18 pages 36 minutes read

Elie Wiesel

Never Shall I Forget

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1958

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Summary and Study Guide


A well-known Holocaust survivor and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel is the author of “Never Shall I Forget,” and the poem comes from his acclaimed book Night (1956)—a semi-fictionalized autobiographical account of how he survived Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps as a teen. In the book, the words take up three paragraphs, the prose becoming lines that amount to a 13-line lyric poem in free verse (there’s no rhyme or meter). The poem is part of the genre of Holocaust literature, reflecting Wiesel’s harrowing first night at Auschwitz. It’s also a confessional poem, with Wiesel confessing his trauma about living through the Holocaust. The poem sends the message that traumas can last forever and there’s no way to forget them. Though he’s not known for his poetry, Wiesel was a prolific writer, publishing nearly 60 books in his lifetime (almost all of them rooted in Judaism and the Holocaust), and the words that compose “Never Shall I Forget” are quoted often by critics and laypeople alike.

Content Warning: The poem and this guide contain disturbing imagery and discussion related to the violence of the Holocaust, including the murders of infants and children.

Poet Biography

Elie Wiesel was born Eliezer Wiesel on September 30, 1928, in Sighet (a small Romanian town). His father owned a shop, and his mother told him mythical stories from Jewish history. He also had three sisters—two older and one younger. In 1939, Nazi Germany began World War II when it invaded Poland. In 1944, Nazis took over Sighet and forced Wiesel’s family into a ghetto (a restricted, often barely habitable area exclusively for Jews) before deporting them to Auschwitz—the notorious concentration camp complex where over one million Jews died.

In Night, Wiesel tries to deny the overwhelming inhumanity he immediately encountered at Auschwitz, telling himself, “Surely it was a dream” (Wiesel, Elie. Night. Trans. Stella Rodway, Bantam Books, 1986, p. 35). The nightmare killed his mother and little sister (Nazis placed them in the gas chambers on their first night), but Wiesel survived constant beatings and hard labor. He also battled a death march, where Nazis marched emaciated concentration camp prisoners across freezing Eastern Europe, trying to elude the Allies (the United States, Russia, England, and the other countries fighting Nazi Germany). Wiesel and his father wound up in another concentration camp, Buchenwald. Wiesel’s father died there before the American army arrived. Wiesel’s two older sisters survived, and the siblings reunited in a French orphanage.

In his twenties, Wiesel became a journalist, and he wrote a long (around 860 pages) Holocaust memoir in Yiddish. The 20th-century French author François Mauriac persuaded Wiesel to write a shorter version in French and to change the title from And the World Remained Silent to Night. In 1958, Les Éditions de Minuit published the French version. Two years later, Hill & Wang published the English version. The book received favorable reviews, and as learning about and discussing the Holocaust became a central part of Western culture, it started to sell.

In 1969, Wiesel married the TV producer Marion Erster Rose, who translated (or retranslated) many of his books, including Night, into English. Aside from authoring nearly a book a year, Wiesel also taught at Boston University, led the formation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, and became an activist. Wiesel spoke out against genocides and lethal persecution in Sudan, South Africa, and Bosnia.

A vocal supporter of Israel, the imputed Jewish homeland, Wiesel’s critics disapprove of what they consider a failure to address the Israeli state’s violent, restrictive policies for Palestinians. In 1998, protesters confronted Wiesel at a benefit dinner in Minneapolis (Eoloff, Nick. “Elie Wiesel’s Visit Sparks Protest.” Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Mar. 1999). The contemporary Jewish scholar Norman Finklestein, whose parents survived the Holocaust, has critiqued Wiesel’s alliance with Israel and argues that Wiesel turned the Holocaust into a commodity, charging $25,000 speaking fees and requesting a chauffeured limousine (Rayner, Jay. “Finkelstein’s List.” The Guardian, 16 July 2000). In response to criticism of his stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Wiesel has stated, “I’m against this kind of terrorism. Whatever is happening now is not because of the Palestinians in general. It’s because of Hamas […] It cannot go on. It’s good for everybody—both Palestinians and Israelis—to have some peace at last” (Khvan, Olga. “Elie Wiesel Urges Sensitivity, Understanding in Midst of Gaza Violence.” USA Today, 2012).

Former president Barack Obama has described Wiesel as “the world’s most prominent Holocaust survivor” and “a living memorial” (East, Kristen. “Obama Leads Tributes to Elie Wiesel.” Politico, 7 July 2016). In 2000, the media titan Oprah Winfrey called Wiesel “one of the people [she] most respect[s]” (“Oprah Talks to Elie Wiesel.” Oprah, Nov. 2020). In 2006, Oprah selected Night for her influential book club. That same year, for a special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, Wiesel showed her around the Auschwitz site. When Wiesel died in 2016 at 87, Night had sold around 10 million copies.

Poem Text

Wiesel, Elie. “Never Shall I Forget.” Trans. Marion Wiesel. 1958. Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.


The speaker is Elie Wiesel—or, to be respectful of the difference between a person in real life and how they appear in literature, Wiesel’s poetic persona—and he can’t forget the first night he spent in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The experience makes his life feel like “one long / night” (Lines 1-2) that’s been “sealed” (Line 2) shut multiple times. He can’t erase the memory of the “smoke” (Line 3) or the children who became part of the smoke. He also can’t ever forget seeing the “flames” (Line 6)—the fire has permanently taken over his “faith” (Line 6).

Wiesel won’t ever forget the dark quiet that made him not want to live. There were indelible “moments” (Line 9) that destroyed his “God” and “soul” (Line 9), and there were haunting occurrences that pulverized his “dreams” (Line 10). All of the terrible things he lists in the poem––he won’t forget any of them. Even if he lives “as long as God Himself” (Line 12), Wiesel won’t forget what he survived. He will never forget the Holocaust.