11.04.2010

Some Thoughts on Night by Elie Wiesel



Night, despite being only 109 pages long, is not a quick, easy read.  The book for me, and I think for a lot of people, doesn't end even when you've read the last page.  Because the beyond-horrific, indescribably inhumane images of the Holocaust, experienced through the eyes of a child, Elie Wiesel, remain forever.  At least they have for me.  The innocence and optimism of a childhood perspective in the opening ghetto scenes of Wiesel's hometown, starkly contrasted with the child's inevitable spiritual despair and rejection of God, is some of the most powerful -- and poignant -- prose I've ever read:

"Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load--little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it, saw it with my own eyes... those children in the flames. (Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes.)...."We continued our march. We were gradually drawing closer to the ditch, from which an infernal heat was rising. Still twenty steps to go....Ten steps still. Eight. Seven. We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our own funeral. Four steps more. Three steps. There it was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames."

I cannot claim to have enjoyed Night.  In my vicarious "surviving" the few harrowing hours I spent reading about what poor young Elie spent years surviving, I do believe I aged faster than I would have otherwise, during those hours, had I been reading something lighter than Night, and that gray hairs sprung up out of nowhere from the stress and anger this book aroused inside me.  And when I say gray hairs sprouted out of my scalp I'm not embellishing the effects of reading Night.  I can't, for the life of me, even begin to imagine how anybody could have endured what so many did endure, and bore testament to.

That Wiesel survived the Holocaust and was left with enough strength and emotional fortitude to eventually reenter his indescribably painful childhood and overcome the understandable temptation just to put it all behind him, drink and drug it away or use whatever means necessary to at least try and forget about it, rather than confront it head-on and write so goddamned gorgeously about the evil atrocities he witnessed and suffered, belies a strong, resilient man with more character and convictions than the most of us combined.

I'm left, after reading and re-reading Night, with several haunting images; two of which haunt me more than most.  The first was the above account of Wiesel being led with his father by the Nazis toward a ditch.  And at this point, two steps from the flames, Wiesel (just a child) contemplates committing suicide by breaking from the line that he may hurl himself on the electrifed fence (unless the Nazi guards shoot him first) rather than suffer the slow agony of fire.  A last second reprieve saves him:  "Two steps from the pit we were ordered to turn to the left and made to go into a barracks."  Much like Fyodor Dostoyevski's death sentence was literally commuted at the last second, so was Elie's, but not without some serious spiritual, emotional, and psychological damage that did not leave him unburnt:  "Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever....Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust."

Wiesel ends his account with the second image that particularly haunts me:  Wiesel, at this point in his account, recently freed from the Nazis, a bewildered boy without parents or family any longer (all of them murdered), stares at himself in a mirror for the first time in ages:  "From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.  The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me."  Gives me goosebumps still, just quoting it.

No doubt Night will continue haunting, and yet strangely inspiring, its future readers too.

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