"In memory of my parents and of my little sister, Tzipora"
Rarely am I moved much by book dedications. They seldom have much meaning to the reader, being a personal message from the author to those chosen to receive the honor. The dedication in Night is different. In those few words quoted above, Elie Wiesel encapsulates a living horror that consumed his family, his faith and his future. It is for these people that he wrote this book, so that they might be given in death what they were denied in life, a chance to tell. Elie Wiesel needed to tell. For himself, for all the others, for his family.
Wiesel was born in 1929 in a small town in Transylvania. The son of a man prominent in the Jewish community, as a boy Elie had a deep and all encompassing faith, one that he fully intended to devote his life to pursuing. That faith was to face the ultimate challenge as World War II bore down on the village of Sighet and wrapped its hateful fist around a boy not yet on the cusp of manhood.
For a period of time – in fact, a matter of years – no ills befell the Jews of Sighet. They heard rumors, but dismissed most of them as being too outrageous to be true. They felt that surely the war would soon end without the specter of fascism invading their remote village. They were horribly wrong. The Germans arrived in the spring of 1944, bringing with them the pattern that was being repeated throughout Europe. Sanctions, expulsions, restrictions, ghettos. Eventually, inevitably, the Jews of Sighet were herded onto train cars and transported first to Birkenau, then to Auschwitz, Buna and ultimately Buchenwald. The slim volume that is Night tells the story of Elie Wiesel’s journey from child in a sheltered village to prisoner in a living nightmare.
There are a lot of Holocaust stories out there. Some we know – the stories of Oskar Schindler, Anne Frank, Wladyslaw Szpilman. Millions more we will never know. Elie Wiesel gives a voice to those nameless, faceless millions. The stories we know are often presented with overwhelming imagery, flooding our senses with the sights, sounds and horrors of millions of people dying. Elie Wiesel didn’t write Night from that place, a place of wringing every last drop of pathos from a narrative. Night was not written form the heart, or from the soul. It was written from a bleak, empty place hollowed and charred by horror and shame. The prose is spare, sometimes almost clipped. Wiesel tells what he experienced, in painful detail, but little of what those experiences cost him. When he does extend a tentative finger into that tortured place, he can’t maintain it for long. He soon goes back to descriptions of what was happening around him. It’s as if he knows he must tell this story, but can only bear just so much in the telling, pulling back when it becomes too painful.
This is what makes Night a remarkable book. Every sentence, every description, tells far more than what is written on the page. The writing screams detachment. Detachment from the horror, detachment from the fear, detachment from this life that cannot even be considered a life. Wiesel tells not only of the cruelty and terror, but also of the small kindnesses that he encountered in both his fellow inmates and those charged with overseeing their incarceration. He tells of his own perceived shame and cowardice, his own anger and loss of faith. He tells of how a person can become reduced to little more than base instinct in a very short time. And he tells it all as though looking at it from far away. We feel from those spare words how much he lost in those months. How much of his humanity was stripped from him, how unlikely it is that he will ever really recover. We gain a tiny bit of understanding. He can never look at himself again without seeing what he became in those camps, and what became of those around him. He will never be free of that time, those places. He writes his words, not as catharsis, for there will be no release for him. Not in the writing, maybe never. He writes them because he knows he must. He knows that others must look at what happened to him, what he did, what was done to him, the places where the two collided, and they must see. They must see what is there in every one of us. The ability to fear, to cower, to become numb, to do anything, anything at all, to survive the unsurvivable. Even with the understanding that to survive is not really to live, but only not to die.
It was ten years after he was liberated from Buchenwald that Elie Wiesel wrote Night, and five more years before it found a publisher. In its slightly more than 100 pages, it does everything Wiesel set out to do. It tells his story. And it does more – probably more than he expected – it tells of the loss of spirit and basic human connectedness that comes with survival. It tells of the horror of death, and the continued horror of living with memories that will haunt for a lifetime. At the time Night was written, I have no doubt that Wiesel was indeed in a perpetual night – one that nothing could penetrate. It is my profound hope that somewhere, at some point, came a dawn. I fully intend to read the rest of his work in hopes of catching a glimpse of some tiny ray of light that might begin to fill that charred hollow from which this book emerged. And I’ll remember this man and the part of his life he shares in this book. It seems like a small thing, but really, remembering is everything.
* Elie Wiesel is the founding chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, an organization dedicated to preserving the memories of the Jews who died during the Holocaust.