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Book Critic Ruth Franklin On Elie Wiesel's Literary Legacy


Elie Wiesel spent a lifetime confronting the darkest kind of memories. He was just 16 years old when U.S. forces liberated the Nazi concentration camp in Buchenwald, where he had been held with his father who was beaten to death by guards. Almost a decade after the war, Wiesel put those memories onto the page and eventually, in translation, it would become the best-selling work, "Night."


ELIE WIESEL: What is the alternative? Not to remember. Not to remember is not an option.

MARTIN: Not to remember is not an option. That's Elie Wiesel from a 2014 interview for the U.K. Holocaust Commission. Fifty years after its publication, "Night" has gone on to be translated into 30 different languages. It's taught in schools the world over and is credited with explaining the unexplainable to millions of readers over generations. For more on Elie Wiesel's literary legacy, we are joined by Ruth Franklin. She's a book critic and former editor of The New Republic. Thanks so much for talking with us.

RUTH FRANKLIN: Thank you very much, Rachel.

MARTIN: His renowned work, "Night," was published in 1960. And in it, he famously recounts his personal experience in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. What can you tell us about how "Night" was received at the time?

FRANKLIN: Well, like so many Holocaust memoirs that were published in the '50s and early '60s, "Night" was not received with particular fanfare when it first appeared. It wasn't until really decades later that it became the best-seller that we now know it as.

MARTIN: Why was that?

FRANKLIN: Well, it's a complicated question. But I think the generally accepted answer is that the world wasn't really ready to hear about the Holocaust, perhaps, with the level of truth that Wiesel and his colleagues were writing about it.

MARTIN: We now understand Holocaust literature to be an entire genre. Where was Elie Wiesel's place in that?

FRANKLIN: Well, if there are any two books that really define the Holocaust for American readers, I would say they are "The Diary Of Anne Frank" and Elie Wiesel's "Night." It's just the canonical read for anybody who is seeking to understand the Holocaust.

MARTIN: What was it about this book, not just as Holocaust literature, but just as a work of art, that connected to so many different kinds of people over generations?

FRANKLIN: Right. I think "Night" is compelling in so many ways - first, because it's the story of a teenager. Elie Wiesel was only a teenager when he was imprisoned. And the memoir is written in his voice at the time. So first, I think there is the uniqueness of being spoken to about the Holocaust by a narrator who's essentially a child. And the second is that the story of "Night," of course, is the story of Wiesel's imprisonment and liberation. But the subplot is the story of his loss of religion.

It's a kind of reverse coming-of-age story in that it's a loss rather than a gain. And the reader gets to watch him wrestling with his doubts about the existence of God in the concentration camp, which I think is probably one of the fundamental questions that anybody asks about the Holocaust is - how could this - how could God have allowed this to happen?

MARTIN: It is amazing that this book has gone on to connect with so many young readers. I mean, it's often used in curriculum in high school. Young people read this as a way, for many, to learn about the Holocaust for the first time.

FRANKLIN: Exactly. As with Anne Frank's diary, it's particularly meaningful in that way.

MARTIN: Do you remember reading it?

FRANKLIN: I do. In fact, I have the first copy of "Night" that I ever read. It was given to me by my mother, who was the child of Holocaust survivors, when I was 10 years old.

MARTIN: Ruth Franklin is a book critic and former editor of The New Republic. We've been discussing Elie Wiesel's literary history and the book "Night." Thank you so much for talking with us.

FRANKLIN: Thank you very much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.