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1. Discuss the significance of the last three paragraphs of Night.
The book ends as Eliezer recovers from food poisoning in the hospital at Buchenwald after the camp has been liberated. One day he musters the strength to get up and look at himself in a mirror. He has not seen his own face since he left Sighet over a year ago. In the mirror, "a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me." This stark image sums up much of the message of Night. It is an image of despairing silence, and silence has been a prominent theme throughout the book. The "corpse" that gazes back at Eliezer is mute; there are no words that can do justice to the experience he and the Jewish people have been through. Although Eliezer is still alive physically, something in his soul is dead. He has witnessed the death of humanity, even what he thinks of as the death of God. He no longer has religious faith. Everything that he knew has been destroyed, and all that is left is death. As Elie Wiesel put it, "In Night I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end-man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left" (quoted in Simon P. Sibelman, Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel, St. Martin's Press, 1995, p. 44). Eliezer (and the author, Elie Wiesel) must somehow find a way of making a new beginning, but everything he does in the future will contain the experience of the Holocaust at its core. He will never leave it behind.
2. Was the Holocaust a unique event in human history?
It would be hard to exaggerate the horror of the Holocaust, in which six million Jews died as a deliberate act of policy on the part of the Nazis. The aim of Adolf Hitler and his regime was to exterminate the Jews, whom they regarded as inferior and "subhuman." Just to give one example of the staggering extent of the slaughter: at Auschwitz, which was the most notorious death camp of them all, in a forty-six day period in the summer of 1944, between 250,000 and 300,000 Hungarian Jews were put to death at the camp in the gas chambers. The SS also resorted to mass shootings during this period to relieve the pressure on the gas chambers, even though these could accommodate two thousand people at one time. (Auschwitz was the camp that Eliezer was sent to and spent three weeks there in the spring of 1944.) Even today, when the Holocaust is sixty years in the past, and the facts are well-known, it still comes as a shock to read the first-hand accounts of what happened. Presented with something so horrific that it is almost impossible to imagine, the mind goes blank. There seems to be no way of comprehending or explaining it. This has always been Wiesel's position. He wrote that all he could possible achieve by his writings on the Holocaust "is to communicate the impossibility of communication" (quoted in Robert McAfee Brown, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983, p. 24). The story can in a sense never be told, even though the story-teller (Wiesel) is compelled to tell it.
Wiesel has always been firm in his belief in the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He wrote, "It never happened before. It can be compared to no other event" (quoted in Brown, p. 24). However, the debate over the uniqueness of the Holocaust has become a contentious one. Some have argued that the massacre of over one million Armenians by the Turks in 1915 was similar to the Holocaust in scale and intent -the genocide of an entire people because of their ethnic identity. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which 800,000 people were massacred in a period of only eight months because of their ethnicity, is also cited as an example of an event similar to the Holocaust. Some also point out that in the twentieth century, purges conducted by the state in the Soviet Union and in China killed more people than were killed in the Holocaust.
The debate is acrimonious because some argue that to deny the uniqueness of the Holocaust is to play into the hands of what is called "Holocaust denial." There are still people who claim that the Holocaust never happened, although no serious person believes this. The Holocaust is a documented fact of history and cannot be denied. The fact that it was perpetrated by a cultured, advanced people, using the most advanced technology of the time, and backed up by an ideology that declared the victims to be subhuman, makes convincing evidence that the Holocaust was indeed a unique event in human history.
3. Is Hell an appropriate word to describe the reality of the camps?
Hell is the word that Eliezer frequently uses to describe the kind of existence the Jews are forced to lead at Auschwitz and Buna. When he first enters the barracks, Eliezer thinks "the ante-chamber of Hell must look like this. So many crazed men, so many cries, so much bestial brutality!" At first sight the use of the word hell seems appropriate. After all, the prisoners suffer terribly without hope of redemption. Punishments are cruel, death is always present, and the values by which humanity tries to live in civilized society are absent. There is only a struggle for survival in which kindness and human warmth have no place.
However, there is an important distinction to be made. In all religions that have a concept of hell, it is a place reserved for punishment of the wicked. The wicked go to hell because they deserve it, and they are tormented for the sins they have committed in their lives. But this does not apply to the Jews who are imprisoned in the camps. They are innocent victims. Nothing they have done deserves such treatment. The picture presented of the Jewish community in Sighet, for example, is one of a peaceful, religious community. Elie himself is an innocent teenager, full of zeal to study and practice his religion.
But the use of the word hell to describe the camps is appropriate because this is a universe in which all notions of justice have been obliterated. A hell in which the innocent suffer is more terrifying than a hell reserved for sinners. The use of the term conveys very effectively the loss of all moral bearings in the universe. If God is dead, so is justice, and there can therefore be a hell specially made for the innocent.
4. Does Eliezer try to explain why the Holocaust happened? Does he give any reasons for why the Germans want to destroy the Jews?
Night is a very short book, a little more than one hundred pages in length. Wiesel cut it down from an 800-page manuscript. He said later that the style had to be "austere" and "sober," as "pure as a police report" (quoted in Elie Wiesel: Conversations, edited by Robert Franciosi, University Press of Mississippi, 2002, p. 112). Its main purpose is to record what happened for posterity, so people do not forget, and it does not happen again. It is a personal memoir in that Wiesel, through the character of Eliezer, explores his own state of mind, documenting his absolute loss of faith as a result of his terrible experience. The question in Night is not so much why the Germans are committing these atrocities but why God is allowing them to do it. Eliezer does not seek to investigate why the Holocaust happened or what the motives of the perpetrators were. He offers no comments on Nazi racial ideology. In presenting the events from the perspective of the Jews as the catastrophe unfolded, rather than from the point of view of later analysis, he allows the events to speak for themselves, and for the reader to draw his own conclusions. Eliezer's role, and that of the author Wiesel, is to act as a messenger who tells the story as a warning for others.
Perhaps another reason Wiesel does not attempt to explain the reasons for the Holocaust is because he believes it was an absolute evil and cannot be explained. To try to explain it, rather than merely telling what happened, would be to place it within the sphere of rational analysis, as something that can be understood. This may also be why he emphasized the innocent passivity of the Jews of Sighet, who simply cannot believe that Hitler would really try to exterminate the Jews. At every turn of events before and even during the deportation, they make excuses, looking on the bright side, never suspecting the worst, because the worst was simply beyond rational imagination. It was, and remains, incomprehensible.
5. Are there any similarities between the book of Job and Night?
There are a number of similarities between the book of Job and Night. Elie Wiesel himself is often compared to Job. Job was a pious man who suffered one undeserved misfortune after another. He lost his prosperity and his family and was then stricken with painful sores all over his body. In response, he dared to challenge God, protesting about his suffering, and asking why God allowed it. In Night, when Eliezer loses his faith, he resembles Job; he doubts the justice of God.
The two books end very differently, however. In the Book of Job, God answers Job by displaying his power. He gives Job a vision of the universe that He created, and tells Job that as a creature he has no right to question the Creator. Job accepts what God tells him, and repents that he ever questioned God. But in Night, instead of the voice of God in the whirlwind, there is silence. God gives no answer. And the book ends not with the Job-figure of Eliezer restored to happiness (as Job is in the Bible), but with an image of Eliezer staring into his own eyes in the mirror. He must seek his own answers to his condition, for none will be forthcoming from God.
Wiesel has written about how he rejected the conclusion to the Book of Job. He admired how Job challenged God, but was disappointed because Job at the end retracted his complaint. "The fighter has turned into a lamb," complained Wiesel (quoted in Robert McAfee Brown, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, University of Notre Dame Press, 1983, p. 12).
(Posted to this site on 6/18/2001)
Memories of the Night
A STUDY OF THE HOLOCAUST
by Elie Wiesel
New York: Bantam Books, 1986 (Original copyright 1960)
(reference pages 111-114)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elie Wiesel was only twelve years old when, in 1941, the events of World War II and the Holocaust invaded his home in Sighet, Transylvania. His childhood was cut short, his dreams and beliefs shattered, as he witnessed the death of his family and his people in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. After the war, Wiesel took a 10-year vow of silence before he attempted to put into words the horror and pain of the Holocaust. When he finally wrote Night, Wiesel had difficulty finding a publisher, for it was believed that few would want to read such heart-wrenching words. Today it is one of the most read and respected books on the Holocaust.
After World War II, Wiesel lived in Paris, France, for 10 years where he studied at the Sorbonne and worked as a journalist, traveling to both Israel and the United States. Eventually, Wiesel moved to the United States and currently lives in New York City. In 1976, Wiesel became the Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University. His book Night has been followed by other equally powerful books. Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel is a three-volume collection of his work. In 1985, Elie Wiesel was the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and in 1986, he was honored with one of the greatest of all awards, the Nobel Peace Prize.
Over the years, Wiesel has, in a sense, become the soul of the Holocaust. His books and lectures compel us to not only confront the issues and consequences of the Holocaust, but to keep it in our memory to ensure that history is never repeated. He lives his life, he explains, in the pursuit of meaning. Wiesel has traveled all over the world, including Bosnia, where he attempted to assist with the peace efforts. His eloquence, sensitivity, and insights serve as the voice for those who can no longer speak.
Night is Elie Wiesel’s personal account of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy. The book describes Wiesel’s first encounter with prejudice and details the persecution of a people and the loss of his family. Wiesel’s experiences in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald are detailed; his accounts of starvation and brutality are shattering—a vivid testimony to the consequences of evil. Throughout the book, Wiesel speaks of the struggle to survive, the fight to stay alive while retaining those qualities that make us human. While Wiesel lost his innocence and many of his beliefs, he never lost his sense of compassion nor his inherent sense of right.
kabbala: Jewish mysticism studied by Jewish scholars.
ghetto: a small area of a city to which the Jewish people were restricted and from which they were forbidden to leave.
concentration camps: a group of labor and death camps in Germany and Poland.
kapo: overseer in charge of a work detail, or some other branch of a concentration camp. Often, kapos were selected from the prisoners—usually the criminals.
The cover of Night contains an illustration of a lone person surrounded by barbed wire. Encourage students to study this picture and create a list of words the image brings to mind. Have students select one of the words from this class list and write a brief essay in their journals that reflects the feelings that this word evokes. Allow time for students to share their essays.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
- Why did people in Wiesel’s village refuse to believe the warnings of Moshe the Beadle when he told them what happened to Jews who had been expelled from their villages in other countries? (They thought he was a madman. What he told them was too incomprehensible to be believed.)
- Why did the people in Wiesel’s village doubt Hitler’s plans to exterminate the Jewish population? (They did not think it was possible to wipe out a whole people, scattered as they were throughout so many countries.)
- How did the German soldiers win the confidence of the people of Sighet? (At first they treated the Jews politely. They lived in their homes and acted quite civilly. The people wanted to believe they were in no danger. Little by little, the soldiers took away their freedom—the leaders of the Jewish community were arrested; the Jewish people were put under house arrest; all their valuables were confiscated; the Jews were forced to wear a yellow star; the Jewish people were forced into ghettos; the ghettos were emptied and the people deported to concentration camps.)
- At one point, upon arrival at Auschwitz, the prisoners considered revolting. What stopped them? (The older people begged their children not to do anything foolish. They still believed that they should not lose hope and must adhere to the teachings of their faith.)
- Describe conditions in the death camps. (Prisoners were given barely enough food to survive, they were literally worked to death, they had little in the way of clothing to protect them from the freezing cold, they were kicked, beaten, and forced to suffer every inhumane treatment imaginable, and they lived with the constant threat of the furnaces.)
- When the Jewish people were being deported, they were allowed to take only one small bag with all their possessions. Evidence has shown that most people took their photograph albums. Why were these albums so important to them?
- Wiesel’s village was invaded by the Nazi soldiers in 1944, years after the extermination of Jews had begun. Why, after all this time, did the people have so little, if any, information about what had been happening to Jews all over Europe?
- Wiesel was given two contrasting pieces of advice about how to survive. One was from a young Pole, a prisoner in charge of one of the prison blocks, and the other was from the head of one of the blocks at Buchenwald who spoke to Wiesel as his father lay dying. Summarize these two philosophies of survival and discuss the wisdom of each.
- Many people ask survivors why there was so little resistance in the death camps. While there is documented evidence of some resistance in the various camps, why do you think that there were so few accounts of resistance?
- In what ways did Wiesel’s experiences affect his beliefs?
- Wiesel wrote of those things he will never forget (p. 32). After reading Night, what images, ideas, and feelings do you think you will never forget?
- In discussing the Holocaust, one survivor, Luba Frederick, said, “To die was easy.” Based on the reading you have done, explain her statement.
- At one point in the book, Wiesel said that he had ceased to feel human. What did he mean by this and what things can cause people to lose their sense of dignity and humanity?
- Reread the essay you wrote in your journal for the Prereading activity based on the book’s cover illustration. Revise the essay based on insights and reactions to Night.
- Discuss the significance of the book’s title, Night.
- Wiesel was born in Sighet in Transylvania. Locate the region of Transylvania on a pre-World War II map of Europe. Discover what happened to this area during and after World War II. Share five facts you find most significant.
- If you could talk to one of the survivors of the Holocaust, what would you want to ask? Write to your state or local Holocaust Center (see Resources) and arrange for a survivor to speak with your class. With your classmates, determine which questions you would like the survivor to answer.
- Create a cover for Night based on your own interpretations and reactions. Share your cover with classmates and explain what motivated you to create as you did.
- Create an “Open Letter” to those people of Europe who did little more than watch as their neighbors were persecuted.
- Select a recurring word, phrase, or symbol from Night. For example, the word night is used frequently throughout the book. Analyze the word/ phrase/ symbol and explain the images it evokes.