“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.”
This moment of prayer comes right after arriving at Auschwitz-“Haven’t you heard about it?”-when the group is being marched “to the crematory.” They will not be killed (not yet) but the terror this welcome march inflicts serves to instill despondency, melancholia, and separation of the prisoners from each other. The Germans knew this, they knew that their prisoners could not have empathy: the faster the prisoners live for themselves alone, the faster they die together. Eliezer grasps the message of their first walk, saying “[h]umanity is not concerned with us.” There is no one to witness their death and no one to mourn them with the right prayer except themselves. Later, when Akiba Drumer is selected for death, he asks them to recite the Kaddish for him-they forget to do so because they are preoccupied with survival.
Death is a pervasive element in a story about death camps. Death is fundamental to human society-anthropologists cite burial practices as the foundation of civilization. The Nazi “slaughterhouses” and “factories of death” are antithetical to this civilized practice of death; the final solution is an absolute mockery of human rights and values. The effect of this madness on persons normally a part of a culture organized around a detailed belief system is a breakdown of their social compact with each other and a fall into melancholia. The incapacitating effect of the melancholia each prisoner had-worrying only about himself-led to the utterly gross situations of a son killing a father for a bite of bread. Finally, it is within this breakdown of empathy among the people in the camps which makes the moment of Chlomo’s final gasp-his son’s name-and Juliek’s swan song possibly beautiful but most likely pathetic to those hearing it.
Throughout the story, men, like Reizel, say they live only because they believe their children may still be alive. Eliezer admits several times that a similar relationship exists between himself and his father. Empathy and the human need of community in the face of death, so as to mourn properly, must be put back together afterward. This is why the stories of the camps must be told and not silenced. Only madness remains if mourning occurs without empathy-only the ghastly and solitary image of one survivor seeing himself in the mirror remains. The survivors must mourn with other survivors-“let’s keep together. We shall be stronger”-if they are to escape the madness of the camps and the memory.
B God and Religion
The community of faith to which Eliezer belongs is Hasidic. This is a sect of Judaism that came into being during the nineteenth century, and its precepts have considerable bearing upon the events of the novel. Hasidism teaches belief in a personal relationship with God. In such a system, awe of God combines with emotion toward God. One can protest, love, fear, and question God without compromising God or contradicting faith. One of Wiesel’s favorite prayers may serve as a summary: “Master of the Universe, know that the children of Israel are suffering too much; they deserve redemption, they need it. But if, for reasons unknown to me, You are not willing, not yet, then redeem all the other nations, but do it soon!”
With this very brief summary in mind, the disposition of the prisoners grappling with the Hell they are in begins to make some sense. Neither those who doubt or question God, as does Eliezer, nor those who never doubt, betray their faith. Hasidism is antagonistic: “man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand His answers.” And yet it is true that the Shoah, or Holocaust, was too much for Eliezer to immediately reconcile with his religion. He was questioning but he was growing tired of God’s silence.
A key figure in this system is Job, a biblical character whose faith in God was persecuted and tested in extremity. “How I sympathized with Job!” says Eliezer, “I did not deny God’s existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.” Comparatively, Job had it easy. Yet the comparison with that biblical figure undermines the tendency to conclude that Eliezer lost his faith. He lost many things but he did not lose, entirely, his faith in the morality of a social compact among men with God. This is what is important, maintaining human dignity by maintaining the empathy of society-not the question of whether or not to fast on some holy day. But it takes the telling of the story of Night to realize this. Meanwhile, in the death camps, Eliezer confesses that “in the depths of my heart, I felt a great void” and “we forgot to say the Kaddish” for Akiba Drumer.
C Sanity and Insanity
There are many examples of madness exhibited during the novel. Two in particular stand out as representing the greater insanity of the Holocaust. The first is the hysterical Madame Schachter and the second is Idek’s enthusiasm for work-being more than a simply mockery of the motto “Work is liberty!”.
The first example recalls Moshe the Beadle’s attempt to warn his fellow Jews of the impending doom. They brushed him off while they were still apparently safe (“You don’t die of [the Yellow Star]…” said Chlomo). When they realized he was right, it was too late. Finding themselves on a hermetically sealed cattle wagon in the dead of night, they are trapped with their worst fears. Madame Schachter begins screaming out their fear: being offered as burnt sacrifice to the Nazi ideal. They physically lash her. They pity her as merely mad because they cannot believe any real harm will come of their deportation. The Germans are human after all. Even Madame Schachter as madness is silenced when her screamed hallucinations become reality and the flames of the crematorium become visible from the cattle car window.
Kapo Idek “has bouts of madness now and then, when it’s best to keep out of his way.” That is, he is prone to fits of violence-something neither Eliezer nor his father could avoid forever. One Sunday Idek moved “hundreds of prisoners so that he could lie with a girl! It struck me as so funny that I burst out laughing.” This self-indulgence is done with forethought; it is not a fit. He moves hundreds of hungry men just so that he might have sex. It goes beyond selfishness yet oddly represents the entire death camp process-all done for ideas held by a handful of men. The general response to the Nazi challenge cannot be a loss of faith (every character in the story that loses faith dies like Meir Katz) but a reinvention of humanity. As Wiesel has said elsewhere, “in a world of absurdity, we must invent reason; we must create beauty out of nothingness.”