Night, in its brevity and simplicity elicits a tortured uneasiness that forces me beyond my comfort zone. The book opens in 1941 with Elie Wiesel as a thirteen-year-old telling of his relationship with his mentor, the lovable, if awkward, Moishe the Beadle. Six pages into the book Moishe is crammed into a cattle car with all the foreign Jews of the town: extermination. Wiesel admits that the deportees are quickly forgotten as life returned to normal. After the nightmare of watching the Gestapo shoot the prisoners and use infants as target practice, Moishe, having been wounded in the leg and left for dead, is able to escape and return to Sighet. “I wanted to come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me…”(7). Is anyone listening? Remembering?
Wiesel’s memoir is as pure as a memoir gets: his thesis, to never forget, is the embodiment of a memoir –a published record –written for the sake of preservation. For a time after reading it I felt it would be blasphemous to attempt to look at Wiesel’s memories with anything other than a deep sense of awe and humility. The weight of it made it entirely too heavy to examine. However, as I continued to process this work, I felt the need to expose it to air.
How can a book inspire such a great sense of awe and humility, and at the same time make me so angry? The usual anger directed at the Gestapo, but also . . .
Anger that the townsfolk of Sighet were so passive (7, 14).
Anger that after being warned by a trusted and beloved mentor there was still a claim that they had no idea what was happening (30).
Anger that even in the face of an offer for safe shelter, there was a terrifying lack of fight-or-flight instinct (20).
Anger that as soon as the cattle cars carried the prisoners away they were forgotten (6, 20, 36).
Anger that the Jewish people berated and bludgeoned fellow prisoners who were suffering (26).
Anger that a son would kill his own father for a crust of bread (101).
Anger that sons abandoned their fathers (91, 106).
My comfort zone and perception of myself, believing that I might be better than all of that, is challenged. Ellie Wiesel, a deeply observant thirteen-year-old who studied the Talmud by day, and wept over the destruction of the Temple by night, tells me I am not better than all of that. Wiesel doesn’t try to make himself appear heroic. His transparency is disarming! The most poignant aspect of his honesty and transparency is best revealed in Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s observation that “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart.” Including my heart.
“Books no longer have the power they once did” (p. xiii). Elie Wiesel’s bold declaration in the preface of his Nobel Peace Prize winning volume are as disturbing as the content which he’s prefacing. There is a bleak despondency in his assessment. His frustration is birthed, I believe, not only out of the sadness he pours out in his memoir, but perhaps out of a sadness that between his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 and the release of this translation in 2006 over one million innocent lives were lost in Rwanda. Similarly, hate crept in. Similarly, hate took over. Similarly, the world remained silent. And Rwanda is only one example among many. In a culture of prepackaged, quick and easy, filtered soundbites, it is more important than ever to read books. Read this book! Then read another book! Instead of repeating soundbites – discuss books. Please.
Wiesel, Elie (2006). Night. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, trans. (Original work published 1958) Print.