Night
Elie Wiesel
Contributed by Vernita Mires
Chapter 1
Summary

In 1941, Eliezer, the narrator of the story, is a preteen boy from Sighet, a Transylvanian town annexed by Hungary but now part of Romania. The 12 year old is the only son in an Orthodox Jewish family, all of whom are shopkeepers by profession. Eliezer’s father is a highly respected person in Sighet’s Jewish community. Eliezer has three sisters: two older sisters, Hilda and Bee, and Tripura, the younger. He studies the Talmud — the Jewish oral law — and the mystical Jewish texts of Cabbala (spelled Kabbalah). It is unusual for a preteen and Eliezer’s father is also not very happy about it. Eliezer takes lessons from a sensitive but challenging teacher, Moshe the Beadle, a local pauper. Soon, the Hungarians banish all foreign Jews, including Moshe. Momentarily, this anti-Semitic act draws the anger of Jews in Sighet but soon they forget about it. A few months have passed; Moshe escapes from the captivity and returns to Sighet to tell a grisly tale. He narrates how trains full of Jewish prisoners were handed over to the Gestapo near the border of Poland. He also narrates how the Jews were forced to dig mass graves for themselves and were subsequently killed. However, no one in Sighet believes him, and he is taken for a lunatic.

In 1944, the Hungarian government is overthrown by the fascists, and the next day, the German army takes over Hungary. The Jews were of the belief that Nazi anti-Semitism would be limited only to the capital city of Budapest, but soon they were proven wrong. The Germans move into Sighet and start the oppression of the Jews. The Jewish community leaders are arrested, their valuables confiscated, and wearing yellow stars is made mandatory for them. Eventually, they are huddled in small ghettos behind the barbed-wire fences.

Finally, the Nazis start deporting Jews in installments. Eliezer’s family is among the last to leave their hometown. They see other Jews crowding the streets of Sighet under the hot sun with their backpacks on. Eliezer’s family is first moved into a smaller ghetto where their former servant, Martha, visits them and offers to hide them in her village. Not knowing what fate has in store for them, they decline the offer. Soon, the Nazis and the Hungarian police bundle them in cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.

Analysis

Whether Jews could have escaped the horrors of Holocaust if they had acted wisely in time will always remain a vexed question in the memories of those who survived the horrific events. In the first section of Night, there is a shroud of gloom behind every word. Wiesel chillingly discusses the human inability to fathom how much cruelty a man can inflict upon another man. Though there are many warnings of the coming events, the Jews fail to read the signs. At times, they simply turn a blind eye to the horrors of Hitler’s excesses. Eliezer notes that Sighet’s Jews were not ready to believe that Nazis would annihilate them, even though their evil intentions were already evident in Hungary. Eliezer describes in detail the cruelty with which the Jews are treated during their deportation. He urges his father to move the family to Palestine in a bid to escape the excesses, but his father refuses to leave his hometown. We, as readers who have the benefit of hindsight, can see what is going to happen to the Jews. Ill fate grabs them in its clutches, and they refuse to see the tragedy that is soon going to wreck them. Night’s opening story of Moshe the Beadle is perhaps the most chilling example of the Jews’ denial of Nazi excesses. The story also warns about the risks of refusing to take notice of firsthand accounts. It is also a story that brings forth the immediate concerns behind Wiesel’s own account. Moshe, who returns to Sighet to narrate the story of Nazi excesses, warns the Jews about their inhuman behavior, but he is treated as a mad man. Importantly, for Wiesel, it is his own testimony as a survivor of the Holocaust, which is to be taken seriously. Through Moshe’s story, Wiesel in the very beginning wishes to emphasize that ignoring the witness to evil is a sure sign of recurrence of that evil.

If the express aim of Wiesel is to stop the recurrence of Holocaust, the other aim is to keep the memories of the victims alive. The central theme of Wiesel’s memoir is his relationship with his father. He keeps describing the symbiotic relationship the duo share. He keeps thinking of his father as a liability and is also guilty about it.

But on the whole, Wiesel wishes to keep the memory of Jewish traditions alive through his father’s character.

When the Nazis announce the deportation of Jews from Sighet, Eliezer’s father is among the first ones to be informed. At that time, he is narrating a story but is forced to cut it short and leave. Wiesel writes, “The good story he had been in the middle of telling us was to remain unfinished.” 

In a broader sense, this nice story, encapsulating the European Jewish tradition on the whole, is being forwarded to Eliezer by a guardian. 

Though incomplete, Night is a painful evocation of the passing away of Jewish tradition. Wiesel, through the memoir and his other works, is trying to finish his father’s story. He also wants to honor the memory of Holocaust victims and keep their traditions alive.

Night’s opening section also builds the foundation for Eliezer’s forthcoming uncomfortable relationship with faith. In the beginning, Eliezer is a committed Jew who believes in God and reads about Jewish tradition religiously. When the Jews are being banished from Sighet, they believe that God will protect them from the Nazis. They say, “Oh God, Lord of the Universe, take pity upon us….” However, as the time passes, Eliezer loses faith in God and starts to think that he cannot believe in a God who is overseeing such cruelty and suffering. In the latter part of the memoir, Eliezer implies that the killing of God, in a broader sense, is among the biggest horrors inflicted by the Nazis. In the aftermath of Holocaust, Judaism has become skeptical of the very existence of God and how God can allow such evil to thrive. Night discusses in detail the loss of Eliezer’s innocence. It also describes Eliezer’s experiences in facing evil and his skepticism about the existence of God.

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