by Elie Wiesel
Translator: Marion Wiesel
Version: Hill and Wang (2006)
Also reviewed at: Institute for Historical Review (Note: This “review” is actually a “Holocaust revisionist” article supposedly casting doubt over the truth of “Night” and the Holocaust. This review is linked here because I believe that in our quest to understand the role of literature across cultures and around the world, the reactions to the literature are important to consider as well. In no way do I mean to support or even give credence to the Holocaust denial espoused in this review. I do think that pretending there aren’t Holocaust deniers, however, is more dangerous than any of the deniers themselves ever could be.)
Guilt. The central theme of Elie Wiesel’s gripping narrative of his own journey from rural Romania, across central Europe to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and beyond, is the crushing and inescapable guilt he felt and has carried with him ever since. As a famous author who has been a part of the global literary consciousness on the topic since the 1950s, Wiesel’s voice carries with it a great deal of authority, as well as a presumed air of sage and reflective wisdom. The lucidity of thought in “Night” is therefore somewhat jarring when one considers its original publication date: 1958. Though we think now of the Nobel Peace Prize winning writer of 57 books, Wiesel first published “Night” at the age of 30. It is a testament to what he and those around him endured, then, that these 120 pages should be so striking. It is a testament to Wiesel as a man that he carried that same guilt that flows out so freely over the pages of “Night” with him for the subsequent fifty-odd years while prospering as a literary voice.
Survivor’s guilt can be an extremely strong emotion, with the grief of the loss rolled into the helplessness and shame of being unable to prevent it. In this case, Wiesel reevaluates the entire journey he took through the prism of these emotions. At each turn, he wonders why he couldn’t have been stronger for his family. And why he couldn’t have taken the place of his father in the darkest times. The decisions that are made, such that they are decisions at all when faced with life and death choices while on the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion in a starvation-fueled surreality, are ripe to be second-guessed from their outset simply because of the circumstances of their genesis.
Wiesel is barely able to make it through each step of the heinous ordeal, and almost casually reminds the reader of the difficulty by sprinkling in anecdotes of other, often stronger men who fall by the wayside and are immediately killed. Nevertheless, reflection has only brought pain for Wiesel, and even in the moments of his struggle he often seems helpless, wishing for the strength to bear his father’s suffering too, despite barely making it through himself. Watching his father’s descent, and being unable to muster the courage to answer him in the moments during and after the final beating, bring Wiesel face to face with the prospect that in some ways he had been waiting to be freed of the burden that his father had become. And for those feelings, he will never forgive himself.
Survival, the act of going on and making a life and even telling the world about the horrors of Auschwitz, are not enough for Wiesel. Even in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, reproduced after the final pages of the book, Wiesel continues over forty years after Auschwitz to passionately call for all who can speak up to do so, especially for those who cannot. It is a call to action to a world from a man who has seen firsthand the deepest horrors the human experience can bring, but it is also a mournful penance for a son who wished so many times to lie down and die for his father, but who ultimately could not. The meaninglessness of such a gesture, that in Auschwitz Wiesel’s sacrifice would have gained his father no more than the time it took an SS officer to reload his weapon, is not beside the point; rather, it is the point. To stand against all the madness and all of the horror and the abandonment of humanity and faith and purpose, to fight back with his life, is a strength Wiesel could not summon. And for that, he continues to punish himself throughout his life.
While the stifling guilt he carries is powerfully demonstrated throughout, another of Wiesel’s strongest emotions is also frequently on display: wistful second-guessing regret of his father. From early in the story, Wiesel points out times that his father could have saved their family. He even recalls pleading with his father to move the family away. Some of his escapist fantasies while they journey through the German concentration camp system are of taking “the first boat to Haifa” and escaping Europe entirely. To flee is of course to set himself free, but also to do that which he resents his father having been unable or unwilling to do for his family. There are other times when he pleads with his father to press on, to stand up, or to run. In each of these instances, we can see Wiesel being transported back to his thirteen year old self, trying to will his father to change his mind before the SS came to Romania. To escape while they still could.
“Night” is about a loss of faith in humanity, and the burial of one man’s faith in God when confronted with unspeakable vivid atrocities. Underneath all of this, though, it is about a son’s guilt. The feelings from a survivor that he left his father to die, and that he was too weak to do what truly mattered. It is this pain that Wiesel carries with him, a constant reminder that what he saw as a teenager in Europe forever scarred the world, and forever scarred the heart of one man.