How one of the most definitive Holocaust memoirs of our time escaped my attention is perplexing, but it was with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation that I sat down on a chilly November afternoon to read “Night” by one of the world’s most famous Holocaust survivors, Elie Wiesel. When I looked up two hours later, something in my psyche had been altered. How could so brief a book, at just over 100 pages, pack such a punch?
That is the power of “Night.”
Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, now part of Romania. Along with his family, Wiesel initially was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where his mother and younger sister perished. Miraculously, he and his father were able to stay together, despite being moved from camp to camp within a year’s time.
Wiesel kept a vow to himself to remain silent about his own experiences for a decade. In an updated introduction, Wiesel shares his reason for writing the book:
“His duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
Not a word is wasted in this chilling account of Wiesel’s experiences in multiple concentration camps in Eastern Europe during World War II.
In sparse but powerful prose, in partially fragmented pieces, Wiesel relates how most neighbors in his Transylvanian village believed that they were safe from the long arm of the Nazis. Despite losing more and more privileges and being forced into the ghetto, the Jewish community was attempting to hang on to normalcy by a precarious thread. Wiesel said that he tried to convince his father to move to Palestine, as Jews were still able to secure travel papers, but his father felt that he was too old to start over again.
Eventually, the Nazis caught up with them and deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. He was separated from his mother and sisters but was allowed to stay with his father; the two clung to each other for life and for hope.
In “Night,” utilizing engaging-yet-straightforward language, Wiesel somberly recounts the gut-wrenching horrors that he witnessed; the slipping away of his faith while still yearning and searching for God; his being passed over for selection by the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele; how his world narrowed to soup and bread.
After witnessing a hanging in which the victim took long to die: “That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”
Just a few months before liberation, Wiesel, just two days after foot surgery, was forced to walk, along with thousands of other internees, for days in the middle of winter to Buchenwald. This was the final leg of the journey that ultimately led to his father’s death, an event that caused Wiesel a lifetime’s worth of guilt.
Upon liberation, Wiesel said, “One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.”
“Night” is often marketed as part of a trilogy, along with “Dawn” and “Day,” although the latter two are fictional accounts of Holocaust survivors.
Though the book had been originally published in English in 1960 after having been translated from the original Yiddish, the volume I read was released in 2006, with a new translation by the author’s wife, Marion Wiesel.
Wiesel was bestowed the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986; his moving acceptance speech is reprinted at the end of this volume of “Night.” In 2006, he visited Auschwitz for the first time since his imprisonment, accompanied by Oprah Winfrey.
He lives in Boston with his wife. An outspoken human rights activist his whole life, he established the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, a social justice organization, soon after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
“Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
“Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.