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.

18. March 2006 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 12 comments

Comments (12)

  1. Mindy –

    Will Nielsen’s had some posts up recently about Wiesel’s book, too, on Nielsen’s Nook.

    I’ve not read anything more than excerpts from the book, but would certainly like to delve deeper. I’ve considered using certain passages to introduce the problem of evil for Intro to Phil sections at the comm college, particularly b/c several of my students from evangelical backgrounds have simply never wrestled w/ the full intellectual or psychological difficulty.

  2. Great idea, Mike–I encourage you to do so. That’s exactly the point of literature, after all–to prod us to consider the complexities of the human condition. If any book speaks to the problem of evil, it’s this one!

    I’ll check out Will’s comments.

  3. I read the book is small sections, ending each time with a sense of being overwhelmed. I think the short length of the book contributes to its message — any longer and I probably wouldn’t have continued. Or any longer and I may have become callous.

    I was struck by the stark honesty of the author. He admitted thoughts I don’t think I’d have the courage to admit, especially not if I didn’t have the security of knowing my sins are forgiven.

    Another book I will re-read, but it will be a long while.

  4. I think I’ll try the one-sitting approach to reading it…maybe this week.

  5. Read it mostly in one sitting, good suggestion. You are right that this book is largely about his loss of faith. I’m also not sure how I would fare under those circumstances. His experience in the camp was literally like being the walking dead.

    While it’s shocking to think that human beings committed these acts, it’s even more shocking to realize that human rights are still violated every day. I’m thinking particularly of the rapes and murders in Congo. Humanity may be making progress in human rights in some areas of the globe, but there are plenty of places where it is still night.

  6. Great thoughts Mindy. I appreciate your blog, and your reviews are impressively helpful. Thanks for your hard work.

    I came across your blog through your recent MR story, and I look forward to reading more from you.

    A few thoughts on Night

  7. Welcome, Brian! Thanks for the encouragement. Always glad to meet another blogger with an appreciation for literature–I’ll check out your comments on Night.

  8. Great insights, Mindy.
    Moishe the Beadle does prefigure Wiesel in his mission to tell others the story. Just a Moishe was attempting to make sense of his pain by seeing it used in the lives of others, Wiesel must find relief in seeing the story told and retold.
    There are so many tiny vignettes of lives which crossed Wiesel’s path during the “Night”. Just a few sentences bring a bit of immortality to those whose lives would otherwise have been literal or figurative vapors.

  9. Mindy,

    It’s amazing what a powerful little book Night is. It really draws you into the experience of the camp, not so much by way of describing the setting and movements in the camp, but by evoking the emotions and thoughts of what it was like to be entrapped by evil and the effects of that enslavement. The story demonstrates how a person or people group can be dehumanized by another person or group and the devastating results. A challenge for us today.

    Thanks for bringing this book to our attention and for your insightful thoughts on it.

  10. Great point, Nina. I had thought of the book primarily as Wiesel’s memoir, but you’re absolutetly right that it also serves as a memorial to all the silent, unknown people who suffered with him.

    Thanks, Brandon and Anonymous, for commenting on the socio-political lessons we might apply to today. As Mike’s point above indicates, the best literature is relevant in some way to all people at all times.

  11. It’s true that this is a memorial to the silent, and I’m so glad it is. Every time I experience a piece of Holocaust “literature,” whether it be writing, film, or other art, I am struck by all of the different ways that their stories are told–sometimes with hope, sometimes not; most often with gravity, but sometimes with levity (e.g. Life is Beautiful); sometimes on a sweeping scale, other times very personal. And with each one, I feel like I get a new and better perspective on what this people suffered. It was such an atrocious crime that I don’t want to ever lose an appreciation for how very serious it was. Wiesel’s story, short though it was, was extremely powerful and gave me an even better understanding of this horrific event.

  12. I finished it just recently and wrote my own review. But I think you really hit the crux of the story. Wiesel is a lost soul who’s hatred of God is hardened by exposure to cruelty and depravity of a sort that is not understandable to us younger folks.