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Powerful is an understatement
on January 18, 2006
I recall when I first read 'Night', it was just after Elie Wiesel had given a lecture at my university. It was in the mid-1980s, and the lecture hall was standing-room-only. Wiesel's presentation moved us to tears, and moved us to anger, and moved me to want to follow up on his words by reading what he had written.
This is written a style that seems to be typical of many modern Israeli novelists; it is so close to the truth of the actual events that transpired in Wiesel's life that it might as well be treated as autobiographical. Thus, it seems to some to be more a work like a novel than a memoir, but Weisel describes it himself as more of a deposition. It isn't autobiography in the traditional sense, but that is what helps give the book its power. Weisel remembers the events here, This is actually part of a trilogy - Night, Dawn, and The Accident - although each element stands alone with integrity. (Dawn and The Accident are works of fiction, but also draw on Weisel's own recollections and feelings.)
How does one deal with survival after such atrocities as that at Birkenau and Auschwitz? How can one have faith in the world? How can one accept that a people so closely identified with a powerful God can ever accept that God again? Where is God in the midst of such things?
Wiesel himself as spent his life in search of such answers, but doesn't provide them here. Why then would one want to read such accounts as these? Wiesel was silent for many years, until he was brought into speech and writing as a witness to the events. Wiesel proclaims that there is in the world now a new commandment - 'Thou shalt not stand idly by' - when such things are happening, one must act. One must remember the past in all its personal aspects to both honour those who suffered and to forestall such things happening again (which, given the the depressing repetitive nature of history, is a difficult task).
This is the longest short book I've ever read. It is one that has stayed with me from the first page, and I've never been able to shake the images brought forward, the misery and suffering, the existence of evil and brutality, the sadness and desolation. We live in a culture that likes to gloss over pain and suffering, mask it with drugs and other things, and always end the story with a happy ending.
There is no happy ending here - even Wiesel's own survival is a questionable good here. How does one live after this? How does the world go on?
One thing is certain, we must never forget, and this book is part of that active remembering that we are called to do.