I’ve been re-reading Eli Wiesel’s ground breaking,  terrible, memoir,  Nightthis last week, along with a niece in 9th grade, who is reading it in her English class.  My god!  I think.  Was I ready for such images in 9th grade —-of staggering at a run through the snow or be shot?  Of babies being tossed into the flames? Of  a starving son beating his father for food?  I recall 10th grade as the first of what were to become my grown-up years.  We heard of Americans of Japanese ancestry being taken from their homes, schools and businesses and held in concentration camps during WW II.  Unheard of!  No one in my family had ever mentioned such a thing. But it was true. Nor did the adults I knew want to hear about it.  For me a life-lasting skepticism of claims of national of danger and of praise for our own goodness was set in motion.  But Wiesel’s memories of his own year and a half  long crawl towards death, would I have been ready to take this in?  I hope the teacher is a profound and careful person.

The memoir, which began as a 900 page effort in Yiddish, published in 1955 in Buenos Aires, only received rejection slips in France, the U.S. and Great Britain, even after it had been drastically pared to just over 100 pages, at the behest of Wiesel’s  new friend, the Catholic writer François Mauriac.  As Wiesel says in a preface to the new edition, translated by his wife Marion Wiesel, there was, following the war

“…careless and patronizing indifference toward what is so inadequately called the Holocaust…   The subject was considered morbid and interested no one. If a rabbi happened to mention the book in his sermon, there were always people ready to complain that it was senseless to “burden our children with the tragedies of the Jewish past.”

Finally, in 1958 an edition was published in France and two years later Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang brought out the 116 page Stella Rodway translation which was the standard until 2006, when Marion Wiesel’s was released.  During those 40 + years, Night, for many Americans, has become the major document, along with The Diary of Anne Frank, for entry into knowledge of the Holocaust and the deep questions of morality, responsibility and action, which it raises.  By 1997 300,ooo copies a year were being sold in the United States.  By 2011 over 6 million copies had been sold.  It had been translated into 30 languages.

Night  is now thought of as the opening book of a trilogy.  Dawn [1961], and Day [1962] followed, both fictional rather than compressed memoirs. It is Night, however, which sets the mark.  Without it, as Wiesel himself declares, nothing else would have followed   The over-riding impression in reading is of the rounding up and transportation of Sighet’s [Hungary] Jews first to Auschwitz, then to Buna and finally to Buchenwald, of the brutal treatment, not only by the SS  but by the Capos and Obercapos — prisoners of the Nazis like themselves. The descriptions are bleak, and as full of despair as his heart.

In someways, however, as important in the telling and I suspect in Weisel’s mind, is the story of betrayal, or near betrayal, of fathers by sons, and of fathers and sons by God.  Especially for the young Wiesel, who at an early age had been consumed by a faith in God and all the mysticism that might entail, trying to understand the torments he, his father and fellow Jews were going through, and what God had to do with that, was as powerful in him as the starvation, exhaustion and beatings.

The sense of abandonment by God leads to a loss of faith, which is also as profound an experience as the physical sufferings.  For those of us whose faith is invested in other than other-worldly beings this seems a non-story.  “I once believed.  Now I don’t.  Moving on….”  Our empathy tells us it is distressing for those who feel such a loss is a genuine loss, like loss of love;  something important is gone.  But we don’t feel it in the same way.  Young Eliezer feels it deeply. Older Eliezer still grapples with it.

It is profoundly upsetting to see, late in the book, just after the remaining Sighet Jews have arrived in Buchenwald, other sons, and Eliezer himself, hating their own fathers for their weakness.  One beats the older man to make him stop moaning; he steals his bread.  Eliezer watches his father being savagely beaten, for soiling himself in the bunk he can’t get out out, and does nothing.  He thinks that if his father died he himself would have more soup.  Of course we understand, at least partially, the fear gripping these 15 and 16 year old hearts.  But that they are not sympathetic but  disgusted with the shown weakness, much as the Nazi jailers are, as the Gypsies and other Capos were, as too many of us are when we get an urge to kick a cringing dog, is a unexpected glimpse into the human heart.  Wiesel does not examine this, though he fully acknowledges his own feelings of guilt at his treatment of his father.

As disturbing as the emptying of empathy at the end,  is the blindness of  the Jews of Sighet at the beginning.  [Not just of the Jews of course, of most of the world. These Jews however, in this telling, has several personal, dire warnings, from those close to them, and which they ignored.]  The book begins with the removal of  “illegal” Jews from Hungary near the end of 1942, and the return of one, Moishe, with the news that the Nazis are doing terrible things.  He alone had escaped a massacre in the woods of Galicia near Kolomaye.  No one will listen to him:

He’s just trying to make us pity him. What an imagination he has! they said. Or even: Poor fellow. He’s gone mad.

 Of course when the result of not taking warnings seriously are so terrible that the mind thinks of nothing but the next crust of bread, there can’t be much self-recrimination.  Somewhere for Wiesel, since the story of Moishe begins the book, that possibility exists. Or perhaps it is, not “we should have listened” but “never again will we not listen.”   A second character, seemingly mad, sees the flames that are coming on them all; she too is ignored, and kicked by those who don’t want to hear. And the flames come.

The most amazing thing perhaps to one reading about and not experiencing such events, is the utter, protoplasmic, body-driven, urge to live.  Suicide in the normal world is a significant cause of death; depression triggered by seemingly trivial events is common and well known.  Yet, in these camps, when bread, thin soup, beatings, humiliations, loss of privacy and dignity were all as common as the sun coming up, the men just keep going on, not without despair of course, but even if “giving in” at some level, still “going on” until they drop, or are shot, or are hung.  Only once, early in the book, does Wiesel speak of himself throwing himself against a wire fence, to be shot or executed.  Certainly, in the terrible march through the snow in December of 1944 some just collapsed, not caring, and were shot but there is no sense in Wiesel’s writing, of angst, of questioning “shall I live, shall I die?”  With death so forcefully on view, life it seems, was the only thought.

It has been interesting to re-read Night, to be reminded but also to wonder a bit, why it is so central to Holocaust memory. There are many many books now written, and many more evocative, detailed, even “literary.”   Perhaps because it was very early and made it possible for others to be written it deserves an honored place. Perhaps because it is so spare, so devoid of “art” that people remember it and want to pass it on to others.  The very plainness of the narrative and descriptions give the writing it’s own minimalist sort of  art: naked outlines on bare walls, done in barbed wire, unforgettable because so unadorned.

Because of this minimalism, however, many questions go unanswered.  An ordinary reader would think only Jews were  in these camps, which leads to the question, were the Capos also Jews?  Were some so murderous as that?  And if so, why so little mention?  Yet Wiesel mentions Gypsies once, one as a Capo, so there were non-Jews in the camps.  In the same barracks?  What four men beat Wiesel’s father almost to death?  Other Jews?  Non-Jews?  How did they have the strength to beat if the conditions were so bad — no food for seven days?  Did non-Jewish prisoners get more food, better barracks than Jews?  What of the communists, Catholics and homosexuals?  Were there group-against-group divisions in the universe of the camp?  Did homosexuals prey on Jews, or vice-versa?  None of this is revealed in Night.  On the day of liberation, an armed revolt breaks out.  Buchenwald prisoners with weapons, including guns!  Who had them?  For how long?  Who were they? There are no details to give us any sense of these things.

The Holocaust told-memories that have made the biggest impression on me have been fiction.  Andre Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just, I’ve read several times, each time gripped by both the history and the telling of it.   Recently David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer [reviewed here] made a profound impression.  Its sheer inventiveness as a teacher in Budapest tries to reconstruct his family tree, and has to imagine the lives of two Germans who drove the self-gassing truck in which his family died, before he can recreate his own relatives, is a marvel.  Imre Kertész’  Fateless [brief review]  is  work of fiction cum memoir, of another young boy who is liberated from Buchenwald.  Though it didn’t grip me as the first two, it articulates as Wiesel has outside his novels,  the importance of not forgetting.  His character will neither be the subject of an enterprising reporter’s story, nor accept his uncles’ bland suggestion that the yellow stars and deportations had “only come to pass,” without author or any who could be held accountable.

As to whether I’d assign Night as a “coming of age” story to a class of 9th graders, I don’t know.  Perhaps their growing up faster than I did, in many things, makes them ready at 14 for the first bitter draughts of life before they, or their parents, came on the scene. Perhaps if not ready they should be pushed, as even if there are fewer atrocities in the world as claimed by Stephen Pinker‘s Better Angels of Our Nature, the possibilities for fewer to do greater are increasing with every “advance” in weaponry and propaganda.  It can’t be too early to call out and strengthen the kids’ empathy, not just for family and pets but for the unseen, little known, easy to forget family all around the globe.