In the fourth chapter of his memoir of life in the German concentration camps, Night, by Elie Wiesel describes a heartbreaking scene in which a beautiful young boy, a “pipel,” is hanged along with two men for the crime of sabotage. The Gestapo, the Nazi’s secret police organization, accused these three individuals, including the boy, of sabotaging an electrical plant that provided power to the prison camp in which they were being held. Their death sentence was carried out in front of the assembled inmates.
Earlier in the chapter, Wiesel had emphasized the degree to which he and the other prisoners had grown hardened to the sight of hangings, every prisoner having been forced to endure repeated beatings and humiliations. The hanging of the young pipel, however, affects these prisoners very deeply. Ordinarily, the Kapos, Jewish prisoners who were forced – and sometimes cajoled -- by their German captors to serve as disciplinarians and supervisors of the other prisoners, were notoriously cruel. In this case, though, the Kapo in question was known for his kindness, and his young assistant, the pipel, was similarly different from others in his position. This one, as Wiesel described him, “had a delicate and beautiful face – an incredible sight in this camp.” Besides his physical beauty, the boy was, in the manner of his “boss,” kind and sensitive. When the kapo and the boy were arrested and tortured, neither broke under the pressure and implicated any other prisoner. When the time came to hang the alleged conspirators, however, the sight of this young boy among those to be executed caused a very different reaction on the part of these otherwise-emotionally-hardened inmates. Even the German SS officers carrying out the execution sensed something different, as described by Wiesel: “The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child.”
The hanging of this very special child, in marked contrast to all the other hangings the prisoners observed, marked a new level of brutality even for the Nazis. For the first time, Wiesel notes, the other prisoners wept at the sight of the boy’s hanging – an execution all-the-more cruel for the fact that the child’s light weight prevented a quick death at the end of the rope, causing him to linger and die a slower, more painful death. It was this hanging, more than any other, that prompted other inmates to doubt the presence of God. As Wiesel goes on to describe the day’s events, “That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”
In chapter 4 of Night, Elie remembers the night of this hanging, as one that had the most profound affect on him. The horrors of living in a concentration camp weigh heavily on Elie for many years to come, and this one particular event haunts him tremendously.
Elie and the other prisoners have such a hard time with this hanging, because a young boy was hung that night. There were three people that were hung and one was a young boy, who was accused of being involved in resistance activities. The young boy didn't weigh hardly anything. When two of the other men are hung, they die almost instantly. When the young boy is hung, he struggles at the end of the rope. His weight doesn't allow him to have to gift of a quick death, instead, he has to struggle for his life only to lose it in the end. Elie and the other prisoners can only stand and watch in horror. They can't do anything to help the poor boy, so they they can only stand and be witnesses to the inhumane treatment of these men and young boy.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "Where is God now?" And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is He? Here He is. He is hanging here on this gallows"
This quote is probably one of my favorite quotes of the whole book. Elie struggles throughout the entire book with his relationship with God, but in this moment he can clearly see that God is right there with them. He may not realize it, but he is right, God is right there with them all.
During this section of Elie's story he relates the affect that a hanging has on them. They arrive back from a work detail and they are called into formation to witness a hanging of three prisoners. This particular hanging is worse than the others because there is a boy being hanged. There is a graphic description of how the bodies dropped and the ropes tightened. The men died almost immediately, but the boy was too light and he kicked and wiggled and didn't die right away. It took a long time and they all had to stand and watch the entire dying process.
The prisoners in Night, including Wiesel himself, are so accustomed to the brutality and constant suffering in the camp that they never cry during executions. However, when a young boy who was beloved by the other prisoners is hanged for rebellion, the prisoners break down in tears. The boy's weight isn't substantial enough to cause immediate death from hanging. Instead, he suffers a slow and horrible death that takes half an hour as he suffocates on the gallows.
Previously, Wiesel wondered how a just God can exist and finds he cannot pray. After witnessing the boy's hanging, his belief in God ceases altogether.