Night

In 1956 Elie Wiesel had finally written about his experiences during the Holocaust, convinced in part to do so by the French writer Francois Mauriac. The result was published in Yiddish that year in Buenos Aires; Wiesel had already created a French version, La Nuit, but struggled to find a publisher until 1958, and it was thereafter translated into many languages. In 2006 a new translation was undertaken by Wiesel’s wife, Marion, who had been translating her husband’s work for a number of years.

From the creation of the ghettos in Sighet (now in Romania) to the liberation of Buchenwald takes little over a year (March 1944 to April 1945) but Wiesel begins his book in 1941 when he is thirteen and deeply religious having, against his father’s wishes, found a man willing to guide him in his study of Kabbalah – Moishe the Beadle. This period of study is interrupted when all foreign Jews, including Moishe, are taken away:

“Crammed into cattle cars by the Hungarian police, they cried silently. Standing on the station platform, we too were crying. The train disappeared over the horizon; all that was left was thick, dirty smoke.”

Here, of course, we can see Wiesel and the other observers’ futures, but the attitude is largely philosophical: “the deportees were quickly forgotten.” Even when Moishe returns to warn them, they dismissive. He tells them that the Jews were taken off the train in Poland by the Gestapo and marched into a forest where they were told to dig pits and then shot on the edge of them.

“Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns.”

The Jews of Sighet, however, would rather believe that he is mad. In fact, the reluctance to believe the worst continues throughout Wiesel’s story. When the Germans invade it is believed that they will stay in Bucharest – three days later they are in the town. When the Jews are placed in ghettos, “we felt this was not a bad thing; we were entirely among ourselves.” Most people assume they will remain in the ghetto until the war is over (it is already clear that Germany will lose). Soon, however, they are in cattle cars and leaving Hungary (Hungary because the area which was Romania during the inter-war years had been part of Hungary since 1940). Even their arrival at Auschwitz is celebrated such are conditions in the cattle cars:

“Confidence soared. Suddenly we felt free of the previous nights’ terror. We gave thanks to God.”

If the first half is filled with unfounded hope, the second foregrounds the strength required to fight despair. In particular Wiesel finds his faith slipping away:

“For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank him for?”

As the war nears its end, and the Russian army approaches, the camp is abandoned and its 60,000 inmates marched out so they can be transferred to Buchenwald. Wiesel is recovering from an infected foot, but still goes on the march rather than remain in the infirmary (he later discovers that those left in the infirmary where soon liberated by the Russians).

“I was putting one foot in front of the other, like machine. I was dragging this emaciated body which was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body.”

Wiesel also worries about his father. On the one hand, his father sustains him – feeling his father running next to him, he states “I had no right to let myself die.” On the other hand, he fears he will betray him as survival is a single-minded skill. At one point he watches a father and a son fight over a crust of bread.

It seems ridiculous to call Night a ‘difficult’ book – how can any book be difficult when we are faced with life reduced to second by second survival? It is simply a book that will not leave you unmoved or untouched. Wiesel generally avoids rhetoric, and is unsparing in the description of his own emotions as well as his experiences. His doubts about whether to commit his memories to words are understandable, but his decision to do so is correct. He bears witness to his life as he does to his reflection at the end:

“From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.
“The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.”

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11 Responses to “Night”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    A powerful book I believe I own but have never had the strength to read. It may be a good time to do so now, if for no other reason than to be reminded of how easy it is for us to ignore the signs and let the world slip into madness…

  2. heavenali Says:

    Goodness what a hugely powerful book! As Karen says a book to remind us (should we need reminding), how easily the world falls into madness and evil.

  3. glendaap Says:

    I used to teach Night at an international school in Switzerland. We then invited a Hungarian Auschwitz survivor to speak to the students. Sobering.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    I think it’s important for these kinds of experiences to be recorded in some way, partly to ensure we never forget what others have had to endure and partly as a reminder of the greater evils of Fascism. A truly sobering reading experience, I’m sure…

  5. banff1972 Says:

    Hello, resident Wiesel grump here!

    This is certainly an influential book, but also one that drives me crazy. Wiesel holds a lot of responsibility for the sacralizing of the Holocaust that took hold particularly beginning in the 1970s. You can see this tendency already here, in Wiesel’s decision to present his experiences as part of an existential/theological manner. (Interesting to compare this to Levi’s If This is A Man–the two men were in fact interned at the same place at the same time, but you’d have no sense of what Auschwitz-Monowitz was like from Night.)

    Wiesel wasn’t always inclined this way–the first version of the book (already written in 1946 on board ship to South America) was, I believe 800 pages, and titled And the World Was Silent. It ended with Wiesel smashing the image in the mirror and also included a reference to the boys who had been liberated from Buchenwald heading into Weimar to “rape German shikshas” (quite different from the “no thoughts of revenge” in Night).

    To be fair, Wiesel was motivated to make changes in large part because he wanted the book to be published in France and to reach a non-Jewish audience, and the only way to do so (after many rejections) was to accept Francois Mauriac’s help. I don’t know enough to say for sure, but I think you could call Night as much Mauriac’s text as Wiesel’s–the Catholic intellectual had his own agenda–see his comparison of Wiesel to Christ, and references to sacrificial lambs (ugh) in his preface.

    Anyway, I get how significant this book has been, but when it is the first or only book that many people read on the Shoah I get frustrated!

    • 1streading Says:

      Interesting to get some background on this. I understand what you mean in the sense that it is vary much a personal account not an attempt to report. It’s certainly true that Holocaust literature is far from being one note, even in my limited experience.

      • banff1972 Says:

        And it needn’t be an attempt to report. Really, it’s the way Wiesel moves to the ineffable, mystical, even sublime in his representation that bugs me.

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