Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 

Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 by Claudia Moscovici

Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed works about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power”. Yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devout Catholic, mentioned that Mendes stated that France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross yet nobody spoke about it. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about this difficult subject.

The young man followed his advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published an abbreviated version of his book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit) and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the small and prestigious publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Over the years, Elie Wiesel’s eloquent books and informative interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. In 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, increasing its public exposure.

This work is autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has also been read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a Romanian town in Northern Transylvania that had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.

Wiesel’s entire family—his father Shlomo, mother Sarah, and sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, survived the Holocaust. However, since women and men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the end of the war. In the concentration camp, father and son clung to each other as the only family they had left.

Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Shlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation. He’s abused by SS officers as well as by other prisoners who steal his food. Weakened by hunger and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, only a few weeks before the Americans liberate the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a filial sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Shlomo, fearing that he himself would become the next victim if he tries to help his father.

In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from day to day and moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences a sense of hollowness: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!” (112)

Night offers a stark psychological account of the process of human degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie Wiesel, became doubly victimized. They are the victims of what they suffered at the hands of their oppressors as well as the victims of what they witnessed others suffer and were unable (or unwilling) to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of human dignity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it by writing and talking about the Holocaust. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and to the world at large—is about the empathy required to perpetuate Holocaust memories. He declares, “I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories

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