Individuals react to intense trauma in many ways. Elie Wiesel suffered some of the worst instances of trauma through his experiences in Nazi concentration camps, the deaths of his father, mother and youngest sister at the hands of the Nazi SS. In the introduction, Wiesel’s resonating words questioning life, madness, sanity, and evil establish the groundwork for his book. For ten years, he chose to remain silent regarding his time in the camps but recognizes that the inhumanity perpetrated by the Nazis requires counterbalance, their treachery must be exposed as the ultimate in human degradation. This essay juxtaposes Wiesel’s personal expose of life in the camps as a paradigm for his lifelong quest for human rights, particularly those facing the evils of political and religious animas.
“‘For God’s sake, where is God,” the man behind him asked? He’s here hanging in the gallows. And that night the soup tasted like corpses’” (Wiesel 65). Though this action takes place later in the book its sentiment overshadows the entire premise of Wiesel’s Night. Only through the pages of this personal journey in Auschwitz-Buchenau can Wiesel reveal his inner turmoil as death falls in every crevice around him, death of men and boys, the uncertainty of the fate of his mother and sisters amid the stench of the Nazi camps. Wiesel shows how ugliness pervades his soul; he loses God, in spite of his early years spent in studying and searching for the mystic knowledge of the Jewish Kabbalah (Wiesel 4). Wiesel’s early days in Sighet were spent in finding the answers to questions propounded throughout Jewish mysticism; his enquiring mind wished nothing more than to bring the question and answer into ONE (Wiesel 5).
When herded into cattle cars by the Nazis, Wiesel’s dreams of intellectual advancement momentarily died. Camps denigrated the very soul of any prisoner, pushing thoughts of humanity and integrity away replacing them with the ONE question and answer, how to survive. On the day Wiesel’s father cried out for his son to come closer, Wiesel, or Eliezar, as his father called him, refused to comfort the man whose life ebbed away on the dirty floors of the Buchenau where he “let the SS beat my father while I lay away from him hoping to survive” (Wiesel intro). Wiesel asks the question “I hope that you will understand that which cannot be understood” (Frost 3). There are many questions for which Wiesel spent a lifetime searching for answers. When he finally unburdened his soul about his own survival in the camps, his proximity to the father he could not protect lying dirty and naked on the floor, the final moments of a man respected and honored in his Hungarian village desecrated. His young son, fear grasping him to remain silent, allowed his father to die alone. For this reason, Wiesel poses the question asking his readers to “understand what cannot be understood”.
Released by the allies in 1945, Wiesel’s quest for the family begins. He finds his two older sisters but learns of the death of his youngest sister and mother. Wiesel turns away from God, from faith, from everything he held dear as he sought to understand that which he himself could not fathom (Frost 7). However, for Wiesel, his trauma eventually turned to the humanitarian trailblazing opting to keep alive the memories of the Holocaust, writing his books, with his first one, Night, exposing the horrors of Auschwitz. Some argue that keeping this evil time in history alive only adds to the perpetration of more evil, drawing controversy into a black hole that should forever be silenced turning the selfish ideology that “every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else... Everyone lives and dies for himself alone” (Frost 8) into the opposite direction to care for those all around. Wiesel could not escape the guilt he felt abandoning his father to a lonely tortured death. Humanitarianism often evolves from the direst straits in an individual’s life, and in Wiesel’s life, it appears from the ashes of his father’s death.
Night the darkest time in the twenty-four hours eventually turns to dawn and daylight. For Wiesel, his dawn came when he decided not to wallow in self-pity for the abject conditions through which he lived when in the camps. Instead, he turned his energies into positive actions, freeing others from the oppression of evil, whether the situations were dire such as the camps or releasing individuals from the horrors of their own camp memories. Wiesel asks the eternal question, “What do they hate when they hate, and whom do they hate when they hate?” Ultimately, Wiesel argues, this hatred is not only destructive, but self-destructive” (Frost 11). Readjusting his paradigm of hatred to compassion, Wiesel ably creates the aura of humanitarianism. His Night became the eternal dawn of helping others to overcome life’s horrors. He never forgot the way he kept failing as a human, especially with his father whose story resonates throughout Night. “I gave him what was left of my soup. But my heart was heavy. I was aware that I was doing it grudgingly. Just like Rabbi Eliahu's son, I had not passed the test” (Wiesel 107).
For Wiesel, his humanitarian acts began when he thought back to what he termed his human failings, How could he possibly continue with life, questions unanswered, the existence of God an uncertainty, and so much evil perpetrated on other humans by others filled with hatred and fear of what is different. Night illustrates the passage of life from the deepest and most inhumane depths of degradation to the dawn of human kindness and compassion. However, Wiesel still made it his other life’s work to hunt down escaped Nazis and bring them to trial in the Jewish courts of Israel. But the question and answer that may plague humanity, were these actions those of a humanitarian or an individual bent of revenge. Another mystical quest that reverberates through time.
Frost, Chris. “Teaching Elie Wiesel’s Night.” N.d. San Diego State University. Web. https://www.wtamu.edu/webres/File/Academics/NightWorkbook.pdf
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated from the French by Marion Wiesel. New York: Hill and Wang. 2006. Web. [Accessed 25 October 2016].