Wiesel, Night

Elie Wiesel, Night
(New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 120 pages
UCSB: PQ2683.I32 N8534 2001

book essay by Sarah Thomas
March 15, 2006

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany since 1945
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2006

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About Sarah Thomas (back to top)

I am a senior at UC Santa Barbara majoring in cultural anthropology. German history has always intrigued me but something I have never been very knowledgeable about. I have family from Germany so when the opportunity to take a German History class turned up I took advantage. I chose to do my web project on Night is because it is an autobiography of Elie Wiesel and how he survived through the Holocaust. The Holocaust has always attracted my attention and I was eager for the opportunity to explore the life of a survivor.

Abstract: (note: numbers in [#] refer to references, below)

Elie Wieselís Night gives us an eyewitness account of the events and brutality that occurred in Nazi concentration camps. Wieselís aim in writing Night is not to gain sympathy for the cruelty and torture bestowed upon him. It is an attempt to open our eyes to what happened in the concentration camps in hope of preventing it from happening again. He dedicated his life ensuring that the inhumane murder of the six million Jews would never be forgotten, and that no other humans would ever be subjected to genocidal homicide. [3] My essay focuses on Elie Wieselís life after the Nazi concentration camps. I explore what he did after liberation: how he came to write his book, his accomplishments and the awards and criticism he has received. Since all my information on Wieselís life after Night comes from websites I will also explain why I picked these websites and explain why I feel these websites are the best.

Book Summary (back to top)

Elizer (Elie) Wieselís autobiography Night begins in 1941 when he is twelve years old. He is the only son in an extremely strict and traditional orthodox Jewish family; he has two older sisters, Hilda and Bea, and a younger sister Tzipora. Together they live in Sighet, Transylvania. Wiesel, against his fatherís wishes, takes up the study of Cabbala and Talmud. He is tutored by Moshe the Beadle, a handyman at the synagogue, who one day is arrested with other foreign Jews by the Hungarian police. Several months later Moshe returns, having escaped his captors, and tells of how they were taken away in cattle cars and handed over to the German secret police (Gestapo).

"They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns." [8]

Moshe goes door to door and person to person to warn them of what is to come. But, Wiesel and the others from the community take him to be a lunatic.

By the spring of 1944 German army cars fill the streets of Sighet. In no time Jewish leaders are arrested, Jewish valuables are confiscated and all Jews are to wear the yellow Star of David. The law restricts them to their homes after 6pm and they must cover all their windows. All the Sighet Jews are confined in two small ghettos surrounded by barbed-wire fences. Four days later the Wiesels and the last of the deportees board a railway cattle car bound for Auschwitz.

After two days of traveling, packed eighty to each cattle car with intense heat, no air to breathe, no room to sit and unbearable hunger and thirst, they arrive at the Czechoslovakian border. There, a German officer takes over and threatens to shoot any Jew who refuses to hand over valuables or tries to escape. By midnight, they have reached Birkenau concentration camp, the processing center for the arrivals in Auschwitz, where the foul odor of burning flesh is agonizing.

At Birkenau the weak and less valuable are weeded out and killed. The women go to the right and the men go to the left. This is the last time Wiesel sees his mother and youngest sister Tzipora. He and his father remain together. They watch as babies are thrown into a fiery pit. Wiesel has begun to lose his faith and considers taking his own life. He hesitates and the opportunity is lost. He and his father are marched to Block 17 in Auschwitz. Three weeks later they are moved to Buna.

At Buna Wieselís father falls victim to Idek, the crazed Kapo who has violent rage. At this point, Wiesel reveals how much the concentration camp has gotten to him and how much he has changed.

"I stood petrified. What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, in front of me, and I had not even blinked. I had watched and kept silent. Only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminalís flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast? Remorse began to gnaw at me." [8]

After this more attacks occur. Wiesel begins to feel angry with his father for his inability to dodge Idekís fury and becomes concerned only for his own survival. A week later, Nazis publicly hang prisoners. When asked by a man how God could be present in a world with such cruelty, Wiesel replies that God has been murdered as well as the prisoners.

At the end of the summer in 1944 the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur arrive. The Jews of Buna come together to celebrate; Wiesel rebels and cannot find any reason to bless God in the midst of such suffering.

"My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. ... In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger." [8]

He feels alone with his denial of faith while the others celebrate.

After being chased in the snow for about forty miles in freezing conditions, the SS pushed a hundred men into a cattle car. Wieselís father becomes fatally sick on the way to Buchenwald. Wiesel feels extreme guilt because he thinks he would be better off if he abandoned his father and kept his food for himself to preserve his strength. When his father dies a week later, shamefully, Wiesel feels relief. About three months later, American armies arrive and free the prisoners. Three days after liberation Wiesel becomes very ill and is hospitalized. For the first time since Sighet he looks in a mirror and sees a living corpse gazing back at him.


It is 1945 and Elie Wiesel is now a teenager who has just been liberated from Auschwitz by the American Third Army. As part of a group of Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust he is sent to France. There he learns that his two older sisters have also survived. In France he masters the French language and is given the choice to study secular studies or religious studies. Despite his bitterness for God turning his back on him in his most desperate time of need he chooses religious studies.

After several years at the preparatory school Wiesel is sent to Paris where he studies philosophy at the Sorbonne. He supports himself as a choir master, a translator, a teacher of Hebrew, and a journalist for a small French newspaper.

For ten years Wiesel writes nothing of his experiences in the concentration camps until he meets French Catholic writer Francois Mauriac. Mauriac persuades Wiesel to put his memories and feelings down on paper. The result is Night. An internationally acclaimed memoir that has since been translated into 30 languages and has sold more than five million copies; the income from which goes to support a yeshiva in Israel established by Wiesel in memory of his father. [5] Wiesel first wrote Night in Yiddish, titled Un die welt hot geshvign (And the world kept silent). It was 900 pages of unforgettable memories of his life in the concentration camps. He then compressed his work into a 127 page French adaptation La Nuit, or Night, which was published in 1958. [1] Wiesel has written 40 other award-winning books including novels, essays and plays of fiction and non-fiction. Wiesel also travels incessantly to speak for human rights wherever they are threatened. And, according to the eliewieselfoundation.org, he is the Founding President of the Paris-based Universal Academy of Cultures and the chairman of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity which he and his wife created to fight indifference, intolerance and injustice. [5]

In 1978 American President Jimmy Carter appointed Wiesel chairman of the Presidentís Commission on the Holocaust. Along with this came the creation, by the Congress, of a national day of remembrance and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). In 1980 Wiesel became the founding Chairman of the USHMM. [1] These were not the only ways in which Wiesel was honored for his efforts to defend human rights and peace throughout the world. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States Congressional Gold Medal, the Medal of Livery Award and the rank of Grand-Croix in the French Legion of Honor. On top of his more than one hundred honorary degrees from institutions of higher learning, in 1986 Elie Wiesel earned the Nobel Peace Prize. [3]

According to Nobelprize.org, Wiesel earned the Nobel Peace Prize for becoming a messenger to mankind from the abyss of the death campsó not with a message of hate and revenge, but with one of brotherhood and atonement. He has become a powerful spokesman for the view of humankind and the unlimited humanity which is, at all times, the basis of a lasting peace. The Nobel committee believes it is vital to have such guides at a time with so much terror, discrimination and repression. [3].

Elie Wiesel has also been a distinguished Professor of Juadiac Studies. From 1972-1976 he taught at the City University of New York. Then from 1982-1983 he taught as the Henry Luce Visiting Scholar in Humanities and Social Thought at Yale University. Since 1976 he has occupied the Mellon Chair in the Humanities at Boston University. He now resides in New York City with his wife and their son, Elisha. He gained American citizenship in 1963; it is the first passport he had ever had. [6]

Despite all the recognition of Wieselís work he has also been widely criticized. According to Irving Halperin, reviewers judge Night as a defective book because it employs rhetoric and overstatement.

"Writers on the Holocaust need to keep their Ďcoolí . . . to become too emotional is to risk, they warn, losing control over oneís material-therefore, let the writer employ obliqueness, irony, wryness, casual wit, lunatic humor, and subterranean fantasy." [4]

These reviewers feel that the horrors of the Holocaust are made endurable by literary deception. Controversial to this, Halperin feels writers who keep their "cool" are rather satisfactory next to Wiesel. His book is not only powerful and painful but it takes a much riskier approach. To admit the loss of faith in a young man imprisoned within the absolute hell of Auschwitz is much more difficult than dispassionate writing on the sadistic, unfeeling temperament of Nazis. [4] In Wieselís own words, everyone writes for different reasons. His are not to create but to recreate. He writes to surprise, not to inform. To Wiesel, the purpose of writing literature is to correct injustice and to use as much interrogation as possible. [2]

Analysis of Web Sites (back to top)

Analysis of websites:

The websites I used for this web project are the best and most worth visiting for a variety of reasons. First, they all have the same relevant information. Each site tells how Wiesel is from Sighet and was brought up in a strict Jewish family. They all state the same facts about his familyís deportation to Auschwitz and his life at the concentration camps. They also give the same information about Wieselís life after the concentration camps and his achievements. Such consistency and factuality between sites makes them the most reliable. Second, these websites are created by reliable sources. For instance, PBS is operated by the nationís 348 public television stations and is a trusted community resource. [5] The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity was established by Wiesel and his wife, Marion. Their mission is to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality. [4] Also, The Academy of Achievement has worked for forty years at bringing students of America in contact with some of the most intelligent and achieved people of our time. These life-changing experiences bring inspiration and courage that helps individuals who shape the future of our world.

I did find, however, that some sites have a bit more substantial information than others. For instance, although the PBS website and the Nobel Prize website both have Wieselís Nobel Peace Prize presentation speech published, they have fairly different biographies about Wiesel. The PBS website has a much more descriptive and extensive overview of Wieselís life than the Nobel Prize website. The Academy of Achievement website gave more in depth information on Wieselís life before the Holocaust, and the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity website was more informative on his life after the Holocaust.

Also, while researching websites about Elie Wieselís Night I came across many that are designed to assist teachers when using Night in the classroom. For example, Elie Wiesel: Lesson Plans for Night is equipped with study guides, vocabulary words, discussion questions, tests, quiz questions and projects. Also, within this website there is a link to http://www.enotes.com/night-wiesel-lesson/ where lesson plans and project outlines are sold in a variety of packages. PBS also has a link for teacher assistance, as does the Academy of Achievement website.

Bibliography: (jump back up to summary)

  1. Academy of Achievement. 2005. Biography: Elie Wiesel. <http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/wie0bio-1> Accessed 2006 February 9
  2. Edelman, Lily. "A Conversation with Elie Wiesel." Ed. Harry James Cargas. New York: Persea Books, 1978.
  3. Nobelprize.org Elie Wiesel- Biography (1997) <http://nobelprize.org/peace/laureates/1986/wiesel-bio.html> Accessed 2006 February 9
  4. Halperin, Irving. "From Night to The Gates of the Forest." Ed. Harry James Cargas. New York: Persea Books, 1978.
  5. PBS: Elie Wiesel: First Person Singular. 2006. The Life and Work of Wiesel. <http://www.pbs.org/eliewiesel/life/index.html> Accessed 2006 February 9
  6. The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. n.d. Elie Wiesel. <http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/home.html> Accessed 2006 February 9
  7. Web English Teacher. 2006. Elie Wiesels Lesson Plans for Night <http://www.webenglishteacher.com/wiesel.html> Accessed 2006 February 9
  8. Wiesel, Elie. "Night." New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/28/06; last updated:
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