Themes of Faith and Disbelief
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.
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,...
(The entire section is 7,223 words.)