In the spring of 1944, German jeeps arrived in the small town of Sighet, Romania, where Jewish teenager Elie Wiesel lived with his parents and three sisters. Within days, their comfortable lives would be changed forever. Herded like animals from one confining ghetto to the next, and then onto train cars bound for who knew where, Wiesel recounts for us the horrifyingly tragic tale of his fight to survive the journey to and imprisonment at Auschwitz/Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps in his short yet profound book, Night.
Wiesel tells of the terrors of the separation from his mother and sister on the train platform at Auschwitz, and the horrors of daily life in the camps, as he and his father survive on barely any food and water, watch as their friends and relatives are ‘selected’ for the crematoriums, and are worked to the bone. Saddest of all is the dehumanization of the inmates, who understandably grow increasingly detached from everything and everyone around them as a mental survival mechanism. As his time in the camps lengthens, Wiesel and his fellow inmates are no longer saddened or even surprised to see other people harmed or killed right before their eyes. They will fight each other for the smallest scraps of food, and leave behind sick and old relatives who have become burdensome. As the inmates are forced to flee to avoid the oncoming Russian liberation force, they are forced to toss dead bodies out of train cars, or march over those who have fallen in their tracks in the snow. Wiesel, who was deeply religious before the Germans came to Sighet, understandably questions the existence of a God who would let this happen to his people several times during the book.
It is hard to say that I enjoyed a book of this intense and depressing nature, but I did. Wiesel wrote clearly and sympathetically of the horrors he endured and witnessed, so that he could speak for all of those who would never get a chance to speak for themselves. It took him ten years after he was liberated to begin writhing about his experiences. How hard it must have been for him to relive those days and nights, as he was separated from his family and later watched his friends and father die. He would also have trouble finding a publisher for the book at first, but it would be published here in the US in 1960, and eventually translated into 30 languages. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
I end with a profound quote from Night:
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”.
Wiesel’s Night is unforgettable. It is a very short book, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in the power of its message.