Wiesel’s Recalls the Holocaust Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Elie Wiesel’s Night is a powerful and widely read testimony of a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner who dedicated his life to preserving the memory of Holocaust victims.

Summary of Event

In 1955, when Elie Wiesel began writing the original version of Un di Velt hot geshvign (1956; Night, 1960) in Yiddish, ten years of silence had passed since his liberation from the Buchenwald Buchenwald concentration camp concentration camp Concentration camps in Germany. His silence had enabled his memories and reflections to deepen. Night (Wiesel) Holocaust;Elie Wiesel[Wiesel] Jews;Holocaust [kw]Wiesel’s Night Recalls the Holocaust (1956)[Wiesels Night Recalls the Holocaust] [kw]Night Recalls the Holocaust, Wiesel’s (1956) [kw]Holocaust, Wiesel’s Night Recalls the (1956)[Holocaust, Wiesels Night Recalls the] Night (Wiesel) Holocaust;Elie Wiesel[Wiesel] Jews;Holocaust [g]Latin America;1956: Wiesel’s Night Recalls the Holocaust[05080] [g]Argentina;1956: Wiesel’s Night Recalls the Holocaust[05080] [c]Literature;1956: Wiesel’s Night Recalls the Holocaust[05080] [c]Historiography;1956: Wiesel’s Night Recalls the Holocaust[05080] [c]World War II;1956: Wiesel’s Night Recalls the Holocaust[05080] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1956: Wiesel’s Night Recalls the Holocaust[05080] Wiesel, Elie Wiesel, Shlomo Mauriac, François

A barracks at the Buchenwald concentration camp a few days after it was liberated by the Allies. Elie Wiesel is the seventh man from the left in the middle bunk.

(National Archives)

Wiesel was born in 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania, at that time part of Hungary. His father, Shlomo, was a shopkeeper who was always helping people, while his mother, Sarah Feig, was the pious descendant of great Hasidic rabbis and scholars. As a boy, Wiesel received a thorough Jewish education, proving to be brilliant and showing great promise as a future rabbi. In 1944, Sighet was invaded by Nazi Germany, and the Hungarian fascists took power as the Nazis and their allies sought to finish the job of murdering every Jew in Europe. Wiesel, his parents, and his three sisters were put on a cattle car and taken to the Auschwitz Auschwitz concentration camp concentration and death camp Death camps Concentration camps in Poland. In 1945, he and his father were marched west to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Wiesel and two sisters survived; the rest of the family perished, along with 200,000 other Jews from Hungary.

After the war, Wiesel sought refuge in Palestine, but because of British restrictions, he settled in Paris, where he studied at the Sorbonne and learned French, the language he chose for his novels. He became a journalist and correspondent. In 1954, he met the French Catholic writer and philosopher François Mauriac, who was so moved by Wiesel’s story that he urged Wiesel to write about his experiences during the Holocaust.

In 1956, the original version of Night appeared. Eight hundred pages long, written in Yiddish, and published in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by an association of Polish Jews, it was entitled Un di Velt hot geshvign (and the world remained silent). In 1958, Wiesel condensed the book and translated it into French, and with the help of Mauriac, it appeared in 1958 as La Nuit. After experiencing some difficulty in finding a publisher for an English-language edition of his book because of the depressing nature of his subject matter, Wiesel had the 116-page Night published by Hill and Wang Hill and Wang in September of 1960. By 1986, it had gone through nine printings and had become the most widely read account of a Holocaust survivor.

Within the brief confines of its covers, Night encapsulates experiences of the Holocaust through the eyes of a fifteen-year-old boy. The immediacy of the episodes is conveyed superbly and could be multiplied by the millions of victims who did not survive to tell their story. Indeed, Wiesel dedicated his life to writing to memorialize the six million innocent Jewish dead. Unlike the equally popular individual account of a child’s experiences during the World War II years, Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl Diary of a Young Girl, The (Frank) (1952), Night traces the immediate descent of a teenager into the hell of the death camps.

The story begins in 1941, when Elie is twelve years old, growing up in a typical, pious Jewish household in Eastern Europe. His mentor, Moche the Beadle, tells him that he must ask the right questions of God and that he must find the answers only within himself. This sets the stage for the spiritual struggles Elie will undergo during the Holocaust.

In 1944, the Nazis and the Hungarian fascist police descend on the village of Sighet, and some Jews are taken away, among them Moche. Moche escapes and returns with tales of horror, but the villagers do not believe him.

Soon Elie and his family are told that they must leave, that they will be “resettled.” With diabolical cleverness, the Germans have concealed their murderous plan. The Wiesel family is crammed into a cattle car with the other Jews of Sighet. The unforgettable terror of the journey is conveyed in a few short pages. When they arrive at the death camp of Auschwitz, the family is separated. Elie’s mother and his youngest sister are immediately sent to the gas chambers, while he and his father are spared for slave labor. Brutal guards, dogs, flames, the smell of burning flesh, and the sight of burning babies and children greet the prisoners on their first day in the camp.

The rest of the book describes Elie’s unbearable physical and spiritual struggle in the camps and his constant efforts to help his father. In 1945, the two are marched west to Buchenwald. Elie’s father dies of mistreatment and fever shortly before liberation. The story ends as Elie looks into the mirror after liberation: “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.”

Within the pages of Night are myriad themes, each vital in understanding the effects of the Holocaust on the human condition. Night represents an education in reverse, an initiation of a pious, optimistic teenager into a sealed universe of colossal inhumanity and death. It is a story of the Exodus in reverse, a true account of the fall of humanity in modern times. Wiesel poses painful questions about the nature of evil, loss of innocence, and crises of faith, and he views himself as a living corpse at the end.

Although part of Wiesel died in Auschwitz, the look in his eyes that never leaves him is a sign of pained hope and of his recognition that he must bear witness to the horrid crimes he has seen. He commits his life henceforth to the telling of the tale.

Significance

When Night first appeared in the United States in 1960, the accolades in scholarly, Jewish, and Christian periodicals were unanimous. It was praised for its spare, clear style, devoid of embellishment, artifice, and self-pity. Nevertheless, it was considered immensely powerful because of its compression of a variety of themes and its vivid descriptions of the camps’ surrealistic conditions, the inhumanity of the perpetrators, and the humanity of many of the victims, all of this in a narrative of controlled power. Moreover, its success and impact were also attributed to its accessible vocabulary. Reviewers immediately ranked it in importance with The Diary of a Young Girl. Because of the circumstances under which it was written as well as the maturity of its author, Night concretizes the horrifying reality of the Holocaust in a different manner from that of Frank’s diary.

A few extracts must suffice to convey the amazing imagery of Night. In the cattle car on the way to Auschwitz, Madame Schachter prophetically screams out the fate of the Jews: “Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!” Wiesel’s first night in Auschwitz—during which he witnesses babies, children, and adults being burned alive—wounds his faith in human goodness, in the Western Enlightenment, and in God. “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night. . . . Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

Wiesel encounters extremes of human behavior. Acts of great kindness and self-sacrifice exist alongside the most wanton brutality and sadism. One day, a boy accused of sabotaging the electric power station in the work camp is hanged. He weighs little, so he strangles slowly. Wiesel says that God “is hanging here on this gallows” with the young boy. One night, during a lull in the death march to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s friend Juliek plays a fragment of Beethoven on his violin. “I had never heard sounds so pure. In such a silence,” he writes. Somehow, a broken human being was able to summon hope and beauty amid a pile of corpses.

Finally, when Wiesel’s father dies on January 28, 1945, shortly before the liberation, Elie admits: “But I had no more tears. . . . I might perhaps have found something like—free at last.” Such was the impact of the camp on even the closest of human relationships, and such is the unflinching honesty of Wiesel’s work.

The emotionally charged passages have found their way into countless books and curricula about the Holocaust. They rank with the greatest pages in all literature. The variety of themes and literary models in the book is also astounding. The imagery of darkness, the motif of the journey, and the description of hell on earth in nine chapters is suggestive of Dante Alighieri’s journey through the inferno. The five defiant counts of never (to forget) as Wiesel witnesses the burning of children is reminiscent of the outcry in William Shakespeare’s King Lear when Lear sees the body of his innocent murdered daughter, Cordelia. The confrontation with madness in the camps and the double vision in the mirror at the end are also notable.

Night is representative of the forces that helped shape Wiesel’s work. They are the Jewish biblical, talmudic, and cabalistic traditions and the current of modern existentialism. Wiesel’s struggles of faith are reminiscent of Job’s, and the angry tone of the prophets is present, as are the chanting rhythms of the Psalmists. Night exemplifies the Jewish tradition of storytelling, which holds that memory is the key to conscience.

After the war, Wiesel became influenced by the new outlook and literature of French existentialism Existentialism , embodied in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre and particularly Albert Camus. They stressed the modern problems of anxiety, alienation, and absurdity of life but also demanded that men and women commit themselves to defining the meaning of existence for themselves and to fighting against evil.

Wiesel fused these two traditions. In the 1970’s, he became increasingly well known as Night was succeeded by many of his novels and essays about victims, fighters, participants, parents, and the greatness and endurance of the Jewish people—all his writings built upon Night.

Wiesel’s commitment to human dignity parallels his writings. He has fought prejudice, genocide, and hatred, and he has defended the rights of oppressed Cambodians, Gypsies, Biafrans, Paraguayan Indians, and black South Africans as well as the rights of persecuted Jews in the Soviet Union. In so doing, he has applied the unique catastrophe of the Jewish people to the universal concerns of all people.

In 1979, Wiesel was appointed as the first chairman of the U.S. President’s Holocaust Commission. In 1985, following the example of the prophets’ tradition of telling “truth to power,” he gently but eloquently rebuked President Ronald Reagan in public for planning a journey to a cemetery where officers of the Schutzstaffel (SS) lay buried. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway.

Wiesel’s journey from Auschwitz to Oslo was a miracle set in motion by Night. More than most works, it helped call attention to the experience of the Holocaust. It remains a point of entry for encountering that forbidding but vital area. As a memoir of the Holocaust, Night remains unsurpassed. It is used extensively in schools and colleges in a variety of disciplines. As long as memory endures in freedom, the book will remain a unique classic, a monument to memory, and a warning to the human spirit. Night (Wiesel) Holocaust;Elie Wiesel[Wiesel] Jews;Holocaust

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold, ed. Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2001. Compilation of scholarly essays about Night, examining the book both as a literary text and as a historical document. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Robert McAfee. Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983. The work of a distinguished Protestant theologian, this eloquent book stresses the impact of Wiesel’s work, and particularly Night, on Christians. McAfee agrees with Wiesel that the Holocaust is a problem for Christians as well as for Jews. There is a fine chapter on Christian responses entitled “Birkenau and Golgotha” as well as an excellent bibliography and useful summaries of Wiesel’s major works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Estess, Ted L. Elie Wiesel. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. This excellent survey approaches Wiesel as a questioner of himself, of humanity, and of God. Traces Wiesel’s novels that followed Night. Maintains (following Wiesel’s own assertion) that Night is the foundation of all Wiesel’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of “Night”: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. The best introductory survey of the work of Elie Wiesel. Contains a superb chapter on Night and its publication. Characterizes Wiesel as a new kind of literary figure, the “protagonist as witness.” Emphasizes the father-son relationship in the novel and analyzes the ending of the book as a new beginning—writing and testimony as a reason for living.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rittner, Carol, ed. Elie Wiesel: Between Memory and Hope. New York: New York University Press, 1990. Carol Rittner, a Sister of Mercy and director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation, has assembled seventeen excellent essays in this collection, written by literary scholars, theologians, and philosophers. The theme is that Wiesel’s thinking has changed over the past thirty years yet remained the same, with a focus on memory as the foundation of morality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated by Stella Rodway. Foreword by François Mauriac. Preface for the twenty-fifth anniversary edition by Robert McAfee Brown. Toronto, Ont.: Bantam Books, 1986. Brown’s eloquent preface urges that Night be read by all to honor the dead and to warn the living. The foreword by Mauriac must be read, for it reveals why he, as a Christian and a sensitive writer, encouraged Wiesel to break his silence.

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