Night is a memoir, which is an autobiography or a written account of one's memories of certain events or people. In this book, Elie Wiesel describes his experiences living in the Nazi concentration camps and witnessing his friends and family die. Over the recent years, many scholars have debated whether or not Night is truly a non-fiction and unbiased account of Elie’s struggles during the Holocaust, for there are minuscule differences between Wiesel’s experiences and those of his character, Eliezer. However, the events that happen to Eliezer in Night are the same happened to Wiesel during the Holocaust.
Historical Information about the Period of Publication:
At first, Elie Wiesel swore to never talk about his gruesome experiences in the Holocaust. However, about 10 years after he had been liberated from the concentration camp, he published an 865-page Yiddish manuscript describing them, which was published as the 245-page book, And the World Remained Silent. This attracted the attention of Francois Mauriac, who convinced Elie to publish the book on a global scale. The most difficult task was finding an American publisher willing to publish Elie’s book. Most of the publishers rejected the book, saying that the subject was either too gruesome or too unknown. Finally, in 1960, Hill & Wang Publishing House printed out Elie’s book into a 116-page version.
The book itself takes place from 1941 to 1945. This was the time of the Holocaust, when the Nazis were gaining power under Adolf Hitler and carrying out the “Final Solution.” In 1944, Hungarian Transylvania was taken over by the Nazis, after which the Jews and other minorities of the country were deported to concentration and death camps for extermination. Night describes the gruesome journey these Jews made and the atrocities they faced at these concentration camps, including those of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Biographical Information about the Author:
Elie Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928 in Sighet, Transylvania. He lived with his parents, Shlomo Wiesel and Sarah Feig, and his three sisters, Hilda, Beatrice, and Tzipora. During World War II, Elie was separated from his mother and sisters when the Jews from his town were placed in concentration camps. Elie spent all of the Holocaust with the company of his father, Shlomo, who eventually passed away due to starvation and physical weakness a few weeks before the Allied liberation. During the time he spent in the concentration camps, Elie was forced to do manual labor under harsh conditions. After his liberation, Elie was reunited with his older sisters Hilda and Beatrice. For 10 years, Elie refused to speak about his experiences during the Holocaust. He broke his silence with his 865-page Yiddish manuscript, which led him to write two other versions in both French and English. Although Night initially faced slow sales, it picked up by 1997 and gained national recognition when Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club in 2006. Elie Wiesel became the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his passionate condemnations against racism and repression.
The memoir begins with Eliezer, a Jewish teenager, living in his hometown of Sighet, Hungarian Transylvania. He is an extremely religious student, but his studies are cut short when his teacher Moishe the Beadle is deported. When Moishe returns after a few months, he tells the other Jews about the way the Gestapo (the German police) butchered all the Jews on his train. However, everyone takes him to be crazy. Later, In the spring of 1944, the Nazis take over Hungary, and soon, all the Jews in Eliezer’s town are forced into small ghettos. After that, they are taken onto cattle cars, and after days and nights of their journey, filled with starvation and being over-crowded, the Jews arrive at Birkenau, the selection camp of Auschwitz. There, Eliezer is separated from his mother and younger sister, but remains with his father.
As Eliezer struggles to survive against starvation and abuse, he also faces his internal battle of whether or not God exists and if He does, why He hasn’t helped his people yet. After witnessing horrors such as the hanging of children, burning of babies in furnaces, and daily shootings by the Nazis, Eliezer finds his faith completely destroyed. Also, Eliezer feels a conflict between supporting his ever weakening father and giving himself the best chance of survival.
Over the course of the book, Eliezer and his father are sent from Auschwitz to a new concentration camp called Buna and then, as the Allies approach, deeper into Germany, to Buchenwald. A few months before the concentration camps are liberated by Allied soldiers, Eliezer’s father is taken to the crematory. Though Eliezer survives the concentration camps and is liberated, he leaves behind his own innocence and is haunted by the death and violence he has witnessed.
“On the third night… a piercing cry broke the silence, ‘Fire! I can see a fire! I can see a fire!’”
On the train to Auschwitz, Madame Schachter, a 50-year-old woman, shouts hysterically about a fire and flames. The other Jews think that she is crazy and beat her in order to calm her down. This is an example of dramatic irony, for we (the readers) know that that Madame Schachter is screaming about the furnaces that the Nazis are going to use to burn the Jews, whereas the other Jews, who are supposedly rational and sane, fail to foresee their impending doom towards which the train is taking them.
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.”
This is probably the most famous quotation from Night. In these lines, Wiesel breaks away from his narration and reflects on the horrendous first night in the concentration camp. The repetition of the “never” proves what an everlasting impact the Holocaust has had on him. Here, he sums up all the atrocities the Nazis have committed, and also in this section, he brings forth Eliezer’s spiritual battle, which is that doesn’t know anymore whether or not God exists, and if yes, why God hasn’t helped them yet.
“Behind me, I heard the same man asking, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice within me answer him, ‘Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows’”
This quotation shows Eliezer’s loss of faith in God. Before the Holocaust, Eliezer was a devoted student of the Jewish texts. Even to question the existence of God was a sin. But now, after he has witnessed the gruesome hanging of an innocent child, he feels that his God has been murdered before his eyes. Everything that is good in this world has been lost. The insidious deeds being committed around him have caused Eliezer to reject the idea of God and His morality.
“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.”
This was spoken by the head of the block when Eliezer was caring for his dying father. This is an example of how a person can disregard the well-being of everyone else and only think of himself in times of peril. Even sons can turn on their fathers to save themselves. The head of the block essentially tells Eliezer to let his father die by telling him that he shouldn't give up his share of bread and soup to his father and telling him that he should be having his father's share. The next morning, Eliezer's father is no longer with him, for he had been taken to the crematory. What is shocking is that upon hearing this, Eliezer does not cry. Instead, he feels relief. This shows how the caring relationship between a father and his son can be destroyed under arduous conditions.
“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.”
At the end of the Holocaust, the state in which the Jews and other minorities are found by the Allied liberators is deplorable. The setting of this quotation is at a hospital, after Eliezer has been liberated from Buchenwald. Eliezer has seen himself for the first time since being taken away from home and his condition is pitiful. Even though Eliezer has survived the Holocaust, his soul has been killed over the years. The torture and evil that Eliezer has seen has forced him to lose his faith in humanity and mankind. Eliezer’s experiences during this time will always remain with him, as a reminder of the wickedness that he had to endure.
Role (What role does this person have in the story?):
Significance (Why is this character significant to the story?):
Adjectives/Character Traits (What sort of person is this?):
Eliezer, a young Jewish boy from the town of Sighet, Hungarian Transylvania, is the main character of Night. Through the persona of Eliezer, Wiesel narrates his recollections of the Holocaust and everything that he has witnessed.
Eliezer is important because his memories of the Holocaust comprise the book. Eliezer also represents the effect of the Holocaust on its victims. As Eliezer struggles for survival, his most fundamental beliefs (his faith in God, faith in his fellow human beings, and sense of justice in the world) are called into question. He emerges from his experience profoundly changed. The Holocaust shakes his faith in God and the world around him, and he sees the depths of cruelty and selfishness to which any human being, including himself, can sink. Through Eliezer, Wiesel conveys his horrible experiences and his transformation as a prisoner during the Holocaust.
Over the course of the novel, Eliezer is transformed from a religious, innocent boy into an experienced, beaten down man who loses his faith in God. Eliezer never stops caring about others, even though the times have been trying.
Shlomo Wiesel is Eliezer’s father in Night. Shlomo has stuck with Eliezer until the end of the book and is the only family with Eliezer during the Holocaust.
Shlomo is important because, through his character, more of Eliezer’s personality is revealed. The readers get to see the love and respect that Eliezer has for his father and how the Holocaust has caused him to love his father even more, but also Eliezer’s temptation to just leave his father to die and survive for himself. Shlomo is an example of the destruction of the father-son bond, for when he is taken to the crematory, Eliezer feels relief instead of grief.
Shlomo Wiesel is a very compassionate and caring person. Because of his sympathetic side, Shlomo is widely respected in the Jewish community and serves as an idol for many. After being placed in the concentration camps, Shlomo’s condition begins to deteriorate both physically and mentally.
Madame Schachter is a fifty year old woman with a young son. She is first seen on the train ride to Auschwitz. Starting on the third night of the journey, Madame Schachter screams about seeing fires, but there are no actual fires to be found on the train.
Madame Schachter is significant to the story because she foreshadows the fates of everyone on the train. When Madame Schachter screams about flames, she is referring to the future, in which the flames of crematories will join with the agonizing screams of those burning inside to bring about the demise of the Jews on the train.
Madame Schachter is believed to be a crazy woman by everyone on the train. She is seen as a troubled woman who should not be listened to. She is also seen as helpless and innocent, since the Jews on the train beat her in front of her child in order to calm her down.
Moshe the Beadle
Moshe the Beadle is Eliezer’s teacher. He has taught Eliezer everything about Judaism and its beliefs. Moshe has greatly impacted Eliezer’s way of living and how he views the world. Three years before Eliezer’s deportation, Moshe is deported, but the German police take over his train and make the Jews dig their own grave. Moshe manages to escape, and when he warns the Jews back home and tells them to flee while they can, no one listens.
Moshe’s character reflects Eliezer’s religious nature and the main struggle that Eliezer faces in Night. Also, Moshe represents the naivety of Eliezer’s Jewish community since no one believes his story of how the Nazis tortured and killed the Jews that were with him. His character and experience foreshadow the upcoming doom of the Jews of Sighet.
Moshe is a poor yet an intelligent and wise man. He is greatly respected by Eliezer, even though others see him differently. After he escapes from the Nazis and tells his horrific story, he is labeled as an insane person.
Rabbi Eliahou is the rabbi of a small Polish community who meets Eliezer on the death march to Gleiwitz. His son leaves him behind in the march when he notices that his father is limping. After recovering, Rabbi Eliahou starts to frantically look in vain for his son.
Rabbi Eliahou is portrayed as a man to be pitied because his son deserts him. Along with Shlomo, he is an example of the destruction of the father-son relationship during times of trial. Also, when the Rabbi asks Eliezer whether he has seen his son, Eliezer prays desperately to God that he himself will not give in to the temptation to treat his own father in such a deplorable way.
Rabbi Eliahou is kind and beloved, and he retains his faith while in the concentration camps. He is also seen as helpless and deserving of sympathy, since his son cruelly abandons him when he realizes that his father is growing weak.
Description of the Setting(s):
The memoir begins in the town of Sighet, Hungarian Transylvania. Here, Eliezer describes the crowded and terrible conditions of the ghettos into which the Jews of the town were forced. Then, the story follows Eliezer’s journey at different concentration camps in Europe. These include Auschwitz and Birkenau, Buna, Gleiwitz, and Buchenwald.
Eliezer first arrives at Birkenau, the gateway to Auschwitz. As soon as he enters, he describes the odor of burning flesh and the smoke that he sees rising from the crematories. He also depicts the deplorable conditions of the concentration camps under which the prisoners of the camps had to live (for example, the extremely overcrowded barracks).
Eliezer also describes in detail the excruciating pain that the harsh cold of the blizzard causes on the prisoners when they are on their death march to Gleiwitz.
Significance of the Opening Scene:
The opening paragraphs themselves describe the character of Moshe and also the devout nature of Eliezer as a Jewish student. The significance in these paragraphs is that they create a sharp contrast between Eliezer’s nature before and after his experience in the concentration camps. In the opening scene, Eliezer is an innocent and fervently religious boy, but after his traumatic experience, he becomes a man who has had his faith shaken and his physical and mental health has worsened.
The whole opening scene, however, also incorporates the story of Moshe the Beadle, taking place three years before Eliezer’s deportation. The significance of this is that it introduces and foreshadows the demise that the Jews are about to face under the control of the Nazis. Also, this scene points out the Jews’ ignorance and refusal to accept the evil truth of the Nazis. The opening scene teaches the lesson that people must listen to warnings of evil.
Major Symbols, Motifs, Images:
Fire: symbol of Nazi’s destruction and violence
Crematories (smoke rising from chimney) and gas chambers
The closing scene of Night takes place after the Jews have been liberated from Nazi control. Eliezer is all alone in the concentration camp, with his father having recently been taken to the crematory. He has no idea what has happened to his mother and sisters. All Eliezer knows is that he is one of the several few to survive the insidious events of the past years. Eliezer has managed to overcome the starvation, punishment, and cruelty inflicted upon him and many other Jews by the racist Nazis.
At the ending scene of Night, Eliezer is in a hospital recovering from food poisoning. He looks into the mirror and sees a corpse staring back at him. Through this, Eliezer notices the enormous change that he has undergone since the beginning of the Holocaust, both physically and mentally. Physically, Eliezer has been starved to such an extent that his body has become worse than that of a skeleton. Mentally, Eliezer has transformed from a young, innocent boy into a traumatized and broken man. No longer is Eliezer’s view of the world perfect; it has become tainted with the blood of those killed and the sins that he has witnessed. By the end of Night, Eliezer has lost his faith in humanity and God. Nothing can ever be righteous in the world again.
Themes/ Topics of Discussion:
Relationship between father and son: In times of need, every man survives for himself, and in order to save and protect themselves, even sons can sacrifice their fathers. At some point, even Eliezer, who is disgusted by the way a son beats his father to death for food, considers leaving his sick father so that he can survive.
Eliezer’s battle to maintain his faith in God: Eliezer’s faith in God and the goodness of the world is shaken by the cruelty and evil he witnesses during the Holocaust. His faith in God is challenged because he contemplates at certain times the idea that if there was a God, He would help His people in their time of need. Although many things push him to completely lose his faith, he attempts to hold on to the idea of righteousness. Yet, at the end, Eliezer is still stuck in his spiritual battle.
Cruelty to humans by humans: Eliezer is shocked by the extent to which people can go to harm someone. Is no one capable of good?
Experiencing atrocities and cruel treatment can turn even the purest of people into brutes.