Saturday, August 28, 2010

Night by Elie Wiesel

Like watching Hotel Rwanda, I found Night to be a very difficult book and almost didn’t finish it. I think it is an incredibly important document. Like Hotel Rwanda, Night memorializes one human being’s experiences amidst a genocide. It is a remarkable account for a number of reasons. Mr. Wiesel was only a teenager when he and his family were deported and sent to a Nazi concentration camp along with other Jews from his town. It is amazing that someone so young could process the horror of that experience in such a sophisticated way. The book is beautifully written, though the adverb “beautifully” seems out of place due to the subject matter. Mr. Wiesel’s prose powerfully conveys the experience of concentration camp prisoners because it is not a dry, removed historical narrative. Instead, he reflects profoundly on the experiences he endured, which intensifies the reader’s understanding of the horror he experienced.

There were a number of things that struck me about the book. He begins the book by recounting his relatively carefree youth in a small Hungarian town, and describes his fervent religious faith. He went to synagogue frequently, read the Scriptures and prayed passionately to the God whom he knew and loved. Through out the book, he describes how the horror of the camps led him to lose his faith and curse God. Obviously I am of a different faith that Mr. Wiesel. But Christianity has its roots in Judaism, and Jesus was a devout Jew. So, our religious traditions are interrelated, and similar in many important respects. But even if they were not, it is excruciating for any person of faith to read of the loss of faith of another. Despite theological differences, I don’t think any person of faith can relish the notion that another child of God would become estranged from our Father.

Nonetheless, it is hard for any compassionate human being to fault Mr. Wiesel. What he endured and what he witnessed at such a tender age is incomprehensible and would test the faith of much more mature individuals. Particularly as viewed through the eyes of one so young, it is overwhelming to conceive of the rupture of the family unit when communities were shipped off to the camps. Upon arrival at the first camp, Mr. Wiesel and his father were separated forever from his mother and sister as the women and men were segregated and received differing fates. It is impossible to imagine such brutality and not even getting to say final “good-byes.”

As evident in Mr. Wiesel’s account, people were put in such impossible, dehumanizing conditions, that human survival instincts often led them to betray those whom they loved most. He describes how younger adults and teens often turned on their relatively weaker parents in a desperate effort to save themselves. Indeed, Mr. Wiesel expresses that his own prayer was that he would not fail that test and turn against his father.

As Night progressed, the inhumanity seemed to increase exponentially. The end of the book depicts the forced death march to another concentration camp ahead of the advance of Allied troops, and the slow, agonizing death of the author’s father. Of course, the risk in such graphic depiction of overwhelming brutality is that the reader will become numb to it. There is only so much horror that one can take in before one shuts down emotionally. Indeed, Mr. Wiesel references many times his own numbness and that of his fellow inmates. But the reader must guard against such numbness as best as he or she can. The subject matter is too important.

It is also critical that we who are fortunate to live in relatively prosperous and peaceful countries not fail to see the lessons of genocide in our own communities. One striking aspect of the initial reaction of the Jews in Mr. Wiesel’s town in Hungary was the pervasive disbelief that anything bad would happen to them. When the Nazis invaded Hungary, they didn’t think that they would get around to deporting Jews in the small towns. When the Nazis actually came to their town, they initially rationalized the situation by emphasizing the cordiality of the Nazi officer in charge. When they were put in a ghetto, they didn’t think the situation was that offensive. It was not until they were told of their imminent deportation and they began to be crammed into trains that the horror of their situation was apparent. To me, this human tendency to deny or rationalize bad, even potentially very dangerous situations, continues to take place all the time. If one group of persons is treated differently, there is often an attempt to justify the treatment and deny that it is inferior treatment. That seems to me to be a potentially very dangerous human tendency, one which we need to recognize and guard against.

In reflecting on Mr. Wiesel’s book, I asked myself what ordinary people might learn from the experience of the Holocaust. What came to mind was a particular sermon my pastor gave a while back. Last spring, she did a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. She began the series with a sermon on the commandment to not commit murder. She pointed out that many of us may think that commandment is so simple and has no application to our own lives because we wouldn’t ever even contemplate taking the life of another human being. But the Ten Commandments come from the Old Testament, and my pastor focused us on Jesus’s teachings on murder in Matthew 5:21-22, which gave added insight. In the book of Matthew, Jesus elevates the sin of anger to the sin of murder, and not by accident. Anger towards another is really the root that leads to the evil fruit of murder, and it is important to guard against it in our own hearts.

Matthew 5:21-22 (New International Reader’s Version)

"You have heard what was said to people who lived long ago. They were told, 'Do not commit murder.—(Exodus 20:13) Anyone who murders will be judged for it.' But here is what I tell you. Do not be angry with your brother. Anyone who is angry with his brother will be judged.”

Matthew 5:21-22 (The Message)

"You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.' I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder.”


  1. Awesome, I think the survivors must have really believed in those passages on account of their lack of anger and wanting revenge.

  2. great post! One thing about Holocaust survivors, the majority didn't want revenge immediately. And, the majority (Simon Wiesenthal) believed in "justice, not revenge." which I think is good