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.