Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
This passage, from Night’s third section, occurs just after Eliezer and his father realize they have survived the first selection at Birkenau. It is perhaps Night’s most famous passage, notable because it is one of the few moments in the memoir where Eliezer breaks out of the continuous narrative stream with which he tells his tale. As he reflects upon his horrendous first night in the concentration camp and its lasting effect on his life, Wiesel introduces the theme of Eliezer’s spiritual crisis and his loss of faith in God.
In its form, this passage resembles two significant pieces of literature: Psalm 150, from the Bible, and French author Emile Zola’s 1898 essay “J’accuse.” Psalm 150, the final prayer in the book of Psalms, is an ecstatic celebration of God. Each line begins, “Hallelujah,” or “Praise God.” Here, Wiesel constructs an inverse version of that psalm, beginning each line with a negation—“Never”—that replaces the affirmative “Hallelujah” of the original. Whereas Psalm 150 praises God, this passage questions him. As such, both the form and content of this passage reflect the inversion of Eliezer’s faith and the morality of the world around him. Everything he once believed has been turned upside down, in the same way that this passage’s words invert both the form and content of Psalm 150.
Zola’s essay “J’accuse” was a response to the Dreyfus Affair, an incident in which a Jewish army officer was unjustly convicted of treason, a judgment at least partially motivated by anti-Semitism. Zola responded by publishing an open letter in the Paris newspaper L’Aurore, denouncing the authorities who had covered up the injustice and perpetuated the persecution. Zola heightened the aggressive tone of the letter by repeatedly stressing the refrain “J’accuse” (“I accuse”).
The similarities between Wiesel’s passage and Zola’s—the French words of the refrain, the anti-Semitic context, and the defiant tone—invite comparison between the two texts. Zola’s piece was an impassioned accusation that decried injustice and anti-Semitism; Wiesel’s passage is also an impassioned polemic, but its target is God Himself. Zola’s “j’accuse” is directed at corrupt officials who have betrayed an innocent Jew; here, Eliezer’s “jamais” (“never”) is directed toward God. Carrying the comparison even further, Eliezer’s statement depicts God as a corrupt official betraying the Jews. This is a shockingly bold statement for a Jewish boy to make and reflects the profound way in which his faith has been shaken. Furthermore, the fact that Zola’s transitive verb (“I accuse”) has been replaced by an objectless adverb (“never”) reflects the prisoners’ powerlessness to remedy their situation. Although Wiesel’s passage is directed toward God, it is not directed at any specific being; since the prisoners are powerless to strike back, their anger cannot take the form of a direct confrontation.
Eliezer claims that his faith is utterly destroyed, yet at the same time says that he will never forget these things even if he “live[s] as long as God Himself.” After completely denying the existence of God, he refers to God’s existence in the final line. As mentioned before, Wiesel wrote elsewhere, “My anger rises up within faith and not outside it.” Eliezer reflects this position, which is particularly visible throughout this passage. Despite saying he has lost all faith, it is clear that Eliezer is actually struggling with his faith and his God. Just as he is never able to forget the horror of “that night,” he is never able to reject completely his heritage and his religion.
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. ..
For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”
This passage occurs at the end of the fourth section, as Eliezer witnesses the agonizingly slow death of the Dutch Oberkapo’s pipel, a young boy hanged for collaborating against the Nazis. This horrible moment signifies the low point of Eliezer’s faith in God. The death of the child also symbolizes the death of Eliezer’s own childhood and innocence. The suffering Eliezer sees and experiences during the Holocaust transforms his entire worldview. Before the war, he cannot imagine questioning his God. When asked by Moshe the Beadle why he prays, Eliezer replies, “Why did I pray? What a strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?” Observance and belief were unquestioned parts of his core sense of identity, so once his faith is irreparably shaken, he becomes a completely different person. Among other things, Night is a perverse coming-of-age story, in which Eliezer’s innocence is cruelly stripped from him.
We were masters of nature, masters of the world. We had forgotten everything—death, fatigue, our natural needs. Stronger than cold or hunger, stronger than the shots and the desire to die, condemned and wandering, mere numbers, we were the only men on earth.
At last, the morning star appeared in the gray sky. A trail of indeterminate light showed on the horizon. We were exhausted. We were without strength, without illusions.
This passage occurs in the sixth section of the book, toward the end of the prisoners’ horrible run from Buna. It succinctly describes the prisoners’ godless worldview, which holds survival to be the highest principle and all other morality to be meaningless. In Jewish prayer, God is often referred to as “Master of the Universe.” At this point, the prisoners have replaced God in that role; they themselves are the masters of nature and the world. Eliezer’s experiences have instilled in him the despairing sense that he is alone in the world, a “mere number,” responsible only for his own survival.
By omitting a conjunction between “without strength” and “without illusions” in the last sentence, Wiesel makes the relationship between the two concepts ambiguous. It is unclear whether the ideas are complementary (“We were without strength because we were without illusions”) or unrelated (“We were without strength, and also we were without illusions”). Using the former interpretation, the sentence implies that illusion—perhaps the illusion of faith—can give one strength. As we see when he discusses the death of Akiba Drumer, Eliezer acknowledges that faith gives a person a sense of being and a reason to struggle. By this point in his experience, he is deeply cynical about faith; for him, it is a mere illusion, a deluded belief in an omnipotent creator who doesn’t exist. Along similar lines, the phrase “condemned and wandering” references the entire history of Jewish suffering, a history defined by exile and exclusion. Despite his professed lack of faith, Eliezer is approaching his struggle from within the context of Judaism, not from outside it.
[Rabbi Eliahou’s son] had felt that his father was growing weak, he had believed that the end was near and had sought this separation in order to get rid of the burden, to free himself from an encumbrance which could lessen his own chances of survival.
I had done well to forget that. And I was glad that Rabbi Eliahou should continue to look for his beloved son.
And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed.
My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.
This passage is found in the sixth section, during the respite from the march to Gleiwitz. First and most obviously, it emphasizes the centrality of the father-son relationship in Eliezer’s life. As Eliezer expresses when discussing Akiba Drumer’s despair, every victim of the Holocaust needed a reason to struggle, a reason to want to survive. For many, that reason was faith in God and the ultimate goodness of mankind. But since Eliezer has lost that faith, his relationship with his father is what keeps him struggling.
Eliezer’s experience has taught him that the Nazis’ cruelty distorts one’s perspective and engenders cruelty among the prisoners. Self-preservation becomes the highest virtue in the world of the Holocaust and leads prisoners to commit horrendous crimes against one another. Eliezer fears that this loss of perspective will happen to him, that he will lose control over himself and turn against his father. In the concentration camps, Eliezer has learned that any human being, even himself, is capable of unimaginable cruelty.
Eliezer’s prayer to God reflects the incomplete nature of his loss of faith. Because Eliezer senses his potential for weakness, he appeals to a greater power for help. He says he no longer believes in God, but he nevertheless turns to God when he doubts his ability to control himself. Eliezer no longer considers himself “master of nature, master of the world,” as he did in the previous passage. Instead, he needs help controlling his base instincts.
One day I was able to get up, after gathering all my strength. I wanted to see myself in the mirror hanging on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.
This is the final passage of Night, Eliezer’s final statement about the effect the Holocaust has had on him. As such, it reinforces the book’s deliberately limited perspective. Night does not pretend to be a comprehensive survey of World War II experiences, nor does it try to explore the general experience of Jews in concentration camps. Instead, it focuses on one specific story—Eliezer’s—to give the reader a detailed, personal account of suffering in the Holocaust. From a more traditional perspective, the ending feels incomplete. A historian or biographer would not be satisfied with this conclusion and would want to know what happened afterward—how Eliezer reunited with his family, what he did after the war, and so on. Night deliberately manipulates narrative conventions, ending where it does because it is meant to offer an intimate portrayal of Eliezer’s wartime experiences, particularly of the cruelty and suffering he experiences in the concentration camps. Other material would distract from the intensity of the experience Wiesel is trying to convey.
Eliezer implies that even though he has survived the war physically, he is essentially dead, his soul killed by the suffering he witnessed and endured. Yet, when Eliezer says, “the look in his eyes, as he stared into mine,” he implies a separation between himself and the corpse. His language, too, indicates a fundamental separation between his sense of self and his identity as a Holocaust victim—as if he has become two distinct beings. The corpse-image reminds him how much he has suffered and how much of himself—his faith in God, his innocence, his faith in mankind, his father, his mother, his sister—has been killed in the camps. At the same time, he manages to separate himself from this empty shell. The image of the corpse will always stay with him, but he has found a sense of identity that will endure beyond the Holocaust. As dark as this passage is, its message is partially hopeful. Eliezer survives beyond the horrible suffering he endured by separating himself from it, casting it aside so he can remember, but not continue to feel, the horror.
The reason Night ends by leaving you with questions is because, as Moishe the Beadle said in the beginning, "there is a certain power in a question that is lost in the answer."
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