Moshe the Beadle
Night opens in Sighet in 1941. The book's narrator is Eliezer, an Orthodox Jewish teenager who studies the Talmud by day, and by night "weep[s] over the destruction of the Temple." To the disapproval of his father, Eliezer spends time discussing the Kabbalah with Moshe the Beadle, caretaker of the Hasidic shtiebel (house of prayer).
In June 1941 the Hungarian government expelled Jews unable to prove their citizenship. Moshe is crammed onto a cattle train and taken to Poland. He manages to escape, saved by God, he believes, so that he might save the Jews of Sighet. He returns to the village to tell what he calls the "story of his own death," running from one house to the next: "Jews, listen to me! It's all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me!"
When the train crossed into Poland, he tells them, it was taken over by the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Jews were transferred to trucks, then driven to a forest in Galicia, near Kolomaye, where they were forced to dig pits. When they had finished, each prisoner had to approach the hole, present his neck, and was shot. Babies were thrown into the air and used as targets by machine gunners. He tells them about Malka, the young girl who took three days to die, and Tobias, the tailor who begged to be killed before his sons; and how he, Moshe, was shot in the leg and taken for dead. But the Jews of Sighet would not listen, making Moshe Night's first unheeded witness.
The Germans arrived in Sighet around 21 March 1944, and shortly after Passover (8–14 April that year) arrested the community leaders. Jews had to hand over their valuables, were not allowed to visit restaurants or leave home after six in the evening, and had to wear the yellow star at all times. Eliezer's father makes light of it:
The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don't die of it ...
(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)
The SS transfer the Jews to one of two ghettos, each with its own council or Judenrat. Eleizer's house on a corner of Serpent Street was in the larger ghetto in the town centre, so his family was able to stay at home, though the windows on the non-ghetto side had to be boarded up.
The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. ... We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an office for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department – a whole government machinery. Everyone marveled at it. We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers ...The general opinion was that we were going to remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Then everything would be as before. It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion.
In May 1944 the Judenrat is told the ghettos will be closed with immediate effect and the residents deported. Eleizer's family is first moved to the smaller ghetto, but they are not told their final destination, only that they may each take a few personal belongings. The Hungarian police, wielding truncheons and rifle butts, march Eleizer's neighbours through the streets. "It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today."Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved ... His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book ... One by one they passed in front of me, teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I once could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs.
Eliezer and his family are crammed into a closed cattle wagon with 80 others. On the third night one woman, Madame Schächter – Night's second unheeded witness – becomes hysterical, screaming that she can see flames, until the others beat her. Men and women are separated on arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the reception and extermination camp within the Auschwitz complex. Eliezer and his father are "selected" to go to the left, which meant forced labour; his mother, Hilda, Beatrice and Tzipora to the right, the gas chamber. Hilda and Beatrice managed to survive.
Men to the left! Women to the right!Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. ... For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother's hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister's fair hair ... and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.
The remainder of Night describes Eliezer's efforts not to be parted from his father, not even to lose sight of him; his grief and shame at witnessing his father's decline into helplessness; and as their relationship changes and the young man becomes the older man's caregiver, his resentment and guilt, because his father's existence threatens his own. The stronger Eliezer's need to survive, the weaker the bonds that tie him to other people.
His loss of faith in human relationships is mirrored in his loss of faith in God. During the first night, as he and his father wait in line, he watches a lorry deliver its load of children into the fire. While his father recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead – Wiesel writes that in the long history of the Jews, he does not know whether people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves – Eliezer considers throwing himself against the electric fence.
At that moment he and his father are ordered to go to their barracks. But Eliezer is already destroyed. "[T]he student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me." There follows a passage that Ellen Fine writes contains the main themes of Night – the death of God and innocence, and the défaite du moi, or dissolution of the self, a recurring motif in Holocaust literature:
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.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
With the loss of self goes Eliezer's sense of time: "I glanced at my father. How he had changed! ... So much had happened within such a few hours that I had lost all sense of time. When had we left our houses? And the ghetto? And the train? Was it only a week? One night – one single night?"
In or around August 1944 Eliezer and his father are transferred from Birkenau to the work camp at Monowitz (also known as Buna and Auschwitz III), their lives reduced to the avoidance of violence and the search for food. "Bread, soup – these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach." Their only joy is when the Americans bomb the camp.
God is not lost to Eliezer entirely. During the hanging of a child, which the camp is forced to watch, he hears someone ask: Where is God? Where is he? Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy dies slowly. Wiesel files past him, sees his tongue still pink and his eyes clear.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?And I heard a voice within me answer him: ... Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.
Fine writes that this is the central event in Night, a religious sacrifice – the binding of Isaac and crucifixion of Jesus – described by Alfred Kazin as the literal death of God. Afterwards the inmates celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but Eliezer cannot take part.
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? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? ...But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.
In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, the Germans decide to flee, taking 60,000 inmates on a death march to concentration camps in Germany. Eliezer and his father are marched to Gleiwitz to be put on a freight train to Buchenwald, a camp near Weimar, 350 miles (563 km) from Auschwitz.
Pitch darkness. Every now and then, an explosion in the night. They had orders to fire on any who could not keep up. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of this pleasure. If one of us had stopped for a second, a sharp shot finished off another filthy son of a bitch.Near me, men were collapsing in the dirty snow. Shots.
Resting in a shed after marching 50 miles (80 km), Rabbi Eliahou asks if anyone has seen his son. They had stuck together for three years, "always near each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer," but the rabbi had lost sight of him in the crowd and was now scratching through the snow looking for his son's corpse. "I hadn't any strength left for running. And my son didn't notice. That's all I know." Eleizer does not tell the man that his son had indeed noticed his father limping, and had run faster, letting the distance between them grow.And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done.
The inmates spend two days and nights in Gleiwitz locked inside cramped barracks without food, water or heat, sleeping on top of one another, so that each morning the living wake with the dead underneath them. There is more marching to the train station and onto a cattle wagon with no roof. They travel for ten days and nights, with only the snow falling on them for water. Of the 100 in Eleizer's wagon, 12 survive the journey. The living make space by throwing the dead onto the tracks:
I woke from my apathy just at the moment when two men came up to my father. I threw myself on top of his body. He was cold. I slapped him. I rubbed his hand, crying:
Father! Father! Wake up. They're trying to throw you out of the carriage ...
His body remained inert ...
I set to work to slap him as hard as I could. After a moment, my father's eyelids moved slightly over his glazed eyes. He was breathing weakly.
You see, I cried.The two men moved away.
The Germans are waiting with loudhailers and orders to head for a hot bath. Wiesel is desperate for the heat of the water, but his father sinks into the snow. "I could have wept with rage ... I showed him the corpses all around him; they too had wanted to rest here ... I yelled against the wind ... I felt I was not arguing with him, but with death itself, with the death he had already chosen." An alert sounds, the camp lights go out, and Eliezer, exhausted, follows the crowd to the barracks, leaving his father behind. He wakes at dawn on a wooden bunk, remembering that he has a father, and goes in search of him.But at that same moment this thought came into my mind. Don't let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.
His father is in another block, sick with dysentery. The other men in his bunk, a Frenchman and a Pole, attack him because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself. Eliezer is unable to protect him. "Another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost."
Begging for water one night from his bunk, where he has lain for a week, Chlomo is beaten on the head with a truncheon by an SS officer for making too much noise. Eliezer lies in the bunk above and does nothing for fear of being beaten too. He hears his father make a rattling noise, "Eliezer." In the morning, 29 January 1945, he finds another man in his father's place. The Kapos had come before dawn and taken Chlomo to the crematorium.
His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond.I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched for it, I might perhaps have found something like – free at last!
Chlomo missed his freedom by three months. The Soviets had liberated Auschwitz 11 days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. Eliezer is transferred to the children's block where he stays with 600 others, dreaming of soup. On 5 April 1945 the inmates are told the camp is to be liquidated and they are to be moved – another death march. On 11 April, with 20,000 inmates still inside, a resistance movement inside the camp attacks the remaining SS officers and takes control. At six o'clock that evening, an American tank arrives at the gates, and behind it the Sixth Armored Division of the United States Third Army.