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Nighttime is usually viewed as a silent period; cars no longer clutter the roads, restaurants have shut down, and people are quietly sleeping in their beds. It seems only appropriate then that Elie Wiesel’s Night should have so much meaning wrapped up in this theme of silence. In fact, Wiesel’s personal account of the Holocaust recounts what could be described as a “silent period” in world history (for various reasons that will be examined). This idea of silence floods Wiesel’s narrative in several forms. This paper will attempt to examine three specific types of silence present in Wiesel’s short novel: individualistic – as seen specifically through the eyes of the narrator, communal – as it relates to both the Jewish community and their relationship with the Nazis, and spiritual – both in Wiesel’s struggle with God and in the Lord’s apparent silence to His followers.
The first of these is perhaps the saddest example present in Night. Wiesel struggles mainly with what could be described as physical silence, in that he is unable or unwilling to physically act even when he knows that he should. One of the first examples occurs when Idek attacks Wiesel for no apparent reason. Wiesel tries his hardest to remain silent, but this is only interpreted as “defiance” by his assailant (60). This is an example of how Wiesel already seems so crushed by the oppression of his surroundings that he does not even consider fighting back. His only reaction is to remain docile and hope that the unprovoked rage will subside. However, one cannot help but wonder what might have happened if Wiesel had not remained silent.
Perhaps even sadder is when the same man attacks Wiesel’s father. Instead of rushing to his rescue, Wiesel actually becomes angry with his father for “not knowing how to avoid Idek’s outbreak” (62). Wiesel has quickly become silent both in his obedience to his oppressors and in his loyalty to his father. He even acknowledges in the next sentence that this “is what concentration camp life had made of me” (62). Wiesel, who had less than a year earlier been living peacefully in his adolescent bliss, now cannot even bring himself to defend the only person that he has left to care about. Such is the nature of silent suffering in Night.
A third example, again involving Idek, occurs when Wiesel witnesses him having sex with a young girl and accidentally breaks out laughing. Wiesel is “seized… by the throat,” threatened for not keeping quiet, and whipped twenty-five times (64-65). After awakening from the whipping, Wiesel is unable to even answer Idek. “If only I could have told him that I could not move!” (65). Wiesel is beaten to the point of silent submission simply because he was unable to keep quiet when it really mattered. This illustrates exactly why silence is so prevalent in Wiesel’s particular situation; not keeping silent can cost you a beating, or possibly even death.
This is also well illustrated in the final example of this type of silence as Wiesel watches his father die before his very eyes. Wiesel has done what he can to alleviate his father’s sufferings in his last few days on earth, bringing him soup and attending to him in his hospital bed. However, these kind acts are not done without a sense of selfishness: Wiesel, talking to himself, acknowledges, “It’s too late to save your old father… You ought to be having two rations of bread” (115). Wiesel nurses the idea that his life is more important than his dying father’s. But, of course, he does this only within himself, never sharing his thoughts with any one. In this way, Wiesel demonstrates the only form of suffering that seemed to exist in the death camps: silence – whether internal or outwardly. And his suffering is only magnified when his father does finally pass away whispering his son’s name. Weisel does not even react when his father is literally beaten to death before his eyes: “I did not move. I was afraid” (116). Wiesel never made a conscious decision to abandon his father; it simply happened as a result of the oppressive lifestyle of the concentration camps. And while this is justifiable in Wiesel’s situation, this scene still demonstrates exactly what becomes of a person when they are unable to express their opinions or feelings at all. The only two options for Holocaust victims seems to be evident in all of these examples: keep quiet or die.
This is reflected in the novel not only in Wiesel’s struggles but also in the lives of the entire oppressed Jewish race. The Nazis forced these innocent people into these camps where they were slaughtered without cause. One of the first images Wiesel witnesses at Birkenau leaves a scar that is representative of this idea of “victims without reason”: the image of babies being burned alive. “How could it be possible for [the Nazis] to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? …It was a nightmare” (41). Wiesel seems to speak not just for himself here, but for the whole of the human race. The Jewish people were forced into a life that they had done nothing to deserve. Everything was taken from them, possessions (43-44), family (38-39), and even their lives. Six million people were silenced and these poor souls could do nothing more than stand by, watch, and pray that it did not happen to them.
Occasionally, of course, there was an example of the brighter side of humanity shining through, as is evidenced by Wiesel’s friend, Juliek, who manages to hide his violin from the Nazis even until his death (100). “He played a fragment from Beethoven’s concerto,” which he had been ordered not to (100, 57). Here is an example of one man who broke the silence that the Nazis had perpetrated upon him. They had attempted to silence the music that Juliek wished to play, saying, “Jews [are] not allowed to play German music” (57). However, Juliek held onto his very last possession to the bitter end. His violin is perhaps the most significant example of defiance towards the Nazis in the entire novel simply because he plays it proudly and publicly in open rebellion. But, unfortunately, this kind of behavior is not typical of the Jewish people in Night.
Instead, they turn upon one another, in effect actually helping the Nazis with their campaign. One of the first examples occurs when Madame Schachter refuses to keep quite on the train and “some of the young men [force] her to sit down, [tie] her up, and put a gag in her mouth” (34). The other Jews cannot stand her incessant ranting about “fire” and desire nothing more than silence. This actually provides an allusion to the earlier point of silence being connected with nighttime. These exhausted Jews, who still have no idea what they are in for, wish for nothing more than to be able to pass the night away quietly on the train, which has temporarily become their sanctuary. In this situation, silence is actually preferable.
Another example of the Jews betraying one another occurs in a slightly different form when Wiesel witnesses the hanging of a fellow Jew. Ten thousand prisoners watch without a sound. A Nazi commander orders them to bare their heads as a sign of respect. All ten thousand do as they are told and then file past the deceased without so much as a word. Wiesel’s only comment in regards to this is that he “found the soup excellent that evening” (70). This clearly demonstrates what is already happening to the Jewish victims at this point in the book; they have lost their true sense of mourning, even silently, and now place more value on food than the death of a man they knew. Silent “last respects” take on an ironic tone simply because these tortured people no longer seem capable of showing true remorse. In this way, the Jews are actually helping to kill their own because they are unable to even respect another after his death.
Another brief example of this occurs when Akiba Drummer is condemned to die and he asks Wiesel and others to “Say the Kaddish for [him]” (83). They promise but eventually forget when the time comes. In this way, Wiesel reflects the terrible nature that had overtaken him and his people: prayers were no longer said for the deceased; they were simply forgotten. Human beings were no longer respected enough to remember. Silence, in this case spiritually, had become a way of life not just for Wiesel but for all the Jews in the concentration camps.
One last example of this communal form of silence takes place during the snowy run from Auschwitz to Gleiwitz. The Jews are given a brief reprieve at one point and Wiesel takes the opportunity to lay down in the snow with his father. And as much as he wishes to die, “something within [him] revolted against death” (95). He refuses to end up like the others Jews surrounding him: “All around me death was moving in, silently, without violence. It would seize upon some sleeping being, enter into him, and consume him bit by bit” (95). This was the true nature of the Holocaust death; Jews had lost their ability to fight. There was no kicking or screaming; death simply took these sad fragments of people while they slept. In a way, this seems fitting to the rest of the Jewish experience in the camps. These innocents had almost subconsciously learned to suffer in silence, and when the final reckoning came they met it in silence as well. The Jewish spirit had been crushed on that “death march,” and it was sadly appropriate that so many should meet their end in the same way that they had been forced to live: in silence.
But, the story of Night is not completely devoid of any hope. The few true signs of breaking the silence in this terrible situation come in the form of religious belief. Wiesel is certainly not the shining example of eternal loyalty to God that the beginning of the narrative implies he might be. However, his struggle with God, manifested both in his relationship with others and internally, is certainly a worthy effort. The first example of this valiant, yet often times silent, fight occurs during Wiesel’s first night in the camp when he speaks of never being able to shake the memory of what had happened to him and his people. “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 those things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never” (43). Here can be seen Wiesel’s first true break from his faith. He has changed so rapidly from a boy who “believed profoundly” (14) in the opening of the narrative to a broken man that actually watches his faith die before him. He also makes note of the “nocturnal silence” in the aforementioned passage. This is significant because it once again draws the reader back to this idea of night being a silent time. The world is supposed to be peacefully at rest. However, in Wiesel’s world, silence means nothing more than death; and in this case it is the death of God.
Another instance of Wiesel watching God be “murdered” occurs when the Nazis hang three prisoners, one of them a boy. As the other prisoners pass by, Wiesel hears a man ask aloud where God is in this situation. Wiesel responds silently to himself: “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging on this gallows” (72). This passage speaks volumes not only about Wiesel’s own struggles, but also about the actual role that God plays in the Holocaust. Wiesel has reached a point where he is no longer able to believe in the goodness and justice of God. He never states that he no longer believes completely. In fact, this is very significant to his journey later. However, for now, Wiesel simply denies that God could possibly care about the Jews, His chosen people. This raises the interesting topic of religious silence, this time from the “perspective” of God. The Almighty is seemingly silent during the entire ordeal that Wiesel and others like him faced. If nothing else, it is not hard to sympathize with and understand why Wiesel found it impossible to retain his faith in this situation.
However, his faith actually seems stronger than he might be willing to admit. An interesting example of this occurs on Yom Kippur when Wiesel decides not to fast in order to defy God. “I no longer accepted God’s silence. As I swallowed my bowl of soup, I saw in the gesture an act of rebellion and protest against Him” (76). Again, Wiesel makes mention of the fact that God is silent. He never claims that God is completely dead or that his faith is shattered totally. Even when the young boy died on the gallows, Wiesel seemed to only be declaring his faith in God dead, and not God Himself. This is significant because Wiesel specifically says that he no longer accepts God’s silence, and yet that statement implies that he does have some faith in God left simply because he acknowledges His existence. Wiesel may have become silent in his relationship towards the Creator but, as can be seen in previous examples, silence does not necessarily mean complete detachment. God is seemingly silent towards Wiesel and his fellow prisoners, so Wiesel is silent right back. This is probably the lowest point that Wiesel reaches in the entire novel. After this outright act of defiance, the reader is able to see an example of a slight change of heart for Wiesel.
This occurs during the death march when Wiesel realizes that Rabbi Eliahou’s son had left his own father behind to die in the snow. This arouses something unexpected in Wiesel: “And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done” (97). This scene is hugely important because it marks a “breaking of the silence” for Wiesel. He prays, in spite of himself, to God. This, of course, does not mean that Wiesel is once again going to become the truth seeking, weeping for the oppressed student of the Torah that he once was. However, it does seem to be an encouraging step in the right direction. But, like much that is good in Night, it does not last too long.
Wiesel’s father soon dies, as was mentioned earlier, and Wiesel simply lives out his remaining time in his new concentration camp in relative silence. In fact, the remaining few pages of the novel after the death of Wiesel’s father have no dialogue of any kind. It is almost as if Wiesel is saying that his only reason for still communicating with the rest of humanity died with his father. His life is now nothing more than a silent waiting game. And when he finally is freed at the end of the novel, he spends a couple weeks in a hospital “between life and death” (119). He eventually gathers his strength and looks at himself in the mirror, describing himself simply as a “corpse” (119). Here, even in the last few sentences, Wiesel seems to wallow in this idea of silence. He wavers between this world and the next, and one cannot help but wonder if he really wants to go on living or not. Would it not be so much simpler to just pass away into eternal silence rather than face the cruel reality of this world? Wiesel does not seem so sure either way. And the image of a corpse only furthers this idea of the living death, which seemed to pervade the entire novel. Wiesel is not necessarily better off than he was before. Now, he has lost everything – including his father – and he has only his painfully quiet world of bitter memories to live in.
This seems as if it would be the logical place for God to enter the picture. Wiesel was obviously showing some interest, however slight, in rekindling his faith. But as the novel ends, there is no sign of God. There is no grand justification or succinct explanation. There is no burial for the lost or peace for the survivors. God has evidently abandoned his people. The world stood by quietly while six million people were murdered. Wiesel has witnessed this horrible silence in others and in himself. He has lost all that was precious to him. And the only solace that his readers can find is that he had the courage to write about his suffering, his silence. He may have seen all that was good and just vanish before his eyes, but he somehow retains the will to tell others about his experiences. In this way, and for what it is worth, Wiesel has managed to break his silence.
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