Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Eliezer’s struggle with his faith is a dominant conflict in Night. At the beginning of the work, his faith in God is absolute. When asked why he prays to God, he answers, “Why did I pray? . . . Why did I live? Why did I breathe?” His belief in an omnipotent, benevolent God is unconditional, and he cannot imagine living without faith in a divine power. But this faith is shaken by his experience during the Holocaust.
Initially, Eliezer’s faith is a product of his studies in Jewish mysticism, which teach him that God is everywhere in the world, that nothing exists without God, that in fact everything in the physical world is an “emanation,” or reflection, of the divine world. In other words, Eliezer has grown up believing that everything on Earth reflects God’s holiness and power. His faith is grounded in the idea that God is everywhere, all the time, that his divinity touches every aspect of his daily life. Since God is good, his studies teach him, and God is everywhere in the world, the world must therefore be good.
Eliezer’s faith in the goodness of the world is irreparably shaken, however, by the cruelty and evil he witnesses during the Holocaust. He cannot imagine that the concentration camps’ unbelievable, disgusting cruelty could possibly reflect divinity. He wonders how a benevolent God could be part of such depravity and how an omnipotent God could permit such cruelty to take place. His faith is equally shaken by the cruelty and selfishness he sees among the prisoners. If all the prisoners were to unite to oppose the cruel oppression of the Nazis, Eliezer believes, then maybe he could understand the Nazi menace as an evil aberration. He would then be able to maintain the belief that humankind is essentially good. But he sees that the Holocaust exposes the selfishness, evil, and cruelty of which everybody—not only the Nazis, but also his fellow prisoners, his fellow Jews, even himself—is capable. If the world is so disgusting and cruel, he feels, then God either must be disgusting and cruel or must not exist at all.
Though this realization seems to annihilate his faith, Eliezer manages to retain some of this faith throughout his experiences. At certain moments—during his first night in the camp and during the hanging of the pipel—Eliezer does grapple with his faith, but his struggle should not be confused with a complete abandonment of his faith. This struggle doesn’t diminish his belief in God; rather, it is essential to the existence of that belief. When Moshe the Beadle is asked why he prays, he replies, “I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions.” In other words, questioning is fundamental to the idea of faith in God. The Holocaust forces Eliezer to ask horrible questions about the nature of good and evil and about whether God exists. But the very fact that he asks these questions reflects his commitment to God.
Discussing his own experience, Wiesel once wrote, “My anger rises up within faith and not outside it.” Eliezer’s struggle reflects such a sentiment. Only in the lowest moments of his faith does he turn his back on God. Indeed, even when Eliezer says that he has given up on God completely, Wiesel’s constant use of religious metaphors undercuts what Eliezer says he believes. Eliezer even refers to biblical passages when he denies his faith. When he fears that he might abandon his father, he prays to God, and, after his father’s death, he expresses regret that there was no religious memorial. At the end of the book, even though he has been forever changed by his Holocaust experience, Eliezer emerges with his faith intact.
In one of Night’s most famous passages, Eliezer states, “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.” It is the idea of God’s silence that he finds most troubling, as this description of an event at Buna reveals: as the Gestapo hangs a young boy, a man asks, “Where is God?” yet the only response is “[t]otal silence throughout the camp.” Eliezer and his companions are left to wonder how an all-knowing, all-powerful God can allow such horror and cruelty to occur, especially to such devout worshipers. The existence of this horror, and the lack of a divine response, forever shakes Eliezer’s faith in God.
It is worth noting that God’s silence during the hanging of the young boy recalls the story of the Akedah—the Binding of Isaac—found in the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 22). In the Akedah, God decides to test the faith of Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham does not doubt his God, and he ties Isaac to a sacrificial altar. He raises a knife to kill the boy, but at the last minute God sends an angel to save Isaac. The angel explains that God merely wanted to test Abraham’s faith and, of course, would never permit him to shed innocent blood. Unlike the God in Night, the God in the Akedah is not silent.
Night can be read as a reversal of the Akedah story: at the moment of a horrible sacrifice, God does not intervene to save innocent lives. There is no angel swooping down as masses burn in the crematorium, or as Eliezer’s father lies beaten and bloodied. Eliezer and the other prisoners call out for God, and their only response is silence; during his first night at Birkenau, Eliezer says, “The Eternal . . . was silent. What had I to thank Him for?” The lesson Eliezer learns is the opposite of the lesson taught in the Bible. The moral of the Akedah is that God demands sacrifice but is ultimately compassionate. During the Holocaust, however, Eliezer feels that God’s silence demonstrates the absence of divine compassion; as a result, he ultimately questions the very existence of God.
There is also a second type of silence operating throughout Night: the silence of the victims, and the lack of resistance to the Nazi threat. When his father is beaten at the end of his life, Eliezer remembers, “I did not move. I was afraid,” and he feels guilty about his inaction. It is implied throughout the text that silence and passivity are what allowed the Holocaust to continue. Wiesel’s writing of Night is itself an attempt to break the silence, to tell loudly and boldly of the atrocities of the Holocaust and, in this way, to try to prevent anything so horrible from ever happening again.
Eliezer’s spiritual struggle owes to his shaken faith not only in God but in everything around him. After experiencing such cruelty, Eliezer can no longer make sense of his world. His disillusionment results from his painful experience with Nazi persecution, but also from the cruelty he sees fellow prisoners inflict on each other. Eliezer also becomes aware of the cruelty of which he himself is capable. Everything he experiences in the war shows him how horribly people can treat one another—a revelation that troubles him deeply.
The first insensible cruelty Eliezer experiences is that of the Nazis. Yet, when the Nazis first appear, they do not seem monstrous in any way. Eliezer recounts, “[O]ur first impressions of the Germans were most reassuring. . . . Their attitude toward their hosts was distant, but polite.” So many aspects of the Holocaust are incomprehensible, but perhaps the most difficult to understand is how human beings could so callously slaughter millions of innocent victims. Wiesel highlights this incomprehensible tragedy by pulling the Nazis into focus first as human beings, and then, as the memoir shifts to the concentration camps, showing the brutal atrocities that they committed.
Furthermore, Night demonstrates that cruelty breeds cruelty. Instead of comforting each other in times of difficulty, the prisoners respond to their circumstances by turning against one another. Near the end of the work, a Kapo says to Eliezer, “Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else. . . . Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.” It is significant that a Kapo makes this remark to the narrator, because Kapos were themselves prisoners placed in charge of other prisoners. They enjoyed a relatively better (though still horrendous) quality of life in the camp, but they aided the Nazi mission and often behaved cruelly toward prisoners in their charge. At the beginning of the fifth section, Eliezer refers to them as “functionaries of death.” The Kapos’ position symbolizes the way the Holocaust’s cruelty bred cruelty in its victims, turning people against each other, as self-preservation became the highest virtue.
Eliezer is disgusted with the horrific selfishness he sees around him, especially when it involves the rupture of familial bonds. On three occasions, he mentions sons horribly mistreating fathers: in his brief discussion of the pipel who abused his father; his terrible conclusion about the motives of Rabbi Eliahou’s son; and his narration of the fight for food that he witnesses on the train to Buchenwald, in which a son beats his father to death. All of these moments of cruelty are provoked by the conditions the prisoners are forced to endure. In order to save themselves, these sons sacrifice their fathers.
Traces of the Akedah story (see Silence, above) run through the memoir, particularly in the guilt and sadness that Eliezer feels after his father’s death. Despite the love and care he has shown his father, Eliezer feels that he has somehow sacrificed his father for his own safety. This sacrifice is the inverse of the Akedah, in which a father (Abraham) is willing to sacrifice his son (Isaac). Night’s reversal of this example signifies the way the Holocaust has turned Eliezer’s entire world upside down.
Eliezer’s descriptions of his behavior toward his father seem to invalidate his guilty feelings. He depends on his father for support, and his love for his father allows him to endure. During the long run to Gleiwitz, he says, “My father’s presence was the only thing that stopped me [from allowing myself to die]. . . . I had no right to let myself die. What would he do without me? I was his only support.” Their relationship demonstrates that Eliezer’s love and solidarity are stronger forces of survival than his instinct for self-preservation.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Judaism is more than simply a religion; it is an entire culture that has, for most of its almost 6,000-year existence, been a dispersed culture, a nation without a country, a people without a home. As a result, memory and tradition play a significant role in Jewish life. In the absence of any geographic continuity, Judaism relies on customs, observances, and traditions, passed down from generation to generation, as the markers and bearers of cultural identity. Hitler and the Nazis wanted not only to destroy the Jewish people but also to humiliate them and eradicate all vestiges of Judaism. As Eliezer relates in Night, the Germans desecrated Jewish temples, forced Jews to break dietary laws, and deliberately shaved their heads and tattooed them in violation of Jewish Scripture. The Nazi genocide was an attempt to wipe out an entire people, including all sense of national and cultural unity.
Conversation and storytelling have always been important elements of Jewish folk tradition, and Shlomo’s storytelling symbolizes Jewish culture as a whole. His story is interrupted by the arrival of the Nazis, just as the Holocaust attempted to interrupt Jewish history as a whole. Throughout the book, Eliezer clings to tradition, even after his faith has apparently been lost, because it serves as an important link to life outside the Holocaust, beyond the terror and oppression he is experiencing. He struggles with the question of fasting on Yom Kippur. He expresses regret when he forgets to say Kaddish (a mourner’s prayer) for his deceased friend Akiba Drumer, not because he feels that he has forsaken an obligation to God, but because he feels that he has forsaken his commitment to his fellow Jews and fellow prisoners.
During the first sections of Night, there are frequent mentions of religion and religious observance. Eliezer begins his story mentioning the Talmud and his Jewish studies and prayer rituals. He is upset that the Nazis desecrate the Sabbath and his synagogue. By the end of Night, however, mentions of Jewish observance have almost vanished from the text. Most striking, Eliezer does not mention the Kaddish by name after his father’s death, and says only that “[t]here were no prayers at his grave. No candles were lit in his memory.” By specifically avoiding Jewish terminology, Eliezer implies that religious observance has ceased to be a part of his life. Eliezer’s feelings about this loss are ambiguous: he has claimed that he has lost all faith in God, yet there is clearly regret and sadness in his tone when he discusses the lack of a religious memorial for his father.
Although Eliezer’s explicit mentions of religion vanish, religious metaphor holds Night’s entire narrative structure together. As noted above, the Akedah is a foundational metaphor for the work. Throughout the memoir, furthermore, Wiesel indirectly refers to biblical passages (Psalm 150, for example, when Eliezer discusses his loss of faith) and Jewish tradition (the Nazis’ selections on Yom Kippur of which prisoners will die—a cruel version of the Jewish belief that God selects who will live and who will die during the Days of Awe). Though Eliezer claims that religion and faith are no longer part of his life, both nevertheless form a tacit foundation for his entire story.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Fire appears throughout Night as a symbol of the Nazis’ cruel power. On the way to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Madame Schächter receives a vision of fire that serves as a premonition of the horror to come. Eliezer also sees the Nazis burning babies in a ditch. Most important, fire is the agent of destruction in the crematoria, where many meet their death at the hands of the Nazis.
The role of fire as a Nazi weapon reverses the role fire plays in the Bible and Jewish tradition. In the Bible, fire is associated with God and divine wrath. God appears to Moses as a burning bush, and vengeful angels wield flaming swords. In postbiblical literature, flame also is a force of divine retribution. In Gehenna—the Jewish version of Hell—the wicked are punished by fire. But in Night, it is the wicked who wield the power of fire, using it to punish the innocent. Such a reversal demonstrates how the experience of the Holocaust has upset Eliezer’s entire concept of the universe, especially his belief in a benevolent, or even just, God.
The Bible begins with God’s creation of the earth. When God first begins his creation, the earth is “without form, and void; and darkness [is] upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2, King James Version). God’s first act is to create light and dispel this darkness. Darkness and night therefore symbolize a world without God’s presence. In Night, Wiesel exploits this allusion. Night always occurs when suffering is worst, and its presence reflects Eliezer’s belief that he lives in a world without God. The first time Eliezer mentions that “[n]ight fell” is when his father is interrupted while telling stories and informed about the deportation of Jews. Similarly, it is night when Eliezer first arrives at Birkenau/Auschwitz, and it is night—specifically “pitch darkness”—when the prisoners begin their horrible run from Buna.
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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