Friday, February 10, 2017

My review: Night by Elie Wiesel

My last book review was June 2013 (17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma). And this, after not having reviewed a book since June 2012 (Skylark by Meagan Spooner). (Both of these are fantastic, by the way.)

I suppose the drastic changes of the last five years of my life have had a bit of an impact on my reading and reviewing. And truth be told, I hardly read much anymore. I think I went two years without reading anything I wasn't being paid to work on. I can count on one hand the books I've read the past 6 months that were strictly for pleasure (books I wasn't editing, writing, or discussing with my kiddo for homeschool). I'll try to get around to reviewing them all. Which shouldn't be too hard. I've only got five fingers on either hand.

But for now, I feel like I must discuss Night by Elie Wiesel, which I read in one day last week. It's not a recent book (1960, in fact). And though it has a 15-year-old protagonist, I don't know that I'd call it a YA. It's not a strictly-for-adults book either. I don't know what genre to fit this into, but I can tell you that it's profound. And it hurts.

In fact, this may be one of the most painful books you'll ever read. Like any book that forces us to confront a painful reality, that forces us to review our own biases and fragilities, this book wounds. But it's a necessary wound. And perhaps it can be but one very small step toward our own truth and reconciliation. Toward atonement. An estimated six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust*. Not by what we might deem "uncivilized" people, but by a cultured people. These people were murdered legally, by order of their government. And the rest of the world remained silent for a very long time. This is not our battle, we said. We have our own to protect, we said. Have faith that all will work out, we said. And many of us said: God will provide.

And then we turned our backs.

And many, many died terrible deaths. Up to six million Jews. 1.8 million non-Jewish Polish civilians. 312,000 Serb civilians. Up to 250,000 disabled civilians living in institutions. 1,900 Jehova's Witnesses. Up to 220,000 (Roma) Gypsies. Thousands of homosexuals. At least 70,000 of what they deemed "asocials." To say nothing of the many millions of Soviet civilians and prisoners of war that were killed, or of the political opponents murdered. To say nothing of the massive loss and overall displacement of many peoples.*

Night by Elie Wiesel gives us an opportunity to confront this dark stain of our past. You can choose to look away, if you want to. It's . . . depressing, to say the least. But I would urge you, and all people, to read this and other books like it, to confront the horrors of our history, so that we can see, and understand, how very fragile our humanity can be. Not so that we can feel weak, but so that we can strengthen ourselves, reinforce our humanity--fortify our compassion--and prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again.

*Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

by Elie Wiesel

Summary from Goodreads: Night is Elie Wiesel's masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. This new translation by Marion Wiesel, Elie's wife and frequent translator, presents this seminal memoir in the language and spirit truest to the author's original intent. And in a substantive new preface, Elie reflects on the enduring importance of Night and his lifelong, passionate dedication to ensuring that the world never forgets man's capacity for inhumanity to man.

Night offers much more than a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald; it also eloquently addresses many of the philosophical as well as personal questions implicit in any serious consideration of what the Holocaust was, what it meant, and what its legacy is and will be.

My Review

NIGHT by Elie Wiesel was a short read, but a brutal read, providing an up-close, first-person account of the horrors of the Holocaust. Written by a death camp survivor, NIGHT offers the reader a distinct sense of realism, which seems to diminish all sense of distance and remove from the nightmarish, all-too-real events. Every step of the way, you find your hopes lifting along with the young Elie's only to discover, like Elie, how much worse it could get. As you move from one paragraph to the next, you experience the abominable reality of the Holocaust as it unfolds. When it's over, you can only really be relieved. It's difficult to endure, even secondhand through words on a page, to witness such crimes against humanity and the impact it can have on even the most faithful.

But this is not a story about all the terrible things Hitler's Nazi regime inflicted on Jewish people and others. Rather, this is a story about a young Jewish boy who survived all those terrible things. This is a story about the loss of innocence and faith, and one boy's fight to remain humane in the face of an evil that denies him his humanity. Through it all, we see the impact of fear and suffering, and the ways that the most unexpected people can abandon their humanity. Too, NIGHT demonstrates the resounding impact that small acts of love, courage and kindness can have to sustain a person in the darkest of times. But above all, NIGHT reimagines a true story of survival--not to emphasize some sort of resilience of the human spirit, I don't think, but because we must remember all those who suffered and those who did not survive, those whose spirits and backs and lives were broken by atrocities no human should ever have to face--atrocities inflicted by a cultured people and too long ignored by the rest of the world.

It's a painful read, to be sure. Haunting. And it feels so close, like stepping into Elie's tattered shoes. But it's thankfully experienced from the safe distance of time and a book in your hands. It's a cathartic read. And a must read. It may not be a personal history, but it remains as a whole our history, and we honor those who have suffered by remembering them and confronting the painful reality of our history and their tremendous losses. Just as important, in learning this history not as a paragraph or two in some high school textbook far removed from actual experiences of those who lived through it, but as a secondhand experience through the eyes of a survivor, we can help to safeguard ourselves from apathy in the face of evil and prevent the repetition of such a history.

Note: For a companion read, you may wish to read Night alongside Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. You might also consider Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, which I reviewed HERE.

About the author Elie Wiesel (from Goodreads): 
Eliezer Wiesel was a Romania-born American novelist, political activist, and Holocaust survivor of Hungarian Jewish descent. He was the author of over 40 books, the best known of which is Night, a memoir that describes his experiences during the Holocaust and his imprisonment in several concentration camps.

Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. The Norwegian Nobel Committee called him a "messenger to mankind," noting that through his struggle to come to terms with "his own personal experience of total humiliation and of the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps," as well as his "practical work in the cause of peace," Wiesel has delivered a powerful message "of peace, atonement and human dignity" to humanity.

On November 30, 2006, Wiesel received an honorary knighthood in London, England, in recognition of his work toward raising Holocaust education in the United Kingdom.

Final Note: While Night is considered to be autobiographical, the book ultimately published and sold in the U.S. as Night (Hill & Wang, 1960) is a truncated 106-page translated version of an 862-page memoir originally written in Yiddish by Elie Wiesel (in 1954), and published first in Argentina as the 245-page book Un di velt hot geshvign ("And the World Remained Silent"). Since its first publication, the book has been translated into 30 different languages, and in its simplicity and minimalist style, is considered to be one of the most powerful and influential books of Holocaust literature. Elie Wiesel, who recently passed away (July 2, 2016) at the age of 87, was a human rights activist who spent much of his life educating others about the Holocaust and campaigning for victims of oppression and genocide all over the world. Wiesel was a survivor who went on to become a hero and a champion of humanity.

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