elie wiesel’s night -- 9/25/23

Today's selection -- from Time's Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance by Jeremy Eichler. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, many works regarding the Nazi atrocities against Jews were shunned or rejected:

“In 1956, a defiant eight-hundred-page memoir written in Yiddish and titled Un di uelt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent) could find publication only by a small press run by the Union of Polish Jews of Argentina. After being translated into French, reduced to a fraction of its length, and receiving an introduction by the Nobel Prize-winning Catholic writer Francois Mauriac, the same memoir would later find its public under a revised and softened tide, La nuit, or Night. In the United States, Elie Wiesel's now iconic testimony was rejected by more than fifteen publishers. Similarly, Primo Levi's If This Is a Man — later retitled in a more affirmative vein as Survival in Auschwitz — was originally rejected by the established Italian publisher Einaudi and was instead brought out in 1947 by a much smaller Italian press in a run of just twenty-five hundred copies, many of which never sold and were later, as Levi put it, ‘drowned’ in a warehouse flood. The English-language rights to Levi's quietly devastating account would not be acquired for more than a decade. A reply attributed to the Boston rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman, who read Levi's manuscript, seems emblematic of the larger reaction of the times: ‘No one wants to hear about this thing.’

“Nor was such a response deemed in any way morally problematic. Forgetting suited many purposes, after all, depending on the country in question. In West Germany, for instance, many former Nazis were swiftly rehabilitated simply because their technical and bureaucratic expertise was judged by the Allies as essential for the country's rebuilding and for its recruitment into the newly emerging geopolitical alliances of the Cold War. In many cases, forgetting also suited national self-interest, especially in countries where Nazi atrocities could not have taken place without partial to significant cooperation on the part of local populations. France was among these countries. Philippe Petain's Vichy government had in fact taken its own initiative in establishing its ‘Jewish laws’ and took charge of rounding up its own Jews. As a result, as the historian Tony Judt has pointed out, ‘most of the Jewish deportees from France never even saw a foreign uniform until they were handed over to Germans for final trans-shipment to Auschwitz.’ After the war, as part of the so-called Vichy syndrome, the national memory of Vichy was repressed, the heroics of the French resistance were emphasized, and the wartime government's active participation in the Final Solution was summarily forgotten. In the U.K., Winston Churchill went as far as advocating national forgetting as a requirement for the healing of Europe, declaring in a Zurich speech of 1946, 

1982 Bantam Books edition, with the original 1960 English translation and cover adapted from the 1958 French edition

‘We must all turn our backs upon the horrors of the past and look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years to come hatreds and revenges which have sprung from the injuries of the past. If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be this act of faith in the European family, this act of oblivion against all crimes and follies of the past.’

“In cases where memorialization was deemed necessary, war losses were most often cast in national terms, while in many quarters there remained an unspoken taboo against particularizing the victims of Nazi extermination as Jews. Emblematic of both trends was the 1947 declaration by the Polish parliament that remaining portions of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than 90 percent of those murdered were Jews, would be ‘forever preserved as a memorial to the martyrdom of the Polish nation and other peoples.’ 

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Jeremy Eichler


Time's Echo: The Second World War, the Holocaust, and the Music of Remembrance




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