Elie Wiesel’s famous book, Night, was written as a memoir from his experience as a Jewish victim of the holocaust. Written in the 1950’s, it serves as one of the best and most accurate resources on the holocaust, as well as being one of the few literary memoirs ever written on the subject. As a young teenager, Wiesel struggles with his devout religious nature and the godless and destitute place he has just left and somehow survived. On top of his own personal struggles, he is forced into a concentration camp, along with his father. His struggle is recounted, and his life within Auschwitz and beyond is documented.
The main character, Eliezer, is much more than just a character-he is also the narrative, telling his story and his direct experiences in the Nazi concentration camps. (The main character, Eliezer, is not to be confused with the author, Elie. Eliezer was an alter-ego made up by Elie in order to disassociate slightly with the tremendous hardships his character faces.) I have only read a handful of book on the Holocaust, but this book proved to be particularly chilling, as the main character describes his experience incredibly intimately.
You literally experience it alongside of him. However, it is interesting that he not only described the physical events that he went through, but also the emotional and spiritual journeys he embarked upon. His fundamental beliefs are suddenly called into question, bringing a much needed side of humanity to historical depictions of the Holocaust.
One of the strongest themes throughout the novel is that of seeking and making peace with God. Wiesel begins the story by speaking about his Jewish studies and his lengthy prayer rituals. He describes how the Nazis have obliterated and destroyed the synagogue which he attends. Towards the end of the book, any mention of Jewish observance has disappeared. When his father passes, Wiesel states, ““[t]here were no prayers at his grave. No candles were lit in his memory.” This gives implication to the fact that throughout Wiesel’s ordeal within the concentration camps, he has left his faith in God, or at the very least has lost the need for spiritual renewal through prayer and ritual.
Wiesel struggles throughout the entire book with his faith in God. Towards the beginning of the book, the author states, ““Why did I pray? . . . Why did I live? Why did I breathe?” when asked why he prays to his God. This shows that his faith in God is much like God’s love for him-unconditional. In addition, Wiesel struggles with the main teachings of Jewish mysticism. For example, his faith is based around the basic belief that God is everywhere, God is a good and divine being, and since God is everywhere in the world, the world must therefore also be good. His experiences tell him otherwise.
As stated above, his faith changes and shifts significantly throughout his experience within the concentration camps. However, throughout the middle of the book, Wiesel maintains that he is struggling with his faith, a significant and important distinction rather than abandoning his faith. Almost all Christian faiths teach that not only is questioning one’s faith acceptable, it is encouraged. After all, how can one have faith without doubting first? At one point, Moshe the Beadle is quizzed on his reasoning behind prayer.
He answers, ““I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.” This is a perfect example of questioning faith in God. However, throughout Wiesel’s experience during the Holocaust, he does much more than simply questioning his faith. He must confront basic ideas of good and evil, and ultimately whether there is a God that exists that would allow such atrocities to be committed by humans to other humans.
Ironically, at the end of the book, Wiesel states that his faith has been completely dissolved and destroyed. However, he also states at the same time that he will never forget the things that he has experienced even if he “live[s] as long as God Himself.” He has just before completely denied any existence or presence of God, yet he is still only struggling with his faith in God-a major, recurring theme throughout the book. However, Wiesel’s situation is also quite complex. His heritage IS his religion.
He is both Jewish in ancestry, as well as Jewish in religion. How can your religion and mind escape your body? It would be hard enough to abandon a religion you have grown up with, but this religion in particular is literally all-consuming. It would be near-impossible for him to deny any existence of God because of this.
Throughout the Holocaust museum, signs are posted with slogans such as “Never forget”-an anthem that was often used (and is still used today) after September 11th, 2001. However, Wiesel actually personalizes this “never forget” slogan when he eloquently states, “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 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.” This is one of the first times that the author is able to reflect upon and to take in what is happening around him. This is also an ironic allusion to Psalm 150, where each line starts with, “Hallelujah” or “Praise God.” The author inverts these phrases, beginning each line with “never.” Psalm 150 is obviously a Psalm of praise. The passage in Night calls into question the very existence of God, or at the least Wiesel’s basis of faith in a God.
One of the most obvious symbols, yet also the most complex symbol appearing throughout the book is the night itself. Night and darkness is a symbol for the absolute worst in humanity, as well as an allusion to the creation of the earth. God’s first act was to create light; therefore, this was God’s first actual presence on earth. God’s seeming abandonment of His people is metaphorical within the idea of night. In other words, Eliezer believe that he is living in a world without God.
Most critics agree that Wiesel’s Night is one of the few pieces of literature that absolutely must be read by every person in the world. Included in this is Thane Rosenbaum, law professor and reviewer for the New York Times. She states, “This collection is a noble literary achievement.” She goes on later to say, “And on top of all of these mysteries and contradictions is the greatest of them all,” referring to the excellent style in which the author both engages the reader in an intimate conversation while still allowing the reader to imagine the painful experiences Wiesel must have experienced.
Critic Itzhak Ivry had the same positive opinion of the book. Ivry indirectly says that of course the subject Wiesel wrote on would be interesting, thought provoking, and emotional. However, Wisel’s style of writing is praised, as Ivry states, “Mr. Wiesel writes in short, staccato sentences, in the simplest words, and in a relentless, self-denying effort to tell the whole truth as he saw and felt it, moment by moment, day by day.” Ivry discusses in detail Wiesel’s gradual disillusionment with God.
Ivry also discusses and alludes to the Hall of Shoes lining the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. There is a room filled with hundred and hundreds of shoes in every imaginable shape and size. Many are still covered in dust, dirt, and ash. Ivry alludes to this when saying, “Children’s shoes are a touching sight when piled up in a concentration camp storehouse, and a child’s reaction to the twentieth century’s greatest calamity is especially poignant.”
One of the most difficult parts of reading this book is its intense resemblance of the current crisis in Darfur. It is almost as if the book itself were echoing and simultaneously foreshadowing the voices of the lost children in the Darfur region of the Sudan. One of the main points of the book is that all citizens of humanity are able to commit atrocities just like these, and the rest of humanity must keep one another in check, lest something happens just like the holocaust. Unfortunately, genocide is taking place just a continent away. It seems as though Wiesel wrote Night specifically for the purpose of encouraging us to “step up to the plate,” to make up for our lack of response during the Holocaust.
Night proved to be an extremely difficult book to read. Elie Wiesel is a fantastic author, and he truly captures the reader’s attention by not only telling his story, but also by showing how easily this happened, and how easy it would be for it to happen all over again. Wiesel manages to bring about an aspect of humanity not apparent in other historical memoirs-and the critics obviously agree. However, it is a book that I truly believe should be read by everyone, as it has incredibly valuable lessons to teach about faith and humanity.
Ivry, Itzhak. “Memory of Torment.” Rev. of Night, by Elie Wiesel. Saturday Review 17 Dec. 1960.
Rosenbaum, Thane. “Revealing, Concealing.” Rev. of Night, by Elie Wiesel. Los Angeles Times 22 Apr. 2007.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. 3rd ed. New York: Bantam, 1982.