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
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.”
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, Moishe 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.