Form and Content (Masterplots II: Nonfiction Series)
On March 19, 1944, German Schutzstaffeln (SS) troops under Adolf Eichmann entered Hungary for the express purpose of rounding up the Jews of that country for extermination. Even as German armies elsewhere were retreating under pounding Russian advances, Adolf Hitler’s so-called final solution was extended to Hungarian Jews—who had mistakenly thought themselves safe from German danger. A few days after the invasion, SS troops appeared in the Transylvanian town of Sighet and began the brutal process that would send almost all Sighet’s fifteen thousand Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz in Poland. Among those Jews who lives were totally uprooted was a devout fourteen-year-old student of the Talmud, Eliezer Wiesel.
Wiesel’s experiences from that point to eventual liberation at Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, made up an eight-hundred-page Yiddish manuscript, written after the completion of a self-imposed ten-year period of silence, study, and reflection concerning the Holocaust. Night, outlined within weeks after his liberation (and only one-seventh of the Yiddish original), is Wiesel’s only book devoted completely to the Holocaust, although his experiences of life in Auschwitz and the loss of the six million dictate almost all Wiesel’s thought and writing.
The book’s nine chapters demarcate key events for Wiesel, detailing the gradual loss of the illusion of hope as the grim realities become paramount. Two interrelated concerns...
(The entire section is 698 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Sighet (SEE-get). Transylvanian village in which the novel’s opening section is set. Scenes in Sighet provide an introduction to life in the Jewish community by focusing on Wiesel’s introduction to his Jewish heritage and religion. The invading Nazi troops establish two ghettoes into which the village’s Jews are herded after being forced to give up all but what they can carry with them.
*Birkenau. Polish town that is the site of the first concentration camp in which the Wiesel family is imprisoned. Following their stay in the ghetto, the family, along with their neighbors, are put onto trains and sent to concentration camps. Their first stop is Birkenau, where they are introduced to the horrors that follow. There they see families separated, mothers and children going in one direction and fathers and working-age sons in another. Wiesel’s mother and sister are taken from him and, as he learns later, murdered. At Birkenau young Wiesel witnesses people giving up on life and willing themselves to die. In fact, Wiesel himself contemplates suicide, but the religious teachings he receives at home and the dogged determination of his father keep him from killing himself.
*Auschwitz. Polish city that is the site of another concentration camp to which Wiesel, his father, and numerous workers from their first camp are later sent. There, Wiesel is briefly...
(The entire section is 499 words.)
Hitler, WWII, and the Jewish Holocaust
The mass murder of European Jews and others under Nazi rule during World War II has come to be known simply as the Holocaust. "Holocaust" literally means "massive destruction by fire." It is thought that eleven million people were killed by the Nazis. These included political opponents (particularly Communists), Slavs, gypsies, mentally and/or physically disabled, homosexuals, and other "undesirables." An estimated six million men, women, and children were killed merely because they were Jews. The destruction of the Jews in Europe stands as the archetype of genocide in human history.
Jews had been the subjects of persecution in Europe at least since the seventeenth century. When Adolph Hitler, the charismatic, Austrian-born demagogue, rose to power in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s, he rallied the German people with a message that included notions of "Aryan," or white, superiority and the inferiority of other races. The Jews were a special target of his hatred, and they were incorrectly represented during this time of social, political, and economic upheaval as being wealthy and in control of the country's...
(The entire section is 969 words.)
The novella is a short piece of fiction that is based on the author's eight hundred-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...
(The entire section is 900 words.)
Compare and 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 right-wing 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...
(The entire section is 211 words.)
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 Adorno once said, "It is barbaric to continue to write poetry after Auschwitz." What did he mean? Do you agree?
- Read through some...
(The entire section is 294 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 502 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Alter, Roger. "Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim," in After the Tradition. E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1962.
Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night; The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. State University of New York Press, 1982.
Hager, W. H. Review in Christian Century, January, 1961, p. 88.
Harris, Jason. "Wiesel Recounts Twentieth Century," in The Tamalpais News, http://marin.marin.kl2.ca us/~Tamnews/old/LXX/tam/ads_art/ wiesel.htm 1995.
Kahn, Lothar. "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.
Sibelman, Simon. Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.
For Further Study
Avni, Ora. "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...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
Cargas, Harry James. Conversations with Elie Wiesel. South Bend, Ind.: Justice Books, 1992. A collection of interviews with the author that cover his life, politics, and literary works. Wiesel speaks frankly and extensively about his childhood in Sighet and of his time in the concentration camps—events that formed the basis for Night.
Estess, Ted L. Elie Wiesel. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. An analysis of Wiesel’s key literary works, including Night, Dawn, and The Accident. Night receives extended discussion in chapter 2.
Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. A critical study of Night and Wiesel’s other Holocaust works.
Patterson, David, Alan L. Berger, and Sarita Cargas, eds. Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2002.
Rittner, Carol, ed. Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. New York: New York University Press, 1990. A collection of seventeen essays on Wiesel’s life and literary works. Night receives an extended discussion in three essays and is mentioned in several...
(The entire section is 264 words.)