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Social Studies Methods Class: Elie Wiesel’s Night

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Madoff victim Elie Wiesel recounts his survival of the Holocaust in Night.

Disgraced and now imprisoned financier Bernard Madoff has captured plenty of headlines recently. 

The tentacles of his multi-billion dollar Ponzi Scheme have reached throughout the country and have wreaked financial havoc on thousands of families and non-profit organizations.  In many ways, the consequences of his decption have yet to be fully felt, since they came at a time when the economy was already seriously battered.

Madoff’s actions have caused particular anguish in the Jewish community. He is Jewish and used his membership in the community to exploit his religious brothers and sisters.  Some have expressed concerns that his actions will play into long-held stereotypes about Jews as financiers and lead to a rise in antisemitism, while others have struggled to understand the extent and cause of his duplicity.

Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel is one of Madoff’s many victims.  He has called Madoff’s crimes unforgivable. 

Themes of memory, forgiveness, belief and humanity also run throughout Night, Wiesel’s slender and classic memoir that provides an authoritative account of Holocaust survival.

Night opens in Sighet, Transylvania in 1941.  A 12-year-old  Kaballah student, Wiesel and other residents of the community are warned of their impending doom by Moshe the Beadle.  However, the townspeople find Moshe’s predictions incredible, instead concluding that he has lost his mind.

A couple of years later, his predictions turn out to be true.

Wiesel, his family and the rest of the community are forcibly removed from their homes and taken by train to the Auschwitz death camp.  His words about that first night have often been quoted, but bear repetition for their stark power:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith for ever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.
Never.

The repetition and insistence of permanence and memory, the allusions to the Ten Commandments, the combination of images and their consequences all give this excerpt its considerable impact.

Night has many such moments.  He talks about how eight words uttered at the camp’s selection-men to the left, women to the right-means that he and his father are separated from his mother and sisters. 

He never sees them again. 

This is only the beginning for Wiesel and his father, though. 

Night details the appells, or hours long roll calls, which begin early in the morning, the paltry rations which slowly starve and reduce the men’s existence to animal instincts of survival, the collective punishment visited on those who try to rebel and other aspects of unspeakable cruelty they endured.

Wiesel’s father does not handle the physical strain well.  Shortly before the book ends, he dies, but not before Wiesel has come to resent and even have feelings of hatred toward him for his inability to weather the abuse.  Other sons respond similarly, with some even abandoning their fathers on the death march. 

The book ends with Wiesel’s liberation at the Buchenwald camp in 1945.  He looks in a mirror for the first time since before his ordeal and ends the book with the following:

I wanted to see myself in the mirror … I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.

Wiesel describes himself in both first and third person, showing again the permanent impact of his experiences, their lethal and dehumanizing consequences, and his struggle to understand his personhood and meaning in the face of the atrocity he has endured.

Night is part of a trilogy-the other two books are Dawn and Day-and is probably the most well known of Wiesel’s many books. 

Originally written in French, the work was pared down extensively from its original version of more than 800 pages.  Facing History and Ourselves has created a study guide and a video, Challenge of Memory, that has clips that accompany specific scenes in the book, which has sparked ongoing discussion about whether it is a memoir or a novel.

In addition to being a prolific writer, speaker and thinker, Wiesel also created The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.  The foundation had  $15.2 million under management by Madoff’s investment firm, and has lost nearly everything.  His life savings have also been wiped out.

And so, now 80, Wiesel faces another challenge. 

While, of course, the financial hardship and betrayal he is grappling with is in no way comparable to his survival more than 60 years ago, what is clear is that Wiesel will meet its with his customary steely resolve and frankness.  He spoken recently about the outpouring of donations from people who learned about the foundation’s plight.  

For those people looking to understand the unspeakable horror Wiesel  and many others endured during World War II, Night is a powerful choice.