On May 14, 1955, François Mauriac, Nobel-prize winning French novelist and biographer of General Charles de Gaulle, encouraged Wiesel to speak for the survivors of the Holocaust. Mauriac advised Wiesel on the publication of Night, a humanistic documentary which the author and his publisher pared down from a more than 800-page Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent) to a manuscript one-eighth of the original, a spare, intense first-person account of his incarceration by the Nazi SS. The book was translated from Yiddish into French, retitled La Nuit, and dedicated to his parents and his little sister.
The most personal branch of literature, autobiography consists of diaries, journals, letters, and memoirs. As narratives, autobiographies introduce the reader to intimate thoughts and responses of a single point of view at a precise moment in time. In some instances, the eyewitness' account of notable incidents outweighs the lack of artistry, as is the case with the Diary of Samuel Pepys, a faithful, if hackneyed account of daily happenings during three significant events in English history — the return of the English monarchy in 1660, the Great Fire, and the Great Plague. In the modern era, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl offers the mature observations of a young Jewish girl in an upstairs annex, hidden from the Nazis who overran Holland during World War II. A similar account comes from Zlata Filipovich, who published an account of the Bosnian civil war in Zlata's Diary.
In contrast, Night, an unadorned recreation of events central to Elie Wiesel's separation from his parents and sisters, offers the reader a significant commentary on a single family's disappearance into the bloodthirsty jaws of Hitler's monstrous war machine. The inevitability of death and despair produces a paradox: a heart-rendingly pathetic isolation of a young Jew from his relatives and from his belief in God, and a thrilling last-minute rescue of one of America's most beloved humanitarians from multiple onslaughts of sickness, hunger, fatigue, and emotional trauma. The incisive style of Night shares much with other notable autobiographies:
- Like Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography, Wiesel's work dispenses pragmatism and a belief that young people can and should dedicate themselves to higher concerns than frivolity and self-indulgence.
Night shares with St. Augustine's Confessions a firm grasp of spirituality, the sustaining force that guides Elie, even when his conscious mind doubts that a deity can still exist and allow death camps to commit wholesale murder.
- In the same vein as Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston's examination of internment in Farewell to Manzanar, Elie Wiesel analyzes the faces and gestures of villagers, family, and friends as they prepare to depart from their Romanian home and accept a government-issue barracks as makeshift housing.
- With parallel qualms to those of Yoko Kawashima Watkins in So Far from the Bamboo Grove, young Elie describes the last glimpse of a beloved parent who has generously given his time, resources, and worthy counsel to equip his child for a bitter fate amid stony-hearted oppressors.
- Also, Elie Wiesel echoes James Joyce's coming-of-age frankness, a central factor in the success of A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, a work that lays bare similarly honest and painful revelations grounded in an immature, untried set of values.
As a reconstruction of the author's ego at a crucial moment in world history, Night demonstrates the narrator's willingness to face certain death and to cling to the shreds of sanity that remain. Wiesel's command of details forces the reader to observe vicious dogs, to hear the cries of a befuddled old rabbi, to smell the fear in the fleeing evacuees who race through the night toward an unknown fate, to hear a Beethoven melody pierce the night, and to touch the cold, motionless form of the violinist who has expended the last of his artistry in a musical benediction over a scene of heartless savagery.