Explain the theme of identity in Night by Elie Wiesel.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Night by Elie Wiesel recalls the author's experiences in the concentration camps during World War II. The author was fifteen and sixteen years old. After ten years away from the experience, Wiesel was able to write his recollections of the horrific time that he spent with his father in the camps.

A major theme in the story is the loss of identity which begins in Wiesel’s home town:

First edict: Jews were prohibited from leaving their residences for three days, under penalty of death.
The same day, the Hungarian police burst into every Jewish home in town: a Jew was henceforth forbidden to own gold, jewelry, or any valuables. Everything had to be handed over to the authorities, under penalty of death.
Three days later, a new decree: every Jew had to wear the yellow star.

In the beginning of the story, Wiesel was a typical teenage boy of the times.  His Jewish faith was his life’s blood.  When he enters the concentration camps, the Nazis begin to strip away every part of his identity.  His hair is shaved; he is dressed like all the prisoners; and he is a number rather than a name.   

Quickly, he loses his innocence. When Wiesel sees babies being killed, he feels that God may have forsaken the Jews. One of Wiesel’s greatest struggles was with his deterioration of his faith in a loving and fair God. 

Through each change from the ghetto to the cattle cars to the camps, Wiesel begins to lose himself.  More and more, he and his fellow Jews are dehumanized.  Every camp accentuates Wiesel and his father’s pain and physical and mental abuse.  As the confinement continues, his health deteriorates and his chance of survival diminishes. When a person is denied the basic necessities of life—food, water, warmth, security—the loss of humanity and individualism completes itself.  Many who surrounded him also lose their lives. 

Wiesel’s entire Jewish community was taken in cattle cars to Birkenau.  Later, they were taken to Auschwitz.  At Auschwitz, Wiesel loses his mother and sister.  However, he was fortunate to be able to stay with his father.  Wiesel and his father are moved to two other camps: Buna and then Buchenwald where his father dies, and Wiesel is liberated. 

Through the first person narration, the author forces the reader to spend each day with him in the camp.  His imagery and descriptive language make it impossible not to go with Eliezer as he struggles to survive and to keep his father alive.

Wiesel is an admirable character.  Many other sons in the camps completely lose their humanity.  One story is told of a son who kills his father for bread.  Harboring guilt for his feeling that his father is a burden, Wiesel attempts to nurse his father and defend him. 

More than once, he is conflicted about the support of declining father.  Wiesel knows that he is barely able to take care of himself.  During the night, Elie falls asleep.  In the morning, he finds that his father has died and been taken to the crematorium.  Within his mind, he feels guilty relief for himself and for the suffering of his father.

When his father dies, he becomes so lost that all he does is eat to keep alive.  The death of his father discontinues the rest of the story at Buchenwald.  To Wiesel, nothing else mattered but to live.