People say that any experience is useful, since one can draw conclusions from any situation, whatever painful it is. However, there are lessons that are too bitter to learn. War is inhuman, unnatural and impossible to understand. Nevertheless, the 20th century witnessed two devastating world wars. The wounds left by the second one, which ended almost 70 years ago, still hurt. This war took lives of millions of people and traumatized the whole generation that saw things no one on earth should see. That is why books, songs, and films showing the events of that sorrowful period are still attractive for the young generation, provoking sympathy and compassion for those who had to be part of the story. The book Night written by Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Prize winner, illustrates the great tragedy of living during wartime. It is the first part of an autobiographical trilogy reflecting the author’s outlook and evolution of his perspective on God, life, death, and humanity in general.
Night tells the reader about Wiesel’s experience in the Nazi concentration camp shared with his father that took place at the closing period of the war, 1944-1945. The narrator, Eliezer, is twelve at the time when the story opens in Sighet in 1941. He is a religious person studying Talmud, and faith plays a distinct part in his life. Being curious and possessing an acute mind, Eliezer spends a lot of his time communicating with Moshe the Beadle, who works in the synagogue and has a humble life. Describing the attitude of the fellow-citizens towards him, the author writes:
“Generally my fellow town’s people, though they would help the poor, were not particularly fond of them. Moshe the Beadle was the exception. Nobody ever felt embarrassed by him. Nobody ever felt encumbered by his presence. He was a past master in the art of making himself insignificant, of seeming invisible” (Wiesel 1).
Eliezer is interested in studying cabbala, and that was the common ground that has made him close to Moshe the Beadle. Eliezer’s father discourages his inclination to study the cabbalistic views considering him too young for this. Wiesel introduces this character with the following words: “My father was a cultured, rather unsentimental man. There was never any display of emotion, even at home. He was more concerned with others than with his own family” (2). He also mentions the respect that the Jewish community had for this person: “They often used to consult him about public matters and even about private ones” (Wiesel 2).
The author focuses much on the characters’ attitude towards religion and the space that this faith occupies in their souls. For Eliezer at that state of mind and soul praying as talking to God is as natural as breathing: “Why did I pray? A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?” (Wiesel 2). The communication between these two people, a child and a grown-up, serves as moral nurturing for the boy.
Meanwhile, warfare remains a distant nightmare that everyone knows and cares about, and the fire that is burning Europe scorches Sighet, too. All foreign Jews are driven out of the town and slain with terrible cruelty. Moshe is the only foreigner from the town who managed to escape this fate and return home. The author points out changes in his personality. Joy has disappeared from his life; he does not smile or sing. What is more, people in town refuse to believe his words about what he has had to go through thinking he needs pity. Yet, what Moshe really needs is far from their assumptions. He wants them to hear him and understand what a terrible tragedy the Jewish people is experiencing. He is begging, “Jews, listen to me. It’s all I ask of you. I don’t want money or pity. Only listen to me!” (Wiesel 5).
German troops enter the territory of Hungary in 1944. One of Eliezer’s friends returns from the capital with disturbing news: “The Jews in Budapest are living in an atmosphere of fear and terror. There are anti-Semitic incidents every day, in the streets, in the trains. The Fascists are attacking Jewish shops and synagogues. The situation is getting very serious” (Wiesel 7). However, the community remains optimistic and does not believe that the German army may take an interest in a distant small town. Even when German cars appear on the streets, they do not lose heart and keep thinking soldiers will not hurt them. Eliezer is amazed by people’s unwillingness to admit the obvious – war has come into their town, and optimistic considerations are not reasonable. The following succession of events is fast and tragic. First the Jews have to face restrictions imposed on their freedom, and then they are obliged to wear a humiliating sign of a yellow star. The next event is the introduction of the ghetto. Finally, soldiers gather the Jews and march them through the town. These people have to leave their homes and most probably die in one of the concentration camps within the following year. The view of people walking in the street, devoid of home, hope, or dignity, makes young Eliezer hate the Nazi.
The Jews are taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a notorious concentration camp. Men and women are separated at the arrival, and that is the last time that Eliezer sees his mother and sister. They are killed almost immediately:
“For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair … and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.” (Wiesel 27)
Eliezer and his father’s daily survival in Auschwitz shows decline of faith in the boy. He sees the terrors of the camp and asks himself what kind of God sends such trials to his people: “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?” (Wiesel 31) The fire of the crematory burns his faith to ashes. He has to survive, so he cannot protect his father from being beaten when the foreman finds his work unsatisfactory. He understands with bitterness that his attitudes have changed, and feels guilty because of this. However, the desire to live is the strongest instinct that any creature has, so who could blame him for this? Besides, he never crosses the line and never leaves his father, who has come to depend on him. That is what still lets him feel human.
In 1945, Eliezer and his father have to go to Buchenwald, another concentration camp famous for the impossible cruelty that prisoners had to face in it. They have to cover a long way that numerous people do not cope with. Eliezer has to keep his father breathing and walking, as any pause is an immediate death sentence. Despite all of the boy’s efforts, his father is too weak for such journeys. He gets to the concentration camp but is seriously sick. Eliezer tries to support him, but nobody will help him. Doctors refuse to treat his father; fellow-patients abuse him and take away his food. Eliezer gets a piece of advice which expresses the essence of what a concentration camp is: “…You’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. Even of his father. Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone” (Wiesel 105).
Eliezer’s father dies in late January 1945, and after his death the boy is unable to feel anything. He manages to survive this hell, and finally, in spring, he is free. When he looks in the mirror, and this sight changes his whole being again: “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me” (Wiesel 109).
Nazi concentration camps have always been something that scares and outrages me. It is hard to imagine that they existed not so long ago in this universe, on this planet, less than a century ago. How can a human do that to another human? However, the terror has never been so deep and endless before, as Elie Wiesel’s book cannot leave anyone indifferent. It tells the story from beginning to end, showing how war and human cruelty destroy the life of a quiet town, taking away everything that the people had, including life and love. One always thinks that things like this cannot happen to him/her. How heart-breaking it is to know that these things did happen to good people, and it was reality. Concentration camps are an abomination. I have never understood the scariest thing about them before – it is not one’s life that is one’s most valuable possession. They deprived people of their humanity, something that distinguishes them from animals, makes existence a life. Once that changes, a person is damaged beyond redemption.
I believe that Eliezer survived in the camp only because he did his best to keep his bond with his father intact. Before these events, he used to think that it was God that gave him strength and energy, and could not imagine his life without Him in it. However, God died for him in the concentration camp, faith was not enough to continue fighting. Love and compassion had to endure impossible trials, but probably they saved the boy. They gave him a chance to feel that something was still alive in him after his God’s death. Probably, the feeling of being needed by someone close may keep a person sane through the hardships and terrors of Nazism. This is the feeling to which people held during the horrors of Holocaust, and this is what made them survive and help others survive as well.
They say that humans are worse than the wildest animals, because animals never kill each other for nothing. Humans invent excuses and great purposes trying to justify their crimes. Nevertheless, true causes are usually money and power. History repeats itself, and people kill each other repeatedly. The book Night touches the most painful strings of a person’s soul; it literally aches to read. It is filled with suffering and shows the depths of human despair. However, I am convinced that it is a brilliant work showing true value of a human’s life. It tells how difficult and how crucial it is to remain a human.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated from French by Stella Rodway. New York: Bantam, 1982.