Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
At Birkenau, the first of many “selections” occurs, during which individuals presumed weaker or less useful are weeded out to be killed. Eliezer and his father remain together, separated from Eliezer’s mother and younger sister, whom he never sees again. Eliezer and his father meet a prisoner, who counsels them to lie about their ages. Eliezer, not yet fifteen, is to say that he is eighteen, while his father, who is fifty, is to say that he is forty. Another prisoner accosts the new arrivals, angrily asking them why they peacefully let the Nazis bring them to Auschwitz. He explains to them, finally, why they have been brought to Auschwitz: to be killed and burned. Hearing this, some among the younger Jews begin to consider rebelling, but the older Jews advise them to rely not on rebellion but on faith, and they proceed docilely to the selection. In a central square, Dr. Mengele stands, determining whether new arrivals are fit to work or whether they are to be killed immediately. Taking the prisoner’s advice, Eliezer lies about his age, telling Mengele he is eighteen. He also says that he is a farmer rather than a student, and is motioned to Mengele’s left, along with his father.
Despite Eliezer’s joy at remaining with his father, uncertainty remains. Nobody knows whether left means the crematorium or the prison. As the prisoners move through Birkenau, they are horrified to see a huge pit where babies are being burned, and another for adults. Eliezer cannot believe his eyes, and tells his father that what they see is impossible, that “humanity would never tolerate” such an atrocity. His father, breaking down into tears, replies that humanity is nonexistent in the world of the crematoria. Everybody in the column of prisoners weeps, and somebody begins to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead, the Kaddish. Eliezer’s father also recites the prayer. Eliezer, however, is skeptical. He cannot understand what he has to thank God for. When Eliezer and his father are two steps from the edge of the pit, their rank is diverted and directed to a barracks. Eliezer interrupts his narration with a moving reflection on the impact of that night on his life, a night that forever burned Nazi atrocity into his memory.
In the barracks, the Jews are stripped and shaved, disinfected with gasoline, showered, and clothed in prison uniforms. They are lectured by a Nazi officer and told that they have two options: hard work or the crematorium. When Eliezer’s father asks for the bathroom, he is beaten by the Kapo (a head prisoner, in charge of the other inmates). Eliezer is appalled at his own failure to defend his father. Soon they make the short march from Birkenau to Auschwitz, where they are quartered for three weeks, and where their prison numbers are tattooed on their arms. Eliezer and his father meet a distant relative from Antwerp, a man named Stein, who inquires after news of his family. Eliezer lies and tells him that he has heard about Stein’s family, and that they are alive and well. When a transport from Antwerp arrives, however, the man learns the truth, and he never visits Eliezer again.
Despite all that they have seen, the prisoners continue to express their faith in God and trust in divine redemption. Finally, they are escorted on a four-hour walk from Auschwitz to Buna, the work camp in which they will be interned for months.
As a work of literature, Night stands on the borderline between fiction and memoir. Wiesel breaks conventions of traditional fiction writing in order to tell the truth about historical events. For example, at the beginning of this section, Eliezer is separated from his mother and sister, whom he never sees again. Presumably, they both die in the Holocaust, just as Wiesel’s own mother and younger sister did. Remarkably, Eliezer’s mother and sister are never mentioned again in Night. It is as if they simply disappear from Eliezer’s mind and memory. Such a disappearance would probably not happen in a novel, since novels generally are careful about keeping track of all of their characters. Thus, the disappearance of these two characters is a powerful reminder of the necessarily fragmentary nature of memory and memoir.
Wiesel’s chilling first-person narration results in a powerful immediacy of emotion. He shows us only what Eliezer sees and thinks at a given moment—his limited perspective and lack of knowledge make the story all the more terrifying. It is as if the reader is with Eliezer, caught up in the tension and horror of his experience. This kind of narration does not permit more leisurely reflection about events that are not occurring immediately, or not occurring in the vicinity of the narrator. Night is not meant to offer an extended autobiography of Wiesel. While his two works of autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea Is Never Full, do in fact dwell on his sorrow at losing his mother and sister, Night is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead, it is intended as a brief, harrowing portrait of Wiesel’s life during the Holocaust.
Eliezer’s loss of faith in God begins at Auschwitz. When he first sees the furnace pits in which the Nazis are burning babies, he experiences the beginnings of doubt: “Why should I bless His name?” Eliezer asks, “What had I to thank Him for?” Though not complete at that moment, Eliezer’s loss of faith contrasts with the continued faith of such devout prisoners as Akiba Drumer, whose faith in divine redemption raises the prisoners’ spirits.
We also see, as Eliezer begins to doubt his own humanity, the beginning of his loss of faith in man. When the Kapo beats his father, Eliezer wonders at the transformation that he himself has undergone. Only the day before, he tells himself, he would have attacked the Kapo; now, however, he remains guiltily silent. Fear of silence figures prominently in this memoir, as it is silence in the face of evil, Wiesel believes, that allows evil to survive.
This section contains perhaps the most famous, and the most moving, paragraphs in all of Night. Only rarely does Eliezer interrupt his continuous narrative stream to reminisce about the ways that the Holocaust continued to affect his life after it ended. Here, however, Eliezer looks back on his first night in Birkenau and describes not only what he felt at the time but also the lasting impact of that night:
Never shall I forget that night . . . which has turned my life into one long night. . . .
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. . . . Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
The repetition of the phrase “Never shall I forget” illustrates how Eliezer’s experiences are forever burned into his mind; like the actual experiences, the memories of them are inescapable. The phrase seems also like a personal mantra for Wiesel, who understands the crucial necessity of remembering the horrible events of the Holocaust and bringing them to light so that nothing like them can ever happen again.
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