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November 19, 2005 -- Vol.10, No.1

Drawing the Open Wound: The Signifying Silences of Elie Wiesel
by Markus J. Poetzsch

  • Silence.  The signifier destroys its signified.  Silence has indeed much to do with destruction, with non-being.  That, anyway, is where one commonly begins.
  • The holocaust—the word, the event—is born of silence and in turn begets silence.  Indeed, there is no means of approaching it except through its begotten silence.  The very argument with which the victims of the holocaust are discredited is also paradoxically the “sign” (Lyotard 56) of the crime.  The silence of millions intimates victimization, intimates it so palpably in fact that it is “felt” (Lyotard 56) before it is known.  But what precisely is felt? An omission? A void?  The pain of a wound that inexplicably appears and is passively accepted as belonging to the body of suffering? A silence? 
  • The silences entwined in the institutional narratives of history and justice are of a different variety; they are not feelings per se but lacunae, gaps in knowledge, lapses in reason and in the human narrative.  They do not, like the private hauntings of imagined horrors, trouble sleep.  Instead, with an almost tectonic inexorability, they grind away the edges of truth and progress, equity and responsibility, community and charity.  They breed the powerlessness and complacency which encourage sleep and make of it a vast, rudderless oblivion.  For Lyotard, these are the silences that demand “the invention of a new idiom” (13).
  •  Idiom.  Phrase universe.  Language.  Nothing more or less than words.
  • And yet that is the problem:  “When all is said, what remains to be said is the disaster.  Ruin of words, demise [of] writing…” (Blanchot 33).  The disaster is other-wordly.  It refuses subjection to, and elaboration by, all symbols, signs and semiological structures.  It is the stone upon which all words are broken, burned and scattered ash-like into a featureless night—“that utter-burn where all history took fire, where the movement of Meaning was swallowed up” (Blanchot 47). 
  • Where words fail, silence is inevitable.  That is the terror of meaninglessness and ineffability.  The quest for idioms, for always already lost language, for the voice that is not amenable to capture, is not this akin to the vain labour within the camps themselves, to the work that does not liberate except where it ends in death—the death of the body, the spirit, the word? 
  • To capture even just one memory in its entirety, one memory sealed in the purity of presence, is an endless impossibility.  Sisyphus revisited.
  • From silence to futility to silence, the word labours and is belaboured but conquers naught.  It is spent, exhausted, evacuated of meaning in the very moment of its conception.  Do we then consign the holocaust, the ultimate and intimate disaster, to the failure of words and to silence?  Do we turn our energies to other more meaning-full labours and cast into the abyss of forgetfulness that which refuses to be known?
  • The fear of forgetting:  the main obsession of all those who have passed through the universe of the damned.  The enemy counted on people’s disbelief and forgetfulness.  How could one foil this plot?  (“Why I Write” 201)
  • A voice.  A voice of one who saw, who may not have known or understood, but who saw.  The denuded witness.  History and the critics of history and the revisionists of history all seem to agree on silence as the governing condition of the holocaust.  But what of the one who saw?
  • 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.  (Night 30)
  • Nothing prepares one for this.  Neither the witness nor the reader has structures of meaning to assimilate this vision, this account.  Even he cannot believe it.  No, none of this could be true.  It was a nightmare…(Night 30).  How are we to believe another’s nightmare or simply trust in the presence of his voice when we have been conditioned to expect silence?
  • This is the lie of the differend.  It is so bound up in silence—indeed, (self-)defined by it—that it necessarily obscures the witness simply because he or she is not entirely credited or credible.  Indeed, there is no credibility under the conditions of the holocaust because it cannot be spoken clearly or poignantly enough; it cannot be spoken at all.  One or two or even a hundred voices freighted with inadequate idioms do not alter the historical fact of silence and thus they are swallowed by it.  The silence of six million is so absolute and so contagious in its absoluteness that even the survivors, the witnesses, are stilled by it. 
  • Stilled and yet they speak. 
  • Night.  No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly.  The stars were only sparks of the fire which devoured us.  Should that fire die out one day, there would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes.  (Night 18)
  • Dead stars.  Ill-starred.  The disaster spoken.
  • And yet it remains that the witness is not truly credible because he does not—cannot—speak lucidly, broadly, meaningfully enough to account for or to everyone.  He cannot even account for himself.  That night someone within me, my other self, told me it was impossible that these atrocities could be committed in the middle of the twentieth century while the world stayed silent.  This was not the Middle Ages.  My very last resistance broken, I let myself be pulled, pushed, and kicked, like a deaf and mute sleepwalker (All Rivers Run to the Sea 78).  Ironically, the sleepwalker survives by disbelieving the substance of his own witness, the very story he later recounts.  The story itself survives by this disbelief and only in after-years does the sleepwalker come to believe it:  It took me a long time to convince myself I was not somehow mistaken.  I have checked with others,…consulted documents…and yes, a thousand times yes (All Rivers 78).
  • “Bereft of certitude, he does not doubt; he hasn’t that support” (Blanchot 12).
  • For the reader, the process of believing is perhaps not dissimilar:  one must first become resigned to the impossibility of ever truly knowing; only then is the last resistance broken, and one is pulled into the sleepwalker’s nightmare.  The silence of history must be heard before the voices within it are perceived. 
  • Prominent in the silence of the holocaust is the sound of suffering.  Occasionally it is a disembodied weeping as in Some were weeping in silence (Night 69).  This particular moment of weeping follows a process of selecting out the weak, the suffering, those who have born too much and thus enough and who have been distinguished for it, distinguished by separation and an entitlement to rest from their labours.  Their silent weeping is the prelude to an eternal silence. 
  • Those who weep and rave audibly are likewise reduced to silence:  ‘Make her be quiet! She’s mad! Shut her up! She’s not the only one.  She can’t keep her mouth shut….’  They struck her several times on the head—blows that might have killed her (Night 24).  The code of silence is so pervasive, so absolute, that even the victims enforce it with violence, rendering the perpetrator dumb, absent, isolated among us (Night 24).  Speech is presence and pain; silence, absence and rest.  To testify to one’s suffering is to augment that suffering to the point of death and silence.  Testimony is the invocation of silence.
  • There is a final sound of suffering, a shrill chorus of voices as muffling and incomprehensible as silence.  Suddenly a cry rose up from the wagon, the cry of a wounded animal.  Someone had just died.  Others, feeling that they too were about to die, imitated his cry.  And their cries seemed to come from beyond the grave.  Soon everyone was crying out.  Wailing, groaning, cries of distress hurled into the wind and the snow….  Hundreds of cries rose up simultaneously.  Not knowing against whom we cried.  Not knowing why.  The death rattle of a whole convoy…(Night 97-98).  This is the pure and wordless language of suffering known to all victims.  It is commiseration with the Other and the self, the Other as the self.  It is a dirge of farewell and warning to the living, a mournful communion with the dead.  It is a liminal language produced in a state of passing, an unquiet silence.  It is the plainsong of Lear.
  • My father was silent.  He was breathing heavily beside me (Night 99).  Silence is absolute and everywhere broken.
  • The silence of the dead is so quintessential and absolute that it wakes voices, breaking itself.  I wrote to testify, to stop the dead from dying (All Rivers 239).  The death of the dead—that soft, unhindered slide into the oblivion of forgetfulness—is an outrage to the witness.  To forget nothing, to efface nothing:  that is the obsession of survivors (All Rivers 380).  Words could not save the dying, could not rend the silence of death, but testimony (and what is this if not a word?) recalls them; it is a summons to appear and be remembered.  A name is enough, a name spoken and recorded, for the name is a universe in itself.  One name is daughter, sister, mother, friend—an evocation of other names, of community, of place.  The name is the first clue. ‘I’m Wiesel of Sighet’ (Night 40). 
  • “Saying [is] already a sign made to another, a sign of this giving of signs, that is, of this non-indifference, a sign of this impossibility of slipping away and being replaced” (Levinas 145).
  • Testimony is a summons, a calling of the lost into the light.  It is also the acknowledgment of a trace of something always already present, something ghosting about in the minds of those who cannot but remember.  It mortifies me to talk about her in the past tense, for she is present.  Her presence is more real to me than my own.  My little sister Tsiporah, my little angel scorched by a darkened sun, I cannot picture you as death’s hostage.  You will remain on our street, on the pavement in front of our house (All Rivers 71).  Testimony struggles to hold and to be held; it is a reciprocal summons, a meeting not in the present or in the past, but in the presence of the past—“on the pavement in front of our house.”  To testify is to be ever in conflict and communion with the past (and with death).  It is to live in more than one world (All Rivers 150). 
  • Testimony summons and is itself summoned.  It is the response to an inaudible call, the “Here I am” to silent weeping.  I am duty-bound to serve as their emissary (“Why I Write” 202).  There is here an aporia of responsibility.  What witness, by what means, can turn simultaneously to millions of denuded faces and wrench those victims from oblivion (“Why I Write” 206)?  How is the witness to remember them all and keep them perpetually in memory, perpetually young, innocent, soulful, human, for that is what it means to wrench them from oblivion? 
  • Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.  Never (Night 32).
  • The burden of testimony begins with the self, or more specifically, with the burden of being.  Before accounting for the deaths of others, the witness must account for his/her own life.  She knew she would never come home.  She left this wretched town in her funeral dress.  Yes, she wore her shroud under her black dress.  She alone was ready.  In the train, she alone was silent.  Am I worthy of her silence (All Rivers 9)?  Survival is but the beginning of the account.  The greater text (and burden) is to live worthily, which means to live with silence and against it, in effect, to succumb to silence without muteness.  Succumbing is not weakness but deference.  Memory, after all, may well prove voracious and intrusive.  Remembering means to shine a merciless light on faces and events, to say “No” to the sands that bury words and to forgetfulness and death (All Rivers 16).  In approaching the dead, the witness, like any mourner, begins in silence, in the bent posture of reverential awe and salutary humility.  The dead are deserving of rest, and the witness’ first duty is to maintain their peace. 
  • But the quieter they are, the more ominous is that silence.  Where there are no graves, no memorials except the instruments of death, no idioms to express the silence of a vast multitude, there and then the witness is summoned to speak, to etch a testimonial.  [W]riting is a matzeva, an invisible tombstone, erected to the memory of the dead unburied (Legends of Our Time 8).  The question remains:  for whom does the witness write? for those who no longer read, for the dead, or for those who cannot understand, the living?  Surely the dead do not need a monument to recall to them their death, their absence.  Or does the matzeva remind them that they once lived?  Does it return to them a trace of the presence they lost so innocently?...
  • The matzeva must be for the living, for the witness before any other.  I wrote to speak to those who were gone.  As long as I spoke to them, they would live on, at least in my memory (All Rivers 239-240).  The matzeva is a tombstone erected not to the dead but to memory itself, a memento memento.  It is a sign, a marker, which ruptures the present by folding it over onto the past.  The witness writes in order to remember what it is to remember.
  • There is a danger in equating the matzeva with the text or word itself.  It is the act of writing, not the written word, wherein the witness remembers remembering.  The word is but the dross of memory; it is innumerable removes from the event, from the silence. 
  • The word is bound up in its own silences.  It is forever outstripped, outmaneuvered, out-lasted by the moment it endeavors to hold.  At best, it is a warning to the reader to “Keep watch over absent meaning” (Blanchot 42).  ‘Look, read, but do not believe except in the fissures, the cracks, the chasms between.’  The space between any two words is vaster than the distance between heaven and earth (All Rivers 321).  Reading, as such, is an initiation into wordlessness. 
  • The witness concedes that his is an experience that can neither be imagined or shared (All Rivers 336).  The holocaust is the ultimate isolation.  Not only is the witness unable to give an account of the dead, but his own experience is unaccountable.  Who can tell of his suffering, of the flames in his eyes?  His is a community of the dead and silent, those who cannot testify.  What he endured is only known to those who endured it with him, yet they no longer speak.  He must speak for them and in turn for himself to an audience of the living who do not know and cannot imagine.  And yet he says, I place my trust in readers, hoping I will be understood.  They must know that the truth I present is unvarnished; I cannot do otherwise (All Rivers 336).  Here is a sharp disjunction, a collision of wordlessness and word, silence and hope.  How can something be understood that cannot be known?  What is the value of a trust invested in those who are fundamentally un-trust-worthy?  The witness is compelled to erect a monument for the dead and inscribe it with an unknown language—a tongue of howls, wailing and silence—which the reader is entrusted to understand without the capacity to decipher it: is this what it means to write of the holocaust? 
  • The text, the word—indeed, the very failure of text and word—is integral to the apperception of the signaling silence of the differend.  Texts and words are the measures of inexpressibility.  The holocaust is immune to translation and transcription not because words have never been brought to bear upon it, but precisely because they have, and have failed.  It is by the application of words that their limitations are discovered.  Perhaps writing wears out errors by extending the domain of words, by pushing back the horizon of limitations, by opening a larger universe, a larger silence, a larger wound. 
  • “Only by becoming such a wound, do we gain even the tiniest access to these wounded ones” (Patterson 1). 
  • The question remains whether we are wounded by silence or by words.  In silence at least we will listen.  Is that perhaps as near as we can come to empathy for the dead, that is, by participating reverentially in their silence?  Is that true communion, the only attainable understanding?…With words at least we will testify.  Indeed, the silence of communion is predicated on words.  We must know that there has been death; words must make at least that much clear, else silence is indistinguishable from mute ignorance, from a forgetting that has never known.  
  • Writing unravels, resolving and disintegrating in one motion.
  • Writing of the holocaust begins, paradoxically, as a writing of silence.  It was by seeking, by probing, silence that I began to discover the perils and power of the word (“Why I Write” 200).  The witness cannot attest to howling suffering until he evokes the silence out of which it arises.  Silence, indeed, is his preoccupation.  “Not silence as a vacuum or emptiness, but as presence—of memory, of the dead” (Des Pres 55).  Just as howling is but a disembodied voice, merely the cry of an unknown animal if removed from the context of its enveloping silence, so the dead are nameless, faceless, disenfranchised wanderers if wrenched out of the stillness of their dying.  The connection is in fact stronger:  there is no howling, no death, without silence.  ‘Where are we being taken?’  This was a secret.  A secret from all except one:  the President of the Jewish Council.  But he would not say; he could not say.  The Gestapo had threatened to shoot him if he talked (Night 11).  Silence here is governed by a double-bind: to break it or to be complicit with it is likewise to die.  Only survivors can testify to the double-bind of silence; it is a secret disclosed in after-years, when it is too late. 
  • Silence is the genesis of all secrets.  Indeed, all mysteries and questions emanate from it and return to it.  Most important to the witness is the mystery and question of truth, which is, paradoxically, the demise of all secrets.  The secret of truth lies in silence (All Rivers 89).  This is not to be understood as an exhortation to break silence, to free the truth that lies mutely enveloped.  On the contrary, the witness prefaces this statement with a caution:  ‘Wait!  One must not say too much’ (All Rivers 89).  This is only to be understood outside of the paradigm of silence and truth as captor and captive, respectively.  What if the relationship between silence and truth is symbiotic and nurturing?  The witness suggests that the maintenance of silence, some core of it at least, maintains truth.  Certainly, the silence ofthe dead is truth.  Not even the witness can make them speak their suffering, not truly.  “Howling” is but a word; it does not pierce the night of our dreaming.
  • At the center of the holocaust is a silence that is truth.  Dying and Death are quintessentially voiceless:  Not a cry of distress, not a groan, nothing but a mass agony, in silence.  No one asked anyone else for help.  You died because you had to die….  All round me death was moving in, silently, without violence.  It would seize upon some sleeping being, enter into him, and consume him bit by bit (Night 84-85).  This is the truth that the witness cannot and does not dare venture to disturb with words. 
  • “May words cease to be arms; means of action; means of salvation” (Blanchot 11).  The writing of the holocaust is duty-bound to preserve truth by preserving silence (which is not at all the same as being silent).  The quest for new idioms is necessary, but each discovery must respect the silence of truth.  The idiom that purports to capture the terror of the “nude herds of the damned” (Kinsella 7) only plunges the victims deeper into oblivion.   It robs them of the voice to which only they have a right.  It robs them also of silence. 
  • The word that claims to rupture the silence of the holocaust threatens to rupture its truth.  [Silence], like speech, demands to be recognized and transmitted (All Rivers 334).   If we think we know enough, we may begin to forget.  The task of the witness is not to keep silent but to shape silence with words, to draw the outline of the open wound that must not scar over.  That is what it means to “write in the thrall of the impossible real” (Blanchot 38). 
  • The desire for spoken truth, for full disclosure, for curtains raised and the dead reanimated—all of this is a desire for an end, the beginning of a forgetting.  ‘Let us know enough so that we may cease to remember.’


To forget nothing,
To efface nothing:
That is the obsession of survivors.



Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice.  The Writing of the Disaster.  Trans.  Ann Smock.  Lincoln: 
            University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

Des Pres, Terrence.  “The Authority of Silence in Elie Wiesel’s Art.” Confronting the
Holocaust:  The Impact of Elie Wiesel.  Eds.  Alvin H. Rosenberg and Irving
Greenberg.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1978.  49-57.

Kinsella, Thomas.  “Downstream.”  The Penguin Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry.
Eds.  Peter Fallon and Derek Mahon.  Penguin, 1991.  6-9.

Levinas, Emmanuel.  Otherwise Than Being; or, Beyond Essence.  Trans.  Alphonso
            Lingis.  The Hague:  Nijhoff, 1981.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois.  The Differend:  Phrases in Dispute.  Trans.  Georges Van Den
            Abbeele.  Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Patterson, David.  The Shriek of Silence:  A Phenomenology of the Holocaust Novel.
            University of Kentucky Press, 1992.

Wiesel, Elie.  All Rivers Run to the Sea.  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

----- .  Legends of Our Time.  New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

----- .  Night.  Trans.  Stella Rodway.  New York:  Bantam, 1982.

----- .  “Why I Write.”  Trans.  Rosette C. Lamont.  Confronting the Holocaust:  The

Impact of Elie Wiesel.  Eds.  Alvin H. Rosenberg and Irving Greenberg.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1978.  200-206.

Copyright © Markus Poetzsch