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Elie Wiesel

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Night | Themes



The Nazis performed terrible acts of cruelty that seemed to defy explanation. In a controversial experiment in the early 1960s, social psychologist Stanley Milgram sought to explain the cruelty of the Nazis. He theorized that subordinates merge psychologically with authority figures and thereby enter a kind of agent-like state. In this state, a person ordered by the authority figure to engage in inhumane acts is able to do so without guilt. However, Milgram's theory was undercut by the fact that 60 percent of his subjects acted independently of orders to apply electric shock therapy to a man they believed to be in pain. The disparities in the study fails to answer the question of whether or not a potential Nazi resides in the psyche of all humankind.

The element missing from Milgram's study may have been war. In addition to enforced labor and genocide, the cruelty and atrocities the Nazis committed against the Jews included using babies for target practice, forcing the Jews to march miles in the cold, and slowly starving them. The Jews were treated so poorly that some of them began emulating the ways of their tormentors, particularly as they became more and more desperate; sons killed their fathers for crusts of bread. These acts of cruelty among Jews seems to bother Wiesel even more than the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. If the Jews had remained decent toward each other, Wiesel implies, the horror under which they lived would have been more tolerable. Eliezer, who as a young boy saw God's influence in everything, comes out of the war thinking that all men can be cruel.


When Eliezer enters the concentration camp, he is 15 years old. In Sighet, Eliezer is preoccupied with the synagogue and yeshiva, and his only priority is studying. He describes himself as deeply observant and says, "By day I studied Talmud and by night I would run to the synagogue." Prayer and religion are so ingrained within him, he asks, "Why did I pray? Strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?" He cannot imagine life without religion.

Eliezer's time in the camps eradicates his faith. He becomes a skeptic and cannot fathom how God could allow such atrocities to occur. During the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which once had great meaning for Eliezer, he says, "Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled." While the holiday represents God's judgment of the people, Eliezer feels God deserves judgment. And in Eliezer's judgment, God comes up woefully short. He says, "And I, the former mystic, was thinking: Yes, man is stronger, greater than God."

When Young Pipel is hanged, someone asks, "Where is God?" Eliezer's response: "Hanging here from this gallows." The Nazis and his experience in the Holocaust have killed Eliezer's faith in God.

Eliezer is not the only one who suffers a crisis of faith. One inmate declares he only has faith in Hitler because he is the only one who has fulfilled all his promises to the Jews. Akiba Drumer, a young man of great faith, keeps up his belief in God throughout his experiences in the camp. When Akiba Drumer's faith begins to wane, "[h]e lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death." Maintaining faith in horrific circumstances proves impossible for many.


Just off the train at Auschwitz, Eliezer is separated from his mother and sisters. He will never see his mother again. The horror he sees that night is so terrible, Eliezer thinks he must be having a nightmare. He notes, "I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake?" The relationship with his father takes on greater significance for Eliezer. While in Sighet, Eliezer's father was a respected community leader, and he was sought out for advice on both public and private matters. However, Eliezer's father was not particularly sentimental and only infrequently displayed his feelings toward Eliezer and the family. Yet when Eliezer and his father are left on their own, Eliezer reaches for his father's hand and grasps it for fear of being lost.

Other father-son relationships in the book fragment. Rabbi Eliahu's son abandons his father after three years together. He does so when he sees his father getting weaker; he is leery of having to take care of him. Eliezer recognizes this struggle and prays, "Give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu's son has done." In another father-son incident, Eliezer sees a son murder his father for a piece of bread.

In contrast, Eliezer counts on his father's support, and his mere presence encourages him. When his father is held back for selection, Eliezer sleepwalks through the day and feels "sick at heart." During the death march, Eliezer contemplates suicide. However, his father's presence inspires him to go on. He doesn't want to let his father down. While taking a break during the death march, Eliezer and his father take turns resting.

As Eliezer's father becomes weaker and weaker, and his death a question of when and not if, Eliezer can no longer be the child reaching for his father's hand. His father is in great need: "He had become childlike: weak, frightened, and vulnerable." Eliezer tries to help his father in whatever way he can, but at times he does so begrudgingly. When his father dies, Eliezer says deep inside his conscience he might have had the words, "Free at last!" Yet with his father gone, Eliezer says nothing matters anymore.


Humanity is largely absent in Night. Individuals treat each other with horrific cruelty, and death and disrespect are constants. There are a few exceptions, such as the inmate who helps Eliezer and his father to survive their first selection.

As his father lies dying, Eliezer is given some advice by a veteran prisoner. The advice: you cannot help your father, so forget about him. In the camp, "It's every man for himself, and you cannot think of others." Relatives and friends do not exist because each prisoner lives and dies alone. He suggests that Eliezer keep his father's ration for himself as he needs it more.

While the prisoner's advice makes rational sense, Eliezer recognizes it as a suggestion to give up on humanity. One of the most powerful scenes in the book—when a son kills his father for a crust of bread and is killed by another before he can eat the bread—is an example of a person who has lost his sense of humanity. The son did not see his father as a person; he saw only his own need.

Despite all this, Eliezer understands the temptation as he considers the man's advice, and he never condemns Rabbi Eliahou's son for abandoning his father. However, he prays to never act like Rabbi Eliahou's son and chastises himself for considering the man's advice. While Eliezer survives his experiences, he wonders whether his sense of humanity has survived. When he looks at himself in the mirror and sees a corpse, it appears his humanity has been lost.

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