Elie Wiesel’s Night and Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird established the child’s perspective as a useful lens for confronting the Holocaust
Only the impression of absolute accuracy, it seems, can absolve the writer and the reader from our lingering sense that the Holocaust should not be represented at all. This fear comes from our recognition that representation itself, regardless of its content, is a powerful source of pleasure. We are notoriously capable of taking aesthetic pleasure in the acting out of things that would disgust us in real life: We pay to see performances of Oedipus Rex or King Lear, both of which culminate in scenes in which a character’s eyes are gouged out. But to take this kind of pleasure in representations of the Holocaust seems like a betrayal of our responsibilities toward it. It is too real, too recent, and too overwhelming to offer any kind of catharsis to the spectator—or at least, we feel, it should be.
In fact, a good definition of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, especially for contemporary American Jews, is that it is the only historical event that places us permanently in the wrong. We can never remember it enough, we can never atone for it enough—and we can never be sure that we are remembering it and atoning for it in the right way. This discomfort applies especially to works of Holocaust fiction, since fiction is a genre we customarily read “for pleasure.” Surely we do not read books like Night and The Painted Bird for pleasure—but then, is it any more legitimate to read a Holocaust novel for instruction or enlightenment? From there, it seems a small step from to believing that the Holocaust itself was in some sense staged for our instruction and enlightenment—that it is just another historical event in which we can find an uplifting “moral.” And this, too, offends against our sense of the Holocaust’s absolute negation. As Wiesel put it, it is “the ultimate event, the ultimate mystery, never to be comprehended or transmitted.”
But an untransmittable event is as impossible as a private language. Indeed, once a Holocaust survivor starts to write about his experiences, as Wiesel did in Night, he requires forms, genres, and techniques to communicate his story, and these cannot be absolutely new: They have precedents in earlier kinds of stories. Even if the Holocaust is sui generis, the Holocaust novel is the species of a genus, a genre—the novel itself.
With Night, it’s possible to be even more specific than that. Wiesel’s book takes its place fairly readily in a tradition of French existentialist fiction that includes Camus’ The Stranger and Gide’s The Immoralist. Like those books, Night is a short, spare novel, highly abstract and stylized, in which the main character’s absurd experiences cast doubt on the existence of God and the validity of conventional morals. Take, for instance, his description of the evacuation of prisoners from Auschwitz in Poland to Buchenwald in Germany in the face of the approaching Red Army. This death march was the last phase of the Holocaust, and in Night it leads to the death of the narrator Eliezer’s father, the book’s climactic loss:
All I had to do was to close my eyes for a second to see a whole world passing by, to dream a whole lifetime. An endless road. Letting oneself be pushed by the mob; letting oneself be dragged along by a blind destiny. … We were masters of nature, masters of the world. We had forgotten everything—death, fatigue, our natural needs. Stronger than cold or hunger, stronger than the shots and the desire to die, condemned and wandering, mere numbers, we were the only men on earth.
In addition to the horror of this scene, there is also, in Wiesel’s telling, a definite existential glamour. In being reduced to the bare minimum of life, mere forward motion without aim, the prisoners are initiated into the truth of human existence; like the anti-heroes of so many modern philosophical novels, they are exemplary in their abnegation and despair. This is what makes them not prisoners, in Wiesel’s words, but “masters of the world.” In literary terms, they are cousins of Camus’ Sisyphus, whose superiority lies in his conscious acceptance of the nullity of his efforts.
The corollary to this recognition is Eliezer’s acceptance of the falsehood of God. At the very beginning of Night, before the Jews of Sighet, Romania, have been deported en masse, we are introduced to the character of Moshe the Beadle, a poor man who is also a mystic and kabbalist. Moshe is certain that “Man questions God and God answers. But we don’t understand His answers. We can’t understand them.” Soon Moshe is swept up, along with all foreign Jews in Sighet, and deported. He alone makes his way back to the town, bearing unbelievable news: The Jews in his transport were massacred by the Gestapo and buried in a mass grave. But the people of the town refuse to believe him: “They take me for a madman,” he complains.
Just as man could not understand God, Wiesel implies, men who live in peace cannot understand those who have seen the Holocaust. The survivor has taken God’s place as the bearer of an inscrutable truth. This substitution is hinted at in the book’s most famous scene, when a young child is hanged at Auschwitz between two adults—like Christ crucified between two thieves. “Where is God now?” a witness asks, and Wiesel writes, “I heard a voice within me answer him: Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.” Once again, the ultimate truth that once belonged to God now belongs to the Holocaust victim. Only in Auschwitz do we see the absolute vulnerability and helplessness of mankind, and the impotence of the divine.
What this suggests, however, is that in Auschwitz the truth of human life is revealed with exceptional clarity. Night, as has been frequently observed, is a Bildungsroman, a novel of education, in which all the lessons are terrible ones. Late in the novel, when Elie’s father is dying, a fellow prisoner urges the boy not to give up his own rations to help his father. “Don’t forget that you’re in a concentration camp. Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else,” the man tells Elie. But is this not the same kind of “realism” we so often hear about the world itself—that man is a wolf to man, that it’s “every man for himself”? To go to school in Auschwitz is to learn earlier and more powerfully the same lessons of cruelty and absurdity that the world itself will eventually teach.
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