“Night” is a book by the author Elie Wiesel that was published in 1960. The book is essentially a memoir about Wiesel’s time in the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the second world war. However, some small details have been changed from real life, and the author uses the main character with a similar name to maintain an emotional distance from the narrative.
The story tells of Wiesel’s time in the camps and his father’s death at the hands of the Gestapo. Wiesel, using the character of Eliezer, recounts the horrors that he endured, from starvation to beatings by the Gestapo to being forced to run over 40 miles during a snowstorm and being left on a train for ten days with no food or water as he watched people die around him. The narrative is considered a cornerstone of Holocaust literature today.
When Auschwitz was liberated in April of 1945, Wiesel was released and sent to a hospital to deal with his malnutrition and illness. The book has received a positive reception from critics worldwide and has been translated into 30 languages, and Wiesel was later given a Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
The book begins with a foreword by the French novelist Francois Mauriac describing the first time that he met the book’s author Elie Wiesel. The two began talking about World War II, and Mauriac remembered that his most haunting memory from the war was one of the groups of Jewish children being herded onto trains awaiting transport to concentration camps. Mauriac says that he didn’t even actually see the trains, his wife did, but she told him about the image and her horror at seeing it, and it stuck with him despite never having seen it himself. Wiesel, then a young journalist, surprises Mauriac by revealing that he was one of those children.
Mauriac moves on to illustrate the strength of Wiesel’s resolve and talk about how amazing his story of survival is. He says that this story gives a human face to the horrors of the Holocaust and should be read by anyone who read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Mauriac says that when he first heard the story that night he was dumbstruck and “all I could do was embrace him [Wiesel] and weep.”
The rest of the memoir is composed of numberless sections where the story is delivered. There are no chapters, only paragraph, and page breaks. It is told from the first-person narration of Eliezer, a twelve-year-old boy who lives in the town of Sighet in Transylvania (then part of Hungary). The year is 1941, Eliezer is the only son of two Orthodox Jewish parents who work as shopkeepers. Eliezer has three sisters, Hilda, Bea, and Tzipora.
Eliezer spends much of his time studying the Talmud, the Jewish oral law, and the Cabbala, a Jewish mystical text with his teacher Moshe the Beadle. Eliezer enjoys being taught by Moshe until he is expelled from the country by the government to send away all foreign Jews. The Jews of Sighet are initially angry at this mass deportation but soon forget.
Moshe manages to escape and return to Sighet after several months. He tells everyone who will listen that the deportation trains that he and the other foreign Jews were on were stopped at the Polish border and handed over to the German secret police, the Gestapo. He says that the Jews were made to dig graves for themselves and were then killed by the Gestapo but that he managed to escape. Everyone in town assumes that he is insane and disbelieves his story.
Three years later, in 1944, Hungary falls to the Fascists and Germany occupies the country. The Nazi’s spread through the country and finally to Sighet, bringing oppressive measures such as arresting Jewish leaders and forcing all Jews to wear yellow stars on their clothing. The Nazi’s soon start deporting the Jews to concentration camps. Eliezer’s family are some of the last to be brought onto the trains. Before they are taken away, they are brought to increasingly smaller ghettos. A former servant of the family, a gentile woman, named Martha, offers to hide them in her house but they decline as they don’t think it will be necessary.
While on the train, the Jews are forced into inhuman conditions. The train cars are baking hot with no room to sit and no food or water. The train arrives in Czechoslovakia after a few days of travel, and it is there that the Jews realize that they are not just being deported and relocated. A Gestapo officer takes control of the train and warns the Jews that he will shoot anyone that refuses to obey him and that he will kill everyone in the car if anyone escapes. The doors to the car are then nailed shut.
The people on the train soon began cracking under the pressure and fear. A middle-aged woman named Madame Schachter begins thinking that she sees fire outside the car windows in the darkness. She begins screaming, and everyone in the train car is riled up. Some of the men in the car manage to subdue her and tie her to a chair. However, when she breaks free and continues screaming, she is beaten into silence by some of the boys. Regardless, she continues to scream that a furnace awaits them.
When the train stops, the prisoners realize that they have reached Auschwitz station. But the name is not familiar to anyone. They manage to bribe some locals into revealing that they are in a labor camp but that they will be kept together and treated well. This news is a relief to the prisoners, who begin to relax somewhat. The train begins to move again, and they are taken into an area enclosed by barbed wire. They also see huge furnaces with chimneys billowing out smoke. There is a strange, terrible odor pervading the area which they later learn is the scent of burning human flesh.
The prisoners have reached Birkenau, the processing area for Auschwitz. A selection process occurs, where the prisoners that are deemed able to work are left, and the weaker and less physically able are killed. Eliezer and his father are separated from his mother and sisters, and he admits that he never saw them again after this. A fellow prisoner warns Eliezer and his father that they should lie about their ages. He tells Eliezer, who is fifteen to lie that he is eighteen and his father, who is fifty to lie that he is forty.
Some of the prisoners, once made aware of their fate, consider rebelling, but the older prisoners assure them that they should rely on their faith and remain calm. The prisoners are all brought before the infamous Dr. Mengele to determine if they are useful for work, and Eliezer takes the other prisoners advice and lies that he is eighteen. He also lies that he and his father are farmers. Mengele tells them to stand to the right. No one in the crowd knows which side – the left or the right – means death and which means survival.
The prisoners are brought into the camp and are horrified to see what awaits them. They pass a pit where babies are being burned as well as one for adults. Eliezer does not believe what he is seeing and tells his father that humanity would never tolerate such atrocity. In tears, his father tells him that he does not think that humanity exists inside the camp.
Some of the prisoners begin to speak the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead and Eliezer’s father joins them. Eliezer, who cannot think what he has to thank God for at that moment, does not. Eliezer and his father are directed to a barracks, and inside they are stripped down and shaved. They are then disinfected and dressed in prisoners uniforms. A Nazi official tells them that they can either work hard or be killed. Eliezer’s father asks for a bathroom, and he is beaten by a head prisoner who is called the Kapo.
The prisoners are given tattoos with their prisoner numbers on their arms. Eliezer bumps into a distant relative, a man named Stein who asks about his family back in Sighet. Out of compassion, Eliezer lies and says that he has seen the man’s family and that they are alive and well. However, the man soon learns the truth, that his family is already dead, and he never forgives Eliezer for lying.
The prisoners stay at Auschwitz for three weeks before they are taken to a work camp called Buna. Eliezer and his father are put in a group whose job is to count electrical fittings in a warehouse. The two are housed in a block with other prisoners where Eliezer meets a Jewish violinist named Juliek and two brothers named Yosi and Tibi who are all Zionists. Zionists support creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine which they consider to be the holy land.
Eliezer begins learning about Zionism and becoming interested in it. He plans to move to Palestine after the war is over. Though things are better than they were at Auschwitz, the conditions in the work camp are still deplorable. Eliezer mostly becomes concerned with avoiding the guards and trying to find food to eat. The Kapo in charge of Eliezer’s work crew is unpredictable and prone to fits of rage. He beats Eliezer one day and a French girl who also works in the warehouse as a civilian offers some help to him. The narrator then explains that he ran into this same girl years after the war ended on the Metro train in Paris. She told him that she was, in fact, a Jew but managed to evade capture during the war by having forged papers that changed her religion.
One day, Eliezer’s father is beaten by the Kapo as well, and Eliezer realizes that the concentration camp has changed him so much that he was not worried about his father, but only concerned with his safety. He only felt anger toward his father for not being able to avoid the Kapo’s eye.
An air raid by the Allied forces locks all of the prisoners in their blocks for a short while. During this time, two cauldrons of soup are left out and the prisoners, along with Eliezer watch as a sickly man crawls toward the soup, risking his life to get something to eat. As he lifts himself up to the soup, he is shot by the guards. The Nazi’s then build a gallows to hang some other prisoners who tried to steal food during the air raid. One hanging, in particular, is a young boy who was said to be helping the resistance. The prisoners are too run down to protest the hanging, but Eliezer remembers everyone crying as they watched the small boy struggle against the hanging rope. Eliezer wonders how he is supposed to keep believing in God with all that he has seen. He thinks that God was killed on the gallows with the child.
The prisoners celebrate the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the camp. The others come together in prayer, but Eliezer continues to refuse to pray, wondering why he should pray to a God that he feels abandoned him and his people. He comes to believe that the belief that the Jews are God’s chosen people only means that they were chosen to be massacred. Eliezer decides to forgo fasting on Yom Kippur.
After the holiday, Eliezer and his father are separated. Another selection takes place, and Eliezer’s father is deemed too weak to work and put in line to be executed. Before he is taken away, he gives his son his knife and spoon, the only things that he has left in the world and Eliezer are told to leave him. However, a miracle seems to occur, and another selection is performed. This time, Eliezer’s father manages to pass, and he has not executed after all.
Winter arrives, and the prisoners must suffer through working in the cold. Eliezer begins having problems with his foot and has an operation. But while he is recovering, a rumor spreads that there is a Russian army approaching the camp. The rumor turns out to be true, and the Germans evacuate the prisoners to another camp. Eliezer is still in the infirmary and assumes that those left over will be put to death before the Russians can arrive. He asks to be evacuated with his father. Later, Eliezer learns that the prisoners left over in the infirmary were freed by the Russians only days later.
With his foot injured and bleeding, Eliezer and the others are made to march through a snowstorm to another camp called Gleiwitz. The march is grueling, and anyone who stops is shot by the guards. One boy next to Eliezer stops and gets trampled to death by the others. The prisoners are made to run and cover 42 miles overnight, coming to a deserted town in the morning. The prisoners are allowed to rest in the town, but it is so cold that everyone realizes that they must stay awake, so they do not freeze to death. Eliezer and his father struggle to keep each other awake.
A Rabbi named Eliahou asks them if they have seen his son and Eliezer lies and said that he has not. In fact, he did see the man’s son run ahead when he thought that the Rabbi was going to die, abandoning him. Eliezer prays that he will never be driven to that point and abandon his father. The prisoners manage to make it to Gleiwitz, and the men rush to get into the barracks so much that they end up trampling each other. Eliezer is pushed down and discovers that he has landed on top of Juliek, the violinist. The stampede kills some men, including Juliek whose violin gets crushed as well.
Three days pass with no food before another selection occurs. Eleizer’s father does not pass again and is sent to stand with those who are to be killed. But there is some confusion in the ranks, and Eliezer manages to sneak his father back over to the other side. A train with cattle cars arrives to pick up the prisoners, and everyone is loaded in. The train travels for ten days, and periodically the doors are opened, and the prisoners are told to throw any dead men out. The prisoners only survive by living in the snow they can bring in from the windows and the bread that some local Germans throw in to watch the prisoners try to kill each other for the food.
The prisoners resort to killing each other to stay alive, and many die from starvation and dehydration. When the train reaches Buchenwald, only twelve of the one hundred men who were loaded onto the train are still alive. Though Eliezer’s father survives the train journey, he is so weak when he arrives at Buchenwald that he sits in the snow outside the train and refuses to move, giving in to death. Eliezer tries to get his father to move to no avail, and when an air raid siren sounds, he is forced to leave him to go into the barracks. Exhausted, Eliezer falls asleep and can only search for his father the next morning. Part of him gives in to wondering if he should just abandon the man, but he finds him again and brings him soup and coffee.
Eleizer’s father becomes confined to bed with dysentery, and Eliezer struggles to find any doctor to treat him. Meanwhile, the other prisoners beat his father and steal his food. During one night, Eliezer’s father’s cries for help bring a guard who beats him. The next morning, Eliezer wakes to find that his father has been taken to the crematory for execution. Eliezer reflects his shame that he only felt relief when his father was taken away.
Alone, Eliezer is kept at Buchenwald focusing only on his survival until April 5th, when the Nazi’s get word that the Americans are approaching and move to execute everyone in the camp. Thousands of Jews are murdered over the next five days. On April 10th only 20,000 people are left in the camp, and the Nazi’s decide to evacuate them. However, before they can get out, an air raid starts, and everyone is trapped indoors.
After it seems that the air raid is over, the evacuation begins but it is only a setup and the Allies strike and drive the Gestapo from the camp. The American army arrives and frees the prisoners who can only think of eating right away. Eliezer contracts food poisoning shortly after and almost dies in the hospital. When he finally regains the strength to raise himself enough to look in a mirror, he does not recognize the face that looks back at him. He hasn’t seen his face since leaving Sighet and realizes that he looks like a corpse from all that he has suffered.
Eliezer – although “Night” is technically a memoir of author Elie Wiesel’s real experiences during the Holocaust, the main character, Eliezer, is technically fictional. The actual story is real, but some minor details of what happened to the character of Eliezer were changed. For instance, in real life, Eliezer had a knee injury when he was evacuated from Buna, whereas the character of Eliezer had a foot injury.
The distance created between the fictional character of Eliezer and Elie Wiesel was intentional for him to properly tell the story of the horrific events that he endured. Creating a separated narrator allowed Wiesel to distance himself a bit from the retelling.
Throughout the story, Eliezer goes from being a student to a prisoner and then to a free man who is completely on his own at a very young age. Being a prisoner in a concentration camp understandably makes Eliezer questions his faith in God. He wonders how a just and kind God could let such horrific things happen to his Chosen People. In real life, Wiesel later admitted that he was an agnostic.
Another huge aspect of Eliezer’s character is his relationship with his father. Many times during his stay at the concentration camp, Eliezer was forced into seeing his father as a liability to his survival. When the man finally dies, Eliezer confesses that he only felt relief that he would no longer be burdened with taking care of him. However, it is obvious that Eliezer loved his father and did all that he could to help him survive. The scene where this is most evident is when he and his father are helping each other stay awake, and therefore, alive during the cold night in the German town.
At the end of the book, Eliezer is freed by the American Army and immediately contracts food poisoning from gorging himself on the food that he has not been given in a year. He nearly dies from this but survives and when he regains his strength realizes that his face looks like corpses in the mirror.
Eliezer’s father – though in real life, Wiesel’s father was named Shlomo, his name is never referenced in the book, and he is simply referred to in the first person as “my father.” Eliezer’s father is the only other character in the book which is present for most of it. He remains, throughout the entire book, a father who is trying his best under the most trying circumstances imaginable and who loves his son. However, like most of the prisoners in the camps, Eliezer’s father’s health steadily declined, and at the end of the book he contracts dysentery and dies.
The reader is encouraged to view Eliezer’s father through Eliezer’s eyes, as the work is in the first person. During their time in the camps, Eliezer’s world gets narrowed down to only the relationship with his father. However, the inhuman conditions eventually force Eliezer to act inhumanly and consider his father as more of a liability to his survival.
Elie Wiesel Biography
Elie Wiesel was born on September 30th, 1928 in Sighet, in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. Wiesel’s parents, Sarah and Shlomo encouraged him to learn Hebrew and to study the Torah, two tenants of the Jewish religion. Wiesel had three sisters, two older and one younger.
The first fifteen years of Wiesel’s life were typical for a Jewish boy in his country, as he was a student. However, in 1944, when Wiesel was only 15 the Nazi’s occupied Hungary and the Holocaust was brought to his town. Sighet’s entire Jewish population was forced into smaller and smaller ghettos until they were eventually brought to live in concentration camps. Upon arrival at the infamous concentration camp, Auschwitz, Wiesel’s family was separated with his mother and his sisters in another area. Wiesel’s mother, Sarah and his younger sister, Tzipora were executed immediately upon arrival as they were deemed unfit to work.
Unaware of this. However, Wiesel and his father were brought to a labor camp named Buna. Wiesel was given the tattoo ‘A-7713’ as an identification of his prisoner number. Although he managed to survive the horrors of the concentration camps, Wiesel’s father died shortly before liberation by the American Army. After Wiesel had been freed from the camp, he was taken with 1,000 other orphan children to Ecouis, France where they were cared for in Orthodox homes.
After Wiesel had turned 18, he moved to Paris where he studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne Institute. The following year he began working as a journalist for Israeli and French newspapers. For the first 19 years after the war, Wiesel refused to write about what happened to him during the Holocaust. However, after he became friends with the French writer Francois Mauriac he began to reconsider. Wiesel began writing what would later become his multinational bestseller, ‘Night’ in the mid-1950s and the book was published in 1960.
Wiesel continued to work as a journalist and moved to the U.S in the 1950’s. In 1969 he married an Austrian woman named Marion Erster Rose. Marion was responsible for translating many of his books. The two had one son named for Elie’s father, Shlomo.
Wiesel wrote over 40 books in his lifetime, the majority of them being Holocaust-related and non-fiction. In 1986, Wiesel and Marion created the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity which oversaw the building of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.
That same year, Wiesel was given the Nobel Peace Prize for speaking out against violence, racism, and oppression. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. During his life, Wiesel served as a notable political activist, speaking out on crises like apartheid in South Africa, the Bosnian Genocide and the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
In 2009, Wiesel accompanied US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they toured the site of the former concentration camp, Buchenwald. On July 2nd, 2016, Wiesel passed away at the age of 87 in his home in Manhattan.