Book review: “Night” by Elie Wiesel

I remember a Holocaust survivor coming to talk at my junior high school. It didn’t seem that exciting: some old guy was going to come and talk about the war and how horrible his life was. I went away from that experience feeling unmoved by the significance of that event. From the comfort of my 15-year-old existence, I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of absolute evil that can exist in the world. I would say that I probably still don’t.

I picked up Night as one small step in mourning with those who experienced the Holocaust, mourning for all mankind that humanity has no boundary conditions on the violence we can inflict on each other.

I had a sixth grade history teacher. The two lessons I remember most were her units on the Donner Party and the Holocaust. Why? Because, at the time, I thought they were funny. I remember she held up a picture of an SS officer in a concentration camp waving. In the background, a scene of utter depravity. And this man, waving, like he’s at Disneyland. My teacher, in a satirical voice, narrated for him: “Hi mom!” Looking back, I can’t say what her own feeling were about the Holocaust, and I don’t want to judge her motives. But in truth, she did capture the utter absurdity, the contradiction, the senselessness of the situation. That just can’t happen. We’re in the 20th (now 21st) century. Right?

Like this line from Night:

Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?

And yet they can and do.

I have read some about this topic. I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars in junior high, but again not comprehending their import.

I have some of the works of Abraham Heschel (God in Search of Man and The Prophets) who was a contemporary of WWII, and was deeply affected by its effects. Neither of the works directly address the war, but they are clearly acquainted with pain and suffering.

I read The Pity of It All by Fritz Stern, who was born in Breslau, Germany during the inter-war era. His family emigrated to America to escape Hitler’s Third Reich. The Pity of It All tries to untie the complicated identity of German Jews leading up the WWII.

And I have read another title by Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God, that reimagines the horrors of the Holocaust through the pogroms of the middle ages.

I have to admit that I put off reading this book for a while. I was scared to read a personal account of the horrors of the work camps, the crematoriums, the organized killings. Reading historical accounts or going to museums allows you a distance of time, but also a personal buffer– you aren’t directly impacted. And I was scared to confront an evil so deep that caused men to lose their faith in God. Some of the quotes were frightening. Like this:

NEVER SHALL I FORGET that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

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

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

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

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

I know that most traditional theodicies don’t hold their weight, and through my own sufferings, I’ve had to let go of over-simplistic theological explanations. But would I break if I were in his shoes?

It is difficult to read. You watch a family, a community, go from a vibrant and living thing, to a dead husk. Humanity is denied. At times, you become as desensitized as the narrator, but then you’ll be suddenly ripped back into the story in sharp moments.

A tragic element throughout the story is how the people never let go of God. Even when Elie says he no longer believes in God, he still prays with his fellow captives:

Deep down, I was saying good-bye to my father, to the whole universe, and, against my will, I found myself whispering the words: “Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba … May His name be exalted and sanctified …” My heart was about to burst. There. I was face-to-face with the Angel of Death …

Even in either a state of disbelief or anger, religion still shapes you. It reflects the attitude of his own character from The Trial of God, Berish, who proclaims:

I lived as a Jew, and it is as a Jew that I shall die– and it i sas a Jew that, with my last breath, I shall shout my protest to God! And because the end is near, I shall shout louder! Because the end is near, I’ll tell him that He’s more guilty than ever!

You may think that both Berish are Wiesel are being presumptuous. But what do you say to someone who has be through a literal hell on earth? Who has watched their loved ones suffer, then witness as they are beaten til there are no longer human, and die? When Wiesel first brought this to a publisher, the man on the other side of the desk described how he felt:

And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor who dark eyes still held the reflection of angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? What did I say to him?

Can you tell them that God is love, they just aren’t looking hard enough? At that point, you risk the chastisement of God, the same way Job’s Comforters were rebuked for their poor job as comforters. Michael Austin explains:

It is for their failure as friends, I believe, and not for their inadequacy as theologians, that God finally rebukes the Comforters… To read Job correctly, I believe, we must read ourselves into the role of the Comforters by asking what plain evidence we may be aggressively dismissing– and what human relationships we might be actively destroying– in order to remain possessed of our comfortable ideological narratives. Such questions can be dangerous to religious orthodoxies, whose primary function is to provide comforting, and comfortable, narratives. But the comfortableness of a religious orthodoxy exists in direct proportion to its rigidity, as people will always go to drastic lengths to preserve what gives them comfort. The Job poet ultimately insists that being a good friend is more important than holding firmly to a religious orthodoxy– and this, I believe, is the poem’s most consequential critique.

Wiesel’s story is a Job reincarnated. An ultimate in suffering that seems to have no meaning. At that point, any comfortable narrative falls like a house of cards. To preserve any faith, you have to become an existentialist: instead of asking, “Why this? Why me? Why could this happen?” you ask “What do I do with this?” or you don’t ask at all.

I pray that we never forget. That don’t doom ourselves to repeat this awful past. Elie does this as well, expressed so beautifully in his Nobel prize speech:

Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.

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