With each page of the story the reader cannot help but wonder how things could become worse. It is a wonder that should not be anticipated as it is dispelled soon enough. The depravations are beyond belief. Sadism and cruelty rule the day. The Wiesels, father and son, were moved from Auschwitz to the Buna concentration work camp. Soon they were forced to witness hangings, including a young boy whose light weight was not enough to kill him as the floor dropped.
He hung from the gallows for a half-hour, “struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes.
Behind me I heard a man asking ‘where is God now’ and I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘He is hanging here on this gallows…’” (71). Wiesel had just begun to see the unimaginable horror. As the Russian front against the Germans advanced the camp was evacuated. While Wiesel’s faith in God is torn—he feels he is the accuser, God the accused (73) it is his father’s presence that keeps him going through the hell of the camps, the fear of “selection” to death, and the death march of evacuations.
Wiesel soon sees the real horror in the forced marches.
Unlike him and his father staying together, a Rabbi is looking for his son, and Wiesel realizes the young man had moved away from his father, “to free himself from an encumbrance which would lessen his own chances of survival” (94). He would soon see worse.
Passing Germans would throw crumbs of bread to the starving Jews and watch with amusement. He noticed an old man free himself from the melee, clutching a piece of bread. Wiesel describes the terror: With remarkable speed he drew it out and put it to his mouth. His eyes gleamed; a smile, like a grimace, lit up his dead face.
And was immediately extinguished. A shadow had just loomed up near him. The shadow threw itself upon him. Felled to the ground, stunned with blows, the old man cried: “Meir. Meir, my boy! Don’t you recognize me? I’m your father…you’re hurting me…you’re killing your father! I’ve got some bread…for you too, for you too…” He collapsed. His fist was still clenched around a small piece…the other threw himself upon him and snatched it…the old man died amid general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it. (102-103)
The son was also set upon by the starving men and was killed as well. Wiesel, recalling the scene, remarks that he was fifteen years old. When Wiesel’s father dies he “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 it, I might perhaps have found something like—free at last! ” (113) He does not elaborate as to whether he was thinking of his father, now free of human suffering, or himself, freed of the burden of an ill father.
It is probable he was referring to both of them. Wiesel’s account of human nature is brutal, ugly, and remorseless, with the occasional glimpse of kindness and humanity obscured from the smoke of burning bodies. Throughout the examination of the Holocaust runs the emotional and moral thought of “how can people do this? ” How could the Germans and others be so cruel to Jews to tor-ture and murder them in such a hideous fashion? What has caused this base indifference and hatred? While reading Night those questions are certainly and quickly raised, and just as certainly and quickly dismissed.
Man’s inhumanities to man will always exist, and each millennium of human history has its revolting share of genocide, pogroms, ghettos, and “final solutions”. Wiesel seems to be saying ‘yes, take that as a given. It exists and always will and man is powerless to prevent it. Now let us talk of real horror, of a child abandoning his burdensome father. Let us talk of a child who will murder his father for a scrap of bread. Here is real horror—and can you prevent it? Can you take the dreadful abuse and starvation and not wish you did not have to share?
’ This is the ultimate horror the Nazis inflicted on normal caring, moral, loving people who in ordinary circumstances do ordinary and even extraordinary things to help or save their fellow man. Our human culture all but demands we look out for family, and then friends, sharing what we have and they need, now even body parts. Countless examples from the beginning of recorded history describe mortal sacrifices made for others known and unknown. How can this moral drive be extinguished?
Wiesel’s Night explains in graphic detail how this drive is not only extinguished but is replaced by something far darker and deadlier. As one who has been there, he does so without judgment, and makes no excuses for his or anyone’s “moral failings”. Wiesel’s story is not about failing, it is about surviving against the Nazi’s greatest torture of all: forcing immoral activity upon moral people. His story, as all of his writing, has a profound effect upon the reader. If only it could have a similar affect on the dark side of human nature.
Works Cited Wiesel, Elie. Night, 1972: Hill & Wang, New York.