In Night, Elie Wiesel charts the horror of a young Jewish boy, grappling with the brutality of the Nazi regime during World War II. Using the extended metaphor of an interminably long night, Wiesel explores the darkness that becomes etched in his soul. Elie endures the loss of family members as he and his father struggle to survive their numerous experiences as they are shipped from concentration camp to camp (Auschwitz to Buchenwald). Ironically, his father dies on 28th January 1945 and Elie who is fifteen years old stays at Buchenwald with 20,000 inmates awaiting the arrival of the Americans. They come on 11th April 1945, marking an end to Elie’s long night. However, the psychological scars of that long night, as Elie convincingly shows, will never be extinguished.
Born in Sighet, Hungary, Elie’s community is forced to leave and is shipped to Birkenau, the gateway to Auschwitz. From there, Elie and his father are sent to a “new camp, Buna” (which he describes as a four hour trip). (Buna is a sub camp of Auschwitz. ) as the Russians are descending upon Buna (92), Elie tramples the 50 miles to Gleiwitz and he ends up in Buchenwald. According to Elie’s account, he is liberated on 11th April 1945.
A-7713 “I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name.”
According to Wiesel, one of the most disturbing insights, is that during times of extreme terror and brutality, both the oppressors and the oppressed lose their humanity. Both are diminished by their experiences, sometimes in similar and sometimes in different ways.
Ironically, although the killers delight in dehumanising their victims, they too become stripped of their dignity in the process. The manner in which they treat their victims becomes a cruel indictment on their own humanity. In many ways, the killers dehumanise the Jews so that it is easier to torture them. They instil in them a fierce sense of terror so that they will not strike back. Their fierce methods of intimidation make it easier for them to kick, torture and beat them. They fume with hatred; they treat their victims mercilessly and the victims, ironically, become a reflection of their own inhumanity.
Wiesel also opens his story with the depiction of Moche the Beadle who instructs Ellie about the wisdom of God. The Jews were expelled from Sighet. Moche the Beadle was a foreigner and so he was expelled. He was taken away with the Jews on trains. Moche escaped and returned to warn the Jews about the murderous crimes being committed against them. As Wiesel notes, “People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them.” (17)
The story thus becomes a dialogue between Ellie and God and a reflection upon the role of arrogance and inevitability. Ellie soon learns that, as the night becomes increasingly darker, God is dead. “Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand his answers. We can’t understand them. Because they come from the depth of the soul, and they stay there until death.” 15
Just how brutal are the killers? Have they lost all shred of their humanity and their ability to feel compassion or at the very least moral compunction?
There is a thin line between immorality and amorality. The fierce German SS officers appear to have absolutely no scruples in beating their victims as fiercely as possible.
Oppressors: The SS Guards
Leaving his home-town Sighet in Hungary, Elie soon becomes possessed by the hatred that links him inextricably with his oppressors. After making his father weep, (“It was the first time I had ever seen him weep. I had never imagined that he could”. Initially, this hatred is directed at the Hungarian police who order the evacuation from their beloved home town. “It was from that moment that I began to hate them and my hate is still the only link between us today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first of the faces of hell and death”. (30)
Wiesel depicts the SS Guards as brutal oppressors who appear indifferent to the suffering they inflict. They are completely dehumanised as they torture the prisoners as sadistically as possible. Many are intoxicated by their sense of power. They appear to have little regard for the wellbeing of their victims. They are conditioned to treat the Jews as vermin and have no compunctions about getting rid of them as effortlessly as possible.
The SS wield machine guns which are constantly “trained” on their victims. They use their power to their full advantage and become indifferent and dispassionate. The moment Ellie is separated from his mother, Wiesel focuses attention on the indifference of the SS who are “without emotion” as they channel the men “to the left” and the “women to the right”.
The guns are constantly “trained” on the prisoners, to avoid rebellion or resistance. There is also a sense that the SS Guards sadistically derive pleasure from their power. During the evacuation, once again the guns are trained on the fleeing Jews. “They had orders to shoot anyone who could not sustain the pace. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of the pleasure. If one of us stopped for a second, a quick shot eliminated the filthy dog”. (85/97)
- However, there are signs that perhaps they are aware that they were inhumane. As defeat looms, many SS guards become aware of how they may be judged by the liberating army and this leads to some feelings of guilt as their conscience seems to be piqued.
- Before evacuating Buna the block leader insists that the Jews clean the camp so as to show the liberating army that “there were men living here and not pigs” (85/96). As Wiesel notes, “the block was cleaned from top to bottom, washed in every corner”. This reveals that the SS Guards are concerned about how they will be judged, and especially about the fact that they, as one almost confesses, are deliberately treating them like pigs. Psychologically, Wiesel suggests, that in treating the Jews like pigs, like “swine” and like “flea-ridden dogs” it is easier to brutalise and dehumanise them.
- Again, during one of the long evacuation marches the SS guard’s tone softens and he utters words of encouragement so as to ensure the safe passage of their victims to Gleiwitz and shake off their apathy: “Courage” he pleads. “Just a few more hours.” As Eli notes these ‘words of encouragement, even coming as they did from the mouths of our assassins, were of great help.” They did not want to give us so close to their destination. Perhaps in such situations, the SS are aware that they do not want to leave fields strewn with dead bodies as evidence of their brutality for the invading armies.
Symbolically, the “night” becomes ever darker as a reflection of the loss of hope, the loss of faith and the desperate situation of the Jews. From the time, Wiesel is aware of the smoke bursting from the crematorium his world turns to darkness and it continues to disintegrate. The darkness reflects his psychological despair. The hostile night is often the setting for their worst experiences. For example their final evacuation takes place as the “icy wind” blows “in violent gusts” and the “pitch darkness” envelopes the wandering Jews. (85/97)
Oberkapo (middle) : There are those who expediently or opportunistically exploit or use the crisis for their advantage. Given a choice, they join forces with the oppressed in order to avoid the impossible suffering that would be a bitter alternative.
Oppressed: the imprisoned Jews
Wiesel describes the Jews as oppressed, many of whom perform extraordinary feats of courage and compassion.
Eli’s father is a constant source of comfort (101)
Faced with such extreme deprivation and terror, how do the victims cling to their humanity?
Elie Wiesel constantly charts the tension between the bestial push towards survival and self-preservation and the need to preserve one’s humanity, which is best protected through relationships, particularly family ones. Upon arriving in Auschwitz, the “main in charge” was a “young Pole” offered rather prophetic advice. He urged the inmates to resist wallowing in despair. He offers his “prayer or piece of advice”: let there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. .. Help each other”. (41/53) AS Wiesel points out, it becomes increasingly difficult to “help” each other and this will prove very problematic as each fights for the last morsel of bread.
For those like Madame Schachter, there is only descent into madness. The story of Madame Schachter who has “gone out of her mind” sheds a light on the constant stress to which the Jewish victims are subjected and the tenuous line between sanity and madness upon which they hover. Her madness also acts as a foreshadowing device that warns the victims about their possible fate as they discover the truth of the “endless night” and the horror of the gas chambers. In one of the “hermetically sealed” cattle wagons, en route from Sighet to Kaschau in Czech, to Auschwitz, Ellie notes the prophetic wisdom of the woman who warns the jews of their impending doom. Her wisdom and warnings are dismissed as the “evil spirit” of a mad woman that “possessed” the “depths of her being” . Her hysterical outburst exposes the extreme duress suffered by those in the train. Elie notes, “our terror could no longer be contained. Our nerves had reached a breaking point. … It was as though madness had infected us all”. During the “endless night”, Elie notes that eventually her screams “tore us to shreds”. This smell of “burning flesh” that greets Elie at Birkenau, “the reception centre for Auschwitz” is forever associated with the madness, and indifference, the silence, the dumbness and absence of Madame Schachter whose little boy “was holding her hand” and probably until the doom of both. (The poignant attachment of the boy draws attention to the eventually severity of the loss.)
It is also ironic that the more the victims are dehumanised the more savage they become.
Because of the fear and terror, the victims lose their voice. It is increasingly difficult for them to resist. And often Eli regrets not being able to protect his father from brutality. He regrets that he did not take a stance.
Examples of resistance become increasingly rare because they are always met with defeat. Eli tries to avoid losing his gold crown. However, his father is subjected to brutal beatings (“blows continued to rain down on him”) that resistance becomes impossible. Whilst the beatings are directed at the father, this becomes an impossible situation for Eli’s sense of compassion. He gives in after two weeks. Franek knew that he would win. “Better late than never”.
The Jews become dehumanised; they lose their faith in God who appears to be just as indifferent as the SS Guards. Furthermore, the Jewish survivors are described as “automatoms” as they become exhausted and desperately fight for survival – a fact that Wiesel suggests, reinforces their bestiality. Wiesel suggests that as they are forced to fight for each crumb they start to reflect the indifference and the cruelty of their oppressors.
The automatoms: a loss of self; lack of consciousness
- Faced with death, the instinct to survive becomes mechanical and robotic. They are dominated by pure adrenalin and fear and Wiesel suggests that the men’s basic impulses rotate around the need to survive. After the Jews and their commanders evacuate from Buna (a camp within Auschwitz), Wiesel describes their descent into a state of complete exhaustion and shows how the will to live becomes a pure instinctive reaction in the face of death. At this stage the young Eli is overwhelmed by the attraction of death as a means to end his suffering and he describes how “death wrapped itself around me till I was stifled. I felt that I could touch it.” But mechanically, he continues to follow the herd, “without being conscious that I owned a body” and so mindless has he become that he depicts a state of sleepwalking, propelled almost by a herd of sheep. Wiesel states, “we were masters of nature” propelled forward simply by the revolt of death that confronted him “in every stiffened corpse” along the march towards death. However, although his thoughts are centred “of myself again” he is aware of the fact that to die would be to abandon his father. In this regard, Wiesel presents this simple thought as perhaps the only thing that separates him from the animal in the herd.
The loss of faith: a disbeliever
However, many are also dehumanised through the process of survival and many become a pitiful reflection of the cruelty that they suffer.
- When the young child suffers a more agonising death than the two adults, Wiesel finally and irrevocably loses faith in God. From that night, he finds that the “soup tasted of corpses”. He is utterly dejected.
- As Wiesel becomes subject to the brutality of the SS Nazi guards, and the Jews are indiscriminately killed, young Eli loses his faith in God and hope is reduced to a matter of luck. When he watches the death of the young Pipel, the angel who helped the camp leader, Eli realises that God is dead. He took up to half an hour in the noose, struggling between life and death, “dying in slow agony”. The Pipel is just another reminder of his loss of faith that was evident upon the smoke from the gas chambers; the “little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky”. In contrast to the presence of God, Wiesel remarks that apart from a few humane gestures such as his desire to help his father, there is nothing to stop the young boy from degenerating into depravity.
“Beasts of prey”; savage men
- The victims sink to incredible depths whereby they lose all vestiges of their humanity and are stripped of emotions and feelings towards each other. The victims also become dehumanised through terror and extreme physical deprivation. Hunger and exhaustion force them to act in completely uncharacteristic ways as if they too have lost their humanity. They become “savage men” or “beasts of prey”.
- The victims degenerate into beasts of prey, which is particularly demoralising for the Jews. At one stage during the evacuation, the men were “mauling each other”. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails.“ (101)
- At Gleiwitz they stay for three days without food or drink. (107)
- The long and agonising night, which becomes etched into their souls, also consists of the long agonising “death rattle, of a whole convoy who felt the end upon them. We were all going to die here. All limits had been passed. No one had any strength left. And again the night would be long.” (114)
As players in “a masquerade”
Prior to the final evacuation orders from the SS Guards, Wiesel reflects upon the humiliating depths to which the prisoners have sunk. In a vicious cycle, they have been transformed into pigs, and into the “flea-ridden dogs” that enable the SS guards to treat them with such brutality. As Wiesel suggests the more they reflect the image of the “swine” it seems the SS guards in an ironic way are vindicated in treating them as such.
- During one final episode, Wiesel describes the men, twice, as “poor clowns” who are preparing for the final act in the ‘masquerade”. It is a show of desperate proportions; they appear completely ridiculous because of their extremely desperate attempts to protect themselves from the cold. They “each had put on several garments, one over the other, to better protect ourselves from the cold. Poor clowns. (83/96)
The ultimate humiliation is to become actors in a bestial play for the amusement of the SS officers. AS they become beasts of prey, they
However, even more dehumanising for victims is the way they are ridiculed and taunted because they have been turned into pigs for amusement. Eating the snow off their neighbours’ backs the SS men “who were watching were greatly amused by the spectacle” (96) – their amusement suggesting that they are completely devoid of morals.
As beasts of prey, once again, they become a theatre spectacle for onlookers. Even workmen and curious spectators marvel at the emaciated specimens who have been crowded into the cattle trains. (100) As the men fight each other in a gladiatorial confront to the death, the German workmen become intrigued. “There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought each other to the death for a few crumbs. The German workmen took a lively interest in this spectacle.”
Eli compares one such scene to a spectacle at Aden where “natives” were thrown coins for the amusement of the aristocracy. As Wiesel notes, in this case, “an attractive, aristocratic Parisienne was deriving special pleasure from the game. I suddenly noticed that two children were engaged in a death struggle, trying to strangle each other.” When Elie objected, one of the ladies retorted, “I like to give charity”. The unfinished sentence suggests that charity is withheld until the final death blow. (112)
This becomes the very worst type of power struggle that shows the indignity of both oppressor and oppressed.