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
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.