Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: Night

Night. Elie Wiesel. Translated by Stella Rodway. Foreword by Francois Mauriac. 1958/1960. 109 pages. [Source: Bought]

I first read Night about fifteen years ago. I've been meaning to reread it ever since. It's definitely a book that is worth reading more than once. And the author's recent death made me want to read it now.

I am choosing to review it at Operation Actually Read Bible not because Night is a Christian book that affirms the Christian worldview, but because it is important, significant engaging book that Christians should read.

My edition of Night has a foreword by Francois Mauriac. I highly recommend reading it. Yes, I know it can be tempting to skip over introductions and forewords. But in this case, it is a must read. It contains gems:
It is not always the events we have been directly involved in that affect us the most. (vii)
Have we ever thought about the consequence of a horror that, though less apparent, less striking than other outrages, is yet the worst of all to those of us who have faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly discovers absolute evil? (ix)
And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of that other Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him--the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished? Zion, however, has risen up again from the crematories and the charnel houses. The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is through them that it lives again. We do not know the worth of a single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is the Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him. This is what I should have told this Jewish child. But I could only embrace him, weeping. (xi)
First sentence: They called him Moshe the Beadle, as though he had never had a surname in his life. He was a man of all work at a Hasidic synagogue. The Jews of Sighet--that little town in Transylvania where I spent my childhood--were very fond of him.

Night is nonfiction, an autobiography written by Elie Wiesel. Night covers his experiences from 1941 to 1945; it covers his loss of faith, loss of family, loss of innocence, and, perhaps even hope. Though written in prose, I venture to say that in its potency it more closely resembles poetry. There is beauty in its language, its turn of phrase. Though also a raw, vital, often ugly portrait is presented. One cannot help but be engaged with this book.

Primarily, it is the story of Elie Wiesel (a boy) and his Father. But two other characters are brought to life for readers. And I wouldn't dare review the book without mentioning them both.

The first is Moshe the Beadle. Young Elie is tutored by Moshe before the war comes and interrupts (and ends) lives.
He had noticed me one day at dusk, when I was praying.
"Why do you weep when you pray?" he asked me, as though he had known me for a long time.
"I don't know why," I answered, greatly disturbed.
The question had never entered my head. I wept because--because of something inside me that felt the need for tears. That was all I knew.
"Why do you pray?" he asked me, after a moment.
Why did I pray? A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?
"I don't know why," I said, even more disturbed and ill at ease. "I don't know why."
After that day I saw him often. He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.
"Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him," he was fond of repeating. "That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers. We can't understand them. Because they come from the depths of the soul, and they stay there until death. You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!"
"And why do you pray, Moshe?" I asked him.
"I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions."
We talked like this nearly every evening. We used to stay in the synagogue after all the faithful had left, sitting in the gloom, where a few half-burned candles still gave a flickering light.
One evening I told him how unhappy I was because I could not find a master in Sighet to instruct me in the Zohar, the cabbalistic books, the secrets of the Jewish mysticism. He smiled indulgently. After a long silence, he said:
"There are a thousand and one gates leading into the orchard of mystical truth. Every human being has his own gate. We must never make the mistake of wanting to enter the orchard by any gate but our own. To do this is dangerous for the one who enters and also for those who are already there." (2-3)
Their studies together were interrupted when Moshe, as a foreigner, was expelled from the city by Hungarian policemen. He returns, however, with a story to tell.
He told his story and that of his companions. The train full of deportees had crossed the Hungarian frontier and on Polish territory had been taken in charge by the Gestapo. There it had stopped. The Jews had to get out and climb into lorries. The lorries drove toward a forest. The Jews were made to get out. They were made to dig huge graves. And when they had finished their work, the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion, without haste, they slaughtered their prisoners. Each one had to go up to the hole and present his neck. Babies were thrown into the air and the machine gunners used them as targets. This was in the forest of Galicia, near Kolomaye. How had Moshe the Beadle escaped? Miraculously. He was wounded in the leg and taken for the dead…
Through long days and nights, he went from one Jewish house to another, telling the story of Malka, the young girl who had taken three days to die, and of Tobias, the tailor, who had begged to be killed before his sons…
…People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them.
"He's just trying to make us pity him. What an imagination he has!" they said. Or even, "Poor fellow. He's gone mad."
As for Moshe, he wept.
"Jews, listen to me. It's all I ask of you. I don't want money or pity. Only listen to me," he would cry between prayers at dusk and the evening prayers.
I did not believe him myself. I would often sit with him in the evening after the service, listening to his stories and trying my hardest to understand his grief. I felt only pity for him.
"They take me for a madman," he would whisper, and tears, like drops of wax, flowed from his eyes.
Once, I asked him this question:
"Why are you so anxious that people should believe what you say? In your place, I shouldn't care whether they believed me or not…"
He closed his eyes, as though to escape time.
"You don't understand," he said in despair. "You can't understand. I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. Where did I get the strength from? I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So that you could prepare yourselves while there was still time. To live? I don't attach any importance to my life any more. I'm alone. No, I wanted to come back, and to warn you. And see how it is, no one will listen to me…" (4-5)
The second is Madame Schachter, a woman in the same train car (cattle car, I believe?) as Elie and his Father.
Madame Schachter had gone out of her mind. On the first day of the journey she had already begun to moan and to keep asking why she had been separated from her family. As time went on, her cries grew hysterical.
On the third night, while we slept, some of us sitting one against the other and some standing, a piercing cry split the silence:
"Fire! I can see a fire! I can see a fire!"
there was a moment's panic. Who was it who had cried out? It was Madame Schachter. Standing in the middle of the wagon, in the pale light from the windows, she looked like a withered tree in a cornfield. She pointed her arm toward the window, screaming:
"Look! Look at it! Fire! A terrible fire! Mercy! Oh, that fire!"
Some of the men pressed up against the bars. There was nothing there; only the darkness.
The shock of this terrible awakening stayed with us for a long time. we still trembled from it. With every groan of the wheels on the rail, we felt that an abyss was about to open beneath our bodies. Powerless to still our own anguish, we tried to console ourselves:
"She's mad, poor soul…"
Someone had put a damp cloth on her brow, to calm her, but still her screams went on:
"Fire! Fire!"
Her little boy was crying, hanging onto her skirt, trying to take hold of her hands. "It's all right, Mummy! There's nothing there…Sit down…" This shook me even more than his mother's screams had done.
Some women tried to calm her. "You'll find your husband and your sons again…in a few days…"
She continued to scream, breathless, her voice broken by sobs. "Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!" (22-23)
I will share just one more quote with you. It is a powerful one, one quoted in the foreword as well.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. (32)
The book is short, powerful, compelling, unforgettable. It captures the horror of the Holocaust. I do think it's a subject that Christians should know about and care about. Yes, one could respond to this book with theological arguments and debates. A need to set the record straight. A need to defend God and prove Wiesel was tragically wrong. Or, one could perhaps respond with tears and weeping.

What do you do with the world's sorrow? What do you do when words are hard to come by--if not impossible to come by? Prepackaged words don't seem to fit well, do they? There is a time and place for theological debate, but, in the rawness of the moment when the tears are still fresh and today and tomorrow seem impossible to face--to live through, perhaps tears are best. Even if you think you have the answers.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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