Night (book)

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Elie Wiesel, aged 15. "Why did I pray? A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?"

Night, or La Nuit, first published in France in 1958, is an autobiographical novella by Elie Wiesel based on his experience, as a young Jew, of being deported from the village of Sighet in Transylvania to the German death camp at Auschwitz, and later to the concentration camp at Buchenwald.

Now translated into 30 languages, Night is one of literature's most powerful descriptions of humiliation and despair.

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Wiesel's story as told in Night

The Jews of Sighet

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courtesy of Mapquest [1] (

Eliezer Wiesel was born on September 30, 1928 in Sighet (now Sighetu Marmaţiei), a village in the Carpathian mountains in northern Transylvania, annexed by Hungary in 1940, and now part of Romania. With his father Shlomo, mother Sarah, and his three sisters, he lived as part of a close-knit community of between 10 and 20,000 Jews. When Germany invaded Hungary at midnight on March 18, 1944, few believed they were in danger, and Night opens with Moshe the Beadle, the town's humblest resident, "awkward as a clown" but much loved, warning his neighbors in vain to save themselves. As the Allies prepared for the liberation of Europe in May and June that year, Sighet's Jews were being deported by the Germans to Auschwitz. Some survived and returned to live there after the war, later emigrating to Israel. In 1947, there were 2,300 Jews; today, there are 100. [5] ( [6] (

Moshe, the caretaker in Wiesel's synagogue, teaches the studious and deeply religious teenager about the Cabbala and the mysteries of the universe, telling him that "man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him." Night returns repeatedly to this theme of a spiritual faith sustained, not by answers, but by questions.

In 1942, the Hungarian government ruled that Jews unable to show they were citizens would be expelled. Moshe is crammed onto a cattle train and taken away. Somehow he manages to escape, miraculously saved by God, he believes, in order that he in turn might save the Jews of Sighet. He hurries back to the village, a changed man:

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The house where Wiesel was raised. [2] (
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The main Sighet ghetto after the deportation of the Jews. "The last transport left the station on a Sunday morning. ... It was less than three weeks before the Allies' invasion of Normandy. Why did we allow ourselves to be taken? We could have fled, hidden ourselves in the mountains or in the villages. The ghetto was not very well guarded: A mass escape would have had every chance of success.
"But we did not know." [3] (
There was no longer any joy in his eyes. He no longer sang. He no longer talked to me of God or the cabbala, but only of what he had seen. People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to him. (p.4)

Moshe goes from one Jewish house to the next telling his story. The cattle train crossed the border into Poland, he tells them, where it was taken over by the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Jews were singled out, transferred to lorries, and driven to the forest in Galicia, near Kolomaye, where they were forced to dig pits. When they had finished their work, the Gestapo began theirs. Each prisoner had to approach the hole, present his neck, and was shot. Babies were thrown into the air and used as targets by machine gunners. Moshe tells them about Malka, the young girl who took three days to die, and Tobias, the tailor who begged to be killed before his sons; and how he, Moshe, was shot in the leg and taken for dead. But the Jews of Sighet will not listen.

He's just trying to make us pity him. What an imagination he has! they said. Or even: Poor fellow. He's gone mad.
And as for Moshe, he wept. (pp 4-5)

Restrictions on Jews gradually increase. No valuables are to be kept in Jewish homes, they are not allowed to go into restaurants, attend the synagogue, go out after six in the evening, and must wear the yellow star. Wiesel's father makes light of it: "The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don't die of it ... (Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)" In mid-April, they are instructed not to leave their homes, except for one hour in the afternoon to shop. Over the next ten days, all Jews are transferred to one of two ghettos, which are jointly run like a small town, with its own council or Judenrat carrying out the instructions of the main Jewish Council, which in turn receives orders from the Hungarian or German authorities. But life there is good.

The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. We even thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained. A little Jewish republic ... We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an office for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department – a whole government machinery.
Everyone marveled at it. We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers ...

It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion. (pp 9-10)

Between May 16 and June 27, 131,641 Jews were deported from northern Transylvania to Auschwitz-Birkenau. During the same period (May 15–July 9), a total of 438,000 Jews on 147 trains were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz, where four out of five were sent directly to the gas chambers. Wiesel watches his friends and neighbors march through the streets. [7] (

They began their journey without a backward glance at the abandoned streets, the dead, empty houses, the gardens, the tombstones ... Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved ... His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book ... One by one they passed in front of me, teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I once could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs. (pp 14-15)


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Wiesel arrives with his parents and sisters in Poland at Auschwitz-Birkenau, known as Auschwitz II, the death camp, one of three main camps and 40 subcamps in the Konzentrationslager Auschwitz, erected by the Germans on the grounds of an abandoned Polish army barracks. Between 1940 and 1945, around 1.1 million Jews, 75,000 Poles, 18,000 Roma, and 15,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war were killed there. [8] (

Men and women are separated on arrival; Wiesel and his father to the left, his mother and sisters to the right. He would learn years later that, after "selection," his mother and baby sister had been sent to the gas chamber.

For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother's hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister's fair hair . . . and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. (p.27)

The rest of the novella describes Wiesel's initial, desperate efforts not to be parted from his father, not even to lose sight of him; his grief and shame at witnessing his father's decline into helplessness; and as their relationship changes and the young man becomes the older man's carer, his resentment and then his guilt, because he fears that his sick father's existence threatens his own. The stronger his instinct for physical survival becomes, the weaker grow the bonds that tie him to other people. A Kapo tells him: "Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”

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Members of the Sonderkommando burn corpses in the firepits at Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Photographer unknown, 1944. Courtesy of the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum, Poland. [4] (

His loss of faith in human relationships is mirrored in his loss of faith in God, who remains silent. His faith had been a simple one: God was good, and He was everywhere, therefore the world was good. During that first night, he and his father wait in line to be thrown into a firepit. He watches a lorry draw up beside the pit and deliver its load of children into the fire. While his father recites the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead — "I do not know whether it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves," (p.31) — Wiesel considers throwing himself against the electric fence. At just that moment, he and his father are ordered instead to go to their barracks. But "the student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me." (p.35)

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed ...

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 and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. (p.32)

God is not lost to him entirely. During the hanging of a child, which the camp is forced to watch, he hears someone in the crowd ask: Where is God? Where is he? Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy dies slowly and in agony, "struggling between life and death." Wiesel files past him, sees his tongue still pink and his eyes still clear, and weeps.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?
And I heard a voice within me answer him: ... Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows. (pp 61-2)

Death march

In or around August 1944, Wiesel and his father are transferred from Auschwitz II to Auschwitz III, the work camp at Buna-Monowitz, their lives reduced to the avoidance of violence and the constant search for food. "Bread, soup—these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach." The only time they experience joy is when the Americans bomb the camp. "[W]e were no longer afraid of death; at any rate, not of that death. Every bomb that exploded filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life."

In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, the Germans decide to flee the camp, taking around 60,000 inmates, mostly Jews, to camps in Germany, on what becomes known as the death marches, shooting anyone too weak to continue. Wiesel and his father march to Gliewitz (now Gliwice, Poland) to be put on a freight train to Buchenwald, one of Germany's largest concentration camps, located in Germany itself, near Weimar, the birthplace of Goethe.

An icy wind blew in violent gusts. But we marched without faltering.
Pitch darkness. Every now and then, an explosion in the night. They had orders to fire on any who could not keep up. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of this pleasure. If one of us had stopped for a second, a sharp shot finished off another filthy son of a bitch.
Near me, men were collapsing in the dirty snow. Shots. (p.81)
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In January 1945, as the Soviet army approached to liberate Auschwitz, the Germans forced 60,000 inmates on what became known as the death marches, during which 15,000 people died, most of them Jews. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

Taking rest in a shed after marching 50 miles, Rabbi Eliahou asks if anyone has seen his son. They had stuck together for three years, "always near each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer," but the rabbi lost sight of him in the crowd and is now scratching through the snow looking for his son's corpse. I hadn't any strength left for running. And my son didn't notice. That's all I know. (p 86) Wiesel doesn't tell Rabbi Eliahou that the son had noticed the rabbi limping, and had run faster, letting the distance between them grow.

A terrible thought loomed up in my mind: he had wanted to get rid of his weak father! ... [He] had sought this separation in order to get rid of the burden, to free himself from an encumbrance ... And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done. (p.87)

The inmates march as far as Gliewitz, where they spend two days and nights locked inside cramped barracks without food, water, or heat, literally sleeping on top of one another, so that every morning the living wake up on top of corpses. Then there is more marching to the train station and onto a cattle wagon with no roof, and no room to sit or lie down until the other inmates make space by throwing the dead onto the tracks. They travel for ten days and nights, still with no food, and with only the snow falling on them for water. Of the 100 Jews in Wiesel's wagon, only 12 survive the journey.

I woke from my apathy just at the moment when two men came up to my father. I threw myself on top of his body. He was cold. I slapped him. I rubbed his hand, crying:
Father! Father! Wake up. They're trying to throw you out of the carriage ...
His body remained inert ...
I set to work to slap him as hard as I could. After a moment, my father's eyelids moved slightly over his glazed eyes. He was breathing weakly.
You see, I cried.
The two men moved away. (p.94)

Passing through a German town, a workman throws a piece of bread from his bag into Wiesel's wagon. Years later, after the war, standing on a ship in the harbor at Aden, Yemen, Wiesel watched as an attractive, aristocratic woman from Paris threw money to some children who were diving into the water after it, two of them engaged in a life-and-death struggle for it, strangling one other. He remembered how the German workmen had watched the Jews in the wagon fight for the bread and he begged the woman to stop throwing the coins.

In the wagon where the bread had fallen, a real battle had broken out. Men threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other ... I noticed an old man dragging himself along on all fours ... he had a bit of bread under his shirt. With remarkable speed he drew it out and put it to his mouth. ... [A] shadow threw itself upon him. Felled to the ground, stunned with blows, the old man cried:
Meir. Meir, my boy! Don't you recognize me? I'm your father ...
The old man again whispered something, let out a rattle, and died amid the general indifference. His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it ... [but two] men had seen and hurled themselves upon him. When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son.
I was fifteen years old. (p.96)


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Elie Wiesel at Buchenwald, second row, seventh from the left.

The Germans are waiting for the new inmates with loudhailers and orders to head straight for a hot bath. Wiesel is desperate for the heat of the water, but his father sinks into the snow, unable to move.

I could have wept with rage. Having lived through so much, suffered so much, could I leave my father to die now? Now, when we could have a good hot bath and lie down? ... He had become like a child, weak, timid, vulnerable ... I showed him the corpses all around him; they too had wanted to rest here ... I yelled against the wind ... I felt I was not arguing with him, but with death itself, with the death he had already chosen. (p.100)

An alert sounds, the camp lights goes out, and Wiesel, exhausted, follows the crowd to the barracks, leaving his father behind. He wakes at dawn on a wooden bunk, remembering that he has a father, and goes in search of him.

But at that same moment this thought came into my mind. Don't let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever. (p.101)

His father is in another block, sick with dysentry. The other men in his bunk, a Frenchman and a Pole, attack him because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself, and Wiesel is unable to protect him. "Another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost." Begging for water one night from his bunk, where he has lain for a week, his father is beaten by an SS officer on the head with a truncheon for making too much noise. Wiesel lies in the bunk above and does nothing.

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Shlomo Wiesel
I did not move. I was afraid. My body was afraid of also receiving a blow. Then my father made a rattling noise and it was my name: Eliezer. (p.106)

In the morning, January 29, 1945, Wiesel finds another invalid lying in his father's place. The Kapos had come before dawn and taken him to the crematory, possibly still alive.

His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond.
I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched for it, I might perhaps have found something like—free at last! (p.106)


Wiesel's father missed his freedom by only a few weeks. The Soviets had liberated Auschwitz 11 days before he died, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. After Shlomo's death, Wiesel was transferred to the children's block where he stayed with 600 others, dreaming of soup. On April 5, 1945, the inmates were called together to be told the camp was to be liquidated, and they were all being moved — another death march — then it would be blown up: part of the Germans' effort to hide evidence of their atrocities. On April 11, with 20,000 inmates still in the camp, a Jewish resistance movement of inmates attacked the remaining SS officers and took control. At six o'clock that evening, the first American tank arrived, and behind it the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army. Wiesel was free.

I wanted to see myself in the mirror ... I had not seen myself since the ghetto.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me.
The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me. (p.109)

Writing Night

From Buchenwald, he was sent to the Oeuvre au Secours aux Enfants (Children's Rescue Service) with 400 other orphans, first to Belgium, then to Normandy, where he learned that his mother and baby sister Tzipora had died in the gas chambers, but that his two older sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, had survived.

In 1948, at the age of 19, he was sent to Israel as a war correspondent by the French newspaper L'arche, then from 1948-51, he studied philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne, listening to lectures by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Buber. To supplement his $16 a week stipend, he taught Hebrew and translated for the militant Yiddish weekly Zion in Kamf, which eased him into a career in journalism. After the Sorbonne, he became chief foreign correspondent of the Tel Aviv newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, and it was in this capacity, in 1955, that he met the French novelist and Nobel laureate Francoise Mauriac. Wiesel was afraid of writing his story:

You can be a silent witness, which means silence itself can become a way of communication. There is so much in silence. There is an archeology of silence. There is a geography of silence. There is a theology of silence. There is a history of silence. Silence is universal and you can work within it, and its own context, and make that silence into a testimony. Job, after he lost his children and everything, his fortune and his health, Job, for seven days and seven nights he was silent, and his three friends who came to visit him were also silent. That must have been a powerful silence, a brilliant silence. You see, silence itself can be testimony and I was waiting for ten years, really, but my intention simply was to be sure that the words I would use are the proper words. I was afraid of language. [9] (

For ten years, Wiesel kept his story to himself, refusing even to discuss it. With no faith in God, and none in humanity, he considered suicide. His outlook was summed up in Night by one of his neighbors in the barracks at Auschwitz: I've got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He's the only one who's kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people. (p.77)

In 1955, he decide to interview Pierre Mendes-France, the French prime minister, for a newspaper story, and had heard that Francois Mauriac was a friend of his; so on May 14, 1955, he went to ask Mauriac if he would arrange a meeting between Wiesel and Mendes-France.

The problem was that [Mauriac] was in love with Jesus. He was the most decent person I ever met in that field — as a writer, as a Catholic writer. Honest, sense of integrity, and he was in love with Jesus. He spoke only of Jesus.

Whatever I would ask — Jesus. Finally, I said, "What about Mendès-France?" He said that Mendès-France, like Jesus, was suffering ...

When he said Jesus again I couldn't take it, and for the only time in my life I was discourteous, which I regret to this day. I said, "Mr. Mauriac," we called him Maître, "ten years or so ago, I have seen children, hundreds of Jewish children, who suffered more than Jesus did on his cross and we do not speak about it." I felt all of a sudden so embarrassed. I closed my notebook and went to the elevator. He ran after me. He pulled me back; he sat down in his chair, and I in mine, and he began weeping. I have rarely seen an old man weep like that, and I felt like such an idiot ... And then, at the end, without saying anything, he simply said, "You know, maybe you should talk about it." [10] (
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Elie Wiesel

Wiesel handed in a 900-page manuscript in Yiddish called Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (And the World was Silent). No one would publish it, either in France or in the U.S.; even when approached by Mauriac, publishers said that it was too morbid, and no one would read it. "Nobody wants to hear these stories," they told him. [11] ( It was eventually published in the original Yiddish in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at nearly 300 pages; then in 1958, a small French publisher, Les Editions de Minuit, agreed to release a 127-page French translation retitled La Nuit, dedicated to Shlomo, Sarah, and Tzipora. Despite being published in two countries already, the same difficulty was encountered finding an American publisher, until in 1960, another tiny publisher, Hill & Wang, agreed to pay Wiesel a $100 pro-forma advance. Published in the U.S. in September 1960, it sold only 1,046 copies in the next 18 months.

Nobody wanted to read it. It doesn't matter. I am not here to sell, I'm here to write. [12] (

Forty five years later, Night has become one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature, alongside Primo Levi's If This is a Man, and Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl. Wiesel has since published another 40 books, and in 1986 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Commission called him a "messenger to mankind" for his story of "total humiliation and ... the utter contempt for humanity shown in Hitler's death camps." Wiesel now lives in the United States with his wife Marion, and teaches at Boston University.

Night, my first narrative, was an autobiographical story, a kind of testimony of one witness speaking of his own life, his own death. All kinds of options were available: suicide, madness, killing, political action, hate, friendship. I note all of these options: faith, rejection of faith, blasphemy, atheism, denial, rejection of man, despair and in each book I explore one aspect. In Dawn I explore the political action; in The Accident, suicide; in The Town Beyond the Wall, madness; in The Gates of the Forest, faith and friendship; in A Beggar in Jerusalem, history, the return. All the stories are one story except that I build them in concentric circles. The center is the same and is in Night, (Cargas, 1992, p.73).


Note: All page number references in the text refer to the Bantam Books edition of Night, detailed below.

  • Cargas, Harry James. In Conversation with Elie Wiesel. Diamond Communications, 1992.
  • Cargas, Harry James, ed. Telling the Tale: A Tribute to Elie Wiesel. Saint Louis: Time Being Books, 1993.
  • Wiesel, Elie. Night. New York: Hill & Wang, 1960; Bantam Books, 1982, ISBN 0553272535
  • Wiesel, Elie. Memoirs. New York: Schocken Books, 1996, ISBN 0805210288
  • A conversation with Elie Wiesel (, by Jill Priluck,, Jan 5, 2000, retrieved Feb 5, 2005
  • "Transylvania" (, Shoah Resource Center, The International School for Holocaust Studies, retrieved Feb 5, 2005
  • "Sighet" (, Museum of Tolerance Online, Simon Wiesenthal Center, retrieved Feb 5, 2005
  • "The Jews of Sighetu-Marmatiei" ( by Peter Rashkin, retrieved Feb 5, 2005
  • "Life in Sighet, Romania, 1920-39 (, Public Broadcasting Service, retrieved Feb 5, 2005
  • Why wasn't Auschwitz bombed? (, Encyclopædia Britannica, retrieved March 10, 2005, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service (requires subscription)
  • Interview with Elie Wiesel (, Academy of Achievement, retrieved March 14, 2005
  • "Sighet" (, Museum of Tolerance Online, retrieved March 14, 2005
  • "The Jews of Sighetu-Marmatiei" (, a visitor's weblog, retrieved March 14, 2005
  • "Transylvania" (, Yad Vashem Shoah Resource Center, retrieved March 14, 2005 (pdf)
  • "Elie Wiesel, First Person Singular" (, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), retrieved March 14, 2005
  • "Auschwitz" (,Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, retrieved March 14, 2005

Further reading

  • The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity (
  • Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews: 1933–1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
  • Fine, Ellen S. Legacy of Night: The Literary Universe of Elie Wiesel. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
  • Greenberg, Irving, and Alvin H. Rosenfeld, eds. Confronting the Holocaust: The Impact of Elie Wiesel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.
  • Sibelman, Simon P. Silence in the Novels of Elie Wiesel. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.
  • Wieseltier, Leon. Kaddish. New York: Random House, 1998.
  • Young, James E. Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

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