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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
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 Moishe 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
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
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
Ace your assignments with our guide to Night!