Elie Wiesel - Night

Elie Wiesel - Night
Rating - 9.1

Elie Wiesel was fifteen when he was taken from his home in Sighet. In April 1945, when he was sixteen, Wiesel was liberated from Buchenwald, a Nazi concentration camp near Weimar, in Germany. Night, the first book in a trilogy, is Wiesel's 'deposition' of what he experienced during that time. It is a harrowing, careful, terrible masterpiece, a quiet outrage of a novel that is required reading for anyone who is not only interested in the Holocaust, or in fine literature, but for anyone who is interested in living.

Sighet, a small Hungarian-Romanian town, has vague ideas about the Second World War, the Germans, and the Russians. They are mostly unaware of what is happening to the Jewish people of Europe. When Moishe the Beadle, a man who 'was as awkward as a clown. His waiflike shyness made people smile.', is taken away for being a foreign Jew, the town barely gives it a thought. Upon his return, 'the joy in his eyes was gone'. Moishe pleads with his fellow townsfolk to listen. He implores them to flee, to run as far away from the encroaching German empire as possible. But, nobody listens.

Soon, the Jews of Sighet are taken to Auschwitz. Wiesel and his father are separated from his mother and younger sister, Tzipora. He never saw them again.

Slowly, the adolescent Wiesel comes to learn the ways of Auschwitz. If asked, he is to tell the SS officers that he is eighteen, not fifteen. You must say that you are in good health, even if you are not. Bread, when it arrives, should be eaten sparingly. If you can save some for later, do so. New shoes will be confiscated. These simple rules become his life. He learns quickly that there is no time for hope, or for dreams. When existence is boiled down to its very essence, when a swallow of water or a crust of bread becomes the most important part of the day, there can be nothing but hunger and sleep in your life. Wiesel measures time with his stomach, his entire being becomes focused around hunger.

What happens to those who are not strong, or who are too young, or too old? What happens to those who talk back, or rebel, or fail to work? With calm, precise sentences, we learn that they are shot in the head, or burned in a furnace, or poisoned, or gassed. How can a fifteen year old learn such horrible things? How can anyone? Wiesel was at an age when he should be learning of death and sadness in literature and music, not inhaling the black cinders of his fellow Jews as the furnaces belched their evil smoke.

We follow Wiesel as he travels with his father from Auschwitz and then to Buchenwald. Wiesel grapples with his faith, wondering how his God could permit such a thing to happen. But there is also something more, and less, that his conscience has to ponder. As his father becomes progressively weaker, as more and more men die and are discarded, he must decide whether to support his father, or to ensure his own survival. There are times when '...a thought crept into my mind: If only I couldn't find him! If only I were relieved of this responsibility, I could use all my strength to fight for my own survival, to take care only of myself...Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself forever.'

While the majority of the novel is spent with Wiesel and his father, there are times when we learn the flashes of other men's stories. We learn of a man who was forced to shovel his own father into the furnaces. We learn of another man, an old man, who hoarded some bread for his son. But his son thought he was keeping it from him, and they fought, and the old man died. Killed by his own son for a piece of bread. Was it justice then, that the son was killed by other men, desperate for food? No. It can't be. There is no justice in a concentration camp.

Wiesel writes with short, simple sentences. There is nothing overly complicated in the way he writes, perhaps because the subject matter is complicated enough. There are a number of reasons why the language used was so universal. Anyone who is capable to read, can complete this work - a child could understand the words, though not the meaning. But more than that, by distilling what happened into mundane, everyday words, the experience of Auschwitz and the concentration camps becomes something that we can all, in some way, understand. Flowery language and cumbrous metaphor would have diluted the impact of the words, as readers struggled to understand the meaning behind the prose. But this way, the clean simplicity of the text allows it to be understood in clear, defined terms. There can be no mistaking the horror of what has happened. There can be no mistaking the impossible sadness.

Wiesel's novel stands as a chronicle of a terrible time in the history of man. With a steady hand and clear vision, Wiesel has portrayed the terrors of the Holocaust in a manner that does not seek to judge, but to teach. As a youth desperate to understand, Wiesel uses the text to contemplate what it is that would allow such an event to occur. Where in man lies the core that created Auschwitz, Buchenwald, furnaces and mass graves? Wiesel doesn't - cannot - give an answer, but what he has given us is a measured, reasoned plea that we should not forget.

From his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, in 1986: 'We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.' The great sadness of World War II was that we knew, but did nothing. We knew, but remained neutral. We knew, but chose to ignore. There is no excuse grand enough for such behaviour, and it is with this book that Wiesel condemns those who looked away. We must face what darkness emerges from the depths of men, we must face it and we must defeat it, lest another Auschwitz - or worse - occur. It is our duty, and our responsibility.


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