Abstract: I presented this paper at this year's NRHC Baltimore Conference. The essential purpose of this research paper is to invite readers to become critical readers of war literature. In other words, readers learn how Elie Wiesel's The Night Trilogy allow them to learn more about the true meaning of war and its atrocities.
War is conflict, and disagreement is destruction. Therefore, one should ask the following question: How does literature flourish from death, loss, pain, and suffering? War literature exposes one to war and its cruelties. It also warns humanity against the pursuit of armed conflict, as well as argues for world peace. War literature depicts war as the world’s deadliest weapon of mass destruction—pure suffering. It tends to be subjective, and war literature attempts to explain the sufferings through vivid and descriptive language. War literature wants one to understand the true meaning of war and its atrocities—death, violence, cruel distress, and loss of hope.
The primary focus of this paper is to critically analyze Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. For instance, Wiesel’s literary works force one to question the true meaning of religion. In fact, one should ask the following questions: Why do the righteous suffer? Why would God allow Wiesel, a religious young boy to suffer at the evil hands of Adolf Hitler? Perhaps, in life, questions are meant to be asked; yet, an answer to a specific question is never guaranteed. The works of Elie Wiesel will forever force readers to ask many thought-provoking questions that enable them to grow as critical thinkers and learners.
Wiesel’s war texts argue for world peace and warn humanity against war. War literature is authentic literature that attempts to inform one that in life, war can force him or her to question the true meaning of life and hope. In The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day, one envisions himself or herself in Wiesel’s world—before, during, and after the Holocaust. For that reason, the goal of this paper is to analyze Wiesel’s depictions of suffering, death, evil, and hope. Hence, forcing one to question why bad things happen to good people, specifically God’s devotees. In other words, my analysis of Wiesel’s texts shows the readers that in life, one cannot escape or avoid suffering, death, and evil (Harrington 7). Yet, it is vital for one to realize that hope for a better tomorrow will always be present—one must just be willing to look for it. This paper will also describe how Wiesel’s texts depict the Holocaust from a historical and traumatic perspective—Dominick LaCapra’s trauma theory.
Critical Analysis of Night—Wiesel’s Depiction of Suffering
In Night, Wiesel chooses his words carefully, and this makes it difficult for one not to feel sympathy for young Wiesel and the Jewish people. Wiesel forces one to embark on a long journey—pure suffering. At the age of fifteen, Wiesel sees his life change within a blink of an eye. Wiesel goes from studying the Talmud and Kabbalah to becoming a new member of Satan’s world, along with millions of other Jews in Auschwitz: “A prolonged whistle pierced the air. The wheels began to grind. We were on our way” (Wiesel 40, Night). Here, it is evident that Wiesel and his family are being transported to the concentration camps. Wiesel’s state-of-mind is no longer the same—initial exposure to the suffering caused by war. Before being deported to Auschwitz, Wiesel and the Jewish people of Sighet were forced to see the creation of a ghetto. The ghetto in Sighet was established between April 18-20, in 1944, shortly after the German occupation of Hungary. About 14,000 Jews from Sighet, as well as nearby villages, were forced to move and live in the ghetto. Nearly a month later, specifically between May 17-21, Jews from Sighet were deported to Auschwitz (“Sighet” 1). Living in the ghetto marked the beginning of Wiesel’s exposure to life suffering as a whole. Being constrained in Sighet enabled Wiesel to realize that in life, one cannot avoid suffering, regardless if he or she studies the Talmud and Kabbalah or not.
As Wiesel is being transported to Auschwitz, he is thinking about Moishe the Beadle and his prophecy: “He no longer mentioned either God or the Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen (Wiesel 25, Night). Moishe witnessed the Gestapo—the official secret police of Nazi Germany—brutally murder innocent Jews in the Galician forest. Moishe’s survival has significance: “How had he, Moishe the Beadle, been able to escape? By a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead…” (Wiesel 24, Night). Moishe’s survival is symbolic. He is God’s messenger. Moishe is attempting to inform his people that the Nazi police will invade Sighet. They want the Jews dead. However, the people of Sighet refused to believe in Moishe, including Wiesel.
Two years later, specifically on the seventh day of Passover, in 1944, Nazi Germany took complete control of Sighet: ‘“I warned you,” he shouted. And left without waiting for a response”’ (Wiesel 28, Night). Moishe fears for his life, as well as the lives of the Jewish people in Sighet. Moishe is also upset; he warned his people that danger awaited them. This shows that in life, it seems that human beings are purposely blindsided. Thus, in life, one is meant to encounter suffering, as per it is silent, as well as knocks on one’s door when it is destined to do so. This makes suffering worse, especially since one is caught by surprise—no warning. Now imagine and keep the following narration in mind: “My father was crying. It was the first time I saw him cry. I had never thought it possible. As for my mother, she was walking, her face a mask, without a word, deep in thought” (Wiesel 37, Night). This quotation marks the beginning of suffering for the Wiesel family, one that was destined to commence and arrive with no warning. The tears of Mr. Wiesel are symbolic, as per it signifies his emotions and response to what he, his family, and people are enduring under the Nazi regime—the start of a long journey of suffering. Why? Personally, after reading Night closely, I noticed that prior to the rise of the Nazi Party, Wiesel and his people lived their life for God. Their lives revolved around studying the Talmud and Kabbalah and going to the synagogue. However, an unexpected transition to pure suffering changed not only Wiesel’s life but the lives of millions of other Jews as well. Many remained faithful to God, while others began to question why He would allow His people to suffer.
Life consists of mysteries and unanswered questions. This is depicted throughout Wiesel’s Night. For instance, after being transported from Sighet, Wiesel and his family arrived in Auschwitz: “But we were pulling into a station. Someone near a window read to us: ‘Auschwitz.’ Nobody had ever heard that name” (Wiesel 45, Night). Today, Auschwitz will forever be recognized as the home of the world’s greatest evil—the Holocaust. Today all of humanity has come to learn that no explanation or literary work can justify why millions of Jews were forced to suffer and witness their journey here on earth come to an end. The Holocaust remains a pure mystery that not even Wiesel’s literary works could understand or describe. To Wiesel, such mystery did not become a reality until he saw children and babies burnt to death, in flames: “Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky” (Wiesel 52, Night). This marked the beginning of a frustrating and upsetting moment for Wiesel—the moment he began to question his faith. How can God allow His innocent children to be burnt to death? What did the Jewish people do to deserve such cruelty? This forces Wiesel to question the true meaning of life and his faith—God’s purpose in one’s life. This is evident in the following quotation: “Some of the men spoke of God: His mysterious ways, the sins of the Jewish people, and the redemption to come. As for me, I had ceased to pray I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice” (Wiesel 63, Night). Young Wiesel would have not stopped praying nor doubted God’s absolute justice if it were not for his early experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Readers must understand that this conversation about God among the male prisoners marks the beginning in which young Wiesel officially begins to question his faith, specifically his God’s method in allowing His people to suffer. The depiction of questioning God’s process in Night, shows readers that the in life, every religious human being questions the way his/her God deals with human suffering here on earth, but not His existence.
On the other hand, in life, one only begins to question God’s purpose in their life, when one begins to suffer, especially when one feels abandoned by God. The sense of neglect forces one to question one’s faith—no longer fully devoted to God. It is important to keep in mind that the sense of abandonment and faith go hand-and-hand, mainly because from a religious point-of-view, one would never expect to feel neglected by God. In this case, Wiesel has: “The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?” (Wiesel 51, Night). Here, Wiesel seems to no longer love his God unconditionally nor a devotee of the creator of heaven and earth. Wiesel is claiming that his God chose to remain silent, especially when His people needed His mercy the most. Thus, forcing the reader to realize that war has undue all of Wiesel’s faith.
Moreover, in Night, Wiesel depicts suffering as a major theme throughout his memoir. Wiesel is attempting to show the reader that in life, one will encounter suffering at least once—if not multiple times. For that reason, it is pivotal for one to find different ways to cope with suffering. For example, Wiesel managed to survive one of the world’s greatest evils—the Holocaust. How so? Wiesel found a way to express his beliefs and feelings regarding what it means to suffer through his writing. Writing is an essential form of expression, especially since it enables one to express feelings, thoughts, and ideas regarding a subject matter.
Legacy of Wiesel’s Night—A True Depiction of War Suffering and Evil
The purpose of this section is to describe how Wiesel’s Night portrays war suffering and evil. This makes Wiesel’s text powerful; it is his legacy. In “Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel,” Fine argues that “Wiesel writes from the perspective of a witness-story-teller who knows that the essence of his story—filled with unanswered political, philosophical, and theological questions is impossible to communicate” (1). Therefore, when reading and analyzing Night, it is important for readers to keep in mind that throughout his memoir, Wiesel describes his experiences during the Holocaust from a unique standpoint (Fine 1). When reading the text “one cannot separate his life from his work; both possess moral beauty and a deep religious feeling” (Cedars 298). This is because Wiesel’s memoir is a literary text that illustrates both the history of the Holocaust and Wiesel’s traumatic experiences.
When reading a war literature text, the reader should ask the following question: “What does the writing of history have to do with the writing of trauma?” (Sanyal 301). Such question is pivotal because it forces one to realize that writing about history and writing about trauma are two different things. Sanyal’s review of LaCapra’s Writing History, Writing Trauma, argues that writing about history (the past) and writing about trauma (a real-life traumatic experience) are different: “As the comma between them suggests, writing history (writing about the past) and writing trauma (conveying that past's resistance to writing) are not incompatible representational practices, even if they have been traditionally opposed as the dichotomy between history and literature, historicism and psychoanalysis or historiography and literary criticism” (Sanyal 301). In LaCapra’s text, the goal is to depict clearly to the readers the distinctions between writing about history and trauma—with respect to major historical events. Yet, in Night, Wiesel depicts both the true history of the Holocaust and his traumatic experiences at Auschwitz.
Wiesel writes about both history and trauma and this is clearly depicted in the following quotation: ‘“From this moment on, you are under the authority of the German Army. Anyone who still owns gold, silver, or watches must hand them over now. Anyone who will be found to have kept any of these will be shot on the spot”’ (Wiesel 41-42, Night). Here readers learn that Wiesel was able to write this narration from two standpoints, factual and traumatic; hence, making Night a text that clearly depicts history and trauma. When reading the text, the reader is invited to embark on two unique journeys. One journey enables the reader to learn about historical facts, from the establishment of the ghetto in Sighet to the liberation of Buchenwald. The other journey invites readers to visualize Wiesel’s traumatic experiences during the Holocaust, such as his arrival at Auschwitz.
In Writing History, Writing Trauma, LaCapra argues the following: “In other words, writing is a medium for expressing a content, and its ideal goal is to be transparent to content or an open window on the past—with figures of rhetoric serving only an instrumental role in illustrating what could be expressed without loss in literal terms” (3). When applying LaCapra’s argument to Night, the reader is able to realize that Wiesel writes about history and trauma with clear rhetoric and this enables the reader to get a clear understanding of the memoir’s subject matter. Nevertheless, Wiesel’s memoir opens a unique window for the readers, one of history and trauma, and this is where LaCapra’s argument about writing about history must be considered when analyzing the war text, mainly because Wiesel is ideally transparent. He uses clear, vivid, and descriptive writing to portray his message. For instance, Wiesel ends his memoir by telling his readers that he was able to see himself in front of a mirror once again, three days after his liberation from the concentration camps. This was something that he had not done since living in the ghetto. The mirror symbolizes self-reflection; he survived one of the world’s greatest evils.
With that being said, Wiesel’s text calls for readers to realize that history can repeat itself. King Faisal El-Hashemite I once said, “He who reads history foresees the future.” With Night being a text that describes history and trauma, one can claim that it is also a text that attempts to bring awareness to current wars and especially civil unrests like those in modern Syria and Nicaragua. One can claim that the innocent civilians from these respective locations can one day go on to publish memoirs describing the history of their civil wars and their traumatic experiences with the war as well.
Moreover, there are many history textbooks, novels, biographies, and so on, that aim to teach one, and future generations the realities of the Holocaust. For that reason, Wiesel will forever be known as one of the world’s greatest Holocaust writers. When writing Night and presenting it to the world, Wiesel took risks, “those of artist, philosopher and theologian…” (Diamond 284). The risks that Wiesel took were unavoidable. Thus, making Night a text that one should read and analyze more than once, mainly because when reading it, the reader gets the chance to develop a personal relationship with the words on each page. Wiesel encourages the reader to see life from different perspectives, as well as challenges him or her to think critically about all aspects of life.
In conclusion, life may be the greatest gift of all. It is also the most mysterious, especially since all of humanity tends to truly believe that in life, everything happens for a reason. Wiesel was meant to be a member of this cruel world. He never gave up on humanity. As Wiesel mentions in Night, the Holocaust should never be forgotten. The history of the Holocaust will forever be an eternal living memorial; a memoir that depicts history and trauma. Wiesel uses vivid, descriptive, and transparent rhetoric to convey both the history of the Holocaust and the traumatic experiences he was forced to endure as a young man.
The Portrayal of Suffering in Wiesel’s First Novel—Dawn
For this portion of the paper, the focus shifts from critically analyzing Wiesel’s depiction of suffering, death, and evil in the memoir Night, to analyzing the portrayals in Wiesel’s first novel, Dawn. The novel is written from a narrative point-of-view. The goal of the novel is to explore Wiesel’s hidden doubts, which derived after the Holocaust: “So I wrote this novel in order to explore distant memories and buried doubts: What would have become of me if I had spent not just one year in the camps, but two or four? If I had been appointed Kapo? Could I have struck a friend? Humiliated an old man?” (Wiesel 140, Dawn). In his novel, Wiesel invites the reader to join him on a journey of buried doubts and questions. Wiesel’s hidden uncertainties and questions show the readers that there is a relationship between his doubts, questions, suffering, and trauma. The connection makes the journey possible because of Wiesel’s real-life suffering and traumatic experiences.
In addition, sixteen years after being liberated from Buchenwald, Wiesel was able to share with the world a narrative of trauma—one of doubts and unanswered questions. It is important to realize that there is a reason why being able to write about trauma, in this case, writing from a narrative and traumatic point-of-view takes time. As he explains Cathy Carruth’s theory, James Berger states that “Caruth argues that trauma as it first occurs is incomprehensible. It is only later, after a period of latency, that it can be placed in a narrative” (Berger 577). It is significant for readers of war literature, especially those written from a traumatic perspective, to understand that each word used to express one’s trauma is carefully selected. The end goal is for the words to share an experience and evoke a sense of emotion in the readers, and in Dawn, Wiesel awakens a sense of sympathy from the readers.
Dawn begins with Wiesel describing the novel’s protagonist Elisha, as a young survivor of the death camps. Wiesel describes Elisha as “…an orphan bereft not only of his father and mother, but of hope…” (Wiesel 139, Dawn). Now, the key question that comes to mind when reading the first page of this novel is the following: Will Wiesel depict Elisha as a young Holocaust survivor who will express his suffering and pain endured in the camps through evil acts?—Such as by committing murder or forcing others to experience suffering as well. Wiesel portrays suffering and evil from different standpoints. For instance, the readers can claim that Elisha is a lost human being with no hope. Hence, being recruited by a powerful terrorist movement does not seem wrong in the eyes of Elisha, mainly because as a young teenager, he has seen members of the Nazi Party commit horrific acts, such as the murder of innocent human beings. Wiesel wants the readers to understand that he is not defending Elisha’s violent act. He simply wants readers to realize that Elisha, a miserable victim of war, took a different path in life after the Holocaust. As Wiesel mentions in Dawn, “And yet, this tale about despair becomes a story against despair” (Wiesel 141, Dawn) Wiesel wants the readers to understand that life is mysterious and that not even writing one’s thoughts on paper could explain such mystery. This claim forces one to ask himself or herself the following question: How different would life be if suffering was not destined to be a part of one’s life? Wiesel’s tale surely would not be about despair or against it.
At the beginning of the novel, the reader encounters the following statement, from the protagonist, Elisha: “Tomorrow, I thought for the hundredth time, I shall kill a man, and I wondered if the crying child and the woman across the way knew” (Wiesel 143, Dawn). The tears of the crying child represent the cry of an innocent child who feels that suffering and evil are near. Elisha does not know the man that he has been asked to kill. The reader learns that Elisha wants to hate John, the man he is destined to kill. However, deep down inside, Elisha does not want to kill John, but he realizes that his state-of-mind is corrupted due to the suffering, pain, and evil that he had experienced in the concentration camps: “I stayed for a few minutes beside him. There was a pain in my head and my body was growing heavy. The shot had left me deaf and dumb. That’s it, I said to myself. It’s done. I’ve killed. I’ve killed Elisha” (Wiesel 220, Dawn). This quotation is important because Elisha has recognized that he has killed himself mentally. He will forever suffer silently, mentally. This makes John’s death significant in this tale, mainly because Wiesel uses Elisha to express his hidden thoughts and doubts as a Holocaust survivor. It is a self-reflection of himself as an evil human being with a corrupt state-of-mind. Wiesel also uses his tale to write about trauma, specifically the effects of trauma post-Holocaust. In Night, Wiesel writes about both the history of the Holocaust and his traumatic experiences. In Dawn, Wiesel uses transparent rhetoric to depict a narrative of post-Holocaust trauma. Wiesel does so by using his silent thoughts, doubts, and distant memories to convey a narrative that allows him, as well as the readers to wonder and question why traumatic experiences tend to affect one’s life heavily.
When reading and analyzing the novel, it is pivotal for the reader to critically convey questions and thoughts, especially since the goal is to analyze Wiesel’s representation of suffering, death, and evil, from a narrative point-of-view. In fact, depictions of such struggles are similar to what one has learned from Night. For example, in Dawn, the protagonist, Elisha is depicted as a lost human being who suffers silently, mentally, just like Wiesel, in Night: “Fear caught my throat. The tattered fragment of darkness had a face. Looking at it, I understood the reason for my fear. The face was my own” (Wiesel 221, Dawn). Here, Wiesel ends his first novel with a vivid and a descriptive portrayal of a young Holocaust survivor who suffers silently, mentally. After committing murder, Elisha, himself realizes that has left John Dawson’s child without a father and that he did not only murder John, but himself. His evil act marks the beginning of a painful life journey for Elisha—for the rest of his life. It is a journey of internal and silent suffering.
To conclude, it is important for the reader to keep the following question in mind: Does being a victim of war force one’s state-of-mind to have racing and hidden thoughts of doubts? The uncertainties originate from one’s experiences with suffering, pain, and evil. In Dawn, Wiesel wants to bring awareness regarding the following: Being a victim of war changes one’s life within a blink of an eye, with no warning, and this forces one to question existence.
Wiesel’s Day—A Text That Shows The World That Hope Is Always Alive
After reading and analyzing Night and Dawn, the following questions came to mind: Is life worth living? Does suffering make life the greatest gift of all? Will hope forever overcome suffering and its hardships? I ask such questions because in his second novel, Day, Wiesel teaches the readers that in life, hope will forever be present in one’s heart. In fact, Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Hope is a renewable option: If you run out of it at the end of the day, you get to start over in the morning” (“Quotefancy” 1). In this portion of the paper, the following question will be answered: “In fact, the question has haunted me for a long time: Does life have meaning after Auschwitz?” (Wiesel 230, Day). In other words, the focus of this paper once again takes a shift. From critically analyzing suffering, death, and evil to transparently and vividly describing how Wiesel’s traumatic experience at Auschwitz serves as a primary example as to how in life, regardless of the obstacles and suffering that one may encounter, he or she should always remain hopeful.
Day is a short narrative that describes how Wiesel viewed the true meaning of life after the Holocaust. A narrative that invites the readers to travel inside of Wiesel’s mind and realize how difficult it was for him to adjust to life after his traumatic experiences at Auschwitz. Throughout the novel, one learns that at one point in his life, Wiesel found it impossible to find any form of joy or happiness, and that is evident in the following quotation: “For a young survivor whose knowledge of life and death surpasses that of his elders, wouldn’t suicide be a great a temptation as love or faith?” (Wiesel 230, Day). When reading the narrative, it is important for the readers to keep the following question in mind: Why is remaining hopeful fundamental in life? Remember, the end goal for one should be to live a life that matters. Despite his experience with suffering and moments in which he constantly found himself withdrawing from life, Wiesel still managed to find love and leave a legacy behind, as one of the foremost chroniclers of the Holocaust.
The goal of this paper was to invite my audience to embark on a journey of critical analysis and new perspectives—for Wiesel’s The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, Day. While reading my paper, the reader got the opportunity to learn and realize that Wiesel, throughout his literary works, he writes from two points-of-view, traumatic and historical. Thus, presenting his audience with transparent and vivid depictions that describe what it means to suffer, encounter death and evil, and still have hope for a better tomorrow—before, during, and after the Holocaust. To conclude, Wiesel’s texts will forever educate humanity, especially future generations to come, about the realities of war and how literature somehow flourishes from death, loss, pain, and suffering.
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