Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 that the world must never forget what happened because “if we forget, we are all guilty, we are accomplices.” His memoir, Night, is a must-read for anyone who understands — as he did — that “we must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”
Perhaps one of the most important take-aways from the book is just how averse humans are to acknowledging evil — real evil — when it is in their midst.
Mr. Wiesel’s account of how his hometown in Transylvania reacted to the Nazi threat is surreal. It is hard to imagine just how far men while go to deny the truth when the truth may require a call to arms.
The author wrote:
“The Germans were already in our town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out — and the Jews of Sighet were smiling. …
‘The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal…’
(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?) …
Little by little life returned to ‘normal.’ The barbed wire that encircled us like a wall did not fill us with fear. In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; were were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic … A Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish police force, a welfare agency, a labor committee, a health agency — a whole government apparatus.
People thought this was a good thing.” (Elie Wiesel. Night. Hill and Wang. 10-12.)
The one man in town who tried to warn everyone was treated like a madman, which ironically took him to the edge of sanity. It was not long afterward that Mr. Wiesel would be shipped off to Auschwitz and then Buchenwald.
The horrors that Mr. Wiesel endured are too numerous to list in a single blog post, but it is imperative to note why Nazi torture was a special kind of evil: It took root in the souls of its victims, who then turned on one another.
“In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails.
A crowd of workmen and curious passersby had formed all along the train. They had undoubtedly never seen a train with this kind of cargo. Soon, pieces of bread were falling into the wagons from all sides. And the spectators observed these emaciated creatures ready to kill for a crust of bread.” (101.)
Night is a powerful book that understandably simmers with rage and anger, hate and sorrow. It is a book that everyone should read, but it should not be completed without also making time for Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
Mr. Wiesel’s memoir shows his self-described “rebellion” against God, while Mr. Frankl chronicles how spiritual growth is possible — even in an Auschwitz death camp.
“When a man finds that it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden. …
Long ago we had passed the stage of asking what was the meaning of life, a naive query which understands life as the attaining of some aim through the active creation of something of value. For us, the meaning of life embraced the wider cycles of life and death, of suffering and of dying. …
We had realized [suffering’s] hidden opportunities for achievement, the opportunities which caused the poet Rilke to write, ‘Wie viel ist aufzuleiden!’ (How much suffering there is to get through!) Rilke spoke of ‘getting through’ suffering as others would talk of ‘getting through work.’ …
There was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that a man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer. Only very few realized that.” (Victor Frankl. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 1959, 1962, 1984, 1992, 2006. 77, 78.)
In short, both books are essential reading for the man or woman who loves freedom, abhors tyranny, and understands the importance of history. The memoirs can be purchased for $10 or less, which is an unbeatable bargain given the wisdom each contains.