What does Elie Wiesel say about the law, food, and gender roles in his book Night?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Night is Elie Wiesel's autobiographical story of his time in several concentration camps during World War II and what is known as the Holocaust. It is his first-hand perspective on living through a horror that so many others did not survive, including the rest of his family.

Gender roles are not a major theme in this novella, perhaps because there are so few women in it for most of the story. We meet the women in Elie's family, but once they get off the train, we read nothing more about them and assume, as Elie does, that they are dead. Before they go, we know that Elie's mother is the parent who keeps the family connected while his father barely even notices who is sitting at the table for dinner at night--even if they happen to be family.

Elie does encounter one memorable woman while interred. In section four Elie and the others are working in a warehouse next to a woman he assumes is French. They cannot communicate because because she does not speak German and he does not speak French. When Elie gets beaten up by the guard, she quietly comforts and encourages him with these words, spoken in German:

"Bite your lips, little brother... Don't cry. Keep your anger, your hate, for another day, for later. The day will come but not now... Wait. Clench your teeth and w a i t...."

Years later, Elie sees her on the subway in Paris. She explains that she was Jewish but able to pass as a non-Jew, and we learn that she risked her life to help Elie that day. This is both a reversal of gender roles, in that a woman comes to the rescue of a man, and an affirmation of them, in that an older woman takes a motherly interest in a hurting young boy.

"The law" is rather vague, but there are plenty of references to Jewish law as well as the "law" of Jewish persecution in this story. Obviously the idea of law in the traditional sense--maintaining order, providing justice, protecting the innocent--is not really found here. Instead, this is a story of lawlessness in a society which has gone terribly wrong. 

Hitler issues a series of decrees which virtually eliminate the freedoms of the Jewish people, and these laws are strictly enforced, though of course they are unjust laws. The Jewish law, which encompasses all of the traditions and expectations of God's chosen people, does provide some structure and comfort to the Jewish people while they are in these terrible circumstances, but that is not enough to sustain them all for the duration.

In fact, Elie and most of the others come to believe that God has forgotten them. one man tells Elie:

"I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.” 

Hitler's promises have the force of law in this setting, and that law is enforced.

Of course one of the most consuming elements in this story is food--the need for it, the lack of it, the fight for it, the power of it. People in this story die from a lack of food, something which is a deliberate tactic employed by the camp administrators. They also die trying to defend the food they have and trying to get food from others. Food, often just a crust of bread or a bowl of watery soup, is the source of many problems in the camps. It also means survival. 

After the prisoners of Buchenwald are freed, all they can think about is eating. Ironically, Elie gets food poisoning, spends two weeks in the hospital, and nearly dies--not from starvation but from eating. Food has the power of life and death throughout this story. 

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