- Night itself comes to symbolize death and the loss of hope. Wiesel writes about how the horrors of the Holocaust caused him to lose faith in God and humanity.
- Wiesel states that he shall never forget his first night in the camps. He then repeats the phrase “never shall I forget” several more times as he describes the various horrors of the camps, emphasizing the importance of memory.
- Night recounts Elie Wiesel’s life through the end of World War II. The story begins in 1941, when Wiesel starts his studies with Moshe the Beadle, and traces Wiesel’s experiences through his time in Auschwitz.
Last Updated on April 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 698
On March 19, 1944, German Schutzstaffeln (SS) troops under Adolf Eichmann entered Hungary for the express purpose of rounding up the Jews of that country for extermination. Even as German armies elsewhere were retreating under pounding Russian advances, Adolf Hitler’s so-called final solution was extended to Hungarian Jews—who had mistakenly...
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On March 19, 1944, German Schutzstaffeln (SS) troops under Adolf Eichmann entered Hungary for the express purpose of rounding up the Jews of that country for extermination. Even as German armies elsewhere were retreating under pounding Russian advances, Adolf Hitler’s so-called final solution was extended to Hungarian Jews—who had mistakenly thought themselves safe from German danger. A few days after the invasion, SS troops appeared in the Transylvanian town of Sighet and began the brutal process that would send almost all Sighet’s fifteen thousand Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz in Poland. Among those Jews who lives were totally uprooted was a devout fourteen-year-old student of the Talmud, Eliezer Wiesel.
Wiesel’s experiences from that point to eventual liberation at Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, made up an eight-hundred-page Yiddish manuscript, written after the completion of a self-imposed ten-year period of silence, study, and reflection concerning the Holocaust. Night, outlined within weeks after his liberation (and only one-seventh of the Yiddish original), is Wiesel’s only book devoted completely to the Holocaust, although his experiences of life in Auschwitz and the loss of the six million dictate almost all Wiesel’s thought and writing.
The book’s nine chapters demarcate key events for Wiesel, detailing the gradual loss of the illusion of hope as the grim realities become paramount. Two interrelated concerns are woven throughout the narrative: Wiesel’s agonizing loss of faith in the God of his childhood and his excruciating relationship with his weakening father. The latter is marked by filial love and concern, but also by his own devastating guilt as his father slips inexorably toward death and Wiesel anticipates freedom from his burden of devotion.
Night reveals the destruction of all aspects of the accepted universe—the shtetl (the Jewish enclave) of Sighet, family life, the training of a deeply religious child, and the illusion of a caring humanity. Yet above all, it sets forth a sequence of experiences that results in Wiesel’s becoming “the accuser, God the accused.” A universe is revealed in Night in which “anything is allowed.” After seeing a truck dump babies into a burning pit, Wiesel cries,
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. . . . Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. . . . 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.
Following the execution of a child possessing “the face of a sad angel,” a voice asserts that God “is hanging here on this gallows.” Wiesel is deliberately ambiguous about the source of this assertion.
The nine chapters in Night are devoted to specific aspects of Wiesel’s Holocaust experience: the warnings and illusion-filled prelude before deportation, the terrifying train ride to Auschwitz, the arrival at the gates of the SS hell, the loss of family members, and the early signs of a shattering faith. Wiesel recalls the slave labor at the Buna works adjacent to the central Auschwitz complex, the promise of the approaching Russian army’s liberation destroyed by the SS evacuation of camp inmates, the march away from Auschwitz toward Germany, the train ride to Buchenwald, the death of his father, and his own liberation. The book’s tone varies from irony to bitterness to terrible despair, with the latter perhaps being dominant. As its Yiddish title suggests (literally, “and the world remained silent”), Wiesel’s book is addressed to the world that did nothing, but it also challenges a God who did nothing.
Wiesel is acutely conscious of the duty of the survivor and writer following the Holocaust to educate that apathetic world and to provide a voice for the six million murdered Jewish victims. In an interview published in the Journal of Education (1980), he noted, “I do not write to please the reader. . . . I write for the dead.” Wiesel himself calls Night the literature of testimony.
Last Updated on April 27, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504
Sighet (SEE-get) is the Transylvanian village in which the novel’s opening section is set. Scenes in Sighet provide an introduction to life in the Jewish community by focusing on Wiesel’s introduction to his Jewish heritage and religion. The invading Nazi troops establish two ghettoes into which the village’s Jews are herded after being forced to give up all but what they can carry with them.
Birkenau is the Polish town that is the site of the first concentration camp in which the Wiesel family is imprisoned. Following their stay in the ghetto, the family, along with their neighbors, are put onto trains and sent to concentration camps. Their first stop is Birkenau, where they are introduced to the horrors that follow. There they see families separated, mothers and children going in one direction and fathers and working-age sons in another. Wiesel’s mother and sister are taken from him and, as he learns later, murdered. At Birkenau young Wiesel witnesses people giving up on life and willing themselves to die. In fact, Wiesel himself contemplates suicide, but the religious teachings he receives at home and the dogged determination of his father keep him from killing himself.
Auschwitz is the Polish city that is the site of another concentration camp to which Wiesel, his father, and numerous workers from their first camp are later sent. There, Wiesel is briefly separated from his father. Although he is still in a concentration camp, Wiesel finds Auschwitz much more attractive than his previous prison because it is cleaner. Even though his job as a factory worker allows him to prove that he should be allowed to live, Wiesel becomes jaded and numb to the beatings he experiences and the deaths of those around him. About the time he becomes acclimated to his new surroundings, Wiesel is sent to Buna with his father.
The greatest adjustment that Wiesel makes at the new camp is to the smell of burning bodies. There, too, Wiesel undergoes surgery on a seriously injured foot. Acquaintances warn him that he must not remain in the hospital too long or he will be killed. At one point, while still recovering, Wiesel is forced to march in the prison yard with other prisoners to prevent Russian planes from bombing the camp. In fact, the weak and wounded prisoners are forced to make a forty-two-mile march to another concentration camp, Buchenwald.
Upon reaching this camp, the prisoners are allowed to rest. However, as a result of their long march and a serious case of dysentery, Wiesel’s father dies, leaving his son to survive on his own. Elie is eventually among the few prisoners who are finally liberated from Buchenwald.
Scenes in the concentration camps become even more focused when Wiesel takes readers into the barracks, factories, hospitals, and death chambers that become the scenes of horror. He survived in part because of the strong religious faith that he had developed through his early education and the examples of his parents.
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Hitler, World War II, and the Jewish Holocaust
The mass murder of European Jews and others under Nazi rule during World War II has come to be known simply as the Holocaust. Holocaust literally means “massive destruction by fire.” It is thought that eleven million people were killed by the Nazis. These included political opponents (particularly Communists), Slavs, Romani, people with mental and/or physical disabilities, homosexuals, and other “undesirables.” An estimated six million men, women, and children were killed merely because they were Jews. The destruction of the Jews in Europe stands as the archetype of genocide in human history.
Jews had been the subjects of persecution in Europe at least since the seventeenth century. When Adolf Hitler, the charismatic, Austrian-born demagogue, rose to power in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s, he rallied the German people with a message that included notions of “Aryan,” or white, superiority and the inferiority of other races. The Jews were a special target of his hatred, and they were incorrectly represented during this time of social, political, and economic upheaval as being wealthy and in control of the country’s economy. In 1932, Hitler ran for president of Germany. He did not win, but he did well, and when the party in power was unable to end the depression, its leaders turned to Hitler for help. He became chancellor, or prime minister, of Germany in 1933. Within weeks, he set into motion a series of laws that destroyed the nation’s democratic government. He eliminated all opposition and launched a program of world domination and extermination of the Jews. His government, like all totalitarian regimes, established complete political, social, and cultural control over its subjects.
In Hitler’s program for the “Aryanization” of Germany and world conquest, Jews were subjected first to discrimination, then persecution, and then state-condoned terrorism. This had as a turning point, the “night of the broken glass,” also known as Kristallnacht, which took place in Munich, Germany, in November 1938. Nazi storm troopers burned down synagogues and broke into Jewish homes, terrorizing men, women, and children. Over twenty thousand people were arrested and taken to concentration camps. After Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were expropriated, employers were urged to fire Jewish employees, and offices were set up to expedite emigration. Jews could buy their freedom and leave the country, but they had to abandon their assets when they left. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, half of Germany’s five hundred thousand Jews had fled, as had many Jews from other German-occupied areas.
Hitler’s Nazi government planned a “Final Solution” to the “Jewish question.” After experimenting with different methods of mass extermination, Nazis settled on the gas chamber as the most efficient. Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and at Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans that were driven to nearby sites where bodies were plundered and burnt. At Chelmno and Semlin, 265,000 Jews were killed in this way.
More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in Western Europe for deportation to labor and concentration camps such as those at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. The largest of the death camps was at Auschwitz. It was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners but was expanded in 1941 with the addition of a larger camp at nearby Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau and its subcamps held 400,000 prisoners, including 205,000 Jews. In the spring of 1942, gas chambers were built at Birkenau, and mass transports of Jews began to arrive there. Some were held as registered prisoners, but the great majority was gassed. These gassing operations were expanded in 1943, and four gas chamber and crematorium complexes were built. Before they were killed, the victims’ valuables were stripped from them. Their hair was used to stuff mattresses, and any gold in their teeth was melted down. In total, about one million Jews died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The extermination of European Jews reached a new peak in the summer of 1944, after Germany invaded Hungary, and the new (but not yet fully fascist) Hungarian government fully cooperated in the deportation of 430,000 Jews to Auschwitz in only seven weeks, from May 15 to July 9. About 100,000 of the Hungarian Jews were selected for forced labor—they were assigned to work in the construction of factories for German fighter planes and other tasks. Another 80,000 Jews were exempted from deportation and consigned instead to the Hungarian Army’s forced Labor Service.
The Final Solution moved into its last stages as Allied forces closed in on Germany in 1944. The camps were closed and burned down. Prisoners remaining at concentration camps in the occupied lands were transported or force-marched to camps in Germany. Thousands of prisoners on these death marches died of starvation, exhaustion, and cold, or they were shot. When the war ended and the concentration camps were liberated by Allied troops, thousands of unburied corpses and tens of thousands of sick and dying prisoners were found crammed into overcrowded barracks without food or water.
Much of Europe was destroyed in the war. Survivors of the camps were in terrible condition, both physically and psychologically. Many lost their faith, committed suicide, or were otherwise unable to resume normal lives. Trials were held in Nuremberg in 1945 at which top surviving Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes. Similar trials followed, but thousands of war criminals eluded justice. Millions of people were displaced, feeling unwelcome or unable to return to their former homes. Israel was established as a state in 1948 and opened its doors to all Jews, and many of them who survived the Holocaust migrated there, as well as to the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.
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The novella is a short piece of fiction that is based on the author’s eight hundred-page memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps. The shortened tale is told from a first-person point of view. There is no attempt to enter other minds and little attempt to explain what is on the narrator’s mind. The sole purpose of the book is to relate briefly and succinctly what happened. The reader’s conclusions are meant to be independent, although they have been lead, quite consciously, toward an abhorrence of the moral vacuum presented in the camps.
The problem of capturing the unrepresentable, or sublime, into an art product has not been impossible since the Roman treatise on the topic by Longinus. Using examples from the Old Testament (particularly Genesis and Job), the Iliad, and poetry, he displayed the successful methods for capturing nature in verse, ecstasy in poetry, the abyss in myth, and supreme beings in mere names. As a result, Occidental aesthetics views nothing as beyond the ability of the well-trained artist to present it in a packaged form.
Nevertheless, the moral chaos and utter hell that was the Holocaust surpassed any previously recorded human abyss. For some, even fifty years later, it has broken the aesthetic mold of Longinus; how is it possible to comprehend, let alone represent, this most awful of all events? Not easily, yet Wiesel’s methods resemble those humans who preceded him in the effort to understand the horrible and sublime by representing their experience in one form or other. It is through that artistic effort that comprehension comes.
The means of representing the unrepresentable are the techniques of the sparse and staccato. In this case, those techniques are used to keep the reader, as much as possible, in mind of how precious is the breath of air the death camp inmates survive on. Words are used sparingly, and when possible, blank space is used instead.
The terse sentences remind the reader of the necessity of conserving energy: one is meant to be bothered by the apparent waste of Eliezer’s run across the camp (at the end of a workday) to check on his father. Generally, scenes are made up of few words yet loom large; the storyteller relies on the imagination of the audience, rather than on his ability. He places the dots and hints at the color, but the reader creates the image. Sentences like “An open tomb,” “Never,” and “The gate to the camp opened” are fragments, scraps of evidence that remain until they are sewn together into a narrative which makes sense of what happened. The narrative replaces the useless pictures the GIs took when they liberated the camps. The struggle of representing the unrepresentable horror, as Wiesel discovered, is best accomplished in the same way that Longinus felt the writers of the Talmud did—with few words and plenty of space for digestion.
Night is full of scriptural allusions, or hints of reference to biblical passages. In fact, the very timelessness of the constant night is reminiscent of supernatural tales. Hasidic tales especially do not follow Occidental notions but develop their own time according to the message of the story. “Time,” says Sibelman, “is represented as a creative force, a bridge sinking man to eternity.” Within the story time are more direct allusions to particular stories. Two of the most memorable examples will suffice to demonstrate.
Immediately after realizing that the group is not marching into the death pit, there is the incantation “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp. . . .” and so on. This passage is a pastiche of Psalm 150. In French (and Wiesel writes in French or Yiddish), the start of each line begins with Jamais (meaning never). Psalm 150 praises God for his works and deeds, while the “Never” passage commits just the opposite reality to memory.
Another example of allusion is the execution of the three prisoners. One of these doomed prisoners is an innocent child, a pipel. This scene recalls the moment in the Christian Gospel when Christ is crucified. In the Gospel according to Matthew, he is accompanied by two thieves. At the point of expiration, Christ asks God why he has been forsaken. At death, the sky darkens and the onlookers murmur that this was definitely the Son of God. In contradistinction, the death of the pipel bothers the onlookers in the opposite way. There is still a look for God, but this time, “Where is he? Here He is—He is hanging here on the gallows.”
Traditionally, the bildungsroman in German literature is the story of a young, naive man entering the world to seek adventure. He finds his adventure, but it provides him with an important lesson. The denouement finds him happy, wiser, and ready for a productive life. The classic example is J. W. von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
Wiesel’s novella turns this tradition on its head. He presents an educated young man forced into a hell made by human hands. There he learns more wisdom than he asked for, even when he dreamed of learning the mystical tradition. What he learns about human behavior he would rather not apply. In the end, he sees himself in the mirror, for the first time in several years, as a corpse. The result is that he will think not about being a productive worker, but about healing humanity.
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Alter, Roger. “Elie Wiesel: Between Hangman and Victim,” in After the Tradition. E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1962.
Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night; The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. State University of New York Press, 1982.
Hager, W. H. Review in Christian Century, January, 1961, p. 88.
Harris, Jason. “Wiesel Recounts Twentieth Century,” in the Tamalpais News, http://marin.marin.kl2.ca us/~Tamnews/old/LXX/tam/ads_art/ wiesel.htm 1995.
Kahn, Lothar. “Elie Wiesel: Neo-Hasidism,” in Mirrors of the Jewish Mind: A Gallery of Portraits of European Jewish Writers of Our Time. A. S. Barnes, 1963, pp. 176–93.
Kirkus, August, 1960, p. 660.
New Yorker, March, 1961, Vol. 37, p. 175.
Sibelman, Simon. Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
For Further Study
Avni, Ora. “Beyond Psychoanalysis: Elie Wiesel’s Night in Historical Perspective,” in Auschwitz and After: Race, Culture, and the “Jewish Question” in France, edited by Lawrence Kritzman. Routledge, 1995, pp. 203–19. Explores the idea of “cognitive dissonance,” that is, the inability of the villagers in Night to conceive of Nazi slaughter in terms they can understand, and examines how the loss of community equals the loss of humanity in Wiesel’s text.
Berenbaum, Michael. The Vision of the Void: Theological Reflections on the Works of Elie Wiesel. Wesleyan University Press, 1979. Analyzes the way in which the reading of the novel effects one’s theology as well as the way the novel uses theology.
Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against The Jews, 1933–1945. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975. A historical account of Nazi persecution against the Jews.
Donaldson, Gary A. Abundance and Anxiety: America, 1945–1960. Praeger Pub Text, 1997. The abundance that America enjoyed after World War II was accompanied by new anxieties over the Soviet Union. The Cold War caused prosperous suburbanites to build private bomb shelters and schools to practice air raid drills. The author argues that the tension between abundance and anxiety defined the period.
Estess, Ted. Elie Wiesel. Frederick Ungar Publishing, 1980. Overviews Wiesel’s life and work, with considerable attention to the historical context of the Holocaust in Hungary and to Wiesel’s Hasidic background.
Fine, Ellen. Legacy of Night. State University of New York Press, 1982. Explores the theme of “witness” in Wiesel'’ works, taking Night as the basis for all of Wiesel’s succeeding books.
Friedman, Saul S., ed. Holocaust Literature: A Handbook of Critical, Historical, and Literary Writings. Greenwood Press, 1993. An exhaustive survey of conceptual approaches to the Holocaust, Holocaust area studies (including an essay on Hungarian Jewry), and representations of the Holocaust in education and the arts. It includes a short section on the philosophy of Elie Wiesel.
Hirsch, Herbert. Genocide and the Politics of Memory: Studying Death to Preserve Life. University of North Carolina Press, 1995. A book-length analysis of the politics, problems, and necessity of remembering crimes against humanity. It also poses suggestions for the future preservation of human life.
Kolbert, Jack. “Elie Wiesel,” in The Contemporary Novel in France, edited by William Thompson. University Press of Florida, 1995, pp. 217–31. Provides an overview of Wiesel’s life and major literary themes, with special attention given to his place in contemporary French literature.
LaCapra, Dominick. Representing the Holocaust: History, Theory, Trauma. Cornell University, 1994. Discusses issues through the lens of psychoanalytic literary theory. In particular, it deals with historical representations of the Holocaust.
Lang, Berel, ed. Writing and the Holocaust. Holmes and Meier, 1988. The essays in this volume treat various aspects and problems in writing about the Holocaust, including the difficulty in accurately conveying the horrors of the concentration camps. Several essayists praise Wiesel’s literary style as the most effective in bearing witness to the Holocaust.
Levi, Primo. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. Collier Books, 1995. A detailed account of the famous death camp by another survivor. It is a reprint of a 1947 work.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Messiah of Stockholm, A Novel. Vintage Books, 1988. One of many works by this author to deal with the Holocaust. This novel positions the Holocaust as the central event in the consciousness of twentieth-century Jews.
Rittner, Carol, R.S.M., ed. Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. New York University Press, 1990. Presents essays that view Wiesel’s works through Jewish and Christian theological perspectives.
Rosenfeld, Alvin H., and Irving Greenberg. Confronting the Holocaust: The Legacy of Elie Wiesel. Indiana University Press, 1978. Includes essays exploring various themes in the works of Elie Wiesel. Several essays explore Wiesel’s contributions to Jewish post-Holocaust theology.
Sibleman, Simon P. Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. St. Martin’s Press, 1995. This volume explores the theme and practice of “silence” in Wiesel’s works, arguing that “silence” represents more than the mere absence of words.
Vanderwerken, D. L. “Wiesel’s Night As Anti-bildungsroman,” in Yiddish, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1990, pp. 57–63. Views Elie as the antithesis of the traditional “coming of age” hero.
Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea. Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. This is the first volume of Wiesel’s memoirs, and it expands and comments on events depicted in Night.
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Bloom, Harold, ed. Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001.
Cargas, Harry James. Conversations with Elie Wiesel. South Bend, Ind.: Justice Books, 1992. A collection of interviews with the author that cover his life, politics, and literary works. Wiesel speaks frankly and extensively about his childhood in Sighet and of his time in the concentration camps—events that formed the basis for Night.
Estess, Ted L. Elie Wiesel. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. An analysis of Wiesel’s key literary works, including Night, Dawn, and The Accident. Night receives extended discussion in chapter 2.
Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. A critical study of Night and Wiesel’s other Holocaust works.
Patterson, David, Alan L. Berger, and Sarita Cargas, eds. Encyclopedia of Holocaust Literature. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press, 2002.
Rittner, Carol, ed. Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. New York: New York University Press, 1990. A collection of seventeen essays on Wiesel’s life and literary works. Night receives an extended discussion in three essays and is mentioned in several others.
Schwarz, Daniel R. “The Ethics of Reading Elie Wiesel’s Night.” Style 32, no. 2 (Summer, 1998): 221–243.
Walker, Graham B., Jr. Elie Wiesel: A Challenge to Theology. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988. Focuses on Wiesel’s religious dilemmas as they are reflected in his major literary works.
Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Wiesel, Elie. “Why I Write.” In Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology, edited by Jules Chametzky, John Felstiner, Hilene Flanzbaum, and Kathryn Hellerstein. New York: W. W. Norton, 2001.