Theological Inquiry: Night by Elie Wiesel
The Holocaust is without doubt the greatest human tragedy of the twentieth century. The literature surrounding Holocaust speak of the profound alienation of personality and loss of divine faith experienced by those affected. Those who survived to record these experiences are both lucky and unlucky. They are unlucky in that they had to continue to live the rest of their lives with tormenting memories and unanswered questions about human nature and God. Elie Wiesel is one such survivor, whose post-liberation life would be filled with mental anguish. In his seminal book Night, first published in Yiddish in 1955 and later appeared in English in 1960 we evidence how his faith in God as well as faith in humanity is challenged by the grave circumstances faced in German ethnic cleansing operations. The following passages will analyze how Wiesel’s faith in God and humanity is shaken to the core in the face of compelling circumstances and consequences.
In a poignant passage in the poetically assembled book, Wiesel notes how, at one point during the life in the ghetto, taking care of his ailing father becomes burdensome. Already weakened by severe malnutrition and mental disorientation, his mind loses perspective
In a tragic turn of events, his father would be beaten to death by German guards, just two weeks before American army liberated his camp. Wiesel could hear the final shrieks of pain from his father from his slot in the upper deck. But he could not venture a thought or an action to mitigate his suffering. Even sacrificing his own life for his once beloved father was beyond him. This is a key passage in Night, for it reveals how the Holocaust had stripped the humanity of the victims as well. The “loss of humanity” with respect to the Holocaust, is thus, equally witnessed in the perpetrators and the victims of the great crime. Hence, much in contradiction to preaching in the covenant, Wiesel fails to take care of fellows of his community, most notably his father. But Wiesel’s is not the universal case, for there are those exceptional individuals who could must spiritual and physical resources to offer themselves in service to other weaker members of the ghetto. This difference in behavior is not a consequence of moral convictions or volitional choices of the ghetto inmates. Rather, they just showcase the manifest act of God through the lives of the faithful. The following passage highlights how the inmates of the ghetto encouraged each other during grave times:
“There’s a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don’t lose courage. You’ve already escaped the gravest danger: selection. So now, muster your strength, and don’t lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer – or rather, a piece of advice: let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive.” (Wiesel, 1960)
Elie Wiesel’s was brought up in an orthodox Jewish community that gave emphasis to religious observance and faithful understanding of the scriptures. This pre-eminence to God and belief in His benign will would be challenged to the core as Wiesel and other Jews are pushed ever further into the systematized abyss. But, instead of abandoning his faith completely, Wiesel gets new illuminations into his faith. In many ways, the experiences in the ghetto were part of a process of intimate acquaintance and assimilation into the essence of Judaism. Wiesel’s faith in God and the dictates of the covenant are neither weakened nor strengthened, but rather transformed into an understanding that is closer to the truth than what he began with. This is not to say that there were no moments of doubt and confusion in his mind. For example, at one point he asks,
“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because he kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?” (Wiesel, 1960)
But these doubts served as precursors to a higher truth, that he was erstwhile not privy to. Hence, Night is a book full of troubling thoughts and questions for the faithful. Just as Elie Wiesel had undergone a severe examination of his faith, the illumination at the end of this process is a great reward. As Wiesel reminds the doubtful, that for all the great turmoil of those who perished and those who survived, there is a purpose not easily accessible to rationality. The survivors also have the responsibility to perpetrate the truths they came to understand through their memories:
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” (Wiesel, 1960)
Wiesel, Elie (1960). Night. Hill & Wang, 1960, (translated from the French by Stella Rodway), ISBN 0-553-27253-5.