Forward to “Night” by François Mauriac
François Mauriac, (1885-1970), novelist, essayist, poet, playwright, journalist, and winner in 1952 of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He belonged to the lineage of French Catholic writers who examined the ugly realities of modern life in the light of eternity. His major novels are sombre, austere psychological dramas set in an atmosphere of unrelieved tension. At the heart of every work Mauriac placed a religious soul grappling with the problems of sin, grace, and salvation.
Mauriac was also a prominent polemical writer. He intervened vigorously in the 1930s, condemning totalitarianism in all its forms and denouncing Fascism in Italy and Spain. In World War II he worked with the writers of the Resistance. After the war he increasingly engaged in political discussion. He wrote De Gaulle (1964), having officially supported him from 1962. Though Mauriac’s fame outside France spread slowly, he was regarded by many as the greatest French novelist after Marcel Proust.
Foreign journalists frequently come to see me. I am wary of them,torn as I am between my desire to speak to them freely and the fear of putting weapons into the hands of interviewers whose attitude toward France I do not know. During these encounters, I tend to be on my guard.
That particular morning, the young Jew who came to interview me on behalf of a Tel Aviv daily won me over from the first moment. Our conversation very quickly became more personal. Soon I was sharing with him memories from the time of the Occupation. It is not always the events that have touched us personally that affect us the most. I confided to my young visitor that nothing I had witnessed during that dark period had marked me as deeply as the image of cattle cars filled with Jewish children at the Austerlitz train station…Yet I did not even see them with my own eyes. It was my wife who described them to me, still under the shock of the horror she had felt. At that time we knew nothing about the Nazis’ extermination methods. And who could have imagined such things! But these lambs torn from their mothers, that was an outrage far beyond anything we would have thought possible. I believe that on that day, I first became aware of the mystery of the iniquity whose exposure marked the end of an era and the beginning of another. The dream conceived by Western man in the eighteenth century, whose dawn he thought he had glimpsed in 1789, and which until August 2, 1914, had become stronger with the advent of the Enlightenment and scientific discoveries—that dream finally vanished for me before those trainloads of small children. And yet I was still thousands of miles away from imagining that these children were destined to feed the gas chambers and crematoria.
This, then, was what I probably told this journalist. And when I said, with a sigh, “I have thought of these children so many times!” he told me, “I was one of them.”
He was one of them! He had seen his mother, a beloved little sister, and most of his family, except his father and two other sisters, disappear in a furnace fueled by living creatures. As for his father, the boy had to witness his martyrdom day after day and, finally, his agony and death. And what a death! The circumstances of it are narrated in this book, and I shall allow readers—who should be as numerous as those reading The Diary of Anne Frank—to discover them for themselves as well as by what miracle the child himself escaped.
I maintain therefore that this personal record, coming as it does after so many others and describing an abomination such as we might have thought no longer had any secrets for us, is different, distinct, and unique nevertheless. The fate of the Jews of the small town in Transylvania called Sighet; their blindness as they confronted a destiny from which they would have still had time to flee; the inconceivable passivity with which they surrendered to it, deaf to the warnings and pleas of a witness who, having escaped the massacre, relates to them what he has seen with his own eyes, but they refuse to believe him and call him a madman—this set of circumstances would surely have sufficed to inspire a book to which, I believe, no other can be compared.
It is, however, another aspect of this extraordinary book that has held my attention. The child who tells us his story here was one of God’s chosen. From the time he began to think, he lived only for God, studying the Talmud, eager to be initiated into the Kabbalah, wholly dedicated to the Almighty. Have we ever considered the consequence of a less visible, less striking abomination, yet the worst of all, for those of us who have faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly faces absolute evil?
Let us try to imagine what goes on in his mind as his eyes watch rings of black smoke unfurl in the sky, smoke that emanates from the furnaces into which his little sister and his mother had been thrown after thousands of other victims:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
It was then that I understood what had first appealed to me about this young Jew: the gaze of a Lazarus risen from the dead yet still held captive in the somber regions into which he had strayed, stumbling over desecrated corpses. For him, Nietzsche’s cry articulated an almost physical reality: God is dead, the God of love, of gentleness and consolation, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had, under the watchful gaze of this child, vanished forever into the smoke of the human holocaust demanded by the Race, the most voracious of all idols.
And how many devout Jews endured such a death? On that most horrible day, even among all those other bad days, when the child witnessed the hanging (yes!) of another child who, he tells us, had the face of a sad angel, he heard someone behind him groan:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.”
On the last day of the Jewish year, the child is present at the solemn ceremony of Rosh Hashanah. He hears thousands of slaves cry out in unison, “Blessed be the Almighty!” Not so long ago, he too would have knelt down, and with such worship, such awe, such love! But this day, he does not kneel, he stands. The human creature, humiliated and offended in ways that are inconceivable to the mind or the heart, defies the blind and deaf divinity.
“I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.”
And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine? And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his childhood was lost? And yet, Zion has risen up again out of the crematoria and the slaughterhouses. The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is they who have given it new life. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to Him. That is what I should have said to the Jewish child. But all I could do was embrace him and weep.