Book Review : Night

Night

By Elie Wiesel

Penguin Books : Penguin Group Australia 1981.

 

For my non-Australian readers, politicians in this country have very recently been convulsed in sanctimonious apoplexy by a Federal Senator’s usage of the term ‘final solution’.

This senator, in his maiden speech last week, called for a “final solution” plebiscite on which migrants come to Australia. For his contextual use of the phrase – that had nothing to do with Nazi Germany - he was pilloried by all sides of politics.

My answer to this shameful and base political sanctimony is to say that during the course of a sleepless night on Sunday I read the late Elie Wiesel’s account of his experiences in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.

His short but powerful book, Night, was first published in French in 1956. It recounts in terse but carefully crafted language the unbelievably harrowing experiences of a fifteen year old boy whose mother and sister were killed in Auschwitz and whose father died, in the bunk below his own, only days before the liberation of Buchenwald by American troops.

It is a recitation of unspeakable horror and experiences beyond belief.  It is a story of a young man’s revulsion at humanity and finally his devastating account of the death of God.      

It is an extremely short book. My Penguin edition [1981] extends over 126 pages covering the period of his incarceration in 1944-45 during the height of the Holocaust. It describes a world run, not by men, but by spectres of emptiness in an abyss devoid of even endlessness.      

It is one of the most important books I have read in my life. The powerful Foreword is provided by the distinguished French intellectual and Nobel Laureate [Literature], François Charles Mauriac. A life-long Catholic himself and a former prominent member of France’s intellectual resistance during the war, Mauriac recognised the then young journalist from a Tel Aviv newspaper who came to interview him as someone extremely special – as a spiritual soul who had seen God die. “It was then that I understood what had drawn me to the young Israeli: that look as of a Lazarus risen from the dead, yet still a prisoner within the grim confines where he had strayed, stumbling among the shameful corpses.”

Mauriac’s description of Wiesel being a Lazarus captures the total accuracy of the young man’s life thus far. In his closing sentences Wiesel describes looking into a mirror after the liberation of Buchenwald, something he had not done since the ghetto: “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 continued and somehow put his life back together. After studies in France he moved to America to pursue an academic career and to become a distinguished writer and intellectual. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 as being “...one of the most important spiritual leaders and guides in an age when violence, repression and racism continue to characterise the world.”   

This surely can be no greater acclamation of the power of the spirit; the will to survive; the will to common decency; the triumph of civilization over barbarism and a personal triumph of a soul that once was witness to the death of God.  

Wiesel’s story should be compulsory reading for everyone in the West, at least once in their lifetime. It is a potent reminder as to the fragility of our raiment of civilisation. It is a plea to the preciousness of life and liberty and an exhortation as to how careful we must be to preserve both.

Moreover, it exposes the shameful baseness of those that seek to make political capital out of this shared and sickeningly tragic episode in the history of our civilisation.

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