A fourteen-year-old white kid in upstate New York has no concept of pain and death. At least, I didn’t. Pain was trying to figure out a solution for my zits and double chin. Death was swimming practice. The only person in my family who had died was my great grandmother, who I had seen three times in my life, and she was in Illinois, which was about as good as Mars to me. And then I read Night by Elie Wiesel.
Wiesel died on Saturday, July 2nd. His life contained much more than any human’s should. But the most remarkable thing about him, to me, was that he took the time to write it down in a journalistic detachment that was horrific and mesmerizing to my fourteen-year-old self. I remember not being able to sleep one night, thinking about secret gas chambers and landfills of shoes. I wasn’t scared because I thought it might happen to me. I was scared because it happened. That’s when I began gaining a concept of death.
One of the oppressed’s most difficult feats is making others understand the horrors and feelings they have experienced when their audience has nothing of the same personal magnitude to reference; it’s one thing to hear, but quite another to understand.
Communicating pain and suffering outside of the experience of the audience is not simply a matter of writing, but of translating, much like a translator relays information in different languages. Translators do not merely repeat the same words in a different language. They have communicate the original meaning from one language into another. If you only hear the raw words translated from a language you don’t speak into a language you do, absent of the original meaning, all you hear is uncertain gibberish. Similarly, when you cannot understand, at even the most simplistic level, the weight of racial or religious oppression, or the pain of torture and death, it becomes that much easier to dismiss, lampoon, or reject outright.
For me, and for millions of others not born into an innate understanding of pain and death, Night was a path to understanding, and Elie Wiesel was a master translator. The writing is bleak, blunt, and sad, because there was no light to be found in the Holocaust. On my worst day, fourteen-year-old Adam could count on a mother, a father, food to eat, and a bed to rest in. I thought light was always present. I could count on it. Wiesel showed me that it was possible to obliterate the light completely. He made me understand, at the most basic level, what human beings are capable of and what they’ve already done to one another. He made me understand, as much as I could ever understand, what happened to him and millions of people like him.
Wiesel also revealed to me how for him and millions of people like him, some things are never truly “fixed” or “healed.” I was excited when Eliezer and the Jews were freed at the end of Night, but it soon became a broken sort of excitement, as I realized there was nothing to be excited about. His father was dead. His mother and sister were dead. And nothing anyone could ever do could actually fix that.
Night does not attempt to fix anything for Eliezer; it just tells. It tells the terror and the pain and the death, records it in a way that is not easily forgotten. By means of its bare narratives and focus on family ties being severed one by one, he translates something every American child learns in history class into a real, vivid event that happened. I may not remember all of the words, but I will never forget Juliek and his violin, and that knowledge and memory is more important than anything I could possibly do or say to “fix” things for the Jewish people.
Ultimately, Wiesel’s translation of suffering does not seek to fix things, just record them in a way that will be remembered. You can’t fix the Holocaust. You can’t fix how long the world waited before intervening. We will never be able to fix what happened, just as we still can’t fix what has already happened in Iraq, Iran, Uganda, Liberia, Egypt, China, Mexico, or the United States. But we can remember what happened, and make sure that memory never dies. So the storyteller who has been oppressed, tortured, ground down, and survived actually must manage two feats: make his or her audience understand, and once they’ve understood as much as they can, to make them remember. Whether that storyteller is Elie Wiesel or Khaled Hosseini or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Arundhati Roy, where suffering occurs there is often a storyteller making sure that the story never dies. Elie Wiesel is dead, but Night is not, and we can hope it never will be. Because we can’t fix the pain and death that permeate the world, but we can remember it. And that is not a victory, but it may be the closest we get.