Tale of how Night became Wiesel’s signature work

Our world lost a treasure with the passing of Elie Wiesel. Our Jewish organizations have lauded him in their various ways:
“(He) was a powerful storyteller who brought to life the experience of the Holocaust for millions of people all over the world,” began a statement from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Ellen Hershkin, Hadassah’s national president, said, “We lost a great soul … Holocaust survivor, writer, humanitarian … We can honor his memory, his bravery and his love of humanity with our deeds.”
According to Union for Reform Judaism’s president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, “Although his writing was inescapably rooted in his own horrific experiences, he never allowed that darkness to overcome him.”
Most of us, like the trio above, know of Wiesel first and best for his book Night, which made a classic of his own horrific history. But Wiesel was not a born writer. Formal obituaries mentioned his friendship with France’s great author Francois Mauriac, but did not stress its seminal importance: This was the man who broke Wiesel’s silence, the 10-year post-Holocaust sentence he’d imposed upon himself, and turned him into one. An Interview Unlike Any Other in A Jew Today, a lesser-known collection of Wiesel’s short writings, tells the important story.
After the Shoah, “So heavy was my anguish that I made a vow not to speak (until) long enough to unite the language of man with the silence of the dead,” he wrote. But in 1954, as Paris contributor to an Israeli newspaper, he was assigned to interview France’s Jewish Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, who rarely granted interviews. At an Israel embassy event, Wiesel spotted Mauriac, the much-honored author he knew Mendes-France admired, and had an idea: Score an interview with the former, and during it, ask him to put in a good word for an interview with the latter. The tactic worked, but it made Wiesel feel like an impostor, since he had no intention of asking the great novelist anything about his writing. And Wiesel was intimidated: Mauriac was old, rich and Catholic; he was young, poor and Jewish.
“I was there under false pretenses,” Wiesel says, “so I dared not look him in the eye. To put me at ease, he began speaking to me of his feelings toward Israel … and from that, to discuss the greatness and divinity of the Jew Jesus … an impassioned monologue on the son of man and the son of God, who, unable to save Israel, ended up saving mankind …” At that point, Wiesel stopped caring about ever interviewing the prime minister, and started to talk himself: “Sir, you speak of Christ,” he began. “In your religion, that is all you speak of. But I want you to know that I saw Jewish children, every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, 6 million times more, than Christ on the cross, and we don’t speak about them. Can you understand that, sir?”
Then Wiesel got up to leave, but Mauriac stopped him, and began to cry, and asked the young Jew to continue speaking.
“He questioned me, and I answered: ‘Yes, I lived through those events. Yes, I was present at the end of the world.’” Mauriac wanted to know why Wiesel hadn’t written about it; when he explained his vow, the great writer said, “I think you are wrong not to speak out. Listen to the old man I am: One must speak out…” It was one year later that Elie Wiesel sent Francois Mauriac the manuscript of Night. And the rest, as many say about many things, is — here — truly history.
Many have read Night, but too few have read about how it came to be, to know the start of so much that followed it. Mauriac had received the Nobel Peace Prize two years before this interview. His words first angered, then inspired Wiesel to speak out; he received the same honor himself, 32 years after it.

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