Elie Wiesel and When the Meanings Don’t have Words

I, too, have recently adopted the mantra “words don’t have meanings; meanings have words.”  But, I was struck recently by this passage in the preface of Night by Elie Wiesel where he discusses how there were no words appropriate for the meanings he was trying to convey concerning his experiences during the Holocaust:

I had many things to say, I did not have the words to say them. Painfully aware of my limitations, I watched helplessly as language became an obstacle. It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language. But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy? Hunger–thirst–fear–transport–selection–fire–chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times they meant something else. Writing in my mother tongue–at that point close to extinction–I would pause at every sentence, and start over and over again. I would conjure up other verbs, other images, other silent cries. It still was not right. But what exactly was “it”? “It” was something elusive, darkly shrouded for fear of being usurped, profaned.  All the dictionary had to offer seemed meager, pale, lifeless. (p. ix)

In a dramatic turn, however, I think most who read Night would testify that the effect of the words that Wiesel does find is anything but “meager.”  Among many other things, it is a book that can prod one to repentance for complaining about things that are trite.  It can embolden one to testify, though the world around is trying to convince itself that an atrocity is a hoax.  It can inspire one to look upon the plight of those who are suffering in the world around us and act in compassion.

Night also reminds me that this is something that I should keep in mind when I am reading some texts within the Bible.  I currently analyze meaning day in and day out for my work, but it is important to remember that sometimes authors who were in distress may have chosen the words they did despite the fact that the words seemed “meager, pale, lifeless.”


  • Mmmm! So true!

    I think this is especially important to remember when reading the Psalms. How often in poetry do words come short—and it was for this very reason that prose was dropped and the poem taken up!—that an immense, immeasurable experience be measured by words.

    Thank you for sharing this insight. When I first read “Night” it was not an intentional happening. I just accidentally picked it up and COULD NOT put it down, until the last page was turned. So powerful, and so moving, as you know full well.

    • I think the only time I really paused was to ponder the question Wiesel himself ponders as young boy at the beginning: How on earth did this happen in the 21st century? It is an important book that shows us that most of us are not so modern as we would like to think and are perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to suffering when it suits us.