Book Review of Night by Elie Wiesel

by Rev. Dr. Bob Jon

Elie Wiesel was born to a Jewish family in Sighet, Transylvania, in 1928. In March 1944, German soldiers seized his hometown, forcing Jewish families to move to two ghettos surrounded by barbed wires. Many people still tried to remain hopeful by dismissing not as gravely serious the house confinement, submission of their gold and jewelry, and later decreeing to wear the yellow star. They hoped for liberation by the allied force soon. However, only a couple of months later, the Hungarian forces started to deport Wiesel’s families, friends, and neighbors to Auschwitz. While being put into cattle cars, children cried out, “Water, Mother, I am thirsty!” (16) People relieved themselves in the corner of a building. Someone prayed, “Oh God, Master of the Universe, in your infinite compassion, have mercy on us… ” (20)

Wiesel recounts what first welcomed him to Auschwitz: chimneys and flames where babies and children were thrown. Men dug pits now, knowing that those would be their tombs. Being given a small portion of bread or soup for their food. Running as hard as possible during “Selection,” which filtered the sick from the healthy: the former were separated from the group and disappeared, ending up in the chimney. Wiesel also shares one of the famous stories many theologians and preachers often quote to question the presence of God in the middle of evil. A thirteen-year-old boy was arrested along with two other men for plotting an uprising with weapons. As he was hung painfully dying, someone asked, “For God’s sake, where is God?” Wiesel hears his inner voice, “Where? This is where – hanging her from this gallows” (65).

Standing on the brink between life and death, it is noticeable that Wiesel’s relationship with God changes from praise to complaint, from faith to revolt. Before the deportation, he was a teenager interested in Kabbalah, a Jewish mysticism. However, in watching the horrendous evil, he criticizes those who still bless the name of God. “Why should I bless God when God allows thousands of children to burn in the graves?” “Why should I praise God for giving us Sabbath when the six crematoria work day and night without rest?” It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the Jewish community is called to repent. However, he decided to eat and defy his tradition because “I no longer accept God’s silence As I swallowed my ration of soup, I turned that act into a symbol of rebellion, of protest against Him.” (69).

As the allied force was advancing, Wiesel and other inmates were driven to another camp, forced to walk for a few days without food and rest, and finally taken by a train. Falling behind the group meant imminent death, immediately shot by SS officers. Falling asleep in the cold weather also meant death. On their perilous journey to the last concentration camp. Wiesel recounts that the days felt like nights and the “nights left in our souls the dregs of their darkness” (100). Just a few days before the war ends and the prisoners were released, his father was beaten severely by a SS officer for begging for water. Wiesel confesses that he could not stop the officer and even felt resentful of his father for not staying quiet. The next day, he realized that his father was gone, probably taken to the crematorium. He could not even mourn because he was out of tears. His work ends with being freed from the camp and looking at himself in the mirror.

In the introduction, Wiesel shares that when he tried to publish his work first, some people in his community responded, “Isn’t it time to move on from our sad history?” “Holocaust is not the only history that defines who we are.” Yes, we want to talk about something hopeful and positive. Something that makes us feel better about ourselves. Yet, today in 2022, we still watch the controversial and disturbing news about former president Donald Trump who dined at his house with Ye (Kanye) West and Nick Fuentes. While Trump tries to defend his innocence by claiming that he did not know Fuentes, we still remember how he refused to denounce Neo-Nazi demonstrators and white supremacists who collided with the counterprotestors in 2017 that led to many injuries and the death of a young woman, Heather Heyer.

And this is exactly why we need to remind ourselves and educate ourselves about our history, which often comes to us as ugly, shocking, or even shameful. Truth does not always affirm us, presenting ourselves as good, faithful, and decent. Instead, truth often stings and hurts us by revealing who we truly are – broken, fearful, violent, and forgetting. Yes, we are created in the image of God, who is love. But the image of God in us has also been corrupted by our sins and brokenness. While we are children of God, our sins broke our relationship with God, which made us enemies of God until we were reconciled to God through Christ (Romans 5:10). Therefore, Paul addresses the dual identity within us by addressing the inner conflict between the law of God and the law of flesh as he says, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

Although it was painful and traumatic to write this work, Wiesel shares that it is the duty of the survivors to remind the next generation of the collective past we have taken so that they may never forget. He remarks, “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” (xv). In the Bible, God constantly commanded the Israelites to remember their past, their God, and what God had done for them, as forgetting God often led not only abandoning God to worship Baal but also evading their moral responsibilities. Therefore, George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher, again warns of the danger of forgetting our history, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana, The Life of Reason). Sadly, even seventy years after the Holocaust, we still witness many false prophets who use their power and privilege to lure the public to fall into believing in a pure lie and denying our history.

As the title Night indicates, the book does not offer much positive thought on the human nature and reality. As he arrived in Auschwitz, the chimney, flame, and smoke not only consumed many innocent lives but also Wiesel’s faith in God. However, this pessimistic testimony from Wiesel poignantly penetrates our society and the world and rings still true today, as we continue to find ourselves in the conflict between truth and lie, peace and violence, love and hatred, and embrace and exclusion.

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