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Night | Context

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Night focuses on Wiesel's experiences during the Holocaust, which was the systematic murdering of millions of Jews and other groups by the German Nazis during World War II. When reading the book, the reader experiences the horrors, brutality, and deprivations of the young main character, a concentration camp prisoner.

Wiesel originally wrote an 800-page book in Yiddish, published in Argentina in 1956, about his experiences in the Holocaust. A condensed version was published in French as La Nuit in 1958, and a still-shorter English translation, Night, was published in 1960. Night focuses primarily on story, with little focus on the author's reflection on his feelings toward the Nazis. In addition, Night makes use of literary elements and some fictionalization to enhance the narrative and to get at the truth of the experience that may transcend some of the facts. However, Night is based on Wiesel's experiences in the Holocaust.

Anti-Semitism

The term anti-Semitism was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German, who used it to describe the anti-Jewish campaigns occurring in central Europe. However, anti-Semitism has existed for over 2,000 years. The ancient Greeks and Romans discriminated against Jews. In 38 CE, the Jews of Alexandria, Egypt, were massacred. From the 2nd century CE, Catholic leaders claimed that the Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ. Some of the early church leaders taught that Jews were no longer favored by God and had only existed to prepare for the arrival of his Son. Viewed through this lens, the existence of the religion is an act of stubborn defiance.

Throughout the centuries, church teachings painted the Jews as rebels against God and murderers of Jesus. During the Middle Ages, Jews were thrown out of a number of European countries. They were often denied citizenship, barred from serving in the government and military, excluded from certain professions, and segregated into ghettos (poor parts of a city). Anti-Semitism in Europe was worse in some times than in others, such as during the Crusades and panic over the myth of blood libel. The Crusades were a series of military campaigns undertaken by Christians in Europe to capture the Holy Land, including Jerusalem. The blood libel entailed a false allegation that Jews murdered Christians to use their blood to make the ritual food, matzah, that is part of the Jewish holiday of Passover. When Jews were allowed in a country and prospered, they were envied, which often led to their expulsion.

The rise of rationalist thought in Europe during the Enlightenment (an intellectual movement that spread across the world and cast doubt on traditional religion in favor of human rationality) was of little help to the Jews who were still not accepted. With the French Revolution of 1789, Jews received the rights of citizenship in France, although they were expected to leave their customs behind. Other countries followed, and Jews were given civic and legal equality. Yet these practices did not end anti-Semitism. The rise of nationalism in 19th-century Europe, a philosophy that a citizen's loyalty and devotion to country should be greater than to individual or group interests, led populations to view Jews as "alien" elements that were inferior. They were turned into scapegoats for social or political grievances. Anti-Semitism became a platform of political parties in Germany and Austria in the late 19th century.

In the 1930s, the Jews provided German leader Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party with a scapegoat for the worldwide economic depression. The Nazi Party rose in popularity, in part, by creating an enemy of the Jewish people and blaming them for a number of political, social, and economic issues. Hitler and Nazis engaged in a campaign of segregation and, ultimately, genocide against the Jews that they justified based on historical anti-Semitic stereotypes.

The Final Solution

The Final Solution is the term Nazis (members of National Socialist German Workers' Party) used to refer to their plan to annihilate Europe's 11 million Jews. The persecution, segregation, and mass murder of Jews were completed in stages. It began when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 with state-sponsored racism, economic boycotts, and violence. The first concentration camps were established soon afterward as places to incarcerate opponents to the Nazi Party, including communists, homosexuals, socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and gypsies. Beginning in 1934, prisoners were used as forced laborers who did backbreaking work. Jews were brought en masse to the camps, beginning in the spring of 1938 when the Germans annexed Austria. While Germany had already begun conducting mass killings of Jews in Russia, the methods—shootings and gas vans—were deemed inefficient. In July 1941 Hermann Göring instructed Reinhard Heydrich to prepare and implement a "complete solution of the Jewish question."

In January 1942 Heydrich organized the Wannsee Conference, where details for the "Final Solution" were coordinated. After the conference, the Nazis began systematically deporting Jews from all over Europe to extermination camps in Poland. In contrast to the labor camps, the extermination camps were designed explicitly to carry out genocide. Camps such as Auschwitz conducted both forced labor and exterminations. Nearly three million Jews died in the extermination camps, either by asphyxiation with poison gas or by shooting. In total, six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

Camp Types and Kapos

Transit camps such as France's Drancy internment camp were established in occupied lands. They served as way stations for prisoners ultimately deported to the extermination camps in Poland. Some prisoners served as workers in these camps, where they did functions needed to keep the camps running.

Work camps were created throughout Nazi-occupied Europe and numbered in the hundreds. Many of the work camps connected to or were part of the concentration camps. The prisoners in the work camps were used for forced labor. The conditions were terrible, and prisoners were kept alive only as long as they could work.

Six extermination camps were established in Poland. Their sole purpose was to kill Jews, and railways were built in order to transport the victims to their final destination. When the victims arrived, they were sent to the gas chambers. Auschwitz is the best known of these camps. Because it had work camps, some people were selected as laborers. However, 80 percent of prisoners taken to Auschwitz were sent directly to their deaths.

The general organization in the various camps was similar. Each barrack or block had a German or Ukrainian guard or commander. The commander appointed prisoners to oversee their fellow inmates. Those appointed as overseers were known as kapos. The kapos received certain benefits, including extra rations, but were responsible for their fellow inmates. They were expected to keep their fellow inmates in line and productive, whatever the cost.

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