Imagine surviving a night so horrifying that it causes you to lose your very faith in God. Envision yourself arriving by train at Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944, confronted by flames from the crematorium and the potent smell of burning flesh.
For author Elie Wiesel, a Jew from Transylvania, traumatic memories of Auschwitz are a reality. In his slim 115 page memoir titled “Night,” he carefully depicts the unthinkable struggle of the Jews.
Although “Night” was originally published in French in 1958, the latest translation from 2006 corrects important details and provides the most accurate representation of Wiesel’s testimony. As the latest selection from Oprah’s Book Club, this autobiography has also been on The New York Times’ Paperback Nonfiction Best-Sellers list for the past 36 weeks.
The book opens with a description of Moishe the Beadle, an impoverished and awkward character who teaches Wiesel the mysteries of the Kabbalah. Moishe is soon expelled from Sighet because he is a foreigner. Months later, Wiesel sees him on a bench by the synagogue, and approaches. He describes the change in the devout Jew, writing “Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned either God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen.”
Moishe’s transformation foreshadows Wiesel’s own experience. As months pass, and the year 1944 approaches, two ghettos are created in Sighet. Soon, Jews are prohibited from leaving their homes for three days, under penalty of death. The ghetto is liquidated, and Wiesel’s family is forced to prepare for transport.
The author writes that their backyard looks like a marketplace. “Valuable objects, precious rugs, silver candlesticks, Bibles and other ritual objects were strewn over the dusty grounds – pitiful relics that seemed never to have had a home.”
Homeless, the Jews from Transylvania board the train, eighty people crowding into each cattle car. Only the most basic human needs are important now. Even breathing, the simplest act of life, is challenging. Wiesel arrives at the camp stripped of his humanity.
He is immediately confronted by the fury of the night, recalling “never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke 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.”
Wiesel’s time at Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps is marked by moments of immeasurable pain. He withstands starvation, abuse, infection and most importantly, the death of his family. He wrestles with frustration at God for remaining silent, confessing “I did not fast. First of all, to please my father who had forbidden me to do so. And then, there was no longer any reason for me to fast. I no longer accepted God’s silence. As I swallowed my ration of soup, I turned that act into a symbol of rebellion, of protest against Him. And I nibbled on my crust of bread. Deep inside me, I felt a great void opening.”
He ends his story brilliantly, managing to haunt the reader like every good author does. Wiesel’s greatest accomplishment with “Night” is allowing his story to stand for itself. He avoids superfluous details and descriptions, preferring substance over length.
Although this story can be read in a few short hours, “Night” leaves the reader with much to mull over and digest. Perhaps this book was part of your high school’s academic curriculum, or a required reading assignment for a class at Cal Poly. However, if you’ve never read it and are looking for a book to add to your reading list, make sure “Night” is it. Wiesel’s story is truly exceptional.
Laura Kasavan is a journalism junior and Mustang Daily book reviewer.