By Kenneth Craycraft
“Night” by Elie Wiesel
Hill and Wang Publishing
120 pages, $6.50
In the early spring of 1945, as the end of World War II in Europe was approaching, 16-year-old Elie Wiesel was forced to march from the Auschwitz concentration camp, where he had been deported from his home in present-day Romania in May 1944, toward Buchenwald, his final destination in the war. As Wiesel recounted in his classic memoir, “Night,” the last night in Auschwitz was yet “one more, the last night.” He then listed the previous ones: “the last night at home, the last night in the ghetto, the last night in the cattle car.” Each of these “last nights,” all occurring within the span of fewer than 12 months, made permanent impressions on the teenage Wiesel. From those impressions, Wiesel has given us not just the diary of a year in the hands of the Nazis, but an agonizing glimpse into the appalling horror of the Holocaust.
But he is also unsparing in his own self-reflection. Without ever diminishing the evil inflicted upon him and his fellow Jews, Wiesel is painstakingly honest about the deep conflicts and failure even in his own thoughts and deeds while suffering under the oppression of the Nazis. This makes “Night” perhaps unique of all World War II memoirs. It’s not only a description of the particularity of the suffering of Jewish people in the war, but also an account of the human soul.
The first “last night” was in May 1944, when Wiesel and his family were forced from their home into what he describes as the “small ghetto” of his hometown of Sighet. He was moved into a home that had been occupied by another family that had been deported in haste a few days before. “Only three days ago, people were living here,” Wiesel shamefully recounted. “People who owned the thing we were using now. They had been expelled. And we had already forgotten them.”
The second “last night” was before his deportation from the small ghetto. “Saturday, the day of rest, was the day chosen for our expulsion,” he recounted. The family sat at table for their last traditional Friday night meal before Shabbat, but there was no joy in the meal of rest. Eating in silence, “[w]e sensed that we were gathered around the familial table for the last time,” Wiesel recalled. “I spent that last night going over memories and ideas and was unable to sleep.” It was, of course, the last night that he would ever share a meal with his family. The next morning, he and his family were herded into cattle cars that were packed so crowded that the deportees had to take turns sitting down.
The third “last night” was the third night in the cattle car, when one of the women began to hallucinate as she descended into madness. Her screams about visions of fire and flames eventually led some men to bound and gag the poor woman, raining blows on her head when she burst the bounds and spit the gag. “The night seemed endless,” Wiesel remembered. By morning, the woman crouched in the corner, “her blank gaze fixed on some faraway place, she no longer saw us.” Later that day, the train pulled into the station, the name of which “nobody had ever heard”: Auschwitz.
After the train moved again to another station, they saw the flames that the mad woman had prophesied “rising from a tall chimney into a black sky.” “We had arrived,” Wiesel recounted. “In Birkenau.” As his family left the train, the men and women were herded in separate directions. The 15-year-old Elie watched his mother and sister, Tzipora, walk away hand-in-hand. He would never see them again.
The last “last night” in Auschwitz was followed by a torturous march during the cold winter of 1945, then a long ride in an open train car exposed to the freezing snow and wind, to Wiesel’s final destination of the war, the notorious concentration camp of Buchenwald. There, men shoved aside corpses and clawed at one another like animals, looking for a scrap of bread to eat or a spoonful of soup to drink. It was also there that Elie Wiesel’s father, who had suffered the travails alongside him, was taken to the crematorium in the deep of the night of Jan. 29. “No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.” Between then and April 11, when the camp was liberated by American soldiers, Wiesel wrote, “nothing mattered to me anymore.”
While he was on the train to Buchenwald, Wiesel recounted that he and his fellow Jewish prisoners were “nothing but frozen bodies. Our eyes closed, we merely waited for the next stop, to unload our dead,” he remembered. “The days resembled the nights, and the nights left in our souls the dregs of their darkness.”
Let us never forget those dregs of darkness.
Kenneth Craycraft is an associate professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati.