Life and times of Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and chronicler

His work reminds us how debased humankind can become and how resilient the humanity can turn out to be.

 |  5-minute read |   03-07-2016
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Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), the 1986 Nobel peace laureate and a Holocaust survivor, is no more. Wiesel passed away Saturday night (June 2). He was 87.

Wiesel, a Jew born in Romania, was forced into the horrors of an Auschwitz life and became a US citizen and a Boston University professor.

He will always be remembered for his struggles during the Holocaust years – the years when he somehow survived the concentration camps run by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany during the Second World War from 1939 to 1945. These concentration camps exterminated millions in a systematic manner only because Hitler considered them inferior human beings. He saw them as the problem and the only solution was to wipe them out.

Wiesel was the biggest chronicler of the Holocaust, writing over 50 books based on his haunting memories. His autobiographical book Night came to me as a soul-stirring experience.

Before it, I was largely focused on documentaries, visual media, news reports and studies on the Holocaust to know more about the largest pogrom of modern human history, to feel its pain, to realise its message. But the experience after Night transcended all and made the Holocaust memoirs the major part of my reading of the Holocaust.

wiesel_070316103425.jpg Image courtesy: Night book cover; Elie Wiesel's photograph from Nobelprize.org. 

The sudden change, from the peaceful childhood days to a life of utter debasement, where there were no children, no adults, no males, or no females, just living human corpses, waiting to be gassed and burned, brings about poignant thoughts that shake your very existence. Wiesel's life and work remind how debased humankind can become and how resilient the humanity can turn out to be.

What Wiesel's book tells us about the dark side of man that can kill millions

Writing about the book Escape from Camp 14, the biography of a North Korean concentration camp survivor Shin Dong-hyuk, written by an American journalist Blaine Harden, reminded me about Wiesel’s Night, the memoir that details the degeneration of life in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War.

While Escape from Camp 14 is about the journey of a man born and forced to live an animal life, and how he finds the human in him; Night is about how a man born to lead a human life is forced to a life that is worse than that of animals.

At over 120-odd pages (the Penguin India edition), the "slim" Night numbs you by the simple words of confusion about life, faith, death and relations as told by a young Wiesel reflecting on the tormenting days of his life in different concentration camps including Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

Night begins normally with observations of a teenager about a quiet Jewish countryside in a remote town Sighet, under Hungary’s occupation at that time. It tells how a typical Jewish family lives there, how a boy dutifully tries to be religiously observant, how the community there feels insulated from the outside world’s activities and concerns, including the ongoing world war, believing that it cannot reach them.

Night exposes the inherent human weakness – clinging to the very last of the failing hope that god would come and exercise some miracle – we see it in Wiesel’s father when he believes that something can still be worked out when almost all of the Jewish community is already sent to Auschwitz; we see it later on as the memoir progresses with the Jews in the concentration camps thinking every now and then about the world war coming to an end while praying to god; we see it in the escapist thoughts when the Jews of Sighet initially take German soldiers as good Samaritans even if their freedom is curtailed the very day German soldiers arrive in the town; we see it on every such occasion when the characters of this memoir think that they are not going to be gassed whenever they get a comparatively lesser fiendish security guard.

Night is representative of the dark side of the man that can poison and kill millions.

Millions of Jews were gassed, burned and exterminated in furnaces, and Night tells that sordid tale through the eyes of the teenager Wiesel who struggles with his conscience first, about his trust in god that he finds incoherent with the acts that begin the day they board the cattle train to Auschwitz, and grows on to degenerate into the cattle mentality of surviving anyhow even if it means sacrificing your father and shapes ultimately into a distrust in anything like the very existence of god.

What else can be expected when someone becomes a mute spectator to the Nazi killing machine of Hitler’s Germany – the "selection" of humans as animals - gassing and burning them in thousands daily. Wiesel survived months in the concentration camps while living near to those crematoriums.

Night is not just a piece of Holocaust literature; it is also a sensitive book on father-son relation.

It tells us about the internal struggle of the human conscience when Wiesel writes about that "night" that changes it all. The night they board the train makes their human comrades inhuman at the very go – the way the people of his community beat a old woman crying incessantly after her family is taken away. No sympathy – just the savagery of the jungle to survive – that "night" it all began.

Wiesel watches himself becoming a different person, a debased survivor. Though he remains very much a father’s son, with his father being the only symbolic and emotive quotient and support throughout his captive life in the concentration camps, at times he thinks of him as a burden, only to blame himself the next moment. There come moments when he watches his old, frail father being brutally beaten by the guards but he tries to avoid eye contact.

And teenager Wiesel was just one out of the millions in the concentration camps, who were forced to think like this; who inherited this internal struggle for years to come; who got unending "night" hours imprinted in their consciousness to haunt them as these words of Wiesel during his Acceptance Speech for the Nobel Peace Prize sum up:

"Can this be true? This is the twentieth century, not the Middle Ages. Who would allow such crimes to be committed? How could the world remain silent?”

Writer

Santosh Chaubey Santosh Chaubey @santoshchaubeyy

The writer is a journalist working with India Today TV.

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