In his 1996 memoir All Rivers Run to the Sea, Elie Wiesel writes, in reference to the responsibility of the Holocaust survivor, “To be silent is impossible, to speak forbidden.” What do you think Wiesel means? How does he resolve or circumvent this paradox?
Those who did not experience the Holocaust, it is fair to say, cannot begin to understand what it was like; those who did cannot begin to describe it. To speak of the concentration camps is to fail to convey the depth of the evil, and any failure is disrespectful to the memories of those who died in the Holocaust. Speech, therefore, may seem forbidden, because it necessarily fails to express the truth of the Holocaust.
Yet, if nobody speaks of the Holocaust, those who died will go forgotten. It has become a commonplace among AIDS activists to use a slogan equating silence with death; similarly, it is the very real fear of many Holocaust survivors that a failure to speak about what happened during the Holocaust could lead to a possible recurrence of the same evil. Silence, it is sometimes said, gives a posthumous victory to Hitler, because it erases the memory of the atrocities that were committed at his command.
Night is the expression of an author, and a narrator, caught between silence and speech. Eliezer often maintains something of a clinical detachment when describing the horrors of the camps. He avoids becoming gruesome or ever describing in precise detail the extent of his suffering. He refuses to describe a person in agony, content to mention the fact of agony’s existence. He withdraws from the subject, sensing that approaching it too closely would be sacrilege. Wiesel carefully avoids melodrama and intense scrutiny of the events, relating the facts of his experiences. Night is moving not because of Wiesel’s passionate prose, but because of his reticence. “The secret of truth,” Wiesel writes elsewhere, “lies in silence.”
Does Wiesel believe that God is dead? Does the narrator, Eliezer?
In Night, Eliezer says that the Holocaust “murdered his God,” and he often expresses the belief that God could not exist and permit the existence of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel and Eliezer are not exactly the same, but Eliezer expresses, in most cases, the emotions that Wiesel felt at the time of the Holocaust. It is fair to say that Night contains a profound skepticism about God’s existence. Yet Eliezer is not enlightened by his rejection of God; instead, he is reduced to the shell of a person. Likewise, Akiba Drumer, upon abandoning his faith, loses his will to live. Wiesel seems to be suggesting that the events of the Holocaust prove that faith is a necessary element in human survival, because it preserves man, whether or not it is based in reality. Faith, Wiesel seems to say, enables hope, and it is always necessary for the prisoners to maintain hope, in order for them to maintain life.
Even when Eliezer claims to abandon God as an abstract idea, he remains incapable of abandoning his attachment to God as an everyday part of his life. He continues to pray to God—he prays not to become as cruel as Rabbi Eliahou’s son, for instance—and his vocabulary still reflects a kernel of faith in God. It seems that Eliezer, at his core, still maintains a kind of belief in God. Wiesel remarks in All Rivers Run to the Sea, “Theorists of the idea that ‘God is dead’ have used my words unfairly as justification of their rejection of faith. But if Nietzsche could cry out . . . that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot. I have never renounced my faith in God.”
What role does chance play in Eliezer’s survival of the Holocaust? What role does choice play? Do your answers to these questions have any implications regarding the extent of control that a person has over his or her life?
Wiesel makes a distinction between the Holocaust victims’ control over their fate and their control over their actions. He believes man does have control over his moral choices, even when faced with the extreme circumstances of the Holocaust. Although he empathizes with the Jews who behave brutally, killing each other over crusts of bread in their fight to survive, he does not condone their behavior. At the same time, one senses that Eliezer, and Wiesel, feel there are definite limits to the victims’ control over their fate. It would be disrespectful to those who died for Eliezer—or Wiesel himself—to claim any credit for surviving.
For this reason, Night chronicles and emphasizes the set of lucky circumstances that led to the survival of one among many. The memoir is filled with bizarre coincidences. Years after the Holocaust, Eliezer randomly meets the woman who gave him comfort in Buna. In Gleiwitz, Eliezer once again meets Juliek. Eliezer’s teacher, Moshe the Beadle, somehow escapes the Nazis and returns to Sighet to convey to the town an unheeded warning. Perhaps the most bizarre coincidence of all is Eliezer’s survival. He is fortunate enough, on his arrival in Birkenau, to meet a man who tells him to lie about his age. Despite Eliezer’s small size, he does not succumb to cold or exhaustion and is not chosen in any of the selections, though many who are healthier than he is are sent to the gas chambers.
1. One of the most tragic themes in Night is Eliezer’s discovery of the way that atrocities and cruel treatment can make good people into brutes. Does he himself escape this fate?
2. Night is essentially Elie Wiesel’s memoir about his experiences in the Holocaust. Yet, there are minor differences between Wiesel’s own experiences and those of Night’s narrator, Eliezer. Why might that be? Must a memoir be absolutely factual?
3. Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his championing of human rights around the world. How might his advocacy for human rights have grown out of his Holocaust experiences? What are the positive lessons of the Holocaust that Wiesel hints at in Night?
4. In the midst of the dying men in Gleiwitz, the violinist Juliek plays a fragment of music written by the German composer Beethoven. Before and after the Holocaust, many people wondered how the Germans, cultured Europeans, could commit such barbaric acts. Does Wiesel suggest any rationale behind the Holocaust in Night? Does he speculate as to the motives of the perpetrators? What, for Wiesel, are those motives, if they exist?
5. The Rabbi of Kotzk, a European village later destroyed in the Holocaust, is famous for being bold enough to challenge God: “Our Father, our King,” he said, “I shall continue to call You Father until You become our Father.” For Wiesel, is there a purpose to faith even without the existence or justice of God? What do you believe?
6. It is possible to look at Night as the story of Eliezer’s loss of innocence. It might be argued, too, that innocence is impossible after the Holocaust. Is this true? Is it tragic, or is innocence an impediment to survival, as when the Jews are too innocent to believe that Hitler really means to kill them?
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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