How Could This Have Happened? Essay, Research Paper
How Could This Have Happened?
Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Jewish massacre during World War II, opens his classic autobiography, Night, in his hometown of Sighet, Transylvania (now Romania). In this short, but powerful, book, Wiesel speaks of the incredible events that take place in his life from age twelve to age sixteen; his carefree childhood; the brutal torture of Wiesel and his fellow Jews at the hands of German soldiers in the concentration camps; and the day of his liberation in the spring of 1945.
Although World War II began in 1939, when Hitler and his troops invaded Poland and set up concentration camps, Sighet remains under Hungarian control. The year is 1941. Wiesel is twelve years old and is a bright, religious Jewish boy who studies the Talmud, the collection of writings constituting the Jewish civil and religious law. However, he wants to go deeper into Judaism by studying the cabbala, an occult mysterious form of Jewish philosophy developed by certain Jewish rabbis, based on a mystical interpretation of the Scriptures. His father refuses to help him with the cabbala, so Wiesel begins to talk with Moche the Beadle, a poor, humble, somewhat strange individual, who works at the synagogue. Moche teaches Wiesel that it is not the right answers that one should seek from God, but rather to know the right questions to ask God.
Wiesel?s father, an important man of the community, his mother, and three sisters lead a normal life, making plans and socializing with friends and relatives, believing that they will be untouched by the horrors of the war, despite a warning from Moche the Beadle and rumors from other areas of the war front. It is in the spring of 1944 that the day of reckoning arrives in Sighet. German soldiers enter the town and set up ghettoes surrounded by barbed wire. From that day forward, Wiesel?s life will never be the same.
Darkness begins to fill his days and nights. He is afraid. He is angry. He is right to be afraid and angry because after he and his family are deported and arrive at Birkenau, the German?s welcome center for Auschwitz, Wiesel?s childhood is destroyed forever. The Jews suffer miserable crowded conditions during the train ride to Birkenau. Wiesel watches in horror as his fellow Jews brutal, tie, and gag Madame Schachter, who has become hysterical. She is screaming of seeing visions of fire and flames in the distance. Nothing, however, can compare to what he found at Birkenau, the smoke, the smell of burning flesh from the crematories, and the flames from the pits where babies and young children were being thrown.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp,
which has turned my life into one long night, seven
times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I
forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces
of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths
of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived
me, for all eternity, of the desire to life. Never shall I
forget those moments which murdered my God and my
soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget
these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as
God Himself. Never. (Wiesel 32)
This is the darkest ?night? of Wiesel?s young life, but the Germans have only begun their torture campaign. Families are separated, food, water, and sanitary conditions are in short supply, and the Jews are treated worse than unwanted, stray animals. This type of mental and psychological torture would follow Wiesel and his fellow Jews through-out their days in the concentration camps.
Wiesel surely thought about how the Jews may have contributed to their own problems, although he cannot fault them for their optimism. In Wiesel?s camps, there seemed to be very little resistance put forth by the Jews to try to save themselves from almost certain death. I think that the Jewish people truly believed that if they cooperated with the Germans and their orders, that they would somehow escape their destruction. Wiesel, in his darkest moments, must have thought of the times that he and his family might have avoided the German horrors. He had begged his father to immigrate the family to Palestine when such permits were still available, but his father refused because he felt he was too old to start again in another place. Moche the Beadle tried to warn the citizens of Sighet of what lay before them. Martha, an old family non-Jewish servant begged for the Wiesel family to escape and hide in her village. Wiesel?s father offered Elie the opportunity to go with Martha, but Wiesel chose to stay with his family. It is interesting that as soon as they reached Birkenau, Wiesel?s family is pulled apart, and he and his father go on alone.
Because the Jews are subjected to nothing but brutality, are kept half starved, and are treated as less than human beings, Wiesel watches his people begin to behave like animals. Their survival becomes their primary goal, as well as avoiding ?selection? which would give them a trip to the crematories. The Germans force the Jews to watch the hanging of prisoners who do not obey, so that the Jews will be terrorized into behaving, as the Germans want them to. He sees how the Germans, through separating families, destroy the Jews? will to live and any hope they might have. Without their human contacts, despair takes over and they lose the faith in the God they had prayed to and worshiped all of their lives. Wiesel relates an experience after he and his father had been moved to Buna. The Kapo in that camp, Idek, an unstable, nervous man, beats Wiesel?s father repeatedly with an iron bar until he collapses. Wiesel?s tells of reaction in these words:
I had watched the whole scene without moving. I kept
quiet. In fact I was thinking of how to get farther away
so that I would not be hit myself. What is more, any
anger I felt at that moment was directed, not against the
Kapo, but against my father. I was angry with him, for
not knowing how to avoid Idek?s outbreak. This is what
concentration camp life had made of me. (Wiesel 52)
When the Jews were transported from Buna to yet another camp, Buckenwald, Wiesel describes the savagery of his people when a German worker threw a scrap of bread into the train wagon. ?Men threw themselves on top of each other, stamping on each other, tearing at each other, biting each other. Wild beast of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes; an extraordinary vitality had seized them, sharpening their teeth and nails. (Wiesel 95) The Germans found this to be great fun and begin throwing other pieces of bread to the Jews, like feeding animals in the zoo to watch their actions. Wiesel simply watches. He sees a son beat his father to death for a small piece of bread, but it was not to be, as two others took the bread and killed the son. Father and son lay side-by-side, dead. ?I was fifteen years old. (Wiesel 96)
Doubts about his God begin to trouble Wiesel. On his last night in Auschwitz, as he and his comrades sang Hasidic melodies, Wiesel listened to others speak about God, his mysterious ways, the sins of the Jewish people, and their future deliverance. ?But I had ceased to pray. How I sympathized with Job! I did not deny God?s existence, but I doubted His absolute justice.? (Wiesel 42)
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, while imprisoned in Buna, Wiesel?s rage against God reaches a new high. The Jews are chanting, ?Blessed be the Name of the Eternal.?
Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fiber I
rebelled. Because he had had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept six crematories
working night and day, on Sundays and feast days?
Because in His great might, he had created Auschwitz,
Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? How
could I say to Him: ?Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master
of the Universe, Who chose us from among the races to
be tortured day and night to see our fathers, our mothers,
our brothers, end the crematory? Praised be Thy Hold
Name, Thou Who hast chosen us to be butchered on
Thine altar? (Wiesel 64)
This is another ?night? for Wiesel. ?This day I had ceased to plead.? He is alone, ?without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes.? (Wiesel 65)
This is how far young Wiesel has come from those happy days in Sighet. Had only three years passed? Not only is young Wiesel fighting for his own survival, but also he feels a responsibility to keep his father alive. It may have cost him many moments of pain and grief, but it is also, I think, one of the main reasons that Wiesel is able to survive the ordeals of the concentration camps.
The ultimate trick that life played on Wiesel is not discovered until after the war. Wiesel is in the hospital in Buna, recovering from an operation to his foot. The Allied forces are closing in on the Germans, and the Jews are marched like machines to Gleiwitz. Corpses are covered with snow and ice and are trampled by those who keeping up with the pace. Wiesel and his father could have stayed in Buna. ?The choice was in our hands. For once we could decide our fate for ourselves. We could both stay in the hospital.? They chose to evacuate. After the war, the Russians evacuated those who stayed in Buna two days after the Wiesels left for Gleiwitz. (Wiesel 80)
Wiesel?s father gave up life on January 28, 1945 at Buckenwald, their last stop. He was ill, and could hold out no longer. The story ends here, as Wiesel has nothing more to say. Nothing could touch him anymore. (Wiesel 107)
On April 10, 1945, Wiesel and his remaining fellow Jews were liberated from Buckenwald. Their first thoughts are of food, clothes, and sex, not revenge. Wiesel develops food poisoning several days later and is hospitalized. After several days, he looks into a mirror:
?From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.? (Wiesel 109)
For Wiesel, the nightmare of the concentration camps was over, or was it just beginning?
Until I read Night, I had barely heard or thought about the horrors of the Holocaust. What hell these people must have endured to survive! It is an unbelievable story. I keep asking myself how something like this could have happened in the twentieth century. I understand that about six million Jews died or were put to death. Where were the Americans, the British, and all of the other nations not directly involved in the war yet? Why didn?t someone, anyone, try to stop Hitler and his deadly plans? How could the German people really believe that they were so superior to the Jewish people that the loss of a few Jews might clean up the world? Or was it that no one paid enough attention, or cared enough to find out what was happening because then they might have to try to do something about it. I have no answers, only questions. I can only hope that I will pay attention to what is happening around me so that something like this is never forgotten or allowed to happen again.