were masters of nature, masters of the world. We had forgotten everything—death,
fatigue, our natural needs. Stronger than cold or hunger, stronger
than the shots and the desire to die, condemned and wandering, mere
numbers, we were the only men on earth.
At last, the morning star appeared in the gray sky.
A trail of indeterminate light showed on the horizon. We were exhausted.
We were without strength, without illusions.
This passage occurs in the sixth section
of the book, toward the end of the prisoners’ horrible run from
Buna. It succinctly describes the prisoners’ godless worldview,
which holds survival to be the highest principle and all other morality
to be meaningless. In Jewish prayer, God is often referred to as
“Master of the Universe.” At this point, the prisoners have replaced
God in that role; they themselves are the masters of nature and
the world. Eliezer’s experiences have instilled in him the despairing
sense that he is alone in the world, a “mere number,” responsible
only for his own survival.
By omitting a conjunction between “without strength” and “without
illusions” in the last sentence, Wiesel makes the relationship between
the two concepts ambiguous. It is unclear whether the ideas are
complementary (“We were without strength because we were without
illusions”) or unrelated (“We were without strength, and also we
were without illusions”). Using the former interpretation, the sentence
implies that illusion—perhaps the illusion of faith—can give one
strength. As we see when he discusses the death of Akiba Drumer,
Eliezer acknowledges that faith gives a person a sense of being
and a reason to struggle. By this point in his experience, he is
deeply cynical about faith; for him, it is a mere illusion, a deluded
belief in an omnipotent creator who doesn’t exist. Along similar
lines, the phrase “condemned and wandering” references the entire
history of Jewish suffering, a history defined by exile and exclusion.
Despite his professed lack of faith, Eliezer is approaching his
struggle from within the context of Judaism, not from outside it.