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Memorable writers dig deep for the next precise word to construct their narratives—a spiritual process that engages readers.

Elie Wiesel (1928 – 2016) was such a writer, but unlike others, his eleven months spent in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald eviscerated Yiddish words learned in childhood. For ten years, silence stood guardian over his shocked psyche and sustained his sanity while mastering French in the Normandy home for orphans where he was placed after the liberation. But his heart wound was never staunched—The heinous Evil of the camps defied words. Still, he must try.

And he did. In 1954, he began the task, scrounging for words that shivered before the enormity of his experience. What was to become Night ballooned into 842 pages that underwent several published revisions: in 1956, the Yiddish Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), reduced to 245 pages; in 1958, the French Nuit, reduced to 178 pages; in 1960, the English Night, reduced to 117 pages; and in 2006, a re-translation of the French Nuit, reduced to 115 pages. Decades of revision finally distilled Wiesel’s wound into its essence.

Although words of thirty other languages approximate this account, what actually occurred in the camps remains obscure. Those who plumb the mystery of Evil get scorched; it remains an unfathomable mystery.

So what to make of this world classic, Night? It still speaks to us, but how?

A clue to this dilemma lies in the Talmud’s designation of God as speaking through the white spaces between printed words. Within such silence emerges Wiesel’s deposition for those with courage to listen.

 

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A-7713—The tattoo on his left forearm catapulted this teenager, shy, frail of stature, and prone to migraines, into hell-flames. It was March 1944, Auschwitz.

His crime: He was a Jew.

No longer did the religious fabric of his Rumanian village afford him the felt presence of God through daily studies of the Talmud and the Kabala, the observance of Shabbat and other holy days. Evil’s usurpation of the Sacred broke his spirit. Torn from his mother and three sisters he feared dead, he trembled within the crosshairs of machine guns, endured whippings in silence, and agonized over his failure to aid his father, also savagely abused.

While barely surviving on stale bread and gruel and hiding out among prisoners forced to work in the warehouse, his mystic soul absorbed the atrocities around him until the camp’s liberation by the U. S. Army in April 1945. He would tell this story, somehow.

Still carrying “the burning luminous scar of the holocaust” within his psyche, he went on to become a foreign correspondent, author, teacher, world lecturer, peace activist, husband, and father. His words, printed or spoken, disturbed deeply, and still do, with their the moral imperative to witness to evil in its seductive and blatant ruses. For his lifelong efforts he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

The first of his memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea (1994), contains an overview of his experiences, seasoned by delightful humor, even his year-long convalescence after being hit by a taxi in Manhattan in 1956.

This witness to unvarnished truth was Elie Wiesel. (1928 – 2016)

He still teaches for those willing to listen.

 

It is June. The chestnut tree is a late bloomer: ten-inch white clusters tinged in red stand upright upon its branches like candles on a Christmas tree. Its dark green leaves can be nearly one foot in length, rough in texture, with minutely serrated edges. Known to grow over one hundred feet in height, its beauty elates observers.

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One smitten by such a tree was a thirteen-year-old who hid out in a three-story annex with her parents and her sister, and later with a second family and a dentist, in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam from 1942 to 1944. The cramped conditions on Prinsengracht Street frayed nerves, fired tempers. Often she climbed the ladder to the attic and gazed at the seasonal beauty of the chestnut tree, located in the city center below.

Anne Frank wrote in her diary: “From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree on whose branches little raindrops shine, and the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind. As long as this exists, I thought, and I may live to see it, this sunshine, the cloudless skies, while this lasts I cannot be unhappy.”

Two other places in her diary she extols the glories of her Tree of Life, her portal to the Sacred.

After The Diary of Anne Frank was first published in Dutch in 1947, city officials designated this chestnut tree the Anne Frank Tree, and tourists honored it for decades. Unfortunately, in 2010 a rain-and-gale storm toppled the one hundred-and-forty-old-tree; but from it, eleven saplings have been planted around the world in Anne’s name.

Anne did not survive Bergen-Belsen in northern Germany, but her spirit still sings.

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