Night of the Mist

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Memoir by Eugene Heimler, 1959

In many respects Eugene Heimler's account of the year in his life that he was forced to spend in the Nazi camps of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Tröglitz, and Berga-Elster exhibits many of the classic features of the genre. It follows in chronological order what happened to a young Hungarian Jew, Jansci, from the day he and his bride, Eva, were dragged away from the ghetto to the liberation of the Berga-Elster camp in Saxony. Like other Holocaust memoirs, Night of the Mist (1959) is a kaleidoscopic collection of stories that not only forms a full picture of the narrator's personal ordeals and suffering but also reveals the pain and agony of numerous others he met in the camps. Heimler immortalizes in his writing a couple of unforgettable characters who will continue to be loved and respected despite their physical demise. The book raises also the expected questions about the meaning of this tragedy—for the Jews as well as for every individual victim—and about the role of faith and religion both in cases of survival and of cruel death.

What makes Heimler's book distinct among the group of comparable masterpieces (Primo Levi 's Survival in Auschwitz and Elie Wiesel 's Night, to name just a few) is the strong presence of the narrator himself. His story is permeated by an "immense yearning to live" and by a resilient will to overcome the horror and hardships. Heimler often uses the verb "to live" not only in the sense of mere physical survival but also as a synonym of "to learn" and "to comprehend." His journey through the stations of terror is presented as a dense lesson in spiritual maturing, in discovering and analyzing one's own self as well as the meaning of humanity in times of tremendous crisis. As a person Heimler realizes that his survival is due to pure luck more than to anything else, and as a poet he makes it his mission to bear witness and write about his experiences.

Night of the Mist is an extremely self-reflective book filled with detailed descriptions of dreams, daydreams, images, and phantoms that often appear while the narrator is feverish, delirious with pain, or battling the cold. Heimler's account is especially effective when it reveals how complex psychological states and puzzling mystical experiences bordering on hallucination and superstition have become part both of the arsenal of survival strategies and of the state of insanity that reigns in the camps. With remarkable sincerity and poignancy Heimler offers some rare glimpses into the maddening persistence of sexual desire, the paralyzing return of childhood fears, and the overwhelming wish to escape. Several times he believes to have been saved, quite inexplicably, by a forceful premonition that comes to him in the form of a voice whispering warnings into his ear ("Stay away from Block 17 … ") or by his own intuitive powers or by a dream that helps him make a crucial decision. At the same time, he shows with stunning veracity how there was just one step from extreme superstition to "abysmal depression" and then to death.

Night of the Mist presents an interesting case study of how memory works and what its role is in surviving the Holocaust. One theme that runs through the book is the protagonist's persistent and even heightened ability to review the past "from this cold and forbidding world of the barracks." In line with his emphasis on the heuristic power of the experience, Heimler claims that many times he had felt as if the Nazis "had shocked into consciousness" forgotten scenes and feelings of the past. Before the eyes of the reader the narrator resurrects the complex world of his past populated by members of his family and by the images of Jews from various social classes. He recovers fragments of experiences dating back to his childhood and retells the stories of people that the camps now have deprived of all human features. It seems that in that very ability to delve into the past Heimler found a way to preserve his own humanity and not become a "man of Auschwitz."

Alongside numerous self-reflective passages, Heimler's memoir contains remarkably realistic descriptions of life in the camps. Two examples stand out within the large field of Holocaust literature. One is Heimler's description of the Gypsy camp in Auschwitz. Up until the second half of 1944, when they were suddenly rounded up and sent to the gas chambers, Gypsies deported from various places in Europe were entitled to a special lifestyle: men and women could live together and even have children in the camp; they did not have to work and could use the other prisoners as household help. Another example of an engaging realistic account in the book is the chapter devoted to Buchenwald. Heimler's analysis of the peculiar social order and power dynamics in that camp as well as of his encounters with various other prisoners—from British POWs to German communists, Danish policemen, and ordinary criminals—belongs to the most illuminating passages on Buchenwald in the literature of the Holocaust.

—Mila Ganeva

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Night of the Mist

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