Themes of Faith and Disbelief

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Elie Wiesel's Night was first published in an English translation in 1960; it is a slightly fictionalized account of Wiesel's experiences as a concentration camp survivor. His first attempt to write about his experiences was written in Yiddish and contained some eight hundred pages; the English translation of the French version of those experiences, Night, is less than a hundred and fifty pages. It is episodic in structure, with only a few key scenes in each chapter serving to illustrate the themes of the work. One of the most important of these themes is faith, and specifically Eliezer's struggle to retain his faith in God, in himself, in humanity, and in words themselves, in spite of the disbelief, degradation and destruction of the concentration camp universe.

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Night opens in 1943, during a time when Hungary's Jews were still largely untouched by the horrors of the Holocaust. It begins with a description of Moshe the Beadle, who is instructing the pious young Eliezer in the mysteries of the cabbala, Jewish mysticism. Ehezer's education is interrupted when Moshe is deported with the other foreign-born Jews of Sighet. Moshe returns to Sighet with an almost unbelievable story: all the Jews with whom he was deported have been massacred. The villagers react with disbelief; they denounce him as a madman. As Ora Avni writes, this first episode of Night reminds the reader of the perils of disbelief.

Wiesel, the writer, occupies the same position as Moshe is the story: he is telling stories that are too horrible to be believed, and yet they are true. As Lucy Dawidowicz writes, "To comprehend the strange and unfamiliar, the human mind proceeds from the reality of experience by applying reason, logic, and analogy.… The Jews, in their earliest encounters with the anti-Jewish policies of Hitler's Germany, saw their situation as a retro version of their history, but in their ultimate experience with the Final Solution, historical experience … failed them as explanation."

The Jews of Sighet cannot believe Moshe's stories because nothing in their experience has prepared them for the knowledge that the very fact of their existence is punishable by death. His warnings go unheeded, even after the Fascists come to power in Hungary, even after German troops appear in Sighet, even after two Jewish ghettoes are created, then rapidly liquidated, right up until the moment the last group of Jews from Sighet arrives at Birkenau. It is only as they disembark from the train, aware of the smell of burning flesh, that they recognize the consequences of their disbelief; faith in Moshe's stories might have given them the impetus to flee, to hide, or to resist before it was too late.

Night has been described as a "negative Bildungsroman," a coming-of-age story in which, rather than finding his identity as a young hero would typically do, Eliezer progressively loses his identity throughout the course of the narrative. This identity-disintegration is experienced individually and collectively and symbolized in the early parts of the text by the loss of possessions. After the Jews of Sighet learn that they are to be deported, they abandon religious objects in the backyard of Eliezer's family. Later, while they are waiting to be deported, they are forced to relieve themselves on the floor of their own holy place, the synagogue.

Judaism, the shared faith in the special Jewish covenant with God which sustains Eliezer and his community, is one of the things which the villagers are forced to give up; indeed, their religion is what has marked them to be condemned. Nothing in Eliezer's religious studies has prepared him for the sight of children being burned alive in pits, a sight made all the more horrific for readers by our knowledge of his own youth and the youth of his sister Tzipora, from whom he has just been separated forever. Wiesel writes, in a now-famous passage:

"Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never."

Eliezer's faith in himself, in God and in humanity has been consumed, and the horror of this annihilation is underscored by the way Wiesel structures this passage; in its repetition, it is like a prayer. Simon Sibelman writes that "Wiesel composes a new psalm, one which reflects the negativity of Auschwitz and the eclipse of God."

The religious traditions of Judaism then, are both inadequate to comprehend the existence of Auschwitz and almost impossible to practice there. The men in the camp debate whether or not the observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, required of them by the Jewish covenant with God, are still required after God has betrayed them by breaking that covenant. Eliezer describes eating on Yom Kippur, traditionally a day of fasting and atonement for sins, as an act of defiance against a God in whose mercy he no longer believes. Yet he feels a great emptiness within him, as his identity, and thus his humanity, has depended on his membership in the Jewish community, a community which is being destroyed around him. He writes of meeting his father on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a day when his disbelief makes him feel alone in the universe:

"I ran off to look for my father. And at the same time I was afraid of having to wish him a Happy New Year when I no longer believed it.

He was standing near the wall, bowed down, his shoulders sagging as though beneath a heavy burden. I went up to him, took his hand and kissed it. A tear fell upon it. Whose was that tear? Mine? His? I said nothing. Nor did he. We had never understood each other so clearly."

In this passage, Eliezer silently shares his grief with his father; the horrors of Auschwitz have stripped their holiest holidays of all meaning and the loss is grievous to them both. Yet at other times, Wiesel suggests that faith is crucial to surviving in the concentration camp. Akiba Drumer, who had been so devout, makes the conscious decision to die after he loses his faith. Meir Katz, who had been so strong, is broken by his loss of faith and dies on the last night of the transport to Buchenwald. Wiesel has written elsewhere that "it is permissible for man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God." In other words, Eliezer's ability to argue with God, as he learned during his study of the cabbala, is itself a kind of faith in God, a faith that helps him to survive the camps.

Faith is the cornerstone of a relationship with God; it is also the cornerstone of Eliezer's relationships with others, which in turn give him a sense of his own identity. It is shared faith in God which binds the Jews of Sighet together, and it is faith in each other which makes those relationships viable and strong.

The most important relationship in Night, and one which illustrates the power of faith and of disbelief, is Eliezer's relationship with his father. After the two are separated from the rest of their family, Eliezer's only thought is not to lose his father. Several times in the story, Eliezer saves his father's life, sometimes risking his own, as he does when he rescues his father from the line of men who have been condemned. As Ted Estess writes, "Eliezer makes only one thing necessary to him: absolute fidelity to his father. God has broken His covenant, His promises to His people; Eliezer, in contrast, determines … not to violate his covenant with his father." Yet Eliezer is haunted by a desire to abandon his father, and is filled with doubts about his own ability to keep the covenant between them. He is given contradictory advice by two veterans of Auschwitz; one tells the newly-arrived men that they must band together in order to survive, while another tells Eliezer that he is better off without worrying about anyone but himself.

Night contains many scenes where fathers and sons are separated, where the son turns on the father or abandons him. Rabbi Eliahou's faith in his son's love has kept him alive, and thus Eliezer is thankful that he has not revealed that Rabbi Eliahou's son has deliberately abandoned him. He also prays to ask for the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done. When Eliezer's father dies, he feels relief, yet Wiesel writes nothing of Eliezer's time in Buchenwald after the death of his father, because Eliezer feels that he himself has died. Wiesel suggests that though the guards pit loved ones against each other, wanting to impose a system of "every man for himself," the men must find the strength to have faith in each other and in their own ability to resist this almost inexorable pressure. As Ellen Fine writes, "to care for another shows the persistence of self is a system principally designed to annihilate the self."

Eliezer's silence, which occurs when his father dies, symbolizes his virtual death. Language is the underpinning of human relationships, and is itself bound up in notions of faith and disbelief. Martin Buber writes that "language … represents communion, communication, and community," and communication through language depends on faith in shared experiences and concepts. Wiesel asserts that the only word that still has meaning at Auschwitz is "furnace," because the smell of burning flesh makes it real. The other words, then, have lost their meanings, symbolized by the sign proclaiming that "Work Means Freedom."

In fact, at Auschwitz, work means a slower death than that inflicted on those who were killed immediately. A "doctor" is someone, like Dr. Mengele, who selects people for death rather than saving them from it. A "son" can kill, rather than respect, his father. Like prayer, words themselves are perverted in the concentration camp universe, and Eliezer loses faith in their ability to achieve communion with God, to communicate with others, or to bind people together in a community. His last loss of faith is his loss of faith in words themselves, which causes him to withdraw into silence and disrupts the narrative itself.

Wiesel's writings after Night have been attempts to reclaim faith in language, in humanity, in God, and in himself. In Night, faith seems an incredible burden, a hindrance to survival, and yet it remains the only way in which the Jews can survive the horrors of the Holocaust. In the context of the concentration camp universe, Wiesel suggests that the only thing more dangerous than faith is disbelief.

Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998. Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in English at Tufts University.

Historical Horror and the Shape of Night

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3412

What follows is an attempt to study the ways in which a traumatic historical experience shapes narrative in a powerful example of this genre, Eli Wiesel's Night. It is my conviction that in groping toward formal and literary understanding of such texts, we move closer to the human meanings that the violent world we live in has all but erased.

To render historical horror is to render, by definition, that which exceeds rendering, it projects pain for which there is no solace, no larger consolation, no redemptive possibility. The implications, both formal and aesthetic, for such a rendering are critical. The great tragedies negotiate exactly such a balance. King Lear's terrible journey from blindness to insight brings him reunion with loyal Cordelia even as he loses her and the restoration of the Kingdom is not far behind. The young Eliezer staring into the mirror upon his liberation from Buchenwald has also gained knowledge, but this knowledge in no way justifies the sufferings that preceeded it. It is not a sign of positive spiritual development. Nor is it linked to restorative changes in the moral and political realm. Night is not about a moral political order violated and restored, but about the shattering of the idea of such an order.

It is clear enough that in comparing King Lear and Wiesel's Night we do violence to both. But the juxtaposition throws light on a crucial aesthetic issue. It helps us define the experience of a work like Night and moves our inquiry in the direction of the specific means by which the writer shapes that experience.

Lear's death is the death of an old man, flawed like ourselves, vulnerable like ourselves, a character with whom a powerful emotional transaction and bonds of identification have been established over the course of the play. In Lear's death we reexperience the tragic dimensions of our own experience. The play articulates, in symbolic form, an existential pain we could hardly afford to articulate ourselves. But it is pain that, no matter how great, is contained, since the very act of its symbolic articulation also gives form, and therefore limits or boundaries, to that pain.

Night proceeds from experience that is not universal. It does not expand from kernels of the familiar but from the unfamiliar, from data in historical reality. The deaths of Eliezer's father, of Akiva Drummer, of Juliek the violinist and of Meir Katz are different because, after all of the pain, there is nothing to be extracted by way of compensation. They are not symbolic but very real, and we experience, not a purging of feelings tapped but the fear of the unpredictable in life to which we, like the Jews of Night, are subject.

If symbol is something that stands in place of something else, the historical narrative does not stand in place of our experience, but alongside it. We experience historical narrative much the way we experience a neighbor's report of his or her visit to a place we have not ourselves visited. The report is informational—it is "adjacent" to our experience, neither interpretive nor metaphorical nor symbolic. It is "other" than our experience but also part of the same historical matrix within which we experience the flow of our own lives. Night threatens and disturbs in a way that symbolic narrative does not.

Night is Wiesel's attempt to bring word of the death camps back to humanity in such a form that his message, unlike that of Moshe the Beadle to Eliezer and to the Jews of Sighet, will not be rejected. The word I wish to stress here is form. The work, which is eyewitness account, is also much more than eyewitness account. In its rhetorical and aesthetic design, Night is shaped by the problematic of historical horror and by the resistances, both psychic and formal, to the knowledge Wiesel would convey.

When the narrator, Eliezer, sees a lorry filled with children who are dumped into a fiery ditch, he cannot believe what he has seen: "I pinched my face. Was I alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare."

Eliezer cannot believe what is before his eyes. His disbelief seems to numb him physically—he pinches his face to ascertain that the medium of that vision, his body, is alive, perceiving, present. So fundamental is the horror to which he is an eyewitness that seeing comes at the expense of his bodily awareness of himself as a vital and perceiving entity. What Eliezer witnesses contradicts psychic underpinnings of existence so thoroughly that his very awareness brings with it feelings of deadness.

It is precisely this moment, this confrontation with data that negates the human impulses and ideas that structure our lives, with which Wiesel is concerned. We cannot know that which we cannot know. In order to bring the fact of Auschwitz to us, Wiesel must deal with the inherent difficulty of assimilating the truth he would portray.

His method is simple, brilliant and depends upon a series of repetitions in which what is at stake is a breakdown of critical illusions. At this level, the experience of the reader reading the narrative is structurally parallel to his experience of life, at least as Karl Popper describes it. Life, in Popper's view,

resembles the experience of a blind person who runs into an obstacle and thereby experiences its existence. Through the falsification of our assumptions we actually make contact with "reality." The refutation of our errors is the positive experience we gain from reality. [Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, 1982]

Eliezer's tale is the story of a series of shattered expectations, his and our own. The repetition of this "disappointment," of optimism proven hollow and warnings rejected, becomes the crucial aesthetic fact or condition within which we then experience the narrator's account of his experiences in Auschwitz, in Buna, in Gleiwitz, and in Buchenwald. In this way we come to experience the account of the death camps as an account cleansed of past illusion, pristine in its terrible truth.

The quest for this truth is established at the outset of the narrative in the figure of Moshe the Beadle. Eliezer is devoted to his studies of Talmud. His decision to study Kabbalah with Moshe focuses the narrative on the problematic of reality and imbues it with the spiritual longings of this quest.

There are a thousand and one gates leading into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate.…

And Moshe the Beadle, the poor barefoot of Signet, talked to me for long hours of the revelations and mysteries of the cabbala. It was with him that my initiation began. We would read together, ten times over, the same page of the Zohar. Not to learn it by heart, but to extract the divine essence from it.

And throughout those evenings a conviction grew in me that Moshe the Beadle would draw me with him into eternity, into that time where question and answer would become one.

The book, which begins with Eliezer's search for a teacher of mystical knowledge and ends with Eliezer's contemplating his image in a mirror after his liberation from Buchenwald, proposes a search for ultimate knowledge in terms that are traditional, while the knowledge it offers consists of data that is historical, radical, and subversive.

If directionality of the narrative is established early, a counter-direction makes itself felt very quickly. Following Eliezer's dream of a formal harmony, eternity and oneness toward which Moshe would take him, Eliezer's initiation into the "real" begins:

Then one day they expelled all the foreign Jews from Sighet. And Moshe the Beadle was a foreigner.

Crammed into cattle trains by Hungarian police, they wept bitterly. We stood on the platform and wept too.

Moshe is shot but escapes from a mass grave in one of the Galician forests of Poland near Kolomaye and returns to Sighet in order to warn the Jews there. He describes children used as targets for machine guns and the fate of a neighbor, Malka, and of Tobias the tailor.

From this point onward in the narrative, a powerful counter-direction of flight away from truth, knowledge, reality, and history is set into motion. Moshe is not believed, not even by his disciple, Eliezer. The Jews of Sighet resist the news Moshe has brought them:

I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death … And see how it is, no one will listen to me.…

And we, the Jews of Sighet, were waiting for better days, which would not be long in coming now.

Yes, we even doubted that he [Hitler] wanted to exterminate us.

Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What method could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century''

Optimism persists with the arrival of the Germans. After Sighet is divided into a big and little ghetto, Wiesel writes, "little by little life returned to normal. The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear."

While the narrative presses simultaneously toward and away from the "real," the real events befalling the Jews of Sighet are perceived as unreal:

On everyone's back was a pack.… Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved, his pack on his back. His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book, from some historical novel about the captivity of Babylon or the Spanish Inquisition.

The intensity of the resistance peaks in the boxcar in which Eliezer and his family are taken to the death camp. Madame Schachter, distraught by the separation from her pious husband and two older sons, has visions of fire: "Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!" Her words prey on nerves, fan fears, dispel illusion; "We felt that an abyss was about to open beneath our bodies." She is gagged and beaten. As her cries are silenced the chimneys of Auschwitz come into view:

We had forgotten the existence of Madame Schachter. Suddenly we heard terrible screams: Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!

And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.

The movement toward and away from the knowledge of historical horror that Moshe the Beadle brings back from the mass grave and the violence that erupts when precious illusions are disturbed, shapes the narrative of Night. The portrait and analysis of the resistances to knowing help situate the reader in relation to the historical narrative and imbue the narrative with the felt historicity of the world outside the book. Eliezer's rejection of the knowledge that Moshe brings back, literally, from the grave, predicts our own rejection of that knowledge. His failure to believe the witness prepares the reader for the reception of Eliezer's own story of his experience in Auschwitz by first examining the defenses that Eliezer, and, thereby, implicitly, the reader, would bring to descriptions of Auschwitz. The rejection of Moshe strips the reader of his own deafness in advance of the arrival at Auschwitz.

Once stripped of his defenses, the reader moves from a fortified, to an open, undefended position vis-a-vis the impact of the narrative. Because the lines between narrative art and life have been erased, Wiesel brings the reader into an existential relationship to the historical experience recounted in Night. By virtue of that relationship, the reader is transformed into a witness. The act of witnessing is ongoing for most of the narrative, a narrative that is rife with horror and with the formal dissonances that historically experienced horror must inflict upon language.

Human extremity challenges all formal representation of it. It brings the world of language and the world outside language into the uncomfortable position of two adjacent notes on a piano keyboard that are simultaneously pressed and held. The sounds they produce jar the ear. In a work of historical horror, language and life, expression and experience are perceived as separate opaque structures, each of which is inadequate to encompass the abyss that separates them.

The most powerful passages in Night are those that mark Eliezer's arrival in Auschwitz. The family is separated. Eliezer and his father go through a selection and manage to stay together. Eliezer watches a truck drop living children into a ditch full of flames. He and his father conclude that this is to be Eliezer's fate as well. Eliezer decides he will run into an electrified wire fence and electrocute himself rather than face an excruciating death in the flaming ditch.

The moment is extraordinary and extreme beyond the wildest of human imaginings. Hearing his fellow Jews murmur the Kaddish, a formula of praise of the Almighty that is the traditional prayer for the dead, Eliezer revolts: "For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal Lord of the Universe, the All Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?" The Jews continue their march and Eliezer begins to count the steps before he will jump at the wire:

Ten steps still. Eight. Seven. We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our own funeral.… There it was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that was left of my strength, so that I could break from the ranks and throw myself upon the barbed wire. In the depths of my heart, I bade farewell to my father, to the whole universe

And the words of the Kaddish, hallowed by centuries and disavowed only moments before, words of praise and of affirmation of divine oneness, spring unbidden to his lips: "and in spite of myself, the words formed themselves and issued in a whisper from my lips: Yitgadal veyitkadach shme raba.… May His name be blessed and magnified." Eliezer does not run to the wire. The entire group turns left and enters a barracks.

The question of formal dissonance in Night is revealing. The narrative that would represent historical horror works, finally, against the grain of the reader and of the psychic structures that demand the acknowledgments, resolutions, closure, equivalence, and balances that are enacted in Lear. When Cordelia is killed in Shakespeare's play, Lear's sanity gives way and, finally, his life as well. Holding her lifeless body in his arms Lear cries out against heaven, "Howl, howl, howl! O you men of stone. / Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them. / That heaven's vault should break." [The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 1238] The scene, terrible as it is, formally restores the balance disturbed by Cordelia's murder by virtue of the linguistic energies and dramatic consequences it sets in motion. Those consequences are a terrible acknowledgment of a terrible event. The adequacy of the acknowledgment reconstructs a formal balance even while taking account of the terrible in life.

The words of the Kaddish in Night do not express the horror to which Eliezer is a witness. They flow from an inner necessity and do not reflect but deflect that horror. They project the sacredness of life in the face of its most wrenching desecration. They affirm life at the necessary price of disaffirming the surrounding reality. The world of experience and the world of language could not, at this moment, be further apart. Experience is entirely beyond words. Words are utterly inadequate to convey experience.

The dissonance makes itself felt stylistically as well. Eliezer sums up his response to these first shattering hours of his arrival at Auschwitz in the most famous passages of Night and, perhaps, of all of Wiesel's writing: "Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed." The passage takes the form of an oath never to forget this night of his arrival. The oath, the recourse to metaphorical language ("which has turned my life into one long night"), the reference to curses and phraseology ("seven times cursed") echo the biblical language in which Eliezer was so steeped. He continues: "Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky." The oath is an oath of protest, the "silent blue sky," an accusation: "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever." Here and in the sentences that follow, Wiesel uses the rhythms, the verbal energy, imagery, and conventions of the Bible to challenge, accuse, and deny God:

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

The elaborate oath of remembrance recalls the stern biblical admonitions of remembrance. The negative formulation of the oath and the incremental repetition of the word "never" register defiance and anger even as the eight repetitions circumscribing the passage give it rhythmic structure and ceremonial shape. Ironically, these repetitions seem to implicate mystical notions of God's covenant with the Jews, a covenant associated with the number eight because the ceremony of entrance into the convenant by way of circumcision takes place on the eighth day after birth. The passage uses the poetry and language of faith to affirm a shattering of faith.

The passage is a tour de force of contradiction, paradox, and formal dissonances that are not reconciled, but juxtaposed and held up for inspection. In a sparely written, tightly constructed narrative, it is the only extended poetic moment. It is a climactic moment, and, strangely, for a work that privileges a world outside words altogether, a rhetorical moment: a moment constructed out of words and the special effects and properties of their combinations, a moment that hovers above the abyss of human extremity in uncertain relationship to it.

Like the taste of bread to a man who has not eaten, the effect of so poetic a passage lies in what preceded it. Extremity fills words with special and different meanings. Eliezer reacts to the words of one particular SS officer: "But his clipped words made us tremble. Here the word 'furnace' was not a word empty of meaning; it floated on the air, mingling with the smoke. It was perhaps the only word which did have any real meaning here."

Wiesel's narrative changes our conventional sense of the word "night" in the course of our reading. Night, which as a metaphor for evil always projects, however subliminally, the larger rhythm and structure within which the damages of evil are mitigated, comes to stand for another possibility altogether. The word comes to be filled with the historical flames and data for which there are no metaphors, no ameliorating or sublimating structures. It acquires the almost-tactile feel of the existential, opaque world that is the world of the narrative and also the world in which we live.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Night is to be found in the prologue of Terrence Des Pres's book on poetry and politics, Praises and Dispraises. Des Pres is speaking of Czeslaw Milosz and of other poets who have lived through extremity and writes: "If we should wonder why their voices are valued so highly, it's that they are acquainted with the night, the nightmare spectacle of politics especially." [Praises and Dispraises, 1988] Des Pres uses the word "night" and the reader immediately understands it in exactly Wiesel's revised sense of it.

To be acquainted with the Night, in this sense, and to bring that knowledge to a readership is to bring the world we live in into sharper focus. The necessary job of making a better world cannot possibly begin from anywhere else.

Source: Lea Hamaoui, "Historical Horror and the Shape of Night," in Eli Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope, edited by Carol Rittner, New York University Press, 1990, pp. 120-29.

Broken Continuities: Night and White Crucifixion

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1925

Around 3:00 A.M. on November 10, 1938, gaping darkness began to spew the flames that were to burn unabated for the next seven years. On this night Nazi mobs executed a well-planned "spontaneous outrage" throughout the precincts of German Jewry. Synagogues were burned, their sacred objects profaned and destroyed; Jewish dwellings were ransacked, their contents strewn and pillaged. Shattering the windows of Jewish shops, the growing swarm left businesses in ruin. Uprooting tombstones and desecrating Jewish graves, the ghoulish throng violated even the sanctuary of the dead. Humiliation accompanied physical violence: in Leipzig, Jewish residents were hurled into a small stream at the zoological park where spectators spit at them, defiled them with mud and jeered at their plight. A chilling harbinger of nights yet to come, the events of this November darkness culminated in widespread arrest of Jewish citizens and led to their transport to concentration camps. Nazi propagandists, struck by a perverse poetry, gave to this night the name by which it has endured in memory: Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. Irony abounds in such a name, for in the litter of shattered windows lies more than bits of glass. Kristallnacht testifies to a deeper breaking of basic human continuities. Shattered windows leave faith in fragments and pierce the wholeness of the human spirit.

In that same year of 1938 the Jewish artist Marc Chagall would complete a remarkable painting titled White Crucifixion. Here the artist depicts a crucified Christ, skirted with a tallith and encircled by a kaleidoscopic whirl of images that narrates the progress of a Jewish pogrom. The skewed, tau-shaped cross extends toward the arc of destruction and bears particular meaning in that context. Whatever the cross of Christ may mean, in 1938 it was circumscribed by the realities of Holocaust: the onrush of a weapons-bearing mob overruns houses and sets them aflame; a group of villagers seeks to flee the destruction in a crowded boat, while others crouch on the outskirts of the village; an old man wipes the tears from his eyes as he vanishes from the picture, soon to be followed by a bewildered peasant and a third man who clutches a Torah to himself as he witnesses over his shoulder a synagogue fully ablaze.

Chagall's juxtaposition of crucifixion and the immediacy of Jewish suffering creates an intense interplay of religious expectation and historical reality that challenges our facile assumptions. He does not intend to Christianize the painting, certainly not in the sense of affirming any atoning resolution of the Jewish plight. Rather, in the chaotic world of White Crucifixion all are unredeemed, caught in a vortex of destruction binding crucified victim and modern martyr. As the prayer shawl wraps the loins of the crucified figure, Chagall makes clear that the Christ and the Jewish sufferer are one.

We must not misunderstand Jewish appropriation of the cross in the context of Holocaust art and literature. Where used at all, the cross functions not as an answer to atrocity, but as a question, protest and critique of the assumptions we may have made about profound suffering. Emil Fackenheim puts the matter in this way:

A good Christian suggests that perhaps Auschwitz was a divine reminder of the suffering of Christ. Should he not ask instead whether his Master himself, had He been present at Auschwitz, could have resisted degradation and dehumamzation? What are the sufferings of the Cross compared to those of a mother whose child is slaughtered to the sound of laughter or the strains of a Viennese waltz? This question may sound sacrilegious to Christian ears. Yet we dare not shirk it, for we—Christians as well as Jews—must ask, at Auschwitz, did the grave win the victory after all, or, worse than the grave, did the devil himself win? [God's Presence in History (New York University Press, 1972) p. 75]

Questions such as these spring off Chagall's canvas and into our sensibilities. White Crucifixion depicts a world of unleashed terror within which no saving voice can be heard nor any redeeming signs perceived. Separated from the imperiled villagers by only his apparent passivity, Chagall's Messiah, this Jew of the cross, is no rescuer, but himself hangs powerless before the chaotic fire. The portrayal of Messiah as victim threatens to sever the basic continuity we have wanted to maintain between suffering and redemption.… To have redemptive meaning, the cross must answer the victims who whirl here in torment, for, in the Holocaust, the world becomes … "one great mount of crucifixion, with thousands of severed Jewish heads strewn below like so many thieves" (Roskie, p. 268).

Yet precisely here the language of redemption seems trivial, if not obscenely blind to the sufferer's predicament. Can one speak of redemption in any way that does not trifle with the victim's cry? Before the mother's despair, words of redemption offer no consolation; instead, like the laughter and music which accompany her child's murder, such words mock her torment and deny the profundity of her suffering. The rhetoric of redemption, no matter how benevolently used, remains the ploy of oppressors even decades later. No one may invoke it for the victim in whose world it may have no place.

That world of the victim has found literary testament in the writings of Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and recently the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Although his writings are prolific, few of his works have had the impact of his first narrative, the memoir Night. For a decade following the war—years in which he was a stateless refugee in France—Wiesel maintained a personal moratorium on his experience, a pledge of silence that would allow no word to betray the Holocaust memory. On this matter he wrote nothing and spoke nothing, but listened to the voices within himself. Then in 1956 his memories exploded into an 800-page Yiddish text, "Un di Velt Hot Geshvign" (And the World Kept Silent). Over the next two years Wiesel would live with this manuscript, paring away from its pages every letter that was not absolutely essential, every mark on the page that might divert from the intense reality of its truth. The result: the stark volume Night, some 120 pages that have become a landmark in Holocaust literature. Night, too, places the Jew on the cross. It describes the hanging of a young boy who had worked with a well-liked overseer. Both had become suspected of sabotage, and the boy is sentenced to hang, along with two prisoners found with weapons.

One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all around us, machine guns trained the traditional ceremony Three victims in chains—and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.…

The three victims mounted together onto the chairs.

"Where is God? Where is He?" someone behind me asked.

At a sign from the head of the camp, the three chairs tipped over.

Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.…

Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, bluetinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive.…

For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

"Where is God now?"

And I heard a voice within me answer him:

"Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows…."

Francois Mauriac, the French Catholic writer and author of the foreword to Night, found in this scene not only the center of Wiesel's story but also the essential question for his own appropriation of Christian faith. In 1954 Wiesel, then a young journalist, had occasion to interview Mauriac who just two years earlier had won the Nobel Prize in literature. The interview proved to be a decisive turning point for both of them: for Wiesel, Mauriac provided the compassionate challenge to tell the story of darkness, for Mauriac, Wiesel made unavoidably personal the plight of the Holocaust child. Upon reading Night, Mauriac wrote the following:

And I who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Israeli, his brother, who may have resembled him—the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? But I could only embrace him, weeping. ["Foreword to Night," pp. 1011]

Mauriac, long a poignant witness to the connection between suffering and love, knew well that the cornerstone of his faith was at stake in Wiesel's narrative. And yet, at the point at which he might have been tempted to proclaim his gospel, he finds that the only fitting response is to embrace the victim, blessing him with tears. The reason is clear: the death of the sad-eyed angel creates a stumbling block not only for Wiesel, but for Mauriac; not only for the Jewish victim, but for the Christian onlooker who cannot interpret away the scandalous scene without trivializing its grossly unredeemed features. In Mauriac's embrace human compassion stifles theological conviction, rescuing it from becoming an oppressive utterance.…

We misread the scene if we assume that the writer's tears are tied only to his perception of the victim's tragedy. The conversation between Mauriac and Wiesel begins with Mauriac's recollection of the German occupation of France admitting his painful knowledge of the trainloads of Jewish children standing at Austerlitz station. As Wiesel responds, "I was one of them," Mauriac sees himself anew as an unwitting onlooker, the bystander guilty not of acts undertaken, but of acts not taken. The indictment is not Wiesel's but Mauriac's own, born of the self-perception that not to stand with the victim is to act in complicity with his or her oppressor. Mauriac's tears signify his humble repentance, his turning away from the role of onlooker to align himself with the victim. The observer becomes witness, testifying on behalf of the victim. Crucifixion indicts, for in its shadow we are always the guilty bystander. Humility, such as Mauriac's, puts an end to any assumption of benign righteousness; repentance denies complacency to the viewer of another's passion.…

Crucifixion, be it the cross of Jesus or the nocturnal Golgotha of Auschwitz, breaks the moral continuities by which we have considered ourselves secure and whole. To mend these fragments of human experience lies outside our power. We cannot repair the broken world. Yet, as we yield these broken continuities to narrative—to memoir, to literature, to liturgy—we begin to forge a new link that binds storyteller and hearer, victim and witness. But here we must be most careful. We rush to tell the story, confident that it is ours to tell when, in fact, it is ours to hear.

Source: Karl A. Plank, "Broken Continuities: Night and White Crucifixion," in The Christian Century, Vol. 104, No. 32, November 4, 1987, pp. 963-66.

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