I just read “Night” by Elie Wiesel and though words should not suffice, I’d like to attempt a few.
Wiesel is a professor in the Humanities at Boston University. He has written over 40 published and internationally acclaimed works but “Night” was his first. In his preface to the new translation (from Yiddish) he writes “If in my lifetime I was to write only one book, this would be the one.”
In this preface he asks: “Did I write it so as not to go mad or, on the contrary, to go mad in order to understand the nature of madness, the immense, terrifying madness that had erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind?”
Wiesel grew up in Sighet, Transylvania (Romania) as a devout and rigorously studied Jew. In 1941 he was 12. In 1945 he was 16. In between he saw the insides of Auschwitz, Buna, Birkenau, and Buchenwald, experiencing horrors beyond human comprehension. In 1972 he published “Night.” And in 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his acceptance speech, he says “… the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
The interior of this work, the thickly worded pages of “Night,” is sparse. It moves at a clip, faster than expected and yet not fast enough to escape the agonizing echos that bounce between the lines. What stands out in this dichotomy is our naivete, humanity’s incessant optimism. In 1944 the Germans infiltrated Weisel’s small village. Within a matter of weeks, all Jews from Sighet were in Birkenau standing in a line, hearing the words “Men to the left! Women to the right!” Wiesel writes “Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother.”
That haunting delivery shapes the tone and structure of “Night,” dosing out small, bitter morsels to the readers and forcing us to swallow before we realize we’ve finished the sentence. In the weeks and months prior to Wiesel’s separation from his mother (and three sisters), we read of the Sighet community’s blatant ignorance of facts, of their agonizing hope for a better tomorrow, and of their firm belief in the prevalent good in humankind. But, of course, we read this in hindsight – as we read all harrowing accounts of the Holocaust and revisit the world’s ability to ignore 6 million deaths. No one knew what was going on in Sighet prior to the German invasion. No one. And those who were warned ignored the “rumors.”
Wiesel brings the reader into the belly of a beast beyond words, writing merely to keep up appearances. He relays so many singular images that you begin to find the blur more terrifying than the snapshot, the collection even more astonishing than the individual specimens. In the background of this shadowbox stands a relationship that frames the entire text, the experience, the outcome, and the aftermath — Wiesel’s relationship with his father. When Wiesel and his father step left on their first day in Birkenau, they leave behind Wiesel’s mother and three sisters. At this moment they begin a journey that exists as a simultaneous fight to stay alive and to stay together. I found this struggle and Wiesel’s subconscious thoughts that surface following his father’s death to be some of the most powerful moments in the book. In their twisted truths, they settle as some of the deepest and purest expressions of our collective incomprehension of the Holocaust.
We can ask a million questions of the Holocaust – and have. We can read a million texts from those who braved the Kingdom of Night – and will. But, after reading Wiesel’s “Night” and finding some “answers” — truths from the depths of the night — I am finding the takeaway to be the driving questions themselves. At the book’s beginning, Wiesel writes:
“[Moishe the Beadle] explained to me, with great emphasis, that every question possessed a power that was lost in the answer. Man comes closer to God through the questions he asks Him, he liked to say. Therein lies true dialogue. Man asks and God replies. But we don’t understand His replies. We cannot understand them. Because they dwell in the depths of our souls and remain there until we die. The real answers, Eliezer, you will find only within yourself.”
‘And why do you pray, Moishe?’ I asked him.
‘I pray to the God within me for the strength to ask Him the real questions.'”
Wiesel, Elie. (2006). Night (Marion Wiesel, Trans). New York: Hill and Wang. (Original work published 1976).