“Night” by Elie Wiesel is a moving account of a young Jewish boys’ experience in Auschwitz during the Holocaust. It charts his journey from a devout Jew to someone who loses all faith in God. It describes his daily struggle to get bread, stay warm, look after his aged father all the while wondering where was God? It is a short sharp book that will force even the most religious person to question their faith.
Wiesel grew up in the Translyvanian town of Sighet in Hungary. He was deeply religious and read the Talmund and visited the Synagouge everyday. In 1944 all the Jews of Hungary were rounded up and sent to the concentration camps, the Wiesel family included. Elie and his father were sent to the work camp of Auschwitz while his mother and sister were sent to the gas chambers. Elie recorded the thoughts of his first night.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things even if I were condemned to live as long as God himself.
The most harrowing scene of the book occurs when Wiesel describes how two men and a young boy were accused of sabotage and were executed in front of the rest of the camp. As they were watching the execution a man asked “Where is God?”. The boy was so light that he wasn’t hung quickly like the two men but instead was suspended for 30 minutes as the rest of the camp had to watch him writhing. A man again cried “Where is God?” This time Wiesel responded, “Where is He? This is where, hanging from these gallows”.
At a prayer service the prisoners huddled together and prayed “Blessed be God’s name”. Wiesel narrates how he felt about this.
“Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fibre in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night including Sabbath and Holy Days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna and so many other factories of Death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praise be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine alter?”
The tables had turned, Wiesel was no longer devout religious boy but now he “was the accuser, God the accused.” On Yom Kippur it was traditional to fast, but there was debate over whether or not this was wise in the concentration camps where there were half starved anyway. Wiesel decided not to fast because “I no longer accepted God’s silence. As I swallowed my ration of soup, I turned that act into a symbol of rebellion, of protest against Him.”
Faith left them all. Wiesel recounts a rabbi he knew who would recite entire pages from the Talmund and engage in deep theological debates himself. One day he said to Wiesel “It’s over. God is no longer with us.” He looked around the concentration camp and asked “Where is God’s mercy? Where is God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?”
Night has its flaws. It is far too short, not much longer than a short story. It lacks depth and detail, events are only explained in the vaguest of ways. The book has no flow or continuity reading more like a collection of memories. The writing style is poor and Wiesel describes things in the most basic of ways. He only hints at things that deserve exploration and the reader is left unsatisfied at what is not said. We want to know more, much more. Little mention is made of his family, instead the focus is on himself and his father. The Yiddish version is far more detailed than the English translation which is only 120 pages and can be read in an hour or two. There is even doubts over its accuracy and claims he exaggerated or dramatised some sections.
Yet it is still deeply powerful. It raises important questions that are not easily ignored. Where was God? Where was the humanity? Can we judge someone who beats their own father for a slice of bread? Would we have done the same? How far would we be prepared to go to survive? What sort of God would ignore the prayers of the Jews in the gas chambers? What sort of God promises to keep his people safe but idly watches their extermination? If God is almighty and all-loving then why did he not stop the Holocaust?