In Night, how was a set of father-son relationships changed because of the events and the experience during the Holocaust?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The way in which the narrative in Night is framed shows how the relationship between Eliezer and his father was dramatically changed as a result of the events and the experience of the Holocaust.  Prior to the experience of the Holocaust, there is a distinct leveling of power between Eliezer and his father. The exposition of the narrative reveals this when Eliezer suggests that the respect from the outside world that Eliezer's father received took precedence: "My father was a cultured man, rather unsentimental. He rarely displayed his feelings, not even within his family, and was more involved with the welfare of others than with that of his own kin."  In the narrative's exposition, Eliezer's father possess power and respect.  The power balance is revealed when Eliezer asks his father to further his religious studies:

One day I asked my father to find me a master who could guide me in my studies of Kabbalah. "You are too young for that. Maimonides tells us that one must be thirty before venturing into the world of mysticism, a world fraught with peril. First you must study the basic subjects, those you are able to comprehend."

Eliezer's father is the controlling force within the home.  The relationship between them is one where the father's word is taken without question and hesitation.  When crisis engulfs the family, it is the father who asserts leadership.  In moments such as going to the cellar and burying the family savings and even demonstrating steadfast strength, Eliezer's father is seen as the pinnacle of power and control in the family unit: "My father wouldn't hear of it. He told me and my big sisters, "If you wish, go there. I shall stay here with your mother and the little ones. Naturally, we refused to be separated." The father's strength and confidence is what defines the relationship between he and his son. This experience is before the entry into the camps and before the full extent of the Holocaust transformed this father/ son relationship.

When Eliezer and his father enter Auschwitz- Birkenau, the force of what is seen does much to transform the previous unshakeable strength of Eliezer's father.  When Eliezer's father sees everything around him- the death, the suffering, the cruelty- his resolve begins to waver.  He admits a sense of failure and defeatism, something that was not evident earlier:  "What a shame, a shame that you did not go with your mother. I saw many children your age go with their mothers."  Eliezer notes that his father could not generate answers of strength and confidence, noting that his father "didn't answer" and that "he was weeping" and "shaking" out of the pure fear of that which surrounded him.  The extent of the Holocaust ends up changing his father from a previous fortress of strength into a shanty of frailty and fear.

As the experience of the Holocaust increases, Shlomo's weakness becomes even more evident.  It arises at the same time that Eliezer begins to assert a distance from other human beings.  His will to survive, almost in an animalistic manner, separates him from his father.

And he began beating him with an iron bar. At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows,but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning. I had watched it all happening without moving. I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What's more, if I felt anger at that moment, it was not directed at the Kapo but at my father. Why couldn't he have avoided Idek's wrath?  That was what life in a concentration camp had made of me.

This moment marks a significant change in the father/ son relationship between Eliezer and his father.  There was no longer the source of respect and obedience that was there before the camps.  Rather, there is a sense of detachment and even resentment over how the father is unable to meet the demands of survival in the camps.  Later on, Eliezer becomes the source of power in the relationship, as he seeks to teach his father how to survive:

I decided to give my father lessons in marching in step, in keeping time. We began practicing in front of our block. I would command: "Left, right!" and my father would try. The inmates made fun of us: "Look at the little officer, teach-ing the old man to march.  Hey, little general, how many rations of bread does the old man give you for this?"  But my father did not make sufficient progress, and the blows continued to rain on him. "So! You still don't know how to march in step, you old good-for-nothing?"

This moment marks the point where Eliezer assumes a paternalistic role and his father is more of a child, a student who is in search of his own teacher or master just as Eliezer sought in the beginning of the narrative.  As the demands become even more, Eliezer has to assert greater control of his father in the hopes of survival.  At one point in this shifting dynamic, the father's "childlike" condition becomes evident:

"Don't yell, my son.  Have pity on your old father.  Let me rest here a little.  I beg of you.  I'm so tired  and I have no more strength.  

He had become childlike: weak, frightened, vulnerable.

"Father," I said, "you cannot stay here."

It is at this point where the Holocaust had permanently changed the relationship between Eliezer and his father. The events and experience of the Holocaust forever alters the relationship between father and son.  The conclusion of the novel is one where the father calls out to his son and is beaten, and the son is too scared to even move.  It is at this point where the horror of the Holocaust is evident.  It was a moment in time where the basic bonds of intimacy such as the ones shared between father and son were transformed and even repudiated in the name of survival.

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