Literature is important and all that. But my God, do authors sometimes say some worrying things. Witness the following, from Elie Wiesel’s introduction to an essay collection:
“What are you writing?” the Rebbe asked. “Stories,” I said. He wanted to know what kind of stories: true stories. “About people you knew?” Yes, about people I might have known. “About things that happened?” Yes, about things that happened or could have happened. “But they did not?” No, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end. The Rebbe leaned forward as if to measure me up and said with more sorrow than anger: That means you are writing lies! I did not answer immediately. The scolded child within me had nothing to say in his defense. Yet, I had to justify myself: “Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are – although they never occurred.” – from Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, p. viii.
Now, whatever one may think of truth, to me that last sentence is one of the least true things ever said. It sounds nice. It’s not the case. The truth is what happened, and what did not happen is not true. Now, you might say that some ways of describing what happened do not correctly approach the truth of what happened, and I believe that. But that is not a question of whether events took place, but how events are represented. We can say that “one needs fiction to capture the truth of the Holocaust,” and that is a reasonable statement, for it may be that simple factual descriptions and memoirs will never enable us to adequately appreciate the event. Saying events happened but were not true, however, is not the same thing.
It’s especially alarming that Elie Wiesel has taken this attitude, because he has been one of the foremost people, if not the foremost, in charge of preserving the memory of the Holocaust and not allowing history to be falsified. If you find yourself in that role, you can not make statements suggesting that everything is open to interpretation and sometimes false things are true and truth things are false. To do so is completely irresponsible. Historical atrocities are so easily forgotten, and in the case of the Holocaust, there is an active movement to wipe away the truth. Thus it is the responsibility of all who know to insist loudly that there are facts, there is what happened, and that these things are not a matter of opinion, but a matter of record. When Elie Wiesel goes about suggesting that even the things he says are true might not have actually occurred, he gives needless ammunition to Holocaust deniers. It’s one thing to say “I write stories, not all stories are true, but they are nevertheless important for our understanding of truth.” It’s another to basically admit that you are willing to call things true that never happened. Now, maybe you think Wiesel is doing the former. But in that case, he is nevertheless being irresponsible. You need to be very careful with your language here. There are too many lies told about the Holocaust, and the last thing we need is for anyone to think that the event’s most powerful documenters do not especially value the difference between things that happened and things that did not.
Personally, I think writing Holocaust fiction, or quasi-fiction/semi-memoir, is unwise to begin with. No matter how important and powerful Night may be, I think for an event where the clarity of our memory is so important, Wiesel should not have taken the “only fiction reveals the true nature of things” approach. But I am not really interested in Night itself, because that way of writing is defensible even if debatable. What is important is that if you write like that, and are also looked to as an authority for telling the story of what happened, you do not say things that suggest you would be willing to fabricate an event if you felt as if it made some larger, truer point. This may not be of much consequence for other events where the stakes are not so high. But this is the Holocaust, where we must constantly fight to preserve the record of what was done.
Literature is important, yes. But the rabbi was right to be horrified when he heard Wiesel speak so casually about the difference between truth and falsehood. Nobody should be given the ability to deny that what happened during the Holocaust happened, yet Wiesel both scuppers his own authority as a source, and puts forth a principle that allows the factual realities of the Holocaust to be treated secondarily to whatever subjective fictions anyone happens to prefer.