Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Night by Elie Wiesel

The called him Moshe the Beadle, as though he had never had a surname in his life.

Opening line to Night by Elie Wiesel

This is not the first time I've read Night. I have two students who are reading it for their book club, one Jewish boy and his best friend. Both are what's known as reluctant readers. They wanted to read Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, which is an excellent book but a little young for two seventh grade boys more interested in girls and World of Warcraft than just about anything else. The Jewish boy read the entirety of Night in two days, which impressed both his mother and his teacher. His best friend has yet to finish the books 108 pages some two weeks later. I read it in one sitting. I don't understand how anyone could put it down.

Night, translated from the French by Stella Rodway, is the true story of Mr. Wiesel's childhood spent under the Nazi occupation and in Auschwitz concentration camp. If this material has become familiar to readers it's largely because of the success of Night. Mr. Wiesel waited over 10 years before writing about his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His first memoir, And The World Remained Silent, originally a 900 page memoir written in the author's native Yiddish, was published in an abridged form in Buenos Aires as part of a series of memoirs about the war. Mr. Wiesel condensed the longer book into the 127 page La Nuit, published in French after a long search for a publisher. The English translation published in America and did not sell well. It took three years to sell all of the 3,000 copy first printing. Today Mr. Wiesel gets over 100 letters a day, largely from school children, about Night which sells over 300,000 copies annually.

Night documents what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, but its power comes from the personal story it tells. 15-year-old Eliezar is devoted to his family and to God. Before the war, his life is safe, secure, that of a good-boy who wants to pursue religious studies. His family stays together once the Nazis arrive and turn their community into a ghetto. Above all else, they struggle to remain together, but the men are separated from the women once they arrive at Auchwitz. Eliezar never sees his mother or his younger sister again. (Wiesel's two older sisters survived the war.)

Night becomes the story of father and son each devoted to the other. When Eliezar's father begins a slow deterioration that ends with a reversal of their roles, son must become the provider, a resentful caregiver. As his father's condition worsens and his own life is reduced to the daily struggle for bread, Eliezar begins to lose his faith in God. In this coupling of themes, the loss of faith and the deterioration of the father/son bond, Night becomes much more than a memoir. Many have argued over how to classify Night, as a novel or as an autobiography. Whichever category one finally puts it in, it must be seen as one of the key works of literature from the 20th century. I don't think anyone has told this particular story better than Elie Wiesel has done in Night.

Full disclosure: Information on Elie Wiesel and Night as well as the photo of a young Elie Wiesel come from Wikipedia.org


Sandy Nawrot said...

Your review does this book proud. I actually did have some trouble reading it straight through, only because it was so emotionally draining. This would definitely fall on my list of top 5 books about the Holocaust.

Amanda said...

This is the first book that ever made me cry. I think I was in 7th grade.

ds said...

You are absolutely right about this book and its literary importance. I can't remember when I read it, but there are scenes that I will never forget. The background you provide was very interesting; thank you.

Jeane said...

I have had a copy of this on my shelves for a long time; always meant to read it and never have. Thanks for sharing more about it with me; now I'm encouraged to pick it up sometimes soon.

Michelle said...

I'm so glad that this was assigned reading in school. I couldn't put this down, cried for ages and then it haunted me.

C.B. James said...

Sandy, I might even put it on the top five books from the 20th century. I was very impressed with it, reading it this time, my second or third.

Amanda, It's hard to see how one could not cry, reading it.

ds, The boy playing his violin one last time the night before he dies. He plays the Beethovan piece the guards wouldn't let him play. That will stay with me for a very long time.

Jeane, I highly recommend picking it up. It's a wonder.

Michelle, It's a very good book for late middle, early high school. And for college for that matter.

mattviews said...

I'm glad your students have picked Night. It makes me smile when the reluctant readers, as you mentioned, become motivated to read and inhale the book in short period of time. I cannot tell you how excited I am.

I have never read Night, which always gives me the impression that it mirrors the reading experience of Anne Frank. While his memoir might be somewhat too long for me to digest at the moment, I will take your recommendation and pick up Night.

ds said...

Now, I had forgotten that scene. What I remember is from the ghetto--the peeking between slats, and the train station. One moment he is holding his mother's hand, the next she is gone....
But I could be confusing these with another book. Definitely time for a re-read.