Elie Wiesel: Selections from Night
Elie Wiesel (b. 1928) is a survivor of a Nazi death camp and has been in the forefront of Holocaust literature. He has kept the world’s attention focused on the Holocaust, lest it be forgotten and history repeat itself. Wiesel was first interned by the Nazis in 1944 at Auschwitz, Poland, where his mother and youngest sister were killed in gas chambers; his two older sisters were taken elsewhere and killed. He and his father were then moved to the camp in Buchenwald, Germany, where his father died from hunger and disease. Wiesel survived to be freed by American troops in 1945. He because a U.S. citizen in 1963 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
He wrote the novel Night in 1960. Its central concern is how a beneficent God could have allowed the Final Solution. In Night, prior to this selection: The time is near the end of the war, when Russian invaders appeared to have the Germans on the Run. The narrator is living in an isolated village. A fellow Jew, fleeing from the Nazis, warns him and the rest of the village about mass killings. The villagers fail to heed this warning, only to fall victim to a last-ditch Nazi effort that results in shipping the entire village to a death camp.
The cherished objects we had brought with us thus far were left behind in the train, and with them, at last, our illusions.
Every two yards or so an SS man held his tommy gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the crowd.
An SS noncommissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order:
"Men to the left! Women to the right!"
Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father's hand: we were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother's hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister's fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other men. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand.
Behind me, an old man fell to the ground. Near him was an SS man, putting his revolver back in its holster.
My hand shifted on my father's arm. I had one thought not to lose him. Not to be left alone.
The SS officers gave the order:
Commotion. At all costs we must keep together.
"Here, kid, how old are you?"
It was one of the prisoners who asked me this. I could not see his face, but his voice was tense and weary.
"I'm not quite fifteen yet."
"But I'm not," I said. "Fifteen."
"Fool. Listen to what I say."
Then he questioned my father, who replied:
The other grew more furious than ever.
"No, not fifty. Forty. Do you understand? Eighteen and forty."
He disappeared into the night shadows. A second man came up, spitting oaths at us.
"What have you come here for, you sons of bitches? What are you doing here, eh?"
Someone dared to answer him.
"What do you think? Do you suppose we've come here for our own pleasure? Do you think we asked to come?"
A little more, and the man would have killed him.
"You shut your trap, you filthy swine, or I'll squash you right now! You'd have done better to have hanged yourselves where you were than come here. Didn't you know what was in store for you at Auschwitz? Haven't you heard about it? In 1944?"
No, we had not heard. No one had told us. He could not believe his ears. His tone of voice became increasingly brutal.
"Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there–that's where you're going to be taken. That's your grave, over there. Haven't you realized it yet? You dumb bastards, don't you understand anything? You're going to be burned. Frizzled away. Turned into ashes."
He was growing hysterical in his fury. We stayed motionless, petrified. Surely it was all a nightmare? An unimaginable nightmare?
I heard murmurs around me.
"We've got to do something. We can't let ourselves be killed. We can't go like beasts to the slaughter. We've got to revolt."
There were a few sturdy young fellows among us. They had knives on them, and they tried to incite the others to throw themselves on the armed guards.
One of the young men cried:
"Let the world learn of the existence of Auschwitz. Let everybody hear about it, while they can still escape...."
But the older ones begged their children not to do anything foolish:
"You must never lose faith, even when the sword hangs over your head. That's the teaching of our sages...."
The wind of revolt died down. We continued our march toward the square. In the middle stood the notorious Dr. Mengele (a typical SS officer: a cruel face, but not devoid of intelligence, and wearing a monocle); a conductor's baton in his hand, he was standing among the other officers. The baton moved unremittingly, sometimes to the right, sometimes to the left.
I was already in front of him:
"How old are you?" he asked, in an attempt at a paternal tone of voice.
"Eighteen." My voice was shaking.
"Are you in good health?"
"What's your occupation?"
Should I say that I was a student?
"Farmer," I heard myself say.
This conversation cannot have lasted more than a few seconds. It had seemed like an eternity to me.
The baton moved to the left. I took half a step forward. I wanted to see first where they were sending my father. If he went to the right, I would go after him.
The baton once again pointed to the left for him too. A weight was lifted from my heart.
We did not yet know which was the better side, right or left; which road led to prison and which to the crematory. But for the moment I was happy; I was near my father. Our procession continued to move slowly forward.
Another prisoner came up to us:
"Yes," someone replied.
"Poor devils, you're going to the crematory."
He seemed to be telling the truth. Not far from us, flames were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load–little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it– saw it with my own eyes . . . those children in the flames. (Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes.)
So this was where we were going. A little farther on was another and larger ditch for adults.
I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare.... Soon I should wake with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself back in the bedroom of my childhood, among my books....
My father's voice drew me from my thoughts:
"It's a shame . . . a shame that you couldn't have gone with your mother.... I saw several boys of your age going with their mothers...."
His voice was terribly sad. I realized that he did not want to see what they were going to do to me. He did not want to see the burning of his only son.
My forehead was bathed in cold sweat. But I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it....
"Humanity? Humanity is not concerned with us. Today anything is allowed. Anything is possible, even these crematories...."
His voice was choking.
"Father," I said, "if that is so, I don't want to wait here. I'm going to run to the electric wire. That would be better than slow agony in the flames."
He did not answer. He was weeping. His body was shaken convulsively. Around us, everyone was weeping. Someone began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I do not know if it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves.
"Yitgadal veyitkadach shmé raba.... May His name be blessed and magnified...." whispered my father.
For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?
We continued our march. We were gradually drawing closer to the ditch, from which an infernal heat was rising. Still twenty steps to go. If I wanted to bring about my own death, this was the moment. Our line had now only fifteen paces to cover. I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering. Ten steps still. Eight. Seven. We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our own funeral. Four steps more. Three steps. There it was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that was left of my strength, so that I could break from the ranks and throw myself upon the barbed wire. In the depths of my heart, I bade farewell to my father, to the whole universe; and, in spite of myself, the words formed themselves and issued in a whisper from my lips: Yitgadal veyitkadach shmé raba.... May His name be blessed and magnified.... My heart was bursting. The moment had come. I was face to face with the Angel of Death....
No. Two steps from the pit we were ordered to turn to the left and made to go into a barracks.
I pressed my father's hand. He said:
"Do you remember Madame Schachter, in the train?"
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.
The barracks we had been made to go into was very long. In the roof were some blue-tinged skylights. The antechamber of Hell must look like this. So many crazed men, so many cries, so much bestial brutality!
There were dozens of prisoners to receive us, truncheons in their hands, striking out anywhere, at anyone, without reasons. Orders:
"Strip! Fast! Los! Keep only your belts and shoes in your hands...."
We had to throw our clothes at one end of the barracks. There was already a great heap there. New suits and old, torn coats, rags. For us, this was the true equality, nakedness. Shivering with the cold.
Some SS officers moved about in the room, looking for strong men. If they were so keen on strength, perhaps one should try and pass oneself off as sturdy? My father thought the reverse. It was better not to draw attention to oneself. Our fate would then be the same as the others. (Later, we were to learn that he was right. Those who were selected that day were enlisted in the Sonder-Kommando, the unit which worked in the crematories. Bela Katz–son of a big tradesman from our town–had arrived at Birkenau with the first transport, a week before us. When he heard of our arrival, he managed to get word to us that, having been chosen for his strength, he had himself put his father's body into the crematory oven.)
Blows continued to rain down.
"To the barber!"
Belt and shoes in hand, I let myself be dragged off to the barbers. They took our hair off with clippers, and shaved off all the hair on our bodies. The same thought buzzed all the time in my head–not to be separated from my father.
Freed from the hands of the barbers, we began to wander in the crowd, meeting friends and acquaintances. These meetings filled us with joy–yes, joy–"Thank God! You're still alive!"
But others were crying. They used all their remaining strength in weeping. Why had they let themselves be brought here? Why couldn't they have died in their beds? Sobs choked their voices.
Suddenly, someone threw his arms round my neck in an embrace: Yechiel, brother of the rabbi of Sighet. He was sobbing bitterly. I thought he was weeping with joy at still being alive.
"Don't cry, Yechiel," I said. "Don't waste your tears...."
"Not cry? We're on the threshold of death.... Soon we shall have crossed over.... Don't you understand? How could I not cry?"
Through the blue-tinged skylights I could see the darkness gradually fading. I had ceased to feel fear. And then I was overcome by an inhuman weariness.
Those absent no longer touched even the surface of our memories. We still spoke of them–"Who knows what may have become of them?"–but we had little concern for their fate. We were incapable of thinking of anything at all. Our senses were blunted; everything was blurred as in a fog. It was no longer possible to grasp anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had all deserted us. In one ultimate moment of lucidity it seemed to me that we were damned souls wandering in the half-world, souls condemned to wander through space till the generations of man came to an end, seeking their redemption, seeking oblivion–without hope of finding it.
Toward five o'clock in the morning, we were driven out of the barracks. The Kapos beat us once more, but I had ceased to feel any pain from their blows. An icy wind enveloped us. We were naked, our shoes and belts in our hands. The command: "Run!" And we ran. After a few minutes of racing, a new barracks.
A barrel of petrol at the entrance. Disinfection. Everyone was soaked in it. Then a hot shower. At high speed. As we came out from the water, we were driven outside. More running. Another barracks, the store. Very long tables. Mountains of prison clothes. On we ran. As we passed, trousers, tunic, shirt, and socks were thrown to us.
Within a few seconds, we had ceased to be men. If the situation had not been tragic, we should have roared with laughter. Such outfits! Meir Katz, a giant, had a child's trousers, and Stern, a thin little chap, a tunic which completely swamped him. We immediately began the necessary exchanges.
I glanced at my father. How he had changed! His eyes had grown dim. I would have liked to speak to him, but I did not know what to say.
The night was gone. The morning star was shining in the sky. I too had become a completely different person. The student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it.
So much had happened within such a few hours that I had lost all sense of time. When had we left our houses? And the ghetto? And the train? Was it only a week? One night–one single night?
How long had we been standing like this in the icy wind? An hour? Simply an hour? Sixty minutes?
Surely it was a dream.
Not far from us there were some prisoners at work. Some were digging holes, others carrying sand. None of them so much as glanced at us. We were so many dried-up trees in the heart of a desert. Behind me, some people were talking. I had not the slightest desire to listen to what they were saying, to know who was talking or what they were talking about. No one dared to raise his voice, though there was no supervisor near us. People whispered. Perhaps it was because of the thick smoke which poisoned the air and took one by the throat....
We were made to go into a new barracks, in the "gypsies' camp." In ranks of five.
"And now stay where you are!"
There was no floor. A roof and four walls. Our feet sank into the mud.
Another spell of waiting began. I went to sleep standing up. I dreamed of a bed, of my mother's caress. And I woke up: I was standing, my feet in the mud. Some people collapsed and lay where they were. Others cried:
"Are you mad? We've been told to stay standing. Do you want to bring trouble on us all?"
As if all the trouble in the world had not descended already upon our heads! Gradually, we all sat down in the mud. But we had to jump up constantly, every time a Kapo came in to see if anybody had a pair of new shoes. If so, they had to be given up to him. It was no use opposing this: blows rained down and in the final reckoning you had lost your shoes anyway.
I had new shoes myself. But as they were coated with a thick layer of mud, no one had noticed them. I thanked God, in an improvised prayer, for having created mud in His infinite and wonderful universe.
Suddenly the silence grew oppressive. An SS officer had come in and, with him, the odor of the Angel of Death. We stared fixedly at his fleshy lips. From the middle of the barracks, he harangued us:
"You're in a concentration camp. At Auschwitz...."
A pause. He observed the effect his words had produced. His face has stayed in my memory to this day. A tall man, about thirty, with crime inscribed upon his brow and in the pupils of his eyes. He looked us over as if we were a pack of leprous dogs hanging onto our lives.
"Remember this," he went on. "Remember it forever. Engrave it into your minds. You are at Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It's a concentration camp. Here, you have got to work. If not, you will go straight to the furnace. To the crematory. Work or the crematory–the choice is in your hands."
We had already lived through so much that night, we thought nothing could frighten us any more. But his clipped words made us tremble. Here the word "furnace" was not a word empty of meaning: it floated on the air, mingling with the smoke. It was perhaps the only word which did have any real meaning here. He left the barracks. Kapos appeared, crying:
"All skilled workers–locksmiths, electricians, watchmakers–one step forward!"
The rest of us were made to go to another barracks, a stone one this time. With permission to sit down. A gypsy deportee was in charge of us.
My father was suddenly seized with colic. He got up and went toward the gypsy, asking politely, in German:
"Excuse me, can you tell me where the lavatories are?"
The gypsy looked him up and down slowly, from head to foot. As if he wanted to convince himself that this man addressing him was really a creature of flesh and bone, a living being with a body and a belly. Then, as if he had suddenly woken up from a heavy doze, he dealt my father such a clout that he fell to the ground, crawling back to his place on all fours.
I did not move. What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, before my very eyes, and I had not flickered an eyelid. I had looked on and said nothing. Yesterday, I should have sunk my nails into the criminal's flesh. Had I changed so much, then? So quickly? Now remorse began to gnaw at me. I thought only: I shall never forgive them for that. My father must have guessed my feelings. He whispered in my ear, "It doesn't hurt." His cheek still bore the red mark of the man's hand.
Ten gypsies had come and joined our supervisor. Whips and truncheons cracked round me. My feet were running without my being aware of it. I tried to hide from the blows behind the others. The spring sunshine.
The prisoners whom I had noticed in the morning were working at the side. There was no guard near them, only the shadow of the chimney.... Dazed by the sunshine and by my reverie, I felt someone tugging at my sleeve. It was my father. "Come on, my boy."
We marched on. Doors opened and closed again. On we went between the electric wires. At each step, a white placard with a death's head on it stared us in the face. A caption: "Warning. Danger of death." Mockery: was there a single place here where you were not in danger of death?
The gypsies stopped near another barracks. They were replaced by SS, who surrounded us. Revolvers, machine guns, police dogs.
The march had lasted half an hour. Looking around me, I noticed that the barbed wires were behind us. We had left the camp.
It was a beautiful April day. The fragrance of spring was in the air. The sun was setting in the west.
But we had been marching for only a few moments when we saw the barbed wire of another camp. An iron door with this inscription over it:
"Work is liberty!"