1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 13: Night, by Elie Wiesel

When it comes to works relating to the Holocaust, there are many question to be asked. How dark is human nature? Does humanity have any redeeming factors? How far have we really evolved from our barbarous, animalist origins? And most importantly, will I go to hell if I give a bad review for a book detailing a child’s experience in the Holocaust? Having taken a class on the Holocaust, I have been exposed to a fair share of literature on the subject. Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of his time in Auschwitz and on the death march, has little literary merit, and as a historical text it is flawed, but still valuable.

The book tells the narrative of a child of fifteen who is forced into a ghetto, then to a concentration camp, then on a death march, onto trains and into another camp where he, and what surviving prisoners of the German army are liberated by American troops. It tells of starvation, and cold, and exhaustion. Of empathy and apathy, of how week an individual is, and how strong a union of people can be.

Primo Levi has written accounts of his time at Auschwitz, and from a historical and literary perspective I found his account (Surviving Auschwitz) far more illuminating. Perhaps because Wiesel was barely out of childhood, perhaps because he had not yet fully developed his cognitive skills, and perhaps because his experience has been coloured by what he has learned of the Holocaust since escaping it, his narrative seems to have holes, and delves into the melodramatic at times, such as when a woman is screaming on the trains about fire. This may have happened, but it seemed to me, to be a form of foreshadowing, a literary tool used to enhance the narrative and one that diluted the piece as a historical artefact. He also speaks of German putting living Jews into furnaces, and while this is certainly a common notion, and a action that would be no less barbaric that the countless horrors which the Germans had set upon their prisoners, there has never actually been any indication that such a thing every happened. The furnaces, as barbaric as they were, were only ever used to burn corpses, and even then they were, from all accounts I have heard, put into the furnaces, not by Germans soldiers, but by prisoners of the camp. Wiesel, without having noted witnessing it, claims that living people had been burned in the furnaces, which draws questions into the credibility of some aspects of his accounts. There also is little offered in the way of details, which I don’t personally mind because I don’t expect one who has been through such horrors to detail the tortured they suffered for the sake of satisfying the warped curiosity of some potential readers, but also missing is the in-depth emotional insight which Levi offered. That is not to say that the emotional insight is entirely absent, indeed, Wiesel speaks to the barbarity, and internal guilt of placing one’s own personal survival ahead of those of one’s neighbours, but it the type of narratives that are commonly heard from many survivors, and as a result Wiesel’s work does not set itself apart from other Holocaust narratives.

I have heard a man confess to having been raped (and indeed, it was to him, a confession, and admission of guilty, because he had stayed quiet in return for a piece of bread), and I have heard that same man admit to stealing another man’s hat when his own had been stolen, perhaps a trivial thing to one unawares of the nature of the camps, but to that man, he knew that he was giving a death sentence to a man he did not know because at morning roll call the German’s would shoot anybody whose cap was missing on spot.

For one who is not well informed on the Holocaust an is looking for a short work that can offer some insight into the experience of the survivors, Wiesel’s book would be a good start. But if one were looking for something more, Wiesel’s narrative will not suffice, as tragic and as sympathetic as his story is, and as valuable as it may be as a historical text, there are others which offer more insight.

If you like this, try this:

Surviving Auschwitz, by Primo Levi.

Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Ardent. With most high ranking German officials dead, and others taken under the wing of the American military to aid them in the cold war, there were not many people left to be held accountable for the Holocaust. Adolf Eichmann though was one of the few. Had he had a job in Chicago, he would have been a valuable asset to ensuring the cattle of the meatpacking industry was moved efficiently, and that all remained fresh. His job however, was not organizing trains for the Chicago cattle industry, it was organizing trains to deliver Jews, Gypsies, political dissidents, homosexuals and other people in and out of concentration camps. He helped to facilitate the efficiency of the process by which so many were killed. He never gave an order to kill, but is passive participation was enough, and Israel, being a new nation and wish to find justice for those citizens that did not live to see their home country, put Eichmann on trial. “The Banality of Evil” is a perfect title for this masterpiece which tactfully illustrates how easy it is for the average person to become an accomplice in such evil;.

The Grey Zone, directed by Tim Blake Nelson: This film is not a popular one, certainly hasn’t been awarded as much as Schindler’s List, but it offers some starling insight into life at Auschwitz. A Jewish doctor tries to help a girl who survived the gas chambers while a group of Jews forced to work in the crematoria of the camp collect materials required to sabotage one of the crematoria, a successful event which slowed down the German killing machine shortly before the arrival of the Red Army and which in turn ended up saving hundreds of lives (though many of those lives were taken in the death marches). The film details how even those under the persecution of the Nazi’s could indulge in the same evil that was destroying them, one prisoner beats a fellow Jewish man demanding his watch, ultimately killing him before he was about to be gassed, and a German solider rewards him by taking the watch off and giving it to him, at which time the prisoner is overcome with guilt. When the plot is uncovered by the Germans, a woman who refuses to confess under torture, then is forced to watch German soldiers execute her fellow inmates one by one while she refuses to answer. Unable to bear witness, and refusing steadfastly to confess, she throws herself upon the electrical fence and dies.

Words I Thought I’d Look Up:

Maimonides: From the root word maim, meaning injured.

Zohar: The foundational work for Jewish mysticism (the Cabbala/Kabbalah).

Phylacteries: A Jewish aid prayer, from the Greek meaning ’to guard’.

Hermetically: Airtight, or protected from outside forces.

Pestilential: From the Latin for plague, it means deadly or dangerous.

Harangued: To address somebody loudly or forcefully.

Convalescent: A recuperating patient.

Colic: 1) Pain in the abdomen. 2) crying babies. 3) A digestive disease in horses.

Siesta: From the Spanish for ’sixth hour’, it refers to an afternoon rest.

Meister: A highly skilled or prominent person.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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