With the encouragement of Francois Mauriac, Elie Wiesel broke his silence on the horror of the Holocaust to produce an 800-page memoir entitled, Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, in 1956. That cathartic story was reworked over two years and became the slim 1958 novella La Nuit which became Night in 1960. Wiesel’s novel revealed the Holocaust in stark, evocative, detail. He had a hard time finding an audience, however, in a world that preferred the 1947 Diary of a Young Girl written by Anne Frank. Night made no claim on innocence but created an aesthetics of the Holocaust to force people to face the horrible event and, hopefully, break the general silence surrounding that Hell. For Wiesel, Night began a brilliant writing career.
No other individual is so identified with the Holocaust-its memory and its prevention-as Wiesel. He was born in 1928 in Sighet, Romania, to Shlomo (a grocer) and Sarah Wiesel. His parents were part of a Hasidic Jewish community and encouraged him in his religious studies. Growing up, young Wiesel “believed profoundly” and felt it his duty to pray. In 1944, the distant threat of Hitler invaded the community and his family was deported to a concentration camp. A few years after the war, Wiesel was reunited with surviving family members-two sisters.
Night opens with a description of Moshe the Beadle, a poor Jew in Sighet, who is teaching Jewish mysticism to young Eliezer. After Moshe is expelled with the other foreign-born Jews, he miraculously returns to tell the Jews of Sighet that all those who were expelled have been killed. However, none of the villagers believe him, and eventually Moshe stops telling his tale. In the spring of 1944, German troops appear in Sighet, and the occupiers issue anti-Semitic decrees and establish two Jewish ghettos. Eventually, the Jews of Sighet are told that they are going to be evacuated.
In the concentration camps, the best heads of the block to be under are Jews. When Elie is transferred to the musicians’ block he finds himself under a German Jew named Alphonse “with an extraordinarily aged face.” Whenever possible, Alphonse would organize a cauldron of soup for the weaker ones in the block.
“Someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I do not know if it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves.”
The novella is a short piece of fiction that is based on the author’s 800-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 led, quite consciously, toward an abhorrence of the moral vacuum presented in the camps.
A The Eisenhower Years
Eisenhower was re-elected in 1956 to continue his leadership of an America that had emerged literally overnight as the most awesome industrial military complex the world had ever seen. At the start of World War II, while Hitler was invading Poland, there were more men employed in Henry Ford’s car plants than in the Army. However, the U.S. had what nobody else on the planet did-an incredible surplus of electric power. The Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams had just been completed with the result that immediately in 1942 the European skies were full of American planes-planes that could be instantly replaced. All this wartime manufacture was retooled for the domestic economy to produce record numbers of cars, jeeps, appliances, track housing, and a whole range of consumer items to be seen in glossy magazines like Life and Playboy. The Broadway hit about the Holocaust, The Diary of Anne Frank, was awarded the Pulitzer and on the television Elvis could only be shown from the waist up while singing the hit song “Blue Suede Shoes.” Real wages and the GNP were up.
How does Elie arrive at the conclusion that he is stronger than God?
There is passing reference in the novel to an Oberkapos who was caught hiding weapons and was killed. This is the only reference point in the book to armed resistance against the “Final Solution.” Do some research into the Jewish or French resistance movements during World War II.
1956: The Holocaust, outside of Israel, is not discussed. The nearest approach is the reworking of Anne Frank’s story for the stage. Today: Ignoring the right-wing extremists who deny the Holocaust ever happened, recent years have seen a number of mourning activities for Holocaust victims. Elie Wiesel was named head of the Swiss Holocaust Fund. All across Germany, memorials, art works, and peace shrines have been raised. Art has been returned and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List has been viewed by millions of people around the world. Holocaust museums have been opened in several cities and archives set up for the recording of survivor testimony.