At the beginning of Night, Wiesel introduces someone he met toward the end of 1941. His name was Moshe, and he became one of the boy’s teachers. They discussed religious topics, and one day they talked about prayer. Wiesel asked Moshe why he prayed, and his teacher replied that he prayed for strength to ask God the right questions. Later, the Hungarian police deported Moshe from Sighet, Wiesel’s hometown, because he was a foreigner. His destination was Poland and death at the hands of the Germans, but somehow Moshe escaped and found his way back to Sighet. The Jews of Sighet did not believe his tale of destruction.
Although the Holocaust was raging all around them, the Hungarian Jews were not decimated until 1944. Their lives began to change drastically, however, once the Germans occupied Hungary that March. In a matter of days, Sighet’s Jews had to deal with quarantines, expropriations of their property, and the yellow stars that targeted them. Then they were ghettoized and deported. Jammed into train cars, destination unknown, the Jews of Sighet—Elie Wiesel, his little sister, Tzipora, and their parents among them—eventually crossed the Polish frontier and arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Emerging from their train-car prisons into midnight air fouled by burning flesh, the Jews of Sighet were separated by the secret police: men to the left, women to the right. Wiesel lost sight of his mother and little sister, not fully aware that the parting was forever. Father and son stuck together. Spared the fate of Wiesel’s mother and sister, they were not “selected” for the gas chambers but for slave labor instead. From late May, 1944, until mid-January, 1945, Wiesel and his father endured Auschwitz’s brutal regimen. As the Red Army approached the camp, the two were evacuated to Germany. Severely weakened by the death march to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father perished there, but the son was liberated on April 11, 1945.
Night covers in detail these events, but it is much more than a chronological narrative. The power of this memoir emerges especially from the anguished questions that Wiesel’s Holocaust experiences will not put to rest. Before he entered Auschwitz, Wiesel “believed profoundly.” Yet on that fateful night, and in the days that followed, his world changed forever. Optimism about humankind, trust in the world, confidence in God—Auschwitz radically threatened, if it did not destroy, so many reasons for hope.
This point is illustrated especially well by one of the book’s most unforgettable moments. Wiesel describes the hanging of three Auschwitz prisoners—one of them a child. As the prisoners watched the child die, Wiesel heard a man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” Wiesel writes that “from within me. I heard a voice answer: ’Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’”
Death’s reign in the Kingdom of Night was so pervasive that Wiesel ends Night by reporting that a corpse stared back at him when he saw his own reflection in a mirror for the first time after liberation. Yet Night does not give death—God’s or humanity’s—the last word. By breaking silence, by telling a story that is full of reasons for despair, Wiesel protests against the wasting of life and testifies for the mending of the world by humankind and God alike.
Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust, tells of his concentration camp experience. Encompassing events from the end of 1941 to 1945, the book ponders a series of questions, whose answers, Moché the Beadle, who was miraculously saved from an early German massacre, reminds the boy, lie “only within yourself.”
Moché, who teaches the boy the beauty of biblical studies, is a strange character with a clownish awkwardness, more God’s madman than mentally ill; he is also a recurring figure in later Wiesel works. After Moché returns to town to describe the horrible scenes he has witnessed, no one listens to this apparently insane rambler who, like Cassandra, repeats his warnings in vain. The clown, a moving and tragic fool, is unable to convince the Jewish community of its impending doom. Despite arrests, ghettoizations, and mass deportations, the Jews still cannot believe him, even as they embark for Auschwitz.
In 1944, the young narrator is initiated into the horrors of the archipelago of Nazi death camps. There he becomes A-7713, deprived of name, self-esteem, identity. He observes and undergoes hunger, exhaustion, cold, suffering, brutality, executions, cruelty, breakdown in personal relationships, and flames and smoke coming from crematories in the German death factories. In the barracks of terror, where he sees the death of his mother and seven-year-old sister, his religious faith is corroded. The world no longer represents God’s mind. Comparing himself to Job, he bitterly asks God for an explanation of such evil. The boy violently rejects God’s presence and God’s justice, love, and mercy: “I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man.”
After a death march and brutally cruel train ride, young Wiesel and his father arrive at Buchenwald, where his father soon dies of malnutrition and dysentery. As in a daze, the son waits to be killed by fleeing German soldiers. Instead, he coolly notes, on April 11, 1945, “at about six o’clock in the evening, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald.”
In addition to wanting to elucidate the unfathomable secret of death and theodicy, the narrator lived a monstrous, stunted, and isolated existence as an adult. He saw himself as victim, executioner, and spectator. By affirming that he was not divided among the three but was in fact all of them at once, he was able to resolve his identity problem. The autobiography’s last image shows Wiesel looking at himself in a mirror: The body and soul are wounded, but the night and its nightmares are finally over.