Introductory Lecture and Objectives
One of the most powerful, terrifying, and eviscerating accounts of the Holocaust ever written, Night details the true story of Eliezer Wiesel, a devout teenage Jew who endured the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald and survived to relate his story in lyrical and haunting prose. Wiesel’s testimony begins shortly before his community’s deportation in 1944 and marks time through a series of “nights”—the last night he and his family spend in their home of Sighet corralled in a Jewish ghetto; the last night they spend sealed in a cattle car, the flames of the chimneys licking at the dark sky; the last night before the weak, emaciated prisoners are placed on a frigid death march toward Buchenwald as the Red Army advances upon the barbed wire of Auschwitz; the last night Elie’s father is still with him, alive.
Hailed as a masterpiece of literature and perhaps the defining work of the genre, Night was originally written in Yiddish as “And the World Remained Silent,” a sprawling 800-page account finished in 1956. After the book was edited, it was translated into French and then into English, but despite tireless efforts by the French writer and Nobel laureate François Mauriac on behalf of Wiesel, not a single publisher accepted the book. It took much cajoling and efforts from Mauriac before Éditions de Minuit agreed to publish Nuit, as it was titled by then, in 1958. This was also when Wiesel’s comprehensive account was further edited into the slim volume we read today. Wiesel writes in the Preface to the New Translation that he accepted the edits having been “more afraid of having said too much than too little.” What is “too personal, too private,” lingers between the lines, more powerful for the omission. Still, the book sold poorly; the world was not yet ready to confront the truth of Nazi genocide or to confront how it was allowed to happen. Night is brutal in this regard. The memoir offers the reader no opportunity to avert his gaze; instead, the reader must face with courage and humble respect the nearly unspeakable horrors Wiesel recreates in its pages.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1986, the author says it seems like only yesterday “that a young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night.” He discovered the depths of human depravity and evil there, but more importantly, he came to understand a world that knew and did nothing. Where there is injustice, suffering, and humiliation, Wiesel said, “we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Wiesel dedicated his life to bearing witness and uncovering complicity in allowing humans to suffer degradation and fear. In addition to writing over fifty books, Wiesel, a professor of the Humanities at Boston University, also helped create the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Night is a book marked by memory and personal history, an account of one boy’s entering and then emerging from “the Kingdom of Night,” without his family and without a trace of innocence but alive. Beyond his personal story, however, and perhaps even more significantly, Night bears witness to all the lives that were extinguished in the concentration camps; it is a testimony to the lost millions. In its unflagging commitment to the truth and searing devotion to detail, Night makes present and alive the horrors of the Holocaust that cannot be conveyed in the pages of history books. By narrowing his lens to the eyes of one boy, Eliezer—a student of Jewish mysticism from whom faith and family and love itself are torn—Wiesel offers us a rare opportunity to enter the Kingdom of Night so that never again will the world stand by silently and allow such atrocities.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify and discuss the different ways in which the theme of “night” is developed literally and metaphorically.
2. Explain how the memoir addresses themes related to witnessing, silence, and death.
3. Identify father-son relationships in the memoir and explain how and why they shift.
4. Identify the various “prophets” that appear in the memoir and explain how the prophets relate to truth.
5. Explain how the author delivers the memoir’s message through metaphor.
6. Describe and trace the evolution of Eliezer’s faith and his relationship with God.
7. Discuss how various characters experience a crisis of faith.
8. Identify and describe the transformation of men into beasts and explain the root causes behind these crises of humanity.
9. Identify the motifs of fire and smoke in the text and describe how they contribute to the memoir.