>Elie Wiesel: The Witness

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When Ken Brown at C. Orthodoxy challenged bibliobloggers to list five books or authors that made a difference in their understanding of the Bible, I submitted my five authors and John Anderson at Hesed we ’emet submitted his.

In a comment on my post, John commented that one book that we had in common, Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God, had become an influential book in his understanding of God. In response, I told John that of the five books he had selected, I was not familiar with two of them.

One of the books that John listed was Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006). When John became aware that I had never read Wiesel’s book, John urged me to read the book and comment on it. So, I added Wiesel’s book to my crowded list of summer readings and Night was placed on the top of the list. I am glad I decided to read this amazing book.

Night is Elie Wiesel’s story of his experience in the Nazi concentration camps and how he survived the ordeal that took the life of his father, mother, and his sister. This book details the terrifying evil that he and countless other Jews faced at the hands of the Nazis.

The title of the book refers to the time Eli Wiesel entered the Kingdom of Night. That night was Wiesel’s first night in the concentration camp, the night “that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed” (p. 34).

In the preface to this new translation of the book, a book that was originally published in French in 1958, Wiesel declares he wrote the book not “to leave behind a legacy of words, of memories,” but to speak as a witness lest people forget the great tragedy that decimated the Jewish people. Wiesel wrote:

“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to be witness for the dead and for the living” (p. xv).

I was captivated by Wiesel’s story of survival. To read this book is to enter the suffering, the pain, and the agony of those who struggled to find the meaning of incomprehensible evil and to understand the tenacity of one man who chose to live in the face of a certain death.

Those who suffered under the ruthlessness of their oppressors often asked: “Where is God?”
One time when a child was hanging from the gallows, someone groaned: “For God’s sake, where is God?” Wiesel wrote: “And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows’” (p. 65).

Even Wiesel, who had committed his life to study the Talmud and the Kabbalah, had his own struggles with the issues of faith. One time when a group of inmates were praying “Blessed be the Almighty,” Wiesel paused and asked himself; “Why should I bless God’s name?” He wrote:

Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnace? Praise be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar?

Night provides only a glimpse of the utter suffering of millions of people who were murdered by the Nazi regime. Here we read about people who died of starvation, neglect, maltreatment, and all kinds of diseases. This is the reason Wiesel becomes a powerful witness of the atrocities of the Holocaust to future generations because no one can forget the Kingdom of Night: “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” (p. xv).

In light of the reality of the genocide against the Jews, it is amazing that there is an anti-Semitic propaganda movement that denies or minimizes the reality of the Holocaust. These deniers question the existence of an organized killing program against the Jews and the fact that millions of people were killed in the crematoria.

But Eli Wiesel was there and he remembers the pain and the agony he and many others suffered in the concentration camps and he has written Night to keep the memory alive: “I have tried to keep memory alive … I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices” (p. 118).

A witness never forgets. And Wiesel’s commitment to be a witness and never forget is, in my opinion, the most touching section of the book:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp,
that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke.
Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies
I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.
Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me
for all eternity of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God
and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.
Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned
to live as long as God Himself.
Never. (Night, p. 34).

Thank you John, for recommending me to read this wonderful book. Now, I recommend this book to all who read this post.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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4 Responses to >Elie Wiesel: The Witness

  1. anthony says:

    >it's a trilogy – Night, Twilight and Dawn. he has many other books worth reading. i skimped through Five Biblical Portraits. want to read his Messengers of God.

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  2. >Anthony,Thank you for this information. I will read the other two books in the near future.I read the Biblical Portrait of Jeremiah last year.Claude Mariottini

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  3. >Dr. Mariottini:A very fine post. I am glad the book was compelling to you. It is still a powerful and transformative book when I think back, or look back at, it. Above they have already mentioned the other two volumes of the trilogy. If I am remembering correctly, I do not think they are autobiographical (at least not entirely) as Night is. Wiesel also has a two volume memoir out that details his life in much greater detail: All Rivers Run to the Sea and And the Sea is Never Full are the titles of the two volumes. I proudly own both.Also, off topic, the link you provide to my blog in this post is out of date. I am no longer at blogspot; I have moved to wordpress. The new address is hesedweemet dot wordpress dot com (with the "dot's" obviously being '.').All the best!Shalom!

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  4. >John,Thank you for your comment. I will try to become more acquainted with Wiesel's work.A apologize for the wrong link. I had the right one but somehow I put the old one. I will correct the link.Claude Mariottini

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