Sections Eight and Nine
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.
The journey to Buchenwald has fatally weakened Eliezer’s father. On arrival, he sits in the snow and refuses to move. He seems at last to have given in to death. Eliezer tries to convince him to move, but he will not or cannot, asking only to be allowed to rest. When an air raid alert drives everyone into the barracks, Eliezer leaves his father and falls deeply asleep. In the morning, he begins to search for his father, but halfheartedly. Part of him thinks that he will be better off if he abandons his father and conserves his strength. Almost accidentally, however, he finds his father, who is very sick and unable to move. Eliezer brings him soup and coffee. Again, however, Eliezer feels deep guilt, because part of him would rather keep the food for himself, to increase his own chance of survival.
Confined to his bed, Eliezer’s father continues to approach death. He is afflicted with dysentery, which makes him terribly thirsty, but it is extremely dangerous to give water to a man with dysentery. Eliezer tries to find medical help for his father, to no avail. The doctors will not treat the old man. The prisoners whose beds surround Eliezer’s father’s bed steal his food and beat him. Eliezer, unable to resist his father’s cries for help, gives him water. After a week, Eliezer is approached by the head of the block, who tells him what he already knows—that Eliezer’s father is dying, and that Eliezer should concentrate his energy on his own survival. The next time the SS patrol the barracks, Eliezer’s father again cries for water, and the SS officer, screaming at Eliezer’s father to shut up, beats him in the head with his truncheon. The next morning, January 29, 1945, Eliezer wakes up to find that his father has been taken to the crematory. To his deep shame, he does not cry. Instead, he feels relief.
Eliezer remains in Buchenwald, thinking neither of liberation nor of his family, but only of food. On April 5, with the American army approaching, the Nazis decide to annihilate all the Jews left in the camp. Daily, thousands of Jews are murdered. On April 10, with about 20,000 people remaining in the camp, the Nazis decide to evacuate—and kill—everyone left in the camp. As the evacuation begins, however, an air-raid siren sounds, sending everybody indoors. When it seems that all has returned to normal and that the evacuation will proceed as planned, the resistance movement strikes, driving the SS from the camp. Hours later, on April 11, the American army arrives at Buchenwald. Now free, the prisoners think only of feeding themselves. Eliezer is struck with food poisoning and spends weeks in the hospital, deathly ill. When he finally raises himself and looks in the mirror—he has not seen himself in a mirror since leaving Sighet—he is shocked: “From the depths of the mirror,” Wiesel writes, “a corpse gazed back at me.”
Although we know that Elie Wiesel, Night’s author, recovered his faith in man and God and went on to lead a productive life after the Holocaust, none of this post-Holocaust biographical information is present in Night. Because the scope of Night does not extend beyond Eliezer’s liberation, some readers argue that the memoir offers no hope whatsoever. Eliezer has been witness to the ultimate evil; he has lost his faith in God, and in the souls of men. Night’s final line, in which Eliezer looks at himself in the mirror and sees a “corpse,” suggests that Eliezer’s survival is a stroke of luck, a strange coincidence, no cause for rejoicing. It seems from his closing vision that Eliezer believes that without hope and faith, after having seen the unimaginable, he might as well be dead.
After stating that he sees a “corpse” looking back at him, Eliezer adds, “The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.” While it is true that Eliezer, after the Holocaust, thinks of himself as another person, someone utterly changed from the innocent boy who left Sighet, that person, that “corpse,” undergoes a metamorphosis. Looking back, Eliezer realizes that he is no longer the corpse who was liberated from Buchenwald. He may be doomed to remember the look in the corpse’s eyes, but he manages to keep himself separate from this empty shell of a man. Indeed, it is Eliezer’s particular burden to remember the look in the corpse’s eyes, because only by remembering and by bearing witness can the survivors of the Holocaust ensure that nothing like the Holocaust will ever happen again. But the memory of evil, as Wiesel realizes, and as Eliezer perhaps comes to realize in the process of separating himself from the corpse he has become as a result of his time in the concentration camps, can coexist with faith, both in God and in man.
Night does not end with optimism and a rosy message, but neither does it end as bleakly as many believe. What we are left with are questions—about God’s and man’s capacity for evil—but no true answers. Night does not try to answer these questions; perhaps this lack of answers is one of the reasons that the story ends with the liberation of Buchenwald. The moral responsibility for remembering the Holocaust, and for confronting these difficult moral and theological questions, falls directly upon us, the readers.
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