Night
Elie Wiesel
Contributed by Vernita Mires
Chapter 3
Summary

The concentration camp at Birkenau is meant to segregate useful individuals from weaker ones who ultimately would be shunted out or killed. Of the five-member family, the males — Eliezer and his father — remain together, but women — his mother and three sisters — are separated from them. A prisoner at the camp advises fifteen-year-old Eliezer to lie to the authorities and say his age is 18. His father, who is 50 years old, is advised to say that he is 40. Later, another inmate gets angry at them, asking them why they allowed the Nazis to capture them. He finally reveals that they have been brought to Auschwitz to be exterminated. When some youth among the Jews consider revolting, the elder ones advise them not to revolt but instead to trust in God. Strangely, the youth are easily convinced to obey their elders. At the central square in the camp, Dr. Mengele, an official, screens the prisoners to check whether they can be of any use or should be killed. Eliezer describes himself as an 18-year-old farmer rather than a student. Dr. Mengele instructs him and his father to stand at his left side.

Eliezer is happy to stay united with his father but worries about their future. It is still not clear whether Dr. Mengele’s left side means the crematorium or the prison. As the prisoners travel through Birkenau, they are stunned to see a huge pit meant for burning babies. There is a separate one for the adults. The sight leaves Eliezer aghast. Talking to his father, he says what he is seeing cannot be true, that “humanity would never tolerate” such an atrocity. His father is in tears and says that humanity no longer exists in the world of the crematorium. Upon witnessing this sight, prisoners are moved to tears; one of them is reminded of the Kaddish, and he starts saying the Jewish prayer. Eliezer’s father also says the prayer, but Eliezer is doubtful. The teenager does not know why he should thank God. When Eliezer and his father are about to be thrown in the pit, a miracle happens, and their rank is sent to the barracks instead. There, Eliezer interrupts his narration to think about the night when Nazi repression was etched forever in his mind. Back in the barracks, the Jews were asked to take off their clothes, shave, and were disinfected with gasoline before being given a bath. After this, they were given prison uniforms. A Nazi officer told them that they had only two choices: hard work or the crematorium. Eliezer’s father is brutally thrashed by the Kapo, the head prisoner, who is in charge of other inmates. Eliezer could not do much to defend his father and is disgusted with his own behavior. 

Soon they are moved from Birkenau to Auschwitz, where they are kept for three weeks, and it is here that their prison numbers are inked on their arms. Eliezer and his father bump into Stein, their relative from Antwerp, who asks about the well-being of his family. Eliezer falsely tells him that his family is alive and well. Somehow, Stein comes to know the truth and vows never to meet Eliezer again.

Irrespective of all the atrocities, the prisoners keep their faith in God and are hopeful of divine redemption. At last, they are taken on a four-hour walk from Auschwitz to Buna, where they will be kept for months.

Analysis

The line between fiction and memoir is blurred in case of Night. Wiesel goes beyond the concept of fiction writing to tell a true story about historical events. For instance, Eliezer is separated from his mother and sister, never to see them again. Probably, they both are killed in the Holocaust. Notably, there is no mention of Eliezer’s mother and sister again in Night, as though they vanished from Eliezer’s mind and memory. Such a thing would not have happened in a novel because novels are mindful of characterization. The vanishing of two characters is a reminder of the fractured nature of memory and memoir. 

The first-person narration technique provides immediacy and intimacy to the story. Wiesel’s account takes us inside his thought process, which shows his limited perspective. His lack of knowledge makes the story really scary. It puts the reader in the mind of Eliezer, who is engulfed with tension and horror. The first-person narration lends high degree of subjectivity to the topic. Night is not written like an extended autobiography, as Wiesel’s All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea Is Never Full are written. His two autobiographical works deal with the sorrow of losing his mother and sister. Night does not fall into that league; it is not comprehensive, and instead, it is a short, painful portrayal of author’s life during the Holocaust. 

In Auschwitz, Eliezer starts losing faith in God. His doubts over the very existence of God begin when he sees the furnace pits for burning babies. “Why should I bless His name?” Eliezer questions. “What had I to thank Him for?”  Though not in total despair, Eliezer’s doubts over the existence of God are juxtaposed with the faith of devout prisoners like Akiba Drumer. His continued faith in divine redemption keeps him in high spirits. It is also visible that when Eliezer starts having doubts about his own humanity, there is a marked shift in his faith in mankind. When the Kapo thrashes his father, Eliezer looks at his own changed self. A day earlier, he thinks, he would have charged at the Kapo, but today he failed to act. 

The memoir also deals with the fear of silence. Wiesel thinks that the silence rising out of fear is the main reason for evil to thrive. This section also has the most impactful paragraph in the whole narrative. Eliezer’s narrative stream is broken minimally here, so as to forcefully present his memories of the Holocaust and how they affect his life afterwards. Eliezer revisits his first night in Birkenau and explains his feelings at that time and its everlasting impact on that fateful night:

“Never shall I forget that night . . . which has turned my life into one long night. . . .”

“Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.”

“Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God. . . . Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

The phrase, “Never shall I forget…” keeps repeating and shows how Eliezer’s experiences are etched in his mind forever, and their memories refuse to leave. The phrase acts as a personal reminder to Wiesel, who knows the importance of remembering the events of the Holocaust. It is important for him to showcase them so that such events are not repeated. 

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