silent—on the Holocaust, on oppression and suffering, on the Jewish experience, on the human experience—made a sublime music, a lasting art, out of silence. On a particularly bleak evening in Night, one of Eliezer’s fellow prisoners manages to make some final music on his beloved violin. “He was playing a fragment of a Beethoven concerto,” he writes. “Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence.”