Night, the first novel of Elie Wiesel’s trilogy on Holocaust concentration camp survivors, is an autobiographical novel that records the author’s own long night of captivity in the Nazi death camps during World War II. Like Eliezer, the novel’s narrator, Wiesel was forced from his own village into Auschwitz, became separated from his mother and sisters, witnessed his father’s slow decline and death, and was eventually liberated at the end of the war.
Although the powerful tale told in Night is deeply personal, Eliezer’s narrative can also be viewed as the story of all European Jews who suffered during the reign of Adolf Hitler. When Eliezer admonishes the Jews of Sighet for their refusal to heed the warnings of Moshe the Beadle, when he questions why his fellow Jewish citizens passively follow the orders of their German captors, when he asks why God lets thousands of Jews be put to death Eliezer becomes a Jewish Everyman struggling in anguish to understand the most troubling chapter in his people’s history.
The process by which Eliezer begins to doubt God and eventually lose his faith reflects the experience of many Jews during and after the Holocaust. Seeing three concentration camp inmates hanging from a gallows, Eliezer reasons that God, too, has been hanged. During a Rosh Hashanah prayer ceremony, Eliezer asks why he should bless God: “Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in his great might He had created Auschwitz?”
Eliezer’s story is a cruel reversal of Exodus, the Old Testament epic of liberation and triumph. It is during the feast of Passover, when Jews celebrate the passing of the Angel of Death over their homes and their subsequent liberation from Egypt, that German soldiers begin arresting the Jewish leaders of Sighet. Exodus records the journey of God’s chosen people toward a promised land provided by God; Night depicts the journey of a people selected for extermination entering into an oppressive captivity in the Nazi death camps. In the face of their trials, the chosen people of Exodus had united; on the other hand, the Jews depicted in Night often turn on one another, fighting, and even killing for food. To Wiesel, Hitler’s Holocaust nullifies the triumph of Exodus. The Jews of Wiesel’s time are faithless, despairing survivors of a long night of captivity; they are not fulfilled travelers who have reached their promised land.
Eliezer’s camp is liberated at the end of Night, but he does not believe that freedom has been provided by the God of Exodus. Buchenwald is freed only when the camp’s resistance movement takes up arms against its Nazi captors. The symbol of freedom is an American tank arriving at Buchenwald’s gates. Eliezer is no longer a captive at the end of the novel, but Wiesel offers no hint of any physical or spiritual rebirth. The novel’s final image is of Eliezer looking into a mirror and seeing a corpse stare back at him. Night is the tale of painful death, not of liberation and rebirth.
The narrating of this harrowing tale presented problems for its author. Wiesel, indeed any writer who tries to depict the horrors of the Holocaust, has to put into words a sequence of terrible events that can never be adequately rendered in language. No description of the Nazi death camps, no matter how skillfully and realistically narrated, can fully depict the terrors that millions of people experienced during World War II. Wiesel and other Holocaust survivors nevertheless felt compelled to record their stories for their contemporaries and for history, and in its plot, characterization, and prose strategies Night is a literary work of the highest order.
Wiesel narrates the events of his captivity in a series of vignettes suited to the story of separation, annihilation, and loss. Few of Wiesel’s characters are substantially developed; Eliezer and his father are the novel’s only well-rounded characters. This strategy is, however, well suited for a book that deals with the marginalization, suppression, and elimination of individuals. Wiesel’s prose style is terse and often understated. Eliezer rarely editorializes in Night; he prefers to tell his story in lean, taut prose, allowing the events of the novel to speak for themselves.
Wiesel continued to explore the lives of Holocaust survivors in L’Aube (1960; Dawn, 1961) and Le Jour (1961; The Accident, 1962), the next two novels in the trilogy begun with Night, and in more than a dozen subsequent novels, nonfiction works, and plays. With Night, Wiesel became a spokesperson for all those who suffered during Hitler’s reign. He was one of the first Holocaust survivors to record his experiences, and he made the rest of the world aware of the horrors that had been perpetrated by Hitler in his campaign to exterminate European Jewry. In 1986, Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize for serving as a “messenger to mankind” and as “one of our most important spiritual leaders and guides.”