Night by Elie Wiesel

December 28, 2010

This is a book of humbling power. Reading it changes a person. Like Cynthia Ozick’s short story The Shawl, Night feels like a portal into the abyss. Among the cruelest things the Nazis managed was to show how any of us can be broken, how unimaginable cruelty can force a mother to scream into a shawl while her baby is thrown into an electric fence or a son to wish, if only for a moment, that his father would die so he, the son, can focus only on his own survival.

As in Ozick’s short story, the writing in Night is spare. The focus is not on evoking place, though you will shiver with cold. Elie Wiesel does not try to unmask the tormenters, rather he bears witness to the moral failings of humans placed in inconceivable conditions. Most of us who have been spared such cruelty comfort ourselves with the notion that, if ever tested, we would pass. But no one passes.

The basic story is that of fifteen year-old Elie Wiesel. He and his family live in a small town, Sighet, in Transylvania, Hungary. The story picks up in 1944. Nazi Germany is being pushed back on all fronts and, so, the Jewish community in Sighet believes they have been spared the worst. They are wrong. Elie is transformed from a studiously religious boy who wants to study the Kabbalah into a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and the greatest concentration of evil Europe has ever seen.

Many books are called essential. Few truly are. This one is.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children who bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.

The edition of the book on our shelves reproduces Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech. I do recommend reading the speech after (or before) the book. The book itself is not about redemption or even survival. There is only horror. Elie Wiesel’s speech is a welcome counterbalance to the despair inherent in reading Night and it is an impetus to a more involved, more caring, more decent life.

[O]ne person of integrity can make a difference, a difference of life and death. As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.

The take away for me is not how I would have lived as a Jew or a German or a Frenchman or a Pole or any other race, religion, or nationality during the Holocaust. The question is: how do I live this moment and the next.