Notes on Elie Wiesel’s Night

In his Night, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize winning author Elie Wiesel renders a profound account of his experience as a young Jewish boy from Transylvania who was sent to Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. In the preface to the book, Wiesel asks “did I write [this book] so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind” (Night, Preface vii)? Indeed, this is a book about madness. The book, which begins with the deportation of Transylvanian Jews to the concentration camps and ends with the liberation of the camps by the Russian army, describes a degree of mental and physical torture too strong not to overtake even the most resilient of human spirits. In these circumstances, there would appear to be only two available options for the prisoners: madness or death.

One of the things that make this book so gripping is the author’s tone. Wiesel writes in short, factual sentences which convey the simple crudity of the events taking place. He describes the events from a kind of youthful, simplistic perspective, as though he was reliving them once again as a sixteen year old boy. Indeed, from the perspective of a young boy, life tends to be a quick sequence of events, allowing little time for deep reflection.

This is not to say that Night does not reflect on the meaning of the events. Quite to the contrary, in Night Wiesel artfully combines his former youthful perspective on the horrific events that he had to live through as a young boy with the ripened and profound conclusions about those events that he arrived at later in his life. Wiesel conveys the shear physical and mental brutality of the events, allowing them to speak for themselves, but also assists the reader in understanding the psychological coping mechanisms that events of this nature might trigger within the human spirit.

Weisel’s style is also effective in the way it causes the reader to feel very close to the main character and to those surrounding him. This proximity leads the reader to wonder how he/she might have reacted in those same circumstances. The reader is left feeling weak and vulnerable from this experience since, invariably, the reader cannot attribute to himself the same degree of strength and resistance displayed by Elizer (refers to the youthful Elie Wiesel, the main character in the book) and his father throughout their struggle as prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps.

It is of course not reasonable for the reader to expect to feel fit to the task of overcoming such adversity. The Holocaust constituted, to say the least, a set of extraordinary circumstances. Its victims (whether they survived or not) where pushed to the limit of human resistance and endurance. It is therefore very difficult (or impossible) for any bystander to mentally place himself in these circumstances and be able to realistically assess how he/she would have reacted. Consider the following reflection of Wiesel’s towards the end of Night, after the Nazis forced all the surviving prisoners to run over twenty kilometers without rest to flee the approaching Russian army: “We were the masters of nature, the masters of the world. We had transcended everything – death, fatigue, our natural needs. We were stronger than cold and hunger, stronger than the guns and the desire to die, doomed and rootless, nothing but numbers, we were the only men on earth” (Night, p. 87). Who could think they would be capable of this, unless they had actually lived through it?

Another key element of the effectiveness of Night as a poignant display of literary talent is the way the main characters seem to gradually lose touch with their own humanity. Each horrific incident of Nazi abuse seems to effectively distance the characters further from normal human perceptions and reactions. Towards the beginning of the narrative, the prisoners are forced to abandon their material belongings, such as their homes and their suitcases filled with their personal belongings: “it all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone” (Night, p. 17). Then, once the prisoners had been transported to the concentration camps, where fellow prisoners would regularly “disappear” (i.e. be exterminated), this initial sense of abandonment transcends to a deeper level: “We were incapable of thinking. Our senses were numbed, everything was fading into a fog. We no longer clung to anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defence, of pride, had all deserted us” (Night, p. 36). As time goes by and the numbers of casualties increase, a deep sense of apathy towards human life starts to set in: “The thousands people who died daily in Auschwitz and Birkenau, in the crematoria, no longer troubled me” (Night, p. 62). Finally, the cruel nature of the ongoing events causes Elizer, and many other victims like him, to question their own religious faith: “Blessed be God’s name? But why would I bless him” (Night, p. 67)?

Indeed, while the religious faith of the Jewish people may have proven to be quite resilient (“Jewishness” was after all the common trait of the victims, and as such it served to further bond them together in the face their common oppressor), in Night there comes a point in time when Wiesel seriously calls that faith into question, his spiritual “breaking point” if you will. It should be noted that Wiesel very carefully arrives at this profound stage of spiritual disconection; he does not precipitate it, allowing instead the sequence of events to naturally suggest it as the normal, reasonable reaction of any sane human being placed in similar circumstances. Weisel’s natural progression towards his eventual questioning of God’s role in the world is so powerful that the reader, perhaps even the devoutly religious reader, cannot help to also question, if only for a moment, why God would allow such a thing as the Holocaust to happen (other, more agnostic or atheistic readers may find themselves more deeply lodged in their ambivalence towards, or denial of, divine agency as a result of reading Night). Interestingly though, from his defiance of God Elizer gains newfound strength: “But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long” (Night, p. 68).

To some victims, Hitler’s awesome display of power through his successful execution of such wide-scale atrocities raises questions as to who is more powerful, God or man (i.e. Hitler)? In one of the most profound episodes of the book, Elizer is lying in a hospital bed recovering from an operation to his foot, discussing with another patient lying next to him the probability of an immanent rescue by the Red Army. Elizer’s neighboring patient is unprepared to discount Hitler’s power to still achieve his grand vision of the complete annihilation of the Jewish people: “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people” (Night, p. 81).

Indeed, to many victims the notable absence of God during the Nazi Holocaust appears to have symbolized God’s death. To Elizer, God appeared to have died along with the innocent young child hung by the Nazis at the gallows erected at the center of the camp on day. Forced with the rest of the prisoners to walk right past the hanging corpse on the way back to their barracks, Elizer was confronted with the brutal fact of God’s death: “Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows… (Night, p.65)”

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