Night

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Editors: David M. Galens , Jennifer Smith , and Elizabeth Thomason
Date: 2002
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 22
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Night

Elie Wiesel 1958

Introduction

In 1986, Elie Wiesel, author, lecturer, and teacher, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The chairman of the award committee, as quoted in Stuart S. Elenko's "The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize," spoke about why Wiesel deserved this award:

Elie Wiesel has emerged as one of the most spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.… Wiesel is a messenger to Mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement, and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.

Night, which according to Wiesel is the book in which all of his subsequent works have their basis, was Wiesel's first break with his self-imposed vow of silence about his war experience. As Lea Hamaoui summarizes in "Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope," it is "Wiesel's attempt to bring word of the death camps back to humanity in such a form that his message, unlike that of Moshe the Beadle to Eliezer and to the Jews of Sighet, will not be rejected." First published in France in 1958, the English translation was initially rejected by twenty publishers. However, when it emerged into the American literary scene in 1960, it immediately electrified the reading audience, broadening the intrinsic meaning of World War II as well as adding a new genre—Holocaust literature—to the literary canon.

Though Wiesel has revisited Holocaust themes in all of his ensuing works, Night presents perhaps
Night Page 260  |  Top of Article his most chilling account of the horror the Nazis inflicted on the bodies and souls of their victims. Stripped to its essentials, from an original eight hundred page manuscript to a bare 127-page volume, Night depicts the concentration camp at its most raw and most honest. The Nazis deprived Eliezer of everything he once loved: his community, his family, his God, and his own vitality. Ted L. Estess points out in Elie Wiesel,"It is true that Wiesel comes to reject despair and death in favor of hope and life, but it is also true that the Holocaust remains ever with him.… It is an agony that abides: this is the foundation of Elie Wiesel's life and work."

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Author Biography

Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, Romania. His father, a shopkeeper, and his mother encouraged Wiesel's interest in Hebrew and Yiddish, and, as a boy, Wiesel also studied the Torah, which are the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Talmud, which are the sacred writings of Orthodox Judaism.

This life came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1944, when the Nazis arrived in Sighet, which had then become part of Hungary. The entire town's approximately 15,000 Jews were deported to the concentration camps in Poland. Wiesel, then fifteen years old, and his father were separated from his mother and three sisters at Auschwitz. In early 1945, as Soviet troops neared Auschwitz, Wiesel and his father were forced to march to Buchenwald, where the elder Wiesel soon died of dysentery and starvation. After the liberation of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, Wiesel learned that his mother and youngest sister had been murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Years later, Wiesel learned that his two older sisters had survived, and the siblings reunited.

Wiesel initially hoped to move to the then-British mandate of Palestine, but immigration restrictions prevented him from doing so. Refusing to return to his native Transylvania, Wiesel boarded a train with other Jewish orphans bound for Belgium. The train was rerouted to France, however, and Wiesel lived in a children's home in Normandy before moving to Paris. He studied at the Sorbonne from 1948 to 1951, focusing on philosophy, literature, and psychology. He also worked as journalist for a French-Jewish periodical, covering the establishment of Israel.

In 1952, Wiesel became a reporter for a Tel Aviv daily newspaper. He was assigned to interview Francois Mauriac, a well-known French Catholic writer. Mauriac convinced Wiesel to break his vow of silence concerning his concentration camp experience. His 800-page memoir was published in Yiddish in 1956; it was revised, significantly abridged, and published as La nuit in 1958. It has become one of the most powerful works of the Holocaust.

In 1956, Wiesel went to America to cover the United Nations for his paper. He was hit by a car in New York, and, forced to remain in the United States for a year, he ended up becoming an American citizen in 1963. In 1957, Wiesel joined the staff of the Jewish Daily Forward. Night was published in English in 1960 and followed up by L'aube (Dawn) and Le jour (The Accident) in 1960 and 1961, respectively, which completed the Night Trilogy (1987).

Wiesel has lived in New York since the 1960s, where he has produced more than forty works of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and essays. In the 1990s, he published two volumes of memoirs. He served as chairperson of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and was a crucial influence on the planning of an American memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. He has also proved to be a powerful speaker, voicing his opinions on issues concerning religion and human rights, most notably on the plight of Soviet Jewry, on Ethiopian Jewry, on behalf of Israel, and on the victims in Bosnia and Kosovo. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Plot Summary

Sighet

Night opens with reflections of Eliezer, the narrator, on life in his hometown of Sighet, Hungary, before the German occupation. Eliezer's main concern is studying and understanding Judaism. Eliezer and Moshe the Beadle discuss God, religion, and the soul, until the day that Moshe, along with other foreign-born Jews, is expelled. The Jews of Sighet soon forget this disturbing incident and return to their everyday lives, but Moshe returns several months later with a tale of massacre. The Page 261  |  Top of Article Gestapo had forced the expelled Jews to dig a mass grave and then get into it for execution. Moshe had escaped with only a shot to the leg, and he returned home to warn his friends. However, the Jews do not believe him. They think that Moshe has gone mad.

Life in Sighet carries on. It is now 1942 and 1943, and the Jews listen to news of World War II on radio broadcasts from London. Eliezer continues in his religious studies. By spring 1944, with the Russians' advance, the Jews have high hopes that the war will soon be over. Though they doubt that they will be in any danger from Hitler, Eliezer suggests that the family immigrate to Palestine, an idea that his father rejects.

The Jews then learn that the Fascist party has come to power in the Hungarian government. Within a few days, the German army arrives in Sighet. At first, the Jews are reassured by the soldiers' polite, reasonable behavior, but soon the Jews must give up their valuables, wear the Star of David on their clothing, and relocate to one of two ghettoes. Still, life returns to normal. The Jews believe they will remain in the ghettoes until the war ends, but as Eliezer notes in hindsight, "It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto—it was illusion." One evening, Eliezer's father receives a summons to a Jewish council meeting where he learns of the deportation of the town's Jewish population, which begins the next day. For the moment, however, Eliezer and his family are relocated to the smaller of the two ghettoes. The people in the little ghetto begin to think that they will be allowed to remain there for the rest of the war. When the family's former servant comes to them, begging them to accompany her to safety in her village, Eliezer's father refuses. On the day of the Sabbath, Eliezer and his family are boarded onto cattle cars and deported.

Auschwitz

The train journey is long and grueling. Eighty people are crammed into each car. Madame Schächter disturbs the others in her car with her visions of flames. The people yell at her to be silent and even physically attack her. After several days' travel, the car arrives at its final destination: Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz. Now, all the Jews on the train see flames from the crematoria leap high into the air and smell the odor of burning flesh.

The Jews are taken from the train. Men are ordered to move to the left and women to the right.
Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel
Eliezer catches a glimpse of his mother and his youngest sister, not realizing he will never see them again. He concentrates on staying by his father's side, determined that they will not be separated. A prisoner tells them to lie about their ages: Eliezer, 14, must say he is 18, and his father, 50, must say he is 40. The prisoner also informs them about the crematoria. All the men line up, and one by one, they face Dr. Mengele for the selection. Mengele will decide who will be killed right away and who will be sent to work in the concentration camp. Eliezer and his father are sent to the same line, but they do not know if the line is destined for life or death. They are forced to march toward a gigantic ditch where the Nazis are burning children. Eliezer, approaching his own death, cannot believe that this horror is a reality. He feels that he is sleeping and must soon awaken from this nightmare. Two steps away from the burning pit, the men are ordered to turn aside. Eliezer cannot believe that his life has changed so immeasurably in such little time. At dawn, they shower and receive prison garb. An S.S. officer tells the men that if they do not work, they will be killed. The men then march to Auschwitz where they are assigned to barracks and tattooed. For the next three weeks, they remain in Auschwitz with little to do except sleep. Then they are sent out of the camp.

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Buna

Four hours' march away is Buna, their new home. Again, they are assigned to barracks and work detail. Life in Buna is filled with random punishments and beatings. Eliezer is forced to give his tooth with the gold crown to the Kapo in charge of his unit so the Kapo will stop beating his father. Eliezer also witnesses several hangings of prisoners. When he sees a young boy hanged for taking part in camp sabotage, Eliezer sees in this execution the death of his faith in God.

One day, the men of Buna face selection, which both Eliezer and his father pass. No one is taken away immediately, and a few days later, a set of numbers is called: these are the men who did not pass the selection, and now, before being killed, they will face one final selection. Eliezer's father's number is called out. Eliezer, sent to work, worries about his father all day long, but when he returns from work that evening, he finds his father has been spared this time.

Soon thereafter, Eliezer must have an operation on his foot. During his stay in the hospital, the camp learns that the Soviets are approaching. The prisoners will be evacuated, but the patients will stay in the infirmary. Eliezer and his father must choose between staying behind in the infirmary or accompanying the evacuation. Because they believe that the Nazis will murder the patients, they decide to leave the camp. Eliezer binds up his injured foot and joins the men on the march through the winter snow.

Buchenwald

The march is extremely difficult. Not only is it cold and snowy, but the men are forced to keep up a relentless pace; any man who falls behind or stops is immediately shot. In twenty-four hours, the men have traveled more than forty miles, and they are finally allowed to rest. Eliezer and his father take turns sleeping and watching over each other so that they will not die in the cold. Eliezer prays that he has the strength not to abandon his father, like another boy he knows recently did. After another long march, the men reach camp where they remain for three days before being put aboard a train for a tenday journey. They receive no food during the journey, and they savagely fight for crusts of bread that a few German workers throw into the car. By the time they reach their destination, only a dozen out of the hundred men put on the cattle car are alive to get out.

Eliezer's father hardly has the strength to go on. He sits down in the snow, unable to walk to the barracks. Eliezer argues with his father to keep going, but when the guards force the men into the barracks, Eliezer follows orders. Not until he wakes up the next morning does he remember that he left his father behind. Eliezer walks around the camp for hours, looking for his father and hoping momentarily that he will not find him. When he returns to the block, he hears his father's plaintive voice. His father is lying on a bunk, stricken with dysentery and burning up with fever. With each day, Eliezer's father grows weaker. Eliezer shares his food ration with his father, but the head of his block advises him not to do so; he says that Eliezer must look out for himself. Secretly, Eliezer agrees with him, but he dares not admit it. In his delirium, Eliezer's father calls out his name incessantly, bringing the abuse and blows of the S.S. down upon him. Eliezer does not go to his father since he is afraid of being beaten himself. When he gets down from his bunk for roll call, Eliezer looks at his father for an hour, engraving his face on his memory. Then he climbs into his bunk again. The next morning, he awakens to find his father gone, taken away to the crematory. Eliezer is unable to cry and even feels somewhere deep inside that he is free from his burden.

Eliezer spends the next two and a half months at Buchenwald. On April 5, the Germans start to liquidate the camp, evacuating 10,000 prisoners a day. Eliezer's block is still at Buchenwald when the camp resistance movement decides to act. The prisoners make the S.S. flee the camp. That evening, the American soldiers arrive at the camp. Eliezer, like the other prisoners, eats the camp provisions, and within a few days, he is sick and lying in the hospital. After two weeks, he is able to get out of bed. He looks at himself in the mirror—the first time since he left the ghetto—and he sees a corpse staring back at him.

Key Figures

Akiba Drumer

Akiba Drumer is one of the men in Eliezer's block at Auschwitz. Akiba believes that God is testing the men with these dire circumstances to see if they can overcome the Satan within themselves. As time goes on, Akiba loses his morale, and he fails a selection and is sent to the crematory.

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Rabbi Eliahou

Rabbi Eliahou comes from a small Polish community. He is well liked by prisoners and even by the Kapos at Buna, bringing everyone a feeling of peace and comfort. His son has been imprisoned with him for the past three years. During the forced march to Buchenwald, Eliezer sees the son run away from the rabbi, who has slowed down; the son wants to rid himself of his father, whose presence he sees as lessening his own chances of survival. Eliezer does not tell this to the rabbi, allowing the man to maintain his faith in his son and love for him.

Franek

Franek, a Pole, is the foreman of Eliezer's work crew at Buna. He arranges to have Eliezer and his father work together. However, he later uses Eliezer's relationship with his father against the boy. He wants Eliezer's gold crown, and when Eliezer refuses to give it to him, he beats his father. After two weeks, Eliezer agrees to give Franek the tooth.

Idek

Idek is the Kapo of Eliezer's block at Buna. Prone to fits of madness and anger, he randomly beats the men under his charge, including Eliezer and Eliezer's father.

Juliek

Juliek is a Polish violin player. Part of a camp band, he complains that the Germans will not allow him to play Beethoven. Eliezer meets him again during the men's first night in Buchenwald, when Juliek plays Beethoven for the dying and exhausted men. The next morning, Eliezer finds that Juliek has died.

Meir Katz

Meir Katz is a friend of Eliezer's father. He worked as a gardener at Buna and sometimes brought the Wiesels vegetables. Aboard the same wagon to Buchenwald as they, he saves Eliezer's life from a man who is strangling him. Meir dies on this journey.

Dr. Mengele

Mengele is the infamous Nazi doctor who holds two selections that Eliezer passes, one at Auschwitz and one at Buna.

Moshe the Beadle

Moshe the Beadle is a poor old man who lives in Sighet. As a beadle, he maintains order in the synagogue. He teaches young Eliezer the mysteries of God and the cabbala until his deportation in 1941 along with other foreign-born Jews. Moshe survives the massacre in Galicia and returns to Sighet to warn his community. However, they refuse to believe his stories, and eventually Moshe gives up trying to make them listen.

Madame Schächter

Madame Schächter travels to Auschwitz on the same cattle car as the Wiesels. She is alone with her youngest son because her husband and two older sons were sent on an earlier transport. This separation has broken her, or so the other people in the car think. At night, she cries out at seeing flames out the window, but no one else can see these fires. The other people in the car yell at her to be quiet, and some people even beat her. They think she has gone mad—until they arrive at Auschwitz and are finally able to see her vision.

Stein

Stein is a cousin of the Wiesels. First deported in 1942 from his hometown of Antwerp, he bumps into Eliezer and his father at the camp. He asks if Eliezer has any news of his wife and children, and Eliezer lies, telling him that they are well.

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Night

Media Adaptations

Night has been recorded as an audiobook. Jeffrey Rosenblatt reads the text in this selection offered by Audio Bookshelf, 2000.

Tibi

Tibi and his brother Yossi are Czechs with whom Eliezer becomes friends. Their parents were murdered at Birkenau. Like Eliezer, they are Zionists whose parents refused to immigrate to Palestine. The boys all agree to go to Palestine after their liberation.

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Chlomo Wiesel

Chlomo Wiesel is Eliezer's father. He is a figurehead in the Jewish community in Sighet, extending help and support to his friends and neighbors. As Eliezer reports, he spends more time fulfilling this role than he spends being with his own family. Like his son, the elder Wiesel survives the selection at Auschwitz, and he and his son make every effort to remain together. He grows weaker and has several near misses with being sent to the gas chamber. By the time the men reach Buchenwald, he is deathly ill with dysentery. He dies in his bunk, his last words being his son's name.

Eliezer Wiesel

Eliezer Wiesel is Elie Wiesel's counterpart in Night. A devoutly religious boy, the prewar world for Eliezer centers on his studies of Judaism, his prayers, and his thoughts of God. For Eliezer, as for many other Jews, the concentration camp turned his world upside down, causing him to call into question all the ideals he had once held dear. Because of the horrors he sees at Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald, Eliezer, only fifteen years old, changes his belief in God as a just, merciful being to a God that can be unfair and thus can be challenged and accused.

Eliezer's concentration camp experience also significantly alters his relationship with his father, who had little to do with the family prior to the war and more to do with Sighet community. Eliezer, rightfully seeing his father as the sole vestige of his former life, goes to great lengths to ensure—to the best of his ability—that he and his father remain together. He also feels a responsibility to protect his father as the older man continually grows weaker. Despite his fidelity, Eliezer recognizes that he would be better off physically if he followed the example of some other sons in his group and escaped from his father. However, he refuses to do so, but still he punishes himself for even allowing such thoughts to cross his mind.

By the end of the book, Eliezer is alone in Buchenwald. His father has died, and he thinks only of one thing: food. He looks in the mirror and is haunted by the image he sees: himself as nothing more than a corpse.

Yossi

Yossi and his brother Tibi are Czechs whose parents were murdered at Birkenau. Like their friend Eliezer, they are Zionists whose parents refused to immigrate to Palestine. The boys all agree to go to Palestine after their liberation.

Themes

God

Before his family's deportation, Eliezer is a devoutly religious boy. Prayer is like second nature to him, as natural as breath itself. He actively seeks a greater comprehension of God's role in his life, and to achieve this understanding, Eliezer initiates a student-mentor relationship with Moshe the Beadle. As a result of his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, however, Eliezer comes to reevaluate his thoughts about God and his mercy. While he does not deny God's existence or stop believing in God, he comes to question the teachings of his faith, concluding that God is not merciful, nor does He dole out absolute justice.

Eliezer's faith in God wavers on his first night in Auschwitz, a night so filled with horrors that it "murdered my God and my soul." Throughout his captivity, daily life as well as specific instances of gratuitous violence continue to challenge his long-held belief in God. When the hanging of a young boy causes another prisoner to question, "Where is God now?" a voice inside Eliezer answers, "Here He is—hanging here on this gallows." In the "face of the sad angel," Eliezer sees the death of his God and his own faith.

On Rosh Hashanah, which marks the start of the new year according to the Jewish calendar, while many of his fellow prisoners pray, Eliezer questions why he should pray to a God who has allowed thousands of children to burn in the pits of the concentration camps and who has not prevented the six crematories from destroying bodies day and night. Why should he bless God? Eliezer asks: "Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death." God's acquiescence to the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Nazis has perverted their status from being His "chosen people" to being chosen "to be butchered on Thine altar." Eliezer also points out that in biblical times God punished his people for misdeeds on their part, but the people who suffer in the concentration camps have done nothing to deserve this treatment. When, for the first time in his life, Eliezer does not fast on Yom Kippur, he feels his rebellion against God, yet he Page 265  |  Top of Article also feels a "great void" in his heart and "terribly alone in a world without God."

Other prisoners also question God and His actions. Akiba Drumer believes that God is testing his people to see if they can "dominate our base instincts and kill the Satan within us." He even believes that "If He punishes us relentlessly, it's a sign that He loves us all the more." Akiba Drumer eventually loses his faith, however, and when he does, he fails to pass the selection and is sent to his death by the Nazis. Even a rabbi loses his faith. "God is no longer with us," he tells Eliezer one morning, and he wonders how anyone can believe in the "merciful God" of Jewish belief in light of what they see every day at the concentration camp.

Death

The presence of death looms ever-present in Night. The impending doom of so many Jews is foretold in Moshe the Beadle's tale, not only in his relating of the murderous extent of the Nazis but also in his own description of his escape and return from the Nazis. Moshe dies symbolically in two ways: first, he is left for dead by the Nazis; second, the townspeople refuse to believe his story. By refusing to validate Moshe's experience, the towns-people are denying their own future. Had they taken his story seriously, people such as the Wiesels could have chosen to immigrate to Palestine.

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Topics for Further Study

  • Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, a concentration camp survivor, wrote an article in 1943 entitled "Individual and Mass Behaviour in Extreme Situations." This article was a pioneer study examining human adaptability to the stresses of concentration camp life and the effects of Nazi terrorism on personality. Read this article and apply Bettleheim's analyses to Eliezer Wiesel.
  • Find out more about daily life in Auschwitz, Buna, or Buchenwald. Write a short story based on your reading.
  • Read Wiesel's Dawn and The Accident, which, taken with Night, are considered a trilogy. Analyze the concentration camp experience based on these works.
  • Read another Holocaust memoir, such as Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. Compare the work selected with Night.
  • Fred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba were two prisoners who escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944. They escaped to Slovakia and wrote what is called the Vrba-Wetzler report, which describes the extermination camps. Conduct research to find out more about how much knowledge the outside world, including the Hungarian Jews, had about the purpose of the concentration camps.
  • Rezso Kasztner was a Hungarian Jew who betrayed his people. The chairman of the Hungarian Zionist Organization and the head of the Jewish Agency's "Rescue Committees" in Hungary, Kasztner nevertheless made a deal with Nazi officials to facilitate the deportation of the Jews of his hometown in exchange for the sparing of the lives of 380 people he selected. Why would a person make such a decision? Write an essay exploring this question.
  • Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland rose up against the Nazi occupiers in 1943. Find out more about this rebellion and other partisan, anti-Nazi acts that took place during World War II.

Although Eliezer does not explicitly say so, the Jews of Sighet have clearly heard stories about Nazi concentration camps. "Was he going to wipe out a whole people?" they question of Hitler. "Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century!" Their refusal to acknowledge this monstrous plan—to maintain their ignorance in the face Page 266  |  Top of Article of contrary evidence—contributes to their ultimate demise.

Once incarcerated in the concentration camp, Eliezer senses death everywhere. It is in the odor of burning flesh that welcomes the prisoners to Auschwitz. It is in the smoke from the crematoria chimney, the barbed wire fences, the cruel guards. "Around me," Eliezer says, "everything was dancing a dance of death. It made my head reel. I was walking in a cemetery, among stiffened corpses, logs of wood." Although Eliezer—in contrast to so many other Jews and so many of his fellow inmates—makes it through the Holocaust years alive, by his liberation he sees himself as nothing more than a corpse. Eliezer's parting words upon seeing his reflection in a mirror for the first time in years—"The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me"—testifies to Wiesel's inability to escape the shadow of death and humankind's inhumanity.

Family and Community

Before deportation, the Jews of Sighet comprise a sort of family based on shared values, religion, and sense of togetherness. Eliezer's father is a figurehead in this community. "He was more concerned with others than with his own family," Wiesel recalls, and the Jews of Sighet "often used to consult him about public matters and even about private ones." Wiesel provides more detail about the community as a whole than he does about his own family. Significantly, on the evening that the ghetto learns of impending deportation, about twenty members of the community are gathered in the Wiesel's backyard to discuss the situation.

With the deportation, however, this communal society is destroyed, as are individual families. Eliezer catches a final glimpse of his mother and youngest sister and then is left with his father as his sole connection to life before Auschwitz. Throughout the Wiesels' time in the concentration camps, Eliezer makes sure that he is not separated from his father. At the initial selection, Eliezer is pointed to the left line, but he hesitates to see where his father is directed; "If he went to the right, I would go after him." Eliezer manages to get his father transferred to work alongside him, for example, and when they are assigned different barracks, Eliezer is constantly checking up and worrying about his father.

In contrast to Eliezer's acts of devotion are the actions of several other sons. Eliezer witnesses a son beat his father for a crust of bread. He realizes that another son has taken advantage of the march to Buchenwald to escape from his father and thus better his own chances for survival. While Eliezer is not immune to experiencing ambivalent feelings about his connection and responsibility to his father, he works and prays to maintain the strength not to forsake his father as these other sons did. "I was his only support," he says of his father, in defiance of prevailing concentration camp wisdom, as verbalized by another inmate: "Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone."

Style

Holocaust Literature

The term Holocaust refers to the Nazi genocide of about six million European Jews and three million other people during World War II. Along with all the Jews of their hometown—and Jews throughout Europe—Wiesel and his family were forcibly relocated from their homes to Auschwitz and Buna. Wiesel's mother and youngest sister were immediately sent to their death; his two older sisters survived, but Wiesel did not find out they were alive until many years later.

Much Holocaust literature draws from actual testimony and memoirs of those people who suffered in the camps. While many survivors, such as Wiesel, maintained their silence for many years following the liberation of the camps, eventually they allowed their voices to be heard. Some survivors, such as the Italian Jew Primo Levi, wrote to understand their own experiences in the concentration camps, as well to try and make some sense of the world's silence at these atrocities. Wrote Lawrence L. Langer in Admitting the Holocaust,"Levi spent his life trying to explain the nature of the contamination that was Auschwitz. It represented a stain not just on individuals, but on time and history too." Holocaust literature also may focus on how people survived amidst the horror of the concentration camps. Some survivors, such as Viktor Frankl—the sole survivor of his German-Jewish family—asserted in his writings the fundamental belief that, in spite of Auschwitz, life is unconditionally meaningful.

Autobiographical Fiction

Wiesel has said of Night, "I swear that every word is true"; the facts that Wiesel recounts in this Page 267  |  Top of Article work are the events that devastated his family and his community. However, in choosing to write a narrative version of his concentration camp experience, Wiesel makes distinct choices. Not only must the author shape the format, he must select which scenes to include, which of his own emotions to share, and which fellow prisoners to highlight. All of these choices contribute to an overarching narrative structure and sensibility. Different critics have pointed out various themes that are inherent in Night, such as a boy's literal and figurative journey into adulthood.

Significantly, Night was published in Argentina in 1956 in Yiddish under the title And the World Remained Silent. This memoir was more than eight hundred pages long, as compared to the brief 127-page volume that was published in France in 1958. This fact alone testifies to the authorial decisions that Wiesel had to face as he wrote of those pivotal years, 1941 through 1945. Ted Estess writes in his study Elie Wiesel,"While Night is as close as Wiesel can come to the truth of his experience, it still fails to tell the whole story. 'The story itself,' he [Wiesel] says, 'will never be told."' Another significant point is that Wiesel wrote this work about ten years after his liberation from the Nazis. As such, it reflects the actual events that occurred as well as Wiesel's remembering of those events.

Setting

Night primarily takes place at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp located in Poland where the largest number of European Jews were killed; Buna, a slave-labor camp supplying workers for the industrial plant that was part of the extended Auschwitz complex; and Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps built on German soil. Wiesel aptly recounts his arrival in Auschwitz. Newly arrived prisoners were divided in a process known as Selektion. The young and strong were sent to work, while young children, their mothers, and the elderly and sickly were sent directly to the gas chambers. Those prisoners who passed the initial Selektion were given inadequate shelter and nourishment and often worked to exhaustion. Prisoners who could no longer work were sent back to Birkenau, the section of Auschwitz where prisoners were exterminated.

Narrative

Wiesel makes an important narrative decision in his opening his story in Sighet prior to the deportation of the Jews. Instead of focusing on extermination, Wiesel chooses to begin his story with a brief discussion of Eliezer's intense desire to explore Judaism and his personal relationship with God. The writing characterizes Eliezer and his background in a few sentences: "I was twelve. I believed profoundly. During the day I studied the Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple." The opening of this first chapter sets up the upcoming theological inquiries that plague Wiesel, for as Moshe tells the boy, "Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him.… That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers.… You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!" Moshe thus places before Eliezer the task that serves as a framework for the whole book. Throughout his time in the concentration camp, Eliezer constantly questions God's actions, motivations, and fairness. He is unable to understand why God has chosen to allow such misfortune to fall upon the Jews. To make some sense of all that happens to him, to his family, and to his fellow Jews, Eliezer is forced to look for strength within himself.

Historical Context

World War II

War broke out in Europe on the morning of September 1, 1939, as Germany announced the annexation of Danzig, a Polish port city with a large German population, and at the same time began a massive attack on Poland. With this act of aggression, Hitler broke a pact he had signed with Great Britain and France to make no more territorial claims in Europe. Although Britain and France quickly declared war on Germany, they took no military action against Germany. Poland was easily subdued, surrendering on September 17. Hitler next turned his sights westward, invading the Low Countries and France in rapid succession; by June 1940, Britain stood alone against the Nazis.

Hitler also set his sights eastward, and the German army launched an attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. The German army surprised the Soviets, and the Nazis saw initial successes, making their advance toward the heart of the Soviet Union. By mid-July, the German army had drawn within 200 miles of Moscow; despite several offensives, the Germans were unable to capture the Soviet capital. In December of that year, the Soviets Page 268  |  Top of Article launched their first attacks. A turning point in the war on the eastern front came in February 1943, when Axis troops surrendered at Stalingrad. Despite German counteroffensives, the Soviet army made steady progress westward. By July 1944, Soviet forces had advanced into Poland, and the following spring, they penetrated Germany.

Hungary in World War II

Hungary aligned itself with Germany in hopes of regaining territory it had lost as a result of World War I; this region included northern Transylvania (part of present-day Romania). In 1941, a pact with Germany awarded Hungary this land, which included the town of Sighet. At this time, thousands of Jews who were not Hungarian citizens were expelled, mostly to Romania. Then, in July 1941, about 20,000 more Jews whose citizenship was in doubt were sent to German-held Galicia. With the assistance of Hungarian troops, these Jews were murdered by the S.S. The following year, another 1,000 Jews were similarly massacred.

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Compare & Contrast

  • 1930s and 1940s: In 1939, the European Jewish population stands at approximately 10 million. However, an estimated 6 million European Jews are murdered during the Holocaust. By 1946, the total number of Jews living in Europe has fallen to approximately 4 million.

    Today: In 2000, the world's Jewish population is estimated at 13.2 million, of which only 1,583,000, or 12 percent, live in Europe. Most Jews live either in the United States or Israel. In most recent years, the Jewish worldwide population has risen slightly, but still remains at a statistical zero population growth.

  • 1930s and 1940s: Before the start of World War II, about 825,000 Jews live in Hungary; about 565,000 perish in the Holocaust. There are 473 Jewish communities throughout Hungary. After the war, 266 of these communities are reestablished, but most are short-lived, as many of the remaining Jews eventually leave the provincial towns.

    Today: In the 1990s, Hungary's Jewish population is estimated at about 100,000 out of a country population of just over 10 million. There are only about a dozen rabbis and a small handful of Jewish schools.

  • 1930s and 1940s: Wiesel's hometown of Sighet is home to about 10,140 Jews in 1941, and as many as an additional 10,000 live in the outlying countryside. After the end of World War II, in 1947, a community of 2,300 exists in Sighet.

    Today: In the years after World War II, many Jews who return to Sighet and other areas of what becomes Romania, choose to emigrate to Israel. Today the Jewish population of Sighet stands at about one hundred.

  • 1930s and 1940s: Auschwitz is the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camp. One-sixth of all Jews murdered by the Nazis are gassed at Auschwitz. In the face of the approaching Soviet army, the Germans abandon Auschwitz in January 1945.

    Today: Auschwitz has been converted into a museum and memorial. In 1996, the Polish government joins with other organizations to ensure the camp's preservation as an historic site.

While Hungary's leader tried to protect the country's Jews, even ordering a stop to the deportations, he was forced to placate the Nazi allies and began a program to eliminate Jews from public and cultural life. New laws provided a more radical racial definition of the term Jew, which classified more people as Jews and which prohibited intermarriage, stripped Jews of their farmland, and segregated them from Hungarian society. Despite these measures, Germany did not trust Hungary. After Page 269  |  Top of Article Germany learned that Hungarian leaders were secretly negotiating an unconditional surrender with the Allies, in March 1944 the German army moved into Hungary. A new pro-German government was quickly set up.

Immediately upon the arrival of German troops, hundreds of prominent Jews were arrested in the major cities. Laws were passed that deprived Jews of their assets, dismissed them from all public services and the profession, closed down their businesses, forced them to wear the Star of David armband, and confiscated their cars, bicycles, radios, and telephones. In April, the decision was made to segregate Jews into ghettos with the ultimate end of deporting them. This plan was carried out almost immediately in the provinces. The deportation of Hungarian Jewry was the swiftest yet organized by the Nazis; within three months 400,000 to 500,000 Jews were ghettoized, stripped of their property, and deported. About 95 percent of the deportees were sent to Auschwitz. The process was then initiated in Budapest; however, about 94,000 Jews—less than one quarter of the Jewish population—were still living in the city's ghettoes when the Soviet army moved into Hungary.

Auschwitz and Buchenwald

Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz; 90 percent of these people were Jewish. The establishment of a concentration camp at Auschwitz was ordered on April 27, 1940, and the first prisoners—Polish dissidents—arrived on June 14. This camp, known as Auschwitz I, was mainly reserved for political prisoners from Germany and Poland. In October 1941, work was begun on Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, located a few miles away. Birkenau developed into a huge concentration camp that included about 300 prison barracks, four large "bathhouses" where Jews were gassed, and several crematoria. Nearby Auschwitz III, or Buna-Monowitz, became a slave-labor camp in March 1942. Prisoners from Buna worked in the on-site factories owned by German companies. By March 1942, trains carrying Jews from countries throughout Europe began arriving at Auschwitz daily. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, about 438,000 Jews from Hungary arrived at Birkenau, seriously overtaxing the camp's resources and crematoria.

Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps located on German soil. It was set up in 1937 and initially housed political prisoners as well as Jews. Most of the prisoners worked as slave laborers at nearby work sites. There were no gas chambers at Buchenwald, but hundreds of prisoners died each month from disease, malnutrition, illness, beatings, and executions.

In the face of the approaching Soviet armies, Auschwitz was abandoned. On January 18, 1945, some 60,000 captives were forced to march to Wodzislaw, where they were then put on freight trains and shipped westward to Buchenwald; one in four prisoners died en route. The 7,650 prisoners who were left behind at Auschwitz, many of whom were sick, were found and liberated by Soviet troops on January 27. On April 6, 1945, the evacuation of Buchenwald began. Some 28,500 prisoners were forced out of the camp, with one in four dying on the ensuing march. Early on April 11, the Germans fled the camp, and the inmates took over. They greeted the liberating American troops later that day.

Critical Overview

Upon publication in English in 1958, Night immediately electrified readers and critics alike. Noting its "terrifying power," in the New York Times Book Review, Gertrude Samuels closed with the chilling admonition, "This remarkable close-up of one boy's tragedy was translated from the French into English. Surely his story deserves a German translation." Similarly, Itzah Ivry concluded in the Saturday Review that Night"deserves to be read by everyone who is deeply concerned about the future of civilization." Because of its subject matter and youthful narrator, many critics compared Wiesel's work with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.

Wiesel's autobiographical account was one of the first examples of so-called Holocaust literature. According to Inga Clendinnen, author of Reading the Holocaust, Night"effectively created the genre of Holocaust memoir in Europe and the USA." It introduced issues surrounding the concentration camps and Nazi atrocities that would be raised by many more survivors and writers in later works. As James Finn pointed out in Commonweal,"Elie Wiesel … reminds us again, not of the historic events—for who, knowing them could forget?—but of the dark depths to which the human spirit plummeted and of the spiritual suffering and sacrifice that no man can measure." Indeed, the Times Literary Supplement found the townspeople's unwillingness Page 270  |  Top of Article
Wiesel (second tier from bottom, raised figure, right) and other prisoners at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp

Wiesel (second tier from bottom, raised figure, right) and other prisoners at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp
to listen to Moshe the Beadle's warning to be the most interesting aspect of the book, particularly since "even today when the facts have long since been established beyond any shadow of doubt we find it almost impossible to credit that human being could inflict and endure suffering on the scale which Mr. Wiesel describes."

Curt Leviant wrote in the Saturday Review,"Wiesel has taken his own anguish and imaginatively metamorphosed it into art," thus raising an issue that critics would revisit over the years: how effective is Night as literature? While the writer A. Alvarez found that "[A]s a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism," he also believed it to be a "failure as a work of art … [because] when what Wiesel has to say becomes intolerable for him, he falls back on rhetoric." Clendinnen finds Wiesel's work to be more of a "theological drama" in which the "human experience he describes becomes abstract and remote in the telling." Yet, many any other readers have greatly valued Wiesel's sparse, concise language. Jack Kolbert, in an essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, found Wiesel's "stark" and "naked" writing style effective: "It is difficult to imagine a work that is more barren of literary adornment and at the same time so rich in intensity of human experience."

Critics have also disagreed about the classification of Night as novel, nonfiction, or autobiography, although Wiesel has stated that every word written in the book is truth. However, in writing about the experience, Wiesel shapes his memory to create a cohesive narrative that is undercut with "literary" themes. For example, Lawrence Langer points out that Wiesel's work is a study of fathers and sons, with the Jews in Auschwitz the son of God. "This lifts the narrative … beyond the constraints of autobiography into the realm of imagined fiction; nothing is more 'literary' or stylized in the story than the young boy's denunciation of God's world and implied renunciation of its creator." Other critics have seen Eliezer's journey to Auschwitz and Buchenwald as reflective of a young boy's passage into manhood or as repetitive of the Jews' experiences in ancient Egypt. Many literary scholars have also analyzed the text in terms of its imagery and symbolism, particularly those relating to religious ideals.

Night continues to be one of the foremost writings of the Holocaust and the concentration camp experience. As Kolbert asserted, "If Wiesel Page 271  |  Top of Article had written only La Nuit, it would be sufficient to guarantee him a lasting place among the French writers of the post-World War II era." However, Wiesel's subsequent writings, as well as his humanist activism, have continued to spread his message throughout the world.

Criticism

Rena Korb

Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In this essay, Korb explores the meaning of Auschwitz to the Jews and to Wiesel.

To the twentieth century, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau have come to symbolize the evil epitomized by Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust. These infamous Nazi concentration camps were places of slave labor, torturous medical experimentation, sadistic violence, and, most significantly, genocide on a scale heretofore unimaginable. The prisoners who lived within the barbed-wire walls of the concentration camp experienced the gradual stripping of their human qualities; honest, pure emotions were subverted, and relationships with other people became a hindrance to individual survival. Nowhere are these aberrations more evident than in Holocaust literature and memoirs. Wiesel's Night, among the first of this genre, aptly demonstrates the concentration camps' capacity to debase humanity. As Wiesel's narrative shows, in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, victims turn against other victims, Jews against Jews, and even sons turn against their fathers. While such a mentality may be difficult for anyone who has not experienced such horror to imagine, Hamida Bomajian points out one crucial difference between the contemporary observer and the camp survivor: "The camp was never a metaphor for the child." The concentration camp presented a literal unrelenting nightmare of mythical proportions. It represents the ultimate perversion of the norm, but Wiesel's first book shows how this perversion transforms into the accepted day-today reality. At the start of Night, young Eliezer lives within a supportive community with shared values and mutual respect and responsibilities, but by the end of the work, he stands alone in front of a mirror, reminding himself of nothing more than a corpse.

This perversion of reality is hinted at from the opening pages of the work, which begins several years before Eliezer's arrival at Auschwitz. In 1941, the first Jews were deported from Hungary. Those selected were foreign-born Jews, and among the Sighet population was Moshe the Beadle. Several months after his expulsion, Moshe returns to the town to recount how these Jews were murdered. The details that surround this massacre forewarn the complete lapse of any comprehensible reality. The Jews were forced to dig their own mass graves in the forest, and then "[E]ach one had to go up to the hole and present his neck" to a Gestapo officer for execution. "Babies were thrown into the air and the machine gunners used them as targets." Moshe, who by all rights should have been dead and was left among the corpses, returns to share this story so that members of his community "could prepare [themselves] while there was still time." The Jews of Sighet, however, refuse to listen to his words. They ascribe Moshe's stories to imagination or madness, and even Eliezer, who formerly had opened his very soul to Moshe, does not believe him, feeling "only pity" for this man whose opinions he had once so valued.

Instead, the Jews strain to make their lives continue as normal, despite the war taking place outside their windows. They return to their regular pattern of religious studies, community matters, and betrothals. They listen to radio broadcasts of the war from London and tell each other that the end of the war "would not be long in coming now." They also deny any reports of the Nazis' mass murder of the Jews. By spring of 1944, two prisoners had escaped from Auschwitz and reported on the extermination that was taking place there. Wiesel has maintained that this report reached the leaders of the Jewish community in Budapest, Hungary; indeed, according to Eliezer, Sighet's knowledge of Hitler's "Final Solution" is known but discounted, much as Moshe's tale was discounted. "Was he going to wipe out a whole people?" they question. "And in the middle of the twentieth century!" Even if this plan could not be refuted as sheer madness, as Moshe's tales were, logistics would seem to prevent it. "Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use?" (As the Jews would soon find out, the Nazis were capable of such efficiency. Within a matter of a few months, they sent more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, which had the capacity to burn the bodies of 6,000 people in the crematoria each day.) Page 272  |  Top of Article Even when the Jews are uprooted from their homes and forced to relocate to one of the ghettoes, they deny what is happening to them. "Little by little life returned to normal," Eliezer reports. Instead of being fearful of the "barbed wire which fenced us in"—a premonition of Auschwitz—the people "thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained." Eliezer even describes the atmosphere as "peaceful and reassuring"—until even the little ghetto is deported.

The train ride to Auschwitz further intensifies the deliberate innocence with which the Jews rode to their death. One person aboard Eliezer's car, Madame Schächter, prophesizes what lies ahead. As night falls, she looks out the window and sees fire. "Jews, listen to me!" she cries. "There are huge flames! It is a furnace!" As they did with Moshe, the Jews ascribe her story—in the form of a vision—to madness. As the train pulls into Auschwitz, however, the Jewish reality instantly conflates with the insanity of the camp: "And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.… There was an abominable odor floating in the air … that smell of burning flesh."

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Night

What Do I Read Next?

  • Wiesel's Dawn (1961) and The Accident (1961) form a trilogy with Night. Both of these books revolve around Auschwitz survivors who struggle to find some meaning in the postwar world. In Dawn, the young survivor immigrates to Palestine, where his work as a terrorist to free the region from British rule causes him to lose his religious ideals. In The Accident, an Israeli foreign correspondent is struck down by a car, only to realize that his subconscious guilt at surviving the concentration camp has led him to seek his own death.
  • Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, a German Jew who survived the concentration camps, explores the psychological mechanisms by which the author held on to his will to live despite incarceration in Auschwitz. Originally published in 1959, this book remains one of the most widely read texts about the Holocaust and survival.
  • Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi's Si questo e un uomo (translated into English as If This Is a Man or Survival in Auschwitz) is one of the foremost Holocaust texts. Originally published in 1947, Levi's memoir recounts the human elements that survived in Auschwitz, including individuals to whom he credited his survival.
  • Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish political dissident, was imprisoned at Auschwitz. His collection of short stories This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was first published in Poland in 1959. This story collection provides a view of Auschwitz from a non-Jew, while revealing how the mechanism of the concentration camp strips morality from its inhabitants.
  • German philosopher Theodor Adorno and colleague Max Hockheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). This nonfiction work discusses society's tendency toward self-destruction, as witnessed by the rise of Fascism in the inter-war years and its resulting negation of personal freedoms.
  • Upon publication, Night was compared by many critics to Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but in 1947, her father published the diary that she kept during the two years the Franks, a Jewish family, hid in a secret attic apartment in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

What Eliezer sees on his first night at Auschwitz shows the utter madness that has engulfed his world. He sees sights that resemble those of Moshe's. There is a ditch with gigantic flames leaping upward. Here the Nazis are burning something. "A Page 273  |  Top of Article 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." Eliezer cannot believe his vision. It must be a nightmare. He pinches his face to bring himself to his senses. "How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent?" he wonders, echoing a thought that will haunt him for the years to come and that will implicate all those people who did nothing to save the Jews and the other victims of Hitler's hatred. Around him, he hears people reciting the Kaddish, the prayer that Jews recite for the dead. In this action of mourning their own death, the Jews of Sighet again mimic the actions of Moshe after his return from the dead.

That first night in Auschwitz causes Wiesel's worldview to change forever. "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night," begins one of the book's most quoted passages. In this brief passage, which in its solemnity and language, recalls a prayer, Wiesel states the message he needs to share with the world:

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."

This passage also signifies the shift in Wiesel and in his counterpart, Eliezer. With the termination of the delusions under which he and the Jews of Sighet have lived for the past few years, Eliezer is forced into a new world, one in which the norms of humanity do not apply. As time progresses, Eliezer—and his fellow prisoners—lose more and more of the qualities that define them as individuals and as Jews. Veterans of Buna make fun of the newer arrivals who have not suffered yet the cold winters as they have. A rabbi forsakes his faith, wondering, "How can I believe, how could anyone believe, in this merciful God?" The degeneration is seen in Akiba Drumer, who initially sees the concentration camp as a sign of God's love and then looks for future hope in a biblical verse that "predicts" imminent deliverance; but, eventually, he loses his faith and thus his will to live. He is sent to the gas chambers, and his friends forget their promise to recite the Kaddish for him.

The evacuation of Buna brings out an even worse side of the men. A boy who sits down during the forced march is trampled to death by the thousands of men running behind him. A rabbi's son sees his father lagging behind the rest of the men in the column. Eliezer remembers that the boy had seen the father "losing ground, limping, staggering back to the rear of the column. He had seen him. And he had continued to run on in front, letting the distance between them grow greater." The rabbi's son had taking advantage of his father's slowness "to free himself from an encumbrance which could lessen his own chances of survival." On the train ride to Buchenwald, the men are given no food for ten days. When the train passes through towns and German workmen throw bread into the car, this act of sport transforms the starving men into inhuman beings. "Men threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes." One man obtains a bit of bread, which he intends to share with his son; however, his son responds not with acknowledgement or thanks but instead by attacking his father. When the father dies of his son's blows, the son immediately takes the bread from his dead father's hand.

Eliezer's relationship to his father is more closely explored. His reactions in the concentration camp reveal the duality that the camp environment thrusts upon its inhabitants. Eliezer witnesses his father's beating at the hands of the Kapo in charge of the unit. His first instinct is to move away "so that I would not be hit myself." His second thought consists of anger at his father "for not knowing how to avoid Idek's outbreak." However, this response does not signify in any way a break with his father, for shortly thereafter he gives up his gold crown to a guard in exchange for the guard's cessation of harassing Eliezer's father.

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"With the termination of the delusions under which he and the Jews of Sighet have lived for the past few years, Eliezer is forced into a new world, one in which the norms of humanity do not apply."

Similarly, although Eliezer quickly realizes that the best way to protect himself is to forsake his Page 274  |  Top of Article father, he never does so. While he chastises himself for even acknowledging this bitter truth in his own consciousness, he differs from the other sons in his group because he does not take action to free himself of the responsibility that his father imposes. The men around him uphold no such similar scruples. They beat Eliezer's father for urinating in the bunk and for calling out his son's name. The head of the block advises Eliezer not to forget where he is: "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." A second piece of advice: "[D]on't give your ration of bread and soup to your old father.… Instead, you ought to be having his ration." While Eliezer never follows this advice—though he recognizes that from a purely practical point of view it is sound—he still cannot forgive himself for even acknowledging such thoughts. His "weakened conscience" is a sign of the degradation that Auschwitz had inflicted upon him—and something for which he cannot forgive himself.

In the last chapter, Wiesel writes: "I had to stay at Buchenwald until April eleventh. I have nothing to say of my life during this period. It no longer mattered. After my father's death, nothing could touch me any more." He thinks not of family, not of God, not of ideals, but only of food. After his liberation, he looks in a mirror to see the eyes of a corpse looking back at him; the Nazis have succeeded in stripping Eliezer of all the characteristics that make a person human; now, it is his great task to regain these elements. Wiesel finds a way to do so by writing about his experiences, exploring his past to find a way to head into this future.

Source:

Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Night, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Kelly Winters

Winters is a freelance writer. In this essay, Winters considers themes of loss of faith, the futility of hope, and the relationship between father and son in Elie Wiesel's book.

It is difficult to analyze Elie Wiesel's Night in purely literary terms; to do so is to risk trivializing the book's extraordinary testimony about one of the most horrific experiences in human history, a young man's imprisonment in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. However, in telling his story, Wiesel uses stylistic techniques that serve to sharpen the reader's experience of the story and returns repeatedly to particular themes.

The story is told in an extremely understated, tight style. Wiesel does not tell the reader what to think; he simply presents events as plainly as possible and lets them speak for themselves. The events, such as the mass killing of babies who are thrown into a flaming furnace, or the hanging of children, are so horrifying that Wiesel does not need to belabor them or to express his own terror or anger directly; his taut style and emotional restraint make them even more believable and frightening. As Robert Alter wrote in After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, Wiesel is "able to confront the horror with a nakedly self-exposed honesty rare even among writers who went through the same ordeal."

For example, Wiesel describes a man who has obtained some bread, whose son attacks him to try and get it away:

He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece [of bread]. He tried to carry it to his mouth. But the other one threw himself upon him and snatched it. The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. He was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, there were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son.

The book has several recurring themes, including loss of faith, the futility of hope, and Eliezer's relationship with his father.

Eliezer's story opens in a tightly knit and well-ordered Jewish community, where people piously keep ancient spiritual traditions, and where Eliezer is deeply religious, eager to follow the mystical path of the kabbalah toward spiritual enlightenment. The goal of this path is union with God, and Eliezer is devoted to it, despite the fact that most such seekers are many years older than he. He is confident in his future as a scholar, and comforted by his surrounding family and community. He is also confident in a basic tenet of Hasidic Judaism: the idea that life has a purpose—God's purpose—and that historical and personal events are part of God's plan for humanity, that he is watching over everyone.

However, Eliezer's community is shattered and his religious quest is interrupted when the Nazis invade and begin rounding up all the Jews and transporting them to death camps. Abruptly, Eliezer is yanked out of his sheltered existence and forced into a world where babies and children are slaughtered, where old people are executed because they cannot work, where corpses, and sometimes the Page 275  |  Top of Article living, are burned and the smell of constant cremations hangs in the air. Death is everywhere, and among the living, cruelty becomes rampant as prisoners fight for their own survival, killing each other for food or water. As Ted L. Estess wrote in Elie Wiesel,"Instead of being transported out of the body and into the bliss of eternity, Eliezer moves steadily into degradation in an agonized physical world."

Wiesel writes in his book that by the end of his first day at the Auschwitz concentration camp, "The student of the Talmud, the child I was, had been devoured in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it."

Unlike some other survivors of horrific events, Wiesel does not see suffering as redeeming or as ennobling. He does not believe it leads to greater empathy or wisdom on the part of survivors; he does not believe it has any redeeming value. It is senseless, and the questions, "What kind of God would allow these things to happen?" and "How could God allow evil to flourish and good people, innocent children, to be tortured and killed?" hang in the air, like the smoke of the mass cremations, throughout the book. Wiesel never answers these questions, although Eliezer struggles with them continually.

He is not the only one; one prisoner remarks, when the question of faith in God arises, "I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He's the only one who's kept his promises to the Jewish people." Hitler has "promised" to kill as many Jews as possible, and, of course, he is succeeding in the camps. This ironic reversal of Hitler and God is chilling. In addition, the book shows how religion, which had seemed the most important things in the world to Eliezer and many of the other prisoners, is reduced to dust in comparison with the need to survive. Food and survival supersede everything else for the prisoners; previously moral, civilized, and kind people will now kill each other for a crust of bread.

Throughout the book, people are frequently optimistic, and their optimism is inevitably shown to be foolish. Early in the book, people in Eliezer's village assert that the Nazis will not harm the Jews—despite evidence to the contrary when a man who escaped a mass execution early in the war comes back to Eliezer's village and tells his story. Instead of listening to his evidence, people simply regard him as a fanciful madman. Even when they are forced to move into confined ghettos, wear gold stars that identify them as Jews, give up all their valuables, and are forbidden to go to restaurants or cafes, attend synagogue, or travel, the people still do not believe anything bad will happen to them. Wiesel writes, "The general opinion was that we were going to remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Then everything would be as before." He also comments, tellingly, "It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto—it was illusion."

This illusion continues even after the Jews are rounded up and taken to the death camps. Rumors persist that liberation is near, that the war is almost over, even when there's no evidence of this and conditions are growing steadily more brutal. Wiesel says of the rumors, "Often we believed them. It was an injection of morphine," meaning that the brief period of belief in something good dulls the pain of being in the camps, but ultimately cannot cure it. The rumors are inevitably false, just as faith is.

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"Food and survival supersede everything else for the prisoners; previously moral, civilized, and kind people will now kill each other for a crust of bread."

The one aspect of the outside world that Eliezer manages to hold on to for most of the book is his relationship with his father. He clings to his father, contriving to stay close to him in the camps; this closeness is his sole source of reassurance and safety, although he knows it is precarious. He witnesses one prisoner killing his father to get a piece of bread from him; another, the son of a rabbi, abandons his father in the snow during a forced march in which his father cannot keep up. Eliezer is horrified by these betrayals and, perhaps sensing his own vulnerability and temptation to betray his own ailing parent, he prays to God to help him not to abandon his father. However, his father's eventual decline and fatal bout of dysentery ultimately endanger Eliezer, as he spends his own energy and food to try and keep nurse his father and keep him alive. Another prisoner tells him, "Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father." Eliezer knows the man is right, Page 276  |  Top of Article but the idea repels him. When his father finally dies, however, he does not cry; in fact, he feels a sense of relief. This relief torments him: how could he be happy about his own father's death? He believes he is no better than the other sons he has seen who killed their fathers because he gave in to these feelings. These events truly show how deeply dehumanizing life in the camps is: how it removes all feelings of pity, empathy, kindness, faith, loyalty, and love, in favor of brute survival. Prisoners, no matter how spiritual they may have been outside the camps, eventually become as cruel and heartless as their Nazi captors. As Estes commented, "For Wiesel, victimization carried far enough and imposed brutally enough finally so distorts a person that he becomes unrecognizable even to himself."

Eliezer believes that he has betrayed his father, in thought if not in deed. After his father dies, he is left "terribly alone in a world without God and without man," and with the knowledge of his betrayal to haunt him forever.

By the end of the book, Eliezer is irrevocably changed. After the camp is liberated by American troops, he manages to look into a mirror and see his face for the first time since he left his Jewish community. Wiesel writes, "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back to me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me." This is the last line in the book, and it powerfully expresses the effects of the death camp on Wiesel; he will never be the same, he will never forget the death he has seen and participated in, and he will forever be haunted by the questions the experience brought up. In sharing this experience in Night, Wiesel not only honored the vast numbers of people who died without being able to tell their stories, but he also opened the way for other survivors to tell their stories. After he published Night, other authors wrote their own stories. As Stefan Kanfer observed in Time,"If Wiesel's literary career had ended with Night, he would still have earned an international reputation as a founder of Holocaust literature."

Source:

Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Night, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Susan Sanderson

Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, Sanderson examines how Elie Wiesel's artful depiction of the relationship between Eliezer and his father in Wiesel's story makes the book much more than simply an historical document.

In Night, Elie Wiesel writes about his memories of life inside four different Nazi death camps with a straightforward style that some critics have referred to as journalistic. In many readers' eyes, Wiesel is more a witness to what he has seen and less a literary writer. For example, in his review of Holocaust literature in Beyond All That Fiddle, A. Alvarez charges that most of the literature that came out of the Nazi death camps lacks a certain level of imaginativeness that would make it art. "There are qualities that elude even the best [of these books], leaving them in some half-world of art," claims Alvarez. When Alvarez focuses on Night, he argues that while it is "almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism," the book is still "a failure as a work of art."

Readers can accept Alvarez's assertion only if they deny one critically important fact about Night: it is a reformulation of Wiesel's original attempt to tell his story. In 1954, Wiesel interviewed French Nobel Prize-winning novelist François Mauriac, who soon became Wiesel's friend and mentor. Mauriac persuaded Wiesel to break his self-imposed ten-year vow of silence about his time in the camps and write his memoir, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). The book, written in Yiddish, came to eight-hundred pages and found a publisher only in Buenos Aires. Despite its limited success, Mauriac recognized the power that lay hidden in the hundreds of pages of testimony and encouraged Wiesel to carve out of that book the more agile and compelling Night, published in French in 1958.

Night is a very intentional book and not merely a record of what Wiesel saw. Wiesel made innumerable conscious and unconscious choices about what would remain in the slim French version of the original and what would be deleted. Wiesel has created something much more than mere reportage; through his carving and shaping of an original event, Wiesel has sculpted the story of a young boy attempting to make the journey from child to adult amid the confusion and horrors of Nazi concentration camps. The events Wiesel chooses to include—specifically, the sometimes symbolic images that illustrate Eliezer's relationship with his father and the ways in which he must pretend to be an adult—make Night much more than a chronicle. The images of Eliezer leaving childhood but ultimately failing to achieve adulthood allow the book to transcend historical documentation and elevate it into the literary realm. In fact, Wiesel uses his full Page 277  |  Top of Article
Entrance to Auschwitz

Entrance to Auschwitz
first name, Eliezer, when recalling himself as a boy in the book, as if to insert some artistic distance.

In the book, the world inside the Nazi concentration camps is a world turned upside down, a world in which nothing makes sense and nothing is as it should be. From the moment he and his family arrive at the first camp, Eliezer sees things that defy logic: children waiting to die in a fiery ditch, a son forced to help his father into a crematory oven, and a sign that taunts "Work is liberty!" Wiesel paints Eliezer's businessman father, Chlomo, as a representative of the world as it should be—logical and orderly—a counterpoint to the mayhem inside the death camps. On his journey from childhood to adulthood, Eliezer makes many efforts to resolve the tension between the orderly world outside the barbed wire and the absurd events inside the camps. These efforts demand that Eliezer become an adult to help both himself and his father survive, but in truth, Eliezer is still a child, confused and frightened at what he sees.

Chlomo and Eliezer's relationship changes inside the death camps, and Wiesel selects a few scenes to highlight how they adjust to the changes. For example, when they enter Birkenau, a helpful prisoner suggests that Chlomo lower his age to forty and Eliezer raise his age to eighteen so that Eliezer will be considered an adult and be allowed to remain with his father. At that point, Eliezer only symbolically becomes an adult, as his actions still portray a young, frightened boy attached to his father. Father and son often walk together holding hands in the camps, afraid that they will be separated. They ask for the same work assignments, sleep in the same building, share food, and sing Hasidic songs together.

However, it is Chlomo's cool, rational behavior that becomes a flashpoint for Eliezer and prompts his uneasy steps toward what he thinks is adulthood and away from his father. While in one of the camps, Eliezer makes friends with two brothers who are about his age and discovers that, "Their parents, like mine, lacked the courage to wind up their affairs and emigrate [to Palestine] while there was still time." These are Eliezer's first harsh words of criticism against his father and mother, a sign that he is beginning to see that they are not perfect.

Eliezer also cannot help but notice that in this new world, the world his father "lacked the courage" to challenge, crazy people seem to be the wise ones, and people such as his father suffer for their composure and rational thought. For example, Moshe the Beadle, Eliezer's religious teacher and mentor, returned to the village in 1942, before the Germans Page 278  |  Top of Article arrived and took the villagers to the camps, to warn everyone that they were in danger from the advancing Germans. The villagers, including Eliezer's father, chose to remain calm and remarked about Moshe, "Poor fellow. He's gone mad." Chlomo even discounted the stigma of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in the village once the Germans arrived, commenting, "Oh well, what of it? You don't die of it." Eliezer's rhetorical response to his father, said under his breath and somewhat bitter, was "Poor father. Of what, then, do you die?"

Throughout the book, though, whenever Eliezer questions his father or considers that he is becoming a burden, he eventually chastises himself, much as he does when he realizes that his father has finally died. Eliezer is not a rebellious teenager but, instead, one with a conscience.

In his effort to do what is right, Eliezer occasionally stumbles. For example, when the camp is about to be overrun by the Russian Army, and the Germans are evacuating everyone except those in the hospital, Eliezer and Chlomo must make a choice. Do they stay in the hospital, waiting to be liberated by the Russians but risking that the Germans will kill everyone before they leave? Or do they join the other prisoners on a march to the next camp? When Eliezer asks his father what to do, Chlomo is silent—representative of the space into which Eliezer can step if he wants to become an adult. Eliezer does step into that space and chooses to accompany the other prisoners—the wrong decision. Two days after the evacuation, the Russians "quite simply liberated" those who stayed in the hospital.

Wiesel creates a shift about halfway through his book, in which Eliezer's move toward the faux adulthood he will reach in the camps becomes almost a comic image of how a man, as opposed to a boy, might act. Eliezer finds himself in the role of the teacher, desperately but unsuccessfully trying to show his father how to march in step so the guards will stop beating and taunting him for his clumsiness. His fellow prisoners laugh at Eliezer and even refer to him as a "little officer" and a "general."

Ultimately, Wiesel does show Eliezer beginning to supplant his father, literally and figuratively. Eliezer wonders about the appropriateness of wishing his father "Happy New Year" and realizes, through a meaningful glance, that his father is wondering the same thing. "We had never understood one another so clearly," notes Eliezer, who has shared with his father the kind of insight about their situation that only an adult could have. At this moment of complete awareness, Eliezer stands next to his father as a fellow man and equal. But Chlomo is not quite ready to give up his position as father and head of the family—what is left of it. When his failing health and physical weakness get him "selected" to go to the ovens, Chlomo, the former shop owner, hands his son the only possessions he has left: a knife and a spoon. Is this the moment when Eliezer will "inherit" the miserable trappings of a man in the death camps? The answer is no, for the next day, Eliezer is only too happy to return his "inheritance" to his father when Chlomo gets a reprieve.

Eliezer's march toward a pseudo-adulthood continues, while his father seems to be regressing. In fact, Chlomo adopts the behaviors of a child and begins depending on Eliezer even more than before. When Chlomo sinks into a snow bank during a forced march to the next death camp, too sick to move, Eliezer begs his father to stand up and continue moving. "He had become like a child," Eliezer says of Chlomo, "weak, timid, vulnerable." Eliezer must act as if he is man in such scenes to help himself and his father survive.

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"The images of Eliezer leaving childhood but ultimately failing to achieve adulthood allow the book to transcend historical documentation and elevate it into the literary realm."

Wiesel's depiction of Eliezer and Chlomo's role reversal seems almost complete near the book's end when Eliezer watches his father dying. "I had to go to bed. I climbed into my bunk, above my father, who was still alive. It was January 28, 1945." Only by virtue of his father's illness and impending death, and in the irrational world of the concentration camp, can Eliezer hold a position over his father. Eliezer's symbolic position over his father's dying body does not last long, however. Once Chlomo dies, Wiesel depicts his efforts toward adulthood as meaningless.

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It is appropriate, then, that as the Americans are just about to liberate Buchenwald, the final camp for Eliezer and his father, Eliezer is returned to the children's section. His father is dead and, at sixteen, he is not yet truly a man. That must come many years later, when Wiesel chooses finally to tell his story.

Wiesel could have presented the journey Chlomo and Eliezer take together as simply a father and a son going through the horrible motions to stay alive amid so much death, but that would have involved only documenting the bare events. Instead, Wiesel took the portrayal of their relationship one step further, into the realm of imagery and symbolism. Eliezer experiments with the possibility of becoming an adult while his father gradually slips away, all the while giving his son what space he can to let him try out a new role. When the camp is liberated and he is back in the world where there is some order and logic, Eliezer becomes a child again. The depravity of the camps was not an environment in which to truly become a man.

Source:

Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on Night, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Sources

Aarvik, Egal, speech upon awarding the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, quoted in Stuart S. Elenko, "The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize: Elie Wiesel," in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986, edited by J. M. Brooke, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 19-29.

Alter, Robert, "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," in After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, E. P. Dutton, 1969, pp. 151-60.

Alvarez, A., "The Literature of the Holocaust," in Beyond All This Fiddle, Penguin Press, 1968, pp. 22-24.

Bosmajian, Hamida, "The Rage for Order: Autobiographical Accounts of the Self in the Nightmare of History," in Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism, University of Iowa Press, 1979, pp. 27-54.

Clendinnen, Inga, Reading the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Estess, Ted L., Elie Wiesel, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 17-32.

Finn, James, "Terribly Alone in a World without God," in Commonweal, January 6, 1961, pp. 391-92.

Hamaoui, Lea, "Historical Horror and the Shape of Night," in Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, edited by Carol Rittner, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 120-29.

Ivry, Itzhak, "Memory of Torment," in Saturday Review, December 17, 1960, pp. 23-24.

Kanfer, Stefan, "Elie Wiesel," in Time, May 23, 1983, p. 82.

Kolbert, Jack, "Elie Wiesel," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 83: French Novelists Since 1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 322-29.

Langer, Lawrence L., Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Leviant, Curt, "Elie Wiesel: A Soul on Fire," in Saturday Review, January 31, 1970.

Review of Night, in Times Literary Supplement, 1960, p. 523.

Samuels, Gertrude, "When Evil Closed In," in New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1960.

Further Reading

Brown, Robert McAfee, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.

Protestant theologian Brown presents a well-documented study showing Wiesel as a messenger from the dead to the living.

Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfield and Irving Greenberg, Indiana University Press, 1978.

This volume is a collection of essays discussing the influence of Wiesel's work on the interpretation of the Holocaust.

"Elie Wiesel," in Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, edited by Joyce Moss and George Wilson, Gale Research, 1997.

This article provides a good overview of the historical background for Night and a synopsis of its plot.

Friedman, John S., "The Art of Fiction LXXIX: Elie Wiesel," in Paris Review, Spring 1984, pp. 130-78.

In this 1978 interview, Friedman and Wiesel discuss Wiesel's writing, subjects, influences, and characters.

Howe, Irving, "Writing and the Holocaust," in New Republic, October 27, 1986, p. 27.

In this lengthy article, Howe discusses numerous Holocaust writings and testimonies.

Kanfer, Stefan, "Author, Teacher, Witness," in Time, March 18, 1985, p. 79.

This article provides a concise, compelling overview of Wiesel's life and career.

Lustiger, Cardinal Jean-Marie, "The Absence of God? The Presence of God? A Meditation in Three Parts on Night," in America, November 19, 1988, pp. 402-06.

Cardinal Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, analyzes Wiesel's Night as a work of theology.

Marrus, Michael R., The Holocaust in History, Penguin Books, 1987.

Marrus presents a discussion of the Holocaust.

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Rosen, Jonathan, "The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism," in the New York Times Magazine, November 4, 2001, pp. 48-51.

Rosen discusses how the terrorist attack on the United States reflects the world's reversion to a pre-Holocaust world of anti-Semitic thought.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3424200109