This is not the first time I’ve read Night. I have two students who are reading it for their book club, one Jewish boy and his best friend. Both are what’s known as reluctant readers. They wanted to read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, which is an excellent book but a little young for two seventh grade boys more interested in girls and World of Warcraft than just about anything else. The Jewish boy read the entirety of Night in two days, which impressed both his mother and his teacher. His best friend has yet to finish the books 108 pages some two weeks later. I read it in one sitting. I don’t understand how anyone could put it down.
Night, translated from the French by Stella Rodway, is the true story of Mr. Wiesel’s childhood spent under the Nazi occupation and in Auschwitz concentration camp. If this material has become familiar to readers it’s largely because of the success of Night. Mr. Wiesel waited over 10 years before writing about his experiences in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His first memoir, And The World Remained Silent, originally a 900 page memoir written in the author’s native Yiddish, was published in an abridged form in Buenos Aires as part of a series of memoirs about the war. Mr. Wiesel condensed the longer book into the 127 page La Nuit, published in French after a long search for a publisher. The English translation published in America and did not sell well. It took three years to sell all of the 3,000 copy first printing. Today Mr. Wiesel gets over 100 letters a day, largely from school children, about Night which sells over 300,000 copies annually.
Night documents what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust, but its power comes from the personal story it tells. 15-year-old Eliezar is devoted to his family and to God. Before the war, his life is safe, secure, that of a good-boy who wants to pursue religious studies. His family stays together once the Nazis arrive and turn their community into a ghetto. Above all else, they struggle to remain together, but the men are separated from the women once they arrive at Auchwitz. Eliezar never sees his mother or his younger sister again. (Wiesel’s two older sisters survived the war.)
Night becomes the story of father and son each devoted to the other. When Eliezar’s father begins a slow deterioration that ends with a reversal of their roles, son must become the provider, a resentful caregiver. As his father’s condition worsens and his own life is reduced to the daily struggle for bread, Eliezar begins to lose his faith in God. In this coupling of themes, the loss of faith and the deterioration of the father/son bond, Night becomes much more than a memoir. Many have argued over how to classify Night, as a novel or as an autobiography. Whichever category one finally puts it in, it must be seen as one of the key works of literature from the 20th century. I don’t think anyone has told this particular story better than Elie Wiesel has done in Night.
I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009. I bristled a little this morning when I read the first paragraph. Was it necessary to say which reader was Jewish and which was not? I recall the two students, who are now adults. The fact that one of them read the book in two days and the other took weeks to get through it probably has nothing to do with one being Jewish and the other not. I think at the time it was clear to me that the Jewish student had a profound experience reading Night. He did go on to read Day.