Night by Elie Wiesel is a compelling story of one boy’s survival of the Holocaust. Elie starts describing his early years in the town of Sighet in Transylvania. Here his father was a prominent member of the Jewish community and Elie devotes his entire life to his religious beliefs. “During the day I studied the Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple.” His beliefs ran so deep that he would always weep when praying without knowing why. When asked why he prayed he responded,
‘”I don’t know why.” He then asked himself, Why do I pray? A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?’
This alone shows a passion for his beliefs that is often overlooked in today’s society. As a young boy of twelve, his way of life was deeply shaped by his religious sensibilities. As his life went on, a horrible act of humankind not only destroyed his family, his way of life, his people, but also his conception of God. It is this destruction that he focuses on and explains as only a person who has lived through such a horror can.
The central thesis of Night focuses on one little boy’s experiences during the Holocaust. The strength he found for survival, the friendships that he made, and the dehumanizing treatment he and others experienced are detailed in this book. It was this experience in his life that turned him away from his God that he grew up worshipping and loving. His memoirs focus on this turn away from God and why a young boy of twelve no longer believed.
Elie Wiesel did not need to try and prove a point in this book. It is a memoir of his life and an experience that the whole world will never forget. A person need not have lived during World War II to imagine the horror or to hear the stories from those who suffered. Our society today could not bear witness to such an event. Hopefully we, or those that follow, will never have to. People like Elie Wiesel have shared their experiences with us. This allows any person who reads this book to experience the horror through words. It also allows one to evaluate how a person, who loved his God so much that he would weep without knowing why, could turn his back on his God.
Elie began his life simple enough. His world evolved around God. In the spring of 1944, Elie’s world changed. All of a sudden he was not allowed to worship in public. All synagogues were shut down. Families still continued to meet in houses to worship. Then life became a little rougher and the Jews were moved out of their homes. Even though during this time there was little food, they still maintained religious practices such as fasting. Elie and his family had deep religious convictions. It was the events to follow that caused him to curse God.
This hatred was directed first against other individuals. The first people he ever felt hate for were the Hungarian police. “It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first of the faces of hell and death.” After this incidence they arrived at Birkenau- the reception center for Auschwitz. It was here that he was separated from his family except for his father. It was this separation point where he lost his family forever, and one more nail was nailed into the coffin for his hatred of God. All around him was suffering, confusion, and most of all the chimneys where black flames were gushing out and the smell of flesh filled the air. The older ones begged their children: “ You must never lose faith, even when the sword hangs over your head. That’s the teaching of our sages…” But, how could a God who called the Jews his chosen people subject them to this kind of treatment? Elie would soon join the Jews who already felt this way.
Elie had not been at Birkenau for an entire day when already he felt his first revolt against God. As they stood waiting for their destiny, someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. “ ‘ Yitgadal veyitkadach shme raba…May His name be blessed and magnified…’whispered my father. For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, lord of the Universe, and All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?” However, a few steps later when he was face to face with death, he himself started to recite the same prayer as his father had. He may have recited this prayer, but it was not a heart-felt prayer. It was a prayer he had been taught since birth. That first night in the camp was the turning point for Elie’s life.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”
From this point on, the experiences compound upon this feeling of a death of faith.
Night by Elie Wiesel contributes to the study of religion through personal experience. Many philosophers or religious texts are grounded in personal experience. However, Elie’s experience was so different from those of other writers. Most people write of how they came to an understanding or belief in God. For Elie this was completely opposite. He went from a complete love and understanding to a feeling of betrayal by this “God” he loved. When he is placed in the hospital for surgery his neighbor had given up all hope and not only turned from God, but to Hitler. “I’ve got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He’s the only one who’s kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.” Elie even knew rabbi who had lost faith in God.
‘“It’s the end. God is no longer with us.”
And, as though he had repented of having spoken such words, so clipped, so cold, he added in his faint voice:
“I know. One has no right to say things like that I know. Man is too small, too humble and inconsiderable to seek to understand the mysterious ways of God. But what can I do? I’m not a sage, one of the elect, nor a saint. I’m just an ordinary creature of flesh and blood. I’ve got eyes, too, and I can see what they’re doing here. Where is the divine Mercy? Where is God? How can I believe, how could anyone believe, in this merciful God?”’
All around Elie were men who once shared his faith and devotion to God, but now were suffering because of it. In my view, this contributes to the study of religion because even though these people felt this way, the Jewish religion still exists today. There has to have been some underlying condition or force that allowed this religion to survive such an ordeal as the Holocaust.
This book sheds light on the question of God through a very important aspect. How can a person survive such a horror and still believe in a merciful God? This incident destroyed Elie Wiesel’s belief for a period of his life, but there were those that still believed through all their hardships. Jews believe that God is a God of the suffering. This was tested in the Holocaust. God was believed to bring deliverance for his people just as he had so many times before in the Bible. The Jews have always been a group of people who endure hardship for the name of their Lord. The Holocaust was just another one of these times. But, if the Jews are God’s chosen people then why did they suffer so much? They suffered for their faith. To see someone willing to die or that is killed because of their faith shows a strong belief in a God. A person can look at this incident and ask two questions: 1. Are these people just stupid to have given their lives for a God that was not merciful to them? or 2. What is so special about this Jewish God that millions of people will not denounce their faith to save their lives?
I personally ask myself the second question. When times are hard people tend to turn more towards God. In our American society we are for the most part well off and we tend to be a godless society. But what about all the people in impoverished parts of the world, they have a faith far greater than I could personally fathom. These Jews that faced the Holocaust were some of those people. I would have been one of the first people to declare that I was not a Jew. These oppressed people did not. They stood their ground and many walked into the crematories praying to this Jewish God.
Night by Elie Wiesel was a book of great passion and anguish. One could see this little boy living these horrors everyday. One could also feel the death of his family, the death of his innocence, and the death of his God. During this period of his life there was no “Savior” in his life. Time and healing have lead to belief once again, but for that 12-year-old boy as he lived through the German concentration camps God did not exist in his life. It was the nonexistence of a God for which his faith caused him to experience such an ordeal.