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10 - Elie Wiesel: Witnessing, Telling and Knowing

from Section D - Surviving, Witnessing and Telling Tales

Colin Davis
Affiliation:
Royal Holloway, University of London
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Summary

Testimonies are not monologues; they cannot take place in solitude. The witnesses are talking to somebody: to somebody they have been waiting for for a long time.

(Laub, ‘Bearing Witness or the Vicissitudes of Listening’, in Testimony, pp. 70–71; emphasis original)

Testimonial literature crystallizes the problems involved in gathering together the shards of experience in a communicable tale. Shoshana Felman suggests that we now live in an ‘era of testimony’ in which ‘testimony has become a crucial mode of our relation to events of our times – our relation to the traumas of contemporary history: the Second World War, the Holocaust, the nuclear bomb, and other war atrocities’ (‘Education and Crisis’, p. 5). Testimony, though, is not the promise that the sense of experience can easily be restored or conveyed: ‘What a testimony does not offer is, however, a completed statement, a totalizable account of those events. In the testimony, language is in process and in trial, it does not possess itself as a conclusion, as the constatation of a verdict or the self-transparency of knowledge’ (‘Education and Crisis’, p. 5). In short, testimony becomes a central genre precisely when it is perceived as problematic and, at the limit, maybe even impossible.

This chapter deals with the problems of testimony and storytelling in the work of Elie Wiesel. Wiesel has become, along with Primo Levi, perhaps the world's best-known witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Born into a Jewish community in Sighet, Romania, in 1928, he was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and later to Buchenwald. He saw his mother for the last time at the gates of Auschwitz, and was present at his father's death in Buchenwald. After the war, he lived for a while in France before moving to the United States and gaining citizenship there. He wrote about his experiences, first in Yiddish and then in French, which remained his principal literary language until his death in 2016. His first French work, La Nuit (1958), is widely read and accepted as one of the most important Holocaust testimonies. Wiesel went on to achieve high visibility as a writer and human rights campaigner, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Type
Chapter
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Traces of War
Interpreting Ethics and Trauma in Twentieth-Century French Writing
, pp. 193 - 217
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2017

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