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In the preface to a new edition of his memoir of life in the concentration camps, Elie Wiesel offers a telling glimpse into the ways in which his experiences shaped his perceptions of the world in which he lived. Describing the experience of watching his father beaten mercilessly and fatally by SS guards, too frightened to intervene, Wiesel is emotionally scarred for life. More than just the shame with which he has lived since that awful day, Wiesel expresses his view of humanity for creating the conditions under which a young boy would be placed in that situation in the first place:
“I shall never forgive myself. Nor shall I ever forgive the world for having pushed me against the wall, for having turned me into a stranger, for having awakened in me the basest, most primitive instincts.
"His last word had been my name. A summons. And I had not responded.”
Night is a harrowing account of Wiesel’s time as a Jewish youngster imprisoned in a death camp, his family taken from him and forced to endure and observe unspeakable cruelties. His perceptions of the world around him shrank consistent with the confines of the camps in which he was imprisoned. His place in the world was increasingly immaterial. Describing his confinement in a cramped cattle car – the normal means by which the Germans transported their Jewish prisoners -- Wiesel describes the scene as follows:
"’There are eighty of you in the car,’ the German officer added. ‘If anyone goes missing, you will all be shot, like dogs.’
"The two disappeared. The doors clanked shut. We had fallen into the trap, up to our necks. The doors were nailed, the way back irrevocably cut off. The world had become a hermetically sealed cattle car.”
Wiesel’s perception of the universe was contracting and was defined by the barbarity to which he and the others were routinely subjected. That the world seemed to care little about the systematic destruction of an entire people couldn’t help but influence a perceptive child or teenager’s views of reality. Wiesel’s entire existence was defined by the thin prisoner’s pajamas that represented his sole possession and that marked him as one of the targets of German enmity, and of the Hungarian, Polish, Lithuanian and other nationalities that, to one degree or another, countenanced the anti-Semitism that delegitimized an entire people and helped make the Holocaust possible. Wiesel couldn’t know the final death toll emanating from the Holocaust. He was, after all, only one individual directly observing the proceedings. Even with the benefit of stories related by other prisoners from other countries and concentration camps, his perceptions of scale were severely limited. But what he could see was surrealistically disturbing. Observing camp guards meticulously unloading from trucks and tossing into a flaming ditch babies and toddlers, Wiesel’s view of the world would be permanently shaped:
“A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own e y e s ... c h i ldren thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?)
“So that was where we were going. A little farther on, there was another, larger pit for adults. I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent?”
Wiesel’s view of the world and of his place in it was understandably heavily influenced by one of the most transformative events in human history. Six million Jews and millions of others were systematically exterminated, and, from the vantage points of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, the world just didn’t care. That was Wiesel’s view of the world, and of his place in it.
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