Elie Wiesel   Letter 03   20-Apr-1998   A Cancer for Jews
  Elie Wiesel: A Cancer for Jews
"Our line had now only fifteen paces to cover.  I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering.  Ten steps still.  Eight.  Seven.  We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our own funeral.  Four steps more.  Three steps.  There it was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames."  � Elie Wiesel
The letter below asks questions concerning Elie Wiesel's description of his experiences at Auschwitz.  Relevant to these questions is a comment that I posted to the InfoUkes History discussion group on 28-Feb-1998.

Long after writing the letter below, I came across the following statement crediting Wiesel with originating the term "Holocaust":

He is best known as the most eloquent witness to the great catastrophe to which he was the first to give the name "Holocaust."
From the Hall of Public Service web site, commemorating Elie Wiesel's winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and which has him being "inducted into the Academy in 1996":

Wiesel's being given credit for coining the term "Holocaust" brings to mind the possibility that he might have introduced the term based on his misconception that open-air pits of fire were a means of execution at Auschwitz, and that the term has stuck despite Wiesel's error, and has gradually acquired the figurative meaning "widespread destruction" in place of the original literal meaning "destruction by fire."

April 20, 1998
Elie Wiesel
University Professor and
Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities
Boston University
745 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts  02215

Dear Mr. Wiesel:

In my letter to you of 29 Mar 98, I quoted journalist Boaz Evron:

Two terrible things happened to the Jewish people during this century: [First, t]he Holocaust and the lessons drawn from it.  [Second, t]he non-historical and easily refutable commentaries on the Holocaust made either deliberately or through simple ignorance and their use for propaganda purposes among non-Jews or Jews both in Israel and the diaspora constitute a cancer for Jews and for the State of Israel.  (Boaz Evron, Holocaust, a Danger for the Jewish People, published in the Hebrew journal Yiton 77, May-June 1980)

In the present letter, I ask you a few questions that occurred to me in reading your work, and these questions have to do with the ease with which it is possible for your readers to be left with the impression that your own work is "non-historical and easily refutable," and thus that it is part of the "cancer for Jews and for the State of Israel" referred to by Boas Evron above.

(1) No Mention of Gas Chambers

I expected that in your account of your Auschwitz experiences in Night, you would comment on the gas chambers, which others say was the primary means of execution at Auschwitz.  However, you make no mention of gas chambers.  I wonder if you could explain how it is possible for a Jewish inmate of Auschwitz to recount his memories while neglecting to mention the one truly horrific thing about Auschwitz � the gas chambers?

(2) Fire Pits

You do, however, mention an alternative method of mass execution, and that is open-air, burning pits or ditches of fire into which victims either jumped or were pushed, and which you commonly refer to as "crematories."  In all passages below, I will indicate where I have omitted material by inserting "[...]" so as not to create confusion with your own frequent use of ellipses:

We continued our march toward the square.  In the middle stood the notorious Dr. Mengele (a typical SS officer: a cruel face, but not devoid of intelligence, and wearing a monocle); a conductor's baton in his hand, he was standing among the other officers.  The baton moved unremittingly, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left.

I was already in front of him:

"How old are you?" he asked, in an attempt at a paternal tone of voice.

"Eighteen."  My voice was shaking.

"Are you in good health?"


"What's your occupation?"

Should I say that I was a student?

"Farmer," I heard myself say.

This conversation cannot have lasted more than a few seconds.  It had seemed like an eternity to me.

The baton moved to the left.  I took half a step forward.  I wanted to see first where they were sending my father.  If he went to the right, I would go after him.

The baton once again pointed to the left for him too.  A weight was lifted from my heart.

We did not yet know which was the better side, right or left; which road led to prison and which to the crematory.  But for the moment I was happy; I was near my father.  Our procession continued to move slowly forward.

Another prisoner came up to us:


"Yes," someone replied.

"Poor devils, you're going to the crematory."

He seemed to be telling the truth.  Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames.  They were burning something.  A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load � little children.  Babies!  Yes, I saw it � saw it with my own eyes ... those children in the flames.  (Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that?  Sleep had fled from my eyes.)

So this was where we were going.  A little farther on was another and larger ditch for adults.

I pinched my face.  Was I still alive?  Was I awake?  I could not believe it.  How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent?  No, none of this could be true.  It was a nightmare....  Soon I should wake with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself back in the bedroom of my childhood, among my books....

My father's voice drew me from my thoughts:

"It's a shame ... a shame that you couldn't have gone with your mother....  I saw several boys of your age going with their mothers...."

His voice was terribly sad.  I realized that he did not want to see what they were going to do to me.  He did not want to see the burning of his only son.

My forehead was bathed in cold sweat.  But I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it....

"Humanity?  Humanity is not concerned with us.  Today anything is allowed.  Anything is possible, even these crematories...."

His voice was choking.

"Father," I said, "if that is so, I don't want to wait here.  I'm going to run to the electric wire.  That would be better than slow agony in the flames."

He did not answer.  He was weeping.  His body was shaken convulsively.  Around us, everyone was weeping.  Someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.  I do not know if it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves.

"Yitgadal veyitkadach shmé raba....  May His Name be blessed and magnified...." whispered my father.

For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me.  Why should I bless His name?  The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent.  What had I to thank Him for?

We continued our march.  We were gradually drawing closer to the ditch, from which an infernal heat was rising.  Still twenty steps to go.  If I wanted to bring about my own death, this was the moment.  Our line had now only fifteen paces to cover.  I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering.  Ten steps still.  Eight.  Seven.  We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our own funeral.  Four steps more.  Three steps.  There it was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames.  I gathered all that was left of my strength, so that I could break from the ranks and throw myself upon the barbed wire.  In the depths of my heart, I bade farewell to my father, to the whole universe; and, in spite of myself, the words formed themselves and issued in a whisper from my lips: Yitgadal veyitkadach shmé raba....  May His name be blessed and magnified....  My heart was bursting.  The moment had come.  I was face to face with the Angel of Death....

No.  Two steps from the pit we were ordered to turn to the left and made to go into a barracks.

I pressed my father's hand.  He said:

"Do you remember Madame Schächter, in the train?"

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.  Never shall I forget that smoke.  Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.  (Elie Wiesel, Night, 1960, in The Night Trilogy, 1985, pp. 40-43)

And when later occasion calls for your speaking of the gas chambers, you do not, but rather always revert to fire pits as the method of execution:

"Blessed by the Name of the Eternal!"

Why, but why should I bless Him?  In every fiber I rebelled.  Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits?  Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days?  Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death?  How could I say to Him: "Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory?  (Elie Wiesel, Night, 1960, in The Night Trilogy, 1985, p. 74)

With respect to the above fire pits, I have several questions:

(i) The conventional meaning of "crematory" in this context is an oven-like apparatus with brick walls and a metal door, and yet you seem to apply the word to an open-air pit, with some fuel � perhaps gasoline � burning at its bottom.  I wonder if you could justify your unconventional usage, or refer me to other writers who follow your convention.

(ii) My conception of gas chambers is that they constituted an attempt to lull the victims into the false expectation that they were going to showers.  Had the victims known that they were going to be executed, emotional outburst and resistance would have been more likely.  In your image of fire pits, in contrast, there is no possibility of disguising from the victims what their imminent fate was to be, so that a great deal of emotion and resistance should have occurred, and should have made the method unworkable � jumping into flames is something that people would recoil from, such that there should have been universal panic and pandemonium.

(iii) In my reading, I had not come across any other descriptions of people leaping or being pushed into fire pits at Auschwitz.  I wonder if you could direct me to other descriptions of such fire pits as a method of execution.

(iv) As the human body is mainly water, it does not burn readily, and if bodies are piled on top of one another in a pit, the supply of oxygen to the fuel will be reduced, and the bodies will be under the flames where it is not hottest, and the bodies falling on top of each other will protect the ones below from being consumed by the fire.  Burning would proceed more efficiently if the flames were out in the open and not in a pit, and if the bodies were somewhat above the flames, rather than underneath them.  Thus, your image strikes me as one in which burning will proceed inefficiently, and so the bodies will tend to pile up in the pit or ditch largely unconsumed by the fire.

(v) Is it possible that the term "holocaust" whose core meaning is "consumption or destruction by fire" � but which has come in recent years to refer almost exclusively to the destruction of Jews during World War II � originated from your theory that executions at Auschwitz were conducted by means of fire pits?

(3) Why allocate scarce resources to a Jew awaiting execution?

Here, my preconception was that toward the end of the war, the Germans would have been overwhelmed by the number of their own wounded, and that simultaneously, everything that they needed to care for these wounded would be in perilously short supply � particularly in short supply should have been surgeons, surgical instruments, anesthetics, antibiotics, bandages, operating rooms, beds, sheets, and food.  In this context, an Auschwitz Jew who needed any of the above list of scarce commodities would not get them.  Rather, as he was slated for imminent annihilation, then his falling ill should have led to nothing better than his being moved to the top of the list for execution.  Imagine my confusion, therefore, in reading the following passage:

Toward the middle of January, my right foot began to swell because of the cold.  I was unable to put it on the ground.  I went to have it examined.  The doctor, a great Jewish doctor, a prisoner like ourselves, was quite definite: I must have an operation!  If we waited, the toes � and perhaps the whole leg � would have to be amputated.

This was the last straw!  But I had no choice.  The doctor had decided on an operation, and there was no discussing it.  I was even glad that it was he who had made the decision.

They put me into a bed with white sheets.  I had forgotten that people slept in sheets.

The hospital was not bad at all.  We were given good bread and thicker soup.  No more bell.  No more roll call.  No more work.  Now and then I was able to send a bit of bread to my father.

Near me lay a Hungarian Jew who had been struck down with dysentery � skin and bone, with dead eyes.  I could only hear his voice; it was the sole indication that he was alive.  Where did he get the strength to talk?

"You mustn't rejoice too soon, my boy.  There's selection here too.  More often than outside.  Germany doesn't need sick Jews.  Germany doesn't need me.  When the next transport comes, you'll have a new neighbor.  So listen to me, and take my advice: get out of the hospital before the next selection!"

These words which came from under the ground, from a faceless shape, filled me with terror.  It was indeed true that the hospital was very small and that if new invalids arrived in the next few days, room would have to be found for them.

But perhaps my faceless neighbor, fearing that he would be among the first victims, simply wanted to drive me away, to free my bed in order to give himself a chance to survive.  Perhaps he just wanted to frighten me.  Yet, what if he were telling the truth?  I decided to await events.

The doctor came to tell me that the operation would be the next day.

"Don't be afraid," he added.  "Everything will be all right."

At ten o'clock in the morning, they took me into the operating room.  "My" doctor was there.  I took comfort from this.  I felt that nothing serious could happen while he was there.  There was balm in every word he spoke, and every glance he gave me held a message of hope.

"It will hurt you a bit," he said, "but that will pass.  Grit your teeth."

The operation lasted an hour.  They had not put me to sleep.  I kept my eyes fixed upon my doctor.  Then I felt myself go under....

When I came round, opening my eyes, I could see nothing at first but a great whiteness, my sheets; then I noticed the face of my doctor, bending over me:

"Everything went off well.  You're brave, my boy.  Now you're going to stay here for two weeks, rest comfortably, and it will be over.  You'll eat well, and relax your body and your nerves."

I could only follow the movements of his lips.  I scarcely understood what he was saying, but the murmur of his voice did me good.  Suddenly a cold sweat broke out on my forehead.  I could not feel my leg!  Had they amputated it?

"Doctor," I stammered.  "Doctor...?"

"What's the matter, son?"

I lacked the courage to ask him the question.

"Doctor, I'm thirsty...."

He had water brought to me.  He was smiling.  He was getting ready to go and visit the other patients.



"Shall I still be able to use my leg?"

He was no longer smiling.  I was very frightened.  He said:

"Do you trust me, my boy?"

"I trust you absolutely, Doctor."

"Well then, listen to me.  You'll be completely recovered in a fortnight.  You'll be able to walk like anyone else.  The sole of your foot was all full of pus.  We just had to open the swelling.  You haven't had your leg amputated.  You'll see.  In a fortnight's time you'll be walking about like everyone else."

I had only a fortnight to wait.

Two days after my operation, there was a rumor going round the camp that the front had suddenly drawn nearer.  The Red Army, they said, was advancing to Buna; it was only a matter of hours now.

We were already accustomed to rumors of this kind.  It was not the first time a false prophet had foretold to us peace-on-earth, negotiations-with-the-Red-Cross-for-our-release, or other false rumors....  And often we believed them.  It was an injection of morphine.

But this time these prophecies seemed more solid.  During these last few nights, we had heard the guns in the distance.

My neighbor, the faceless one, said:

"Don't let yourself be fooled with illusions.  Hitler has made it very clear that he will annihilate all the Jews before the clock strikes twelve, before they can hear the last stroke."

I burst out:

"What does it matter to you?  Do we have to regard Hitler as a prophet?"

His glazed, faded eyes looked at me.  At last he said in a weary voice:

"I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else.  He's the only one who's kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people."  (Elie Wiesel, Night, 1960, in The Night Trilogy, 1985, pp. 84-87)

My questions regarding the operation to the sole of your foot are as follows:

(i) Why did the Germans so generously allocate scarce resources to you, a Jew whom they apparently only wanted to execute?  Why allocate to you a surgeon, an operating room, anesthetics, antibiotics, bandages, sheets, extra food, freedom from work � and all this for a full two weeks?

(ii) All the more one must ask why the Germans allocated hospital space to the Hungarian Jew who appeared to you to be nearly dead: "skin and bone, with dead eyes.  I could only hear his voice; it was the sole indication that he was alive.  Where did he get the strength to talk?"  Again, scarce resources are being allocated to a person slated for extermination, and this one in such precarious health that nothing more than a little neglect would have accomplished the Nazis' goal of murdering him.  Why allocate scarce resources to save a dying Jew at Auschwitz?

(iii) It is peculiar that in recounting your conversations with the Hungarian Jew who was your fellow patient, you fail to report that either of you commented to each other on the incongruity of the Germans providing you with scarce resources when they intended to kill you shortly after.

(iv) It is unclear whether you were under a general anesthetic during this operation or not.  That you would have been seems improbable, as the operation consisted of little more than a draining of pus from the sole of the foot, for which reason � given that your statement is ambiguous � I would tend to conclude that the operation was under local anesthetic only.

(v) If the operation had been conducted under local anesthetic only, how could you ever have gotten the impression that your foot had been amputated?

(4) Why would the Germans allocate scarce resources to saving the life of a witness who would be able to testify against them?

While recuperating in the Auschwitz hospital from your knee operation, you reflect that:

We were sure the Germans would leave no witnesses, that they would kill every last one of us.  That was the logic of their monstrous undertaking.  They would destroy everything to prevent the free world from discovering the nature and extent of their crimes.  (Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995, p. 91)

(i) But how are we to understand German logic when on the one hand they need to kill you because you are a witness to their crimes, and on the other hand they allocate scarce resources to saving your life?

(5) How is it possible to confuse the sole of the foot with the knee?

In your description of your operation above, you quote your doctor as stating that "the sole of your foot was all full of pus."  Also, you had said that "my right foot began to swell because of the cold.  I was unable to put it on the ground," and that if the operation were not performed immediately, bad effects would follow, starting with the amputation of your toes, which again indicates that the problem was located in the lower foot.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across your later description of what must be the same operation � but now not to the sole of the foot, but to the knee:

January 1945.  Every January carries me back to that one.  I was sick.  My knee was swollen, and the pain turned my gait into a limp.  [...]  Going to the KB, the infirmary, would be dangerous.  Few patients ever got out, except to be transferred to Birkenau.  But if I did nothing, I would not last much longer.  Finally he decided: "Go to the KB.  At least we'll find out what's wrong with you."

That evening before roll call, I went to the KB.  My father waited for me outside, trembling with cold and fear, arms dangling, alone and more lonely than ever.  Would we ever see each other again?  I walked as quickly as I could, not daring to turn back.  A Stubendienst stopped me.  "What's the matter with you?"  I showed him my knee.  With a sneer of disgust he let me pass.  I took my place in line, afraid that my father would catch pneumonia or be driven away with clubs.  At last my turn came.  A doctor glanced at my knee, touched it.  I stifled a scream.  "You need an operation," he said.  "Immediately."  [...]  I went back to the infirmary, where another human "miracle" awaited me: One of the doctors, a tall, kind-looking man, tried to comfort me.  "It won't hurt, or not much anyway.  Don't worry, my boy, you'll live."  He talked to me before the operation, and I heard him again when I woke up.  I believe he had kept talking the whole time.  (Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995, pp. 89-90)

I pass over the observation that a reading of the two accounts leaves one with the impression that all the details are different.  Concerning the above passage, I ask only two questions:

(i) How does it happen that in 1960 you thought that it was the sole of your foot that had been operated on, but in 1995 you began to think that it had really been your knee?

(ii) In your 1995 account immediately above, you unambiguously portray the operation as having been performed under a general anesthetic, which clashes somewhat with the impression from your 1960 account that the operation had been under local anesthetic only.

I think that from the above you will understand how it is easy for some of your readers to be left with the impression that your work may constitute one of those many contributions to the "non-historical and easily refutable" histories of the Jewish Holocaust which Boaz Evron describes as being a "cancer for Jews and for the State of Israel."  I think that you will appreciate too how easy it would be for you to dispel such suspicions merely by explaining the above incongruities and thereby demonstrating that your work did not fall into the same category as that of Jewish Holocaust fabulists Jerzy Kosinski and Simon Wiesenthal.

Yours truly,

Lubomyr Prytulak