(Posted to this site on 6/18/2001)
Memories of the Night
A STUDY OF THE HOLOCAUST
by Elie Wiesel
New York: Bantam Books, 1986 (Original copyright 1960)
(reference pages 111-114)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elie Wiesel was only twelve years old when, in 1941, the events of World War II and the Holocaust invaded his home in Sighet, Transylvania. His childhood was cut short, his dreams and beliefs shattered, as he witnessed the death of his family and his people in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. After the war, Wiesel took a 10-year vow of silence before he attempted to put into words the horror and pain of the Holocaust. When he finally wrote Night, Wiesel had difficulty finding a publisher, for it was believed that few would want to read such heart-wrenching words. Today it is one of the most read and respected books on the Holocaust.
After World War II, Wiesel lived in Paris, France, for 10 years where he studied at the Sorbonne and worked as a journalist, traveling to both Israel and the United States. Eventually, Wiesel moved to the United States and currently lives in New York City. In 1976, Wiesel became the Andrew Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Boston University. His book Night has been followed by other equally powerful books. Against Silence: The Voice and Vision of Elie Wiesel is a three-volume collection of his work. In 1985, Elie Wiesel was the recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and in 1986, he was honored with one of the greatest of all awards, the Nobel Peace Prize.
Over the years, Wiesel has, in a sense, become the soul of the Holocaust. His books and lectures compel us to not only confront the issues and consequences of the Holocaust, but to keep it in our memory to ensure that history is never repeated. He lives his life, he explains, in the pursuit of meaning. Wiesel has traveled all over the world, including Bosnia, where he attempted to assist with the peace efforts. His eloquence, sensitivity, and insights serve as the voice for those who can no longer speak.
Night is Elie Wiesel’s personal account of the Holocaust as seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy. The book describes Wiesel’s first encounter with prejudice and details the persecution of a people and the loss of his family. Wiesel’s experiences in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald are detailed; his accounts of starvation and brutality are shattering—a vivid testimony to the consequences of evil. Throughout the book, Wiesel speaks of the struggle to survive, the fight to stay alive while retaining those qualities that make us human. While Wiesel lost his innocence and many of his beliefs, he never lost his sense of compassion nor his inherent sense of right.
kabbala: Jewish mysticism studied by Jewish scholars.
ghetto: a small area of a city to which the Jewish people were restricted and from which they were forbidden to leave.
concentration camps: a group of labor and death camps in Germany and Poland.
kapo: overseer in charge of a work detail, or some other branch of a concentration camp. Often, kapos were selected from the prisoners—usually the criminals.
The cover of Night contains an illustration of a lone person surrounded by barbed wire. Encourage students to study this picture and create a list of words the image brings to mind. Have students select one of the words from this class list and write a brief essay in their journals that reflects the feelings that this word evokes. Allow time for students to share their essays.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
- Why did people in Wiesel’s village refuse to believe the warnings of Moshe the Beadle when he told them what happened to Jews who had been expelled from their villages in other countries? (They thought he was a madman. What he told them was too incomprehensible to be believed.)
- Why did the people in Wiesel’s village doubt Hitler’s plans to exterminate the Jewish population? (They did not think it was possible to wipe out a whole people, scattered as they were throughout so many countries.)
- How did the German soldiers win the confidence of the people of Sighet? (At first they treated the Jews politely. They lived in their homes and acted quite civilly. The people wanted to believe they were in no danger. Little by little, the soldiers took away their freedom—the leaders of the Jewish community were arrested; the Jewish people were put under house arrest; all their valuables were confiscated; the Jews were forced to wear a yellow star; the Jewish people were forced into ghettos; the ghettos were emptied and the people deported to concentration camps.)
- At one point, upon arrival at Auschwitz, the prisoners considered revolting. What stopped them? (The older people begged their children not to do anything foolish. They still believed that they should not lose hope and must adhere to the teachings of their faith.)
- Describe conditions in the death camps. (Prisoners were given barely enough food to survive, they were literally worked to death, they had little in the way of clothing to protect them from the freezing cold, they were kicked, beaten, and forced to suffer every inhumane treatment imaginable, and they lived with the constant threat of the furnaces.)
- When the Jewish people were being deported, they were allowed to take only one small bag with all their possessions. Evidence has shown that most people took their photograph albums. Why were these albums so important to them?
- Wiesel’s village was invaded by the Nazi soldiers in 1944, years after the extermination of Jews had begun. Why, after all this time, did the people have so little, if any, information about what had been happening to Jews all over Europe?
- Wiesel was given two contrasting pieces of advice about how to survive. One was from a young Pole, a prisoner in charge of one of the prison blocks, and the other was from the head of one of the blocks at Buchenwald who spoke to Wiesel as his father lay dying. Summarize these two philosophies of survival and discuss the wisdom of each.
- Many people ask survivors why there was so little resistance in the death camps. While there is documented evidence of some resistance in the various camps, why do you think that there were so few accounts of resistance?
- In what ways did Wiesel’s experiences affect his beliefs?
- Wiesel wrote of those things he will never forget (p. 32). After reading Night, what images, ideas, and feelings do you think you will never forget?
- In discussing the Holocaust, one survivor, Luba Frederick, said, “To die was easy.” Based on the reading you have done, explain her statement.
- At one point in the book, Wiesel said that he had ceased to feel human. What did he mean by this and what things can cause people to lose their sense of dignity and humanity?
- Reread the essay you wrote in your journal for the Prereading activity based on the book’s cover illustration. Revise the essay based on insights and reactions to Night.
- Discuss the significance of the book’s title, Night.
- Wiesel was born in Sighet in Transylvania. Locate the region of Transylvania on a pre-World War II map of Europe. Discover what happened to this area during and after World War II. Share five facts you find most significant.
- If you could talk to one of the survivors of the Holocaust, what would you want to ask? Write to your state or local Holocaust Center (see Resources) and arrange for a survivor to speak with your class. With your classmates, determine which questions you would like the survivor to answer.
- Create a cover for Night based on your own interpretations and reactions. Share your cover with classmates and explain what motivated you to create as you did.
- Create an “Open Letter” to those people of Europe who did little more than watch as their neighbors were persecuted.
- Select a recurring word, phrase, or symbol from Night. For example, the word night is used frequently throughout the book. Analyze the word/ phrase/ symbol and explain the images it evokes.