Die Nacht. Erinnerung und Zeugnis – Neu übersetzt

Wiesel, Elie
Boschki, Reinhold
Freiburg 2022: Herder Verlag
Anzahl Seiten
192 S.
€ 14,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Josefine Wagner, Institut für LehrerInnenbildung und Schulforschung, Universität Innsbruck

If we want to know what happened during the Holocaust, we read Raul Hilberg1, Christopher Browning2, Henry Friedlander3, Shulamit Volkov4 or Timothy Snyder.5 But if we want to know how it felt, we read Elie Wiesel. In Night, Wiesel recounts the fate he suffered once his peaceful family life in Sighet (then Romania) ended in the summer of 1944 as the SS deported the Jews of his village to Auschwitz Birkenau. Narrating the brutal reality of life in a death camp where his mother and little sister perished soon after arrival, Wiesel and his father barely survived Buna labor camp and the death marches. Night ends with the liberation of Buchenwald in April 1945.

The new German translation draws on the Yiddish version of Wiesel’s original text as well as the French and English editions, focusing especially on the religious and cultural references to Judaism. For example, while the older German edition speaks of “Pfingsten” (Pentecost), the new one uses the term “Schawu’ot” or translates “Gebetsschal” (prayer shawl) as “tallitot” and “Segensspruch” (blessing) as “bracha”. Moreover, the text is enriched by footnotes, pointing out the derogatory subtext of contemporary terms, such as “Zigeuner” (“gypsies”) or “Homosexuals” which were used in Nazi ideology and the system of Nazi concentration camps. The edition offers explanations of these offensive expressions, which do not correspond to the terms that Sinti and Roma or members of the LGBTQI+ community use to self-identify. In addition, sayings and phrases have received a slight rejuvenation, supporting a better understanding and offering an easier connection to the material for younger readers; while the former version spoke of “wahre Ungeheuer” (real ogress), the new one refers to “Monster”, a more popular term today.

The principle of exemplarity is crucial in history education and Night offers such an example, an individual story standing in for the fate of millions of victims of the Holocaust. It provides a small window into the lives of those who survived: of those who had to carry on when their life, their families and friends, had been taken from them. Elieser’s relationship to his father becomes the tiny eye of the needle through which we – the contemporary readers – may understand his experiences: the bond between child and parent or guardian. To claim that we could feel his sorrows and pain, though, would be presumptuous and would not respect the alterity inherent in the past and the monstrosity of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich.6 It is not the goal of the edition to “feel as if” but to spur historical imagination, enabling readers to draw a connection between their experiences in life with the decisions, dilemmas and emotional reckoning that was invoked in people through past events.7 However, this remains a challenge. Thus, the new German edition wants to help making Holocaust history relevant to the descendants of perpetrators and others, and offer a different perspective to a new generation influenced by demographic changes in the age of multiculturalism and globalization.

So, what is new in the German 2022 edition of Night? It might be the references to Judaism and Yiddish culture but it might also be the sensitive translation itself, which could attract a new readership. In a diverse classroom with students from the Balkans, Northern and Central Africa, Palestine and Syria who learn alongside their ethnic German classmates, the new edition could be used to make Holocaust history relevant to everyone and link it to their experiences. The new edition of Wiesel’s Night does make Holocaust history relatable, stressing the feeling of being a daughter, a son, or a loved one of someone who hoped that those dear to them will not have to experience harm, fear and dehumanization. This hope can be also detected in Night and opens a shared space in which everyone can mourn the victims of the past and the present, enabling students to draw their own connections.8 Indeed, linking Holocaust history to the experiences of teenagers who have more than one national identity, holds great promise for education. Moreover, the Yiddish that readers can learn through the newly translated edition offers an opportunity to deconstruct the image of the German language and understand that many words, phrases and language styles reflect the reality of those speakers who have perished. The new edition therefore also offers a connection through space and time to the reality of Central Europeans whose mother tongue had been widely eradicated in the onslaught on Jewish culture during the Holocaust. Thus, Night, in this new edition, is a book that complicates the understanding of German identity and offers hybrid versions and hyphenated understandings of the reality in Central Europe. Digging into this cultural heritage makes it clear that the language creations produced in contemporary urban centers can be considered a historical continuity and not a threat.

The 2021 edition of the book is introduced by two forewords. In the first one, written by Elie Wiesel himself on the occasion of the newly edited French volume in 2007, the theme of being a witness stands out: his lifelong responsibility to the dead and the living, in writing and in practice. Wiesel discusses linguistic choices and introduces the readers to the difficulties that arise when, as memories are recounted, new words have to be found to convey each generation’s connection to the events that he narrated many decades ago. The second one is Francois Mauriac’s foreword to the 1958 French edition: the translation which introduced Wiesel’s work to a global audience. Though Christianized for a broader audience and thereby distinctly altered from its original scope and some of its key messages, it became hugely successful as it has been translated into 30 languages until today. Next to these historical sources, the editors of the new edition decided to add a very helpful biographical study about Wiesel’s life. He was born on September 30, 1928, and early on showed interest in Jewish history and culture. In 1969 he married Marion E. Rose and in 1972 their son Shlomo Elisha was born. Many of his literary achievements and work did raise awareness for the rights of the Jewish people. In 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement and dignity.” He died in July 2016. This biographical section is complemented by a map that traces important localities in Wiesel’s life: from places of deportation (Sighet, Auschwitz, Buchenwald) to his path after liberation (first Paris, then New York). Another section, entitled “editorial notes”, provides background information on the genealogy of the initial manuscript, first published in Buenos Aires in 1956. Finally, the appendix contains a glossary that is structured in two sections. The first one lists Jewish or Yiddish terms (e.g. Bima, Schechinah, Schtibl) and the second one covers words that existed in the camps, in Nazi vocabulary or pertaining to Nazi-affiliated personalities (Aktion 1005, Miklos Horthy, Selektion).

This additional information which the new edition of Night does offer, can help readers to work with the book as a historical artefact and a personal memoir. In its new edition Night enables its readers to understand the life of a person within the context of huge historical upheaval. Thus, Night as a text and in its newly available edition offers opportunities to engage with Holocaust history, expand the knowledge on literature and literary production, and connect literacy skills with history education.

1 Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, überarb. Aufl., New Haven 2008 (1. Aufl. 1961).
2 Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, New York 1998.
3 Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide. From Euthanasia to the Final Solution, Chapel Hill 1995.
4 Shulamit Volkov, Germans, Jews, and Antisemites. Trials in Emancipation, Cambridge 2006.
5 Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Cambridge 2010.
6 Theodor Adorno, Erziehung nach Auschwitz, in: Georg Kadelbach (Hrsg.), Erziehung zur Mündigkeit. Vorträge und Gespräche mit Hellmuth Becker 1959–1969, Frankfurt am Main 1971, S. 88–104.
7 Lars Deile, Historische Imagination, in: Sebastian Barsch / Bettina Degner/ Christoph Kühberger / Martin Lücke (Hrsg.), Handbuch Diversität im Geschichtsunterricht. Inklusive Geschichtsdidaktik, Frankfurt am Main 2020, S. 223–235.
8 Juliane Brauer / Martin Lücke, Emotionen, Geschichte und historisches Lernen, in: Michaela Gläser-Zikuda / Florian Hofmann / Volker Frederking (Hrsg.), Emotionen im Unterricht. Psychologische, pädagogische und fachdidaktische Perspektiven, Stuttgart 2022, S. 168–178, hier S. 177.

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