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Editor: Marie Rose Napierkowski
Date: 1998
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 4. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Length: 16,197 words

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Eliezer Wiesel

With the encouragement of Francois Mauriac, Eliezer Wiesel broke his silence on the horror of the Holocaust to produce an 800 page memoir entitled, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, in 1956. That cathartic story was reworked over two years and became the slim 1958 novella La Nuit which became Night in 1960. Wiesel's novel revealed the Holocaust in stark, evocative, detail. He had a hard time finding an audience, however, in a world that preferred the 1947 Diary of Young Girl written by Anne Frank. Night made no claim on innocence but created an aesthetic of the Holocaust to force people to face the horrible event and, hopefully, break the general silence surrounding that hell. For Wiesel, Night began a brilliant writing career.

Night begins in 1941 in a Hasidic Community in the town of Sighet, Transylvania. There we meet a devote young boy named Eliezer who is so fascinated by his own culture and religion that he wishes to study Jewish cabbala. His father, however, says he must master the Talmud before he can move on to the mystical side of the Jewish faith. Moshe the Beadle indulges the boy until the reality of World War II reaches them. The fascists come to power in Romania and foreign Jews are deported and Moshe with them. Some days later, he makes it back to town and tells them what happened. All the people presumed deported were shot. That was only the beginning, the dusk of the coming night. Within a matter of paragraphs, officers of the Nazi SS corps have arrived and the family is broken up and sent to Birkenau. The metaphorical Page 230  |  Top of Article night only gets darker as Eliezer struggles to survive in the brutality and degradation of the camps.

Author Biography

No other individual is so identified with the Holocaust—its memory and its prevention—as Wiesel. He was born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, to Shlomo (a grocer) and Sarah Wiesel. His parents were part of a Hasidic Jewish community and encouraged him in his religious studies. Growing up, young Wiesel "believed profoundly" and felt it his duty to pray. In 1944, the distant threat of Hitler invaded the community and his family was deported to a concentration camp. A few years after the war, Wiesel was reunited with surviving family members—two sisters.

At the war's close, Wiesel hoped to emigrate to Palestine which would see the declaration of the state of Israel in 1947. Being an orphan, however, placed him with other children enroute to Belgium. General Charles de Gaulle intervened and brought the train to France. Wiesel finished his teens in Normandy and won entrance to the Sorbonne in Paris. After completing his studies he became a journalist. After a decade of living in France, he moved to the United States and eventually gained American citizenship. In 1969, he married Marion Erster Rose. She is also a survivor of the camps and a writer in her own right. She became his English translator.

In 1954, while working on assignment for a Tel Aviv newspaper, he interviewed Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac. When the discussion turned to the suffering of Jesus, Wiesel angrily burst out that nobody was speaking of the suffering just a few years before. Mauriac suggested he break the silence. The result was the first of many works, an 800 page memoir in Yiddish, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (1956), which detailed his experience of losing his family and friends to the concentration camps. This work became the famous La Nuit. (1958) or, in English, Night (1960).

At the time of the book's completion, nobody wanted to be reminded of the Holocaust. In fact, the publishing world felt Anne Frank's Diary of a Little Girl was a sufficient memento of the horror. A tiny firm disagreed and managed to pay $250. Today, annual sales of the work in the United States exceed 300,000 copies.

Eliezer Wiesel Eliezer Wiesel

Despite the book's lack of commercial success, Wiesel was defined by it. He has spent his life, ever since, as a vocal champion of human rights. His eloquent moral voice has often been compared with that of Albert Camus. Wiesel hopes that his stories will prompt a reflection that leads to a more humane future. In 1986, Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

For the last decade he has advised the U. S. Congress on memorials, religion, and the Middle East. He has served as chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council and is the Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University. In May 1997, Wiesel was appointed to Head the Swiss Holocaust Fund. This was in "recognition of his extraordinary accomplishments and his respected moral guidance," said Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti.

Plot Summary


Night opens with a description of Moshe the Beadle, a poor Jew in Sighet, who is teaching Jewish mysticism to young Eliezer. After Moshe is expelled with the other foreign-born Jews, he miraculously Page 231  |  Top of Article returns to tell the Jews of Sighet that all those who were expelled have been killed. However, none of the villagers believe him, and eventually Moshe stops telling his tale. In the spring of 1944, German troops appear in Sighet, and the occupiers issue anti-Semitic decrees and establish two Jewish ghettos. Eventually, the Jews of Sighet are told that they are going to be evacuated.

The Germans pack Eliezer and his family onto a train. Madame Schäcter screams every night that she sees a fire and the others try to silence her, shaken by her insanity. It is not until they approach the camp itself, and see flames, that they realize that she has predicted their fate. They have arrived at Birkenau.


The guards order the man and women to separate, and Eliezer is parted from his mother and little sister forever. He and his father see little children being burned alive and Eliezer realizes that he will never forget the sight.

In the barracks, Eliezer's father asks an SS officer where the lavatories are and the man strikes him. Eliezer does nothing for fear of being struck himself, but he vows never to forgive the striking of his father. The men are then marched to Auschwitz.


The men arrive at their block, where the prisoner in charge speaks the first human words they have yet heard. Later the men are tattooed and Eliezer becomes A-7713; he has been stripped even of his name.

A relative of Eliezer's, Stein, manages to find them, and Eliezer lies that Stein's wife and children are well. Stein continues to visit them occasionally, until he goes to find news of his family and Eliezer never sees him again. After three weeks, the remaining men in the block are marched to Buna, another camp.


At Buna, the men are transferred to the musicians' block and begin work at an electrical equipment warehouse. Eliezer befriends Tibbi and Yossi, two Zionist brothers with whom he talks of emigrating to Palestine after the war.

Idek, the Kapo, beats Eliezer for no apparent reason. A French girl wipes his bloodstained forehead and says a few comforting words. On another day, Idek beats Eliezer's father with an iron bar, and instead of feeling anger towards Idek, Eliezer feels anger towards his father for not knowing how to avoid Idek's blows.

The foreman, Franek, demands Eliezer's gold crown. When Eliezer refuses, Franek begins to punish Eliezer's father for not marching properly. Finally, father and son decide to give up the crown, which is removed by a dentist to whom Eliezer must pay a ration of bread.

On a Sunday, usually a day of rest, Eliezer finds Idek in the warehouse with a girl, and Idek has Eliezer whipped twenty-five times. On another Sunday, the camp is bombed. One man crawls towards two pots of soup and all the men watch him enviously. He dies with his body poised over the soup. The camp is not destroyed by the air raid, but it gives the men hope.

A man is hanged, and the other prisoners are forced to witness it. Later, there is another hanging, this time of a child, beloved in the camp, who has been associated with the Resistance. The child dies a slow, agonizing and silent death as the men weep. Someone in the crown asks where God is, and Eliezer hears a voice inside him reply that God is on the gallows.

The men debate how to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, but Eliezer's heart revolts at the thought of celebrating. On Rosh Hashanah, he finds his father and kisses his hand, silently, as a tear drops between them, knowing that they have never understood each other so clearly. Later, on Yom Kippur, the men debate whether or not they should fast. Eliezer eats, viewing it as an act of rebellion against God, but feels a great void in his heart nonetheless.

After Eliezer has been transferred to the building unit, a selection occurs. Eliezer is not selected for death, and Eliezer's father thinks he has also passed, but after several days they find out that his number was written down. While awaiting another, decisive selection, Eliezer's father gives his knife and spoon. The next day, everyone is kind to Eliezer, already treating him like an orphan. When the day is over, he finds that his father has escaped the second selection, and gives him back his knife and spoon.

In wintertime, Eliezer enters the hospital for an operation on his foot. While he recovers there, he hears that the camp is being evacuated. Eliezer and his father decide to evacuate with the others. We are told that those who stayed behind in the hospital were liberated by the Russians two days after the evacuation.

Page 232  |  Top of Article

The men march away from the camp, then begin to run. Those who cannot keep up are shot; others are trampled to death in the crowd. Only his father's presence keeps Eliezer from succumbing to death. When the men are finally allowed to stop, Eliezer's father pushes him towards a brick factory, where they agree to take turns sleeping. Rabbi Eliahou enters the factory, looking for his son: Eliezer realizes the Rabbi's son has abandoned his father. Eliezer prays for the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done.


The men arrive at Gliewitz, trampling each other on the way into the barracks. As Eliezer lies on a pile of men, he realizes that Juliek is playing his violin, giving a concert to dead and dying men. When he wakes up, he sees Juliek's corpse and his smashed violin beside him.

At Gliewitz, Eliezer saves his father from selection. Later, on the train, Eliezer's father does not wake, and Eliezer slaps him back to life before the men can throw him out with the corpses. At one stop, onlookers throw bread into the cars, and the men fight each other for it. Eliezer sees a son kill his father for a crust of bread and the son, in turn, killed by other men. When they reach Buchenwald, a dozen men, including Eliezer and his father, are left in the wagon out of the hundred who began the journey.


At Buchenwald, Eliezer's father announces that he is ready to die, but Eliezer forces him to continue on. Later, his father develops dysentery and is unable to leave his bed. Eliezer arranges to stay near his father, but when his father begs him for water, an SS clouts him on the head, and Eliezer does not move, afraid he will also be hit. Eliezer's father's last word is his name; the next day, he is gone. Eliezer has no more tears to weep and in his weakened conscience he feels freedom.

Eliezer is transferred to the children's block, beyond all grief. Wiesel says nothing about the events of the rest of the winter. On April 10th, the Germans are going to evacuate the camp, then blow it up, but after the inmates are assembled, the Resistance rises up and takes over the camp, and American tanks arrive at Buchenwald that evening. After liberation, Eliezer nearly dies of food poisoning. When he recovers, he looks at himself in the mirror, something he has not done since he was in Sighet, and a corpse stares back at him.



See Eliezer Wiesel


In the concentration camps, the best heads of the block to be under are Jews. When Elie is transferred to the musicians' block he finds himself under a German Jew named Alphonse "with an extraordinarily aged face." Whenever possible, Alphonse would organize a cauldron of soup for the weaker ones in the block.

Akiba Drumer

Akiba Drumer was a deeply religious elder whose "deep, solemn voice" sang Hasidic melodies. He would attempt to reassure those around him. He interpreted the camps as God's test for his people that they might finally dominate the Satan within. And if God "punishes us relentlessly, it's a sign that He loves us all the more." At one point he discovers a bible verse which, interpreted through numerology, predicted their deliverance to be a few weeks away.

Eventually he can no longer rationalize the horror of the camps with such logic. Finally, he is "selected"—but he was already dead. As soon as he had lost his faith, "he had wandered among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone of his weakness … " He asks them to say the Khaddish for him in three days—the approximate time until his death. They promise to do so, but they forget.


The foreman in the electrical warehouse is a former student from Warsaw named Franek. He terrorizes Eliezer's father when Eliezer refuses to give up his gold crown. Eventually he gives in. A famous dentist takes out the crown with a rusty spoon. With the crown, Franek becomes kinder and even gives them extra soup when he can.

Hersch Genud

An elder who conversed with Akiba Drumer about the camps as a trial for the people, was Hersch Genud. He was "well versed in the cabbala [and] spoke of the end of the world and the coming Messiah."


Idek is a Kapo, a prisoner put in charge of a barracks. Under his charge is Eliezer's block and all who work in the electrical warehouse. He is Page 233  |  Top of Article
Elie Wiesel (second row from bottom, seventh person from left) and other survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp. Elie Wiesel (second row from bottom, seventh person from left) and other survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp. prone to violent fits; people try to stay out of his way. One Sunday, he takes the prisoners under his charge to the warehouse for the day so he can be with a woman. Eliezer discovers them and is whipped. Then he is warned to never reveal what he saw.


Juliek, along with Chlomo and Moshe the Beadle, is one of the most important characters in the novel. He is "a bespectacled Pole with a cynical smile on his pale face." He kindly explains what to do and what not to do on the block, including a word of warning about the Idek, "the Kapo." Juliek is also a symbol of the artistry and talent lost in the Holocaust. He was a violinist.

When they were all run to Gleiwitz and away from the approaching Russians, they were quickly and brutally shoved into barracks, heaped in and left to struggle out of a mass of bodies. In this mess, Elie and Juliek hear each other's voice. Juliek is "OK" but he worries for his violin which he has carried with him. At this moment Elie feels himself very close to death when he hears "[t]he sound of a violin, in this dark shed, where the dead were heaped on the living. What madman could be playing the violin here, at the brink of his own grave?" It was Juliek and he was playing Beethoven—a German composer. In the morning he was dead.

Meir Katz

A farmer who used to bring fresh vegetables to the Wiesels. He was put in charge of the wagon taking them to Buchenwald because he was the most vigorous. He saves Eliezer from strangulation. He confides to Chlomo that he can't go on. Chlomo tries to bolster him but at Buchenwald, Meir Katz does not leave the wagon with them.


Louis was a violinist from Holland who complained that "they would not let him play Beethoven: Jews were not allowed to play German music."

Moshe the Beadle

The first person we meet in the novel is the "physically awkward" Moshe the Beadle. He is poor but the community is fond of him and does not resent the generosity he needs. To Eliezer he becomes something of an uncle and tutor. He gently initiates Eliezer into the mystical side of Hasidism—something he asked his father about but he was told to stick with the Talmud. "Moshe the Page 234  |  Top of Article Beadle, the poor barefoot of Sighet, talked to me for long hours of the revelations and mysteries of the cabbala." Moshe the Beadel is a man without means and, therefore, no investments to safeguard except the people.

When the foreign Jews are deported, Eliezer says goodbye to Moshe. A few days later, Moshe returns with a report on the massacre of those deported. The community dismisses him as a madman. They dismiss him because if he is to be believed, then they too will be as poor as he is. When the SS arrive to cordon off the Jews into a ghetto and then deport them, Moshe says he tried to warn them. Then he flees.


A pipel is a young boy servant of Oberkapo (a prisoner put in charge of several barracks) and often used as a sex slave. One pipel in particular was the servant of a beloved Oberkapo who had been killed when he was found hiding weapons for the camp resistance. The pipel refused to give information under torture. He was hanged before all the prisoners. The normal executioner refused to be involved so three SS took over. It is a horrific execution since the boy was too light to die by his own weight. He struggled for hours at the end of the rope, "That night the soup tasted of corpses."

Madame Schachter

An older woman, Madame Schächter, is huddled in a corner of the wagon with her 10 year-old son. She was a "quiet woman with tense, burning eyes." Her husband and two eldest sons had already been taken. On the first day of the journey to Auschwitz she went out of her mind. She moaned, asked where her family was, and then she became hysterical. At night she would shriek "I can see fire!" Her shrieks would come suddenly and terrify everyone. But she did see fire. The last time she shrieked and everyone looked, they saw the flames of the crematory.


Reizel Stein's husband from Antwerp seeks out Chlomo among the new arrivals at Auschwitz for news of his family. He has not seen them since 1940. Eliezer is faster than his father to recall the man as a relative. He lies and says that his mother has heard from Reizel. This gives Stein great joy. But then, after another train arrives, Stein learns the truth and stops coming round to visit.


Representing the political opposite of the Hasidic elders who preached nonviolence and patience, were two brothers named Tibi and Yossi. They believed in the precepts of Zionism, a political pressure movement active mostly in Europe to convince the world powers to create a Jewish state of Israel in the area of Palestine. They were Jews from Czechoslovakia whose parents had been exterminated at Birkenau. "They lived body and soul for each other." They befriend Eliezer with whom they share the regret that their parents had not gone to Palestine while there was still time to do so. The two boys taught Eliezer Hebrew chants while they worked.

Chlomo Wiesel

Eliezer's father, Chlomo, is a "cultured, rather unsentimental man … more concerned with others than with his own family." He is held in great esteem by the community and symbolizes Abraham. As Abraham, however, he refuses to sacrifice his son. He lives, while in the death camps, to try and keep his son alive. Eliezer, as a representation of Isaac, also safeguards his father. This relationship is the most important of the story. The bitterest moment comes when Clomo believes himself selected and gives Eliezer his inheritance—a knife and spoon.

They have done well together until the end, when they are shipped to Gleiwitz, and then taken to Buchenwald. They are transported in open cars (despite the snow) with the result that Chlomo comes down with dysentery. Eliezer does all he can to comfort his father. He begins to resent the burden. He is tempted to take his father's ration but does not. The resentment he feels for his father haunts him. The haunting grows worse when Chlomo begins yelling to Eliezer for water. A guard silences him with a blow from a truncheon. At some point, Chlomo is taken away to the crematory still breathing. Eliezer could only stand by.

Eliezer Wiesel

The narrating survivor of the camps is Eliezer, who became A-7713. Deeply fascinated by Hasidic Judaism, he finds an indulgent teacher in Moshe the Beadle. The first cracks in his faith begin, however, when Moshe returns from deportation changed in demeanor and warning about impending doom. The cracks widen inside with every night spent in the camps. The crack is not exactly a rejection of God; it is a dismissal shouted out in anger. "Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my Soul and turned my Page 235  |  Top of Article dreams to dust." But such moments passed and his argument is in keeping with Hasidism. Rather, his alteration takes this form, "I no longer accepted God's silence."

Eliezer had once believed profoundly and had lamented before God but he could no longer do so. He "felt very strong" in this realization for he "had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty." Eliezer is henceforth, except for a few moments of doubt, determined to live as a man (a being made of dust) and survive—"something within me revolted against death." Eliezer may no longer believe in the merciful and just God but he believes even less in giving into death by concentration camp madness.

Eliezer represents a truly aesthetic individual who represents the best of European civilization. He is aware of the myths of his people and their history. As such he is able to tell his tale in terms of them with references to psalms, gospel stories, and personages like Job and indirectly Abraham, Isaac, and the three children in the furnace. He is truly mystified to account for the camps both in terms of religion but also morality. Consequently, he is bent solely on survival and only his stomach takes note of time. Still he survives but merely as a corpse in a mirrored gaze just waking up from the long night.


The brother of Tibi and friend of Elie while they all lived in the musician's block.



"Someone began to recite the Khaddish, the prayer for the dead. I do not know if it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves."

This moment of prayer comes right after arriving at Auschwitz—"Haven't you heard about it?"—when the group is being marched "to the crematory." They will not be killed (not yet) but the terror this welcome march inflicts serves to instill despondency, melancholia, and separation of the prisoners from each other. The Germans knew this, they knew that their prisoners could not have empathy: the faster the prisoners live for themselves alone, the faster they die together. Eliezer grasps the message of their first walk, saying, "[h]umanity is not concerned with us." There is no one to witness their death and no one to mourn them with the right prayer except themselves. Later, when Akiba Drumer is selected for death, he asks them to recite the Khaddish for him—they forget to do so because they are preoccupied with survival.

Death is a pervasive element in a story about death camps. Death is fundamental to human society—anthropologists cite burial practices as the foundation of civilization. The Nazi "slaughterhouses" and "factories of death" are antithetical to this civilized practice of death; the Final Solution is an absolute mockery of human rights and values. The effect of this madness on persons normally a part of a culture organized around a detailed belief system, is a breakdown of their social compact with each other and a fall into melancholia. The incapacitating effect of the melancholia each prisoner had—worrying only about himself—lead to the utterly gross situations of a son killing a father for a bite of bread. Finally, it is within this breakdown of empathy among the people in the camps which makes the moment of Chlomo's final gasp—his son's name—and Juliek's swan song possibly beautiful but most likely pathetic to those hearing it.

Throughout the story, men, like Reizel, say they live only because they believe their children may still be alive. Eliezer admits several times that a similar relationship exists between himself and his father. Empathy and the human need of community in the face of death, so as to mourn properly, must be put back together afterward. This is why the stories of the camps must be told and not silenced. Only madness remains if mourning occurs without empathy—only the ghastly and solitary image of one survivor seeing himself in the mirror remains. The survivors must mourn with other survivors—"let's keep together. We shall be stronger"—if they are to escape the madness of the camps and the memory.

God and Religion

The community of faith to which Eliezer belongs is Hasidic. This is a sect of Judaism that came into being during the eighteenth century and its precepts have considerable bearing upon the events of the novel. Hasidism teaches belief in a personal relationship with God. In such a system, awe of God combines with emotion toward God. One can protest, love, fear, and question God without compromising God or contradicting faith. One of Wiesel's favorite prayers may serve as a summary: "Master of the Universe, know that the children of Page 236  |  Top of Article Israel are suffering too much; they deserve redemption, they need it. But if, for reasons unknown to me, You are not willing, not yet, then redeem all the other nations, but do it soon!"

With this very brief summary in mind, the disposition of the prisoners grappling with the hell they are in begins to make some sense. Neither those who doubt or question God, as does Eliezer, nor those who never doubt, betray their faith. Hasidism is antagonistic, "man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers." And yet it is true that the Shoah, or Holocaust, was too much for Eliezer to immediately reconcile with his religion. He was questioning but he was growing tired of God's silence.

A key figure in this system is Job, a biblical character whose faith in God was persecuted and tested in extremity. "How I sympathized with Job!" says Eliezer, "I did not deny God's existence, but I doubted his absolute justice." Comparatively, Job had it easy. Yet the comparison with that biblical figure undermines the tendency to conclude that Eliezer lost his faith. He lost many things but he did not lose, entirely, his faith in the morality of a social compact among men with God. This is what is important, maintaining human dignity by maintaining the empathy of society—not the question of whether or not to fast on some holy day. But it takes the telling of the story of Night to realize this. Meanwhile, in the death camps, Eliezer confesses that "in the depths of my heart, I felt a great void" and "we forgot to say the Khaddish" for Akiba Drumer.

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Topics For Further Study

  • How does Elie arrive at the conclusion that he is stronger than God?
  • Talking with Jason Harris for the Tamalpais News in 1995, Wiesel offered this parable: "A man is walking alone in the woods; he's lost and looking for a way out. Suddenly he sees another man a short distance away from him. He runs over to the man and exclaims, 'Thank God you're here! I'm saved! Surely you know the way out!' to which the man responds, 'First of all: don't go back that way—he points—'I just came from there."'

    If one considers 'there' as the subject of Night, what is Wiesel suggesting about modern morality? Does it hint at a positive future?

  • Consider the following passage: "The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time." What is the function of time in the novel? What mind/body problems does Elie discover in his fight for survival? Lastly, consider that after all the suffering of the camp, Elie gets food poisoning at the end and almost dies; what were the health challenges of saving the camp survivors?
  • Do some research into the Holocaust and compare the experience of the Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah's Witness, homosexuals, and others who were imprisoned. Then compare this to the experience of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians during World War II.
  • Theodore Adomo once said, "it is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz." What did he mean? Do you agree?
  • Read through some of the international treaties on human rights or consider the topic of human rights generally. What role should international bodies play in imposing the idea of human rights on other nations (for example: consider Tibet or the Serbian camps of the 1980s)? When is it proper to intervene in another country's business?

Sanity and Insanity

There are many examples of madness exhibited during the novel. Two in particular stand out as representing the greater insanity of the Holocaust. The first is the hysterical Madame Schachter and the second is Idek's enthusiasm for work—being Page 237  |  Top of Article more than a simply mockery of the motto "Work is liberty!".

The first example recalls Moshe the Beadle's attempt to warn his fellow Jews of the impending doom. They brushed him off while they were still apparently safe ("You don't die of [the Yellow Star]…" said Chlomo). When they realized he was right, it was too late. Finding themselves on a hermetically sealed cattle wagon in the dead of night, they are trapped with their worst fears. Madame Schachter begins screaming out their fear: being offered as burnt sacrifice to the Nazi ideal. They physically lash her. They pity her as merely mad because they cannot believe any real harm will come of their deportation. The Germans are human after all. Even Madame Schachter as madness is silenced when her screamed hallucinations become reality and the flames of the crematorium become visible from the cattle car window.

Kapo Idek "has bouts of madness now and then, when it's best to keep out of his way." That is, he is prone to fits of violence—something neither Eliezer nor his father could avoid forever. One Sunday Idek moved "hundreds of prisoners so that he could lie with a girl! It struck me as so funny that I burst out laughing." This self-indulgence is done with forethought; it is not a fit. He moves hundreds of hungry men just so that he might have sex. It goes beyond selfishness yet oddly represents the entire death camp process—all done for ideas held by a handful of men. The general response to the Nazi challenge cannot be a loss of faith (every character in the story that loses faith dies like Meir Katz) but a reinvention of humanity. As Wiesel has said elsewhere, "in a world of absurdity, we must invent reason; we must create beauty out of nothingness."



The novella is a short piece of fiction that is based on the author's 800-page memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps. The shortened tale is told from a first person point of view. There is no attempt to enter other minds and little attempt to explain what is on the narrator's mind. The sole purpose of the book is to relate briefly and succinctly what happened. The reader's conclusions are meant to be independent although they have been lead, quite consciously, toward an abhorrence of the moral vacuum presented in the camps.


The problem of capturing the unrepresentable, or sublime, into an art product has not been impossible since the Roman treatise on the topic by Longinus. Using examples from the Old Testament (particularly Genesis and Job), the Iliad, and poetry, he displayed the successful methods for capturing nature in verse, ecstasy in poetry, the abyss in myth, and supreme beings in mere names. As a result, Occidental aesthetics views nothing as beyond the ability of the well-trained artist to present it in a packaged form.

Nevertheless, the moral chaos and utter hell that was the Holocaust surpassed any previously recorded human abyss. For some, even fifty years later, it has broken the aesthetic mold of Longinus; how is it possible to comprehend, let alone represent, this most awful of all events? Not easily, yet Wiesel's methods resemble those humans who preceded him in the effort to understand the horrible and sublime by representing their experience in one form or other. It is through that artistic effort that comprehension comes.

The means of representing the unrepresentable are the techniques of the sparse and staccato. In this case, those techniques are used to keep the reader, as much as possible, in mind of how precious is the breath of air the death camp inmates survive on. Words are used sparingly and, when possible, blank space is used instead.

The terse sentences remind the reader of the necessity of conserving energy: one is meant to be bothered by the apparent waste of Eliezer's run across the camp (at the end of a workday) to check on his father. Generally, scenes are made up of few words yet loom large; the storyteller relies on the imagination of the audience, rather than on his ability. He places the dots and hints at the color, but the reader creates the image. Sentences like: "An open tomb", "Never", "The gate to the camp opened." They are fragments, scraps of evidence that remain until they are sown together into a narrative which makes sense of what happened. The narrative replaces the useless pictures the GIs took when they liberated the camps. The struggle of representing the unrepresentable horror, as Wiesel discovered, is best accomplished in the same way that Longinus felt the writers of the Talmud did—with few words and plenty of space for digestion.


Night is full of scriptural allusions, or hints of reference to biblical passages. In fact, the very Page 238  |  Top of Article timelessness of the constant night is reminiscent of supernatural tales. Hasidic tales especially do not follow Occidental notions but develop their own time according to the message of the story. "Time," says Sibelman, "is represented as a creative force, a bridge sinking man to eternity." Within the story time are more direct allusions to particular stories. Two of the most memorable examples will suffice to demonstrate.

Immediately after realizing that the group is not marching into the death pit, there is the incantation, "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp …" etc. This passage is a pastiche of Psalm 150. In French (and Wiesel writes in French or Yiddish), the start of each line begins with Jamais (meaning never). Psalm 150 praises God for his works and deeds while the "Never" passage commits just the opposite reality to memory.

Another example of allusion is the execution of the three prisoners. One of these doomed prisoners is an innocent child, a pipel. This scene recalls the moment in the Christian Gospel when Christ is crucified. In the Gospel according to Matthew, he is accompanied by two thieves. At the point of expiration, Christ asks God why he has been forsaken. At death, the sky darkens and the onlookers murmur that this was definitely the Son of God. In contradistinction, the death of the pipel bothers the onlookers in the opposite way. There is still a look for God but this time, "[w]here is he? Here He is—He is hanging here on the gallows … "


Traditionally, the bildungsroman in German literature is the story of a young, naive, man entering the world to seek adventure. He finds his adventure but it provides him with an important lesson. The denouement finds him happy, wiser, and ready for a productive life. The classic example is J.W. von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Wiesel's novella turns this tradition on its head. He presents an educated young man forced into a hell made by human hands. There he learns more wisdom than he asked for, even when he dreamed of learning the mystical tradition. What he learns about human behavior he would rather not apply. In the end, he sees himself in the mirror, for the first time in several years, as a corpse. The result is not that he will think about being a productive worker, but about healing humanity.

Historical Context

The Eisenhower Years

Eisnehower was re-elected in 1956 to continue his leadership of an America that had emerged literally overnight as the most awesome industrial military complex the world had ever seen. At the start of WWII, while Hitler was invading Poland, there were more men employed in Henry Ford's car plants than in the Army. However, the U. S. had what nobody else on the planet did—an incredible surplus of electric power. The Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams had just been completed with the result that immediately in 1942 the European skies were full of American planes—planes that could be instantly replaced. All this wartime manufacture was retooled for the domestic economy to produce record numbers of cars, jeeps, appliances, track housing, and a whole range of consumer items to be seen in glossy magazines like Life and Playboy. The Broadway hit about the Holocaust, The Diary of Anne Frank, was awarded the Pulitzer and on the television Elvis could only be shown from the waist up while singing the hit song, "Blue Suede Shoes." Real wages and the GNP were up.

Taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the military industrial strength were thousands of GI's who returned from war, went to school, and by the mid-1950s were settled in suburban housing developments. This led to new myths of domesticity. The dependence on the car was immediately born and Congress passed the Federal Highway Act authorizing the construction of 42,500 miles of roads. Along with the car, the mythological love affair with the nuclear family was born and defined. It was more of a geographical definition necessitated by the sudden separation brought by suburbia to the extended family complex. Underneath the jubilation of this prosperity there was a growing anxiety over the Soviet Union and an increasing volume of dissent from America's minorities.

Cold War

The phrase, "Cold War", was first used to describe U.S.-Soviet relations in 1947. But in 1956 there were evident signs of this war as well as a distinct development of an independent Chinese socialism. The most famous of Cold War signs became Nikita Kruschchev's welcome of Western ambassadors on November 17 when he said, "History is on our side. We will bury you!" In turn Kruschchev's repudiation of the Stalinist era opened Page 239  |  Top of Article a rift between Soviet communism and that occurring in China. Mao Zedong reacted to Kruschchev with his speech, "On the Ten Great Relationships." There he outlined a peasant and agrarian focused structure in which the peasant would have economic consuming power. Thus, he rejected the Soviet emphasis on heavy industry.

This personal exchange was in the fall of a year that saw acceleration in the arms race. After Soviet authorities suppressed Polish and Hungarian revolts in February, the Soviets occupied Hungary and used the excuse to install intermediate ballistic missiles whose range put southern Europe on guard. Eisenhower offered asylum to all Hungarian "freedom fighters" but made no other move. The U.S. military answered the Soviet missile deployment by exploding its first airborne hydrogen bomb in May and carrying out a series of nuclear tests in the Pacific. The U.S. also developed the Polaris missile; it is a nuclear warhead that can be launched from a submarine.

Middle East

Israel accepted a UN proposed truce with Jordan that was soon followed by cease-fire agreements with Lebanon and Syria. However, the Soviets refused to allow either U.S. or British troops to patrol the cease-fire. Soviet threats were not taken too seriously. Meanwhile, an alliance formed between Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Egypt. For Israel it was a tense year but a decade of peace followed—broken by the 1967 Six Day War over the Sinai.

In early summer 1956, President Nasser of Egypt announced the Suez Canal Company's concession would not be renewed in 1968. A few weeks later, after British troops departed, he declared the company illegal and ordered its seizure. British and French nationals left Egypt while their prospective ambassadors submitted the matter of the canal to the UN. The Suez Crisis also had the delayed effect of a whole community of Jews being expelled from Egypt. In the fall of 1956, Britain, France and Israel militarily reacted to Egyptian actions. The result was a complete grounding of the Egyptian air force, occupation of the Sinai by British and French troops, and a low in Anglo-American relations. By January of 1957, however, the Suez was restored to Egypt and France was reconciled to the US.

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Compare & Contrast

  • 1956: The Holocaust, outside of Israel, is not discussed. The nearest approach is the reworking of Anne Frank's story for the stage.

    Today: Ignoring the rightwing extremists who deny the Holocaust ever happened, recent years have seen a number of mourning activities for Holocaust victims. Elie Wiesel was named head of the Swiss Holocaust Fund. All across Germany, memorials, art works, and peace shrines have been raised. Art has been returned and Spielberg's Schindler's List has been viewed by millions of people around the world. Holocaust museums have been opened in several cities and archives set up for the recording of survivor testimony.

  • 1956: The Cold War "heats" up as suburban dwellers construct bomb shelters in their backyards. At school, the kids practice air raid drills.

    Today: The Cold War has ended. The U. S. and Russia are almost partners both politically and economically. Unfortunately, little has altered in terms of nuclear targeting by either country.

  • 1956: Canada assists India with a nuclear energy program.

    Today: Both Pakistan and India have nuclear capabilities aimed at deterring the other.

  • 1956: It is a tense year in the Middle East due to disagreements over the Suez canal.

    Today: Tensions run high in the Middle East because the peace process stalls between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.

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Human Political Relations

The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in April and, soon after, the bus boycott of Montgomery began after the insubordination of Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King accepted leadership of the boycott and the Civil Rights Movement went full speed ahead.

The Nationalist government of South Africa admitted its plan to remove 60,000 mixed-blood "colored" from the voting rolls of Cape Province. In late summer, 100,000 non-whites were forcibly evicted from their homes to make room for whites.

In China, the killings continued. From 1949 to 1960, it is estimated that 26.3 million people were killed for resisting communization.


The first successful videotape recorder is demonstrated in Redwood City, CA. Nuclear power is seen as the way of the future as well as a necessary component of a nuclear weapons arsenal. Uranium deposits found north of Saskatchewan's Lake Athabasca make that Canadian province the number one uranium producer in the world. Canada pledges to assist India with its nuclear power program so long as the plants are not used for the development of weapon grade plutonium.

Critical Overview

The reception of Night has remained consistent. The book did not fetch a high price and the criticism upon its publication was favorable but superficial. Reviewers were quick to empathize with the narrative but offered nothing in the way of critique or constructive engagement.

As time passed, however, critics like Simon P. Sibelman have approached the work as an ethical treatise demanding reflection. They have begun to ask Wiesel's question, "what is the state of our morality at the dawn of the next century?" Critics have also grappled with how Wiesel accomplished what many said couldn't be done—transcribe the horror of the holocaust into literary form. Thus, while Wiesel's book makes no distinguishing claim between art and life, a few critics have explored what has come to be known as the Holocaust aesthetic. Most reviews suggest the novel as compulsory for anyone concerned about civilization. Few want to accept it for what it is, a gentle voice of reason asking us to never allow the Holocaust to recur.

W. H. Hager's review for the Christian Century is typical of early reviews. Hager says blandly, "… it is a personal record of a child's experience. Page 241  |  Top of Article As such it should be given a place beside Anne Frank's diary … The worst tragedy is always the death of God in the human soul and when we see it happen to a child who has come face to face with man's evil inhumanity to man we are made to know how dark the night of the soul can be. There are unforgettable moments—like that when the Polish Juliek plays Beethoven among the corpses." Already, he was repeating what had been said in the August, 1960, issue of Kirkus. There the review made an "inevitable comparison with Anne Frank."

The New Yorker repeated the norm but offered a little more insight in its March 18, 1961, issue. "The author's style is precise and brief; he catches a person or a scene in a sentence. He lacks self-pity but not self-awareness." Nothing, however, was said about other semantic aspects like Wiesel's use of silence and white space.

Not all early reviews were unimaginative. Robert Alter, in "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," notes the role of mystical Hasidism in the story. He also declares that Night is only the beginning—the factual grounding—for a man whose "imaginative courage … endows [his] factually precise writing with a hallucinated morethan-realism: [Wiesel] is able to confront the horror with a nakedly self-exposed honesty rare even among writers who went through the same ordeal."

Alter then goes on to compare Wiesel's imaginative landscape with the lyric love poetry of John Donne. This is a refreshing occurrence where one would expect to see a reference to Anne Frank. Alter perceives lyric love poetry as a likely predecessor to Wiesel's work. In his interpretation, lyric love poetry was the last time writers were so focused on the minutiae of, in their case, the lover and beloved. Alter contends that Wiesel is minutely focused on the relationship between executioners, victims, and spectators.

"Wiesel has been considered the chief novelist of the holocaust … [because he] succeeded in blending Jewish philosophy, mythology, and historical experience," said Lothar Kahn in "Elie Wiesel: Neo-Hasidism" (1968). In the late 1970s, Wiesel's work was assessed in the 1978 book by Rosenfeld and Greenberg entitled, Confronting the Holocaust. Michael Berenbaum explored the trial of faith that Eliezer witnessed in his The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel.

In 1982, Ellen S. Fine published a study of the novella, Legacy of Night; The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Keeping with Wiesel, Fine does not draw lines between life and literature. Her book is about the Holocaust, primarily Elie Wiesel's Holocaust. "The thrust of Wiesel's writing does not lie in his literary techniques and he has openly rejected the notion of art for art's sake. He is basically a storyteller with something to say." Being a storyteller has made him a good lecturer and spokesman. Fine argues that taken together, Wiesel's fiction forms a whole work with repeated and varied motifs. His work tells a continuous story of a survivor with memories.

D. L. Vanderwerken's essay explored the traditional genre of bildungsroman and its relationship to Wiesel's work. In his "Wiesel Night as Anti-bildungsroman," he makes comparisons with writers like Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison to show how Eliezer is part of a new fictional hero development. This new hero is worldly to start with, discovers a more devastating wisdom, and is not even happy to be left alive at the end.

The most recent book-length analysis of Wiesel's fiction is Simon P. Sibelman's Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. There he presents Wiesel as a navi, a prophet, who speaks in order to move others "to review the course of life [and, thereby,] redefine the human condition." Sibleman spends a good deal of the book showing how Wiesel's techniques work toward this end. He discusses how Wiesel uses the semantics of page layout to add to the sense-blank pages and paragraphs made up of one short sentence.

Night remains one of the most powerful literary expressions of the Holocaust. It has been responsible for sharing the Holocaust with millions of people who then register their reaction to the bleak, horrific events in the novel. The novel continues to question the role of literature in our society—a society still dealing with the memory of the Holocaust.


Jane Elizabeth Dougherty

Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in English at Tufts University. In the following essay, she discusses themes of faith and disbelief in Night.

Elie Wiesel's Night was first published in an English translation in 1960; it is a slightly fictionalized account of Wiesel's experiences as a concentration camp survivor. His first attempt to write Page 242  |  Top of Article about his experiences was written in Yiddish and contained some eight hundred pages; the English translation of the French version of those experiences, Night, is less than a hundred and fifty pages. It is episodic in structure, with only a few key scenes in each chapter serving to illustrate the themes of the work. One of the most important of these themes is faith, and specifically Eliezer's struggle to retain his faith in God, in himself, in humanity, and in words themselves, in spite of the disbelief, degradation and destruction of the concentration camp universe.

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What Do I Read Next?

  • Night is the beginning of Wiesel's oeuvre and of a trilogy. The next two works are L'aube (Dawn, 1961) and Le Jour (The Accident, 1961) and revolve around survivors of the Holocaust and the way they deal with the memories of the camps.
  • Wiesel's 1962 work, The Town Beyond the Wall, concerns a Holocaust survivor who returns to Hungary to confront his Nazi persecutors. Rather than find relief, the man discovers that his revenge denies and displaces moral responsibility. There is no satisfaction in revenge.
  • The ever popular story of the young girl Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl (1947) tells of a group of Jews coping with the unbearable stress of hiding from the Nazis. Eventually they are discovered. The diary has been adapted brilliantly for stage and film and remains the favorite memento of the Holocaust.
  • Far from the Holocaust, but contemporary with Wiesel's Night are the works of Saul Bellow. His Seize the Day was published in 1956 and deals with the father/son relationship differently than Wiesel does. Both can be read in terms of the Abraham/Isaac motif. Together, the two works are stark contrasts, yet the hero in both works is haunted by the pressure of responsibility to his father.
  • Though some have difficulty with the idea that such a serious topic as the Holocaust would be treated in such a genre as the graphic novel, Art Spiegelman's 1980-1991 collection Maus is a brilliant synopsis of the Holocaust. With cats as Nazis, mice as Jews, and pigs as Poles, the novel exposes more of the tensions that are involved in moments of moral chaos than could be possible covered in one person's memory of the nightmare.
  • The 1995 novel by Gerda Weissmann Klein called All but My Life, tells the story of her experience in World War II. It begins in the prewar days of Poland and continues through her three-year stay in German work camps. The story ends happily—she marries the American lieutenant who is part of American force liberating the camp. This book is very different from other Holocaust stories because Klein writes about emotions more than about the ethics of the horror.
  • Contemporary with the round up and deportation of Jews in Europe, the Japanese in the United States and Canada were also imprisoned. The story of Obasan, by Joy Kogawa (1981), tells the tale of how the hysterical fear of invasion by the Japanese lead to the exile of Canadian citizens with Japanese ancestry. They were forced to live in camps in the interior and were not allowed to resume life as full citizens until the early 1950s.
  • One contemporary of Elie Wiesel was the poet and beatnik Allen Ginsberg. His poetry reflected much on the suffering of humanity as well as the suffering of his own people in the camps. Late in the 1950s, he brought together a collection of poems entitled Kaddish and Other Poems. The poem Kaddish itself is a personalizing of the Jewish hymn of mourning for his mother who died insane in 1956.
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Night opens in 1943, during a time when Hungary's Jews were still largely untouched by the horrors of the Holocaust. It begins with a description of Moshe the Beadle, who is instructing the pious young Eliezer in the mysteries of the cabbala, Jewish mysticism. Eliezer's education is interrupted when Moshe is deported with the other foreign-born Jews of Sighet. Moshe returns to Sighet with an almost unbelievable story: all the Jews with whom he was deported have been massacred. The villagers react with disbelief; they denounce him as a madman. As Ora Avni writes, this first episode of Night reminds the reader of the perils of disbelief.

Wiesel, the writer, occupies the same position as Moshe is the story: he is telling stories that are too horrible to be believed, and yet they are true. As Lucy Dawidowicz writes, "To comprehend the strange and unfamiliar, the human mind proceeds from the reality of experience by applying reason, logic, and analogy … The Jews, in their earliest encounters with the anti-Jewish policies of Hitler's Germany, saw their situation as a retro version of their history, but in their ultimate experience with the Final Solution, historical experience … failed them as explanation."

The Jews of Sighet cannot believe Moshe's stories because nothing in their experience has prepared them for the knowledge that the very fact of their existence is punishable by death. His warnings go unheeded, even after the Fascists come to power in Hungary, even after German troops appear in Sighet, even after two Jewish ghettoes are created, then rapidly liquidated, right up until the moment the last group of Jews from Sighet arrives at Birkenau. It is only as they disembark from the train, aware of the smell of burning flesh, that they recognize the consequences of their disbelief; faith in Moshe's stories might have given them the impetus to flee, to hide, or to resist before it was too late.

Night has been described as a "negative Bildungsroman," a coming-of-age story in which, rather than finding his identity as a young hero would typically do, Eliezer progressively loses his identity throughout the course of the narrative. This identity-disintegration is experienced individually and collectively and symbolized in the early parts of the text by the loss of possessions. After the Jews of Sighet learn that they are to be deported, they abandon religious objects in the backyard of Eliezer's family. Later, while they are waiting to be deported, they are forced to relieve themselves on the floor of their own holy place, the synagogue.

Judaism, the shared faith in the special Jewish covenant with God which sustains Eliezer and his community, is one of the things which the villagers are forced to give up; indeed, their religion is what has marked them to be condemned. Nothing in Eliezer's religious studies has prepared him for the sight of children being burned alive in pits, a sight made all the more horrific for readers by our knowledge of his own youth and the youth of his sister Tzipora, from whom he has just been separated forever. Wiesel writes, in a now-famous passage:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."

Eliezer's faith in himself, in God and in humanity has been consumed, and the horror of this annihilation is underscored by the way Wiesel structures this passage; in its repetition, it is like a prayer. Simon Sibelman writes that "Wiesel composes a new psalm, one which reflects the negativity of Auschwitz and the eclipse of God."

The religious traditions of Judaism, then, are both inadequate to comprehend the existence of Auschwitz and almost impossible to practice there. The men in the camp debate whether or not the observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, required of them by the Jewish covenant with God, are still required after God has betrayed them by breaking that covenant. Eliezer describes eating on Yom Kippur, traditionally a day of fasting and atonement for sins, as an act of defiance against a God in whose mercy he no longer believes. Yet he feels a great emptiness within him, as his identity, and thus his humanity, has depended on his membership in the Jewish community, a community which is being destroyed around him. He writes of meeting his father on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a day when his disbelief makes him feel alone in the universe:

"I ran off to look for my father. And at the same time I was afraid of having to wish him a Happy New Year when I no longer believed it.

He was standing near the wall, bowed down, his shoulders sagging as though beneath a heavy burden. I went up to him, took his hand and kissed it. A tear fell upon it. Whose was that tear? Mine? His? I said nothing. Nor did he. We had never understood each other so clearly."

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In this passage, Eliezer silently shares his grief with his father; the horrors of Auschwitz have stripped their holiest holidays of all meaning and the loss is grievous to them both. Yet at other times, Wiesel suggests that faith is crucial to surviving in the concentration camp. Akiba Drumer, who had been so devout, makes the conscious decision to die after he loses his faith. Meir Katz, who had been so strong, is broken by his loss of faith and dies on the last night of the transport to Buchenwald. Wiesel has written elsewhere that "it is permissible for man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God." In other words, Eliezer's ability to argue with God, as he learned during his study of the cabbala, is itself a kind of faith in God, a faith that helps him to survive the camps.

Faith is the cornerstone of a relationship with God; it is also the cornerstone of Eliezer's relationships with others, which in turn give him a sense of his own identity. It is shared faith in God which binds the Jews of Sighet together, and it is faith in each other which makes those relationships viable and strong.

The most important relationship in Night, and one which illustrates the power of faith and of disbelief, is Eliezer's relationship with his father. After the two are separated from the rest of their family, Eliezer's only thought is not to lose his father. Several times in the story, Eliezer saves his father's life, sometimes risking his own, as he does when he rescues his father from the line of men who have been condemned. As Ted Estess writes, "Eliezer makes only one thing necessary to him: absolute fidelity to his father. God has broken His covenant, His promises to His people; Eliezer, in contrast, determines … not to violate his covenant with his father."Yet Eliezer is haunted by a desire to abandon his father, and is filled with doubts about his own ability to keep the covenant between them. He is given contradictory advice by two veterans of Auschwitz; one tells the newly-arrived men that they must band together in order to survive, while another tells Eliezer that he is better off without worrying about anyone but himself.

Night contains many scenes where fathers and sons are separated, where the son turns on the father or abandons him. Rabbi Eliahou's faith in his son's love has kept him alive, and thus Eliezer is thankful that he has not revealed that Rabbi Eliahou's son has deliberately abandoned him. He also prays to ask for the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done. When Eliezer's father dies, he feels relief, yet Wiesel writes nothing of Eliezer's time in Buchenwald after the death of his father, because Eliezer feels that he himself has died. Wiesel suggests that though the guards pit loved ones against each other, wanting to impose a system of "every man for himself," the men must find the strength to have faith in each other and in their own ability to resist this almost inexorable pressure. As Ellen Fine writes, "to care for another shows the persistence of self in a system principally designed to annihilate the self."

Eliezer's silence, which occurs when his father dies, symbolizes his virtual death. Language is the underpinning of human relationships, and is itself bound up in notions of faith and disbelief. Martin Buber writes that "language … represents communion, communication, and community," and communication through language depends on faith in shared experiences and concepts. Wiesel asserts that the only word that still has meaning at Auschwitz is "furnace," because the smell of burning flesh makes it real. The other words, then, have lost their meanings, symbolized by the sign proclaiming that "Work Means Freedom."

In fact, at Auschwitz, work means a slower death than that inflicted on those who were killed immediately. A "doctor" is someone, like Dr. Mengele, who selects people for death rather than saving them from it. A "son" can kill, rather than respect, his father. Like prayer, words themselves are perverted in the concentration camp universe, and Eliezer loses faith in their ability to achieve communion with God, to communicate with others, or to bind people together in a community. His last loss of faith is his loss of faith in words themselves, which causes him to withdraw into silence and disrupts the narrative itself.

Wiesel's writings after Night have been attempts to reclaim faith in language, in humanity, in God, and in himself. In Night, faith seems an incredible burden, a hindrance to survival, and yet it remains the only way in which the Jews can survive the horrors of the Holocaust. In the context of the concentration camp universe, Wiesel suggests that the only thing more dangerous than faith is disbelief.

Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

Lea Hamaoui

A discussion of Wiesel's eloquent narrative as a means of understanding history and human meaning.

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What follows is an attempt to study the ways in which a traumatic historical experience shapes narrative in a powerful example of this genre, Elie Wiesel's Night. It is my conviction that in groping toward formal and literary understanding of such texts, we move closer to the human meanings that the violent world we live in has all but erased.

To render historical horror is to render, by definition, that which exceeds rendering; it projects pain for which there is no solace, no larger consolation, no redemptive possibility. The implications, both formal and aesthetic, for such a rendering are critical. The great tragedies negotiate exactly such a balance. King Lear's terrible journey from blindness to insight brings him reunion with loyal Cordelia even as he loses her and the restoration of the Kingdom is not far behind. The young Eliezer staring into the mirror upon his liberation from Buchenwald has also gained knowledge, but this knowledge in no way justifies the sufferings that preceeded it. It is not a sign of positive spiritual development. Nor is it linked to restorative changes in the moral and political realm. Night is not about a moral political order violated and restored, but about the shattering of the idea of such an order.

It is clear enough that in comparing King Lear and Wiesel's Night we do violence to both. But the juxtaposition throws light on a crucial aesthetic issue. It helps us define the experience of a work like Night and moves our inquiry in the direction of the specific means by which the writer shapes that experience.

Lear's death is the death of an old man, flawed like ourselves, vulnerable like ourselves, a character with whom a powerful emotional transaction and bonds of identification have been established over the course of the play. In Lear's death we re-experience the tragic dimensions of our own experience. The play articulates, in symbolic form, an existential pain we could hardly afford to articulate ourselves. But it is pain that, no matter how great, is contained, since the very act of its symbolic articulation also gives form, and therefore limits or boundaries, to that pain.

Night proceeds from experience that is not universal. It does not expand from kernels of the familiar but from the unfamiliar, from data in historical reality. The deaths of Eliezer's father, of Akiva Drummer, of Juliek the violinist and of Meir Katz are different because, after all of the pain, there is nothing to be extracted by way of compensation. They are not symbolic but very real, and we experience, not a purging of feelings tapped but the fear of the unpredictable in life to which we, like the Jews of Night, are subject.

If symbol is something that stands in place of something else, the historical narrative does not stand in place of our experience, but alongside it. We experience historical narrative much the way we experience a neighbor's report of his or her visit to a place we have not ourselves visited. The report is informational—it is "adjacent" to our experience, neither interpretive nor metaphorical nor symbolic. It is "other" than our experience but also part of the same historical matrix within which we experience the flow of our own lives. Night threatens and disturbs in a way that symbolic narrative does not.

Night is Wiesel's attempt to bring word of the death camps back to humanity in such a form that his message, unlike that of Moshe the Beadle to Eliezer and to the Jews of Sighet, will not be rejected. The word I wish to stress here is form. The work, which is eyewitness account, is also much more than eyewitness account. In its rhetorical and aesthetic design, Night is shaped by the problematic of historical horror and by the resistances, both psychic and formal, to the knowledge Wiesel would convey.

When the narrator, Eliezer, sees a lorry filled with children who are dumped into a fiery ditch, he cannot believe what he has seen: "I pinched my face. Was I alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to bum people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare."

Eliezer cannot believe what is before his eyes. His disbelief seems to numb him physically—he Page 246  |  Top of Article pinches his face to ascertain that the medium of that vision, his body, is alive, perceiving, present. So fundamental is the horror to which he is an eye-witness that seeing comes at the expense of his bodily awareness of himself as a vital and perceiving entity. What Eliezer witnesses contradicts psychic underpinnings of existence so thoroughly that his very awareness brings with it feelings of deadness.

It is precisely this moment, this confrontation with data that negates the human impulses and ideas that structure our lives, with which Wiesel is concerned. We cannot know that which we cannot know. In order to bring the fact of Auschwitz to us, Wiesel must deal with the inherent difficulty of assimilating the truth he would portray.

His method is simple, brilliant and depends upon a series of repetitions in which what is at stake is a breakdown of critical illusions. At this level, the experience of the reader reading the narrative is structurally parallel to his experience of life, at least as Karl Popper describes it. Life, in Popper's view,

resembles the experience of a blind person who runs into an obstacle and thereby experiences its existence. Through the falsification of our assumptions we actually make contact with "reality." The refutation of our errors is the positive experience we gain from reality. [Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, 1982]

Eliezer's tale is the story of a series of shattered expectations, his and our own. The repetition of this "disappointment," of optimism proven hollow and warnings rejected, becomes the crucial aesthetic fact or condition within which we then experience the narrator's account of his experiences in Auschwitz, in Buna, in Gleiwitz, and in Buchenwald. In this way we come to experience the account of the death camps as an account cleansed of past illusion, pristine in its terrible truth.

The quest for this truth is established at the outset of the narrative in the figure of Moshe the Beadle. Eliezer is devoted to his studies of Talmud. His decision to study Kabbalah with Moshe focuses the narrative on the problematic of reality and imbues it with the spiritual longings of this quest.

There are a thousand and one gates leading into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate…

And Moshe the Beadle, the poor barefoot of Sighet, talked to me for long hours of the revelations and mysteries of the cabbala. It was with him that my initiation began. We would read together, ten times over, the same page of the Zohar. Not to learn it by heart, but to extract the divine essence from it.

And throughout those evenings a conviction grew in me that Moshe the Beadle would draw me with him into eternity, into that time where question and answer would become one.

The book, which begins with Eliezer's search for a teacher of mystical knowledge and ends with Eliezer's contemplating his image in a mirror after his liberation from Buchenwald, proposes a search for ultimate knowledge in terms that are traditional, while the knowledge it offers consists of data that is historical, radical, and subversive.

If directionality of the narrative is established early, a counter-direction makes itself felt very quickly. Following Eliezer's dream of a formal harmony, eternity and oneness toward which Moshe would take him, Eliezer's initiation into the "real" begins:

Then one day they expelled all the foreign Jews from Sighet. And Moshe the Beadle was a foreigner.

Crammed into cattle trains by Hungarian police, they wept bitterly. We stood on the platform and wept too.

Moshe is shot but escapes from a mass grave in one of the Galician forests of Poland near Kolomaye and returns to Sighet in order to warn the Jews there. He describes children used as targets for machine guns and the fate of a neighbor, Malka, and of Tobias the tailor.

From this point onward in the narrative, a powerful counter direction of flight away from truth, knowledge, reality, and history is set into motion. Moshe is not believed, not even by his disciple, Eliezer. The Jews of Sighet resist the news Moshe has brought them:

I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death … And see how it is, no one will listen to me …

And we, the Jews of Sighet, were waiting for better days, which would not be long in coming now.

Yes, we even doubted that he [Hitler] wanted to ex-terminate us.

Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What method could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century?

Optimism persists with the arrival of the Germans. After Sighet is divided into a big and little ghetto, Wiesel writes, "little by little life returned to normal. The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear."

While the narrative presses simultaneously toward and away from the "real," the real events befalling the Jews of Sighet are perceived as unreal:

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On everyone's back was a pack … Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved, his pack on his back. His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book, from some historical novel about the captivity of Babylon or the Spanish Inquisition.

The intensity of the resistance peaks in the boxcar in which Eliezer and his family are taken to the death camp. Madame Schachter, distraught by the separation from her pious husband and two older sons, has visions of fire: "Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!" Her words prey on nerves, fan fears, dispel illusion: "We felt that an abyss was about to open beneath our bodies." She is gagged and beaten. As her cries are silenced the chimneys of Auschwitz come into view:

We had forgotten the existence of Madame Schächter. Suddenly we heard terrible screams: Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!

And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.

The movement toward and away from the knowledge of historical horror that Moshe the Beadle brings back from the mass grave and the violence that erupts when precious illusions are disturbed, shapes the narrative of Night. The portrait and analysis of the resistances to knowing help situate the reader in relation to the historical narrative and imbue the narrative with the felt historicity of the world outside the book. Eliezer's rejection of the knowledge that Moshe brings back, literally, from the grave, predicts our own rejection of that knowledge. His failure to believe the witness prepares the reader for the reception of Eliezer's own story of his experience in Auschwitz by first examining the defenses that Eliezer, and, thereby, implicitly, the reader, would bring to descriptions of Auschwitz. The rejection of Moshe strips the reader of his own deafness in advance of the arrival at Auschwitz.

Once stripped of his defenses, the reader moves from a fortified, to an open, undefended position vis-à-vis the impact of the narrative. Because the lines between narrative art and life have been erased, Wiesel brings the reader into an existential relationship to the historical experience recounted in Night. By virtue of that relationship, the reader is transformed into a witness. The act of witnessing is ongoing for most of the narrative, a narrative that is rife with horror and with the formal dissonances that historically experienced horror must inflict upon language.

Human extremity challenges all formal representation of it. It brings the world of language and the world outside language into the uncomfortable position of two adjacent notes on a piano keyboard that are simultaneously pressed and held. The sounds they produce jar the ear. In a work of historical horror, language and life, expression and experience are perceived as separate opaque structures, each of which is inadequate to encompass the abyss that separates them.

The most powerful passages in Night are those that mark Eliezer's arrival in Auschwitz. The family is separated. Eliezer and his father go through a selection and manage to stay together. Eliezer watches a truck drop living children into a ditch full of flames. He and his father conclude that this is to be Eliezer's fate as well. Eliezer decides he will run into an electrified wire fence and electrocute himself rather than face an excruciating death in the flaming ditch.

The moment is extraordinary and extreme beyond the wildest of human imaginings. Hearing his fellow Jews murmur the Kaddish, a formula of praise of the Almighty that is the traditional prayer for the dead, Eliezer revolts: "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?" The Jews continue their march and Eliezer begins to count the steps before he will jump at the wire:

Ten steps still. Eight. Seven. We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our own funeral … There it was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that was left of my strength, so that I could break from the ranks and throw myself upon the barbed wire. In the depths of my heart, I bade farewell to my father, to the whole universe.

And the words of the Kaddish, hallowed by centuries and disavowed only moments before, words of praise and of affirmation of divine oneness, spring unbidden to his lips: "and in spite of myself, the words formed themselves and issued in a whisper from my lips: Yitgadal veyitkadach shme raba … May His name be blessed and magnified." Eliezer does not run to the wire. The entire group turns left and enters a barracks.

The question of formal dissonance in Night is revealing. The narrative that would represent historical horror works, finally, against the grain of the reader and of the psychic structures that demand the acknowledgments, resolutions, closure, equivalence, and balances that are enacted in Lear. When Cordelia is killed in Shakespeare's play, Lear's sanity Page 248  |  Top of Article gives way and, finally, his life as well. Holding her lifeless body in his arms Lear cries out against heaven, "Howl, howl, howl! O you men of stone. / Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them / That heaven's vault should break." [The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1238] The scene, terrible as it is, formally restores the balance disturbed by Cordelia's murder by virtue of the linguistic energies and dramatic consequences it sets in motion. Those consequences are a terrible acknowledgment of a terrible event. The adequacy of the acknowledgment reconstructs a formal balance even while taking account of the terrible in life.

The words of the Kaddish in Night do not express the horror to which Eliezer is a witness. They flow from an inner necessity and do not reflect but deflect that horror. They project the sacredness of life in the face of its most wrenching desecration. They affirm life at the necessary price of disaffirming the surrounding reality. The world of experience and the world of language could not, at this moment, be further apart. Experience is entirely beyond words. Words are utterly inadequate to convey experience.

The dissonance makes itself felt stylistically as well. Eliezer sums up his response to these first shattering hours of his arrival at Auschwitz in the most famous passages of Night and, perhaps, of all of Wiesel's writing: "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed." The passage takes the form of an oath never to forget this night of his arrival. The oath, the recourse to metaphorical language ("which has turned my life into one long night"), the reference to curses and phraseology ("seven times cursed") echo the biblical language in which Eliezer was so steeped. He continues: "Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky." The oath is an oath of protest, the "silent blue sky," an accusation: "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever." Here and in the sentences that follow, Wiesel uses the rhythms, the verbal energy, imagery, and conventions of the Bible to challenge, accuse, and deny God:

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

The elaborate oath of remembrance recalls the stern biblical admonitions of remembrance. The negative formulation of the oath and the incremental repetition of the word "never' register defiance and anger even as the eight repetitions circumscribing the passage give it rhythmic structure and ceremonial shape. Ironically, these repetitions seem to implicate mystical notions of God's covenant with the Jews, a covenant associated with the number eight because the ceremony of entrance into the convenant by way of circumcision takes place on the eighth day after birth. The passage uses the poetry and language of faith to affirm a shattering of faith.

The passage is a tour de force of contradiction, paradox, and formal dissonances that are not reconciled, but juxtaposed and held up for inspection. In a sparely written, tightly constructed narrative, it is the only extended poetic moment. It is a climactic moment, and, strangely, for a work that privileges a world outside words altogether, a rhetorical moment: a moment constructed out of words and the special effects and properties of their combinations, a moment that hovers above the abyss of human extremity in uncertain relationship to it.

Like the taste of bread to a man who has not eaten, the effect of so poetic a passage lies in what preceded it. Extremity fills words with special and different meanings. Eliezer reacts to the words of one particular SS officer: "But his clipped words made us tremble. Here the word 'furnace' was not a word empty of meaning; it floated on the air, mingling with the smoke. It was perhaps the only word which did have any real meaning here."

Wiesel's narrative changes our conventional sense of the word "night" in the course of our reading. Night, which as a metaphor for evil always projects, however subliminally, the larger rhythm and structure within which the damages of evil are mitigated, comes to stand for another possibility altogether. The word comes to be filled with the historical flames and data for which there are no metaphors, no ameliorating or sublimating structures. It acquires the almost-tactile feel of the existential, opaque world that is the world of the narrative and also the world in which we live.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Night is to be found in the prologue of Terrence Des Pres's book on poetry and politics, Praises and Dispraises. Des Pres is speaking of Czeslaw Milosz and of other poets who have lived through extremity and writes: "If we should wonder why their voices are valued Page 249  |  Top of Article so highly, it's that they are acquainted with the night, the nightmare spectacle of politics especially." [Praises and Dispraises, 1988] Des Pres uses the word "night" and the reader immediately understands it in exactly Wiesel's revised sense of it.

To be acquainted with the night, in this sense, and to bring that knowledge to a readership is to bring the world we live in into sharper focus. The necessary job of making a better world cannot possibly begin from anywhere else.

Source: Lea Hamaoui, "Historical Horror and the Shape of Night," in Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, edited by Carol Rittner, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 120–29.

Karl A. Plank

In the following excerpt, Plank compares the visual text of Chagall's White Crucifixion with Wiesel's powerful narrative.

Around 3:00 A.M. on November 10, 1938, gaping darkness began to spew the flames that were to burn unabated for the next seven years. On this night Nazi mobs executed a well-planned "spontaneous outrage" throughout the precincts of German Jewry. Synagogues were burned, their sacred objects profaned and destroyed; Jewish dwellings were ransacked, their contents strewn and pillaged. Shattering the windows of Jewish shops, the growing swarm left businesses in ruin. Uprooting tombstones and desecrating Jewish graves, the ghoulish throng violated even the sanctuary of the dead. Humiliation accompanied physical violence: in Leipzig, Jewish residents were hurled into a small stream at the zoological park where spectators spit at them, defiled them with mud and jeered at their plight. A chilling harbinger of nights yet to come, the events of this November darkness culminated in widespread arrest of Jewish citizens and led to their transport to concentration camps. Nazi propagandists, struck by a perverse poetry, gave to this night the name by which it has endured in memory: Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Irony abounds in such a name, for in the litter of shattered windows lies more than bits of glass. Kristallnacht testifies to a deeper breaking of basic human continuities. Shattered windows leave faith in fragments and pierce the wholeness of the human spirit.

In that same year of 1938 the Jewish artist Marc Chagall would complete a remarkable painting titled White Crucifixion. Here the artist depicts a crucified Christ, skirted with a tallith and encircled by a kaleidoscopic whirl of images that narrates the progress of a Jewish pogrom. The skewed, tau-shaped cross extends toward the arc of destruction and bears particular meaning in that context. Whatever the cross of Christ may mean, in 1938 it was circumscribed by the realities of Holocaust: the onrush of a weapons-bearing mob overruns houses and sets them aflame; a group of villagers seeks to flee the destruction in a crowded boat, while others crouch on the outskirts of the village; an old man wipes the tears from his eyes as he vanishes from the picture, soon to be followed by a bewildered peasant and a third man who clutches a Torah to himself as he witnesses over his shoulder a synagogue fully ablaze.

Chagall's juxtaposition of crucifixion and the immediacy of Jewish suffering creates an intense interplay of religious expectation and historical reality that challenges our facile assumptions. He does not intend to Christianize the painting, certainly not in the sense of affirming any atoning resolution of the Jewish plight. Rather, in the chaotic world of White Crucifixion all are unredeemed, caught in a vortex of destruction binding crucified victim and modern martyr. As the prayer shawl wraps the loins of the crucified figure, Chagall makes clear that the Christ and the Jewish sufferer are one.…

We must not misunderstand Jewish appropriation of the cross in the context of Holocaust art and literature. Where used at all, the cross functions not as an answer to atrocity, but as a question, protest and critique of the assumptions we may have made about profound suffering. Emil Fackenheim puts the matter in this way:

A good Christian suggests that perhaps Auschwitz was a divine reminder of the suffering of Christ. Should he not ask instead whether his Master himself, had He been present at Auschwitz, could have resisted degradation and dehumanization? What are the sufferings of the Cross compared to those of a mother whose child is slaughtered to the sound of laughter or the strains of a Viennese waltz? This question may sound sacrilegious to Christian ears. Yet we dare not shirk it, for we—Christians as well as Jews—must ask: at Auschwitz, did the grave win the victory after all, or, worse than the grave, did the devil himself win? [God's Presence in History (New York University Press, 1972) p. 75].

Questions such as these spring off Chagall's canvas and into our sensibilities. White Crucifixion depicts a world of unleashed terror within which no saving voice can be heard nor any redeeming signs perceived. Separated from the imperiled villagers by only his apparent passivity, Chagall's Page 250  |  Top of Article Messiah, this Jew of the cross, is no rescuer, but himself hangs powerless before the chaotic fire. The portrayal of Messiah as victim threatens to sever the basic continuity we have wanted to maintain between suffering and redemption.… To have redemptive meaning, the cross must answer the victims who whirl here in torment, for, in the Holocaust, the world becomes… "one great mount of crucifixion, with thousands of severed Jewish heads strewn below like so many thieves" (Roskie, p. 268).

Yet precisely here the language of redemption seems trivial, if not obscenely blind to the sufferer's predicament. Can one speak of redemption in any way that does not trifle with the victim's cry? Before the mother's despair, words of redemption offer no consolation; instead, like the laughter and music which accompany her child's murder, such words mock her torment and deny the profundity of her suffering. The rhetoric of redemption, no matter how benevolently used, remains the ploy of oppressors even decades later. No one may invoke it for the victim in whose world it may have no place.

That world of the victim has found literary testament in the writings of Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and recently the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Although his writings are prolific, few of his works have had the impact of his first narrative, the memoir Night. For a decade following the war—years in which he was a stateless refugee in France—Wiesel maintained a personal moratorium on his experience, a pledge of silence that would allow no word to betray the Holocaust memory. On this matter he wrote nothing and spoke nothing, but listened to the voices within himself. Then in 1956 his memories exploded into an 800-page Yiddish text, "Un di Velt Hot Geshvign" (And the World Kept Silent). Over the next two years Wiesel would live with this manuscript, paring away from its pages every letter that was not absolutely essential, every mark on the page that might divert from the intense reality of its truth. The result: the stark volume Night, some 120 pages that have become a landmark in Holocaust literature. Night, too, places the Jew on the cross. It describes the hanging of a young boy who had worked with a well-liked overseer. Both had become suspected of sabotage, and the boy is sentenced to hang, along with two prisoners found with weapons.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains—and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.…

The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.…

"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.…

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive.…

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

"Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows …"

Francois Mauriac, the French Catholic writer and author of the foreword to Night, found in this scene not only the center of Wiesel's story but also the essential question for his own appropriation of Christian faith. In 1954 Wiesel, then a young journalist, had occasion to interview Mauriac who just two years earlier had won the Nobel Prize in literature. Page 251  |  Top of Article The interview proved to be a decisive turning point for both of them: for Wiesel, Mauriac provided the compassionate challenge to tell the story of darkness; for Mauriac, Wiesel made unavoidably personal the plight of the Holocaust child. Upon reading Night, Mauriac wrote the following:

And I who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? … But I could only embrace him, weeping ["Foreword to Night," pp. 10–11].

Mauriac, long a poignant witness to the connection between suffering and love, knew well that the cornerstone of his faith was at stake in Wiesel's narrative. And yet, at the point at which he might have been tempted to proclaim his gospel, he finds that the only fitting response is to embrace the victim, blessing him with tears. The reason is clear: the death of the sad-eyed angel creates a stumbling block not only for Wiesel, but for Mauriac; not only for the Jewish victim, but for the Christian onlooker who cannot interpret away the scandalous scene without trivializing its grossly unredeemed features. In Mauriac's embrace human compassion stifles theological conviction, rescuing it from becoming an oppressive utterance.…

We misread the scene if we assume that the writer's tears are tied only to his perception of the victim's tragedy. The conversation between Mauriac and Wiesel begins with Mauriac's recollection of the German occupation of France, admitting his painful knowledge of the trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. As Wiesel responds "I was one of them." Mauriac sees himself anew as an unwitting onlooker, the bystander guilty not of acts undertaken, but of acts not taken. The indictment is not Wiesel's but Mauriac's own, born of the self-perception that not to stand with the victim is to act in complicity with his or her oppressor. Mauriac's tears signify his humble repentance, his turning away from the role of onlooker to align himself with the victim. The observer becomes witness, testifying on behalf of the victim. Crucifixion indicts, for in its shadow we are always the guilty bystander. Humility, such as Mauriac's, puts an end to any assumption of benign righteousness; repentance denies complacency to the viewer of another's passion.…

Crucifixion, be it the cross of Jesus or the nocturnal Golgotha of Auschwitz, breaks the moral continuities by which we have considered ourselves secure and whole. To mend these fragments of human experience lies outside our power. We cannot repair the broken world. Yet, as we yield these broken continuities to narrative—to memoir, to literature, to liturgy—we begin to forge a new link that binds storyteller and hearer, victim and witness. But here we must be most careful. We rush to tell the story, confident that it is ours to tell when, in fact, it is ours to hear.

Source: Karl A. Plank, "Broken Continuities: Night and White Crucifixion," in The Christian Century, Vol. 104, No. 32, November 4, 1987, pp. 963–66.


Roger Alter, "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," in After the Tradition, E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1962.

Ellen S. Fine, Legacy of Night; The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel, State University of New York Press, 1982.

W. H. Hager, a review in Christian Century, January, 1961, p. 88.

Jason Harris, "Wiesel Recounts Twentieth Century" in The Tamalpais News,˜Tamnewsll old/LXX/tam/ads_art/wiesel.htm: 1995.

Lothar Kahn, "Elie Wiesel: Neo-Hasidism," in Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time, A.S. Barnes, 1963, pp. 176–93.

Kirkus, August, 1960, p. 660.

New Yorker, March, 1961, Vol. 37, p. 175.

Simon Sibelman, in Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

For Further Study

Ora Avni, "Beyond Psychoanalysis: Elie Wiesel's Night in Historical Perspective," in Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and the "Jewish Question" in France, edited by Lawrence Kritzman, Routledge, 1995, pp. 203-19.

Explores the idea of "cognitive dissonance," i.e., the inability of the villagers in Night to conceive of Nazi slaughter in terms they can understand, and examines how the loss of community equals the loss of humanity in Wiesel's text.

Michael Berenbaum, The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel, Wesleyan University Press, 1979.

Page 252  |  Top of Article

Analyzes the way in which the reading of the novel effects one's theology as well as the way the novel uses theology.

Alvin H. Rosenfeld and Irving Greenberg, Confronting the Holocaust: The Legacy of Elie Wiesel, Indiana University Press, 1978:

Includes essays exploring various themes in the works of Elie Wiesel. Several essays explore Wiesel's contributions to Jewish post-Holocaust theology.

Lucy Dawidowicz, The War Against The Jews, 1933-1945 Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.

A historical account of Nazi persecution against the Jews.

Gary A. Donaldson, Abundance and Anxiety: America, 1945-1960, Praeger Pub Text, 1997.

The abundance that America enjoyed after WWII was accompanied by new anxieties over the Soviet Union. The Cold War caused prosperous suburbanites to build private bomb shelters and schools to practice air raid drills. The author argues that the tension between abundance and anxiety defined the period.

Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, edited by Carol Rittner, R.S.M., New York University Press, 1990.

Presents essays that view Wiesel's works through Jewish and Christian theological perspectives.

Ted Estess, Elie Wiesel, Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1980.

Overviews Wiesel's life and work, with considerable attention to the historical context of the Holocaust in Hungary and to Wiesel's Hasidic background.

Ellen Fine, Legacy of Night, State University of New York Press, 1982.

Explores the theme of "witness" in Wiesel's works, taking Night as the basis for all of Wiesel's succeeding books.

Herbert Hirsch, Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to PreserveLife, University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

A book-length analysis of the politics, problems, and necessity of remembering crimes against humanity. It also poses suggestions for the future preservation of human life.

Holocaust Literature: A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings, edited by Saul S. Friedman, Greenwood Press, 1995.

An exhaustive survey of conceptual approaches to the Holocaust, Holocaust area studies (including an essay on Hungarian Jewry), and representations of the Holocaust in education and the arts. It includes a short section on the philosophy of Elie Wiesel.

Jack Kolbert, "Elie Wiesel," in The Contemporary Novel in France, edited by William Thompson, University Press of Florida, 1995, pp. 217-31.

Provides an overview of Wiesel's life and major literary themes, with special attention given to his place in contemporary French literature.

Dominick LaCapra, Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma, Cornell University, 1994.

Discusses issues through the lens of psychoanalytic literary theory. In particular, it deals with historical representations of the Holocaust.

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, Collier Books, 1995.

A detailed account of the famous death camp by another survivor. It is a reprint of a 1947 work.

Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm: A Novel, Vintage Books, 1988.

One of many works by this author to deal with the Holocaust. This novel positions the Holocaust as the central event in the consciousness of twentieth-century Jews.

Simon P. Sibleman, Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

This volume explores the theme and practice of "silence" in Wiesel's works, arguing that "silence" represents more than the mere absence of words.

D. L. Vanderwerken, "Wiesel's Night As Anti-bildungsroman," in Yiddish, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1990, pp. 57-63.

Views Elie as the antithesis of the traditional "coming of age" hero.

Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.

This is the first volume of Wiesel's memoirs, and it expands and comments on events depicted in Night.

Writing and the Holocaust, edited by Berel Lang, Holmes and Meier, 1988.

The essays in this volume treat various aspects and problems in writing about the Holocaust, including the difficulty in accurately conveying the horrors of the concentration camps. Several essayists praise Wiesel's literary style as the most effective in bearing witness to the Holocaust.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2591700023