Night by Elie Wiesel is not one of those books people read for enjoyment. It’s a book to be read because it’s about history, humanity, hate, religion, and evil. It’s particularly relevant to me because as a Jewish woman and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor it’s part of my own family history. As human beings, it is relevant to all of us.
TRIGGER WARNING: religious persecution, genocide
Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet, Transylvania. He was a deeply religious Jewish teenager in 1944, when he and his family were taken from their home and brought to Auschwitz concentration camp, and then to Buchenwald. This is his story.
This isn’t the first time I’ve read this book, but it’s been so long that I could barely remember any of it. I had read it for the first time many years ago, probably many years before I could fully grasp the emotional impact of what I was reading. As an adult, I read this memoir with a completely different mindset. Elie Wiesel had a true gift with words. In just 118 pages, he managed to rub my emotions raw, break my heart, and evoke the collective suffering of an entire nation of people. He describes his struggles with losing his faith along with his family.
I knew the outcome of the story before I even started reading, but I still found myself hoping for a different outcome. It didn’t happen. Like many other areas of Europe, Jewish communities had flourished for centuries. Despite pogroms and anti-Semitism, they still felt relatively safe and ignored vague warnings of unrest. In this case, the warning came from a local resident who had escaped a mass killing and returned to inform the Jews of Sighet what was coming. They didn’t listen. Changes came to his town, and the Jews adapted to each one quickly. Arrests. Confinement to their houses. Surrendering valuables. Wearing the yellow star. New decrees daily, until they were forced into the ghetto. Then finally they were sent to the concentration camp.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
I feel guilty as I read about how everything was taken from Elie and the others in the camp: their home, their family, their belongings, their clothing, their names, their hair, their gold teeth, their dignity, their hope, their humanity, their faith, and ultimately the goal was to take their lives in the slowest, most brutal and agonizing way possible.
As the war comes to a close, and the Russians approach Auschwitz, Elie and his father are part of a march into Germany. The Nazis don’t intend to leave anyone alive. They forced a bunch of men to run inhumane lengths to their destination; starving to death, without coats, some without shoes, with no food or water, in snow. The will to live in these people is absolutely astounding.
“The commandant announced that we had already covered forty-two miles since we left. It was a long time since we had passed beyond the limits of fatigue, Our legs were moving mechanically, in spite of us, without us.”
Perhaps the part of this book that shattered my heart the most was the fact that it pitted loved ones against one another. Elie struggles with his desire to help his father, and feeling held back by having to care for his sick father. The head of the block Elie is in pulls him aside and gives him some advice:
“Don’t forget that you’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”
There is no happy ending to this story. Elie doesn’t make it out unscathed. He doesn’t miraculously find love in the camp. He doesn’t perform a daring rescue and fight the guards off, saving his father’s life. He does what he can do to survive. He lives his entire life with guilt and trauma. He didn’t romanticize the story to make it appealing to readers. He told his story, to educate.
George Santayana said that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I can’t speak for Mr. Wiesel, but my father felt that he had a duty to bear witness and to educate people about what had happened. He had the opportunity to speak up, not just for himself, but for the people who didn’t have a voice. This is a powerful, moving, and important book, Consider reading it. Just have some tissues handy, and something light lined up for reading/watching afterwards. Trust me, you’ll need it.
Categories: Book Review