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Key insights from

Night

By Elie Wiesel

What you'll learn

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel (1928-2016) was a Romanian-Jewish journalist, professor, human rights activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor. After coming of age during the Holocaust as a prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, he became a writer and journalist and eventually emigrated to America, where he furthered his work as a human rights activist while also becoming a professor. He has written over 50 books, received almost double that number of honorary degrees, and worked on various international efforts to promote human rights and maintain the memory of the Holocaust. In Night, Wiesel’s first and most famous book, he gives an account of his family’s abduction from their home in Transylvania and their subsequent incarceration in Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the final years of World War II. Wiesel writes about his experience suffering under the reign of true evil.


Read on for key insights from Night.

1. Suffering creates fear, anger, and disgust, which create more suffering.

Wiesel recounts a troubling episode in the first days of his forced exodus from Sighet, his hometown. After he, his family, and roughly 70 other Jews were stowed inside a train car, he recounts how the horrible conditions in the cramped space deprived people of their wits and led to violence. After over two days of travel with standing room only, Wiesel’s car pulled into a station, where a German soldier informed them that if anyone escaped, all occupants would be killed. The doors were then nailed shut, blocking any remaining chance of escape.

On the third day of their journey, one of Wiesel’s neighbors, Mrs. Schächter, cried out in feverish madness that she had seen a fire. Her child clutching her side tried to calm her, as did most of the other passengers, who were just as hungry, thirsty, and sleep deprived. Wiesel recounts how worn down every passenger was, to the point that it felt like “...madness had infected all of us.” Mrs. Schächter would not stop yelling and screaming, and so the other passengers bound and gagged her so they would not have to listen to her screams.

Despite this temporary reprieve, she broke free and began crying out, in what was now the middle of the night. When she was again bound and gagged, she was also beaten. Wiesel recounted that “She received several blows to the head, blows that could have been lethal.” This beating, delivered by her neighbors and fellow Jews, silenced her until the end of the fourth day. Though she began to wail again, no one was up to the task of silencing her once more.

Through this grim early episode in his story, Wiesel highlights that suffering creates distress. But more significantly, that distress often is a force that leads to the corruption of the sufferer. Evil begets further evil. Fear, anger, and disgust are visceral emotional experiences which, over time, foment further disorder. The torment the whole car experienced led some to further oppress one of their own, even to the point of severe physical harm. This is an important point about the way that suffering and torment exhaust us, and create opportunities for further evil.

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2. What breaks a person is often not overt violence, but simpler acts of force.

Much of the torment the prisoners suffered was as debilitating psychologically as it was physically. Wiesel recounts an episode soon after his arrival in Auschwitz. After his first night, Wiesel’s unit was commanded at 5 o’clock in the morning, while they were naked, to run further into the camp. Following their arrival at a new building, they were disinfected and sent hurriedly to the hot showers before being rushed outside to go on to a third building. When they arrived, clothes were thrown to them at random. Wiesel recounted after this haphazard initiation into camp life that they were no longer men.

This sequence of events, like some kind of disturbing sport, led Wiesel to feel not just that they were being humiliated, but that they had been stripped of their humanity. Being left naked overnight without any provisions was terrible enough, but being forced to run without any clear purpose was disorienting. While they were given access to basic hygiene and clothing, it was never on their own terms, but on those of their oppressors. Unable to stop moving any longer than it took for the quick shower, Wiesel and the others could only follow the demands of their captors.

The lack of agency available to Wiesel was impressed upon him in a new way. Prior to this, he had merely been contained without orders, but in the camp he was forced into tasks that were not of his will. Being a puppet in the hands of the Nazis deprived Wiesel of his sense of personhood, even when he was not enduring physical violence. This is a pernicious feature of the torment Wiesel experienced. He was hollowed out, often unable to exercise his own will because he became a tool in the possession of his captors.

3. Even in times of despair and oppression, people cling to the little goods they get.

Though Wiesel’s experience during these years was dark and agonizing, Wiesel notes in various places the little joys and pleasures that would come during his time as a prisoner. These goods seemed to be moments of rehumanization, where Wiesel felt like a person again.

One such moment emerged when Wiesel was moved into a new block overseen by a Polish man. This man gave Wiesel “human words” during his captivity. Despite the brutality of the institution the Jews were kept in, the Polish man encouraged them to take heart, have faith, and hope for the day of liberation. After this, he reminded them that they were all brothers here, and would survive with each other, not alone. To back up his own words, he encouraged his charges to converse with him if they had concerns before urging them to sleep.

The next morning was met with a brief reprieve. Instead of waking to renewed violence and torment, Wiesel encountered the brotherhood of this barrack. He and the other new prisoners were taken care of by the inmates, who gave them coffee and new clothing to start their day. He even recounts that friends gathered together in conversation for a short time before their work began. Overall, this was a moment of relative peace in the face of towering evil.

Though this was but a minor episode in the entirety of Wiesel’s imprisonment, it reflects the way good creeps up even in places of evil, despair, and death. That he noted this goodness, despite its seeming insignificance in the face of horrific evil, highlights the poignancy surrounding this early day in the camp. It allowed him to be more like himself than he had been since he arrived.

4. In the face of suffering and agony, Wiesel gave up his faith in God.

Months into his captivity, Wiesel heard a worship service on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. As he heard people chanting blessings upon God, he recoiled in disgust. Wiesel accused God for all the suffering he had experienced and witnessed. God was responsible for the death all around him, for the suffering he saw imprinted on his father, for the agony that was living in this place. 

In this place of anger and sorrow, Wiesel was unable to pray for anything, not even himself. He felt himself alone, in a world without God or man, completely unmoored by his suffering. Wiesel turned his back on his faith, though not only because of his suffering. Frustrated with God, he began to conceive the Almighty he once knew as a farce, a being incapable of sovereignty, weaker than man. God seemed unable to stop man’s atrocities, and thus man seemed stronger than God.

Though this gave Wiesel strength in the moment, the crushing weight of man’s weakness came back upon him. First, he felt lonely, like an outsider to his fellow Jews, unable to truly partake in the service. Moreover, when he ran to his father toward the end of the service, he saw a hollow shell of the man who raised him. Defeat was the only thing Wiesel saw when he looked at his father’s face.

Instead of working out his doubts and processing his emotional turmoil through scripture reading or conversation with those around him, Wiesel angrily walked away from his faith. Though he returned to it later in life, during his time in Auschwitz he was choked by his suffering and he cut himself off from his faith community.

5. Wiesel experienced the terrifying guilt of being unable to help the condemned.

Much like Wiesel was unable to use his own agency and make his own choices, he was unable to intervene in the lives of others to save or help them. Though he suffered this himself, he witnessed the way it hemmed in those around him as well. He recalls the way that his block leader tried to keep his fellow prisoners from the gas chamber, to no avail.

After the SS came through for a selection (this was how they decided who to kill), Wiesel’s block-leader comforted everyone, telling them that none of them was going to the gas chambers. One of Wiesel’s neighbors, however, questioned their leader, because his name had been written down by the SS. Their leader became angry, confirmed that nothing would happen, and claimed that they should stop worrying. Some days passed, and their leader called an assembly, where he listed ten names who would be remaining in camp for the day, not going out to work. The realization came quickly to everyone. Those who were called protested their fate, clung to the leader, and begged him to let them work.

They cited his promises, begging him to hold true to his word. But their leader was just the messenger of the SS at this point, and had no power. He did his best to comfort them. He tried to convince them that they need not worry, because them staying in camp didn’t necessarily mean they were bound for the gas chamber. He finally realized that nothing he could say would help and then locked himself in his room away from everyone.

Wiesel never explained the circumstances surrounding their leader having the position he did. What is clear is that whatever authority he did have was, like all other prisoners, liable to evaporate at the convenience of the SS. Though he worked to protect his charges, this was never in his power. In the corrupting influence of evil, the oppressed often found themselves used as a tool in the machine of this Nazi institution. In the case of the leader, he was forced to bear the guilt of lives that he was never given proper authority to protect. This guilt became another force of torment and suffering the prisoners were forced to bear as they continued on and their comrades did not.

6. In the midst of ugliness, fear, and death, Wiesel nonetheless experienced beauty.

On one occasion, after being forced to walk through a blinding snowstorm, Wiesel was trampled by a mass of prisoners all flooding their new barracks. Wiesel fell on the ground, and then was crushed underneath others who died, were dying, or simply had no more strength to move for the night. Despite his best efforts, Wiesel was too burdened to move himself out of the pile, and lay there. Trapped underneath someone in a pile of bodies both living and dead, Wiesel heard the cry of someone underneath him, gasping for air. It turned out to be a Polish inmate named Juliek who had been with Wiesel since his first days in Auschwitz. Unable to help Juliek, Wiesel managed to shift over to give himself some air.

After it was too dark to see, still mostly trapped amongst the bodies of inmates, Wiesel heard the sound of a violin piercing the air. Shocked at the absurdity of a musical performance amongst the dead and dying, Wiesel strained his attention to discern the music. It was Juliek, who had carried his violin with him through the storm, into this new barrack. Wiesel records that he played something by Beethoven.

It was unclear just how Juliek escaped the pile or had the space to play his violin, but Wiesel was transfixed. It seemed to him that Juliek was pouring what little life he had left into the music. The beautiful music of Juliek’s violin filled Wiesel’s heart, and made an undying mark on his memory. Every time he heard that Beethoven concerto afterwards, Wiesel could only see Juliek’s face.

When Wiesel woke up, Juliek was hunched over dead in front of him, his violin trampled after his sonorous final concert. Though it was a moment of profound sorrow, the beauty of that music cutting through the silence of the barrack impressed itself upon Wiesel, and became a moment of somber tranquility.

7. Sufferers are burdened with the responsibility of being witnesses against evil.

Reflecting on his experience some 40 years later while accepting the Nobel Peace prize, Wiesel articulated the sense of purpose that his experience impressed upon him. After those many months of suffering, torment, and trial, Wiesel remarks that he owes it to his past, as well as that of many others, to keep the memory alive. His suffering, at least in one sense, had meaning in making him a witness to evil so that he may advocate all the more wholeheartedly for what is good.

This is the core mission of Elie Wiesel’s life and characterizes all of his work. He wages a war on the “Kingdom of Night” which crushed so many people in its jaws. After his liberation, Elie took up the challenge by working to make sure no one would forget, none would be ignorant. Forgetting the tragedies of our past makes us guilty, accomplices of a dark future.

Instead of ignoring evil, which allows anger to take root and violence to fester, Wiesel claims we must bear our shared responsibility as members of the human race to remember. We must remember the rights of all those around us, fight for them, defend them, and oppose the evil without as well as that within. Overlooking evil aids oppression. Neutrality lets it promulgate unhindered. Retaliatory violence only strengthens its fire. Only by recognizing the responsibility laid upon us to be witnesses against the Kingdom of Night may we move forward together.

Endnotes

These insights are just an introduction. If you're ready to dive deeper, pick up a copy of Night here. And since we get a commission on every sale, your purchase will help keep this newsletter free.

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