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 are woven throughout the narrative: Wiesel’s agonizing loss of faith in the God of his childhood and his excruciating relationship with his weakening father. The latter is marked by filial love and concern, but also by his own devastating guilt as his father slips inexorably toward death and Wiesel anticipates freedom from his burden of devotion.
Night reveals the destruction of all aspects of the accepted universe—the shtetl (the Jewish enclave) of Sighet, family life, the training of a deeply religious child, and the illusion of a caring humanity. Yet above all, it sets forth a sequence of experiences that results in Wiesel’s becoming “the accuser, God the accused.” A universe is revealed in Night in which “anything is allowed.” After seeing a truck dump babies into a burning pit, Wiesel cries,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. . . . Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. . . . 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.
Following the execution of a child possessing “the face of a sad angel,” a voice asserts that God “is hanging here on this gallows.” Wiesel is deliberately ambiguous about the source of this assertion.
The nine chapters in Night are devoted to specific aspects of Wiesel’s Holocaust experience: the warnings and illusion-filled prelude before deportation, the terrifying train ride to Auschwitz, the arrival at the gates of the SS hell, the loss of family members, and the early signs of a shattering faith. Wiesel recalls the slave labor at the Buna works adjacent to the central Auschwitz complex, the promise of the approaching Russian army’s liberation destroyed by the SS evacuation of camp inmates, the march away from Auschwitz toward Germany, the train ride to Buchenwald, the death of his father, and his own liberation. The book’s tone varies from irony to bitterness to terrible despair, with the latter perhaps being dominant. As its Yiddish title suggests (literally, “and the world remained silent”), Wiesel’s book is addressed to the world that did nothing, but it also challenges a God who did nothing.
Wiesel is acutely conscious of the duty of the survivor and writer following the Holocaust to educate that apathetic world and to provide a voice for the six million murdered Jewish victims. In an interview published in the Journal of Education (1980), he noted, “I do not write to please the reader. . . . I write for the dead.” Wiesel himself calls Night the literature of testimony.