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.”