by Rabbi Fuller
Elie Wiesel was a Holocaust survivor in addition to a prolific author and Nobel laureate. Reading Night for the second time (I first read it many moons ago when I was in college) reminded me both of the horrific things he and his fellow prisoners suffered at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, and of that lesson from The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe. How much of Wiesel’s memoir could I trust? I learned from reading The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe that everyone’s memory of events is imperfect. How does that help or hinder us from learning about a Nobel Prize winner and human rights advocate’s experience when we read his first book, Night?
As we just recently passed the 80th anniversary of America’s entrance into that war on December 7, 1941, we are closer and closer to the time when no eyewitnesses to the Holocaust will be alive anymore. Thankfully, there is now an entire genre of books detailing and remembering the experiences of many survivors of the Holocaust. Though the stories are all different, the one theme that comes through almost all of them is the incomprehensible brutality and inhumanity the Germans perpetrated on 6 million Jews simply because they were Jewish, and countless others for being gay, Roma, communists, or anything else the Nazis didn’t like.
Night is a symbol of all the darkness that the victims of the Holocaust felt. The fear, the hunger, the horrid conditions, the not knowing what any minute or hour or day might bring. The lack of hope, and the lack of trust even in your fellow prisoners. In some ways, it’s amazing that any of them survived.
But in Wiesel’s life, I think that Night represents something else as well – his doubt of his faith. Wiesel makes it clear that he grew up as a religious Jew in Sighet, Romania, and that family and religion were two of the most important things to him. Yet as he witnessed the Holocaust, his faith began to leave him. Those who are avid fans of his writings will find these struggles throughout many of his books, and how he resolves it as well. But in Night, he makes clear how his faith is failing in a particularly gruesome scene. The Nazis have just hanged three victims, one of them just a boy (for those of you who wonder why, does it matter? That’s the kind of “night” all the prisoners had to deal with). The two older men die quickly from asphyxiation, but the boy, who doesn’t weigh much, dangles from his noose for a while before finally succumbing. Wiesel reports, “Behind me, I heard the same man asking “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within me, I heard a voice answer: “Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
After working through his theological crisis, Wiesel went on to become a professor, a father, and a strong voice and advocate for human rights everywhere. That’s what earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, “for being a messenger to mankind: his message is one of peace, atonement and dignity.” The lesson we should all take from this is that no matter the hardships we may face, or how palpable the darkness we feel may seem, we can overcome and do great things with our lives.
Rabbi Gordon Fuller is an independently ordained rabbi who grew up in Detroit but has lived in many other places. He moved to Columbia, MD in 2015 to be near children and grandchildren.
Rabbi Gordy worked in Jewish education for 20+ years before being ordained and has co-authored two books. He is as passionate about pluralism and the environment as he is about his family and the Jewish peoplehood.