With the recent passing of Elie Wiesel I thought I would transfer over my post of his famous book from my old blog. Wiesel employs a style both chaste in its short sentences and gaudy in its exuberant descriptions, a style which reflects the contradictions of the holocaust in which a supposedly “civilized” modern society committed one of the most barbaric uncivilized acts imaginable with the help of modern technology and urban planning.
The title of Night itself is an interesting choice as it is the beginning of the new Jewish day. All celebrations of holidays begin at nightfall. But in Wiesel’s work night is never-ending, the next day never comes. It is a catalog of the dehumanization process where all ties of community, family, and humanity are eviscerated in the crematory flames, and we follow him from camp to camp where he is stripped, showered, forced into hard labor, sick, and abused. He summarizes the holocaust experience early on with this description:
“In one ultimate moment of lucidity it seemed to me that we were damned souls wandering in the half-world, souls condemned to wander through space till the generations of man came to an end, seeking their redemption, seeking oblivion–without hope of finding it.”
The early life of Elie is a religious and mystical one, learning Kabbalah from Moshe the beadle. Moshe discovers the Nazi’s plans and like a prophet of ancient times tries to warn the Jews of Sighet, but they refuse to believe such wild tales of trains shipping Jews off to death camps and civilized countries murdering their Jews in mass. Moshe fits into the archetype of the prophets of old who warned the Israelites in the Bible of various enemies and to reform their behavior, but who ultimately went unheeded.
Soon Elie finds himself sent to the camps with his family, only to be separated from his mother, and clinging desperately to his father as they sort through the Jews like so many pieces of cattle. His arrival at the camps brings him face to face with the crematorium where they shovel babies into the flames, an event that tests Elie’s fragile faith and burns it in the flames with all the corpses. Elie Wiesel grows frustrated at God’s silence amidst all this horror.
“For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?”
This doubt of faith proves to be one of the major themes of the book. As the holy days come around, he doesn’t understand why the other Jews around him insist on celebrating God who has abandoned them and does nothing to relieve their suffering.
“Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? How could I say to him: ‘Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory? Praised be Thy Holy Name, Thou Who hast chosen us to be butchered on Thine altar?
Wiesel raises the issue of the Jews’ choseness in this passage and flips the concept around on its head. He hints that God seemed to have chosen the Jews to suffer through history, all of it culminating in the holocaust and the crematories. He finds the idea of worshipping such a God ludicrous.
If this is a memoir about Elie’s experience during the holocaust, then it also equally about Elie’s relationship with his father and how they attempt to survive in the camp together. The camp causes him to betray his relationship with his father, even as he clings onto this relationship as a kind of security blanket. The camp forces him to resent his father and his weaknesses because Elie is not in a position to protect his father from punishment, forcing him to violate the commandment to honor one’s parents. His own impotence makes him resent his father’s stupid mistakes around their oppressors.
“What is more, any anger I felt at that moment was directed, not against the Kapo, but against my father. I was angry with him, for not knowing how to avoid Idek’s outbreak. That is what concentration camp life had made of me.”
Camp life forces Elie to sublimate his anger at his oppressors, and to direct it at his father for being so foolish and not knowing how to prevent himself pain. He remarks early in the narrative about a son beating his own father to death in order to steal his rations. At the end of the narrative, Wiesel’s own father grows very sick and another confronts him with this same suggestion.
“Listen to me, boy. Don’t forget that you’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone. I’ll give you a sound piece of advice–don’t give your ration of bread and soup to your old father. There’s nothing you can do for him. And you’re killing yourself. Instead, you ought to be having his ration.”
Survival matters more than family relationships. For a moment, Elie finds himself agreeing with this man’s suggestion to rob his father of his food, but then chastises himself for even considering such a horrible betrayal to his parent. Eventually his father succumbs to his sickness and Elie feels more guilt for the relief it brings him.
“I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched it, I might perhaps have found something like–free at last!
I can’t imagine a more terrible feeling than to feel relief that your father is dead and to think of the person who gave you life as a horrible burden. It’s the relationship with his father that provides the emotional core of the narrative, and had me near tears at many points. The book is an emotionally powerful narrative that depicts brutality of the holocaust, the death of a man’s father, and the end of his faith.