Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."
by Elie Wiesel
(Hill & Wang, 1960)
Shortly before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, a remarkable new religious publication was born. It was called Jubilee, from the Latin Jubilate Deo (“Sing joyfully to God”). Founded by Ed Rice and co-edited by Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, the magazine was relatively short-lived (1953-67). However, in that brief period, it fulfilled its goal to “produce a Catholic literary magazine that would act as a forum for addressing issues confronting the contemporary church.”
One of the issues of this magazine included a chapter from Night, a recently published (1958 in French; 1960 English translation) book by Elie Wiesel. This chapter made a significant impression on me, an intellectually searching, recently professed young woman religious. It prompted me to seek out the book that, after all these years, continues to touch my heart and sear my conscience.
It is difficult to identify the genre of this book. It is a memoir written by a man who has committed his entire life to “remember” what happened to him and to millions of other Jews whose horror has come to be known as the Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe) or Holocaust (Greek for burnt). But this is more than a memoir. It is also an exposé of the depths of depravity to which individuals and society can descend.
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While this slim volume is certainly both memoir and exposé, perhaps it is best regarded as a testimony to the indomitability of the human spirit. This book has left its mark on me in all three ways.
Wiesel tells of his first night in Birkenau, the first death camp to which he was sent. He had been a pious boy whose life was dedicated to the study of the Talmud. However, his very first encounter with the atrocities he would witness stripped him of his innocence. He became aware of the mystery of iniquity as he watch babies being thrown into a burning pit. This was the night of the death of God in the soul of this innocent boy:
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 forever.
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.
What is one to make of such sentiments? How can one measure the power of evil that can, in one glance, totally destroy one’s concept of God?
What did I know of suffering? There had been illness and death in my family, but never brutality. I was not aware of human inhumanity against another. I too grew up with the concept of God as caring, generous and, when necessary, forgiving. I had not yet met Job, nor been startled by his bold question: Why have you allowed this to happen?
But even as I was horrified by this scene, I realized that I was reading the account in the comfort of my room; I was not, like Wiesel, standing before the pit, unsure of my own fate. My image of a loving God was not threatened, as was his. However, this was perhaps the first time that I wondered about my understanding of divine providence.
It was not the actual physical suffering as reported by Wiesel that struck me most. It was the inhumanity that these prisoners were forced to endure that took my breath away and left a knot in my stomach. Wiesel was an only son, a position of no mean status in a devout Jewish family. And yet the merciless deprivation of food and water and sleep he was forced to bear and the excruciating labor that stifled every ounce of his energy reduced him to the level of brute self-survival. He confesses this as he recounts his father’s last agony:
I remember that night, the most horrendous of my life: ...
The SS had flown into a rage and was striking my father on the head: “Be quiet, old man! Be quiet!” ...
“Eliezer! Eliezer! Come, don’t leave me alone ...”
His voice had reached me so far away, from so close. But I had not moved.
I shall never forgive myself.
Nor shall I ever forgive the world for having pushed me against the wall, for having turned me into a stranger, for having awakened in me the basest, most primitive instincts.
His last word had been my name. A summons. And I had not responded.
Having drained this 16-year-old boy of all physical, emotional and spiritual resources, his tormentors forced him to decide between responding to his dying father and protecting the possibility of his own survival. Terror forced him to make a decision that tore at his heart and would tear open that wound for the rest of his life. To compound his torment, he blamed himself for his cowardice and would continually blame himself for his craven weakness.
What did I know about sin? I certainly was guilty of the typical childhood misbehavior: disobedience, fighting, cheating, lying, etc. However, I never before envisioned the blatant evil depicted in this short passage. I never before conceived of the scope and character of torture that could so strip a vulnerable boy of the fundamental bond of love and devotion between himself and his father.
I couldn’t image treating my own father that way. Yet, I realized that such weakness is in all of us, and all an enemy had to do was discover it and exploit it. It made me realize that in the right circumstances, every human being is probably capable of almost anything. For the first time, the expression “There but for the grace of God” took on meaning for me.
Having been liberated from the death camp and having almost died from illness after his liberation, Wiesel felt compelled to bear witness to the atrocities perpetrated against the Jewish people. He was and continues to be convinced that if we forget, we are guilty; we are accomplices to those atrocities. However, he was stunned, as was I, that no one seemed to care.
When he first came to the camp, he believed that some country in the world, some group of people, some individuals would do what they could to end such crimes. But it did not happen, and he soon lost hope in any form of human indignation.
In fact, when the captives within whose number he was included were being transported in cattle cars or forced to run through the countryside, civilians considered them curiosities, gawked at them, or even made sport of their condition. No one appeared concerned or willing to alleviate their suffering, most less step forward in the name of simple decency.
This apparent indifference persisted even after the war ended and attempts toward recovery were underway. Wiesel wrote the first draft of this book in Yiddish. It was then translated it into both French and English. However, it was rejected by every major French and American publisher. This happened despite the endorsement and efforts of the great French Catholic writer and Nobel laureate François Mauriac.
Only after months of personal visits, letters and phone calls did Mauriac finally succeed in getting Wiesel’s manuscript into print. For some reason, the urgency of the message was not realized.
Despite the horrors that robbed him of his innocence, shattered the structure of his Jewish piety, and stripped him of his inherent concern for others, Wiesel clung to life. Even when life appeared to be nothing more than a struggle for survival, he clung to life. Even when the God to whom he had committed his life seemed to have abandoned him, he clung to life. Even when he experienced to the core of his being the world’s disdain for the Jewish people, he clung to life. His spirit may have been compromised, but it was not destroyed.
The message of Night has never ceased to challenge me. Its account of human depravity reminds me of the enemy that stalks our streets, seeking a place in the human heart. Its portrayal of self-sacrifice in the face of personal tragedy inspires me to courage and valor. Its unmasking of individual and societal disinterest in the suffering of others accuses me of my own complacency.
It reminds me of the teaching of another Jew, also a victim of the cruelty of others: “As you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).
[St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant is professor emerita of Old Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union.]