In the fall of 1965 the Israeli newspaper Haaretz sent a young journalist named Elie Wiesel to the Soviet Union to report on the lives of Jews trapped behind the Iron Curtain. “I would approach Jews who had never been placed in the Soviet show window by Soviet authorities,” wrote Wiesel. “They alone, in their anonymity, could describe the conditions under which they live; they alone could tell whether the reports I had heard were true or false—and whether their children and their grandchildren, despite everything, still wish to remain Jews. From them I would learn what we must do to help . . . or if they want our help at all.”
What he discovered astonished him: Jewish men and women, young and old, in Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, Vilna, Minsk, and Tbilisi, completely cut off from the outside world, overcoming their fear of the ever-present KGB to ask Wiesel about the lives of Jews in America, in Western Europe, and, most of all, in Israel. They have scant knowledge of Jewish history or current events; they celebrate Jewish holidays at considerable risk and with only the vaguest ideas of what these days commemorate. “Most of them come [to synagogue] not to pray,” Wiesel writes, “but out of a desire to identify with the Jewish people—about whom they know next to nothing.” Wiesel promises to bring the stories of these people to the outside world. And in the home of one dissident, he is given a gift—a Russian-language translation of Night, published illegally by the underground. “‘My God,’ I thought, ‘this man risked arrest and prison just to make my writing available to people here!’ I embraced him with tears in my eyes.”
Introduction to the 2011 Edition
Of all the volumes I have written over the last fifty years, this is the one that brings back to me a sense of joy.
I remember: fall 1965. My first journey to the Soviet Union. In my quest for my Jewish brethren, I had no idea what was awaiting me in that godforsaken land. Will I find them? Are they still there? Haven’t they been either physically annihilated by Hitler or spiritually assimilated by Stalin?
Israeli officials—Meir Rosenne in New York, Ephraim Tari in Paris—were the ones who pushed me to make the trip: “Why waste words? Go and see for yourself.” They gave me one name: David Bartov, a legendary figure, the number two at the Israeli embassy in Moscow. All three eventually became cherished friends.
Yom Kippur in Moscow, a Shabbat in Kiev, a day or two in Georgia, Sukkot in Leningrad (today St. Petersburg), back to Moscow for Simchat Torah: first I encountered fear among the old people, then it was replaced by the exuberance of the young.
I said to myself then and I repeat it now: perhaps I survived only to serve as a witness to the anguished ancestral faith of the former and the inspiring courage of the latter.
The morning prayer and Talmud study in one small room; the dancing in the street in front of the Great Synagogue in Moscow (steps away from the infamous Lubyanka Prison); the clandestine meetings in Jewish cemeteries, where I taught young Jewish boys and girls chapters of Jewish history and popular songs about life in the ghettos and the dreams of Jerusalem. I returned to Israel filled with the memories of faces, tears, and tales that touched my soul and remain in my heart.
I still remember the whispers in houses of prayer, and the anonymous pieces of paper pushed into my pockets at concerts of Jewish music: “Please, brother Jew, do not forget us.”
I promised. I promised each and every one of them that I would become their messenger. That I would carry sparks of their flame to New York and Paris and London—wherever Jews and their allies live in security and freedom.
With my faithful friend David Bartov, I walked the streets of Moscow, trailed by not-so-secret agents, exchanging impressions and possible conclusions: Would this situation endure forever? Will the iron gates there ever be lifted? Will Russian Jews ever be allowed to “go home” to their historic Land of Israel? Both of us were skeptical, worried.
Oh, yes, we gave consoling words to the Jews we encountered; we tried to persuade them that redemption was assured and near. But we ourselves didn’t believe it. There was no practical, concrete reason to have faith in our own promises.
If anyone had told us then that, in our lifetimes, we would witness the collapse of the Communist dictatorship and the birth of freedom in the USSR, we would have sent him to a mental institution to be healed of his hallucinations.
I returned to be with them a year later, again for Simchat Torah; I sang with them, laughed with them. I was foolish enough to carry in my bag the first copy of The Jews of Silence
in French; I was almost arrested. I tried to return a third time and was unable to receive a visa. It was given to me only in 1979, when I came with an official delegation. More visits followed after I received the Nobel Prize in 1986.
On one occasion, a clandestine encounter with dissidents was arranged somewhere in a private home. A man I had never met approached me. “I have a gift for you,” he said, handing me a heavy envelope. “This is my Russian translation of your book Night
. I printed a few hundred copies in samizdat
(“underground publishing”; it was against the law to publish my books in the USSR). All are gone. This is the last copy. I kept it for you.”
I thought: “My God, this man risked arrest and prison just to make my writing available to people here! What could I do to show him my gratitude?” I embraced him with tears in my eyes.
The same evening, in another room, a second man approached me. “I have a gift for you. I knew I would meet you one day.” It was his
translation of Night
The two men didn’t know each other.
So I took the second translator to the other room to meet his unknown colleague. They both realized that as each worked on my book they were not really alone. They fell into each other’s arms, laughing and crying at the same time.
I have both translations and keep them as invaluable treasures. They remind me of the time when Jews in the Soviet Union exposed themselves to peril by wanting to remain Jewish.
Today nearly a million of them live in Israel. Others emigrated to America.
How can the author of The Jews of Silence
not experience pure joy?
Excerpted from The Jews of Silence by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2011 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.