Move the mouse pointer over a red word in the main text, to view the glossary entry for this word.

Change and Variety in Elie Wiesel’s Depictions of His Time in the Camps

 a  “All around me, there was silence now, broken only by moaning. In front of the block, the SS were giving orders. An officer passed between the bunks. My father was pleading: ‘My son, water… I’m burning up…My insides…’ ‘Silence over there!’ barked the officer. ‘Eliezer,’ continued my father, ‘water...’ The officer came closer and shouted to him to be silent. But my father did not hear. He continued to call me. The officer wielded his club and dealt him a violent blow to the head. I didn’t move. I was afraid, my body was afraid of another blow, this time to my head. My father groaned once more. I heard: ‘Eliezer...’ I could see that he was still breathing—in gasps. I didn’t move. When I came down from my bunk after roll call, I could see his lips trembling; he was murmuring something. I remained more than an hour leaning over him, looking at him, etching his bloody, broken face into my mind. Then I had to go to sleep. I climbed into my bunk, above my father, who was still alive. The date was January 28, 1945.

I woke up at dawn on January 29. On my father’s cot there lay another sick person. They must have taken him to the crematorium. Perhaps he was still breathing... No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!...”

(Elie Wiesel: Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), pp. 111–12.)

 b  “I pleaded with the doctors, the Stubendienst, the Creator Himself: Do something for my father. They were all merciless. Several times we were driven outside to clean the barracks. My father couldn’t move. I wanted to stay with him, but was driven out with clubs. I pretended to be sick or dying. My father was calling for me, and I didn’t want to let him down. He was talking to me, but his words were incoherent. Was he trying to leave me his last will? At one point he whispered something about the jewelry we had buried, about the money we had given to Christian friends for safekeeping. I refused to listen. I didn’t care about all the world’s riches. My father was dying and I was in pain. He shuddered and called my name. I tried to get up, tried to crawl to him, but the torturers were there, forbidding all movement. I wanted to cry out, Hold on, Father, hold on. In a minute, a second, I’ll be at your side, I’ll listen to you, talk to you, I won’t let you die alone. My father was dying and I was bursting with pain. I didn’t want to leave him, but I did. I was forced to. They were beating me, I was losing consciousness. He moaned, and I waited for the torturers to go away. He was weeping softly, like a child, and I felt my chest coming apart. He groaned, and my body crumbled. Powerless, crushed by remorse, I knew that however long I lived, I would never be able to free myself of that guilt: My father was twisting with pain, dying, and I was near him, but helpless. My father called to me and I could not rush to hold his hand. Suddenly I saw Grandma Nissel. I begged her to accompany me to the House of Study. We opened the ark, prayed to the Holy Torah to intercede for my dying father. She held out her hand, but I touched only emptiness. I bit my knuckles until they hurt, I wanted to howl, but the pain was so bad I could only murmur, the pain was so bad I wanted to die.”

(Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 93–94.)


 c  “Akiba Drumer has left us, a victim of the selection. Lately, he had been wandering among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone how weak he was: ‘I can’t go on… It’s over…’ We tried to raise his spirits, but he wouldn’t listen to anything we said. He just kept repeating that it was all over for him, that he could no longer fight, he had no more strength, no more faith. His eyes would suddenly go blank, leaving two gaping wounds, two wells of terror. He was not alone in having lost his faith during those days of selection. I knew a rabbi, from a small town in Poland. He was old and bent, his lips constantly trembling. He was always praying, in the block, at work, in the ranks. He recited entire pages from the Talmud, arguing with himself, asking and answering himself endless questions. One day, he said to me: ‘It’s over. God is no longer with us.’ And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in his broken voice: ‘I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I’m not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?’ Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered this suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death. When the selection came, he was doomed from the start, offering his neck to the executioner, as it were. All he asked of us was: ‘In three days, I’ll be gone... Say Kaddish for me.’ We promised: in three days, when we would see the smoke rising from the chimney, we would think of him. We would gather ten men and hold a special service. All his friends would say Kaddish. Then he left, in the direction of the hospital. His step was almost steady and he never looked back. An ambulance was waiting to take him to Birkenau. There followed terrible days. We received more blows than food. The work was crushing. And three days after he left, we forgot to say Kaddish.”

(Elie Wiesel: Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), pp. 76–77.)

 d  “There is a passage in Night—recounting the hanging of a young Jewish boy—that has given rise to an interpretation bordering on blasphemy. Theorists of the idea that “God is dead” have used my words unfairly as justification of their rejection of faith. But if Nietzsche could cry out to the old man in the forest that God is dead, the Jew in me cannot. I have never renounced my faith in God. I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it. I admit that this is hardly an original position. It is part of Jewish tradition. But in these matters I have never sought originality. On the contrary, I have always aspired to follow in the footsteps of my father and those who went before him. Moreover, the texts cite many occasions when prophets and sages rebelled against the lack of divine interference in human affairs during times of persecution. Abraham and Moses, Jeremiah and Rebbe Levi-Yitzhak of Berdichev teach us that it is permissible for man to accuse God, provided it be done in the name of faith in God. If that hurts, so be it. Sometimes we must accept the pain of faith so as not to lose it. And if that makes the tragedy of the believer more devastating than that of the nonbeliever, so be it. To proclaim one’s faith within the barbed wire of Auschwitz may well represent a double tragedy, of the believer and his Creator alike.”

(Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 84.)


 e  “I remember a Polish rabbi who tried to console those who had not fasted on Yom Kippur. ‘Jewish law does not order a person to fast at the risk of his life,’ he said. ‘To eat today is more pleasing in the eyes of the blessed Creator than to mortify oneself.’ But he himself had fasted. Weakened by hunger, he was ‘selected’ soon afterward, and he implored his barracks comrades to say Kaddish for his soul. The entire barracks did so.”

(Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 87–88.)


 f  “I will never cease to rebel against those who committed or permitted Auschwitz, including God. The questions I once asked myself about God’s silence remain open. If they have an answer, I do not know it. More than that, I refuse to know it. But I maintain that the death of six million human beings poses a question to which no answer will ever be forthcoming.”

(Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 93–94.)

The portrayal of the protagonist, Eliezer, in Elie Wiesel’s first-hand account La Nuit (1958, Engl. Night, 1960) is characterized by an unsparing bluntness with respect to the image that emerges of the boy in the camp. All his religious doubts, his feelings of guilt, his feelings toward his father—who represents for him not only a stable point of reference, but in some situations on the death march a burden as well—are revealed to the readers. They lead Eliezer into moral conflicts with himself, with his wishes and thoughts, with the extent to which he allows them to affect his behavior. Readers are confronted with insoluble questions about the “right” way to behave in the camp. This is especially clear in the scene describing his father’s death in Buchenwald: his father is beaten again by an SS man, while Eliezer keeps still because he is afraid of also receiving a blow.  a 


In the first volume of his autobiography, Tous les fleuves vont à la mer (1994, Engl. All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995), Elie Wiesel once again describes the death of his father, a scene that has stayed with him throughout his life. Now the portrayal has a different focus: he could do nothing more for his father at the time, and he was beaten himself.  b  In addition, he describes the apparition of his grandmother Nissel, who prays with him for his dying father. This vision, which establishes a direct link to the daily religious routine of his childhood, is not present in Night. Also absent there was an associated feature: the almost uninterrupted placing of Eliezer in religious traditions and faith shortly before the end of his time in the camp. In fact, a striking difference is evident between the depiction of the Jewish religion and the extent of Eliezer’s religious belief in Night and that found in All Rivers Run to the Sea.


Over the course of Night, Eliezer, who was a zealous student of the Talmud and Kabbalah in Sighet and came to the camp as a strictly devout Hasid, rebels against God. On Rosh Hashanah, he refuses to pray, for example, because he sees no reason to bless God in light of what is taking place in front of him. He does not repudiate his faith, however, but rebels against God from within his faith in a gesture reminiscent of Job,[1] wrangling with God, accusing Him of allowing the Jews to suffer terribly, and asking why. Likewise, he depicts the fate of other religious Jews who lose their faith and thus their will to live in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp.  c  A scene in which three prisoners are hanged for taking part in the resistance movement was central for the reception of Eliezer’s grappling with the question of whether, and how, Jewish religious observance was possible in Auschwitz—and thus also after Auschwitz. Wiesel does not name the three men in Night; only in All Rivers Run to the Sea does he identify them as “Leo Yehuda [Diament, …], Nathan Weissman, and Yanek Grossfeld.”[2] In Night, on the contrary, the author is concerned with crafting the story of the hanging of two men and a boy who was loved by all in the camp: “His was the face of an angel in distress.”[3] All the prisoners have to march past the hanged men, and when he passes in front of the boy, Eliezer hears the man behind him asking:


“‘For God's sake, where is God?’

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:[4]

‘Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’”[5]


Thus the image of a Jesus-like victim emerges, but at the same time it is unclear whether this is to be interpreted as an expression of being utterly abandoned by God, or as a sign that He is, after all, with “His Jews” and suffering too.  d 


In “Darkness,” the second chapter of All Rivers Run to the Sea, Elie Wiesel once again gives an account of his life during the Holocaust. Now a great deal of space is devoted to the final days in Sighet and the deportation, and only relatively little can be learned there about the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp and its terrible daily routine, the daily deaths, in marked contrast to Night. Instead, large parts of this chapter of the autobiography are a reflection on Auschwitz—starting with the consequences of Elie Wiesel’s experiences there for his faith. Here he reports that he and his father, too, had tried in the camp to recite all the prayers, and that talking about the religious tradition had kept Elie from losing his will to live. A Polish rabbi is said to have failed to survive the camp precisely because he fasted on Yom Kippur, that is, obeyed the commandments.  e  Wiesel writes that in the camp he lacked the strength for religious doubts, questions, and debates, because all his thoughts were centered on bread. Doubts about his faith, about the God of Jewish tradition, were something he experienced only after liberation, he says, and since that time, from his standpoint within the Jewish tradition, he has not ceased to rebel against God for having allowed Auschwitz to exist.  f 


Comparing these two stylings of his memories, one gets the impression that the Elie Wiesel of the 1950s felt the need for such a rebellion even more intensely, so intensely that in Night it became instrumental for the reactions of his character Eliezer to the events in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp. In 1994, the Jewish religion and the vitality of its traditions and commandments seem to have a determining value once again for the writer Elie Wiesel. Rebellion no longer has a formative influence on the presentation of his memories. It becomes evident that the changing life situation of the survivor—“the survivor continues to live and, in living, to change”[6]—leads to changes in the configuration of Wiesel’s memories of the time in the camp. In retrospect, in his autobiography Wiesel himself assigns a special validity to the “literarized” account as testimony to what he experienced in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp:


“My intent here is not to repeat what I recounted in Night but to review that testimony as I see it now. Was I explicit enough? Did I miss what was essential? Did I serve memory well? In fact, if I had it to do over again, I would change nothing in my deposition.”[7]

(MN; transl. KL)


Weissman, Gary: Fantasies of Witnessing. Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust. Ithaca, NY/London: Cornell UP, 2004, pp. 28–88.

Wiesel, Eliezer: ... און די וועלט האָט געשוויגן […and the World Remained Silent]. Buenos Aires: Union Central Israelita Polaca en la Argentina, 1956.

Wiesel, Elie: La Nuit. Préface de François Mauriac. Paris: Minuit, 1958.

Wiesel, Elie: Night [1960]. New York: Hill and Wang, 2006.
Wiesel, Elie: Tous les fleuves vont à la mer. Mémoires Vol. 1. Paris: Seuil, 1994.

Wiesel, Elie: All Rivers Run to the Sea. Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969. London: HarperCollins, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie: „Et la mer n’est pas remplie…“. Mémoires Vol. 2. Paris: Seuil, 1996.

Wiesel, Elie: And the Sea Is Never Full. Memoirs, 1969–. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.

[1] In the second part of his autobiography, Wiesel explicitly compared his attitude to that of Job: “It is because I still believe in God that I argue with Him. As Job said: ‘Even if He kills me, I shall continue to place my hope in Him.’” Elie Wiesel: And the Sea Is Never Full. Memoirs, 1969–  (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), p. 70.)

[2] Elie Wiesel: All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs, Vol. One 1928–1969 (London: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 336.

[3] Elie Wiesel: Night [1960] (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 63.

[4] Wiesel’s Yiddish-language testimony reads as follows: “Something within me wanted to answer him.” Eliezer Wiesel: ... און די וועלט האָט געשוויגן[…and the World Remained Silent] (Buenos Aires: Union Central Israelita Polaca en la Argentina, 1956), p. 132. (Translated by MN/KL)

[5] Wiesel: Night, p. 65.

[6] Gary Weissman: Fantasies of Witnessing. Postwar Efforts to Experience the Holocaust (Ithaca, New York; London: Cornell UP, 2004), p. 77.

[7] Wiesel: All Rivers, p. 79.