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Religion played a role throughout Elie Wiesel’s life. It shaped him into the man he would later become. His experiences throughout the Holocaust continuously tested his faith in God. He often struggled with the problem of evil in the world and would question: “if God has all these aspects how can evil exist in the world”? This essay will discuss Elie’s struggle with his religious beliefs before, during, and after the Holocaust. It will also outline how the problem of evil significantly impacted his life and influenced his relationship with God. I argue, that through Elie Wiesel’s personal encounters with evil during the Holocaust his religious beliefs were significantly impacted. This is evident from his life transition from being a devout Jew to doubting God, and going back to his religious beliefs after.
Elie was raised in Romania with his three sisters until about the age of fifteen. As a young boy, he was moved by his grandfather’s and grandmother’s divine convictions, which inspired him to engage more in religious studies. He often went and “pursued religious studies at a nearby yeshiva”. The yeshiva was the Orthodox Jewish private school that he went to. “As a yeshiva student, Elie centered mainly on the close textual study of a canon of ancient and medieval texts central to Jewish life: the Torah, and the Talmud”. Elie was very committed to his studies at this time. He would study the Talmud all day and study the Kabbalah during the evenings. Little did Elie know that soon all this would change. His faith in the almighty would be challenged by horrific experiences he would come to encounter. His life would never be the same. One day, Elie’s teacher (Moishe) was taken away by the Hungarian police with a bunch of other Jews. A lot of people from within the town ignored the disappearance of these people. During Moishe’s capture, he escaped and came back. He started to knock on everyone’s doors and tell what had happened to him. He told them that the soldiers had forced the Jews to dig their own graves. The soldiers made all the people line up right in front of the grave and shot them one by one. Nobody believed Moishe they just kept ignoring the reality of it. The Nazis hated the Jews, but everyone’s judgment was clouded by their acts of kindness. Until the day finally came, the “Hungarian police burst into every Jewish home in town demanding to give them all their valuables, and they were forced to wear a yellow star”.
Everything since then continued to change for Elie and his family. All the Jews had to pack up their belongings and leave their town. The Hungarian police had taken every one to Auschwitz. When they got there Elie and his father got separated from his mother and two sisters. Elie and his father learned soon enough what Auschwitz was. It was a place where “men, women, and children were being burned and the world was kept silent about it”. During their time in Auschwitz, Elie, and his father had to sleep on hard bunkers. Although Elie and his father had to work in gruesome conditions, his faith was not shaken immediately, or even quickly. People around him took the evil as a punishment for some unknown crime the Jews as a people had committed before God”. Some people in the camp would continually recite Kaddish. Elie even heard his father doing it as well. One day, Elie got fed up with everything and became angry and thought, “Why should I sanctify his name? What was there to thank him for”? The God of the universe has done nothing during this horrible time. He has been mute. Elie was upset with God he didn’t understand why this was happening. This was the first time that he questioned his religious beliefs. They saw many people die during their time in the camp. They witnessed many being whipped, hanged, and shot. It became unbearable. Elie began to rebel and accuse God for everything that had happened. He was scared, and now knew what it was like to live in a world without God. “During the Day of Atonement, as a symbol of rebellion Elie did not fast, but instead he ate some soup that was given to him. He used it as “a symbol to protest against him”. Before coming to Auschwitz, he would partake in this year because he was Jewish. It was a very big deal for him not to participate.
In the camps, all the people had to participate in the death march for hours to the sound of the knell. Around six o’clock on one of these marches, Elie was running beside one of the men with his father. However, the man’s father could not keep up with him and slowly started to disappear into the crowd of people. Elie watched this happen it was almost like the young man wanted to dispose of his father like he was weighing him down. After the march, the father went looking for the son. This encounter with these people began to change Elie’s perspective and ways of thinking. He first thought that getting rid of his father could be a good thing, but then realized he shouldn’t be thinking like that after all his father did raise him: “A prayer formed inside of him, a prayer to this God in whom he no longer believed”. He prayed and asked God for him to never be like that. This was not the only time he was faced with the problem of evil.
The days in the camps were always long and hard. This caused deep concern for Elie. He began to get worried about his father. He had started to age a lot more since coming to the camp. His father grew weak and became very ill. He got to the point where he just couldn’t move around very well. The guards mistook him for dead once. Elie would go every day and get his father food and bring it to him. Some of the men in the camps were astonished by his acts. One of the men approached Elie and told him, “don’t forget that you are in a concentration camp. In this place, it is every man for himself, and you cannot think of others. Not even your father. In this place, there is no such thing as a father, brother, or friend. Each of us lives and dies”. Elie thought about this statement for a long time. He was almost convinced, he thought why should I be giving my father his portions when I could have them? This thought didn’t last long, and he soon came to the realization that was the wrong thing to do. He even felt guilty about thinking this way. The next few days in the camp were rough ones. His father wouldn’t eat the soup anymore and just wanted water. He began to yell at Elie. Unfortunately, an officer overheard and got really angry. He started to hit Elie’s father over the head with his club. His father just kept yelling over at him to come even though the blows got harder each time, but he refused. He was scared of the officer that he might hit him this time, so he stayed away. He watched his father from afar lay lifeless on the ground. The next day when Elie woke up his father was gone. He was taken to the crematorium.
Elie remained alone until April 11, 1945, until the camp was liberated. After “he was sent to France to study as part of a group of Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust. There he was given a choice — secular studies, or religious studies”. Even though Elie had been through a lot he decided to forgive God and rejoin religious studies once again. He also married and had one son. He wrote many books related to his experiences he had in the Holocaust and died at the age of 87.
In conclusion, before the Holocaust Elie was a very devout Jewish boy and thought of God as the “as both the protector and punisher of the Jewish people”. During the Holocaust, he had struggled with the problem of evil in many situations and even doubted God. He thought that God was being cruel and allowing all his people to die. Although he had endured some horrific experiences, he decided to give God another chance: “He was willing to accept all the pain and suffering that had been heaped on them and their families and friends, and forgive God; for He, hopefully, knows what He is doing. And even if He doesn’t, He is still God”.
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