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The Holocaust, The Jews of Sighet and Wiesel

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At the beginning of Night, Wiesel introduces someone he met toward the end of 1941. His name was Moshe, and he became one of the boy’s teachers. They discussed religious topics, and one day they talked about prayer. Wiesel asked Moshe why he prayed, and his teacher replied that he prayed for strength to ask God the right questions. Later, the Hungarian police deported Moshe from Sighet, Wiesel’s hometown, because he was a foreigner. His destination was Poland and death at the hands of the Germans, but somehow Moshe escaped and found his way back to Sighet. The Jews of Sighet did not believe his tale of destruction.

Although the Holocaust was raging all around them, the Hungarian Jews were not decimated until 1944. Their lives began to change drastically, however, once the Germans occupied Hungary that March. In a matter of days, Sighet’s Jews had to deal with quarantines, expropriations of their property, and the yellow stars that targeted them. Then they were ghettoized and deported. Jammed into train cars, destination unknown, the Jews of Sighet—Elie Wiesel, his little sister, Tzipora, and their parents among them—eventually crossed the Polish frontier and arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Emerging from their train-car prisons into midnight air fouled by burning flesh, the Jews of Sighet were separated by the secret police: men to the left, women to the right. Wiesel lost sight of his mother and little sister, not fully aware that the parting was forever. Father and son stuck together. Spared the fate of Wiesel’s mother and sister, they were not “selected” for the gas chambers but for slave labor instead. From late May, 1944, until mid-January, 1945, Wiesel and his father endured Auschwitz’s brutal regimen. As the Red Army approached the camp, the two were evacuated to Germany. Severely weakened by the death march to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father perished there, but the son was liberated on April 11, 1945.Night covers in detail these events, but it is much more than a chronological narrative. The power of this memoir emerges especially from the anguished questions that Wiesel’s Holocaust experiences will not put to rest. Before he entered Auschwitz, Wiesel “believed profoundly.” Yet on that fateful night, and in the days that followed, his world changed forever. Optimism about humankind, trust in the world, confidence in God—Auschwitz radically threatened, if it did not destroy, so many reasons for hope.

This point is illustrated especially well by one of the book’s most unforgettable moments. Wiesel describes the hanging of three Auschwitz prisoners—one of them a child. As the prisoners watched the child die, Wiesel heard a man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” Wiesel writes that “from within me. I heard a voice answer: ’Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’”Death’s reign in the Kingdom of Night was so pervasive that Wiesel ends Nightby reporting that a corpse stared back at him when he saw his own reflection in a mirror for the first time after liberation. Yet Night does not give death—God’s or humanity’s—the last word. By breaking silence, by telling a story that is full of reasons for despair, Wiesel protests against the wasting of life and testifies for the mending of the world by humankind and God alike.

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