This paper attempts to explore the features of the Holocaust and trauma in Elie Wiesel’s novel, Night. In other words, it shows the evidence of trauma and the Holocaust in Wiesel’s autobiographical narrative. For further understanding, Jeffrey Alexander’s theory of “Holocaust and Trauma” is applied in the novel. Holocaust is the source of collective trauma for the Jews. According to Alexander, “members of a particular collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.”
Likewise, Night is an autobiographical memoir of Elie Wiesel, one of the survivors of the Holocaust during World War II. In addition, this paper mentions some critical reviews of the novel as well. During the 1930s and 1940s, the German Nazis atrociously murdered millions of Jews which later came to be known as ‘The Holocaust.’ The identity of the Jews has been transformed into a victim of a horrific incident since. It was the worst of “man’s inhumanity to man” in Alexander’s terms. The Holocaust started because of ingrained anti-Semitism both in Germany and the countries it conquered, compounded by propaganda and the resources of a powerful state, and the encouragement and leadership of political leaders. It also started because the passive and active perpetrators held deep feelings of animosity toward Jews—ingrained by almost 2000 years of anti-Semitism in Christian teachings‚ which made them receptive to the message of the Nazis, and which made the idea of eliminating Jews, even through extermination, reasonable and indeed desirable. We cannot even imagine the extent of the suffering the Nazis inflicted upon the Jews, though there are a number of accounts. Alexander says that in order to be traumatized by an experience, symbolic extension and psychological identification are required. It was definitely an evil act of the Nazis, but to what extent is the question.
Alexander asserts that ‘evil’ has no natural existence but it is an arbitrary construction, the product of cultural and sociological work. We never know how severe the mass killing of the Jews was because we don’t have empirical knowledge of the atrocity. Instead, we have only the secondary accounts and we have to rely on those particular texts’ claims to be the truth. Through those accounts, we come to know that Holocaust was a “radical violence” or “the dominant evil of our time.”
The “Washington Post” identified the Nazi activities as one of the worst setbacks for mankind since the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Alexander further says “an event traumatizes a collectivity because it is an ‘extraordinary event;’ an event that has such an ‘explosive quality’ that it creates ‘disruption’ and ‘radical change’, within a short period of time.” There is no such incident as horrible as Holocaust which has left a scar that will never fade. Night, the title itself symbolizes the doom of the Jews. It is an autobiographical memoir of Elie Wiesel. From Sighet in Transylvania, the Jews are transported to Auschwitz, in Poland where they are tortured and killed. Approximately six million Jews are known to be killed in the years-long incident in which the then-German ruler Adolf Hitler played the antagonistic role. In the novel, Eliezer, the narrator is separated from his mother and sister forever and nothing is heard or known about the females later. But in reality, all of them were killed immediately because they were of no use to the Nazis. Eliezer sees the atrocity of the Nazis in the form of children being thrown into the flame alive. Whoever is physically active are sent to Buna, the working place where they are employed for hours without solid food. They are served only soup once or twice a day.
Whoever doesn’t qualify for Buna has to go straight to the crematorium. It is hard to imagine anything more hellish than the picture the narrator paints of his arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau:
“Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this, with my own eyes… children thrown into the flames.” (32)
There is where Eliezer goes against God. If god really existed, why wouldn’t he punish the culprits and give justice to the innocent victims? He wants an answer. Children are brought in truck after truck and thrown into the flames alive. What would make any observer more traumatic than this scene? Likewise, a SS officer reminds the Jews of the rules in Auschwitz:
“Remember, remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t, you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or crematorium – the choice is yours.” (38-39)
In order to survive the impending doom, they are bound to work at any cost, it doesn’t matter whether they are capable or not, but they must work. Ability to work means the possibility of life, whereas the inability to work is the end of life. Therefore, one has to choose between work and crematorium. One night, the soup they drank had a taste of corpses. However, they are not allowed to file any complaints. Complaints even mean the possibility of death.
Because of the unimaginable cruelty done by the Nazis, the Jews have no faith in god. They still praise god on the day of Rosh Hashanah, but Eliezer personally doesn’t believe in god anymore. Even if god exists, he is not of a kind who gives justice to innocent victims. This paper mentions some critical reviews of the novel Night. In the New York Times, Rachel Ronadio writes:
“In unsentimental detail, Night recounts daily life in the camps – the never- ending hunger, the sadistic doctors who pulled gold teeth, the Kapos who beat fellow Jews. On his first day in the camps, Wiesel was separated forever from his mother and sister. At Auschwitz, he watched his father slowly succumb to dysentery before the SS beat him to within an inch of his life. Wiesel writes honestly about his guilty relief at his father’s death.”
Every day, the story of hunger and the sadistic behavior of the camp officials repeat. Though the whereabouts of the mother and the sister are unknown in the novel they were killed after being separated from Wiesel and his father, in reality. Wiesel didn’t want his father to suffer the beastly treatment anymore so he seems happier to have lost his father than to see him suffer from the undeserving mistreatment.
In the Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom, Ellen S. Fine asserts:
“Night has been described as personal memoir, autobiographical narrative, fictionalized autobiography, nonfictional novel, and human document. Essentially, it is a first-hand account of the concentration camp experience, succinctly related by the fifteen-year-old narrator, Eliezer.”
The author himself was one of the survivors of the Holocaust and the novel is a personal memoir. In order to make the novel more realistic, Wiesel has put himself as the narrator in the text, for his aim is to let the future generations know about their ancestral history. More importantly, Night is a novel narrated by a fifteen-year-old boy and it has helped the writer make the story more realistic than a fantasy.
Donadio, Rachel. “The Story of Night.” New York Times 20th Jan. 2008: 3-5 Print
Literature of War, Conflict and Trauma(Course Packet)
Mongredian, Phil. “Night by Elie Wiesel.” The Guardian 20 th Dec. 2009
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang: New York, 2006