Wiesel’s Night in the eternal light
After 12 years of being just an entry on my master “to read” list, I finally read Elie Wiesel’s Night in preparation for the discussion last night at Book Club B (“B” because it’s the second one I’m involved in, not “B” as in quality of the discussion!).
How does one respond to another person’s encounter with pure evil and endurance of the most extremes of human suffering?
As I begin to process this, a few comments will have to suffice:
1) I’m glad the book is so short. I don’t think I could have endured any more images of the concentration camps. (I feel guilty just writing that, knowing that I only read the words; Wiesel lived them.) But he didn’t need any more pages; the story is complete, and the brevity makes his account all the more powerful.
2) Moishe the Beadle appears in only the first chapter, but he seems to pre-figure Wiesel’s life’s work. Having escaped one of the earliest massacres, Moishe returns to Sighet to warn his countrymen: “Listen to me! That’s all I ask of you . . . You cannot understand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where did I get my strength?” But the Jews believe him mad and ignore his warnings. Later, Wiesel will also miraculously survive the camps and dedicate the rest of his life to preserving the historicity of the holocaust in the world’s memory.
3) Night is as much the story of Wiesel’s loss of faith as it is the loss of family, possessions, dignity. When in the camp his father begins to cite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead (“May His name be celebrated and sanctified…”), Wiesel becomes angry. “Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?”
When a child is publicly hanged, a man near Wiesel cries, “Where is God?” “From within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…”
Though the liberating Allied army approaches, a fellow inmate assures Wiesel that the kommandants will kill them before they can be rescued: “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.”
It is hard to argue with that bitterness in the face of such suffering. (Indeed, our first response as human beings ought not to be an argument at all, but justice for those lost and compassionate tears shared with the survivors.) But as I respond to the tragic loss of faith, I remind myself that ultimately Hitler is not allowed to keep his promises to the Jews. Sixty years have transpired since the end of the war, and the Jewish people have not only survived extinction but succeeded in establishing a state. Surely that is evidence of God’s continued superintendence and ultimate protection.
And the literal crux of the Christian faith is that Jesus—another Jew physically and mentally tortured—also cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and was resurrected three days later.
The eternal truth that illumines the darkest night of the soul is that somehow our all-knowing, all-powerful Master of the Universe is directing the deepest of evil toward the ultimate good: his glory. We cannot see the outcome. It is nearly impossible to believe.
But we must.
May His name be sanctified.