A Book review…a rather academic one.
Elie Wiesel’s Night is among the first books that I have read from Jewish literature. And it is the first book that I read about the Holocaust written as a personal narrative. While the lack of previous reading is certainly a limitation when it comes to the ability to assess whether a book is biased or not, it’s also a trigger to pay attention to the details and read further about the author, his work and the era in which the book takes place.
I read Night just as the evening of Passover set in – 73 years after the night when Elie Wiesel’s mother said: “I have a bad feeling.”
I knew that Elie Wiesel was noted as a Romanian-American author, but I also knew that Sighet, his birthplace, was part of Transylvania, and that meant, part of Hungary. Before reading his book, I wanted to learn more about his background as I was anticipating that Hungary and the Hungarian police would have a role in the execution of that night. As a Hungarian reader, I’m familiar with the generalized bias towards Hungary during WWII, and towards Romania and Hungary – Romanians and Hungarians until today, share a rather fragile relationship. While Elie Wiesel spoke Hungarian and was born on Hungarian soil, he considered himself Romanian. And this was an important fact for me before opening his work.
Night, although a slim volume, is a heavy book; and it would have been even heavier, had the author wrote about Hungary, my country, in a more negative manner. But he didn’t. And for that reason alone, I consider Night a book that is only biased in as much as one’s personal experiences in such times are allowed to be.
Elie Wiesel’s Night is not only a heavy read but also an interesting book. Interesting in a very complex way. His sentences are to the point, sometimes too much, leaving the reader with many questions. But his succinctness is his power. He managed to narrate four years of history in 120 pages without saying too much or too little. His book was heavily shortened and edited before publication, but as he writes, he didn’t mind it, ‘the substance matters.’ And of that the book was not short. His foreword to Night implies that the ultimate aim of this volume was to ensure that we never forget. “I realize that the world forgets quickly. […] today, there are anti-Semites in Germany, France and even in the Unites States who tell the world that the story of six million assassinated Jews is nothing but a hoax.” – He said just ten years after his liberation.
I often think how the Sheerit Hapleitah found meaning in life after the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel offers one answer when he says that the writing of this book gave some meaning to his survival. Night comes as a ‘moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying the last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.’
But then he immediately questions. “Would they [the readers] be able to comprehend [his ‘story] now?” This question was something that kept coming back to me as I was reading the book. I often found myself tightened, in tears, and needing a break from reading further. And I kept on asking myself: can I even understand the fear, the horror he encountered, and the objectified nature of his days? Would I be able to go on just for a day marching from Birkenau to Auschwitz? By now, I’ve learned, that many Jewish families play the ‘who could survive today a Holocaust’ rather gloomy game.
And again, his carefully selected words (as he writes, this was something that kept him from wanting to write the book in the first place) the easy read and quick paced paragraphs say everything a reader should know. I’m not even sure I could have handled more. And yet, he leaves me with the feeling that he isn’t telling everything. There was much more to it; the suffering – if possible – was even greater.
The book started when Wiesel was 13-years-old. As a sole son among three daughters, he was to be the next Kabbalist in Sighet. His father earned a somewhat prestigious role in the village, while acting with little emotions towards his family. “He rarely displayed his feeling”’, says Wiesel, who was “deeply observant with one goal in life: “to enter eternity” by discovering the very essence of divinity.
The retrospection starts with the short introduction of the village’s poorest Jew, Moishe the Beadle, who, as we learn, looked as ‘awkward as a clown’, but who turned into Elie’s teacher of Jewish mysticism and whose insignificance turns into importance when he tries to warn the Jews of Sighet about what the Nazis are doing to the Jewish people. “I wanted to come back to warn you,” he says, “Only no one is listening to me.”
This short episode weights in when the Jews in Sighet feel afar from any danger, and their optimism that the Germans simply won’t get this far is revitalized day after day. While Wiesel only mentions Palestine and Zionism twice throughout his book, he does it with a purpose. “In those days it was still possible to buy emigration certificates to Palestine.” Not living with the opportunity only shows what we know today: people did not know what was happening until they got to the camps, or if they even heard anything, they could not believe that it would be possible.
Some news arrives from Budapest, and when the first Germans reach Sighet, they act almost friendly, leaving the Jews of Sighet in their delusional state. I find Wiesel’s first few pages a fantastically written piece: without describing emotions or feelings in depth, he describes a sustained positivism that, looking back today, is so unrealistic that as a reader I often found myself wishing: “Please just escape now.”
But then the “race toward death has begun.” The Jews of Sighet were gathered in ghettos, had to wear the yellow star, and hand over all their valuables. The ghettoization however, only shook up the village for a few hours and then it turned out to be almost a ‘good thing.’ Jews were among Jews, they felt safe, they felt in brotherhood comfort. There is something heart-wrenching about imagining that these Jews actually thought of the ghettos as something good. Still, Wiesel is very pragmatic, he writes from a distance; he is a 13-year-old teenage boy, but he writes nothing about his fear or other emotions. While it is certainly a conscious choice, I wonder if it was taken out before publication or he really felt it was unnecessary to go beyond the surface.
In respect to my initial apprehension of needing to read about Hungarians only from a bad angle, I felt relieved when he felt it was important to mention that it was a Hungarian policeman who promised to warn them before ‘there is danger.’
The next few pages depict heavy ambivalences: On one hand, there is this tangible horror as the first few transport leave the city, and on the other hand, there is hope; hope that the heat and dehydration are something temporary, and once they leave Sighet, things will be better.
The first time the reader can get a glimpse of the internal struggles of Wiesel is when he and his family are to leave Sighet, and leave behind everything they had, leave behind their life. “I didn’t want to look at my parents’ faces. I did not want to break into tears.”
Just before it is too late, Wiesel writes about the third occasion when the family could have still escaped. How did Wiesel feel as he was thinking back to all these missed opportunities? How can one have lost all his family knowing that it was all because of a moment of bad decision?
I felt it was vital that he mentioned these missed chances as it is telling about the Jewish community: the importance of family and ‘togetherness,’ the naiveté about any possible bad, a somewhat surreal optimism, and the common faith in God.
On the transportation towards ‘death,’ similar to the anecdote of Moishe the Beadle, Wiesel remembers Mrs. Schachter, whose re-occurring visions of fire – just as Moishe’s warning of the death camps – left everybody around thinking she was mad.
The first time Wiesel’s words made me put down the book was at a seemingly unimportant section. “Auschwitz. Nobody had ever heard that name.” This and similar sentences make Night distressingly powerful.
As they arrive in Birkenau, Wiesel sees his mother and sisters for the last time. Once again, he leaves the reader empty from his emotions, but this is where his relationship with his father pivots. By this time, it is 1944, and the inmates don’t want to believe that the new arrivals had no information about anything; the crematoriums, the death camps, the mechanical killings. There is a short mention of any kind of possible revolt. But it dies out quickly, and there is no mention of any uprising (or a desire for it) for the years to come. And this is the point where Wiesel’ religion is also shaken for the first time. The arch about his transformation from an observant Jew to later not keeping Yom Kippur, and feeling angry towards God is profound. ‘I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.”
Wiesel writes about how quickly a human can change and adapt, how quickly fear is overtaken by a nihilistic fatigue, and hope turns into living only for the sake of each other, and how the “soul had been invaded by a black flame.” Wiesel is still a young boy and yet he makes himself look a mature grown-up. Hard to imagine that at a young age one would possess such an eloquent emotional intelligence.
His rawness as he writes about watching his father being struck in front of him is cold, yet filled with guilt. And this dichotomy is something that serves as one essential angle to his memories. Guilt and care, guilt and love, guilt and self-defence, once again, far too heavy feelings for a young boy.
The following pages describe the unendurable suffering these people faced at in the concentration camps. And Wiesel’s initial fear, whether we the readers, can actually comprehend what he writes, is just. We read the words, we try to imagine and then we just give up as it doesn’t seem bearable.
There are many nuances along the lines that show what these camps did to people: how one piece of bread lifts the morale of the people, and then later on as the soul gets worn out, how the same piece of bread triggers hate, and animal-like instincts. Or the objectifying tattooed number on their arms, taking away their last human dignity. The need to clean the barrack proving that “here lived men and not pigs.” Or the Polish violinist, Juliek, whose music is perhaps the only pleasant picture throughout the book and stands in contrast to the pictures of the hangings, during which, once again Wiesel fuses strength and horror that only those who were there can understand. Or, during the last days before liberation, as the inmates find their only nutrition in eating the snow while the Nazis pity and laugh at them.
Wiesel’s Night is all about the varying pulling powers towards life or death. To live because he can’t give up because he came so far, because of his father, and vice versa. To die, because what is more to live for, because he just can’t go on, because he loses his father. And then there is the continuous struggle between community and family and saving one’s own last breath and life; almost wishing his father would die, but then in the next moment, ready to throw himself against the gravediggers who were grabbing his half-dead father.
“Why don’t they just shoot us now?” a friend of Wiesel’s father asks towards the end of the book. The question, I’m sure, asked by many readers as well. Why the horrendous actions if there was one ultimate aim: waging war “not only against Jewish men, women, and children but also against Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish trading, therefore Jewish memory.”
We learn that Wiesel’s father dies three months before the liberation and with that his last motive to live died as well. While he writes little about his feelings, most probably, because he couldn’t feel anymore, he is confident depicting himself in an absolutely dehumanized state having only one desire: “to eat. I no longer thought of my father or my mother.”
The book ends with Wiesel looking into the mirror for the first time since that fateful night: “From the depths of mirrors, a corpse was contemplating on me. The look in his eye as he gazed me has never left me.”
And with this, Wiesel says out loud what any reader might feel and what he aimed at achieving with his book: you can’t forget!