Elie Wiesel, Night

January 27th, 2013 § 0 comments

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:
Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud,
Who does not know peace,
Who fights for a scrap of bread,
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair and without name,
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.
Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.
Primo Levi, If This is a Man

NEVER SHALL I FORGET that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall  forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

The spectre of the holocaust looms as large on the beginning of the twenty first century as it did the end of the twentieth. It is, in a perverse way, the pinnacle of human achievement. Mass murder on such large a scale a normal mind cannot comprehend it by people who, by and large, until they were complicit in the act, would be seen as moral people. The near eradication of an entire race as a matter of organization. The scar that such horror has left on the psyche of the human race will never heal; what good can be done that would ever compare to such evil? Curing cancer and AIDS, the eradication of hunger, world peace? All a drop in the ocean in the face of six million souls screaming in agony. Dead babies used as fuel in the furnaces. The poor victims of Mengele’s sick experiments. The malnourished, raped women of Ravensbrück forced to kill the products of the guards’ crimes with their bare hands. Kurt Franz’s savage dog, the scourge of Treblinka. The gas chambers Auschwitz. We have no answer for them. There are no answers.

In Night, a much shortened account taken from Wiesel’s original 865-page Yiddish manuscript, he describes exactly how the nihilism of the holocaust can take everything from a person. At sixteen, before he knows it he finds himself in a ghetto and shortly after herded with the rest of the town’s Jewish population to the camps. Separated from his mother and sister, who he will never see again, he clings to his father, as he, just like everyone else, does the only thing that he can; survive. His experiences are all too much to allow him to sustain his faith though, the final straw being the hanging of a child by the SS for stealing. Where is God when His chosen people need Him, and how could He allow this to happen to anyone? He cannot bring himself to worship a God that would permit this. As well as his home, his family and his dignity, the Nazi’s take his faith from him too.

Despite all his suffering, the narrator knows that he is one of the lucky ones. He and his father are assigned to work duty at Benu, not Auschwitz, Treblinka or Buchenwald. They both survive selection (his father narrowly), when examined by Mengele himself. They live in a state of constant near starvation, but manage to just avoid starving to death, even at times in Night when food is unavailable. Despite all the terrible things that happen to him, he is lucky, because he survives. That survival  takes its toll on him though, and turns him into someone that sickens him. When the pair are evacuated to Buchenwald just before the end of the war, he contemplates taking his sick father’s rations, and when his father is beaten to death by other prisoners, he feels a sense of relief that he will no longer be burdened with another person’s survival. Having sworn that he would never be like another son he had seen abandon his father, he knows that his morals have failed him.

Hannah Arendt famous wrote, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, about the banality of evil, but there was nothing banal about the holocaust; it was mass insanity. Reason turned upon itself and devoured all sense. To try and understand even how this could happen is itself an act of insanity. Six million dead, the human mind isn’t even capable of imagining it. Imagine a landscape strewn with piles of corpses, there’s probably only a hundred or so thousand there. We owe to the dead, not just Jewish, but Romani, homosexual, and Eastern European as well, to remember what happened. To ensure, as Levi wrote, that we teach our children what happened. Lest history should repeat itself, humanity has certainly shown what it is capable of beyond what any of us would have imagined.

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