For Further Study
With the encouragement of Francois Mauriac, Eliezer Wiesel broke his silence on the horror of the Holocaust to produce an 800 page memoir entitled, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, in 1956. That cathartic story was reworked over two years and became the slim 1958 novella La Nuit which became Night in 1960. Wiesel's novel revealed the Holocaust in stark, evocative, detail. He had a hard time finding an audience, however, in a world that preferred the 1947 Diary of Young Girl written by Anne Frank. Night made no claim on innocence but created an aesthetic of the Holocaust to force people to face the horrible event and, hopefully, break the general silence surrounding that hell. For Wiesel, Night began a brilliant writing career.
Night begins in 1941 in a Hasidic Community in the town of Sighet, Transylvania. There we meet a devote young boy named Eliezer who is so fascinated by his own culture and religion that he wishes to study Jewish cabbala. His father, however, says he must master the Talmud before he can move on to the mystical side of the Jewish faith. Moshe the Beadle indulges the boy until the reality of World War II reaches them. The fascists come to power in Romania and foreign Jews are deported and Moshe with them. Some days later, he makes it back to town and tells them what happened. All the people presumed deported were shot. That was only the beginning, the dusk of the coming night. Within a matter of paragraphs, officers of the Nazi SS corps have arrived and the family is broken up and sent to Birkenau. The metaphorical night only gets darker as Eliezer struggles to survive in the brutality and degradation of the camps.
No other individual is so identified with the Holocaust—its memory and its prevention—as Wiesel. He was born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, to Shlomo (a grocer) and Sarah Wiesel. His parents were part of a Hasidic Jewish community and encouraged him in his religious studies. Growing up, young Wiesel "believed profoundly" and felt it his duty to pray. In 1944, the distant threat of Hitler invaded the community and his family was deported to a concentration camp. A few years after the war, Wiesel was reunited with surviving family members—two sisters.
At the war's close, Wiesel hoped to emigrate to Palestine which would see the declaration of the state of Israel in 1947. Being an orphan, however, placed him with other children enroute to Belgium. General Charles de Gaulle intervened and brought the train to France. Wiesel finished his teens in Normandy and won entrance to the Sorbonne in Paris. After completing his studies he became a journalist. After a decade of living in France, he moved to the United States and eventually gained American citizenship. In 1969, he married Marion Erster Rose. She is also a survivor of the camps and a writer in her own right. She became his English translator.
In 1954, while working on assignment for a Tel Aviv newspaper, he interviewed Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac. When the discussion turned to the suffering of Jesus, Wiesel angrily burst out that nobody was speaking of the suffering just a few years before. Mauriac suggested he break the silence. The result was the first of many works, an 800 page memoir in Yiddish, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (1956), which detailed his experience of losing his family and friends to the concentration camps. This work became the famous La Nuit. (1958) or, in English, Night (1960).
At the time of the book's completion, nobody wanted to be reminded of the Holocaust. In fact, the publishing world felt Anne Frank's Diary of a Little Girl was a sufficient memento of the horror. A tiny firm disagreed and managed to pay $250. Today, annual sales of the work in the United States exceed 300,000 copies.
Despite the book's lack of commercial success, Wiesel was defined by it. He has spent his life, ever since, as a vocal champion of human rights. His eloquent moral voice has often been compared with that of Albert Camus. Wiesel hopes that his stories will prompt a reflection that leads to a more humane future. In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
For the last decade he has advised the U. S. Congress on memorials, religion, and the Middle East. He has served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University. In May 1997, Wiesel was appointed to Head the Swiss Holocaust Fund. This was in "recognition of his extraordinary accomplishments and his respected moral guidance," said Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti.
Night opens with a description of Moshe the Beadle, a poor Jew in Sighet, who is teaching Jewish mysticism to young Eliezer. After Moshe is expelled with the other foreign-born Jews, he miraculously returns to tell the Jews of Sighet that all those who were expelled have been killed. However, none of the villagers believe him, and eventually Moshe stops telling his tale. In the spring of 1944, German troops appear in Sighet, and the occupiers issue anti-Semitic decrees and establish two Jewish ghettos. Eventually, the Jews of Sighet are told that they are going to be evacuated.
The Germans pack Eliezer and his family onto a train. Madame Schäcter screams every night that she sees a fire and the others try to silence her, shaken by her insanity. It is not until they approach the camp itself, and see flames, that they realize that she has predicted their fate. They have arrived at Birkenau.
The guards order the man and women to separate, and Eliezer is parted from his mother and little sister forever. He and his father see little children being burned alive and Eliezer realizes that he will never forget the sight.
In the barracks, Eliezer's father asks an SS officer where the lavatories are and the man strikes him. Eliezer does nothing for fear of being struck himself, but he vows never to forgive the striking of his father. The men are then marched to Auschwitz.
The men arrive at their block, where the prisoner in charge speaks the first human words they have yet heard. Later the men are tattooed and Eliezer becomes A-7713; he has been stripped even of his name.
A relative of Eliezer's, Stein, manages to find them, and Eliezer lies that Stein's wife and children are well. Stein continues to visit them occasionally, until he goes to find news of his family and Eliezer never sees him again. After three weeks, the remaining men in the block are marched to Buna, another camp.
At Buna, the men are transferred to the musicians' block and begin work at an electrical equipment warehouse. Eliezer befriends Tibbi and Yossi, two Zionist brothers with whom he talks of emigrating to Palestine after the war.
Idek, the Kapo, beats Eliezer for no apparent reason. A French girl wipes his bloodstained forehead and says a few comforting words. On another day, Idek beats Eliezer's father with an iron bar, and instead of feeling anger towards Idek, Eliezer feels anger towards his father for not knowing how to avoid Idek's blows.
The foreman, Franek, demands Eliezer's gold crown. When Eliezer refuses, Franek begins to punish Eliezer's father for not marching properly. Finally, father and son decide to give up the crown, which is removed by a dentist to whom Eliezer must pay a ration of bread.
On a Sunday, usually a day of rest, Eliezer finds Idek in the warehouse with a girl, and Idek has Eliezer whipped twenty-five times. On another Sunday, the camp is bombed. One man crawls towards two pots of soup and all the men watch him enviously. He dies with his body poised over the soup. The camp is not destroyed by the air raid, but it gives the men hope.
A man is hanged, and the other prisoners are forced to witness it. Later, there is another hanging, this time of a child, beloved in the camp, who has been associated with the Resistance. The child dies a slow, agonizing and silent death as the men weep. Someone in the crown asks where God is, and Eliezer hears a voice inside him reply that God is on the gallows.
The men debate how to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but Eliezer's heart revolts at the thought of celebrating. On Rosh Hashanah, he finds his father and kisses his hand, silently, as a tear drops between them, knowing that they have never understood each other so clearly. Later, on Yom Kippur, the men debate whether or not they should fast. Eliezer eats, viewing it as an act of rebellion against God, but feels a great void in his heart nonetheless.
After Eliezer has been transferred to the building unit, a selection occurs. Eliezer is not selected for death, and Eliezer's father thinks he has also passed, but after several days they find out that his number was written down. While awaiting another, decisive selection, Eliezer's father gives his knife and spoon. The next day, everyone is kind to Eliezer, already treating him like an orphan. When the day is over, he finds that his father has escaped the second selection, and gives him back his knife and spoon.
In wintertime, Eliezer enters the hospital for an operation on his foot. While he recovers there, he hears that the camp is being evacuated. Eliezer and his father decide to evacuate with the others. We are told that those who stayed behind in the hospital were liberated by the Russians two days after the evacuation.
The men march away from the camp, then begin to run. Those who cannot keep up are shot; others are trampled to death in the crowd. Only his father's presence keeps Eliezer from succumbing to death. When the men are finally allowed to stop, Eliezer's father pushes him towards a brick factory, where they agree to take turns sleeping. Rabbi Eliahou enters the factory, looking for his son: Eliezer realizes the Rabbi's son has abandoned his father. Eliezer prays for the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done.
The men arrive at Gliewitz, trampling each other on the way into the barracks. As Eliezer lies on a pile of men, he realizes that Juliek is playing his violin, giving a concert to dead and dying men. When he wakes up, he sees Juliek's corpse and his smashed violin beside him.
At Gliewitz, Eliezer saves his father from selection. Later, on the train, Eliezer's father does not wake, and Eliezer slaps him back to life before the men can throw him out with the corpses. At one stop, onlookers throw bread into the cars, and the men fight each other for it. Eliezer sees a son kill his father for a crust of bread and the son, in turn, killed by other men. When they reach Buchenwald, a dozen men, including Eliezer and his father, are left in the wagon out of the hundred who began the journey.
At Buchenwald, Eliezer's father announces that he is ready to die, but Eliezer forces him to continue on. Later, his father develops dysentery and is unable to leave his bed. Eliezer arranges to stay near his father, but when his father begs him for water, an SS clouts him on the head, and Eliezer does not move, afraid he will also be hit. Eliezer's father's last word is his name; the next day, he is gone. Eliezer has no more tears to weep and in his weakened conscience he feels freedom.
Eliezer is transferred to the children's block, beyond all grief. Wiesel says nothing about the events of the rest of the winter. On April 10th, the Germans are going to evacuate the camp, then blow it up, but after the inmates are assembled, the Resistance rises up and takes over the camp, and American tanks arrive at Buchenwald that evening. After liberation, Eliezer nearly dies of food poisoning. When he recovers, he looks at himself in the mirror, something he has not done since he was in Sighet, and a corpse stares back at him.
See Eliezer Wiesel
In the concentration camps, the best heads of the block to be under are Jews. When Elie is transferred to the musicians' block he finds himself under a German Jew named Alphonse "with an extraordinarily aged face." Whenever possible, Alphonse would organize a cauldron of soup for the weaker ones in the block.
Akiba Drumer was a deeply religious elder whose "deep, solemn voice" sang Hasidic melodies. He would attempt to reassure those around him. He interpreted the camps as God's test for his people that they might finally dominate the Satan within. And if God "punishes us relentlessly, it's a sign that He loves us all the more." At one point he discovers a bible verse which, interpreted through numerology, predicted their deliverance to be a few weeks away.
Eventually he can no longer rationalize the horror of the camps with such logic. Finally, he is "selected"—but he was already dead. As soon as he had lost his faith, "he had wandered among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone of his weakness … " He asks them to say the Khaddish for him in three days—the approximate time until his death. They promise to do so, but they forget.
The foreman in the electrical warehouse is a former student from Warsaw named Franek. He terrorizes Eliezer's father when Eliezer refuses to give up his gold crown. Eventually he gives in. A famous dentist takes out the crown with a rusty spoon. With the crown, Franek becomes kinder and even gives them extra soup when he can.
An elder who conversed with Akiba Drumer about the camps as a trial for the people, was Hersch Genud. He was "well versed in the cabbala [and] spoke of the end of the world and the coming Messiah."
Idek is a Kapo, a prisoner put in charge of a barracks. Under his charge is Eliezer's block and all who work in the electrical warehouse. He is prone to violent fits; people try to stay out of his way. One Sunday, he takes the prisoners under his charge to the warehouse for the day so he can be with a woman. Eliezer discovers them and is whipped. Then he is warned to never reveal what he saw.
Juliek, along with Chlomo and Moshe the Beadle, is one of the most important characters in the novel. He is "a bespectacled Pole with a cynical smile on his pale face." He kindly explains what to do and what not to do on the block, including a word of warning about the Idek, "the Kapo." Juliek is also a symbol of the artistry and talent lost in the Holocaust. He was a violinist.
When they were all run to Gleiwitz and away from the approaching Russians, they were quickly and brutally shoved into barracks, heaped in and left to struggle out of a mass of bodies. In this mess, Elie and Juliek hear each other's voice. Juliek is "OK" but he worries for his violin which he has carried with him. At this moment Elie feels himself very close to death when he hears "[t]he sound of a violin, in this dark shed, where the dead were heaped on the living. What madman could be playing the violin here, at the brink of his own grave?" It was Juliek and he was playing Beethoven—a German composer. In the morning he was dead.
A farmer who used to bring fresh vegetables to the Wiesels. He was put in charge of the wagon taking them to Buchenwald because he was the most vigorous. He saves Eliezer from strangulation. He confides to Chlomo that he can't go on. Chlomo tries to bolster him but at Buchenwald, Meir Katz does not leave the wagon with them.
Louis was a violinist from Holland who complained that "they would not let him play Beethoven: Jews were not allowed to play German music."
Moshe the Beadle
The first person we meet in the novel is the "physically awkward" Moshe the Beadle. He is poor but the community is fond of him and does not resent the generosity he needs. To Eliezer he becomes something of an uncle and tutor. He gently initiates Eliezer into the mystical side of Hasidism—something he asked his father about but he was told to stick with the Talmud. "Moshe the Beadle, the poor barefoot of Sighet, talked to me for long hours of the revelations and mysteries of the cabbala." Moshe the Beadel is a man without means and, therefore, no investments to safeguard except the people.
When the foreign Jews are deported, Eliezer says goodbye to Moshe. A few days later, Moshe returns with a report on the massacre of those deported. The community dismisses him as a madman. They dismiss him because if he is to be believed, then they too will be as poor as he is. When the SS arrive to cordon off the Jews into a ghetto and then deport them, Moshe says he tried to warn them. Then he flees.
A pipel is a young boy servant of Oberkapo (a prisoner put in charge of several barracks) and often used as a sex slave. One pipel in particular was the servant of a beloved Oberkapo who had been killed when he was found hiding weapons for the camp resistance. The pipel refused to give information under torture. He was hanged before all the prisoners. The normal executioner refused to be involved so three SS took over. It is a horrific execution since the boy was too light to die by his own weight. He struggled for hours at the end of the rope, "That night the soup tasted of corpses."
An older woman, Madame Schächter, is huddled in a corner of the wagon with her 10 year-old son. She was a "quiet woman with tense, burning eyes." Her husband and two eldest sons had already been taken. On the first day of the journey to Auschwitz she went out of her mind. She moaned, asked where her family was, and then she became hysterical. At night she would shriek "I can see fire!" Her shrieks would come suddenly and terrify everyone. But she did see fire. The last time she shrieked and everyone looked, they saw the flames of the crematory.
Reizel Stein's husband from Antwerp seeks out Chlomo among the new arrivals at Auschwitz for news of his family. He has not seen them since 1940. Eliezer is faster than his father to recall the man as a relative. He lies and says that his mother has heard from Reizel. This gives Stein great joy. But then, after another train arrives, Stein learns the truth and stops coming round to visit.
Representing the political opposite of the Hasidic elders who preached nonviolence and patience, were two brothers named Tibi and Yossi. They believed in the precepts of Zionism, a political pressure movement active mostly in Europe to convince the world powers to create a Jewish state of Israel in the area of Palestine. They were Jews from Czechoslovakia whose parents had been exterminated at Birkenau. "They lived body and soul for each other." They befriend Eliezer with whom they share the regret that their parents had not gone to Palestine while there was still time to do so. The two boys taught Eliezer Hebrew chants while they worked.
Eliezer's father, Chlomo, is a "cultured, rather unsentimental man … more concerned with others than with his own family." He is held in great esteem by the community and symbolizes Abraham. As Abraham, however, he refuses to sacrifice his son. He lives, while in the death camps, to try and keep his son alive. Eliezer, as a representation of Isaac, also safeguards his father. This relationship is the most important of the story. The bitterest moment comes when Clomo believes himself selected and gives Eliezer his inheritance—a knife and spoon.
They have done well together until the end, when they are shipped to Gleiwitz, and then taken to Buchenwald. They are transported in open cars (despite the snow) with the result that Chlomo comes down with dysentery. Eliezer does all he can to comfort his father. He begins to resent the burden. He is tempted to take his father's ration but does not. The resentment he feels for his father haunts him. The haunting grows worse when Chlomo begins yelling to Eliezer for water. A guard silences him with a blow from a truncheon. At some point, Chlomo is taken away to the crematory still breathing. Eliezer could only stand by.
The narrating survivor of the camps is Eliezer, who became A-7713. Deeply fascinated by Hasidic Judaism, he finds an indulgent teacher in Moshe the Beadle. The first cracks in his faith begin, however, when Moshe returns from deportation changed in demeanor and warning about impending doom. The cracks widen inside with every night spent in the camps. The crack is not exactly a rejection of God; it is a dismissal shouted out in anger. "Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my Soul and turned my dreams to dust." But such moments passed and his argument is in keeping with Hasidism. Rather, his alteration takes this form, "I no longer accepted God's silence."
Eliezer had once believed profoundly and had lamented before God but he could no longer do so. He "felt very strong" in this realization for he "had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty." Eliezer is henceforth, except for a few moments of doubt, determined to live as a man (a being made of dust) and survive—"something within me revolted against death." Eliezer may no longer believe in the merciful and just God but he believes even less in giving into death by concentration camp madness.
Eliezer represents a truly aesthetic individual who represents the best of European civilization. He is aware of the myths of his people and their history. As such he is able to tell his tale in terms of them with references to psalms, gospel stories, and personages like Job and indirectly Abraham, Isaac, and the three children in the furnace. He is truly mystified to account for the camps both in terms of religion but also morality. Consequently, he is bent solely on survival and only his stomach takes note of time. Still he survives but merely as a corpse in a mirrored gaze just waking up from the long night.
The brother of Tibi and friend of Elie while they all lived in the musician's block.
"Someone began to recite the Khaddish, the prayer for the dead. I do not know if it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves."
This moment of prayer comes right after arriving at Auschwitz—"Haven't you heard about it?"—when the group is being marched "to the crematory." They will not be killed (not yet) but the terror this welcome march inflicts serves to instill despondency, melancholia, and separation of the prisoners from each other. The Germans knew this, they knew that their prisoners could not have empathy: the faster the prisoners live for themselves alone, the faster they die together. Eliezer grasps the message of their first walk, saying, "[h]umanity is not concerned with us." There is no one to witness their death and no one to mourn them with the right prayer except themselves. Later, when Akiba Drumer is selected for death, he asks them to recite the Khaddish for him—they forget to do so because they are preoccupied with survival.
Death is a pervasive element in a story about death camps. Death is fundamental to human society—anthropologists cite burial practices as the foundation of civilization. The Nazi "slaughterhouses" and "factories of death" are antithetical to this civilized practice of death; the Final Solution is an absolute mockery of human rights and values. The effect of this madness on persons normally a part of a culture organized around a detailed belief system, is a breakdown of their social compact with each other and a fall into melancholia. The incapacitating effect of the melancholia each prisoner had—worrying only about himself—lead to the utterly gross situations of a son killing a father for a bite of bread. Finally, it is within this breakdown of empathy among the people in the camps which makes the moment of Chlomo's final gasp—his son's name—and Juliek's swan song possibly beautiful but most likely pathetic to those hearing it.
Throughout the story, men, like Reizel, say they live only because they believe their children may still be alive. Eliezer admits several times that a similar relationship exists between himself and his father. Empathy and the human need of community in the face of death, so as to mourn properly, must be put back together afterward. This is why the stories of the camps must be told and not silenced. Only madness remains if mourning occurs without empathy—only the ghastly and solitary image of one survivor seeing himself in the mirror remains. The survivors must mourn with other survivors—"let's keep together. We shall be stronger"—if they are to escape the madness of the camps and the memory.
God and Religion
The community of faith to which Eliezer belongs is Hasidic. This is a sect of Judaism that came into being during the eighteenth century and its precepts have considerable bearing upon the events of the novel. Hasidism teaches belief in a personal relationship with God. In such a system, awe of God combines with emotion toward God. One can protest, love, fear, and question God without compromising God or contradicting faith. One of Wiesel's favorite prayers may serve as a summary: "Master of the Universe, know that the children of Israel are suffering too much; they deserve redemption, they need it. But if, for reasons unknown to me, You are not willing, not yet, then redeem all the other nations, but do it soon!"
With this very brief summary in mind, the disposition of the prisoners grappling with the hell they are in begins to make some sense. Neither those who doubt or question God, as does Eliezer, nor those who never doubt, betray their faith. Hasidism is antagonistic, "man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers." And yet it is true that the Shoah, or Holocaust, was too much for Eliezer to immediately reconcile with his religion. He was questioning but he was growing tired of God's silence.
A key figure in this system is Job, a biblical character whose faith in God was persecuted and tested in extremity. "How I sympathized with Job!" says Eliezer, "I did not deny God's existence, but I doubted his absolute justice." Comparatively, Job had it easy. Yet the comparison with that biblical figure undermines the tendency to conclude that Eliezer lost his faith. He lost many things but he did not lose, entirely, his faith in the morality of a social compact among men with God. This is what is important, maintaining human dignity by maintaining the empathy of society—not the question of whether or not to fast on some holy day. But it takes the telling of the story of Night to realize this. Meanwhile, in the death camps, Eliezer confesses that "in the depths of my heart, I felt a great void" and "we forgot to say the Khaddish" for Akiba Drumer.
Topics For Further Study
- How does Elie arrive at the conclusion that he is stronger than God?
Talking with Jason Harris for the Tamalpais News in 1995, Wiesel offered this parable: "A man is walking alone in the woods; he's lost and looking for a way out. Suddenly he sees another man a short distance away from him. He runs over to the man and exclaims, 'Thank God you're here! I'm saved! Surely you know the way out!' to which the man responds, 'First of all: don't go back that way—he points—'I just came from there."'
If one considers 'there' as the subject of Night, what is Wiesel suggesting about modern morality? Does it hint at a positive future?
- Consider the following passage: "The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time." What is the function of time in the novel? What mind/body problems does Elie discover in his fight for survival? Lastly, consider that after all the suffering of the camp, Elie gets food poisoning at the end and almost dies; what were the health challenges of saving the camp survivors?
- Do some research into the Holocaust and compare the experience of the Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witness, homosexuals, and others who were imprisoned. Then compare this to the experience of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
- Theodore Adomo once said, "it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz." What did he mean? Do you agree?
- Read through some of the international treaties on human rights or consider the topic of human rights generally. What role should international bodies play in imposing the idea of human rights on other nations (for example: consider Tibet or the Serbian camps of the 1980s)? When is it proper to intervene in another country's business?
Sanity and Insanity
There are many examples of madness exhibited during the novel. Two in particular stand out as representing the greater insanity of the Holocaust. The first is the hysterical Madame Schachter and the second is Idek's enthusiasm for work—being more than a simply mockery of the motto "Work is liberty!".
The first example recalls Moshe the Beadle's attempt to warn his fellow Jews of the impending doom. They brushed him off while they were still apparently safe ("You don't die of [the Yellow Star]…" said Chlomo). When they realized he was right, it was too late. Finding themselves on a hermetically sealed cattle wagon in the dead of night, they are trapped with their worst fears. Madame Schachter begins screaming out their fear: being offered as burnt sacrifice to the Nazi ideal. They physically lash her. They pity her as merely mad because they cannot believe any real harm will come of their deportation. The Germans are human after all. Even Madame Schachter as madness is silenced when her screamed hallucinations become reality and the flames of the crematorium become visible from the cattle car window.
Kapo Idek "has bouts of madness now and then, when it's best to keep out of his way." That is, he is prone to fits of violence—something neither Eliezer nor his father could avoid forever. One Sunday Idek moved "hundreds of prisoners so that he could lie with a girl! It struck me as so funny that I burst out laughing." This self-indulgence is done with forethought; it is not a fit. He moves hundreds of hungry men just so that he might have sex. It goes beyond selfishness yet oddly represents the entire death camp process—all done for ideas held by a handful of men. The general response to the Nazi challenge cannot be a loss of faith (every character in the story that loses faith dies like Meir Katz) but a reinvention of humanity. As Wiesel has said elsewhere, "in a world of absurdity, we must invent reason; we must create beauty out of nothingness."
The novella is a short piece of fiction that is based on the author's 800-page memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps. The shortened tale is told from a first person point of view. There is no attempt to enter other minds and little attempt to explain what is on the narrator's mind. The sole purpose of the book is to relate briefly and succinctly what happened. The reader's conclusions are meant to be independent although they have been lead, quite consciously, toward an abhorrence of the moral vacuum presented in the camps.
The problem of capturing the unrepresentable, or sublime, into an art product has not been impossible since the Roman treatise on the topic by Longinus. Using examples from the Old Testament (particularly Genesis and Job), the Iliad, and poetry, he displayed the successful methods for capturing nature in verse, ecstasy in poetry, the abyss in myth, and supreme beings in mere names. As a result, Occidental aesthetics views nothing as beyond the ability of the well-trained artist to present it in a packaged form.
Nevertheless, the moral chaos and utter hell that was the Holocaust surpassed any previously recorded human abyss. For some, even fifty years later, it has broken the aesthetic mold of Longinus; how is it possible to comprehend, let alone represent, this most awful of all events? Not easily, yet Wiesel's methods resemble those humans who preceded him in the effort to understand the horrible and sublime by representing their experience in one form or other. It is through that artistic effort that comprehension comes.
The means of representing the unrepresentable are the techniques of the sparse and staccato. In this case, those techniques are used to keep the reader, as much as possible, in mind of how precious is the breath of air the death camp inmates survive on. Words are used sparingly and, when possible, blank space is used instead.
The terse sentences remind the reader of the necessity of conserving energy: one is meant to be bothered by the apparent waste of Eliezer's run across the camp (at the end of a workday) to check on his father. Generally, scenes are made up of few words yet loom large; the storyteller relies on the imagination of the audience, rather than on his ability. He places the dots and hints at the color, but the reader creates the image. Sentences like: "An open tomb", "Never", "The gate to the camp opened." They are fragments, scraps of evidence that remain until they are sown together into a narrative which makes sense of what happened. The narrative replaces the useless pictures the GIs took when they liberated the camps. The struggle of representing the unrepresentable horror, as Wiesel discovered, is best accomplished in the same way that Longinus felt the writers of the Talmud did—with few words and plenty of space for digestion.
Night is full of scriptural allusions, or hints of reference to biblical passages. In fact, the very timelessness of the constant night is reminiscent of supernatural tales. Hasidic tales especially do not follow Occidental notions but develop their own time according to the message of the story. "Time," says Sibelman, "is represented as a creative force, a bridge sinking man to eternity." Within the story time are more direct allusions to particular stories. Two of the most memorable examples will suffice to demonstrate.
Immediately after realizing that the group is not marching into the death pit, there is the incantation, "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp …" etc. This passage is a pastiche of Psalm 150. In French (and Wiesel writes in French or Yiddish), the start of each line begins with Jamais (meaning never). Psalm 150 praises God for his works and deeds while the "Never" passage commits just the opposite reality to memory.
Another example of allusion is the execution of the three prisoners. One of these doomed prisoners is an innocent child, a pipel. This scene recalls the moment in the Christian Gospel when Christ is crucified. In the Gospel according to Matthew, he is accompanied by two thieves. At the point of expiration, Christ asks God why he has been forsaken. At death, the sky darkens and the onlookers murmur that this was definitely the Son of God. In contradistinction, the death of the pipel bothers the onlookers in the opposite way. There is still a look for God but this time, "[w]here is he? Here He is—He is hanging here on the gallows … "
Traditionally, the bildungsroman in German literature is the story of a young, naive, man entering the world to seek adventure. He finds his adventure but it provides him with an important lesson. The denouement finds him happy, wiser, and ready for a productive life. The classic example is J.W. von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
Wiesel's novella turns this tradition on its head. He presents an educated young man forced into a hell made by human hands. There he learns more wisdom than he asked for, even when he dreamed of learning the mystical tradition. What he learns about human behavior he would rather not apply. In the end, he sees himself in the mirror, for the first time in several years, as a corpse. The result is not that he will think about being a productive worker, but about healing humanity.
The Eisenhower Years
Eisnehower was re-elected in 1956 to continue his leadership of an America that had emerged literally overnight as the most awesome industrial military complex the world had ever seen. At the start of WWII, while Hitler was invading Poland, there were more men employed in Henry Ford's car plants than in the Army. However, the U. S. had what nobody else on the planet did—an incredible surplus of electric power. The Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams had just been completed with the result that immediately in 1942 the European skies were full of American planes—planes that could be instantly replaced. All this wartime manufacture was retooled for the domestic economy to produce record numbers of cars, jeeps, appliances, track housing, and a whole range of consumer items to be seen in glossy magazines like Life and Playboy. The Broadway hit about the Holocaust, The Diary of Anne Frank, was awarded the Pulitzer and on the television Elvis could only be shown from the waist up while singing the hit song, "Blue Suede Shoes." Real wages and the GNP were up.
Taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the military industrial strength were thousands of GI's who returned from war, went to school, and by the mid-1950s were settled in suburban housing developments. This led to new myths of domesticity. The dependence on the car was immediately born and Congress passed the Federal Highway Act authorizing the construction of 42,500 miles of roads. Along with the car, the mythological love affair with the nuclear family was born and defined. It was more of a geographical definition necessitated by the sudden separation brought by suburbia to the extended family complex. Underneath the jubilation of this prosperity there was a growing anxiety over the Soviet Union and an increasing volume of dissent from America's minorities.
The phrase, "Cold War", was first used to describe U.S.-Soviet relations in 1947. But in 1956 there were evident signs of this war as well as a distinct development of an independent Chinese socialism. The most famous of Cold War signs became Nikita Kruschchev's welcome of Western ambassadors on November 17 when he said, "History is on our side. We will bury you!" In turn Kruschchev's repudiation of the Stalinist era opened a rift between Soviet communism and that occurring in China. Mao Zedong reacted to Kruschchev with his speech, "On the Ten Great Relationships." There he outlined a peasant and agrarian focused structure in which the peasant would have economic consuming power. Thus, he rejected the Soviet emphasis on heavy industry.
This personal exchange was in the fall of a year that saw acceleration in the arms race. After Soviet authorities suppressed Polish and Hungarian revolts in February, the Soviets occupied Hungary and used the excuse to install intermediate ballistic missiles whose range put southern Europe on guard. Eisenhower offered asylum to all Hungarian "freedom fighters" but made no other move. The U.S. military answered the Soviet missile deployment by exploding its first airborne hydrogen bomb in May and carrying out a series of nuclear tests in the Pacific. The U.S. also developed the Polaris missile; it is a nuclear warhead that can be launched from a submarine.
Israel accepted a UN proposed truce with Jordan that was soon followed by cease-fire agreements with Lebanon and Syria. However, the Soviets refused to allow either U.S. or British troops to patrol the cease-fire. Soviet threats were not taken too seriously. Meanwhile, an alliance formed between Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt. For Israel it was a tense year but a decade of peace followed—broken by the 1967 Six Day War over the Sinai.
In early summer 1956, President Nasser of Egypt announced the Suez Canal Company's concession would not be renewed in 1968. A few weeks later, after British troops departed, he declared the company illegal and ordered its seizure. British and French nationals left Egypt while their prospective ambassadors submitted the matter of the canal to the UN. The Suez Crisis also had the delayed effect of a whole community of Jews being expelled from Egypt. In the fall of 1956, Britain, France and Israel militarily reacted to Egyptian actions. The result was a complete grounding of the Egyptian air force, occupation of the Sinai by British and French troops, and a low in Anglo-American relations. By January of 1957, however, the Suez was restored to Egypt and France was reconciled to the US.
Compare & Contrast
1956: The Holocaust, outside of Israel, is not discussed. The nearest approach is the reworking of Anne Frank's story for the stage.
Today: Ignoring the rightwing extremists who deny the Holocaust ever happened, recent years have seen a number of mourning activities for Holocaust victims. Elie Wiesel was named head of the Swiss Holocaust Fund. All across Germany, memorials, art works, and peace shrines have been raised. Art has been returned and Spielberg's Schindler's List has been viewed by millions of people around the world. Holocaust museums have been opened in several cities and archives set up for the recording of survivor testimony.
1956: The Cold War "heats" up as suburban dwellers construct bomb shelters in their backyards. At school, the kids practice air raid drills.
Today: The Cold War has ended. The U. S. and Russia are almost partners both politically and economically. Unfortunately, little has altered in terms of nuclear targeting by either country.
1956: Canada assists India with a nuclear energy program.
Today: Both Pakistan and India have nuclear capabilities aimed at deterring the other.
1956: It is a tense year in the Middle East due to disagreements over the Suez canal.
Today: Tensions run high in the Middle East because the peace process stalls between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
Human Political Relations
The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in April and, soon after, the bus boycott of Montgomery began after the insubordination of Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King accepted leadership of the boycott and the Civil Rights Movement went full speed ahead.
The Nationalist government of South Africa admitted its plan to remove 60,000 mixed-blood "colored" from the voting rolls of Cape Province. In late summer, 100,000 non-whites were forcibly evicted from their homes to make room for whites.
In China, the killings continued. From 1949 to 1960, it is estimated that 26.3 million people were killed for resisting communization.
The first successful videotape recorder is demonstrated in Redwood City, CA. Nuclear power is seen as the way of the future as well as a necessary component of a nuclear weapons arsenal. Uranium deposits found north of Saskatchewan's Lake Athabasca make that Canadian province the number one uranium producer in the world. Canada pledges to assist India with its nuclear power program so long as the plants are not used for the development of weapon grade plutonium.
The reception of Night has remained consistent. The book did not fetch a high price and the criticism upon its publication was favorable but superficial. Reviewers were quick to empathize with the narrative but offered nothing in the way of critique or constructive engagement.
As time passed, however, critics like Simon P. Sibelman have approached the work as an ethical treatise demanding reflection. They have begun to ask Wiesel's question, "what is the state of our morality at the dawn of the next century?" Critics have also grappled with how Wiesel accomplished what many said couldn't be done—transcribe the horror of the holocaust into literary form. Thus, while Wiesel's book makes no distinguishing claim between art and life, a few critics have explored what has come to be known as the Holocaust aesthetic. Most reviews suggest the novel as compulsory for anyone concerned about civilization. Few want to accept it for what it is, a gentle voice of reason asking us to never allow the Holocaust to recur.
W. H. Hager's review for the Christian Century is typical of early reviews. Hager says blandly, "… it is a personal record of a child's experience. As such it should be given a place beside Anne Frank's diary … The worst tragedy is always the death of God in the human soul and when we see it happen to a child who has come face to face with man's evil inhumanity to man we are made to know how dark the night of the soul can be. There are unforgettable moments—like that when the Polish Juliek plays Beethoven among the corpses." Already, he was repeating what had been said in the August, 1960, issue of Kirkus. There the review made an "inevitable comparison with Anne Frank."
The New Yorker repeated the norm but offered a little more insight in its March 18, 1961, issue. "The author's style is precise and brief; he catches a person or a scene in a sentence. He lacks self-pity but not self-awareness." Nothing, however, was said about other semantic aspects like Wiesel's use of silence and white space.
Not all early reviews were unimaginative. Robert Alter, in "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," notes the role of mystical Hasidism in the story. He also declares that Night is only the beginning—the factual grounding—for a man whose "imaginative courage … endows [his] factually precise writing with a hallucinated morethan-realism: [Wiesel] is able to confront the horror with a nakedly self-exposed honesty rare even among writers who went through the same ordeal."
Alter then goes on to compare Wiesel's imaginative landscape with the lyric love poetry of John Donne. This is a refreshing occurrence where one would expect to see a reference to Anne Frank. Alter perceives lyric love poetry as a likely predecessor to Wiesel's work. In his interpretation, lyric love poetry was the last time writers were so focused on the minutiae of, in their case, the lover and beloved. Alter contends that Wiesel is minutely focused on the relationship between executioners, victims, and spectators.
"Wiesel has been considered the chief novelist of the holocaust … [because he] succeeded in blending Jewish philosophy, mythology, and historical experience," said Lothar Kahn in "Elie Wiesel: Neo-Hasidism" (1968). In the late 1970s, Wiesel's work was assessed in the 1978 book by Rosenfeld and Greenberg entitled, Confronting the Holocaust. Michael Berenbaum explored the trial of faith that Eliezer witnessed in his The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel.
In 1982, Ellen S. Fine published a study of the novella, Legacy of Night; The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Keeping with Wiesel, Fine does not draw lines between life and literature. Her book is about the Holocaust, primarily Elie Wiesel's Holocaust. "The thrust of Wiesel's writing does not lie in his literary techniques and he has openly rejected the notion of art for art's sake. He is basically a storyteller with something to say." Being a storyteller has made him a good lecturer and spokesman. Fine argues that taken together, Wiesel's fiction forms a whole work with repeated and varied motifs. His work tells a continuous story of a survivor with memories.
D. L. Vanderwerken's essay explored the traditional genre of bildungsroman and its relationship to Wiesel's work. In his "Wiesel Night as Anti-bildungsroman," he makes comparisons with writers like Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison to show how Eliezer is part of a new fictional hero development. This new hero is worldly to start with, discovers a more devastating wisdom, and is not even happy to be left alive at the end.
The most recent book-length analysis of Wiesel's fiction is Simon P. Sibelman's Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. There he presents Wiesel as a navi, a prophet, who speaks in order to move others "to review the course of life [and, thereby,] redefine the human condition." Sibleman spends a good deal of the book showing how Wiesel's techniques work toward this end. He discusses how Wiesel uses the semantics of page layout to add to the sense-blank pages and paragraphs made up of one short sentence.
Night remains one of the most powerful literary expressions of the Holocaust. It has been responsible for sharing the Holocaust with millions of people who then register their reaction to the bleak, horrific events in the novel. The novel continues to question the role of literature in our society—a society still dealing with the memory of the Holocaust.
Jane Elizabeth Dougherty
Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in English at Tufts University. In the following essay, she discusses themes of faith and disbelief in Night.
Elie Wiesel's Night was first published in an English translation in 1960; it is a slightly fictionalized account of Wiesel's experiences as a concentration camp survivor. His first attempt to write about his experiences was written in Yiddish and contained some eight hundred pages; the English translation of the French version of those experiences, Night, is less than a hundred and fifty pages. It is episodic in structure, with only a few key scenes in each chapter serving to illustrate the themes of the work. One of the most important of these themes is faith, and specifically Eliezer's struggle to retain his faith in God, in himself, in humanity, and in words themselves, in spite of the disbelief, degradation and destruction of the concentration camp universe.
What Do I Read Next?
- Night is the beginning of Wiesel's oeuvre and of a trilogy. The next two works are L'aube (Dawn, 1961) and Le Jour (The Accident, 1961) and revolve around survivors of the Holocaust and the way they deal with the memories of the camps.
- Wiesel's 1962 work, The Town Beyond the Wall, concerns a Holocaust survivor who returns to Hungary to confront his Nazi persecutors. Rather than find relief, the man discovers that his revenge denies and displaces moral responsibility. There is no satisfaction in revenge.
- The ever popular story of the young girl Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl (1947) tells of a group of Jews coping with the unbearable stress of hiding from the Nazis. Eventually they are discovered. The diary has been adapted brilliantly for stage and film and remains the favorite memento of the Holocaust.
- Far from the Holocaust, but contemporary with Wiesel's Night are the works of Saul Bellow. His Seize the Day was published in 1956 and deals with the father/son relationship differently than Wiesel does. Both can be read in terms of the Abraham/Isaac motif. Together, the two works are stark contrasts, yet the hero in both works is haunted by the pressure of responsibility to his father.
- Though some have difficulty with the idea that such a serious topic as the Holocaust would be treated in such a genre as the graphic novel, Art Spiegelman's 1980-1991 collection Maus is a brilliant synopsis of the Holocaust. With cats as Nazis, mice as Jews, and pigs as Poles, the novel exposes more of the tensions that are involved in moments of moral chaos than could be possible covered in one person's memory of the nightmare.
- The 1995 novel by Gerda Weissmann Klein called All but My Life, tells the story of her experience in World War II. It begins in the prewar days of Poland and continues through her three-year stay in German work camps. The story ends happily—she marries the American lieutenant who is part of American force liberating the camp. This book is very different from other Holocaust stories because Klein writes about emotions more than about the ethics of the horror.
- Contemporary with the round up and deportation of Jews in Europe, the Japanese in the United States and Canada were also imprisoned. The story of Obasan, by Joy Kogawa (1981), tells the tale of how the hysterical fear of invasion by the Japanese lead to the exile of Canadian citizens with Japanese ancestry. They were forced to live in camps in the interior and were not allowed to resume life as full citizens until the early 1950s.
- One contemporary of Elie Wiesel was the poet and beatnik Allen Ginsberg. His poetry reflected much on the suffering of humanity as well as the suffering of his own people in the camps. Late in the 1950s, he brought together a collection of poems entitled Kaddish and Other Poems. The poem Kaddish itself is a personalizing of the Jewish hymn of mourning for his mother who died insane in 1956.
Night opens in 1943, during a time when Hungary's Jews were still largely untouched by the horrors of the Holocaust. It begins with a description of Moshe the Beadle, who is instructing the pious young Eliezer in the mysteries of the cabbala, Jewish mysticism. Eliezer's education is interrupted when Moshe is deported with the other foreign-born Jews of Sighet. Moshe returns to Sighet with an almost unbelievable story: all the Jews with whom he was deported have been massacred. The villagers react with disbelief; they denounce him as a madman. As Ora Avni writes, this first episode of Night reminds the reader of the perils of disbelief.
Wiesel, the writer, occupies the same position as Moshe is the story: he is telling stories that are too horrible to be believed, and yet they are true. As Lucy Dawidowicz writes, "To comprehend the strange and unfamiliar, the human mind proceeds from the reality of experience by applying reason, logic, and analogy … The Jews, in their earliest encounters with the anti-Jewish policies of Hitler's Germany, saw their situation as a retro version of their history, but in their ultimate experience with the Final Solution, historical experience … failed them as explanation."
The Jews of Sighet cannot believe Moshe's stories because nothing in their experience has prepared them for the knowledge that the very fact of their existence is punishable by death. His warnings go unheeded, even after the Fascists come to power in Hungary, even after German troops appear in Sighet, even after two Jewish ghettoes are created, then rapidly liquidated, right up until the moment the last group of Jews from Sighet arrives at Birkenau. It is only as they disembark from the train, aware of the smell of burning flesh, that they recognize the consequences of their disbelief; faith in Moshe's stories might have given them the impetus to flee, to hide, or to resist before it was too late.
Night has been described as a "negative Bildungsroman," a coming-of-age story in which, rather than finding his identity as a young hero would typically do, Eliezer progressively loses his identity throughout the course of the narrative. This identity-disintegration is experienced individually and collectively and symbolized in the early parts of the text by the loss of possessions. After the Jews of Sighet learn that they are to be deported, they abandon religious objects in the backyard of Eliezer's family. Later, while they are waiting to be deported, they are forced to relieve themselves on the floor of their own holy place, the synagogue.
Judaism, the shared faith in the special Jewish covenant with God which sustains Eliezer and his community, is one of the things which the villagers are forced to give up; indeed, their religion is what has marked them to be condemned. Nothing in Eliezer's religious studies has prepared him for the sight of children being burned alive in pits, a sight made all the more horrific for readers by our knowledge of his own youth and the youth of his sister Tzipora, from whom he has just been separated forever. Wiesel writes, in a now-famous passage:
"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. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."
Eliezer's faith in himself, in God and in humanity has been consumed, and the horror of this annihilation is underscored by the way Wiesel structures this passage; in its repetition, it is like a prayer. Simon Sibelman writes that "Wiesel composes a new psalm, one which reflects the negativity of Auschwitz and the eclipse of God."
The religious traditions of Judaism, then, are both inadequate to comprehend the existence of Auschwitz and almost impossible to practice there. The men in the camp debate whether or not the observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, required of them by the Jewish covenant with God, are still required after God has betrayed them by breaking that covenant. Eliezer describes eating on Yom Kippur, traditionally a day of fasting and atonement for sins, as an act of defiance against a God in whose mercy he no longer believes. Yet he feels a great emptiness within him, as his identity, and thus his humanity, has depended on his membership in the Jewish community, a community which is being destroyed around him. He writes of meeting his father on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a day when his disbelief makes him feel alone in the universe:
"I ran off to look for my father. And at the same time I was afraid of having to wish him a Happy New Year when I no longer believed it.
He was standing near the wall, bowed down, his shoulders sagging as though beneath a heavy burden. I went up to him, took his hand and kissed it. A tear fell upon it. Whose was that tear? Mine? His? I said nothing. Nor did he. We had never understood each other so clearly."
In this passage, Eliezer silently shares his grief with his father; the horrors of Auschwitz have stripped their holiest holidays of all meaning and the loss is grievous to them both. Yet at other times, Wiesel suggests that faith is crucial to surviving in the concentration camp. Akiba Drumer, who had been so devout, makes the conscious decision to die after he loses his faith. Meir Katz, who had been so strong, is broken by his loss of faith and dies on the last night of the transport to Buchenwald. Wiesel has written elsewhere that "it is permissible for man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God." In other words, Eliezer's ability to argue with God, as he learned during his study of the cabbala, is itself a kind of faith in God, a faith that helps him to survive the camps.
Faith is the cornerstone of a relationship with God; it is also the cornerstone of Eliezer's relationships with others, which in turn give him a sense of his own identity. It is shared faith in God which binds the Jews of Sighet together, and it is faith in each other which makes those relationships viable and strong.
The most important relationship in Night, and one which illustrates the power of faith and of disbelief, is Eliezer's relationship with his father. After the two are separated from the rest of their family, Eliezer's only thought is not to lose his father. Several times in the story, Eliezer saves his father's life, sometimes risking his own, as he does when he rescues his father from the line of men who have been condemned. As Ted Estess writes, "Eliezer makes only one thing necessary to him: absolute fidelity to his father. God has broken His covenant, His promises to His people; Eliezer, in contrast, determines … not to violate his covenant with his father."Yet Eliezer is haunted by a desire to abandon his father, and is filled with doubts about his own ability to keep the covenant between them. He is given contradictory advice by two veterans of Auschwitz; one tells the newly-arrived men that they must band together in order to survive, while another tells Eliezer that he is better off without worrying about anyone but himself.
Night contains many scenes where fathers and sons are separated, where the son turns on the father or abandons him. Rabbi Eliahou's faith in his son's love has kept him alive, and thus Eliezer is thankful that he has not revealed that Rabbi Eliahou's son has deliberately abandoned him. He also prays to ask for the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done. When Eliezer's father dies, he feels relief, yet Wiesel writes nothing of Eliezer's time in Buchenwald after the death of his father, because Eliezer feels that he himself has died. Wiesel suggests that though the guards pit loved ones against each other, wanting to impose a system of "every man for himself," the men must find the strength to have faith in each other and in their own ability to resist this almost inexorable pressure. As Ellen Fine writes, "to care for another shows the persistence of self in a system principally designed to annihilate the self."
Eliezer's silence, which occurs when his father dies, symbolizes his virtual death. Language is the underpinning of human relationships, and is itself bound up in notions of faith and disbelief. Martin Buber writes that "language … represents communion, communication, and community," and communication through language depends on faith in shared experiences and concepts. Wiesel asserts that the only word that still has meaning at Auschwitz is "furnace," because the smell of burning flesh makes it real. The other words, then, have lost their meanings, symbolized by the sign proclaiming that "Work Means Freedom."
In fact, at Auschwitz, work means a slower death than that inflicted on those who were killed immediately. A "doctor" is someone, like Dr. Mengele, who selects people for death rather than saving them from it. A "son" can kill, rather than respect, his father. Like prayer, words themselves are perverted in the concentration camp universe, and Eliezer loses faith in their ability to achieve communion with God, to communicate with others, or to bind people together in a community. His last loss of faith is his loss of faith in words themselves, which causes him to withdraw into silence and disrupts the narrative itself.
Wiesel's writings after Night have been attempts to reclaim faith in language, in humanity, in God, and in himself. In Night, faith seems an incredible burden, a hindrance to survival, and yet it remains the only way in which the Jews can survive the horrors of the Holocaust. In the context of the concentration camp universe, Wiesel suggests that the only thing more dangerous than faith is disbelief.
Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
A discussion of Wiesel's eloquent narrative as a means of understanding history and human meaning.
What follows is an attempt to study the ways in which a traumatic historical experience shapes narrative in a powerful example of this genre, Elie Wiesel's Night. It is my conviction that in groping toward formal and literary understanding of such texts, we move closer to the human meanings that the violent world we live in has all but erased.
To render historical horror is to render, by definition, that which exceeds rendering; it projects pain for which there is no solace, no larger consolation, no redemptive possibility. The implications, both formal and aesthetic, for such a rendering are critical. The great tragedies negotiate exactly such a balance. King Lear's terrible journey from blindness to insight brings him reunion with loyal Cordelia even as he loses her and the restoration of the Kingdom is not far behind. The young Eliezer staring into the mirror upon his liberation from Buchenwald has also gained knowledge, but this knowledge in no way justifies the sufferings that preceeded it. It is not a sign of positive spiritual development. Nor is it linked to restorative changes in the moral and political realm. Night is not about a moral political order violated and restored, but about the shattering of the idea of such an order.
It is clear enough that in comparing King Lear and Wiesel's Night we do violence to both. But the juxtaposition throws light on a crucial aesthetic issue. It helps us define the experience of a work like Night and moves our inquiry in the direction of the specific means by which the writer shapes that experience.
Lear's death is the death of an old man, flawed like ourselves, vulnerable like ourselves, a character with whom a powerful emotional transaction and bonds of identification have been established over the course of the play. In Lear's death we re-experience the tragic dimensions of our own experience. The play articulates, in symbolic form, an existential pain we could hardly afford to articulate ourselves. But it is pain that, no matter how great, is contained, since the very act of its symbolic articulation also gives form, and therefore limits or boundaries, to that pain.
Night proceeds from experience that is not universal. It does not expand from kernels of the familiar but from the unfamiliar, from data in historical reality. The deaths of Eliezer's father, of Akiva Drummer, of Juliek the violinist and of Meir Katz are different because, after all of the pain, there is nothing to be extracted by way of compensation. They are not symbolic but very real, and we experience, not a purging of feelings tapped but the fear of the unpredictable in life to which we, like the Jews of Night, are subject.
If symbol is something that stands in place of something else, the historical narrative does not stand in place of our experience, but alongside it. We experience historical narrative much the way we experience a neighbor's report of his or her visit to a place we have not ourselves visited. The report is informational—it is "adjacent" to our experience, neither interpretive nor metaphorical nor symbolic. It is "other" than our experience but also part of the same historical matrix within which we experience the flow of our own lives. Night threatens and disturbs in a way that symbolic narrative does not.
Night is Wiesel's attempt to bring word of the death camps back to humanity in such a form that his message, unlike that of Moshe the Beadle to Eliezer and to the Jews of Sighet, will not be rejected. The word I wish to stress here is form. The work, which is eyewitness account, is also much more than eyewitness account. In its rhetorical and aesthetic design, Night is shaped by the problematic of historical horror and by the resistances, both psychic and formal, to the knowledge Wiesel would convey.
When the narrator, Eliezer, sees a lorry filled with children who are dumped into a fiery ditch, he cannot believe what he has seen: "I pinched my face. Was I alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to bum people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare."
Eliezer cannot believe what is before his eyes. His disbelief seems to numb him physically—he pinches his face to ascertain that the medium of that vision, his body, is alive, perceiving, present. So fundamental is the horror to which he is an eye-witness that seeing comes at the expense of his bodily awareness of himself as a vital and perceiving entity. What Eliezer witnesses contradicts psychic underpinnings of existence so thoroughly that his very awareness brings with it feelings of deadness.
It is precisely this moment, this confrontation with data that negates the human impulses and ideas that structure our lives, with which Wiesel is concerned. We cannot know that which we cannot know. In order to bring the fact of Auschwitz to us, Wiesel must deal with the inherent difficulty of assimilating the truth he would portray.
His method is simple, brilliant and depends upon a series of repetitions in which what is at stake is a breakdown of critical illusions. At this level, the experience of the reader reading the narrative is structurally parallel to his experience of life, at least as Karl Popper describes it. Life, in Popper's view,
resembles the experience of a blind person who runs into an obstacle and thereby experiences its existence. Through the falsification of our assumptions we actually make contact with "reality." The refutation of our errors is the positive experience we gain from reality. [Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, 1982]
Eliezer's tale is the story of a series of shattered expectations, his and our own. The repetition of this "disappointment," of optimism proven hollow and warnings rejected, becomes the crucial aesthetic fact or condition within which we then experience the narrator's account of his experiences in Auschwitz, in Buna, in Gleiwitz, and in Buchenwald. In this way we come to experience the account of the death camps as an account cleansed of past illusion, pristine in its terrible truth.
The quest for this truth is established at the outset of the narrative in the figure of Moshe the Beadle. Eliezer is devoted to his studies of Talmud. His decision to study Kabbalah with Moshe focuses the narrative on the problematic of reality and imbues it with the spiritual longings of this quest.
There are a thousand and one gates leading into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate…
And Moshe the Beadle, the poor barefoot of Sighet, talked to me for long hours of the revelations and mysteries of the cabbala. It was with him that my initiation began. We would read together, ten times over, the same page of the Zohar. Not to learn it by heart, but to extract the divine essence from it.
And throughout those evenings a conviction grew in me that Moshe the Beadle would draw me with him into eternity, into that time where question and answer would become one.
The book, which begins with Eliezer's search for a teacher of mystical knowledge and ends with Eliezer's contemplating his image in a mirror after his liberation from Buchenwald, proposes a search for ultimate knowledge in terms that are traditional, while the knowledge it offers consists of data that is historical, radical, and subversive.
If directionality of the narrative is established early, a counter-direction makes itself felt very quickly. Following Eliezer's dream of a formal harmony, eternity and oneness toward which Moshe would take him, Eliezer's initiation into the "real" begins:
Then one day they expelled all the foreign Jews from Sighet. And Moshe the Beadle was a foreigner.
Crammed into cattle trains by Hungarian police, they wept bitterly. We stood on the platform and wept too.
Moshe is shot but escapes from a mass grave in one of the Galician forests of Poland near Kolomaye and returns to Sighet in order to warn the Jews there. He describes children used as targets for machine guns and the fate of a neighbor, Malka, and of Tobias the tailor.
From this point onward in the narrative, a powerful counter direction of flight away from truth, knowledge, reality, and history is set into motion. Moshe is not believed, not even by his disciple, Eliezer. The Jews of Sighet resist the news Moshe has brought them:
I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death … And see how it is, no one will listen to me …
And we, the Jews of Sighet, were waiting for better days, which would not be long in coming now.
Yes, we even doubted that he [Hitler] wanted to ex-terminate us.
Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What method could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century?
Optimism persists with the arrival of the Germans. After Sighet is divided into a big and little ghetto, Wiesel writes, "little by little life returned to normal. The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear."
While the narrative presses simultaneously toward and away from the "real," the real events befalling the Jews of Sighet are perceived as unreal:
On everyone's back was a pack … Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved, his pack on his back. His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book, from some historical novel about the captivity of Babylon or the Spanish Inquisition.
The intensity of the resistance peaks in the boxcar in which Eliezer and his family are taken to the death camp. Madame Schachter, distraught by the separation from her pious husband and two older sons, has visions of fire: "Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!" Her words prey on nerves, fan fears, dispel illusion: "We felt that an abyss was about to open beneath our bodies." She is gagged and beaten. As her cries are silenced the chimneys of Auschwitz come into view:
We had forgotten the existence of Madame Schächter. Suddenly we heard terrible screams: Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!
And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.
The movement toward and away from the knowledge of historical horror that Moshe the Beadle brings back from the mass grave and the violence that erupts when precious illusions are disturbed, shapes the narrative of Night. The portrait and analysis of the resistances to knowing help situate the reader in relation to the historical narrative and imbue the narrative with the felt historicity of the world outside the book. Eliezer's rejection of the knowledge that Moshe brings back, literally, from the grave, predicts our own rejection of that knowledge. His failure to believe the witness prepares the reader for the reception of Eliezer's own story of his experience in Auschwitz by first examining the defenses that Eliezer, and, thereby, implicitly, the reader, would bring to descriptions of Auschwitz. The rejection of Moshe strips the reader of his own deafness in advance of the arrival at Auschwitz.
Once stripped of his defenses, the reader moves from a fortified, to an open, undefended position vis-à-vis the impact of the narrative. Because the lines between narrative art and life have been erased, Wiesel brings the reader into an existential relationship to the historical experience recounted in Night. By virtue of that relationship, the reader is transformed into a witness. The act of witnessing is ongoing for most of the narrative, a narrative that is rife with horror and with the formal dissonances that historically experienced horror must inflict upon language.
Human extremity challenges all formal representation of it. It brings the world of language and the world outside language into the uncomfortable position of two adjacent notes on a piano keyboard that are simultaneously pressed and held. The sounds they produce jar the ear. In a work of historical horror, language and life, expression and experience are perceived as separate opaque structures, each of which is inadequate to encompass the abyss that separates them.
The most powerful passages in Night are those that mark Eliezer's arrival in Auschwitz. The family is separated. Eliezer and his father go through a selection and manage to stay together. Eliezer watches a truck drop living children into a ditch full of flames. He and his father conclude that this is to be Eliezer's fate as well. Eliezer decides he will run into an electrified wire fence and electrocute himself rather than face an excruciating death in the flaming ditch.
The moment is extraordinary and extreme beyond the wildest of human imaginings. Hearing his fellow Jews murmur the Kaddish, a formula of praise of the Almighty that is the traditional prayer for the dead, Eliezer revolts: "For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?" The Jews continue their march and Eliezer begins to count the steps before he will jump at the wire:
Ten steps still. Eight. Seven. We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our own funeral … There it was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that was left of my strength, so that I could break from the ranks and throw myself upon the barbed wire. In the depths of my heart, I bade farewell to my father, to the whole universe.
And the words of the Kaddish, hallowed by centuries and disavowed only moments before, words of praise and of affirmation of divine oneness, spring unbidden to his lips: "and in spite of myself, the words formed themselves and issued in a whisper from my lips: Yitgadal veyitkadach shme raba … May His name be blessed and magnified." Eliezer does not run to the wire. The entire group turns left and enters a barracks.
The question of formal dissonance in Night is revealing. The narrative that would represent historical horror works, finally, against the grain of the reader and of the psychic structures that demand the acknowledgments, resolutions, closure, equivalence, and balances that are enacted in Lear. When Cordelia is killed in Shakespeare's play, Lear's sanity gives way and, finally, his life as well. Holding her lifeless body in his arms Lear cries out against heaven, "Howl, howl, howl! O you men of stone. / Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them / That heaven's vault should break." [The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1238] The scene, terrible as it is, formally restores the balance disturbed by Cordelia's murder by virtue of the linguistic energies and dramatic consequences it sets in motion. Those consequences are a terrible acknowledgment of a terrible event. The adequacy of the acknowledgment reconstructs a formal balance even while taking account of the terrible in life.
The words of the Kaddish in Night do not express the horror to which Eliezer is a witness. They flow from an inner necessity and do not reflect but deflect that horror. They project the sacredness of life in the face of its most wrenching desecration. They affirm life at the necessary price of disaffirming the surrounding reality. The world of experience and the world of language could not, at this moment, be further apart. Experience is entirely beyond words. Words are utterly inadequate to convey experience.
The dissonance makes itself felt stylistically as well. Eliezer sums up his response to these first shattering hours of his arrival at Auschwitz in the most famous passages of Night and, perhaps, of all of Wiesel's writing: "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." The passage takes the form of an oath never to forget this night of his arrival. The oath, the recourse to metaphorical language ("which has turned my life into one long night"), the reference to curses and phraseology ("seven times cursed") echo the biblical language in which Eliezer was so steeped. He continues: "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." The oath is an oath of protest, the "silent blue sky," an accusation: "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever." Here and in the sentences that follow, Wiesel uses the rhythms, the verbal energy, imagery, and conventions of the Bible to challenge, accuse, and deny God:
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
The elaborate oath of remembrance recalls the stern biblical admonitions of remembrance. The negative formulation of the oath and the incremental repetition of the word "never' register defiance and anger even as the eight repetitions circumscribing the passage give it rhythmic structure and ceremonial shape. Ironically, these repetitions seem to implicate mystical notions of God's covenant with the Jews, a covenant associated with the number eight because the ceremony of entrance into the convenant by way of circumcision takes place on the eighth day after birth. The passage uses the poetry and language of faith to affirm a shattering of faith.
The passage is a tour de force of contradiction, paradox, and formal dissonances that are not reconciled, but juxtaposed and held up for inspection. In a sparely written, tightly constructed narrative, it is the only extended poetic moment. It is a climactic moment, and, strangely, for a work that privileges a world outside words altogether, a rhetorical moment: a moment constructed out of words and the special effects and properties of their combinations, a moment that hovers above the abyss of human extremity in uncertain relationship to it.
Like the taste of bread to a man who has not eaten, the effect of so poetic a passage lies in what preceded it. Extremity fills words with special and different meanings. Eliezer reacts to the words of one particular SS officer: "But his clipped words made us tremble. Here the word 'furnace' was not a word empty of meaning; it floated on the air, mingling with the smoke. It was perhaps the only word which did have any real meaning here."
Wiesel's narrative changes our conventional sense of the word "night" in the course of our reading. Night, which as a metaphor for evil always projects, however subliminally, the larger rhythm and structure within which the damages of evil are mitigated, comes to stand for another possibility altogether. The word comes to be filled with the historical flames and data for which there are no metaphors, no ameliorating or sublimating structures. It acquires the almost-tactile feel of the existential, opaque world that is the world of the narrative and also the world in which we live.
Perhaps the finest tribute to Night is to be found in the prologue of Terrence Des Pres's book on poetry and politics, Praises and Dispraises. Des Pres is speaking of Czeslaw Milosz and of other poets who have lived through extremity and writes: "If we should wonder why their voices are valued so highly, it's that they are acquainted with the night, the nightmare spectacle of politics especially." [Praises and Dispraises, 1988] Des Pres uses the word "night" and the reader immediately understands it in exactly Wiesel's revised sense of it.
To be acquainted with the night, in this sense, and to bring that knowledge to a readership is to bring the world we live in into sharper focus. The necessary job of making a better world cannot possibly begin from anywhere else.
Source: Lea Hamaoui, "Historical Horror and the Shape of Night," in Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, edited by Carol Rittner, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 120–29.
Karl A. Plank
In the following excerpt, Plank compares the visual text of Chagall's White Crucifixion with Wiesel's powerful narrative.
Around 3:00 A.M. on November 10, 1938, gaping darkness began to spew the flames that were to burn unabated for the next seven years. On this night Nazi mobs executed a well-planned "spontaneous outrage" throughout the precincts of German Jewry. Synagogues were burned, their sacred objects profaned and destroyed; Jewish dwellings were ransacked, their contents strewn and pillaged. Shattering the windows of Jewish shops, the growing swarm left businesses in ruin. Uprooting tombstones and desecrating Jewish graves, the ghoulish throng violated even the sanctuary of the dead. Humiliation accompanied physical violence: in Leipzig, Jewish residents were hurled into a small stream at the zoological park where spectators spit at them, defiled them with mud and jeered at their plight. A chilling harbinger of nights yet to come, the events of this November darkness culminated in widespread arrest of Jewish citizens and led to their transport to concentration camps. Nazi propagandists, struck by a perverse poetry, gave to this night the name by which it has endured in memory: Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Irony abounds in such a name, for in the litter of shattered windows lies more than bits of glass. Kristallnacht testifies to a deeper breaking of basic human continuities. Shattered windows leave faith in fragments and pierce the wholeness of the human spirit.
In that same year of 1938 the Jewish artist Marc Chagall would complete a remarkable painting titled White Crucifixion. Here the artist depicts a crucified Christ, skirted with a tallith and encircled by a kaleidoscopic whirl of images that narrates the progress of a Jewish pogrom. The skewed, tau-shaped cross extends toward the arc of destruction and bears particular meaning in that context. Whatever the cross of Christ may mean, in 1938 it was circumscribed by the realities of Holocaust: the onrush of a weapons-bearing mob overruns houses and sets them aflame; a group of villagers seeks to flee the destruction in a crowded boat, while others crouch on the outskirts of the village; an old man wipes the tears from his eyes as he vanishes from the picture, soon to be followed by a bewildered peasant and a third man who clutches a Torah to himself as he witnesses over his shoulder a synagogue fully ablaze.
Chagall's juxtaposition of crucifixion and the immediacy of Jewish suffering creates an intense interplay of religious expectation and historical reality that challenges our facile assumptions. He does not intend to Christianize the painting, certainly not in the sense of affirming any atoning resolution of the Jewish plight. Rather, in the chaotic world of White Crucifixion all are unredeemed, caught in a vortex of destruction binding crucified victim and modern martyr. As the prayer shawl wraps the loins of the crucified figure, Chagall makes clear that the Christ and the Jewish sufferer are one.…
We must not misunderstand Jewish appropriation of the cross in the context of Holocaust art and literature. Where used at all, the cross functions not as an answer to atrocity, but as a question, protest and critique of the assumptions we may have made about profound suffering. Emil Fackenheim puts the matter in this way:
A good Christian suggests that perhaps Auschwitz was a divine reminder of the suffering of Christ. Should he not ask instead whether his Master himself, had He been present at Auschwitz, could have resisted degradation and dehumanization? What are the sufferings of the Cross compared to those of a mother whose child is slaughtered to the sound of laughter or the strains of a Viennese waltz? This question may sound sacrilegious to Christian ears. Yet we dare not shirk it, for we—Christians as well as Jews—must ask: at Auschwitz, did the grave win the victory after all, or, worse than the grave, did the devil himself win? [God's Presence in History (New York University Press, 1972) p. 75].
Questions such as these spring off Chagall's canvas and into our sensibilities. White Crucifixion depicts a world of unleashed terror within which no saving voice can be heard nor any redeeming signs perceived. Separated from the imperiled villagers by only his apparent passivity, Chagall's Messiah, this Jew of the cross, is no rescuer, but himself hangs powerless before the chaotic fire. The portrayal of Messiah as victim threatens to sever the basic continuity we have wanted to maintain between suffering and redemption.… To have redemptive meaning, the cross must answer the victims who whirl here in torment, for, in the Holocaust, the world becomes… "one great mount of crucifixion, with thousands of severed Jewish heads strewn below like so many thieves" (Roskie, p. 268).
Yet precisely here the language of redemption seems trivial, if not obscenely blind to the sufferer's predicament. Can one speak of redemption in any way that does not trifle with the victim's cry? Before the mother's despair, words of redemption offer no consolation; instead, like the laughter and music which accompany her child's murder, such words mock her torment and deny the profundity of her suffering. The rhetoric of redemption, no matter how benevolently used, remains the ploy of oppressors even decades later. No one may invoke it for the victim in whose world it may have no place.
That world of the victim has found literary testament in the writings of Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and recently the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Although his writings are prolific, few of his works have had the impact of his first narrative, the memoir Night. For a decade following the war—years in which he was a stateless refugee in France—Wiesel maintained a personal moratorium on his experience, a pledge of silence that would allow no word to betray the Holocaust memory. On this matter he wrote nothing and spoke nothing, but listened to the voices within himself. Then in 1956 his memories exploded into an 800-page Yiddish text, "Un di Velt Hot Geshvign" (And the World Kept Silent). Over the next two years Wiesel would live with this manuscript, paring away from its pages every letter that was not absolutely essential, every mark on the page that might divert from the intense reality of its truth. The result: the stark volume Night, some 120 pages that have become a landmark in Holocaust literature. Night, too, places the Jew on the cross. It describes the hanging of a young boy who had worked with a well-liked overseer. Both had become suspected of sabotage, and the boy is sentenced to hang, along with two prisoners found with weapons.
One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains—and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.…
The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.…
"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.…
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive.…
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"Where is God now?"
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
"Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows …"
Francois Mauriac, the French Catholic writer and author of the foreword to Night, found in this scene not only the center of Wiesel's story but also the essential question for his own appropriation of Christian faith. In 1954 Wiesel, then a young journalist, had occasion to interview Mauriac who just two years earlier had won the Nobel Prize in literature. The interview proved to be a decisive turning point for both of them: for Wiesel, Mauriac provided the compassionate challenge to tell the story of darkness; for Mauriac, Wiesel made unavoidably personal the plight of the Holocaust child. Upon reading Night, Mauriac wrote the following:
And I who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? … But I could only embrace him, weeping ["Foreword to Night," pp. 10–11].
Mauriac, long a poignant witness to the connection between suffering and love, knew well that the cornerstone of his faith was at stake in Wiesel's narrative. And yet, at the point at which he might have been tempted to proclaim his gospel, he finds that the only fitting response is to embrace the victim, blessing him with tears. The reason is clear: the death of the sad-eyed angel creates a stumbling block not only for Wiesel, but for Mauriac; not only for the Jewish victim, but for the Christian onlooker who cannot interpret away the scandalous scene without trivializing its grossly unredeemed features. In Mauriac's embrace human compassion stifles theological conviction, rescuing it from becoming an oppressive utterance.…
We misread the scene if we assume that the writer's tears are tied only to his perception of the victim's tragedy. The conversation between Mauriac and Wiesel begins with Mauriac's recollection of the German occupation of France, admitting his painful knowledge of the trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. As Wiesel responds "I was one of them." Mauriac sees himself anew as an unwitting onlooker, the bystander guilty not of acts undertaken, but of acts not taken. The indictment is not Wiesel's but Mauriac's own, born of the self-perception that not to stand with the victim is to act in complicity with his or her oppressor. Mauriac's tears signify his humble repentance, his turning away from the role of onlooker to align himself with the victim. The observer becomes witness, testifying on behalf of the victim. Crucifixion indicts, for in its shadow we are always the guilty bystander. Humility, such as Mauriac's, puts an end to any assumption of benign righteousness; repentance denies complacency to the viewer of another's passion.…
Crucifixion, be it the cross of Jesus or the nocturnal Golgotha of Auschwitz, breaks the moral continuities by which we have considered ourselves secure and whole. To mend these fragments of human experience lies outside our power. We cannot repair the broken world. Yet, as we yield these broken continuities to narrative—to memoir, to literature, to liturgy—we begin to forge a new link that binds storyteller and hearer, victim and witness. But here we must be most careful. We rush to tell the story, confident that it is ours to tell when, in fact, it is ours to hear.
Source: Karl A. Plank, "Broken Continuities: Night and White Crucifixion," in The Christian Century, Vol. 104, No. 32, November 4, 1987, pp. 963–66.
Roger Alter, "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," in After the Tradition, E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1962.
Ellen S. Fine, Legacy of Night; The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel, State University of New York Press, 1982.
W. H. Hager, a review in Christian Century, January, 1961, p. 88.
Jason Harris, "Wiesel Recounts Twentieth Century" in The Tamalpais News, http://marin.marin.kl2.ca.us/˜Tamnewsll old/LXX/tam/ads_art/wiesel.htm: 1995.
Lothar Kahn, "Elie Wiesel: Neo-Hasidism," in Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time, A.S. Barnes, 1963, pp. 176–93.
Kirkus, August, 1960, p. 660.
New Yorker, March, 1961, Vol. 37, p. 175.
Simon Sibelman, in Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
Ora Avni, "Beyond Psychoanalysis: Elie Wiesel's Night in Historical Perspective," in Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and the "Jewish Question" in France, edited by Lawrence Kritzman, Routledge, 1995, pp. 203-19.
Explores the idea of "cognitive dissonance," i.e., the inability of the villagers in Night to conceive of Nazi slaughter in terms they can understand, and examines how the loss of community equals the loss of humanity in Wiesel's text.
Michael Berenbaum, The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel, Wesleyan University Press, 1979.
Analyzes the way in which the reading of the novel effects one's theology as well as the way the novel uses theology.
Alvin H. Rosenfeld and Irving Greenberg, Confronting the Holocaust: The Legacy of Elie Wiesel, Indiana University Press, 1978:
Includes essays exploring various themes in the works of Elie Wiesel. Several essays explore Wiesel's contributions to Jewish post-Holocaust theology.
Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945 Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
A historical account of Nazi persecution against the Jews.
Gary A. Donaldson, Abundance and Anxiety: America, 1945-1960, Praeger Pub Text, 1997.
The abundance that America enjoyed after WWII was accompanied by new anxieties over the Soviet Union. The Cold War caused prosperous suburbanites to build private bomb shelters and schools to practice air raid drills. The author argues that the tension between abundance and anxiety defined the period.
Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, edited by Carol Rittner, R.S.M., New York University Press, 1990.
Presents essays that view Wiesel's works through Jewish and Christian theological perspectives.
Ted Estess, Elie Wiesel, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1980.
Overviews Wiesel's life and work, with considerable attention to the historical context of the Holocaust in Hungary and to Wiesel's Hasidic background.
Ellen Fine, Legacy of Night, State University of New York Press, 1982.
Explores the theme of "witness" in Wiesel's works, taking Night as the basis for all of Wiesel's succeeding books.
Herbert Hirsch, Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to PreserveLife, University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
A book-length analysis of the politics, problems, and necessity of remembering crimes against humanity. It also poses suggestions for the future preservation of human life.
Holocaust Literature: A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings, edited by Saul S. Friedman, Greenwood Press, 1995.
An exhaustive survey of conceptual approaches to the Holocaust, Holocaust area studies (including an essay on Hungarian Jewry), and representations of the Holocaust in education and the arts. It includes a short section on the philosophy of Elie Wiesel.
Jack Kolbert, "Elie Wiesel," in The Contemporary Novel in France, edited by William Thompson, University Press of Florida, 1995, pp. 217-31.
Provides an overview of Wiesel's life and major literary themes, with special attention given to his place in contemporary French literature.
Dominick LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma, Cornell University, 1994.
Discusses issues through the lens of psychoanalytic literary theory. In particular, it deals with historical representations of the Holocaust.
Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, Collier Books, 1995.
A detailed account of the famous death camp by another survivor. It is a reprint of a 1947 work.
Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm: A Novel, Vintage Books, 1988.
One of many works by this author to deal with the Holocaust. This novel positions the Holocaust as the central event in the consciousness of twentieth-century Jews.
Simon P. Sibleman, Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel, St. Martin's Press, 1995.
This volume explores the theme and practice of "silence" in Wiesel's works, arguing that "silence" represents more than the mere absence of words.
D. L. Vanderwerken, "Wiesel's Night As Anti-bildungsroman," in Yiddish, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1990, pp. 57-63.
Views Elie as the antithesis of the traditional "coming of age" hero.
Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
This is the first volume of Wiesel's memoirs, and it expands and comments on events depicted in Night.
Writing and the Holocaust, edited by Berel Lang, Holmes and Meier, 1988.
The essays in this volume treat various aspects and problems in writing about the Holocaust, including the difficulty in accurately conveying the horrors of the concentration camps. Several essayists praise Wiesel's literary style as the most effective in bearing witness to the Holocaust.
Elie Wiesel 1958Introduction
In 1986, Elie Wiesel, author, lecturer, and teacher, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The chairman of the award committee, as quoted in Stuart S. Elenko's "The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize," spoke about why Wiesel deserved this award:
Elie Wiesel has emerged as one of the most spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterize the world.… Wiesel is a messenger to Mankind. His message is one of peace, atonement, and human dignity. His belief that the forces fighting evil in the world can be victorious is a hard-won belief.
Night, which according to Wiesel is the book in which all of his subsequent works have their basis, was Wiesel's first break with his self-imposed vow of silence about his war experience. As Lea Hamaoui summarizes in "Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope," it is "Wiesel's attempt to bring word of the death camps back to humanity in such a form that his message, unlike that of Moshe the Beadle to Eliezer and to the Jews of Sighet, will not be rejected." First published in France in 1958, the English translation was initially rejected by twenty publishers. However, when it emerged into the American literary scene in 1960, it immediately electrified the reading audience, broadening the intrinsic meaning of World War II as well as adding a new genre—Holocaust literature—to the literary canon.
Though Wiesel has revisited Holocaust themes in all of his ensuing works, Night presents perhaps his most chilling account of the horror the Nazis inflicted on the bodies and souls of their victims. Stripped to its essentials, from an original eight hundred page manuscript to a bare 127-page volume, Night depicts the concentration camp at its most raw and most honest. The Nazis deprived Eliezer of everything he once loved: his community, his family, his God, and his own vitality. Ted L. Estess points out in Elie Wiesel,"It is true that Wiesel comes to reject despair and death in favor of hope and life, but it is also true that the Holocaust remains ever with him.… It is an agony that abides: this is the foundation of Elie Wiesel's life and work."
Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928, in Sighet, Romania. His father, a shopkeeper, and his mother encouraged Wiesel's interest in Hebrew and Yiddish, and, as a boy, Wiesel also studied the Torah, which are the first five books of the Old Testament, and the Talmud, which are the sacred writings of Orthodox Judaism.
This life came to an abrupt end in the spring of 1944, when the Nazis arrived in Sighet, which had then become part of Hungary. The entire town's approximately 15,000 Jews were deported to the concentration camps in Poland. Wiesel, then fifteen years old, and his father were separated from his mother and three sisters at Auschwitz. In early 1945, as Soviet troops neared Auschwitz, Wiesel and his father were forced to march to Buchenwald, where the elder Wiesel soon died of dysentery and starvation. After the liberation of Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, Wiesel learned that his mother and youngest sister had been murdered in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Years later, Wiesel learned that his two older sisters had survived, and the siblings reunited.
Wiesel initially hoped to move to the then-British mandate of Palestine, but immigration restrictions prevented him from doing so. Refusing to return to his native Transylvania, Wiesel boarded a train with other Jewish orphans bound for Belgium. The train was rerouted to France, however, and Wiesel lived in a children's home in Normandy before moving to Paris. He studied at the Sorbonne from 1948 to 1951, focusing on philosophy, literature, and psychology. He also worked as journalist for a French-Jewish periodical, covering the establishment of Israel.
In 1952, Wiesel became a reporter for a Tel Aviv daily newspaper. He was assigned to interview Francois Mauriac, a well-known French Catholic writer. Mauriac convinced Wiesel to break his vow of silence concerning his concentration camp experience. His 800-page memoir was published in Yiddish in 1956; it was revised, significantly abridged, and published as La nuit in 1958. It has become one of the most powerful works of the Holocaust.
In 1956, Wiesel went to America to cover the United Nations for his paper. He was hit by a car in New York, and, forced to remain in the United States for a year, he ended up becoming an American citizen in 1963. In 1957, Wiesel joined the staff of the Jewish Daily Forward. Night was published in English in 1960 and followed up by L'aube (Dawn) and Le jour (The Accident) in 1960 and 1961, respectively, which completed the Night Trilogy (1987).
Wiesel has lived in New York since the 1960s, where he has produced more than forty works of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and essays. In the 1990s, he published two volumes of memoirs. He served as chairperson of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and was a crucial influence on the planning of an American memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. He has also proved to be a powerful speaker, voicing his opinions on issues concerning religion and human rights, most notably on the plight of Soviet Jewry, on Ethiopian Jewry, on behalf of Israel, and on the victims in Bosnia and Kosovo. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
Night opens with reflections of Eliezer, the narrator, on life in his hometown of Sighet, Hungary, before the German occupation. Eliezer's main concern is studying and understanding Judaism. Eliezer and Moshe the Beadle discuss God, religion, and the soul, until the day that Moshe, along with other foreign-born Jews, is expelled. The Jews of Sighet soon forget this disturbing incident and return to their everyday lives, but Moshe returns several months later with a tale of massacre. The Gestapo had forced the expelled Jews to dig a mass grave and then get into it for execution. Moshe had escaped with only a shot to the leg, and he returned home to warn his friends. However, the Jews do not believe him. They think that Moshe has gone mad.
Life in Sighet carries on. It is now 1942 and 1943, and the Jews listen to news of World War II on radio broadcasts from London. Eliezer continues in his religious studies. By spring 1944, with the Russians' advance, the Jews have high hopes that the war will soon be over. Though they doubt that they will be in any danger from Hitler, Eliezer suggests that the family immigrate to Palestine, an idea that his father rejects.
The Jews then learn that the Fascist party has come to power in the Hungarian government. Within a few days, the German army arrives in Sighet. At first, the Jews are reassured by the soldiers' polite, reasonable behavior, but soon the Jews must give up their valuables, wear the Star of David on their clothing, and relocate to one of two ghettoes. Still, life returns to normal. The Jews believe they will remain in the ghettoes until the war ends, but as Eliezer notes in hindsight, "It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto—it was illusion." One evening, Eliezer's father receives a summons to a Jewish council meeting where he learns of the deportation of the town's Jewish population, which begins the next day. For the moment, however, Eliezer and his family are relocated to the smaller of the two ghettoes. The people in the little ghetto begin to think that they will be allowed to remain there for the rest of the war. When the family's former servant comes to them, begging them to accompany her to safety in her village, Eliezer's father refuses. On the day of the Sabbath, Eliezer and his family are boarded onto cattle cars and deported.
The train journey is long and grueling. Eighty people are crammed into each car. Madame Schächter disturbs the others in her car with her visions of flames. The people yell at her to be silent and even physically attack her. After several days' travel, the car arrives at its final destination: Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz. Now, all the Jews on the train see flames from the crematoria leap high into the air and smell the odor of burning flesh.
The Jews are taken from the train. Men are ordered to move to the left and women to the right. Eliezer catches a glimpse of his mother and his youngest sister, not realizing he will never see them again. He concentrates on staying by his father's side, determined that they will not be separated. A prisoner tells them to lie about their ages: Eliezer, 14, must say he is 18, and his father, 50, must say he is 40. The prisoner also informs them about the crematoria. All the men line up, and one by one, they face Dr. Mengele for the selection. Mengele will decide who will be killed right away and who will be sent to work in the concentration camp. Eliezer and his father are sent to the same line, but they do not know if the line is destined for life or death. They are forced to march toward a gigantic ditch where the Nazis are burning children. Eliezer, approaching his own death, cannot believe that this horror is a reality. He feels that he is sleeping and must soon awaken from this nightmare. Two steps away from the burning pit, the men are ordered to turn aside. Eliezer cannot believe that his life has changed so immeasurably in such little time. At dawn, they shower and receive prison garb. An S.S. officer tells the men that if they do not work, they will be killed. The men then march to Auschwitz where they are assigned to barracks and tattooed. For the next three weeks, they remain in Auschwitz with little to do except sleep. Then they are sent out of the camp.
Four hours' march away is Buna, their new home. Again, they are assigned to barracks and work detail. Life in Buna is filled with random punishments and beatings. Eliezer is forced to give his tooth with the gold crown to the Kapo in charge of his unit so the Kapo will stop beating his father. Eliezer also witnesses several hangings of prisoners. When he sees a young boy hanged for taking part in camp sabotage, Eliezer sees in this execution the death of his faith in God.
One day, the men of Buna face selection, which both Eliezer and his father pass. No one is taken away immediately, and a few days later, a set of numbers is called: these are the men who did not pass the selection, and now, before being killed, they will face one final selection. Eliezer's father's number is called out. Eliezer, sent to work, worries about his father all day long, but when he returns from work that evening, he finds his father has been spared this time.
Soon thereafter, Eliezer must have an operation on his foot. During his stay in the hospital, the camp learns that the Soviets are approaching. The prisoners will be evacuated, but the patients will stay in the infirmary. Eliezer and his father must choose between staying behind in the infirmary or accompanying the evacuation. Because they believe that the Nazis will murder the patients, they decide to leave the camp. Eliezer binds up his injured foot and joins the men on the march through the winter snow.
The march is extremely difficult. Not only is it cold and snowy, but the men are forced to keep up a relentless pace; any man who falls behind or stops is immediately shot. In twenty-four hours, the men have traveled more than forty miles, and they are finally allowed to rest. Eliezer and his father take turns sleeping and watching over each other so that they will not die in the cold. Eliezer prays that he has the strength not to abandon his father, like another boy he knows recently did. After another long march, the men reach camp where they remain for three days before being put aboard a train for a tenday journey. They receive no food during the journey, and they savagely fight for crusts of bread that a few German workers throw into the car. By the time they reach their destination, only a dozen out of the hundred men put on the cattle car are alive to get out.
Eliezer's father hardly has the strength to go on. He sits down in the snow, unable to walk to the barracks. Eliezer argues with his father to keep going, but when the guards force the men into the barracks, Eliezer follows orders. Not until he wakes up the next morning does he remember that he left his father behind. Eliezer walks around the camp for hours, looking for his father and hoping momentarily that he will not find him. When he returns to the block, he hears his father's plaintive voice. His father is lying on a bunk, stricken with dysentery and burning up with fever. With each day, Eliezer's father grows weaker. Eliezer shares his food ration with his father, but the head of his block advises him not to do so; he says that Eliezer must look out for himself. Secretly, Eliezer agrees with him, but he dares not admit it. In his delirium, Eliezer's father calls out his name incessantly, bringing the abuse and blows of the S.S. down upon him. Eliezer does not go to his father since he is afraid of being beaten himself. When he gets down from his bunk for roll call, Eliezer looks at his father for an hour, engraving his face on his memory. Then he climbs into his bunk again. The next morning, he awakens to find his father gone, taken away to the crematory. Eliezer is unable to cry and even feels somewhere deep inside that he is free from his burden.
Eliezer spends the next two and a half months at Buchenwald. On April 5, the Germans start to liquidate the camp, evacuating 10,000 prisoners a day. Eliezer's block is still at Buchenwald when the camp resistance movement decides to act. The prisoners make the S.S. flee the camp. That evening, the American soldiers arrive at the camp. Eliezer, like the other prisoners, eats the camp provisions, and within a few days, he is sick and lying in the hospital. After two weeks, he is able to get out of bed. He looks at himself in the mirror—the first time since he left the ghetto—and he sees a corpse staring back at him.
Akiba Drumer is one of the men in Eliezer's block at Auschwitz. Akiba believes that God is testing the men with these dire circumstances to see if they can overcome the Satan within themselves. As time goes on, Akiba loses his morale, and he fails a selection and is sent to the crematory.
Rabbi Eliahou comes from a small Polish community. He is well liked by prisoners and even by the Kapos at Buna, bringing everyone a feeling of peace and comfort. His son has been imprisoned with him for the past three years. During the forced march to Buchenwald, Eliezer sees the son run away from the rabbi, who has slowed down; the son wants to rid himself of his father, whose presence he sees as lessening his own chances of survival. Eliezer does not tell this to the rabbi, allowing the man to maintain his faith in his son and love for him.
Franek, a Pole, is the foreman of Eliezer's work crew at Buna. He arranges to have Eliezer and his father work together. However, he later uses Eliezer's relationship with his father against the boy. He wants Eliezer's gold crown, and when Eliezer refuses to give it to him, he beats his father. After two weeks, Eliezer agrees to give Franek the tooth.
Idek is the Kapo of Eliezer's block at Buna. Prone to fits of madness and anger, he randomly beats the men under his charge, including Eliezer and Eliezer's father.
Juliek is a Polish violin player. Part of a camp band, he complains that the Germans will not allow him to play Beethoven. Eliezer meets him again during the men's first night in Buchenwald, when Juliek plays Beethoven for the dying and exhausted men. The next morning, Eliezer finds that Juliek has died.
Meir Katz is a friend of Eliezer's father. He worked as a gardener at Buna and sometimes brought the Wiesels vegetables. Aboard the same wagon to Buchenwald as they, he saves Eliezer's life from a man who is strangling him. Meir dies on this journey.
Mengele is the infamous Nazi doctor who holds two selections that Eliezer passes, one at Auschwitz and one at Buna.
Moshe the Beadle
Moshe the Beadle is a poor old man who lives in Sighet. As a beadle, he maintains order in the synagogue. He teaches young Eliezer the mysteries of God and the cabbala until his deportation in 1941 along with other foreign-born Jews. Moshe survives the massacre in Galicia and returns to Sighet to warn his community. However, they refuse to believe his stories, and eventually Moshe gives up trying to make them listen.
Madame Schächter travels to Auschwitz on the same cattle car as the Wiesels. She is alone with her youngest son because her husband and two older sons were sent on an earlier transport. This separation has broken her, or so the other people in the car think. At night, she cries out at seeing flames out the window, but no one else can see these fires. The other people in the car yell at her to be quiet, and some people even beat her. They think she has gone mad—until they arrive at Auschwitz and are finally able to see her vision.
Stein is a cousin of the Wiesels. First deported in 1942 from his hometown of Antwerp, he bumps into Eliezer and his father at the camp. He asks if Eliezer has any news of his wife and children, and Eliezer lies, telling him that they are well.
• Night has been recorded as an audiobook. Jeffrey Rosenblatt reads the text in this selection offered by Audio Bookshelf, 2000.
Tibi and his brother Yossi are Czechs with whom Eliezer becomes friends. Their parents were murdered at Birkenau. Like Eliezer, they are Zionists whose parents refused to immigrate to Palestine. The boys all agree to go to Palestine after their liberation.
Chlomo Wiesel is Eliezer's father. He is a figurehead in the Jewish community in Sighet, extending help and support to his friends and neighbors. As Eliezer reports, he spends more time fulfilling this role than he spends being with his own family. Like his son, the elder Wiesel survives the selection at Auschwitz, and he and his son make every effort to remain together. He grows weaker and has several near misses with being sent to the gas chamber. By the time the men reach Buchenwald, he is deathly ill with dysentery. He dies in his bunk, his last words being his son's name.
Eliezer Wiesel is Elie Wiesel's counterpart in Night. A devoutly religious boy, the prewar world for Eliezer centers on his studies of Judaism, his prayers, and his thoughts of God. For Eliezer, as for many other Jews, the concentration camp turned his world upside down, causing him to call into question all the ideals he had once held dear. Because of the horrors he sees at Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald, Eliezer, only fifteen years old, changes his belief in God as a just, merciful being to a God that can be unfair and thus can be challenged and accused.
Eliezer's concentration camp experience also significantly alters his relationship with his father, who had little to do with the family prior to the war and more to do with Sighet community. Eliezer, rightfully seeing his father as the sole vestige of his former life, goes to great lengths to ensure—to the best of his ability—that he and his father remain together. He also feels a responsibility to protect his father as the older man continually grows weaker. Despite his fidelity, Eliezer recognizes that he would be better off physically if he followed the example of some other sons in his group and escaped from his father. However, he refuses to do so, but still he punishes himself for even allowing such thoughts to cross his mind.
By the end of the book, Eliezer is alone in Buchenwald. His father has died, and he thinks only of one thing: food. He looks in the mirror and is haunted by the image he sees: himself as nothing more than a corpse.
Yossi and his brother Tibi are Czechs whose parents were murdered at Birkenau. Like their friend Eliezer, they are Zionists whose parents refused to immigrate to Palestine. The boys all agree to go to Palestine after their liberation.
Before his family's deportation, Eliezer is a devoutly religious boy. Prayer is like second nature to him, as natural as breath itself. He actively seeks a greater comprehension of God's role in his life, and to achieve this understanding, Eliezer initiates a student-mentor relationship with Moshe the Beadle. As a result of his experiences in the Nazi concentration camps, however, Eliezer comes to reevaluate his thoughts about God and his mercy. While he does not deny God's existence or stop believing in God, he comes to question the teachings of his faith, concluding that God is not merciful, nor does He dole out absolute justice.
Eliezer's faith in God wavers on his first night in Auschwitz, a night so filled with horrors that it "murdered my God and my soul." Throughout his captivity, daily life as well as specific instances of gratuitous violence continue to challenge his long-held belief in God. When the hanging of a young boy causes another prisoner to question, "Where is God now?" a voice inside Eliezer answers, "Here He is—hanging here on this gallows." In the "face of the sad angel," Eliezer sees the death of his God and his own faith.
On Rosh Hashanah, which marks the start of the new year according to the Jewish calendar, while many of his fellow prisoners pray, Eliezer questions why he should pray to a God who has allowed thousands of children to burn in the pits of the concentration camps and who has not prevented the six crematories from destroying bodies day and night. Why should he bless God? Eliezer asks: "Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death." God's acquiescence to the Jewish genocide perpetrated by the Nazis has perverted their status from being His "chosen people" to being chosen "to be butchered on Thine altar." Eliezer also points out that in biblical times God punished his people for misdeeds on their part, but the people who suffer in the concentration camps have done nothing to deserve this treatment. When, for the first time in his life, Eliezer does not fast on Yom Kippur, he feels his rebellion against God, yet he also feels a "great void" in his heart and "terribly alone in a world without God."
Other prisoners also question God and His actions. Akiba Drumer believes that God is testing his people to see if they can "dominate our base instincts and kill the Satan within us." He even believes that "If He punishes us relentlessly, it's a sign that He loves us all the more." Akiba Drumer eventually loses his faith, however, and when he does, he fails to pass the selection and is sent to his death by the Nazis. Even a rabbi loses his faith. "God is no longer with us," he tells Eliezer one morning, and he wonders how anyone can believe in the "merciful God" of Jewish belief in light of what they see every day at the concentration camp.
The presence of death looms ever-present in Night. The impending doom of so many Jews is foretold in Moshe the Beadle's tale, not only in his relating of the murderous extent of the Nazis but also in his own description of his escape and return from the Nazis. Moshe dies symbolically in two ways: first, he is left for dead by the Nazis; second, the townspeople refuse to believe his story. By refusing to validate Moshe's experience, the towns-people are denying their own future. Had they taken his story seriously, people such as the Wiesels could have chosen to immigrate to Palestine.
Topics for Further Study
- Psychologist Bruno Bettleheim, a concentration camp survivor, wrote an article in 1943 entitled "Individual and Mass Behaviour in Extreme Situations." This article was a pioneer study examining human adaptability to the stresses of concentration camp life and the effects of Nazi terrorism on personality. Read this article and apply Bettleheim's analyses to Eliezer Wiesel.
- Find out more about daily life in Auschwitz, Buna, or Buchenwald. Write a short story based on your reading.
- Read Wiesel's Dawn and The Accident, which, taken with Night, are considered a trilogy. Analyze the concentration camp experience based on these works.
- Read another Holocaust memoir, such as Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. Compare the work selected with Night.
- Fred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba were two prisoners who escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944. They escaped to Slovakia and wrote what is called the Vrba-Wetzler report, which describes the extermination camps. Conduct research to find out more about how much knowledge the outside world, including the Hungarian Jews, had about the purpose of the concentration camps.
- Rezso Kasztner was a Hungarian Jew who betrayed his people. The chairman of the Hungarian Zionist Organization and the head of the Jewish Agency's "Rescue Committees" in Hungary, Kasztner nevertheless made a deal with Nazi officials to facilitate the deportation of the Jews of his hometown in exchange for the sparing of the lives of 380 people he selected. Why would a person make such a decision? Write an essay exploring this question.
- Jews in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland rose up against the Nazi occupiers in 1943. Find out more about this rebellion and other partisan, anti-Nazi acts that took place during World War II.
Although Eliezer does not explicitly say so, the Jews of Sighet have clearly heard stories about Nazi concentration camps. "Was he going to wipe out a whole people?" they question of Hitler. "Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century!" Their refusal to acknowledge this monstrous plan—to maintain their ignorance in the face of contrary evidence—contributes to their ultimate demise.
Once incarcerated in the concentration camp, Eliezer senses death everywhere. It is in the odor of burning flesh that welcomes the prisoners to Auschwitz. It is in the smoke from the crematoria chimney, the barbed wire fences, the cruel guards. "Around me," Eliezer says, "everything was dancing a dance of death. It made my head reel. I was walking in a cemetery, among stiffened corpses, logs of wood." Although Eliezer—in contrast to so many other Jews and so many of his fellow inmates—makes it through the Holocaust years alive, by his liberation he sees himself as nothing more than a corpse. Eliezer's parting words upon seeing his reflection in a mirror for the first time in years—"The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me"—testifies to Wiesel's inability to escape the shadow of death and humankind's inhumanity.
Family and Community
Before deportation, the Jews of Sighet comprise a sort of family based on shared values, religion, and sense of togetherness. Eliezer's father is a figurehead in this community. "He was more concerned with others than with his own family," Wiesel recalls, and the Jews of Sighet "often used to consult him about public matters and even about private ones." Wiesel provides more detail about the community as a whole than he does about his own family. Significantly, on the evening that the ghetto learns of impending deportation, about twenty members of the community are gathered in the Wiesel's backyard to discuss the situation.
With the deportation, however, this communal society is destroyed, as are individual families. Eliezer catches a final glimpse of his mother and youngest sister and then is left with his father as his sole connection to life before Auschwitz. Throughout the Wiesels' time in the concentration camps, Eliezer makes sure that he is not separated from his father. At the initial selection, Eliezer is pointed to the left line, but he hesitates to see where his father is directed; "If he went to the right, I would go after him." Eliezer manages to get his father transferred to work alongside him, for example, and when they are assigned different barracks, Eliezer is constantly checking up and worrying about his father.
In contrast to Eliezer's acts of devotion are the actions of several other sons. Eliezer witnesses a son beat his father for a crust of bread. He realizes that another son has taken advantage of the march to Buchenwald to escape from his father and thus better his own chances for survival. While Eliezer is not immune to experiencing ambivalent feelings about his connection and responsibility to his father, he works and prays to maintain the strength not to forsake his father as these other sons did. "I was his only support," he says of his father, in defiance of prevailing concentration camp wisdom, as verbalized by another inmate: "Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone."
The term Holocaust refers to the Nazi genocide of about six million European Jews and three million other people during World War II. Along with all the Jews of their hometown—and Jews throughout Europe—Wiesel and his family were forcibly relocated from their homes to Auschwitz and Buna. Wiesel's mother and youngest sister were immediately sent to their death; his two older sisters survived, but Wiesel did not find out they were alive until many years later.
Much Holocaust literature draws from actual testimony and memoirs of those people who suffered in the camps. While many survivors, such as Wiesel, maintained their silence for many years following the liberation of the camps, eventually they allowed their voices to be heard. Some survivors, such as the Italian Jew Primo Levi, wrote to understand their own experiences in the concentration camps, as well to try and make some sense of the world's silence at these atrocities. Wrote Lawrence L. Langer in Admitting the Holocaust,"Levi spent his life trying to explain the nature of the contamination that was Auschwitz. It represented a stain not just on individuals, but on time and history too." Holocaust literature also may focus on how people survived amidst the horror of the concentration camps. Some survivors, such as Viktor Frankl—the sole survivor of his German-Jewish family—asserted in his writings the fundamental belief that, in spite of Auschwitz, life is unconditionally meaningful.
Wiesel has said of Night, "I swear that every word is true"; the facts that Wiesel recounts in this work are the events that devastated his family and his community. However, in choosing to write a narrative version of his concentration camp experience, Wiesel makes distinct choices. Not only must the author shape the format, he must select which scenes to include, which of his own emotions to share, and which fellow prisoners to highlight. All of these choices contribute to an overarching narrative structure and sensibility. Different critics have pointed out various themes that are inherent in Night, such as a boy's literal and figurative journey into adulthood.
Significantly, Night was published in Argentina in 1956 in Yiddish under the title And the World Remained Silent. This memoir was more than eight hundred pages long, as compared to the brief 127-page volume that was published in France in 1958. This fact alone testifies to the authorial decisions that Wiesel had to face as he wrote of those pivotal years, 1941 through 1945. Ted Estess writes in his study Elie Wiesel,"While Night is as close as Wiesel can come to the truth of his experience, it still fails to tell the whole story. 'The story itself,' he [Wiesel] says, 'will never be told."' Another significant point is that Wiesel wrote this work about ten years after his liberation from the Nazis. As such, it reflects the actual events that occurred as well as Wiesel's remembering of those events.
Night primarily takes place at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp located in Poland where the largest number of European Jews were killed; Buna, a slave-labor camp supplying workers for the industrial plant that was part of the extended Auschwitz complex; and Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps built on German soil. Wiesel aptly recounts his arrival in Auschwitz. Newly arrived prisoners were divided in a process known as Selektion. The young and strong were sent to work, while young children, their mothers, and the elderly and sickly were sent directly to the gas chambers. Those prisoners who passed the initial Selektion were given inadequate shelter and nourishment and often worked to exhaustion. Prisoners who could no longer work were sent back to Birkenau, the section of Auschwitz where prisoners were exterminated.
Wiesel makes an important narrative decision in his opening his story in Sighet prior to the deportation of the Jews. Instead of focusing on extermination, Wiesel chooses to begin his story with a brief discussion of Eliezer's intense desire to explore Judaism and his personal relationship with God. The writing characterizes Eliezer and his background in a few sentences: "I was twelve. I believed profoundly. During the day I studied the Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple." The opening of this first chapter sets up the upcoming theological inquiries that plague Wiesel, for as Moshe tells the boy, "Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him.… That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers.… You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!" Moshe thus places before Eliezer the task that serves as a framework for the whole book. Throughout his time in the concentration camp, Eliezer constantly questions God's actions, motivations, and fairness. He is unable to understand why God has chosen to allow such misfortune to fall upon the Jews. To make some sense of all that happens to him, to his family, and to his fellow Jews, Eliezer is forced to look for strength within himself.
World War II
War broke out in Europe on the morning of September 1, 1939, as Germany announced the annexation of Danzig, a Polish port city with a large German population, and at the same time began a massive attack on Poland. With this act of aggression, Hitler broke a pact he had signed with Great Britain and France to make no more territorial claims in Europe. Although Britain and France quickly declared war on Germany, they took no military action against Germany. Poland was easily subdued, surrendering on September 17. Hitler next turned his sights westward, invading the Low Countries and France in rapid succession; by June 1940, Britain stood alone against the Nazis.
Hitler also set his sights eastward, and the German army launched an attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. The German army surprised the Soviets, and the Nazis saw initial successes, making their advance toward the heart of the Soviet Union. By mid-July, the German army had drawn within 200 miles of Moscow; despite several offensives, the Germans were unable to capture the Soviet capital. In December of that year, the Soviets launched their first attacks. A turning point in the war on the eastern front came in February 1943, when Axis troops surrendered at Stalingrad. Despite German counteroffensives, the Soviet army made steady progress westward. By July 1944, Soviet forces had advanced into Poland, and the following spring, they penetrated Germany.
Hungary in World War II
Hungary aligned itself with Germany in hopes of regaining territory it had lost as a result of World War I; this region included northern Transylvania (part of present-day Romania). In 1941, a pact with Germany awarded Hungary this land, which included the town of Sighet. At this time, thousands of Jews who were not Hungarian citizens were expelled, mostly to Romania. Then, in July 1941, about 20,000 more Jews whose citizenship was in doubt were sent to German-held Galicia. With the assistance of Hungarian troops, these Jews were murdered by the S.S. The following year, another 1,000 Jews were similarly massacred.
Compare & Contrast
1930s and 1940s: In 1939, the European Jewish population stands at approximately 10 million. However, an estimated 6 million European Jews are murdered during the Holocaust. By 1946, the total number of Jews living in Europe has fallen to approximately 4 million.
Today: In 2000, the world's Jewish population is estimated at 13.2 million, of which only 1,583,000, or 12 percent, live in Europe. Most Jews live either in the United States or Israel. In most recent years, the Jewish worldwide population has risen slightly, but still remains at a statistical zero population growth.
1930s and 1940s: Before the start of World War II, about 825,000 Jews live in Hungary; about 565,000 perish in the Holocaust. There are 473 Jewish communities throughout Hungary. After the war, 266 of these communities are reestablished, but most are short-lived, as many of the remaining Jews eventually leave the provincial towns.
Today: In the 1990s, Hungary's Jewish population is estimated at about 100,000 out of a country population of just over 10 million. There are only about a dozen rabbis and a small handful of Jewish schools.
1930s and 1940s: Wiesel's hometown of Sighet is home to about 10,140 Jews in 1941, and as many as an additional 10,000 live in the outlying countryside. After the end of World War II, in 1947, a community of 2,300 exists in Sighet.
Today: In the years after World War II, many Jews who return to Sighet and other areas of what becomes Romania, choose to emigrate to Israel. Today the Jewish population of Sighet stands at about one hundred.
1930s and 1940s: Auschwitz is the largest Nazi concentration and extermination camp. One-sixth of all Jews murdered by the Nazis are gassed at Auschwitz. In the face of the approaching Soviet army, the Germans abandon Auschwitz in January 1945.
Today: Auschwitz has been converted into a museum and memorial. In 1996, the Polish government joins with other organizations to ensure the camp's preservation as an historic site.
While Hungary's leader tried to protect the country's Jews, even ordering a stop to the deportations, he was forced to placate the Nazi allies and began a program to eliminate Jews from public and cultural life. New laws provided a more radical racial definition of the term Jew, which classified more people as Jews and which prohibited intermarriage, stripped Jews of their farmland, and segregated them from Hungarian society. Despite these measures, Germany did not trust Hungary. After Germany learned that Hungarian leaders were secretly negotiating an unconditional surrender with the Allies, in March 1944 the German army moved into Hungary. A new pro-German government was quickly set up.
Immediately upon the arrival of German troops, hundreds of prominent Jews were arrested in the major cities. Laws were passed that deprived Jews of their assets, dismissed them from all public services and the profession, closed down their businesses, forced them to wear the Star of David armband, and confiscated their cars, bicycles, radios, and telephones. In April, the decision was made to segregate Jews into ghettos with the ultimate end of deporting them. This plan was carried out almost immediately in the provinces. The deportation of Hungarian Jewry was the swiftest yet organized by the Nazis; within three months 400,000 to 500,000 Jews were ghettoized, stripped of their property, and deported. About 95 percent of the deportees were sent to Auschwitz. The process was then initiated in Budapest; however, about 94,000 Jews—less than one quarter of the Jewish population—were still living in the city's ghettoes when the Soviet army moved into Hungary.
Auschwitz and Buchenwald
Between 1.1 and 1.5 million people died at Auschwitz; 90 percent of these people were Jewish. The establishment of a concentration camp at Auschwitz was ordered on April 27, 1940, and the first prisoners—Polish dissidents—arrived on June 14. This camp, known as Auschwitz I, was mainly reserved for political prisoners from Germany and Poland. In October 1941, work was begun on Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, located a few miles away. Birkenau developed into a huge concentration camp that included about 300 prison barracks, four large "bathhouses" where Jews were gassed, and several crematoria. Nearby Auschwitz III, or Buna-Monowitz, became a slave-labor camp in March 1942. Prisoners from Buna worked in the on-site factories owned by German companies. By March 1942, trains carrying Jews from countries throughout Europe began arriving at Auschwitz daily. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, about 438,000 Jews from Hungary arrived at Birkenau, seriously overtaxing the camp's resources and crematoria.
Buchenwald was one of the largest concentration camps located on German soil. It was set up in 1937 and initially housed political prisoners as well as Jews. Most of the prisoners worked as slave laborers at nearby work sites. There were no gas chambers at Buchenwald, but hundreds of prisoners died each month from disease, malnutrition, illness, beatings, and executions.
In the face of the approaching Soviet armies, Auschwitz was abandoned. On January 18, 1945, some 60,000 captives were forced to march to Wodzislaw, where they were then put on freight trains and shipped westward to Buchenwald; one in four prisoners died en route. The 7,650 prisoners who were left behind at Auschwitz, many of whom were sick, were found and liberated by Soviet troops on January 27. On April 6, 1945, the evacuation of Buchenwald began. Some 28,500 prisoners were forced out of the camp, with one in four dying on the ensuing march. Early on April 11, the Germans fled the camp, and the inmates took over. They greeted the liberating American troops later that day.
Upon publication in English in 1958, Night immediately electrified readers and critics alike. Noting its "terrifying power," in the New York Times Book Review, Gertrude Samuels closed with the chilling admonition, "This remarkable close-up of one boy's tragedy was translated from the French into English. Surely his story deserves a German translation." Similarly, Itzah Ivry concluded in the Saturday Review that Night"deserves to be read by everyone who is deeply concerned about the future of civilization." Because of its subject matter and youthful narrator, many critics compared Wiesel's work with Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl.
Wiesel's autobiographical account was one of the first examples of so-called Holocaust literature. According to Inga Clendinnen, author of Reading the Holocaust, Night"effectively created the genre of Holocaust memoir in Europe and the USA." It introduced issues surrounding the concentration camps and Nazi atrocities that would be raised by many more survivors and writers in later works. As James Finn pointed out in Commonweal,"Elie Wiesel … reminds us again, not of the historic events—for who, knowing them could forget?—but of the dark depths to which the human spirit plummeted and of the spiritual suffering and sacrifice that no man can measure." Indeed, the Times Literary Supplement found the townspeople's unwillingness to listen to Moshe the Beadle's warning to be the most interesting aspect of the book, particularly since "even today when the facts have long since been established beyond any shadow of doubt we find it almost impossible to credit that human being could inflict and endure suffering on the scale which Mr. Wiesel describes."
Curt Leviant wrote in the Saturday Review,"Wiesel has taken his own anguish and imaginatively metamorphosed it into art," thus raising an issue that critics would revisit over the years: how effective is Night as literature? While the writer A. Alvarez found that "[A]s a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism," he also believed it to be a "failure as a work of art … [because] when what Wiesel has to say becomes intolerable for him, he falls back on rhetoric." Clendinnen finds Wiesel's work to be more of a "theological drama" in which the "human experience he describes becomes abstract and remote in the telling." Yet, many any other readers have greatly valued Wiesel's sparse, concise language. Jack Kolbert, in an essay in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, found Wiesel's "stark" and "naked" writing style effective: "It is difficult to imagine a work that is more barren of literary adornment and at the same time so rich in intensity of human experience."
Critics have also disagreed about the classification of Night as novel, nonfiction, or autobiography, although Wiesel has stated that every word written in the book is truth. However, in writing about the experience, Wiesel shapes his memory to create a cohesive narrative that is undercut with "literary" themes. For example, Lawrence Langer points out that Wiesel's work is a study of fathers and sons, with the Jews in Auschwitz the son of God. "This lifts the narrative … beyond the constraints of autobiography into the realm of imagined fiction; nothing is more 'literary' or stylized in the story than the young boy's denunciation of God's world and implied renunciation of its creator." Other critics have seen Eliezer's journey to Auschwitz and Buchenwald as reflective of a young boy's passage into manhood or as repetitive of the Jews' experiences in ancient Egypt. Many literary scholars have also analyzed the text in terms of its imagery and symbolism, particularly those relating to religious ideals.
Night continues to be one of the foremost writings of the Holocaust and the concentration camp experience. As Kolbert asserted, "If Wiesel had written only La Nuit, it would be sufficient to guarantee him a lasting place among the French writers of the post-World War II era." However, Wiesel's subsequent writings, as well as his humanist activism, have continued to spread his message throughout the world.
Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In this essay, Korb explores the meaning of Auschwitz to the Jews and to Wiesel.
To the twentieth century, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau have come to symbolize the evil epitomized by Adolf Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust. These infamous Nazi concentration camps were places of slave labor, torturous medical experimentation, sadistic violence, and, most significantly, genocide on a scale heretofore unimaginable. The prisoners who lived within the barbed-wire walls of the concentration camp experienced the gradual stripping of their human qualities; honest, pure emotions were subverted, and relationships with other people became a hindrance to individual survival. Nowhere are these aberrations more evident than in Holocaust literature and memoirs. Wiesel's Night, among the first of this genre, aptly demonstrates the concentration camps' capacity to debase humanity. As Wiesel's narrative shows, in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, victims turn against other victims, Jews against Jews, and even sons turn against their fathers. While such a mentality may be difficult for anyone who has not experienced such horror to imagine, Hamida Bomajian points out one crucial difference between the contemporary observer and the camp survivor: "The camp was never a metaphor for the child." The concentration camp presented a literal unrelenting nightmare of mythical proportions. It represents the ultimate perversion of the norm, but Wiesel's first book shows how this perversion transforms into the accepted day-today reality. At the start of Night, young Eliezer lives within a supportive community with shared values and mutual respect and responsibilities, but by the end of the work, he stands alone in front of a mirror, reminding himself of nothing more than a corpse.
This perversion of reality is hinted at from the opening pages of the work, which begins several years before Eliezer's arrival at Auschwitz. In 1941, the first Jews were deported from Hungary. Those selected were foreign-born Jews, and among the Sighet population was Moshe the Beadle. Several months after his expulsion, Moshe returns to the town to recount how these Jews were murdered. The details that surround this massacre forewarn the complete lapse of any comprehensible reality. The Jews were forced to dig their own mass graves in the forest, and then "[E]ach one had to go up to the hole and present his neck" to a Gestapo officer for execution. "Babies were thrown into the air and the machine gunners used them as targets." Moshe, who by all rights should have been dead and was left among the corpses, returns to share this story so that members of his community "could prepare [themselves] while there was still time." The Jews of Sighet, however, refuse to listen to his words. They ascribe Moshe's stories to imagination or madness, and even Eliezer, who formerly had opened his very soul to Moshe, does not believe him, feeling "only pity" for this man whose opinions he had once so valued.
Instead, the Jews strain to make their lives continue as normal, despite the war taking place outside their windows. They return to their regular pattern of religious studies, community matters, and betrothals. They listen to radio broadcasts of the war from London and tell each other that the end of the war "would not be long in coming now." They also deny any reports of the Nazis' mass murder of the Jews. By spring of 1944, two prisoners had escaped from Auschwitz and reported on the extermination that was taking place there. Wiesel has maintained that this report reached the leaders of the Jewish community in Budapest, Hungary; indeed, according to Eliezer, Sighet's knowledge of Hitler's "Final Solution" is known but discounted, much as Moshe's tale was discounted. "Was he going to wipe out a whole people?" they question. "And in the middle of the twentieth century!" Even if this plan could not be refuted as sheer madness, as Moshe's tales were, logistics would seem to prevent it. "Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use?" (As the Jews would soon find out, the Nazis were capable of such efficiency. Within a matter of a few months, they sent more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, which had the capacity to burn the bodies of 6,000 people in the crematoria each day.) Even when the Jews are uprooted from their homes and forced to relocate to one of the ghettoes, they deny what is happening to them. "Little by little life returned to normal," Eliezer reports. Instead of being fearful of the "barbed wire which fenced us in"—a premonition of Auschwitz—the people "thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained." Eliezer even describes the atmosphere as "peaceful and reassuring"—until even the little ghetto is deported.
The train ride to Auschwitz further intensifies the deliberate innocence with which the Jews rode to their death. One person aboard Eliezer's car, Madame Schächter, prophesizes what lies ahead. As night falls, she looks out the window and sees fire. "Jews, listen to me!" she cries. "There are huge flames! It is a furnace!" As they did with Moshe, the Jews ascribe her story—in the form of a vision—to madness. As the train pulls into Auschwitz, however, the Jewish reality instantly conflates with the insanity of the camp: "And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.… There was an abominable odor floating in the air … that smell of burning flesh."
What Do I Read Next?
- Wiesel's Dawn (1961) and The Accident (1961) form a trilogy with Night. Both of these books revolve around Auschwitz survivors who struggle to find some meaning in the postwar world. In Dawn, the young survivor immigrates to Palestine, where his work as a terrorist to free the region from British rule causes him to lose his religious ideals. In The Accident, an Israeli foreign correspondent is struck down by a car, only to realize that his subconscious guilt at surviving the concentration camp has led him to seek his own death.
- Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl, a German Jew who survived the concentration camps, explores the psychological mechanisms by which the author held on to his will to live despite incarceration in Auschwitz. Originally published in 1959, this book remains one of the most widely read texts about the Holocaust and survival.
- Italian Jewish writer Primo Levi's Si questo e un uomo (translated into English as If This Is a Man or Survival in Auschwitz) is one of the foremost Holocaust texts. Originally published in 1947, Levi's memoir recounts the human elements that survived in Auschwitz, including individuals to whom he credited his survival.
- Tadeusz Borowski, a Polish political dissident, was imprisoned at Auschwitz. His collection of short stories This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen was first published in Poland in 1959. This story collection provides a view of Auschwitz from a non-Jew, while revealing how the mechanism of the concentration camp strips morality from its inhabitants.
- German philosopher Theodor Adorno and colleague Max Hockheimer wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947). This nonfiction work discusses society's tendency toward self-destruction, as witnessed by the rise of Fascism in the inter-war years and its resulting negation of personal freedoms.
- Upon publication, Night was compared by many critics to Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. Anne Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, but in 1947, her father published the diary that she kept during the two years the Franks, a Jewish family, hid in a secret attic apartment in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
What Eliezer sees on his first night at Auschwitz shows the utter madness that has engulfed his world. He sees sights that resemble those of Moshe's. There is a ditch with gigantic flames leaping upward. Here the Nazis are burning something. "A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load—little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it—saw it with my own eyes … those children in the flames." Eliezer cannot believe his vision. It must be a nightmare. He pinches his face to bring himself to his senses. "How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent?" he wonders, echoing a thought that will haunt him for the years to come and that will implicate all those people who did nothing to save the Jews and the other victims of Hitler's hatred. Around him, he hears people reciting the Kaddish, the prayer that Jews recite for the dead. In this action of mourning their own death, the Jews of Sighet again mimic the actions of Moshe after his return from the dead.
That first night in Auschwitz causes Wiesel's worldview to change forever. "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night," begins one of the book's most quoted passages. In this brief passage, which in its solemnity and language, recalls a prayer, Wiesel states the message he needs to share with the world:
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."
This passage also signifies the shift in Wiesel and in his counterpart, Eliezer. With the termination of the delusions under which he and the Jews of Sighet have lived for the past few years, Eliezer is forced into a new world, one in which the norms of humanity do not apply. As time progresses, Eliezer—and his fellow prisoners—lose more and more of the qualities that define them as individuals and as Jews. Veterans of Buna make fun of the newer arrivals who have not suffered yet the cold winters as they have. A rabbi forsakes his faith, wondering, "How can I believe, how could anyone believe, in this merciful God?" The degeneration is seen in Akiba Drumer, who initially sees the concentration camp as a sign of God's love and then looks for future hope in a biblical verse that "predicts" imminent deliverance; but, eventually, he loses his faith and thus his will to live. He is sent to the gas chambers, and his friends forget their promise to recite the Kaddish for him.
The evacuation of Buna brings out an even worse side of the men. A boy who sits down during the forced march is trampled to death by the thousands of men running behind him. A rabbi's son sees his father lagging behind the rest of the men in the column. Eliezer remembers that the boy had seen the father "losing ground, limping, staggering back to the rear of the column. He had seen him. And he had continued to run on in front, letting the distance between them grow greater." The rabbi's son had taking advantage of his father's slowness "to free himself from an encumbrance which could lessen his own chances of survival." On the train ride to Buchenwald, the men are given no food for ten days. When the train passes through towns and German workmen throw bread into the car, this act of sport transforms the starving men into inhuman beings. "Men threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes." One man obtains a bit of bread, which he intends to share with his son; however, his son responds not with acknowledgement or thanks but instead by attacking his father. When the father dies of his son's blows, the son immediately takes the bread from his dead father's hand.
Eliezer's relationship to his father is more closely explored. His reactions in the concentration camp reveal the duality that the camp environment thrusts upon its inhabitants. Eliezer witnesses his father's beating at the hands of the Kapo in charge of the unit. His first instinct is to move away "so that I would not be hit myself." His second thought consists of anger at his father "for not knowing how to avoid Idek's outbreak." However, this response does not signify in any way a break with his father, for shortly thereafter he gives up his gold crown to a guard in exchange for the guard's cessation of harassing Eliezer's father.
"With the termination of the delusions under which he and the Jews of Sighet have lived for the past few years, Eliezer is forced into a new world, one in which the norms of humanity do not apply."
Similarly, although Eliezer quickly realizes that the best way to protect himself is to forsake his father, he never does so. While he chastises himself for even acknowledging this bitter truth in his own consciousness, he differs from the other sons in his group because he does not take action to free himself of the responsibility that his father imposes. The men around him uphold no such similar scruples. They beat Eliezer's father for urinating in the bunk and for calling out his son's name. The head of the block advises Eliezer not to forget where he is: "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." A second piece of advice: "[D]on't give your ration of bread and soup to your old father.… Instead, you ought to be having his ration." While Eliezer never follows this advice—though he recognizes that from a purely practical point of view it is sound—he still cannot forgive himself for even acknowledging such thoughts. His "weakened conscience" is a sign of the degradation that Auschwitz had inflicted upon him—and something for which he cannot forgive himself.
In the last chapter, Wiesel writes: "I had to stay at Buchenwald until April eleventh. I have nothing to say of my life during this period. It no longer mattered. After my father's death, nothing could touch me any more." He thinks not of family, not of God, not of ideals, but only of food. After his liberation, he looks in a mirror to see the eyes of a corpse looking back at him; the Nazis have succeeded in stripping Eliezer of all the characteristics that make a person human; now, it is his great task to regain these elements. Wiesel finds a way to do so by writing about his experiences, exploring his past to find a way to head into this future.
Rena Korb, Critical Essay on Night, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Winters is a freelance writer. In this essay, Winters considers themes of loss of faith, the futility of hope, and the relationship between father and son in Elie Wiesel's book.
It is difficult to analyze Elie Wiesel's Night in purely literary terms; to do so is to risk trivializing the book's extraordinary testimony about one of the most horrific experiences in human history, a young man's imprisonment in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. However, in telling his story, Wiesel uses stylistic techniques that serve to sharpen the reader's experience of the story and returns repeatedly to particular themes.
The story is told in an extremely understated, tight style. Wiesel does not tell the reader what to think; he simply presents events as plainly as possible and lets them speak for themselves. The events, such as the mass killing of babies who are thrown into a flaming furnace, or the hanging of children, are so horrifying that Wiesel does not need to belabor them or to express his own terror or anger directly; his taut style and emotional restraint make them even more believable and frightening. As Robert Alter wrote in After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, Wiesel is "able to confront the horror with a nakedly self-exposed honesty rare even among writers who went through the same ordeal."
For example, Wiesel describes a man who has obtained some bread, whose son attacks him to try and get it away:
He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece [of bread]. He tried to carry it to his mouth. But the other one threw himself upon him and snatched it. The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. He was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, there were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son.
The book has several recurring themes, including loss of faith, the futility of hope, and Eliezer's relationship with his father.
Eliezer's story opens in a tightly knit and well-ordered Jewish community, where people piously keep ancient spiritual traditions, and where Eliezer is deeply religious, eager to follow the mystical path of the kabbalah toward spiritual enlightenment. The goal of this path is union with God, and Eliezer is devoted to it, despite the fact that most such seekers are many years older than he. He is confident in his future as a scholar, and comforted by his surrounding family and community. He is also confident in a basic tenet of Hasidic Judaism: the idea that life has a purpose—God's purpose—and that historical and personal events are part of God's plan for humanity, that he is watching over everyone.
However, Eliezer's community is shattered and his religious quest is interrupted when the Nazis invade and begin rounding up all the Jews and transporting them to death camps. Abruptly, Eliezer is yanked out of his sheltered existence and forced into a world where babies and children are slaughtered, where old people are executed because they cannot work, where corpses, and sometimes the living, are burned and the smell of constant cremations hangs in the air. Death is everywhere, and among the living, cruelty becomes rampant as prisoners fight for their own survival, killing each other for food or water. As Ted L. Estess wrote in Elie Wiesel,"Instead of being transported out of the body and into the bliss of eternity, Eliezer moves steadily into degradation in an agonized physical world."
Wiesel writes in his book that by the end of his first day at the Auschwitz concentration camp, "The student of the Talmud, the child I was, had been devoured in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it."
Unlike some other survivors of horrific events, Wiesel does not see suffering as redeeming or as ennobling. He does not believe it leads to greater empathy or wisdom on the part of survivors; he does not believe it has any redeeming value. It is senseless, and the questions, "What kind of God would allow these things to happen?" and "How could God allow evil to flourish and good people, innocent children, to be tortured and killed?" hang in the air, like the smoke of the mass cremations, throughout the book. Wiesel never answers these questions, although Eliezer struggles with them continually.
He is not the only one; one prisoner remarks, when the question of faith in God arises, "I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He's the only one who's kept his promises to the Jewish people." Hitler has "promised" to kill as many Jews as possible, and, of course, he is succeeding in the camps. This ironic reversal of Hitler and God is chilling. In addition, the book shows how religion, which had seemed the most important things in the world to Eliezer and many of the other prisoners, is reduced to dust in comparison with the need to survive. Food and survival supersede everything else for the prisoners; previously moral, civilized, and kind people will now kill each other for a crust of bread.
Throughout the book, people are frequently optimistic, and their optimism is inevitably shown to be foolish. Early in the book, people in Eliezer's village assert that the Nazis will not harm the Jews—despite evidence to the contrary when a man who escaped a mass execution early in the war comes back to Eliezer's village and tells his story. Instead of listening to his evidence, people simply regard him as a fanciful madman. Even when they are forced to move into confined ghettos, wear gold stars that identify them as Jews, give up all their valuables, and are forbidden to go to restaurants or cafes, attend synagogue, or travel, the people still do not believe anything bad will happen to them. Wiesel writes, "The general opinion was that we were going to remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Then everything would be as before." He also comments, tellingly, "It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto—it was illusion."
This illusion continues even after the Jews are rounded up and taken to the death camps. Rumors persist that liberation is near, that the war is almost over, even when there's no evidence of this and conditions are growing steadily more brutal. Wiesel says of the rumors, "Often we believed them. It was an injection of morphine," meaning that the brief period of belief in something good dulls the pain of being in the camps, but ultimately cannot cure it. The rumors are inevitably false, just as faith is.
"Food and survival supersede everything else for the prisoners; previously moral, civilized, and kind people will now kill each other for a crust of bread."
The one aspect of the outside world that Eliezer manages to hold on to for most of the book is his relationship with his father. He clings to his father, contriving to stay close to him in the camps; this closeness is his sole source of reassurance and safety, although he knows it is precarious. He witnesses one prisoner killing his father to get a piece of bread from him; another, the son of a rabbi, abandons his father in the snow during a forced march in which his father cannot keep up. Eliezer is horrified by these betrayals and, perhaps sensing his own vulnerability and temptation to betray his own ailing parent, he prays to God to help him not to abandon his father. However, his father's eventual decline and fatal bout of dysentery ultimately endanger Eliezer, as he spends his own energy and food to try and keep nurse his father and keep him alive. Another prisoner tells him, "Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father." Eliezer knows the man is right, but the idea repels him. When his father finally dies, however, he does not cry; in fact, he feels a sense of relief. This relief torments him: how could he be happy about his own father's death? He believes he is no better than the other sons he has seen who killed their fathers because he gave in to these feelings. These events truly show how deeply dehumanizing life in the camps is: how it removes all feelings of pity, empathy, kindness, faith, loyalty, and love, in favor of brute survival. Prisoners, no matter how spiritual they may have been outside the camps, eventually become as cruel and heartless as their Nazi captors. As Estes commented, "For Wiesel, victimization carried far enough and imposed brutally enough finally so distorts a person that he becomes unrecognizable even to himself."
Eliezer believes that he has betrayed his father, in thought if not in deed. After his father dies, he is left "terribly alone in a world without God and without man," and with the knowledge of his betrayal to haunt him forever.
By the end of the book, Eliezer is irrevocably changed. After the camp is liberated by American troops, he manages to look into a mirror and see his face for the first time since he left his Jewish community. Wiesel writes, "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back to me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me." This is the last line in the book, and it powerfully expresses the effects of the death camp on Wiesel; he will never be the same, he will never forget the death he has seen and participated in, and he will forever be haunted by the questions the experience brought up. In sharing this experience in Night, Wiesel not only honored the vast numbers of people who died without being able to tell their stories, but he also opened the way for other survivors to tell their stories. After he published Night, other authors wrote their own stories. As Stefan Kanfer observed in Time,"If Wiesel's literary career had ended with Night, he would still have earned an international reputation as a founder of Holocaust literature."
Kelly Winters, Critical Essay on Night, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, Sanderson examines how Elie Wiesel's artful depiction of the relationship between Eliezer and his father in Wiesel's story makes the book much more than simply an historical document.
In Night, Elie Wiesel writes about his memories of life inside four different Nazi death camps with a straightforward style that some critics have referred to as journalistic. In many readers' eyes, Wiesel is more a witness to what he has seen and less a literary writer. For example, in his review of Holocaust literature in Beyond All That Fiddle, A. Alvarez charges that most of the literature that came out of the Nazi death camps lacks a certain level of imaginativeness that would make it art. "There are qualities that elude even the best [of these books], leaving them in some half-world of art," claims Alvarez. When Alvarez focuses on Night, he argues that while it is "almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism," the book is still "a failure as a work of art."
Readers can accept Alvarez's assertion only if they deny one critically important fact about Night: it is a reformulation of Wiesel's original attempt to tell his story. In 1954, Wiesel interviewed French Nobel Prize-winning novelist François Mauriac, who soon became Wiesel's friend and mentor. Mauriac persuaded Wiesel to break his self-imposed ten-year vow of silence about his time in the camps and write his memoir, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World Remained Silent). The book, written in Yiddish, came to eight-hundred pages and found a publisher only in Buenos Aires. Despite its limited success, Mauriac recognized the power that lay hidden in the hundreds of pages of testimony and encouraged Wiesel to carve out of that book the more agile and compelling Night, published in French in 1958.
Night is a very intentional book and not merely a record of what Wiesel saw. Wiesel made innumerable conscious and unconscious choices about what would remain in the slim French version of the original and what would be deleted. Wiesel has created something much more than mere reportage; through his carving and shaping of an original event, Wiesel has sculpted the story of a young boy attempting to make the journey from child to adult amid the confusion and horrors of Nazi concentration camps. The events Wiesel chooses to include—specifically, the sometimes symbolic images that illustrate Eliezer's relationship with his father and the ways in which he must pretend to be an adult—make Night much more than a chronicle. The images of Eliezer leaving childhood but ultimately failing to achieve adulthood allow the book to transcend historical documentation and elevate it into the literary realm. In fact, Wiesel uses his full first name, Eliezer, when recalling himself as a boy in the book, as if to insert some artistic distance.
In the book, the world inside the Nazi concentration camps is a world turned upside down, a world in which nothing makes sense and nothing is as it should be. From the moment he and his family arrive at the first camp, Eliezer sees things that defy logic: children waiting to die in a fiery ditch, a son forced to help his father into a crematory oven, and a sign that taunts "Work is liberty!" Wiesel paints Eliezer's businessman father, Chlomo, as a representative of the world as it should be—logical and orderly—a counterpoint to the mayhem inside the death camps. On his journey from childhood to adulthood, Eliezer makes many efforts to resolve the tension between the orderly world outside the barbed wire and the absurd events inside the camps. These efforts demand that Eliezer become an adult to help both himself and his father survive, but in truth, Eliezer is still a child, confused and frightened at what he sees.
Chlomo and Eliezer's relationship changes inside the death camps, and Wiesel selects a few scenes to highlight how they adjust to the changes. For example, when they enter Birkenau, a helpful prisoner suggests that Chlomo lower his age to forty and Eliezer raise his age to eighteen so that Eliezer will be considered an adult and be allowed to remain with his father. At that point, Eliezer only symbolically becomes an adult, as his actions still portray a young, frightened boy attached to his father. Father and son often walk together holding hands in the camps, afraid that they will be separated. They ask for the same work assignments, sleep in the same building, share food, and sing Hasidic songs together.
However, it is Chlomo's cool, rational behavior that becomes a flashpoint for Eliezer and prompts his uneasy steps toward what he thinks is adulthood and away from his father. While in one of the camps, Eliezer makes friends with two brothers who are about his age and discovers that, "Their parents, like mine, lacked the courage to wind up their affairs and emigrate [to Palestine] while there was still time." These are Eliezer's first harsh words of criticism against his father and mother, a sign that he is beginning to see that they are not perfect.
Eliezer also cannot help but notice that in this new world, the world his father "lacked the courage" to challenge, crazy people seem to be the wise ones, and people such as his father suffer for their composure and rational thought. For example, Moshe the Beadle, Eliezer's religious teacher and mentor, returned to the village in 1942, before the Germans arrived and took the villagers to the camps, to warn everyone that they were in danger from the advancing Germans. The villagers, including Eliezer's father, chose to remain calm and remarked about Moshe, "Poor fellow. He's gone mad." Chlomo even discounted the stigma of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear in the village once the Germans arrived, commenting, "Oh well, what of it? You don't die of it." Eliezer's rhetorical response to his father, said under his breath and somewhat bitter, was "Poor father. Of what, then, do you die?"
Throughout the book, though, whenever Eliezer questions his father or considers that he is becoming a burden, he eventually chastises himself, much as he does when he realizes that his father has finally died. Eliezer is not a rebellious teenager but, instead, one with a conscience.
In his effort to do what is right, Eliezer occasionally stumbles. For example, when the camp is about to be overrun by the Russian Army, and the Germans are evacuating everyone except those in the hospital, Eliezer and Chlomo must make a choice. Do they stay in the hospital, waiting to be liberated by the Russians but risking that the Germans will kill everyone before they leave? Or do they join the other prisoners on a march to the next camp? When Eliezer asks his father what to do, Chlomo is silent—representative of the space into which Eliezer can step if he wants to become an adult. Eliezer does step into that space and chooses to accompany the other prisoners—the wrong decision. Two days after the evacuation, the Russians "quite simply liberated" those who stayed in the hospital.
Wiesel creates a shift about halfway through his book, in which Eliezer's move toward the faux adulthood he will reach in the camps becomes almost a comic image of how a man, as opposed to a boy, might act. Eliezer finds himself in the role of the teacher, desperately but unsuccessfully trying to show his father how to march in step so the guards will stop beating and taunting him for his clumsiness. His fellow prisoners laugh at Eliezer and even refer to him as a "little officer" and a "general."
Ultimately, Wiesel does show Eliezer beginning to supplant his father, literally and figuratively. Eliezer wonders about the appropriateness of wishing his father "Happy New Year" and realizes, through a meaningful glance, that his father is wondering the same thing. "We had never understood one another so clearly," notes Eliezer, who has shared with his father the kind of insight about their situation that only an adult could have. At this moment of complete awareness, Eliezer stands next to his father as a fellow man and equal. But Chlomo is not quite ready to give up his position as father and head of the family—what is left of it. When his failing health and physical weakness get him "selected" to go to the ovens, Chlomo, the former shop owner, hands his son the only possessions he has left: a knife and a spoon. Is this the moment when Eliezer will "inherit" the miserable trappings of a man in the death camps? The answer is no, for the next day, Eliezer is only too happy to return his "inheritance" to his father when Chlomo gets a reprieve.
Eliezer's march toward a pseudo-adulthood continues, while his father seems to be regressing. In fact, Chlomo adopts the behaviors of a child and begins depending on Eliezer even more than before. When Chlomo sinks into a snow bank during a forced march to the next death camp, too sick to move, Eliezer begs his father to stand up and continue moving. "He had become like a child," Eliezer says of Chlomo, "weak, timid, vulnerable." Eliezer must act as if he is man in such scenes to help himself and his father survive.
"The images of Eliezer leaving childhood but ultimately failing to achieve adulthood allow the book to transcend historical documentation and elevate it into the literary realm."
Wiesel's depiction of Eliezer and Chlomo's role reversal seems almost complete near the book's end when Eliezer watches his father dying. "I had to go to bed. I climbed into my bunk, above my father, who was still alive. It was January 28, 1945." Only by virtue of his father's illness and impending death, and in the irrational world of the concentration camp, can Eliezer hold a position over his father. Eliezer's symbolic position over his father's dying body does not last long, however. Once Chlomo dies, Wiesel depicts his efforts toward adulthood as meaningless.
It is appropriate, then, that as the Americans are just about to liberate Buchenwald, the final camp for Eliezer and his father, Eliezer is returned to the children's section. His father is dead and, at sixteen, he is not yet truly a man. That must come many years later, when Wiesel chooses finally to tell his story.
Wiesel could have presented the journey Chlomo and Eliezer take together as simply a father and a son going through the horrible motions to stay alive amid so much death, but that would have involved only documenting the bare events. Instead, Wiesel took the portrayal of their relationship one step further, into the realm of imagery and symbolism. Eliezer experiments with the possibility of becoming an adult while his father gradually slips away, all the while giving his son what space he can to let him try out a new role. When the camp is liberated and he is back in the world where there is some order and logic, Eliezer becomes a child again. The depravity of the camps was not an environment in which to truly become a man.
Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on Night, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Aarvik, Egal, speech upon awarding the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, quoted in Stuart S. Elenko, "The 1986 Nobel Peace Prize: Elie Wiesel," in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1986, edited by J. M. Brooke, Gale Research, 1987, pp. 19-29.
Alter, Robert, "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," in After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, E. P. Dutton, 1969, pp. 151-60.
Alvarez, A., "The Literature of the Holocaust," in Beyond All This Fiddle, Penguin Press, 1968, pp. 22-24.
Bosmajian, Hamida, "The Rage for Order: Autobiographical Accounts of the Self in the Nightmare of History," in Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism, University of Iowa Press, 1979, pp. 27-54.
Clendinnen, Inga, Reading the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Estess, Ted L., Elie Wiesel, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1980, pp. 17-32.
Finn, James, "Terribly Alone in a World without God," in Commonweal, January 6, 1961, pp. 391-92.
Hamaoui, Lea, "Historical Horror and the Shape of Night," in Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, edited by Carol Rittner, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 120-29.
Ivry, Itzhak, "Memory of Torment," in Saturday Review, December 17, 1960, pp. 23-24.
Kanfer, Stefan, "Elie Wiesel," in Time, May 23, 1983, p. 82.
Kolbert, Jack, "Elie Wiesel," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 83: French Novelists Since 1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale Research, 1989, pp. 322-29.
Langer, Lawrence L., Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Leviant, Curt, "Elie Wiesel: A Soul on Fire," in Saturday Review, January 31, 1970.
Review of Night, in Times Literary Supplement, 1960, p. 523.
Samuels, Gertrude, "When Evil Closed In," in New York Times Book Review, November 13, 1960.
Brown, Robert McAfee, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983.
Protestant theologian Brown presents a well-documented study showing Wiesel as a messenger from the dead to the living.
Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel, edited by Alvin H. Rosenfield and Irving Greenberg, Indiana University Press, 1978.
This volume is a collection of essays discussing the influence of Wiesel's work on the interpretation of the Holocaust.
"Elie Wiesel," in Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, edited by Joyce Moss and George Wilson, Gale Research, 1997.
This article provides a good overview of the historical background for Night and a synopsis of its plot.
Friedman, John S., "The Art of Fiction LXXIX: Elie Wiesel," in Paris Review, Spring 1984, pp. 130-78.
In this 1978 interview, Friedman and Wiesel discuss Wiesel's writing, subjects, influences, and characters.
Howe, Irving, "Writing and the Holocaust," in New Republic, October 27, 1986, p. 27.
In this lengthy article, Howe discusses numerous Holocaust writings and testimonies.
Kanfer, Stefan, "Author, Teacher, Witness," in Time, March 18, 1985, p. 79.
This article provides a concise, compelling overview of Wiesel's life and career.
Lustiger, Cardinal Jean-Marie, "The Absence of God? The Presence of God? A Meditation in Three Parts on Night," in America, November 19, 1988, pp. 402-06.
Cardinal Lustiger, the archbishop of Paris, analyzes Wiesel's Night as a work of theology.
Marrus, Michael R., The Holocaust in History, Penguin Books, 1987.
Marrus presents a discussion of the Holocaust.
Rosen, Jonathan, "The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism," in the New York Times Magazine, November 4, 2001, pp. 48-51.
Rosen discusses how the terrorist attack on the United States reflects the world's reversion to a pre-Holocaust world of anti-Semitic thought.
Tatyana Tolstaya 1987
Tatyana Tolstaya’s “Night” relates the story of a middle-aged, retarded man and his eighty-year-old mother, who has devoted her life to caring for him in their Moscow apartment. Characters on the edge of society, such as Alexei and Mamochka, are not unusual in Tolstaya’s stories; in fact, she acknowledged in an interview with Publishers Weekly that she writes of Russians who are “always a little bit crazy.”
Most of Tolstaya’s stories, including “Night,” are set in a Russia experiencing the tremendous and sometimes traumatic changes of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Berlin Wall has been torn down, and the monolithic Soviet Union, with its numerous communist satellite states, is crumbling apart. Russian society is economically and politically fragile, and this is reflected in the vulnerability of such characters as Alexei and Mamochka. They scrabble for a living by selling the cardboard boxes Alexei glues together, and they must tiptoe around the neighbors with whom they share cleaning and cooking space.
The Paris Review published “Night” in 1991 for Western audiences after its Russian publication in 1987. For both her first collection of short stories, On the Golden Porch, and her subsequent collection, Sleepwalkers in a Fog, which includes “Night,” Tolstaya received high praise for her magical language and inventive use of imagery.
Tatyana Tolstaya was born May 3, 1951, in Leningrad, U.S.S.R. (now St. Petersburg, Russia). As the great-grandniece of the Russian author Leo Tolstoy and the granddaughter of Alexei Tolstoy, Tolstaya comes from a distinguished literary family; but, according to Marta Mestrovic’s interview in Publishers Weekly with the author, she hates “being discussed as a relative of someone.”
Still, Tolstaya’s background is undeniably one of culture and education. Her father was a physics professor who taught her two languages, and her maternal grandfather was a well-known translator. Many of her six siblings are involved in the arts, and one brother is a member of the Russian parliament. Tolstaya graduated from Leningrad State University in 1974 with a degree in classics and Russian literature. Upon graduating, she took a position as an editor at a Moscow publishing house.
When she was thirty-two, Tolstaya began to write in response to what she saw as the lack of solid new literature. According to Mestrovic’s interview, the author looks to twentieth-century Russian literature for inspiration and cites Vladimir Nabokov as a major influencing figure. Her stories began appearing in Russian literary journals in the 1980s, and in 1987 her first collection of stories, On the Golden Porch, written in Russian, appeared in the Soviet Union to high praise. Knopf published the book in translation in 1989, and it garnered additional kudos from readers and critics in the United States. In 1988, she became a writer-in-residence at the University of Richmond, and since then, Tolstaya has taught at other U.S. institutions including Goucher College, Princeton University, and the University of Texas.
Tolstaya is a regular contributor to magazines and journals such as the New Republic and the New York Review of Books and has published short stories in the New Yorker. In 1991, another compilation of her stories, entitled Sleepwalker in a Fog and also written in Russian, was published. Critics praise her use of language in her stories, as well as their stark realism and unique, if sometimes crazy, characters. Sleepwalker in a Fog includes the story “Night,” also published in the Spring 1991 issue of the Paris Review.
In the Morning
“Night” begins as Mamochka and her retarded adult son, Alexei, wake up in their communal Moscow apartment. Alexei wakes from fantastic dreams filled with dragons, dwarves, and mushrooms, but Mamochka’s rising is much more ordinary: she is occupied with replacing her false teeth, reattaching a hair piece, and clothing her stout frame. Alexei waits in his bed for his mother to “give the order” to get up and begin his day.
Mamochka guides Alexei through his morning ritual of teeth brushing, ear washing, and toilet flushing, coming in behind him to make sure he has not left a mess. In Alexei’s mind, getting through his morning rituals is similar to following a large map with the dangers clearly marked and with Mamochka as his “experienced pilot.” The dangers are the people in the apartment building he and his mother live in, but she helps guide him through these hazards. The neighbors have complained about Alexei and his odd behavior, so Mamochka must always take care that he does not upset any of them as they use the apartment’s shared bathroom and kitchen.
One dangerous person does nearly trip up Alexei’s otherwise smooth morning—the Sea Girl, as he calls her. The Sea Girl fascinates and excites Alexei, although he is clueless about sexual attraction and finds that women terrify him.’ ‘It isn’t clear what they’re here for, but they are very unsettling,” he thinks about women. The Sea Girl winks at him in the hallway, attracting Alexei’s attention, but Mamochka comes to the rescue, chastising the woman for going after “a sick man” and behaving like a “shameless hussy.”
After breakfast, Mamochka sets Alexei up at his work table in the apartment, where he glues cardboard boxes for a pharmacy. From this work his mother collects a bit of money. Mamochka putters around the apartment while he works, eventually falling asleep in her chair.
In the Afternoon and Early Evening
Alexei hates to part with the boxes he has made and angrily thinks about seeing people throw them in the trash after they leave the pharmacy. Once he found some of his boxes in the apartment house’s trash and began screaming, “Who dared do this? Come on out, why don’t you?” Mamochka arrived and calmed him down, but Alexei’s violent behavior frightened the apartment’s residents.
While Mamochka is asleep in her chair, Alexei decides to keep two of the boxes for himself, hiding them under his pillow. When she wakes up, they walk to the pharmacy to deliver his boxes, and he tries to delay the inevitable by dragging his feet. While they walk to the pharmacy, he imagines that “giant wheels” and “monstrous conveyer belts” control the waning day.
On this errand, Alexei sees an ice cream vendor and begs his mother for a treat. She says he must not have any because of his sore throat, but Alexei daydreams of when he might be able to use “those monies, like other Men and Women have, one of the silvery, shiny ones; or a little piece of paper that smells like bread.” When they reach Pushkin Square, Alexei tells his mother that he is going to become a writer.
Alexei remembers evenings when Mamochka has read a poem out loud to him. He enjoys this immensely, repeating the words in a slightly different format and mimicking the howling of the storm in the poem. He also remembers how, when he lies in bed at night, his body stretches and becomes huge, while the Alexei inside becomes smaller and vanishes.
In the Evening
In the evening, Mamochka dresses for bed and goes into the communal kitchen. Alexei waits for her but becomes impatient and sets out to find her. He walks into the hall and discovers that the Sea Girl’s front door is open, and there is money on a table inside. He grabs the money and races out of the apartment building and down the street, searching for an ice cream vendor.
Alexei runs down the street and becomes disoriented. He realizes that he has “someone else’s money” in his hands and begins to hear the people around him say that he has stolen money. “Hands point from every window, eyes shine, long red tongues stick out: ‘He took the money!’ Let out the dogs.” Alexei is frightened and throws the money away, and he soon realizes that he is lost and alone.
Alexei becomes “stifled” by his clothes and takes them off. He sees people in the dark and thinks they are wolves. When he sees some women, he runs after them, becoming a wolf himself and thinking, “I’ll pounce, we’ll see just what these Legs of yours are!” Men begin to beat Alexei, hitting him in the stomach and face until he is bleeding. He cries for his mother.
Mamochka appears, upset and crying, and takes Alexei back to their apartment. She cleans him up and fixes him some warm milk and a soft-boiled egg. Suddenly, Alexei cries out, “Mamochka, give me a paper and a pencil! Quick! I’m going to be a writer!” Mamochka finds paper and a pencil for Alexei, and he begins to write the story of everything he understands, the truth he believes he has experienced that evening on the streets. He “hurriedly writes the newly acquired truth in big letters: “Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night. Night…”
Mamochka is Alexei’s eighty-year-old mother. She is a heavy woman, weighing well over two hundred pounds and suffering the ills of advancing age, including thinning hair and false teeth. Even so, she is Alexei’s sole caretaker, and her day revolves around cooking for him, making sure he does not upset the neighbors with his odd behavior, and monitoring his work constructing the cardboard boxes that net them a bit of money when she sells them to the pharmacy. Whenever Alexei is in trouble, or about to be, she is always there to save him.
The story is told primarily through Alexei’s eyes, so most of what is known about Mamochka is physical—what she looks like, how she moves, what she cooks for Alexei. She is obviously, though, a woman without much life beyond taking care of her adult son. There is no evidence or mention of any other relatives or friends, and the question of what will happen to Alexei when she dies hangs in the story’s background.
Alexei is Mamochka’s middle-aged, retarded son. He lives with her in a small, shabby Moscow apartment, constructing and gluing the cardboard boxes she sells to the pharmacy. This is Alexei’s primary activity, although he also wishes to become a writer. He seems to have the intelligence of a small child and does not fully understand how to interact in society.
Alexei sees his mother as a stalwart presence in a life riddled with fear. He waits for her to tell him when to get up in the morning and listens to her careful instructions on how he must leave the communal bathroom clean for the apartment building’s other residents. “Mamochka is all powerful. Whatever she says, goes,” thinks Alexei. He hardly makes a move without her, and when he does, fear and trouble are the result.
Alexei is confused about women, appreciating their different smells and voices but not quite understanding how he should behave around them. He senses that the woman he refers to as the Sea Girl is interested in him and begins to move toward her in one scene. But Mamochka suddenly appears, yelling at the woman to leave her son alone and yanking Alexei back into their apartment.
Even though he is frightened of the world, Alexei wants to see some of it on his own. Most of the time, he lives in his head and in his dreams, filled with strange creatures and fantastic scenery. Alexei tries to expand his world on the evening of the story by venturing out of the apartment and into the street by himself.
What he finds, though, is not wonderful but a frightening and confusing world. He steals money from a table inside an open door, which makes him feel watched and nervous as he runs through the city streets looking for an ice cream vendor. He feels stifled by his clothes and takes them off, upsetting passersby and provoking a man to hit him hard enough that he bleeds from his mouth. But Mamochka eventually comes after him and takes him back to the safety of their apartment.
The Sea Girl is a woman who lives in Mamochka and Alexei’s apartment building. She fascinates Alexei, although he does not quite understand why, but his mother knows that Alexei should stay away from her or there will be trouble. The Sea Girl is “the most dangerous creature” in Alexei’s world, “big-eyed, big-tailed ... slippery, malicious, alluring,” with a definite predatory nature. Alexei bumps into the Sea Girl in the hallway the morning of the story, and she winks at him. Mamochka appears before the Sea Girl can catch Alexei in her “nets,” whisking Alexei away safely and calling the girl a “shameless hussy.”
Society versus the Individual
Alexei and Mamochka live in a cramped and noisy communal apartment in Moscow. They must share their bathing, toilet, and cooking facilities with all of their neighbors—none of whom seems to like the mother and her son. Mamochka instructs Alexei to make sure he doesn’t touch anything in the bathroom when he goes there upon waking, and she urges him not to make a mess. Their interactions with their neighbors and with society are tentative, as if they are walking on eggshells. Even though they are surrounded by many people in their apartment, Alexei and Mamochka are not close to anyone.
Society has dictated to Alexei that he is an outsider. He does not behave as others do, and he frightens those around him with his odd behavior and occasional angry outbursts. People keep him at arm’s length and often call him such names as “retard.” His work gluing cardboard boxes earns money, but Mamochka handles the transactions; he longs to take coins and bills like the other people he sees and exchange them for ice cream, but that is not to be. Any possible connection to society is thwarted by the fact that he simply can’t comprehend the role of women and why they smell and sound and look
Topics for Further Study
- Most of the people who live in Mamochka and Alexei’s communal apartment building seem to have jobs that they go to each morning. However, though they are earning money, their living conditions are less than what many in the United States might consider appropriate and comfortable. Develop a profile of a typical Soviet family and their life in 1980s: discuss such things as the schools, the types of jobs and the average worker’s salary, the size of the average apartment, and typical living conditions.
- In the story, Alexei and Mamochka walk through Pushkin Square, named for the Russian writer Aleksandr Pushkin. Write a short biography of Pushkin. When and where did he live? What did he write about? Why is a square named after him?
- Create a timeline of Russian history from the early 1900s to the 1990s. For three important dates in Russian history, compare what was happening in the United States at the same time.
- “Night” shows readers only one day in Alexei and Mamochka’s life. Create a “prologue” and an “epilogue” to Tolstaya’s story: imagine Alexei and Mamochka’s life before the day outlined in “Night” as well as what happens to the two after Alexei’s night out in the streets, and write about both. Have they always lived in this apartment? What happened to the rest of their family? Does Alexei continue writing?
different. Whenever he sees a woman—except his mother—he finds the experience “unsettling.”
Because Alexei does not understand the complicated “rules” wim which everyone else in the world is familiar, he must wait for his mother to tell him how to behave properly. The world is filled with traps into which Alexei could fall at any moment without his mother’s assistance, making his existence fearful and anxiety ridden.
When Alexei wakes, he must wait for Mamochka to tell him when it’s time to get out of his bed, and when he goes into the bathroom, he must take care not to touch anything or make a mess—otherwise the neighbors will complain. Traveling through the communal kitchen looking for his mother, Alexei feels as if he has stumbled on a gaggle of witches in the woods, cackling over their iron pot of bats’ eyes and toad lips: “Old ladies grumble at the hot stove, they’re stewing poison in pots, they add the roots of terrible plants, follow Alexei Petrovich with bad looks.” With that, Alexei calls out for his mother. Other people frighten Alexei, especially the Sea Girl. She is “the most dangerous creature” because she produces urges and feelings in Alexei that he does not understand.
When Alexei decides to try his luck beyond his mother’s care, the results are frightening and confirm his vision of the world as a dangerous place. He steps outside their apartment to search for Mamochka and is compelled by an open door to steal money sitting on a table. His realization that he is carrying stolen money pushes him out of the building and further into the city night, where he forgets the rules of conventional behavior and is beaten bloody. Only when he is back in his apartment with Mamochka does he feel safe.
Dreams and Perception
Alexei lives his life removed from the world. When he sleeps at night, his dreams transport him to another world filled with mushrooms and dragons. In fact, he even feels that he splits into two people at night, one of whom almost completely disappears while the other grows so large that he bumps up against the night sky and stars.
Even when Alexei is awake, he views events through a fairy-tale looking glass. He compares the typical morning ritual of bathing and eating to navigating a map where each twist and turn exposes a lion, a rhinoceros, or a whale that “spouts a toylike fountain.” Thankfully, though, Mamochka is there as the “experienced pilot” to guide him on his way. The woman who winks at him in the hall is the Sea Girl, and people standing in the street at night are wolves.
After Alexei has been beaten up in the street for taking off his clothes and running after women, he begins to believe that now he understands “the Rules, grasped the laws of connection of millions of snatches and of odd bits and pieces.” In short, he believes that his bloody and painful brush with the real world has provided him with a picture of “the newly acquired truth” and that this will renew him.
Use of Fantasy
Tolstaya gives Alexei a vivid fantasy life, and he delivers his story through a magical lens. Due to his mental illness, he is not grounded in reality. When Alexei sleeps, he exists in a world filled with strange plants and imaginary animals. As well, even when he is awake, Alexei sees wolves, lions, sea creatures, and other beings where there are people. The act of passing by another apartment building is filled with mystery for Alexei, and he believes its occupants are able to “fly like white doves, flitting from balcony to balcony.”
“Slice of Life”
“Night” takes place in one day, beginning in the morning and ending at night. A few times the main character, Alexei, remembers things in the past, such as the women he once noticed at the beach; but primarily the action takes place within that twenty-four-hour period.
The story focuses on how Mamochka and Alexei usually spend their days, and thus it exposes a “slice” of their lives. The mother and son wake up in the morning, clean themselves, get dressed, and have breakfast. During the day, Alexei constructs cardboard boxes while Mamochka monitors him or naps. Toward the end of the day, the two take his finished boxes to the pharmacy to receive their payment. They then return home for dinner and read a story out loud.
This day is different, however, because of what happens at the end of the day. Alexei becomes impatient waiting for Mamochka to return from the kitchen, so he wanders down the hall and takes money from a table sitting just inside an apartment’s open door. Frightened at what he has done, Alexei races out into the street, where he attracts the attention of a group of men who respond to his odd behavior by beating him. His mother arrives to save him and bring him back home where he will sleep and begin his life again the next day.
Use of Atypical Characters
In Alexei and Mamochka, Tolstaya has created characters who are almost to be pitied for their situation. They are nearly under siege in their communal apartment, surrounded by people who are waiting to catch them in a misstep. There are no heroes in this story, only strange and struggling humans.
Alexei, with his bald spot, is middle-aged (or approaching middle age) but with the mentality of a very young child. Life for him is as fantastic as a fairy tale, filled both day and night with such creatures as the Sea Girl and with confusing moments tinged with terror. The high point of his day comes at the end, after he has been beaten up and is safely ensconced in his apartment with his mother; he writes over and over the word “night.”
Mamochka is somewhat sympathetic, if only because she has stuck with her retarded son through thick and thin. Alexei sees her as being as steadfast and reliable as a sturdy building. Her physical description makes her almost cartoon-like, though, with her enormous size and lumbering movements. Her entire life is focused on making sure that Alexei gets through the day with a minimum of trauma and retribution from the neighbors.
The people who surround the mother and son are never compassionate or even simply considerate. When they aren’t calling him names or beating him, those around Alexei avoid him. The Sea Girl approaches Alexei but only through sexual taunts that he does not quite understand, and the women in the communal kitchen scare him with their “bad looks.”
Point of View
Most of the events in the story are seen through Alexei’s eyes, which gives the story’s action a fairytale cast. The thoughts in Mamochka’s head are never exposed; she is portrayed through Alexei’s extreme reliance on her, making her almost larger than life.
Tolstaya has, however, included two points of view: third person and first person. For example, when Alexei and his mother leave the apartment to take the boxes to the pharmacy, they cannot travel down to the first floor in an elevator because this frightens him. The paragraph in which Tolstaya writes about this begins in the third person: “Down the stairs, only not in the elevator—you can’t close Alexei Petrovich up in the elevator: he’ll begin to flail and squeal like a rabbit.” Then, in the next part of the paragraph, Alexei’s voice emerges: “Why don’t you understand?—they’re pulling, pulling on my legs, dragging them down.” This replicates Alexei’s dream-like existence in the language of the story.
Tolstaya began writing when she was about thirty-two years old, in the mid-1980s, a turbulent period of Russian history. One primary reason for the country’s unsettled mood was that, after more than sixty years of continued official oppression, change was in the air. The Soviet Union’s new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, initiated a novel policy of openness referred to as glasnost. The Soviet Union was in the middle of severe economic crisis, and some were even questioning the government’s legitimacy. Gorbachev believed that immediate social reforms, including increased government openness, were the only way to save the country.
Before the initiation of Gorbachev’s policies, the Soviet government subjected dissidents and protesters to political trials, accusing them of anti-Soviet agitation and treason. They were often sentenced to internal exile, prisons, or psychiatric hospitals, or even forced to leave their homeland. Prisoners faced harsh physical environments, severe work requirements, restricted religious freedom, and extreme isolation. In addition, most were forced to cut all ties to their families, friends, and colleagues.
Some believe that one of the things that prompted glasnost was the increased urbanization and educational level of the Soviet Union. More and more Soviet citizens were becoming middle class and holding professional jobs. Others claim that the nation’s miniscule economic growth rate of only 2 percent a year in the early 1980s, along with decades of promised social and fiscal reforms, forced the Soviet leadership to consider a more open society and a more market-oriented economy.
Gorbachev launched his glasnost policies in a society that did not have a history of political freedom and human rights. Many in the Western world took these concepts for granted, but they were foreign to most people in the Soviet Union. Despite this, Gorbachev sponsored candid public debates in workplaces and communities throughout the mid-to late-1980s. In addition, his policies reduced state censorship of literary works and permitted controversial problems in the Soviet Union, such as alcoholism, crime, economic conditions, and major industrial accidents, to be openly presented and discussed by the media.
For example, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident and Soviet officials’ reluctance to let the Russian people know what had happened pushed the leadership to begin revealing information on a variety of major accidents. As well, previously censored and banned novels, such as those by Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov, were finally printed in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. Former political prisoners and dissidents were permitted to publish the political commentary journal Glasnost. And the government finally allowed radio broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America, which had been jammed for generations.
Tolstaya burst upon the Russian literary scene in 1987 when, according to S. Dalton-Brown in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, her first collection of stories, On the Golden Porch, sold out within one hour. Though Tolstaya has a limited body of published work, Dalton-Brown writes that many critics view her as the pre eminent Russian short-story writer today, showing “an extraordinarily high degree of craftsmanship.” The American reception of her first collection in 1989 was enthusiastic, as was the response to the 1991 publication of Sleepwalker in a Fog, which includes the story “Night.” Critics have favorably compared Tolstaya to other Russian writers as disparate as Vladimir Nabokov, Sasha Sokolov, Anton Chekhov, and Nikolai Gogol, to name but a few.
Compare & Contrast
- 1980s: Gorbachev announces to the Soviet Communist Party in 1987 that it is time to inaugurate competitive elections with multiple-party ballots, replacing the no-choice ballots in place since the 1920s.
Today: Vladimir Putin, a member of the Unity Party, is the Russian president. The Russian people have enjoyed a full decade of open elections in which the Communist Party candidates could lose.
- 1980s: Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union are unfriendly. The United States condemns the Soviet crackdown against Polish dissidents and denounces the Soviet role in the shooting down of a South Korean civilian aircraft over its airspace.
Today: Relations between Russia and the United States have improved considerably since the 1980s and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. U.S. President George W. Bush, during a visit with Russian President Putin, announces that the United States no longer considers Russia its enemy.
- 1980s: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, with fifteen republics including Russia, is the largest country in the world, covering approximately one-sixth of the world’s land area.
Today: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics has been dissolved for a decade. The individual republics, including Russia, have become autonomous nations, with varying degrees of political and economic success. Russia is now the largest country in the world, covering more than one-ninth of the world’s land area.
- 1980s: The Soviet government determines what can be legally published or performed. However, Soviet writers and intellectuals are increasingly ignoring these restrictions. The ban on the works of Russian literary luminaries, such as Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Nabokov, is lifted in the late 1980s.
Today: The Soviet Writer’s Union, which controlled literature during the communist period, has ceased to exist. This has meant a loss of state subsidies for literary magazines, and many publications are struggling to cope with the new realities of the marketplace.
although she considers “Night” one of the “less ambitious stories” in the collection. Comparing Sleepwalker in a Fog with On the Golden Porch, a Publishers Weekly review notes that Tolstaya’s “vision of human nature … is darker, less forgiving” in the newer collection. But the review adds that the stories in Sleepwalker in a Fog overcome whatever limitations they have and are tales with a “universal resonance.”
Despite any reservations the critics have about Tolstaya’s stories, they are nearly always amazed by her energetic use of language and image. Desai calls Tolstaya’s language “so fresh, so ebullient, so lacking in anything worn or borrowed,” even though the author is said to be similar to various Russian writers. Desai goes on to praise “this virtuoso’s facility with language [that] brings her again and again into the realm of poetry.” Brigid O’Hara-Foster, reviewing Sleepwalker in a Fog in Time, comments that “Tolstaya so obviously loves her language … that even in translation she carves indelible people who roam the imagination long after the book is put down.” And while Dalton-Brown describes Tolstaya’s style of writing as “ornamental” and “intensely visual,” the critic denies that the result could be called “cluttered.” According to Dalton-Brown, when Tolstaya’s words and images are piled one on top of the other, she achieves “an almost incantatory effect,” akin to music and poetry.
In spite of the luscious language Tolstaya uses, O’Hara-Foster holds that the author never lapses
into sentimentality in her writing but’ ‘spikes it with the vinegar of circumstances that afflict her hapless dreamers.” O’Hara-Foster points to “Night” as an example of this success, noting that Mamochka acts as the constant soldier, protecting Alexei, but never reveals the pain and sorrow she must be feeling.
Tolstaya’s themes are varied, according to the critics, but nearly all agree that she has special affection for those who are unhappy, out of the ordinary, and living on the edges of Russian society. Desai notes that Tolstaya has a way with “the sad left-outs or left-behinds of even the closest communal living … [and] the grotesque and the unsightly,” words that describe Mamochka and Alexei in “Night.” Dalton-Brown remarks that any reader of Tolstaya will immediately recognize a central character who is usually of “unprepossessing appearance, confused, trapped, unhappy, childlike, and alone,” similar to Mamochka and Alexei.
As well, Dalton-Brown observes that the men and women who inhabit Tolstaya’s stories are usually trying to flee their lives and to find a place where life is magical. Many are “attempting to escape from the dissatisfying quotidian, seeking the alchemical world that will turn dross into gold,” comments Dalton-Brown. The critic believes that such qualities in Tolstaya’s writing place her work in the tradition of magic realism, a literary style that combines fantastic or dreamlike elements with realistic settings and events. This style is usually associated with Latin-American writers, but Dalton-Brown argues that it is similar to Nikolai Gogol’s realistic writing of the nineteenth century.
Sanderson holds a master of fine arts degree in fiction writing and is an independent writer. In this essay, Sanderson argues that Alexei in Tatyana Tolstaya’s “Night” is more than what he seems on the surface.
One of the most startling events in Tatyana Tolstaya’s “Night,” a tale filled with amazing and surprising images, is Alexei’s apparently sudden interest in becoming a writer. Alexei is a middle-aged retarded man whose occupation as a builder of cardboard boxes keeps him and his mother, Mamochka, housed
What Do I Read Next?
- In his Siberian Dawn: A Journey across the New Russia, Jeffrey Taylor recounts the eight-thousand-mile trip he took in 1993 from Siberia to Poland as a young man with a huge sense of adventure but very little money. The memoir, published in 1999, gives an up-close and personal account of post-communist Soviet states not long after the demise of the Soviet Union.
- Vladimir Nabokov is one of the modern Russian authors Tolstaya mentions as an influence on her writing. The sixty-five stories collected in The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, published in 1995, were written by Nabokov between the early 1920s and the mid-1950s. He is best known to American audiences for his controversial novel Lolita.
- Many critics acknowledge the similarities between Tolstaya and another young Russian author, Sasha Sokolov. In 1988, Sokolov published A School for Fools, a novel about childhood and adult memories. In 1990, he published another novel, Astrophobia, constructed as a memoir of a man imprisoned for an assassination attempt against the twentieth-century Russian leader Leonid Brezhnev and set in 2044.
- Tolstaya’s first collection of stories published outside of Russia was On the Golden Porch. The 1990 collection of thirteen stories contains stories similar to those in Sleepwalker in a Fog (in which “Night” appears); the earlier collection is filled with Russians living on the edge of society and sanity.
and fed—not a typical candidate to pursue the life of a writer.
Tempting as it may be to dismiss Alexei’s unexpected declaration that “I’m going to be a writer” as the ramblings of a half-wit, Tolstaya does not disregard his comment. Tolstaya closes her story with Alexei responding to his frightening experience on the streets of Moscow by frantically demanding paper and pencil from his mother so he can write about what happened.
While there is only dangerous water waiting for anyone who attempts to imagine what goes on inside the head of a writer, Alexei’s sudden declaration of literary ambition and his acting it out at the end of the story bear a striking resemblance to Tolstaya’s similar declarations when she decided that she wanted to become a writer. Is Tolstaya, through Alexei, telling her readers about the lives of writers (and intellectuals) in Russia and about the life she herself chose after working nearly ten years at another career because she was “frustrated by the lack of good new literature,” according to Marta Mestrovic’s interview with the author in Publishers Weekly? In Tolstaya’s own words, she decided at the age of thirty-two, “If I couldn’t find the literature I wanted to read, I should write it myself.”
Before rejecting Alexei’s confident statements about becoming a writer, a close look at his character is necessary. Does this man with the mind of a child have any qualities, as Tolstaya has created him, that would serve him well as a writer? Surprisingly, the answer is yes.
Alexei is the possessor of an almost boundless imagination, something every good writer needs. When the story opens, he is just waking up and leaving the night world of dreams populated with dragons, dwarves, and crows. In fact, Tolstaya indicates that Alexei is the director or playwright of his dreams when she writes of Alexei’s waking, “the nocturnal guests, gathering their ghostly, ambiguous props, have interrupted the play until next time.”
Nothing is too extreme for Alexei’s imagination. When Mamochka is dressing, he imagines her as a building. When she finishes putting on all of her clothes, she becomes an erected “palace.” And from his point of view, the apartment building
“Alexei is a middle-aged retarded man whose occupation as a builder of cardboard boxes keeps him and his mother, Mamochka, housed and fed—not a typical candidate to pursue the life of a writer.”
becomes a ship with Mamochka at the helm and “well-dressed travelers”—his neighbors—“laughing, exchanging remarks with one another on the deck.” His mind free-floats through the day, rejecting nothing as too absurd and making connections that most people do not, or cannot, make.
Even a trip from the bathroom to the kitchen is embellished by Alexei’s rambling but fertile mind, which transforms the people he sees along the way into lions, rhinoceros, whales, and “the big-eyed, big-tailed Sea Girl.” And Alexei’s excursion into the dark Moscow streets, despite proving dangerous and frightening, allows him to imagine more bizarre creatures and events. He sees people as wolves standing in doorways and believes that if he can walk backwards, they will not harm him. Soon, he believes himself to be a wolf and behaves as a wolf might, pouncing and running after people.
With regard to his becoming a writer, another feature in Alexei’s favor is that Tolstaya draws him as someone who creates and is proud of what he creates. Each day Alexei sits down at a table and works, gluing together cardboard boxes. Even though they are simple boxes, Alexei maintains a healthy degree of pride in his creations. He bemoans that fact that his mother forces him to sell his work to the pharmacy, and he decides on the afternoon of the story to hide two of the boxes under his mattress. He plans on sneaking them out later that night so he can admire them. Here he is taking the same ownership of his work that all writers must. Alexei loves his boxes so much that “he doesn’t like to part with them.”
In fact, Alexei’s pride in his work is so developed that he has become incensed, even violent, over the carelessness people have shown toward his creations. In a remembered incident, Alexei sees his neighbors throwing the boxes away after they leave the pharmacy and becomes furious when he spies one of his boxes in the trash, ripped up and holding a cigarette butt. “A fearful black rage then filled Alexei Petrovich,” and he cried out to his neighbors, “Who did this? Who dared do this?”
By closing the story with Alexei rushing to put his memories and thoughts down on paper before he forgets them, Tolstaya has emphasized her concern for what a writer and intellectual is and for how these people lived in Soviet Russia. In her Publishers Weekly interview, Tolstaya tells Mestrovic that intellectuals and writers had to separate themselves from the mainstream of Soviet society. They avoided conventional careers and took whatever jobs they could find. “You have no obligations…. Whether you work a lot or not at all, your salary is the same…. Only you yourself matter, your friends matter, good books matter,” she says.
In a sense, Alexei reflects this sentiment. He is estranged from society because of who he is and how he behaves. He is cloistered in his apartment, working, and leaves only rarely; primarily, he lives in his mind. The outside world is a bit frightening, but on occasion he is compelled to visit it, such as when he ventures out during the night of the story. The original purpose of Alexei’s trip to the outside world is to buy the ice cream his mother denied him earlier in the day, but he ultimately succeeds in discovering material for his writing. When he explores the streets, he is beaten up for behaving in an abnormal fashion—he takes off his clothes and begins running after people—but the result of the experience is that he now has fodder for his work. “He has understood the world, understood the Rules … [and] hurriedly writes the newly acquired truth in big letters.”
But it is also in the story’s ending that Tolstaya’s references to writers and writing become unclear— perhaps intentionally. When Alexei has his epiphany after exploring the night world, his writing is simply a single word, “night,” written over and over again. Is this repeated word the shaky but exuberant foundation of a beginning writer’s efforts? Or is it simply the product of a confused and childlike mind trying to make sense of what it does not understand?
There may be another way to look at the character of Alexei—that he is not serving as any kind of positive representation of a writer or intellectual but stands for what Tolstaya found boring and lacking in Russian letters and literature. For, in addition to noting that the lack of good literature prompted her to begin writing, Tolstaya also remembers in her Publishers Weekly interview that at about the time she graduated from college many Russian intellectuals began leaving the Soviet Union. “Life became more and more boring,” she recalls, and “the percentage of uninteresting people increased.” Maybe Alexei is similar to those people Tolstaya found boring, writing the same thing over and over again, with nothing new to say.
However, Alexei ultimately shares too many qualities with writers and intellectuals, and Tolstaya too obviously cares for this character for him to be considered an object of ridicule. She acknowledges her fascination with unconventional people in the Publishers Weekly interview, explaining that she is captivated by “everything I see as a deviation from the normal logic—old people, sclerotics, children, stupid people.” In her characters, she wants to create “a typical person, always a bit crazy,” and, in a sense, she has done that with Alexei and his mother. They have a very ordinary life, defined by waking up, getting breakfast, and earning money. But Alexei is special in a strange way; his dreams are a large part of who he is, and the line in his mind between the dream world and the real world is smudged. Thanks to Tolstaya’s lush writing, both worlds contain fantastic images. If Alexei lives in a world where lions and rhinoceros line the path to the kitchen, can it be an impossible stretch for him to become a writer?
Source: Susan Sanderson, Critical Essay on “Night,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Hart has degrees in literature and creative writing and focuses her published writing on literary themes. In this essay, Hart interprets Tolstaya’s short story as a metaphor for the psychological challenges between the rational mind and the imagination of an writer.
Tatyana Tolstaya’s “Night” was published in Sleepwalker in a Fog, a collection of short stories in which, according to Michiko Kakutani in her review published in the New York Times, all Tolstaya’s characters “indulge in wistful daydreams.” Backing up this view is David Plante, also writing a review in the New York Times. But Plante adds that “the dreams, and the characters lost like sleepwalkers in their own dreams” all have to do with the historical and moral reality of Russia. Plante is referring to the suppression, and sometimes persecution, of the people’s voice by the Russian government. Although it might have been Tolstaya’s intention to write this story as a statement against her government’s attempts at suppression, it is also possible to put a more general spin on her story and to read “Night” as a metaphor for the struggle that a writer (any writer whether inside Russia or elsewhere) undergoes during the creative process. Instead of the writer’s voice being suppressed by a government force, it can often be suppressed by the writer’s own rational mind.
Looking at Tolstaya’s story in this light, Alexei Petrovich, who is portrayed as a man with many difficulties dealing with the world outside of his head, could represent the writer. As a matter of fact, Alexei eventually admits that he wants to be a writer, thus strengthening this premise. For Alexei, the outside world is a place where it is “very hard to remember what’s good and what’s bad. They’ve set up and agreed upon written Rules that are awfully complicated.” His comments relate to the feelings that people sometimes experience when they get caught in a writer’s block—a state of mind that causes an inability to write. Writer’s block can be caused by many different reasons. One of the reasons that the imagination might fail to create something viable on paper is that the writer becomes too conscious of the rules of writing and grammar. The writer then focuses on rules instead of letting the creative thoughts flow. Other reasons may be that the writer becomes overwhelmed by how an audience might respond to the work or gets too distracted about the details of finding a publisher. These elements represent the so-called outside world for the writer and correspond very nicely with the comments of Tolstaya’s character Alexei Petrovich.
Inside Alexei’s head is “the real world.” It is there that “everything is allowed.” This inside world can be likened to the imagination, where there are no rules, no preconceived ideas of what is good or bad. But life in the outside world is difficult for Alexei. To function in the outside world, he needs his “Mamochka,” his mother. Mamochka represents order. Continuing with the concept of the metaphor, Mamochka could represent the rational mind that gives order to the imagination. Mamochka figures out the rules for Alexei, mends his ways, keeps him plodding through his day. She “knows everything, can do everything, gets in everywhere.” She is all powerful in the outside world.
“Tolstaya is implying here that when the rational mind has its figurative back turned, the imagination can break all the rules and try to make sense of its own nonsense.”
Alexei looks to his Mamochka to guide him, but he does not turn off his inside view of the world. Although he awakens to the day from his night dreams, he still has his daydreams or his own imaginative perceptions of the outside world. For instance, he refers to the part of the morning when people are stirring and getting ready for work as a time when “the morning ship has left the slip.” In other words, although he relies on Mamochka, he does not turn off his own thought patterns. In this way, the writer, too, must learn to allow the imagination to offer its unique view of the world, creating metaphors like the ship leaving the slip. The imagination must also allow the rational mind to guide it, as Alexei allows his Mamochka to guide him. The imaginative part of the mind needs the language skills of the rational mind. It is through the process of the imagination working with die rational mind that a piece of writing is brought forth and completed. If the imagination of a writer were allowed full reign, the resulting writing would be gibberish— no grammatical rules, no syntax, no sense. If Alexei did not have his Mamochka, he too might represent not much more than gibberish. He must be constantly told what to do or he makes no sense.
Alexei asks, whimsically: “Why aren’t you allowed to make your lips into a tube, cross your eyes to look at your mouth, and smell yourself?” Then he adds: “Let Mamochka turn her back.” Tolstaya is implying here that when the rational mind has its figurative back turned, the imagination can break all the rules and try to make sense of its own nonsense. Alexei likes these moments of pure imagination, pure childish wonder, but he understands mat they are good only for short moments (when Mamochka turns her back). If too much time passes and the imagination is allowed its own whimsical ways, chaos will ensue. The writer will find him or herself floundering in beautiful images but without any words or sentences building on the page. At this point in the story, Alexei again acknowledges Mamochka. She fixes everything for him. She unravels “all the tangles,” destroys “all the labyrinths of this incomprehensible, unnavigable world.” It is the rational mind that makes sense of all the beautiful images, puts the creative thoughts into words, writes the story.
It is in the subconscious mind, the source of imagination, that the emotions live. Alexei has a burst of emotions in one scene. He makes boxes that are eventually sold to a pharmacy. He loves the boxes and does not like to part with them “but Mamochka watches carefully and takes them away” when he is done. Later when Alexei sees that some of his boxes have been thrown into the trash, he goes into a fit of rage. Extending the metaphor here, Alexei’s love of the boxes can be likened to the first drafts of a writer’s work. Although not perfect, the imagination can become quite fond of first drafts, can become quite possessive of them. The writer must sometimes fight the emotional attachment when the rational part of the writer’s mind begins editing. Throwing away first drafts can sometimes be quite painful.
But Mamochka can be too stifling. She sometimes suppresses Alexei. She makes him go with her to the pharmacy to deliver all the boxes he has made. This is unpleasant for him because he doesn’t like giving the boxes away. In retaliation, Alexei turns more inward, into his private world where people “fly like white doves,” where they “forget human speech.” His mind goes “under the horizon” and finds new ways of seeing the outside world. He imagines that the sun and the moon are driven by huge conveyor belts, that the day has white wings that it has folded, bringing on the night. His imagination is offering him poetic metaphors. He is thinking in purely creative ways. When he sees an ice cream stand, he can think of nothing else but the “sweet, needlelike cold.” He is craving ice cream, “ooh, how he wants ice cream.” But Momochka denies him the treat. She restricts his cravings, his impulses.
Shortly after this scene, Alexei revolts. He wanders into the outside world on his own when Momochka, once again, has her back turned. His craving for ice cream is so strong that he does not adhere to his own advice that Momochka is his “guiding star.” He steals money from a neighbor and runs out to the street, hoping to find his way to the ice cream stand. But it is dark. With his emotions flaring like a fire gone wild, he becomes lost, confused. “Where’sMamochka?” His imagination turns on him. He sees wolves standing in doorways. Without Mamochka there to control him, he acts foolishly, unbuttoning his clothes in an attempt to scare the wolves away. Without the rules there to protect him, he is beaten.
This scene is a metaphor for the writer and the writing process in that it shows how if the imagination of the writer is unchecked and allowed to run wild, the story that the writer is attempting to create will lose all form. It will lose its direction. The reader will be left in the dark, will become lost, confused. If the writer sends the story out into the world without the “guiding star” of the rational mind, the story will be torn to shreds, rejected, beaten to a pulp.’ ‘Little one, so little, alone, you got lost on the street, you came into this world by mistake.” That’s how the imagination might feel if it tried, all on its own, to create a story without the principles of language, without the benefit of knowing and understanding the rules.
But just when all seems hopeless, when all the paths seem to “lead into a deep swamp,” there is Mamochka, running, gasping, reaching out for Alexei. She too had felt lost without her son. She is sobbing. The rational mind is equally lost without the imagination. If the imagination is too heavily suppressed, a writer’s block can ensue. The rational mind might know all the rules, but it cannot create anything without the imagination. The rational mind needs the imagination as much as the imagination needs it.
So “Mamochka leads Alexei Petrovich by the reins into a warm den, into a soft nest, under a white wing.” She welcomes her son home, washes his face, nurtures him with food. It is at this moment that Alexei has an epiphany. He understands that he really does need Mamochka. He understands that there is a need for rules. He has “grasped the laws of connection of millions of snatches and of odd bits and pieces!” He remembers that he wants to be a writer. He is renewed. In this moment of ecstasy, he asks his mother for a piece of paper and a pencil. He is ready to write.
Alexei writes. It is only one word, but to him it explains everything. It is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the story. It is the title, the theme, and the metaphor. It is the word “Night,” written over and over again. With this word, Alexei has freed his block.
It is anyone’s guess whether this extended metaphor is what Tolstaya intended with her story. Her intended metaphor could have indeed been about the politics of Russia in reference to its suppression of its writers. Or she might have intended an entirely different meaning, one of which only she is aware. The beauty of a well-crafted story, one that allows the freedom of the imagination to blossom while maintaining a nurturing relationship with the rational restraints of rules and form, is that it allows the imagination of the reader to fill in the spaces that the form has cleverly left empty. There are many cleverly left empty spaces in Tolstaya’s story into which every reader’s imagination can climb.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “Night,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses figurative and descriptive language in Tolstaya’s short story.
Tolstaya’s “Night” records the internal subjective impressions of a mentally retarded adult, Alexei Petrovich, over the course of one particular day. These impressions are expressed through vivid language describing the smells, tastes, sounds, and physical sensations that texture Alexei’s day. Tolstaya also uses figurative language in describing through simile and metaphor Alexei’s experience of the world around him.
Central to Alexei’s perceptions throughout the day are a variety of sounds emanating from his Mamochka, the neighbors in his apartment building, the outdoors, and his own body. The story begins, “In the mornings Alexei Petrovich’s mama yawns loud and long.” The loudness of Mamochka symbolizes Alexei’s perception of her as expansive and all-powerful, the dominant force in his life. He observes,’ ‘Mamochka is so big, loud, and spacious, and Alexei Petrovich is so little.” His perception of their difference in size is clearly symbolic because she is an eighty-year-old woman and he is a grown man. The sounds of Mamochka’s body provide Alexei with feelings of comfort and safety because they are familiar rituals that dominate his small
“The powerful and sturdy presence of Mamochka in Alexei’s life is indicated by the comparison of her process of getting dressed to the construction of a ‘majestic building.’”
world. Mamochka’s loudness and the noises emitting from her body are part of her morning ritual in which she “honks into a handkerchief.” In the afternoon, when she falls asleep, Alexei notes that Mamochka is “snoring, her cheeks gurgle, she whistles: pssshhew-ew-ew.”
Alexei also delights in the sounds of his own body although Mamochka frequently “shhhh’s” him, indicating that his noises are inappropriate and childish. Hearing Mamochka carry out her morning ritual, Alexei wonders,’ ‘Can I get up already, or is it early?” Then he tells himself, “Don’t squawk.” This reminder is clearly based on scoldings he has received in the past for squawking too early in the morning. Alexei also makes loud sounds when he is happy. When Mamochka reads him a poem that he loves, “He laughs heartily, baring his yellow teeth; happy, he stamps his foot.” As she continues to read the poem, Alexei thinks, “Very good,” adding to the line, “First like a beast she’ll howl and cry,” by providing his own sound effects, “This is how she’ll howl: oo-oooooo!” To this Mamochka responds, “Shhh, sshhh, Alexei, calm down!” Alexei is also known to make inappropriate sounds if he is forced to ride in the elevator, which frightens him. The narrator explains, “You can’t close Alexei in an elevator: he’ll begin to flail and squeal like a rabbit.” Alexei’s childishness is indicated by the comparison of the noises he makes to those of animals, such as a rabbit and a beast.
Alexei also notices many of the sounds created by his neighbors in the apartment building. In the morning, he can hear that “Everyone is already awake in the apartment, everyone’s stirring, all the Men and Women have started talking. They slam doors, burble water, jingle on the other side of the wall.” He notes that the neighbors in the hallway preparing to leave for the day are “noisily checking for their keys, coin purses.” But he also knows that the sounds of the neighbors are sometimes threatening and disapproving. In the communal bathroom, Alexei must be careful not to make a mess, “or else the neighbors will yell again.” In the communal kitchen, Alexei perceives the “grumbling” of the old ladies at the stove as an expression of evil intent; he imagines they are witches who, as they are “stewing poison in pots … add the roots of terrible plants” and “follow Alexei Petrovich with bad looks.” Alexei turns to his Mamochka in fear of the grumbling old ladies and thinks, “Mamochka! Don’t let them hurt me!”
After Alexei steals the money from his neighbor’s table and runs outside to buy himself ice cream, the noises he makes, as well as the noises he hears, express his fear and anxiety as well as his excitement in this adventure. When he takes the money from the table, he “grabs, jingles, knocks things over, runs, slams the door, breathes loud and fast, trips.” His joy in his accomplishment is expressed through his description of the sounds of the money in his pocket: “He has money! Aha! … Clink clink clink clink—the coins in his pocket.” But his anxiety and guilt about stealing the money are expressed by his fear of being caught. He imagines that everyone around him on the street is pointing and yelling, ‘“He took the money!’” He imagines dogs sent to chase after him and fire engines blaring in pursuit. When he tries to “trick” the people on the street, walking backwards and taking off his clothes, he hears the women who walk past “snort” at him. Alexei responds with his own sounds, meant to intimidate them: he imagines that he is a wolf, rushing at them with “A cry. A-a-a-a!” Rather than frightening them, however, his howl becomes an expression of fear: after he is attacked and beaten by several men,’ ‘Alexei Petrovich cries with a loud howl, raising his disfigured face to the stars.” Through his “howl” like a wolf, Alexei’s noises once again associate him with animals.
While the familiar sounds of Mamochka are a comfort to Alexei, the silence that follows the beating he receives on the street is indicative of how alone he feels in the world without her to protect him; he thinks,’ ‘Mamochka, Mamochka, where are you? Mamochka, the road is black, the voices are silent, the paths lead into a deep swamp.” Alexei responds to the silence by crying out, as the narration states, “Mamochka, your child is crying, dying, your only one.” Once Mamochka has found him and taken him back to the safety of home, the comfort she provides is indicated by the sound of the grandfather clock ticking, which is a peaceful sound to Alexei’s ears. The comfort provided by the grandfather clock symbolizes Alexei’s association of the sounds of home with the familiarity of family.
In addition to sounds, Alexei is keenly aware of the taste and smell of a variety of foods. He delights in the smell and taste of things, such as coffee. When Mamochka pours the morning coffee, he thinks,’ ‘Coffee has a Smell. You drink it—and the smell goes over you. Why aren’t you allowed to make your lips into a tube, cross your eyes to look at your mouth, and smell yourself?” When he sees people on the street buying ice cream, Alexei wishes he could have “a frosty, crunchy goblet” and recalls with envy the “sweet, needlelike cold” of the ice cream. His sense of taste has strong associations with the nurturing Mamochka provides him. When Mamochka finds him and brings him home again, the comfort and safety at home is experienced as the taste of “delicious hot milk,” symbolic of maternal nurturing, and the “runny” soft-boiled egg that she gives him.
Alexei is also aware of the smell of non-food items, which most people would probably not think of as enjoyable. He thinks of paper money as “a little yellow piece of paper that smells like bread.” He even loves the smell of the glue used for making boxes; he hides the newly made boxes in his bed and “At night he’ll take them out and sniff them. How the glue smells! Soft, sour, muffled.” When he steals the money and goes outside by himself, he notes that in the night “There’s a smell.” His ambivalent feelings about women, whom he perceives as both attractive and threatening, are also experienced through his sense of smell; he thinks of women as “very unsettling” when they “walk by—smelling like they do.” Other smells Alexei associates with fear: while the men on the street are hitting him, he observes, “Men smell of Tobacco.”
Alexei is also sensitive to the physical sensation of touch that textures his day. As he lies awake in bed early in the morning, “a breeze sweetly fans Alexei Petrovich’s bald spot, the newly grown bristle on his cheeks pricks his palm.” That these sensations are enjoyable to Alexei is indicated by the description of the breeze as a “sweet” sensation. When Mamochka brings him home after his frightening adventure, he is comforted by the feel of the “warm den” of his home.
In addition to descriptive language expressive of sensory perceptions, Tolstaya makes use of several key metaphors to describe Alexei’s experience of the world around him. The powerful and sturdy presence of Mamochka in his life is indicated by the comparison of her process of getting dressed to the construction of a “majestic building.” Her legs, as she pulls on her stockings, are compared to the columns that support a building. The front of her body is further supported by a girdle, which is compared to the frame of a building, as she “hoists a linen frame with fifteen buttons onto her monstrous breast.” The front of her body is compared to the “facade,” or front of a building, which she conceals “under a white, pleated dickey.” Finally, the back of her body is compared to the back stairs and emergency exits of a building, which she covers with a “sturdy dark blue jacket.” At the end of the day, Mamochka’s process of undressing is compared to the demolition of a building, as she “demolishes her daytime corpus.”
A metaphor that runs throughout the story compares the day to a ship at sea: “The morning ship has left the slip, it cuts through the blue water, the sails fill with wind, the well-dressed travelers, laughing, exchange remarks with one another on the deck.” For Alexei, Mamochka represents the captain of the ship, guiding him through the waters of life: “What shores lie ahead? Mamochka is at the wheel, Mamochka is on the captain’s bridge, from the crow’s nest Mamochka looks into the shining ripples.” Alexei feels safe and secure under the guiding hand of Mamochka’s command: “how open the horizons become, how reliable a voyage with an experienced pilot.” When Mamochka explains to Alexei how to eat his breakfast, he thinks of her as a “guiding star” who directs him through the “unnavigable world.” Mamochka thus provides Alexei with clearly specified directions for navigating his way through the day: “The old colored maps unrolled, the route is drawn in with a red dotted line.” In addition, she warns him against the potential dangers he may encounter throughout the day: “all the dangers are marked with bright, clear pictures: there’s the dread lion, and on this shore—a rhinoceros; here a whale spouts a toylike fountain.”
The biggest danger against which she warns him, however, is the threat of women—particularly the attractive woman who lives in their apartment building, “the most dangerous creature, the big-eyed, big-tailed Sea Girl, slippery, malicious, alluring.” Tolstaya continues this extended metaphor of the Sea Girl in making a pun that compares the fishnet stockings of the woman to “nets” laid out to “catch” a fish (Alexei): “her Leg is stuck out, her nets laid—don’t you want to be caught, eh?” The association of the threat of women as creatures of the sea is continued when Alexei recalls being on vacation at the beach and attempting to approach an attractive woman who cruelly insults him.
Finally, Mamochka is compared to a bird, who, at the end of the day, rescues Alexei from the outside world and brings him safely home “into a soft nest, under a white wing.”
Through descriptive language, expressing a variety of sensory perceptions and extended metaphors, Tolstaya effectively conveys the unique way in which Alexei Petrovich experiences his very small world as a vast universe of pleasurable sensations and potential dangers, through all of which Mamochka provides the stability, guidance, and comfort on which Alexei depends to make his way through life.
Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on “Night,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Dalton-Brown, S., “Tat’iana Nikitinichna Tolstaia 1951—,” in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, edited by Neil Cornwell, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.
Desai, Anita, Review of Sleepwalker in a Fog, in New Republic, Vol. 206, No. 14, April 6, 1992, pp. 36–38.
Kakutani, Michiko, “Books of the Times: Life in a Country Where Nothing Works Out,” in New York Times, January 3, 1992.
Mestrovic, Marta, “Tatyana Tolstaya: In Her Short Stories, Leo Tolstoy’s Great Grandniece Writes of Russians Who Are ‘Always a Bit Crazy,’” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 1, January 1, 1992, pp. 37–38.
O’Hara-Foster, Brigid, Review of Sleepwalker in a Fog, in Time, Vol. 139, No. 4, January 27, 1992, p. 60.
Plante, David, “In Dreams Begin Excesses,” in New York Times, January 12, 1992.
Review of Sleepwalker in a Fog, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 238, No. 50, November 15, 1991, pp. 61–62.
Freeland, Chrystia, Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism, Times Books, 2000.
Former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times, Chrystia Freeland gives a first-hand view of the change in Russian society since the fall of the Soviet Union. Through many first-person accounts, Freeland takes a close look at a nation of sometimes troubling extremes.
Goscilo, Helen, The Explosive World of Tatyana N. Tolstaya’s Fiction, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1996.
Goscilo examines how Tolstaya merges myth, children’s games, folklore, and songs into the text of her fiction.
Goscilo, Helen, and Byron Lindsey, eds., Glasnost: An Anthology of Russian Literature under Gorbachev, Ardis Publishers, 1990.
The editors have brought together the work of writers representative of the literary renaissance during the final three years of the Soviet Union. This anthology, the largest collection of works published during that period, includes Tatyana Tolstaya’s “Night.”
Nabokov, Vladimir, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, Vintage Books, 1989.
Originally published in 1966, this book is Nabokov’s recounting of his years at a prestigious school in Russia, offering many insights into his controversial life. The Soviets banned his work until the mid-1980s because of Nabokov’s outspoken criticism of the communists.
Remnick, David, Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, Vintage Books reprint edition, 1994.
David Remnick covered the Soviet Union for the Washington Post during the communist regime’s final days. Through his extensive travels across the Soviet Union, combined with numerous interviews, Remnick tells a story that goes beyond chronicling the great power’s change in economic systems.
As a young journalist in France in 1954, Elie Wiesel was assigned to interview novelist François Mauriac, the noted Nobel Laureate. Their conversation turned to the events of the German Occupation; Mauriac told the young reporter of his wife's witnessing the train-car loads of Jewish children waiting for deportation at the station in Austerlitz. Mauriac writes in the "Forward" for Night: "And when I said, with a sigh, 'How often I've thought about those children!' [Wiesel] replied, 'I was one of them."' Mauriac convinced Wiesel to write of his experiences in the Holocaust concentration camps, in a time when few survivors were speaking or writing about their experiences.
The original draft of what would eventually become Night was more than eight hundred pages. This work in Holocaust studies is part of a history that tells of the atrocities committed against nearly six million Jews in German concentration camps during World War II. The imagery Wiesel uses provides the reader with an experience of the unimaginable. Wiesel's work centers around the themes of loss—innocence, faith, family—death, and dehumanization. The very idea of night and its association with darkness, isolation, fear, and pain, serves to further underscore those themes.
Wiesel's novel represents a different perspective of the Jewish Holocaust than the popular and well-known story told in The Diary of Anne Frank. While readers learn of the Frank family and their continuous struggle to remain hidden from Nazi deportation and death, Wiesel's memoir reveals the horror of life and the reality of death behind the iron gates and barbed wire of several concentration camps. For many years after the war, Holocaust survivors were reluctant to relive their experiences through interviews or in literature. Therefore, many admire Wiesel's courage in being one of the first survivors to expose his nightmarish experiences. However, the literary style in which Night is told vaults Wiesel's work from documentary to literature. As Bantam Books, the English-language publisher of Night, notes, Night is a "shocking memory of evil at its absolute and carries with it the unforgettable message that this horror must never be allowed to happen again."
Eliezer (Elie) Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, a center of Jewish culture in the Transylvania region. Growing up, his parents encouraged Wiesel's intense study of Jewish theology. In the spring of 1944, when Wiesel was almost fifteen years old, his life changed forever when Nazi forces moved into Sighet and soon deported all Jews, including the Wiesel family. As the front lines of World War II moved through Germany, Wiesel and his father were moved from one concentration camp to another. Their last stop was Buchenwald, where Wiesel's father, Chlomo, died of dysentery and starvation. After a year in the Nazi death camps, Wiesel was liberated in April 1945; only then did he learn of the death of his mother and little sister, Tzipora, who were killed in the Nazi gas chambers at Auschwitz. His older sisters, however, survived and later reunited with Wiesel.
Wiesel's writing career began with the study of literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. He later worked as a journalist in the French capital. Convinced by François Mauriac to write of his experiences in the concentration camps, Wiesel produced an original text of over eight hundred pages called And the World Remained Silent, which was originally published in Yiddish. Eventually this work was abridged and became the memoir Night, published originally in French. Two of Wiesel's other novels, Dawn and The Accident (sometimes grouped as a trilogy with Night), deal with the struggles of Holocaust survival. Most of Wiesel's texts are set immediately before or after the Holocaust. He won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and, as of 2005, he is the chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University.
In Night, the reader experiences the atrocities as the author remembers his fifteen-year-old self experiencing them. The events occur in loose chronological order: his hometown's evolution from cultural center into a police ghetto, to the cattle-car deportation of all Jews in the area, to the first-person testaments of genocidal loss, through the liberation of the camps, and Wiesel's realization that the corpse-like reflection in the mirror is, indeed, himself. The narrative structure, scarred by the tragic events of the Holocaust, is at times fragmented and chaotic, a technique that illustrates the trauma of Holocaust survival.
In the opening lines of Night, the reader meets Moshe the Beadle. A beadle is a minor official in a synagogue in charge of ushers and general order during religious services. The relationship between Wiesel and Moshe serves to emphasize the intense and serious nature of the younger man's faith. With Moshe as his mentor, Wiesel fills his days with prayer, studying the Talmud (ancient writings that constitute the religious authority of Orthodox Judaism), and going to the synagogue in his small hometown of Sighet in Transylvania, a region in northern Romania that was under Austro-Hungarian rule.
As World War II rages throughout Europe, the Jews of Sighet hear rumors of arrests, ghettos, and forced deportations, but ignore them. Soon the rumors prove true as Hungarian police arrive and deport all foreign Jews, including Moshe. Several months pass and Moshe returns to Sighet with horror stories of mass executions and German soldiers using Jewish babies for target practice. No one listens; Moshe is disregarded and considered crazy. In a matter of months, however, German soldiers arrive in Sighet and divide the town into two ghettos, large and small, surrounded by barbed wire and patrolling gunmen. The decision is made that the Jews of Sighet will be deported by train, eighty Jews per cattle-car.
The cattle-cars are crowded with standing bodies—humans suffering terrible heat, hunger, pain, and tension. Madame Schächter, the town prophet, continually screams about the flames she sees, though only the black of night appears through the small windows. Her incessant cries are soon met with shouts from the hungry and terrified prisoners. Their journey ends at Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz. The prisoners are greeted by men in striped clothing, towering flames, and the smell of burning flesh.
The first of the notorious Nazi "selections" begin. Prisoners form two lines and as each passes by a German official, they are told to proceed to the left or the right—one direction means temporary safety, and the other, certain death. Wiesel, separated with his father from the rest of the family, sees his mother and sister for the last time. A man now infamous for his cruel and inhumane medical experiments performed on Jews, Dr. Joseph Mengele, appears at the end of Wiesel's and his father's line, but passes them over after a brief interrogation. Wiesel's group is forced to march within feet of ditches engulfed in flames before turning toward a barracks. The men are stripped of their clothing and personal belongings, showered, shaved of all body hair, and given prisoner clothing. They march from Birkenau to Auschwitz and Wiesel loses his name, becoming instead A-7713; the chapter concludes with a four-hour march to the Buna concentration camp.
After another selection, the guards choose Wiesel and his father to work in a warehouse sorting nuts and bolts. Wiesel, now more experienced in the ways of the camp, tries to bargain to keep his gold-crowned tooth. He is successful with the first dentist, but eventually loses his tooth and gets nothing in return. While working in the warehouse, Wiesel follows a noise to a side room where he discovers one of the guards with a young Polish girl. For his discovery, Wiesel is beaten in front of the other prisoners until he faints. One week later, at roll call, the prisoners are made to witness a young prisoner's execution, which the guards explain is a "warning and an example to all prisoners." The memory of this execution triggers another for Wiesel: he remembers the Nazis performing an earlier routine roll call and then erecting three gallows (hangman's nooses hung from a high bar). Three Jews march forward, two men and an eight-year-old boy. As the chairs are kicked from beneath the victims, their bodies hang, writhing for a last breath. As they were forced to do before, the rest of the prisoners walk past the bodies to look at the murdered men. When they do this, they discover that the eight-year-old, whose body is too light for the rope to break his neck or completely choke him, is still alive; he does not die for several hours. Watching this event, many prisoners express aloud what Wiesel silently contemplates, "Where is God now?"
Another selection is performed by Dr. Mengele and both Wiesel and his father again manage to escape execution. The constant battle for life over death is emphasized by Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. While struggling to stay alive and avoid the punishing blows of the guards, Wiesel, who once possessed a deep emotional and spiritual connection to the Jewish faith, begins to resent the God who would allow these atrocities to happen. He refers to Rosh Hashanah as "the last day of that accursed year." Days and weeks pass, as the prisoners live in continual fear of the dreadful selections. On the morning of one selection, Wiesel's father, certain that he is too ill and will be selected, gives a reluctant Wiesel his knife and spoon. Wiesel spends the day in dread of what he will find when he returns to the barrack. When he returns, however, he finds that his father has been able to prove his usefulness to the guards, and has secured another day alive with his son.
Wiesel mentions that Akiba Drumer, a prisoner who had lost the will to live, has been selected. The memory of Drumer triggers the narrator's memory of a faithful old rabbi who once prayed constantly and recited scripture and passages of the Talmud by heart. Like Wiesel, the old rabbi lost his faith and began to believe that God betrayed the Jews; he tells Wiesel that God is no longer with them.
Wiesel develops pain in his foot and is taken to the hospital for an operation. While he recovers, the front lines of the war move closer to the camp and the Germans begin evacuating before the Allied Forces (among which are the United States, England, and Russia) arrive at Buna. Despite the pain in his foot, Wiesel leaves the emptying hospital to find his father. The SS (the Nazi paramilitary group called the Schutzstaffel), amid approaching gunfire and explosions, gather their prisoners and begin a massive march away from Buna in the harsh winter snow and icy wind.
The forced march turns into a run of forty-two miles. In spite of the throbbing pain in his foot, Wiesel continues to run, sometimes closing his eyes to rest while running. When he wants to stop, he thinks of his father, who though frail, keeps pace with the rest—Wiesel knows that he cannot let himself die because his father needs him. The bond between father and son takes on even greater significance in this section. Although Wiesel and his father demonstrate devotion to one another, particularly during the brief rest stops and their eventual arrival at Gleiwitz, not all prisoners do the same. Another prisoner's son abandons his father during the fast-paced mass exodus. The SS officers shot any man who slowed down or showed the slightest sign of fatigue. In order to save himself, one young man leaves his elderly father in the swelling crowd of running men.
When they arrive at Gleiwitz, the prisoners are crowded into barracks so tightly that many crush one another or suffocate. Wiesel recognizes the voice of one of the crushed men as his friend and fellow prisoner, Juliek, a violinist. Later, he hears a fragment from Beethoven's concerto. Juliek is playing "a farewell on his violin to an audience of dying men." In the morning, Wiesel finds Juliek dead; his violin has been crushed.
After three days in the crowded barracks at Gleiwitz, the prisoners are marched into an empty field of falling snow to wait for a train. When it arrives, guards push the men into cattle-cars with no roofs. This time, there are one hundred men per railcar.
The train stops occasionally in small German towns where the citizens make sport in throwing crusts of bread into the train to watch the fights that explode as the hungry prisoners struggle for any small amount of food. Wiesel and his own father, now near death from starvation and exposure to the cold, watch as an elderly father crawls to a scrap of bread, only to have his own son fall on him and wrestle the bread out of his grip. Once he has it, the son is then beaten by a group of starving men for the same small portion of bread. After the struggle, Wiesel remembers, "When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son. I was fifteen years old."
Their journey on the train continues, amid the desperate wails of prisoners. On the day before they arrive at their destination, the entire train convulses as "[h]undreds of cries rose up simultaneously…. The death rattle of a whole convoy who felt the end upon them." Of the one hundred men who began the journey, only twelve emerge from the cattle-car. Wiesel and his father had arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp.
The poor organization of this camp shows signs that the Germans are losing the war. Wiesel's father falls very ill with dysentery and begins to deteriorate physically and mentally. During an air raid alert, the father and son are separated from one another as Wiesel takes cover in a barracks. He goes back to look for his father, though he is ashamed because he partly considers his father a burden and wishes that he will not find him. Wiesel does find him, but is still somewhat reluctant to care for him because it means giving up some of his own dear food; he chastises himself, saying that he is no better than the sons who left their fathers for dead.
Now that his father is confined to his bunk with the other invalids, Wiesel sleeps there to be closer to him. Chlomo Wiesel's constant groans for water (which a patient with dysentery cannot have) and complaints of hunger make the other invalids furious. While Wiesel is away at roll call, the other men hit his father to make him be quiet. The head of his block tells Wiesel that nothing more can be done for his father; he cautions Wiesel to remember that he is in a concentration camp, where "every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father." During the night of January 28, 1945, Chlomo Wiesel dies. The guards take him away while Wiesel sleeps, and he awakens to find another invalid in his father's place. Wiesel cannot mourn because he "had no more tears."
After his father's death, Wiesel spends another two months at Buchenwald. Of this time, he writes: "I have nothing to say of my life during this period. It no longer mattered. After my father's death nothing could touch me any more." He thinks solely and continually of finding something to eat.
On April 5, a roll call takes place during which the head of the camp announces that Buchenwald will be "liquidated" in intervals of ten blocks a day. Each day, thousands of prisoners leave through the camp gates and never return. A few days later, the guards decide to evacuate the remaining twenty thousand prisoners, including Wiesel, so that they can blow up the camp. Sirens sound, indicating an alert that prevents them from carrying out their evacuation; on the next day, the SS attempts another evacuation, but the camp resistance movement rises up and drives the SS away from the camp for good. Later that evening, the first American soldiers appear at the gates. The starving prisoners throw themselves on the food; Wiesel contracts a bad case of food poisoning and spends two weeks in the hospital. When he recovers, he looks at himself in a mirror for the first time since he left the ghetto in Sighet. He is forever scarred by the corpse-like image staring back at him.
Wiesel experiences multiple losses throughout the novel: loss of family, loss of faith, and loss of self. After the loss of his home and removal from his synagogue through the railcar deportation, Wiesel is immediately separated from his mother and younger sister, Tzipora, by the Nazis at the first of the concentration camp stops, Birkenau. He did not realize he would never see them again: "I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever."
Wiesel's continual struggle with his loss of faith in God as he faces genocide receives much attention from literary critics. The opening pages recount Wiesel's intense faith and dedication to Jewish theological study; however, as he witnesses children being burned in the flaming ditches of Birkenau, his faith decays. A final confirmation of this loss comes from an old rabbi Wiesel continually sees praying and reciting long passages from the Talmud. The fifteen-year-old reaches a critical moment when the rabbi tells him, "It's the end. God is no longer with us." In the face of escalating torture, starvation, and death, the rabbi continues: "Where is the divine Mercy? Where is God? How can I believe, how could anyone believe, in this merciful God?" As the rabbi has lost his faith, so too have the total losses that Wiesel has sustained stripped him of his humanity and spirituality.
Wiesel's loss of self begins when the chaos and his fear of the environment cause him to lie about his age and occupation. An older Jew advises Wiesel to tell the Germans that he is eighteen—not almost fifteen—and to tell Dr. Mengele that he is a farmer, not a student. As the prisoners enter their barracks, the removal of all identifying, personal belongings (such as hair, clothes, and jewelry) emphasizes Wiesel's loss of self. His identity becomes an anonymous number—A-7713—as he loses his individual name. He highlights this loss by describing the inner deterioration of the young Wiesel: "Within a few seconds, we had ceased to be men…. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it." Later, with the death of his father, the last remaining threads of what was the young Wiesel break: "After my father's death, nothing could touch me anymore." The final words of the novel illustrate the complete loss of self for Wiesel and how unrecognizable he has become to himself: "I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me."
The Bond between Father and Son
Because of his early separation from his mother and sister in the concentration camp, Wiesel forms a strong bond with his father. From the time of his arrival at Birkenau, Wiesel has a single focus: "I had one thought—not to lose [my father]. Not to be left alone." Through the many selections by Dr. Mengele and the SS, to the multiple transitions to different concentration camps, the relationship between Chlomo and Wiesel remains a close, traditional father/son bond. This is in contrast, however, to the many examples of sons betraying fathers as a result of the hellish extremes of their existence. As the conditions grow more extreme for the Wiesels, an unusual reversal develops between father and son, causing Wiesel to take on a father-like role and care for his now weakened, ill, and child-like father. When first arriving at Birkenau, Wiesel notes the father/son bond in an understated, "My father held onto my hand"; however, as Chlomo begins to lose his fight against death and rely heavily on Wiesel for survival, the author writes: "I held onto my father's hand—the old, familiar fear: not to lose him." Wiesel's subtle, yet direct style expresses this important thematic shift in the book.
Man's Inhumanity Towards Man
Wiesel uses the literary technique of juxtaposition, or placing opposites together to form a significant meaning, to illustrate the excessive horrors of genocide: hatred, humiliation, and dehumanization. The first example of this literary technique appears in the juxtaposition of the love between Wiesel and his father and the other son's betrayals of their fathers in the camp. This comparison emphasizes the bond shared by the Wiesels as the harsh, dehumanizing treatment by the SS officers forces sons to turn against their own fathers.
Once in Birkenau, Wiesel juxtaposes the environments: spring, with its traditions of new life and warming sunshine, set against the continual and constant images of death. After seeing a truckload of babies being burned, Wiesel cannot believe that this type of atrocity is actually occurring, to which his father answers, "Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us." A couple pages later, the images of spring emphasize the depths of Nazi cruelty by comparing the previous images of death and destruction with those of life and renewal: "It was a beautiful April day. The fragrance of spring was in the air. The sun was setting in the west."
A traditional theme in literature is the maturation of a young man; however, this theme is juxtaposed with the brutal environment of the death camps. At fifteen years old, Wiesel witnesses more than anyone should encounter in a lifetime. After his father's death, he returns to the barracks—but not to a place with the adults. Instead he returns to the children's area, where he waits for two months before being liberated. This reversal of the traditional maturation theme highlights the extreme conditions brought about by Nazi brutality.
Post-World War I Germany
While the genocide of six million Jews in Europe during World War II is now a widely known fact, to understand how and why these atrocities occurred, it is important to place the events in context. Following World War I, Europe, and in particular Germany, suffered from an economic depression. Having been obliged by the Treaty of Versailles (1919) to accept all responsibility for causing the First World War and forced to pay huge war reparations, or reimbursements, Germans suffered from low morale and a devastated economy. The country was in political and social chaos, which caused the rise of various extremist groups.
Rise of the Nazi Party
Adolph Hitler was a former World War I soldier and house painter turned politician. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, in his endeavors to promote his ideology, Hitler was arrested for his attempted overthrow of the Munich authorities. While in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf, a book that detailed his political philosophy: radical German nationalism (the political idea that each nation should have its own state); anti-Semitism (views or actions that discriminate against Jewish people); and anti-Marxism (Marxism is a political philosophy that embraces socialism in hopes of a classless society). After a short prison sentence, Hitler rebuilt the Nazi party, which he had begun prior to his incarceration. He eventually gained support for his ideas by promoting a program of extensive anti-Semitic propaganda; he encouraged non-Jewish Germans to blame Germany's economic and social problems on the Jewish people. The people of Germany were vulnerable to Hitler's promises of better economic times. Hitler's war machine created new jobs, resurrected national pride, and turned people's attention to the cause, according to Hitler, of the recent past's hard economic times: the Jew.
When he became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Hitler began to formulate plans for his "solution": to rid Germany of all people who did not fit his ideals. He enacted the Nuremburg Laws of 1935, which stripped German Jews of their civil rights as citizens. Few escaped scrutiny during the 1930s and early 1940s in Germany. Anyone who was different from Hitler's prescribed ideal was subject to arrest, deportation, or death. Hitler killed as many non-Jews as he did Jews: the first people to be deported to concentration camps were those who publicly disagreed with his views, along with the disabled or sick that could not help further his cause, and those whom he considered degenerate, like Gypsies and homosexuals. Jews were targeted not only because of Europe's long history of anti-Semitism, but also because many Jewish citizens possessed wealth and owned land.
Hitler's "Final Solution" and Nazi Military Conquest
The Nuremburg Laws were a preliminary step in the annihilation of the Jewish people. The next step that the Nazis took was crowding Jews into ghettos, a method used in Europe for centuries to isolate Jewish people from the rest of society. Finally, the Jews were moved from the ghettos to concentration camps to enact Hitler's "Final Solution," the systematic mass murder of all Jews.
Part of Hitler's program for German dominance included his quest to create more lebensraum (the German word for living space) for the Germans who did fit his ideals. He did this by invading countries with large German-speaking populations, and next, the whole of Europe. The German army eventually took control of Poland, the Soviet Union, Romania, the Baltic states, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, establishing ghettos in all of these countries, and then deporting Jews to the concentration camps.
Ghetto life was crowded and wretched, and could hardly even be considered "life." While in the Buna concentration camp, Wiesel's hospital neighbor gave him this advice concerning Hitler's vow to exterminate all the Jews in Germany: "I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He's the only one who's kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people." For a fortunate few, the end of World War II came before Hitler could keep his word to all the Jews of Europe.
Since the first publication of Night, critics and general readers alike have praised Wiesel not only for his courage to write about his experiences in the concentration camps, but also for his ability as a writer. More than a mere chronicler of events, Wiesel creates literature from the traumatic experiences of his childhood. In the book Words and Witness: Narrative and Aesthetic Strategies in the Representation of the Holocaust, Lea Wernick Fridman closely analyzes Night for how Wiesel bears witness and uses language to express the inexpressible. Fridman writes, "The opening up in Wiesel's Night occurs in the intertwining of two stories, the first a story about words, and the second a story about experience." Agreeing with Fridman's assessment of Wiesel's use of language, Ellen S. Fine notes the major images of fire and night and the predominant themes in Wiesel's novel in her book Legacy of "Night": The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Fine explains that when Wiesel and his family are placed in the cattle-cars on their way to the concentration camp, "The theme of night corresponds here to the reduction of space." Whereas the darkness in the temple used to allow for spiritual exploration, the blackness inside the cattle-cars "plunge[s] the prisoners into the confinement and extreme darkness of a night without limits."
Not all reviewers, however, positively critique Wiesel's work. A. Alvarez, in the article "Literature of the Holocaust," argues that, "[a]s a human document, Night is almost unbearably painful, and certainly beyond criticism. But … it is a failure as a work of art." Subsequent to this article in 1968, Alvarez became one of the most contested critics of Wiesel's work. Irving Halperin defends the work of Elie Wiesel against critics like Alvarez by stating that to require writers of the Holocaust to write dispassionately, as he argues Alvarez does, is to apply the wrong criteria to analyzing this type of literature. Halperin argues that Wiesel's literature is important because "his books excite us to intense reflection. Clearly, they have suggested some of the most crucial, if unanswerable, questions pertinent to the Holocaust." Critics such as Halperin demonstrate the reasons why, fifty years after the first publication, Night remains a premier literary testimonial text of the Holocaust.
Daniel R. Schwartz
In the following excerpt, Martin points out the questions of the civilization's moral responsibility for war and violence raised by Cooper in The Last of the Mohicans.
Night is a narrative that traces the dissolution of the Jewish community in Sighet, the ghettoes, deportations, concentration camps, crematoriums, death marches, and, finally, liberation. Distilling memoir into narrative form, Night traces the growth of adolescent courage and the loss of religious faith. Wiesel's original Yiddish title for Night was Un di velt hot geshvign, or in English, And the World Remained Silent. He distilled 882 pages to the 245 of the published Yiddish edition and Jerome Lindon, the French publisher, further edited it to 178 pages. I am interested not in the indictment of Wiesel for transforming his nominalistic memoir into novelistic form, but in how, in response to publishing circumstances and perhaps his own transformation, he reconfigured an existential novel about the descent into moral night into a somewhat affirmative reemergence to life. While the narrator is a fifteen year old boy, Wiesel was born in 1928 and would have been sixteen for most of the 1944–5 period. Is not this age discrepancy one reason why we ought think of Night as a novel as well as a memoir?
First Person Singular: Elie Wiesel is a one-hour PBS interview with Wiesel, and includes readings from his work and a very brief glimpse into Wiesel's life. Lives and Legacies Film, Inc., 2002. It is available on DVD or VHS from PBS Home Video.
Elie Wiesel Goes Home is a video documentary that follows Elie Wiesel as he returns to the Auschwitz concentration camp and recalls the events that made his novel Night so powerfully unforgettable. Choices, Inc., 1994. It is available on DVD or VHS from Choices, Inc.
The text traces the death of the narrator's mother, a sister, and finally, his father; it witness an encroaching horrible moral NIGHT, a night that includes the speaker's loss of religious belief in the face of historical events. Notwithstanding his religious upbringing, Wiesel parts company from those who, as Dawidowicz explains, accept the Holocaust as God's will:
For believing Jews the conviction that their sacrifice was required as a testimony to Almighty God was more comforting than the supposition that He had abandoned them altogether. To be sure, God's design was concealed from them, but they would remain steadfast in their faith. Morale was sustained by rabbis and pious Jews who, by their own resolute and exalted stance, provided a model of how Jews should encounter death.
We should think of the text as a physical object and note its slimness, its titleless chapters, its breaks between anecdotes. We wonder what could be added in those white spaces, whether his loss of faith, for example, is gradual? But the slim volume, the white spaces, become a kind of correlative or metonomy to emptiness, to his "starved stomach." The short paragraphs give a kind of cinematic effect as if the paragraphs are like frames in an evolving film. The very simplicity—the almost childlike quality—of the imagery gives the work its parabolic quality.
Wiesel draws upon a tradition of prophetic hyperbole: "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 those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never." The camps dissolve traditional morality and replace it with extreme conditions that make the struggle to survive the only value. Thus the death of his father "frees" him to save himself; he is at once "free at last" and emotionally anaesthetized: "nothing could touch me any more."
Whether a novel or memoir, Night depends upon and affirms the concept of individual agency, for the speaker tells a wondrous and horrible tale of saving his life and shaping his role as Witness, perhaps our Daniel. As Terence Des Pres writes:
Silence is the only adequate response, but the pressure of the scream persists. This is the obsessive center of Wiesel's writing: his protagonists desire a silence they cannot keep. […] The conflict between silence and the scream, so prominent in Wiesel's novels, is in fact a battle between death and life, between allegiance to the dead and care for the living, which rages in the survivor and resolves itself in the act of bearing witness. […] Silence, in its primal aspect, is a consequence of terror, of a dissolution of self and world that, once known, can never he fully dispelled. But in retrospect it becomes something else. Silence constitutes the realm of the dead. It is the palpable substance of those millions murdered, the world no longer present, that intimate absence—of God, of man, of love—by which the survivor is haunted, in the survivor's voice the dead's own scream is active.
In Night we see dramatized the process of the narrator's developing into his role of ethical witness in the face of historical forces that would obliterate his humanity, his individuality, and his voice. For those, like Wiesel, who have experienced the Holocaust first hand—for whom Auschwitz is not a metaphor but a memory—language is more than the free play of signifiers. For these people and others on the political edge, their very telling—their very living—testifies to will, agency, and a desire to survive that resists and renders morally irrelevant simple positivistic explanations arguing that an author's language is culturally produced. One might ask why Wiesel writes. For one thing, it is to bear witness; for another, it is an act of self-therapy; for a third, it is a kind of transference; and as the dedication stresses ("In memory of my parents and my little sister, Tsipora,") it is an act of homage. Furthermore, in psychoanalytic linguistic terms, the narrator's telling is a resistance to the way in which the word "Jew" was culturally produced to mean inferior people who were progressively discounted, deprived of basic rights as citizens, labeled with a Yellow Star of David, imprisoned, enslaved, and killed. We might recall how all male German Jews were required to take the middle name "Israel," all females the name "Sarah."
According to Wiesel, "the Holocaust in its enormity defies language and art, and yet both must be used to tell the tale, the tale that must be told." The very opening, "They called him Moshe the Beadle," is a storyteller's invitation to step into another world. As with any life writing, the selection and arrangement into narrative blur the line between fiction and fact, and the inclusion of dialogue, recalled at an immense distance of years, contributes to the novelistic aspect of his memoir.
Wiesel explains in his essay "An Interview Unlike Any Other" why he waited ten years to write his memoir:
I knew the role of the survivor was to testify. Only I did not know how. I lacked experience, I lacked a framework. I mistrusted the tools, the procedures. Should one say it all or hold it all back? Should one shout or whisper? Place the emphasis on those who were gone or on their heirs? How does one describe the indescribable? How does one use restraint in re-creating the fall of mankind and the eclipse of the gods? And then, how can one be sure that the words, once uttered, will not betray, distort the message they bear?
Wiesel's text is written in the biblical style in which highlighted moments full of significance are presented without the careful concatenation of events we find in the realistic novel. The biblical style owes itself to his being steeped not only in the Old Testament—a text that pays little attention to background or setting, and eschews gradual introductions of its heightened and sublime moments—but also to a Talmudic tradition by which parabolic anecdotes are used to illustrate important themes. Rather than gradual change when he loses faith, a change developing from the Nazi arrival, he experiences loss of faith as an epiphanic moment. Unlike the realistic novel or memoir, we cannot relate his role of passionate witness to a grammar of specific causes such as his father's tears:
For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?
Although the basic unit of form is the retrospective memory of the teller who wrote after a ten year hiatus, the book is also organized around a number of motifs. The most important is the loss of faith in the face of evidence that God can do or will do nothing to prevent the Holocaust. Young Wiesel has a transvaluation of faith to disbelief and unbelief. He loses all illusions about a purposeful world.
As if the narrator were struggling to stay alive, as if he were having trouble breathing, the unnumbered and untitled chapters get shorter; the last three of nine chapters take up only seventeen pages. That he moves, on occasion, to a postwar retrospective gives the reader the sense, as in Conrad's Marlow's telling in Heart of Darkness that his memory is struggling with the narrative and that at times he needs to avoid the horrors. Wiesel's breaks between anecdotes has the same effect, as if a pithy anecdote was all the narrator could stand to tell before being overcome. The recurring term "empty" reminds us of how, except for the will to live, his life had become a negation—that is, an absence of love, comfort, health, food. But in the retelling it reminds us of how he has become spiritually anaesthetized and how he has left behind everything he had on the written page.
As in other Holocaust texts, hunger is a dominant theme in Auschwitz. The narrator recalls he soon
took little interest in anything except my daily plate of soup and my crust of stale bread. Bread, soup—these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time.
Another motif is the father-son tie, one that is so essential in Jewish life. Within the horrors of the Holocaust, these bonds threaten to dissolve. In an awful scene after the evacuation of Auschwitz, when he and his father are being transported to Buchenwald, a son fights his father for bread:
"Meir. Meir, my boy! Don't you recognize me? I'm your father […] you're hurting me […] you're killing your father! I've get some bread […] for you too […] for you too. […]"
He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece. He tried to carry it to his mouth. But the other one threw himself upon him and snatched it. The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. He was not able to get very far. Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son.
I was fifteen years old.
Transformation is as much a theme here as it is in Kafka. By showing us how life was in Sighet at the outset, we can see the terrible transformation in young Wiesel and his father. When he writes of the masquerade of clothes before the death march, we think of the clown motif in Picasso and the grotesque carnival in James Ensor:
Prisoners appeared in strange outfits: it was like a masquerade. Everyone had put on several garments, one on top of the other, in order to keep out the cold. Poor mountebanks, wider than they were tall, more dead than alive; poor clowns, their ghostlike faces emerging from piles of prison clothes! Buffoons!
By confronting the horrors of the Holocaust and insisting on bearing witness (and resisting Mauriac's Christian gloss), Wiesel's text is an antidote to the way that Anne Frank's story had been manipulated to "glorify," as Bruno Bettelheim puts it, "the ability to retreat into an extremely private, gentle, sensitive world, and there to cling as much as possible to what have been one's usual attitudes and activities, although surrounded by a maelstrom apt to engulf one at any moment." In the play and film, we hear Anne's voice from beyond saying, "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart," but Bettelheim argues passionately that this statement is not supported or justified Anne's diary:
This improbable sentiment is supposedly from a girl who had been starved to death, had watched her sister meet the same fate before she did, knew that her mother had been murdered, and had watched untold thousands of adults and children being killed. This statement is not justified by anything Anne actually told her diary.
Whether we agree with Bettelheim and whether we chide him for letting his rage distort and appropriate Anne Frank's text as Mauriac and Seidman have appropriated Wiesel, his words give us some sense of how difficult it is for us readers of Holocaust texts to respond ethically to such a searing and heart-rendering narrative of memory, trauma, and literary imagination as Night.
Source: Daniel R. Schwartz, "The Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesel's Night," in Style, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer 1998, p. 221.
Alvarez, A, "The Literature of the Holocaust," in Beyond All this Fiddle, edited by Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1968, pp. 22-24.
Fine, Ellen S., Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel, State University of New York Press, 1982, p. 14.
Fridman, Lea Wernick, Words and Witness: Narrative and Aesthetic Strategies in the Representation of the Holocaust, State University of New York Press, 2000, p. 94.
Halperin, Irving, "From Night to The Gates of the Forest: The Novels of Elie Wiesel," in Messengers from the Dead, Westminster Press, 1970, pp. 45, 49.
Kanfer, Stefan, "Author, Teacher, Witness: Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel Speaks for the Silent," in Time, March 18, 1985, p. 48.
Mauriac, François, "Forward" to Night by Elie Wiesel, Bantam Books, 1960, p. viii.
Wiesel, Elie, Night, translated by Stella Rodway, Bantam Books, 1960.
by Elie Wiesel
THE LITERARY WORK
Eliezer, a young Jewish boy from the Hungarian Transylvanian town of Sighet, survives deportation to Poland’s Auschwitz extermination camp, where his mother and younger sister are murdered, and then to another camp at Buchenwald, where his father dies.
Elie Wiesel was born in Sighet in 1928. In 1944 he was deported with his family to a Nazi extermination camp whose purpose was to obliterate Europe’s Jewish population. After the Allied victory in 1945, he lived in France with other young survivors of the camps. Wiesel studied psychology, literature, and philosophy at the Sorbonne University in Paris before beginning his career as a journalist in 1948. In 1958 Wiesel published Night, a vivid and chilling novelistic account of his experiences in the war.
The Final Solution
When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, its leader Adolf Hitler pledged to create a German state in which Jews lived segregated from other Germans. The Nazis at first encouraged Jews to emigrate, but as the Nazis annexed or invaded other territories, they adopted more drastic solutions to what they called “the Jewish question.” One of the first strategies was to crowd Jewish families into ghettos surrounded by walls topped with broken glass and barbed wire. In these wretched conditions thousands of Jews died of starvation and abuse.
Eventually, Hitler ordered the extermination of all of European Jewry. One early method was to round up large numbers of Jews and line them up before a ditch, then machine-gun them. But this approach cost valuable ammunition. To avoid the inconvenience of these chaotic massacres, the Nazis formulated the so-called “Final Solution” in 1942. All of Europe’s Jews were to be sent by train to camps in Nazi-occupied Easten Europe. There they would be killed by gas inhalation. To avoid disorder, no murders were to be committed in or near the cities where the victims had lived. Deportation to these camps was referred to as “resettlement,” a deceptive term, and the trains were called “Special Resettlement Trains.” The Jews would perish either in specially designed gas vans, where they asphyxiated from exhaust inhalation, or in gas chambers at the camps.
Concentration and extermination camps
Altogether about seven thousand camps of various kinds imprisoned people against their will during World War II. The concentration camps, erected as early as 1933, were originally labor camps for political opponents of the Nazi regime. The camps imprisoned communists, Gypsies, and Jews, who toiled under abominable conditions under the watchful eye of camp authorities. Select prisoners, called Kapos (presumably from caput, Latin for “head”—capo in Italian), some of whom were sadistic criminals, helped maintain order. Although tales of torture and murder in the concentration camps inspired dread in the late 1930s, the more deadly extermination camps in the east that were created in the 1940s made the original concentration camps seem mild. While deaths from malnutrition, overwork, violent repression, and even medical experiments were not uncommon, the concentration camps were at least not dedicated to systematic extermination, as the death camps were.
To implement their “Final Solution,” the Nazis created extermination camps, beginning the systematic gassing of Jews in 1942. The six main extermination camps—Maidanek (50,000 killed), Belzec (550,000 killed), Chelmno (150,000 killed), Sobibor (200,000 killed), Treblinka (800,000 killed), and Auschwitz (1,000,000 killed)—were all on Polish soil.
Auschwitz was originally a concentration camp where prisoners served as slave laborers in the nearby coal mines. In 1942 an extermination camp was built in the village of Birkenau, close to Auschwitz. Birkenau was equipped with crematoriums and buildings sealed to make gas chambers. Jews arriving at Birkenau would be separated into two groups. Those perceived as useful were sent on to Auschwitz. Those deemed unfit for work were told to hurry into large buildings marked “showers” or “wash room.” The doors were locked behind them and poisonous gas flooded the chambers.
Prisoners sent to Auschwitz were stripped, deloused, tattooed with serial numbers, and confined to overcrowded barracks. In the barracks they were under the supervision of a Kapo, who might be discharged or even killed if the Nazis suspected the Kapo of being too lenient on his fellow prisoners. Each day, after an assembly for roll call, the prisoners were sent to various jobs—many to work in the mines, others to sort the clothes and possessions of those gassed at Birkenau. Some were assigned the task of shoveling the bodies into the crematory.
The prisoners suffered outrageous tortures, and few lived longer than a year inside the camp. Forced to work all day, they were given only crusts of bread and occasionally some watered soup to eat. Almost arbitrarily, Nazis would make “selections,” sending the weak or infirm to the gas chambers to make room for new inmates. Casual brutality was common. There were instances of pregnant women being shot and children being beaten to death. Any resistance was ruthlessly punished. The other prisoners were often assembled to witness hangings or beatings.
The liberation of Buchenwald
In April 1945, when American advances ensured an Allied victory against Germany, the administration of Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany, was in disarray. Eager to present himself to the conquering troops as a humane official, the commandant, Hermann Pister, was hesitant to obey orders from Berlin to evacuate or kill the remaining prisoners. An underground resistance movement forged a communication from the American forces, promising to be lenient with Pister if he surrendered the camp and spared the lives of the prisoners.
Between April 3 and April 10 of 1945, 20,000 inmates had been evacuated, more than half of them Jews. Most died on the way to other camps, but the number of dead would have been even greater had it not been for the defiance of the prisoners within the camp. Their open refusal to obey orders to assemble for transport frustrated the Germans. Pister failed to instigate the normal brutal reprisals for defiance and indeed had fled Buchenwald by April 10. On April 11, a communist-based resistance group emerged with arms stolen from the Nazi command and took control of the camp.
A case of Hungarian complicity
During the Nazi era, Hungary aligned itself with Germany in hope of regaining territory it had lost in World War I. Although anti-Semitism was strong in Hungary, Hungary’s leader, Miklós von Nagy-bánya Horthy, had struggled to limit Hungary’s participation in the mass murders of Jews without provoking German reprisal. In 1941, 14,000 to 16,000 foreign Jews were deported from Hungary to the Ukraine in the Nazi-occupied part of the Soviet Union, where they were slaughtered. When Horthy learned of their fate, he ordered a stop to the deportations.
In 1944 Horthy hoped to negotiate a truce with Germany’s enemies. Nazi sympathizers in the Hungarian government betrayed him to Hitler, and German troops, led by Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Nazi “Race and Resettlement” office, occupied Hungary. Horthy was forced to cede power to the Nyilas (Fascist) Party, led by Dome Sztò;jay, a firm Nazi sympathizer.
Until the German occupation, most Hungarian Jews, though subject to the injustices of anti-Semitism, had at least remained safe from the massacres that had taken place in the rest of Nazioccupied Europe. But in April and May of 1944, on the eve of German defeat, the Hungarian Jews suffered the swiftest deportation and extermination yet organized by the Nazis. Within three months, 400,000 to 500,000 Jews were isolated and their property expropriated; they were then deported and finally murdered. The Jews in Transylvania, the eastern region of Hungary, were deported first to prevent their liberation by advancing Russian forces. By the time the Soviet armies liberated Budapest in February 1945, less than a fourth of the Jewish population remained.
In April 1944, two prisoners of Auschwitz, Fred Wetzler and Rudolf Vrba, escaped to Slovakia, where they wrote what is now called the Vrba-Wetzler report, an extensive description of the extermination camps. As workers at Birkenau, they had witnessed the construction of new ovens and larger gas chambers. Their report outlined the preparations underway to deport and destroy the Hungarian Jews. Vrba warned, “[O]ne million Hungarian Jews are going to die. Auschwitz is ready for them. But if you tell them [the Hungarian Jews] now, they will rebel. They will never go to the ovens” (Vrba in Braham, p. xii).
Writing about Vrba’s warning, Wiesel insists that the message was communicated to the leaders of the Jewish community in Budapest. Yet the few Hungarian survivors of Auschwitz maintain that they did not have the slightest suspicion that their deportation journey was to end in systematic extermination. If a significant number of Jewish leaders in Hungary were aware that the deportees were not being resettled, but murdered, why were the majority of Jews not informed?
Was it that the Jewish leaders did not believe the reports of the “Final Solution”? Or was it that they feared to endanger themselves by disseminating the news of the massacres? In any case, some prominent Jews either bribed or allowed themselves to be bribed by Nazi agents to win their own safety. What appears to be the most devastating betrayal was that of Rezso Kasztner, the chairman of the Hungarian Zionist Organization and the head of the Jewish Agency’s “Rescue Committees” in Hungary. In the spring of 1944 Eichmann summoned Kasztner to his hotel quarters in Budapest. He offered to spare the lives of 380 Zionist Jews from the town of Kluj (Kasztner’s hometown). In return Kasztner was to journey to Kluj, where his presence and the news of his negotiations with the authorities would pacify the Jews and expedite deportation. Kasztner knew—as his later testimony in Jerusalem, Israel, would prove—that the deportees were being gassed in Birkenau. Yet he remained silent, hoping to save 380 Jews whom he personally would choose. He may have thought that any other possibility of saving Jewish lives was nil.
Eichmann hoped, by manipulating Kasztner, to avoid complications. In 1943 a revolt in the Warsaw ghetto in Poland had demanded the attention of the German occupiers, costing numerous German lives and slowing down the process of extermination. By 1944 Germany was losing the war and could hardly spare thousands of troops in Hungary. Although they had the collaboration of the Hungarian police, the Nazis feared they might not be able to suppress an uprising if one should occur in Hungary. In Kluj, a town that lay only three miles from the Romanian border, there were a mere twenty Hungarian gendarmes and one officer from the Nazi command to oversee 20,000 Jews.
MOCHE THE BEADLE
In real life, there was a poor Hasidic Jew who, like Wiesel’s character Moche the Beadle, had survived the deportations of 1941 and returned to warn the Jews of Sighet. “We didn’t believe him,” Wiesel wrote, “why should we believe a poor beadle? There were influential, important people who knew [better]” (Wiesel in Braham, p. xiv).
The 20,000 Jews of Kluj had already been confined to a ghetto; 1,200 of them had supposedly been “resettled” in a town called Kenyermeze (the name means “bread-field”). Despite cheerful “letters” allegedly from the Jews in Kenyermeze (they were already ashes in the Auschwitz crematory), some of the young men of Kluj were restless. Nazi promises hardly calmed them. Eichmann needed another Jew, preferably someone authoritative, to soothe the Hungarian Jews and encourage cooperation.
Kasztner arrived in Kluj with the comforting news of his negotiations. The deportees, he insisted, were being taken to Kenyermeze, while the chosen 380 were going to what he vaguely described as a better place. One of Kasztner’s associates (and one of the chosen 380) encouraged the other Jews to hurry to Kenyermeze “because the first arrivals there would get the best places” (Hecht, p. 106). Those Jews selected to live were kept behind all the others who had been deported.
Kasztner continued his negotiations. To save the lives of prominent Zionists, he and the associates of his Rescue Committees remained silent about the gas chambers of Auschwitz. His cooperation proved an enormous help to the Nazis. Eichmann wrote in his confessions:
[Kasztner] agreed to help keep the Jews from resisting deportation—and even to keep order in the collection camps—if I would close my eyes and let a few hundred or a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain.... I believe Kasztner would have sacrificed a thousand or a hundred thousand of his blood to achieve his political goals.... And because Kasztner rendered us a great service by helping keep the deportation camps peaceful, I would let his groups escape.
(Eichmann, p. 146)
A beadle is an officer whose task is to maintain order in a synagogue. Moche the Beadle, a Jew living in the Transylvanian town of Sighet, inspires a young boy, Eliezer, with an interest in mystical Judaism. Often Eliezer seeks out Moche, and the two discuss this aspect of their religion.
In 1941 an order is issued expelling all the foreign (i.e., non-Hungarian) Jews from Sighet. Moche the Beadle, a foreigner, is forced into a cattle car and shipped away. The Jews of Sighet lament the deportations, but resign themselves. “What can we expect,” one of them comments, “It’s war” (Wiesel, Night, p. 17).
A few months later Moche the Beadle, who has been wounded but survived, returns with horrific tales about mass graves and genocide. The people of Sighet scoff at him, insisting that he seeks only to win their pity. They believe rather clandestine Allied radio broadcasts from London, which daily report on the bombing of German cities and the imminent Allied victory.
By 1944 tidings from the Russian front of Hitler’s looming defeat reassure the Jews of Sighet. News from Budapest that the Hungarian leader Horthy has been forced to cede power to the Nyilas Party fails to alarm them. Even when German soldiers move into Hungary they insist, “The Germans won’t get as far as this” (Night, p. 20). But a few days later German soldiers arrive in Sighet. The Jews are soon driven into a ghetto. Even in the squalor of the ghetto many remain optimistic, repeating their confident assertion that the Soviet armies will soon arrive.
The order to begin deportations crushes all remaining hope. The Jews of Sighet are herded into cattle cars. They have barely enough room to breathe, let alone sit or lie down. One woman begins to cry out “Fire! I can see fire!” (Night, p. 35). Fearful that her irrational outbursts might provoke the guards, the others bind and gag her. As they arrive in Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz, she cries out again. The deportees peer through the crevices in the wagons to see flames leaping from a tall chimney. In the air is the stench of burning flesh.
At Birkenau Eliezer and his father are separated from his mother and sisters. Eliezer and his father are sent to Auschwitz along with the others deemed fit to work. The rest of the deportees are sent to the gas chambers.
Arriving at the barracks, the two are stripped and shaven. Early in the morning all the new arrivals are forced to run naked through the snow to another barracks. They are disinfected with petroleum and then given a hot shower. Again naked, they then must run, through the snow, to another barracks where they are given clothing. A Nazi officer warns them:
You are at Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It’s a concentration camp. Here, you have got to work. If not, you will go straight to the furnace. To the crematory. Work or the crematory—the choice is in your hands.
(Night, p. 47)
Veteran prisoners tattoo the arms of the new inmates with identification numbers. After three weeks Eliezer and his father are transported to another labor camp, Buna. Veteran prisoners of Buna assure the new arrivals that Buna is a good camp. In Buna Eliezer is assigned, along with his father, to work in a warehouse for electrical equipment. Other inmates warn “the work isn’t in the least difficult or dangerous. But Idek, the Kapo, has bouts of madness now and then, when it’s best to keep out of his way” (Night, p. 57). When Idek happens to vent senseless rage on Eliezer’s father, Eliezer is surprised to notice that his anger is toward his father for not knowing how to avoid Idek’s outburst.
An electric power station at Buna is blown up, and the Gestapo discovers hidden arms and arrests three suspects. One is a young Dutch child. All three are hanged, but the little boy’s body is too light to break his neck. For over an hour he dangles, struggling between life and death. Eliezer hears a man ask “Where is God now?”—and the answer comes, “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows” (Night, p. 71).
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Eliezer cannot bring himself to join in the blessing of a God who “in His great might had
created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna” (Night, p. 73). Soon after, Eliezer and his father narrowly escape a selection in which weakened prisoners are removed for extermination.
In the winter, Eliezer’s foot swells because of the cold. A Jewish doctor, a prisoner in the camp, insists that he should undergo an operation. Eliezer is sent to the hospital, where other patients warn him, “there’s selection here too. More often than outside. Germany doesn’t need sick Jews” (Night, p. 83). Fortunately, Eliezer’s operation is a success.
While Eliezer is still confined to the hospital, rumors spread that the Russian army is nearing Buna. The Nazis plan to evacuate the camp, leaving behind the sick and infirm. Fearful that the Germans will merely blow up the camp and slaughter the invalids, Eliezer and his father decide to join the prisoners whom the Nazis are evacuating. Two days after the evacuation, the patients that stayed behind are freed by the Russian armies.
After marching for days through the snow on his bandaged foot, Eliezer arrives with the other prisoners at Gleiwitz, Poland. After three days without food or water and another selection, the prisoners are crammed into cattle cars and taken to Germany, to the Buchenwald concentration camp. During the long journey they fight for the food that is casually tossed in by loitering German civilians; many are killed in the struggles.
At Buchenwald Eliezer’s father falls ill with dysentery. Other prisoners in his block beat him and take his portion of bread. On January 29 he is carried away to the crematory. Eliezer speculates that he may still have been alive.
Evacuations to other camps begin. On April 10, a final evacuation of the remaining 20,000 Buchenwald prisoners is thwarted by Allied bombers. On the morning of April 11, 1945, an underground resistance movement wrests power from the few remaining Nazi commanders, and by that evening the first American troops arrive at Buchenwald.
Upon arrival at Birkenau, Eliezer is astonished to hear a prisoner demand, “What have you come here for, you sons of bitches? What are you doing here?” (Night, p. 40). The enraged man continues, “You’d have done better to have hanged yourselves where you were than to come here. Didn’t you know what was in store for you at Auschwitz? Haven’t you heard about it? In 1944?” (Night, p. 40). Only after the war could Eliezer have learned that two men, Vrba and Wetzler, had escaped from Birkenau with the specific purpose of warning the Hungarian Jews. Only after seeing the electric fences and the guard towers could he have understood that for two men to escape Auschwitz, it required the collaboration and even the sacrifice of many others. Only after the war could he have read the documents detailing the process of extermination at Auschwitz, documents that never made it into the hands of most Hungarian Jews.
Yet the Jews of Sighet had been warned. A survivor of the massacres in the Ukraine had urged them to flee. To understand their reluctance to believe him, one must comprehend the Nazi penchant for deception. The Nazis encouraged complacency, assuring the Jews of Sighet that in the ghettos they would be self-governing and free from the threat of anti-Semitism. Before deportation, they told the Jews that they were being shipped to labor camps in Germany. Even on the threshold of the gas chambers, Jews were encouraged to hurry into the “showers” before the water got cold.
After the war Wiesel swore not to speak or write of his experiences for ten years. This he considered
[l]ong enough to learn to listen to the voices crying inside my own. Long enough to regain possession of my memory. Long enough to unite the language of men with the silence of the dead.
(Wiesel in Estess, p. 8)
In 1954, working as a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Wiesel interviewed the distinguished Catholic novelist François Mauriac. Listening to Mauriac extol the sufferings of Christ, Wiesel rose up and exclaimed:
I want you to know that ten years ago, not very far from here, I knew Jewish children every one of whom suffered a thousand times more, six million times more, than Christ on the cross. And we don’t speak about them. Can you understand that, sir? We don’t speak about them.
(Wiesel in Estess, p. 12)
Mauriac implored Wiesel to tell his story, insisting “You are wrong not to speak.... Listen to the old man that I am: one must speak out” (Mauriac in Estess, p. 13). In 1955 Wiesel sent Mauriac the manuscript for And the World Remained Silent, a Yiddish-language account of his sufferings. A shortened version, Night, was published in 1958, including a preface by Mauriac.
War crimes trials and the Gruenwald-Kasztner trial
After World War II the Allied forces brought to trial many former Nazi officials, including the commandant of Auschwitz. Among the charges were persecution, deportation, enslavement, and extermination, all classified as crimes against humanity that carried a penalty of death. Some of the worst Nazi culprits escaped judgment. Hitler was already dead. Other prisoners committed suicide before their trials. Some, notably Eichmann, had simply vanished. In 1953, just before Wiesel began to speak publicly of his experiences, Milchiel Gruenwald, a seventy-two-year-old man living in Israel, distributed a small pamphlet accusing Rezso Kasztner of collaboration with the Nazis. Gruenwald maintained that Kasztner had testified on behalf of Nazi criminals in preliminary hearings before the war crimes trials held in Nuremberg, Germany. Because Kasztner’s testimony was not used in the public war crimes trials, the fact of his Nazi collaboration was not common knowledge and came as a shock to the public. Kasztner, then an official in the Israeli government, was persuaded by his colleagues to sue Gruenwald for libel. Gruenwald’s lawyer, Schmuel Tamir, could only win an acquittal by proving first that Kasztner had testified on behalf of a Nazi at Nuremberg, and second that Kasztner had collaborated with the Nazis, Israel’s only capital crime.
Although Kasztner angrily denied Gruenwald’s allegation that he had come to the rescue of Nazis, Tamir found old letters in which Kasztner himself insisted he was personally responsible for the release of Kurt Becher, a German official accused of massacring Jews in Russia and Poland.
Survivors from Kluj verified Gruenwald’s allegation that Kasztner’s cooperation with the Nazis had cost countless lives. They testified that after the war “there was a violent feeling against Dr. Kasztner. If he had showed himself in the street he would have been killed... [b] ecause he was the man who misled the Jews to believe in the good intentions of the Germans” (Hecht, p. 109).
To Tamir’s question, “Is it true, Dr. Kasztner, that some people in Budapest warned you that all your negotiations with Eichmann were only for the purpose of distracting the Jews from the knowledge of their extermination,” Kasztner conceded, “Yes, there were such opinions expressed. And I also felt the same thing in my heart” (Hecht, p. 115).
The judge in the case acquitted Gruenwald, adding “one cannot estimate the damage caused by Kasztner’s collaboration and put down the number of victims which it cost Hungarian Jews” (Hecht, p. 181). The state of Israel then prepared to put Kasztner on trial. Kasztner’s flamboyant career ended, however, before the trial. On March 3, 1957, Zeev Eckstein, a young man influenced by the political turmoil, assassinated Kasztner in Tel Aviv.
Wiesel said of his own work, “having survived by chance, I [am] duty bound to give meaning to my survival, to justify each moment of my life” (Wiesel in Rosenfeld and Greenberg, p. 201). “After the war,” he explained, “I absorbed, unwittingly, perhaps unconsciously, the obsession to tell the tale, to bear witness” (Wiesel in Estess, p. 9). His writing enabled him to preserve the events that he insisted must not be forgotten, although he conceded “Treblinka and Auschwitz cannot be told.... God knows I have tried” (Wiesel in Rosenfeld and Greenberg, p. 204).
Simon Wiesenthal, also a survivor of the Holocaust, agreed with Wiesel that he had an obligation to the dead. “I am forever asking myself,” Wiesenthal wrote, “what I can do for those who have not survived” (Wiesenthal, p. 351). Wiesenthal’s answer was to seek out and bring to trial Nazi officials who had evaded arrest after the war. In 1947 Wiesenthal founded the Jewish Documentation Center, where he collected and stored material exposing Nazi war criminals. Letters from Holocaust survivors often helped him ferret out former Nazis in foreign countries and bring them to trial in Europe or Israel. One of his most famous triumphs was the capture in South America of Adolf Eichmann, who was tried and convicted in Israel in 1960.
Critics compared Night with the already famous Diary of a Young Girl (also covered in Literature and Its Times), the recollections of Anne Frank’s experience in hiding. Wiesel’s account was welcomed as a newly shocking narrative and a sober reminder that behind all the statistics were millions of personal tragedies. The most interesting aspect of the story, one review claimed, was the people’s unwillingness to believe Moche the Beadle’s warnings. “One can hardly blame them,” the review argued, for “even today when the facts have long since been established beyond any shadow of doubt we find it almost impossible to credit that human beings could both inflict and endure suffering on the scale which Mr. Wiesel describes” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 523).
Eichmann, Adolf. Life (December 5, 1960): 146.
Estess, Ted. Elie Wiesel. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980.
Hecht, Ben. Perfidy. New York: Julian Messner, 1961.
Rosenfeld, Alvin, and Irving Greenberg. Confronting the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
Review of Night. Times Literary Supplement (1960): 523.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated by Stella Rodway. New York: Hill & Wang, 1958.
Wiesenthal, Simon. Justice Not Vengeance. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1989.
night / nīt/ • n. 1. the period of darkness in each twenty-four hours; the time from sunset to sunrise: a moonless night | the office door is always locked at night. ∎ this as the interval between two days: a two-bedroom cabin costs $90 per night | somebody put him up for the night. ∎ the darkness of night: a line of watchfires stretched away into the night. ∎ poetic/lit. nightfall. 2. the period of time between afternoon and bedtime; an evening: he was not allowed to go out on weekday nights. ∎ an evening appointed for some activity, or spent or regarded in a certain way: wasn't it a great night out? • interj. inf. short for good night. PHRASES: night and day all the time; constantly: she studied night and day.DERIVATIVES: night·less adj.
Night Journey in Muslim tradition, the journey through the air made by Muhammad, guided by the archangel Gabriel. They flew first to Jerusalem, where Muhammad prayed with earlier prophets including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, before entering the presence of Allah in heaven.
night of the long knives a treacherous massacre or betrayal, especially the massacre of the Brownshirts on Hitler's orders in June 1934. Traditionally, the phrase is used to refer to the (legendary) massacre of the Britons by Hengist in 472, described by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia Regum Britanniae.
The term has also been used to describe Harold Macmillan's dismissal of seven of his Cabinet on 13 July 1962.
See also it was a dark and stormy night, ships that pass in the night at ship, things that go bump in the night, the watches of the night.
- Apepi leader of demons against sun god; always vanquished by morning. [Egyptian Myth.: Leach, 66]
- Apophis opponent of sun god Ra. [Egyptian Myth.: Benét, 43]
- Ashtoreth Moon goddess; Queen of night; equivalent of Greek Astarte. [Phoenician Myth.: Walsh Classical, 34–35]
- Cimmerians half-mythical people dwelling in eternal gloom. [Gk. Lit.: Odyssey ]
- Erebus personification and god of darkness. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 381]
- Fafnir his slaying represents the destruction of night demon. [Norse Myth.: LLEI, I: 327]
- Nox goddess of night. [Rom. Myth.: Wheeler, 261]
- owl nocturnal bird; Night embodied. [Art: Hall, 231]
- See also
- also 110. DARKNESS .
- an abnormal fear of darkness. Also called scotophobia .
- an abnormal love of the night.
- the act of walking or wandering at night. —noctivagant, noctivagous, adj.
- an abnormal fear of shadows.