Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Thoughts on Night by Elie Wiesel.

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”

I'm taking a short break from my other reading this week to read a couple of the books I'm going to be teaching starting on Monday. And while I won't be doing a lot with Night, I will be finishing up the discussion and having the kids write a paper about the book. Since it has been a few years since reading it, I knew it would be in my best interests to read it.

I sat down last night, rather late, to read a few pages before bed. And, like many other books, I was sucked into the story. Since the book is short, I managed to finish it before bed. Then I was up a little too late thinking about what I had read.

It reminded me a bit of something Matt and I had watched on TV a couple weeks ago. There was a Band of Brothers marathon on, so we snuggled into the couch to watch (the series is about a group of soldiers during World War II). Matt had seen the whole series before, but I had only seen 1 or 2 episodes. Anyway, there is an episode where the soldiers discover a camp, and those images were hard to watch. While my brain knew that they were actors and that they were pretending to be in such misery, a very real part of myself only saw the people on screen as those who really suffered during World War II.

As someone who has taught U.S. history, and who hopes to teach a history course again in the future, I always struggle with how to approach talking about the Holocaust with students. One of the things that I always push for as a teacher is the complete understanding of what history means for us today-that we learn about history to prevent those same tragedies in the future. I always want my kids to feel that and to acknowledge that we do have a dark past.

But with the Holocaust, I just try and show them. I wish I would have known about that Band of Brothers episode last year. I think seeing it would have changed a lot of my students' minds about the death camps. And I also wish they had the opportunity to read an account as honest and as open as Wiesel's Night. I do believe that reading an account makes it come alive.

What is special about Wiesel's book is that it is not just about his experiences in the camps. It is also about being human in a time where he was treated like an animal. The narrative is simple in that it never bogs down in language. Instead, Wiesel simply explains what happened to his family, how he felt, and what it meant to lose hope in everything.

I think that this approach is what makes his book so powerful. It is about his family-how they are broken apart. He never has the chance to say goodbye to his mother and younger sister. Instead, they are sorted and taken away from each other without a chance to speak a word. Elie, a young teenager, has to face the horrors of this world alone, since his father seems to disappear into himself from the beginning.

One of the most disturbing scenes is near the beginning-when they arrive at the camp. They are walking and Wiesel describes pits of fire where soldiers are tossing children and babies. Worried that they will also be tossed into the flames, Wiesel writes,

"I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it . . ."

That line says a lot about the horrors of the camps and the feelings of disbelief that those sent to be in the camps must have felt. When I tried to close my own eyes last night, I also tried to picture what that must have been like. Denial must have been one of the only ways to cope with that kind of image.

Night is definitely a book worth discussing. Being that it comes from Wiesel's memories, it's powerful. It doesn't gloss over what happened in the many camps in Nazi Germany, but it explains how those captured lost their sense of self. Under the shadow of the chimneys and crematoriums, it was just a fight until the next meal.

I think Wiesel says it best...

"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 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."


  1. This one is on my list as well. I think I'd like to read it alongside The Diary of Anne Frank, which I've never read...

  2. This book hit me hard when I read it. How could it not? I just watched that Band of Brothers episode recently myself and it brought me to tears.

  3. I read this one for the first time just two weeks ago. It's such a powerful book that will stay with me for awhile. Great review.

  4. I recommend reading Maus I and Maus II by Art Spiegelmann. They are graphic novel versions of the Holocaust story.

  5. I actually read this in American History class (WWII unit) in high school. I don't remember it that well, not nearly as well as Children of the Flames, which is a nonfictional account of the "experiments" Dr. Josef Mengele inflicted on Jewish twins. That one stuck with me, the horrors of what people could do to each other. It's unimaginable.

  6. Allie: I commend the intellectual and emotional effort you are obviously putting into teaching Night. I mean it. Nevertheless, two things worry me: 1. Nowhere in your review do you mention Jews or that the camps were created precisely to wipe out Europe's Jews. Too much for high schoolers? That's for you to wrestle with, of course. I think though that Wiesel is with me on this. 2. You wish your students could see the episode of Band of Brothers set in a liberated camp, because "it would have changed a lot of my students' minds about the death camps." From what to what?? Your students are lucky to have such a thoughtful and committed teacher.

    1. I just want to respond so that you know where I am coming from.

      I'm actually not going to be teaching the book. The teacher I am replacing is doing so now. Since the class is for juniors, they already learned the history of the Holocaust in tenth grade. I'm sure she discussed it with them again before beginning the book. When I start on monday, I will be assigning the paper.

      And when I taught history last year, I was very open with my tenth graders about what happened. What I meant by changing their minds....is that when I taught them this last year, I don't think many of them really understood the full scope of what happened in death camps. I even had a few bring up some of the theories surrounding what "happened." I think to see it visually would have made it click for them more than the few images I could show them.

  7. It's been a really long time since I've read this, since late middle school? early high school? something like that. It really did affect me strongly at the time, and I've thought that it would be good to revisit.

  8. This book had the same effect on me. Also, in case you ever do teach this, there is a great documentary called Paper Clips. Students at a middle school couldn't comprehend the numbers of the Holocaust, and the teacher had a great idea for students to collect paper clips so they could see what millions looked like. They wrote letters to celebrities and politicians, and the project grew and grew. I watched it on Netflix and just thought it was an incredible way to reach students on their level.

  9. I read this a couple years ago and it really stuck with me. I've seen video of him touring the ruins within recent years. It's such a haunting thing.

  10. I read this one a few months ago. It was very powerful for its small size. I also read it in one sitting before bed and was also up thinking about how awful it was that human beings, not much different from us, could ever have been misled that dramatically by Hitler and all he stood for and do those terrible things.

  11. Wiesel's existentialistic autobiographical description of some of his experiences during the Holocaust is tragic, heartbreaking, and so filled me with dread that my nerves were deadened to the point of insonmia for two days. A small price to pay, however, for having experienced this book. Nothing is worth reading if it does not make you examine the fearful abyss of your own emotions as well as the capacity for human violance (and the will to endure such violence). What makes this even more tragic is the existential perspective taken by the author, something for which I was not fully prepared.