In a symposium published in Judaism (March 26, 1967), Wiesel declared, “In the beginning there was the Holocaust. We must therefore start over again.” Most commentators would agree with Graham Walker’s description, in his book Elie Wiesel: A Challenge to Theology (1987), of the Holocaust as an event of “ontological status which has disrupted both human history and the life story of God.” Night is one of only a few books whose authors attempt to understand the Holocaust. Wiesel’s international status as the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, as a formidable literary figure, and as one of the leading voices speaking for the Holocaust survivors as well as the victims makes this work all the more compelling. His decision to focus on the Holocaust’s significance for altering the human understanding of man’s relationship to God indicates that Wiesel’s views, as expressed in Night and in virtually every work of his since, reflect the central difficulties involved in the painful theological revisions that have occurred in both Jewish and Christian realms since 1945.
It is important to realize, however, that Night is not an example of the “death of God theology.” At the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (January 22, 1978), Wiesel claimed that “the Covenant was broken. I had to tell God of my anger. I still do so.” God is not dead for Wiesel; in fact, it is the recognition of a God that permits the monologue recorded in Night. Wiesel can protest vehemently to God about the state of the creation precisely because God the Creator exists.
Paradoxically, Wiesel also employs silence within this monologue. While Wiesel believes that to remain silent about the Holocaust is to betray its victims, he also knows that presuming to talk about the experience of the Holocaust is a betrayal of another kind. His words are thus chosen with extreme care, but also with a great regard for the silence between the words. In an interview with Harry James Cargas in U.S. Catholic (September, 1971), Wiesel observed that “there are certain silences between word and word. . . . This is the silence that I have tried to put in my work.”
Although Wiesel’s words and silences are intended for all readers, Jewish and non-Jewish, Hasidic Judaism and culture shaped and still influence the man. Writing in Jewish Heritage (1972), Wiesel attests:I myself love Hasidism because I grew up in a Hasidic milieu. Whenever I want to write something good, I go back to my childhood. The soul of every writer is his childhood, and mine was a Hasidic one. I love Hasidism because of its tales, because of the intrinsic fervor that makes them Hasidic tales. I love Hasidism for something else too: it contains all the themes that haunt my work.
Although Wiesel’s Judaism is deeply ingrained, Night does not offer an uncritical view of the behavior of Jews in the face of murderous Nazi intentions. Illusion reigns for Jews in Hungary and Sighet, even with SS soldiers in their midst. No one can think the unthinkable; even the eyewitness account of a Jew who escaped from a death camp is discounted as the ravings of a madman. A woman driven to insanity while on the train heading to Auschwitz (and death) is silenced; her visions of flames and terror are ridiculed—until the sights of the death camp’s huge chimneys loom near. A pie waits to be baked in the ghetto, sudden deportation having removed the family that hoped to enjoy it. Wiesel’s father advises his loved ones not to fear wearing the Star of David as ordered by the SS; it cannot kill you, he argues. Wiesel asks rhetorically, retrospectively, “Poor Father! Of what then did you die?”
Nevertheless, Wiesel believes that a defining mark of Judaism has been its willingness to question. Robert McAfee Brown notes that at the center of Wiesel’s work has been the urgent question of how mankind should “respond to monstrous moral evil.” In Night, Wiesel asks why he should honor the name of the God who has done nothing about the existence of the death camp Auschwitz and relates this question of theodicy to the suffering experienced by the Jews. Concerned primarily with the “defiance of suffering,” Wiesel points out in the Cargas interview that “suffering as a virtue is alien to Judaism” because “suffering is impure.” Ultimately, suffering is not to be experienced as an end or as a means to some transcendent value.
The absence of transcendent affirmation in Night involves the creation of a new kind of protagonist—not the tragic hero of past literatures but the survivor, the sufferer. As Terrence Des Pres argues in The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps (1976), the survivor chooses life, even on the unbearable terms of the persecutor, rather than death, which might redeem or ennoble him in the eyes of his audience. For Wiesel, survival, even with its terrible burden of guilt, denies the perpetrators a victory and allows the survivor’s testimony to be handed on to posterity.