Night, in the version most commonly read today, was published in 1960. The original edition was written in Yiddish and then in French. The novel follows Wiesel’s experiences during the Holocaust and WWII. Wiesel was sixteen years old when he was liberated by the United States Army in April of 1945. Unfortunately, he lost his father, mother, and little sister, as well as innumerable friends and more distant relatives.
The novel has since been translated into more than 30 languages and is read in schools throughout the United States and worldwide. It is also considered to be one of the most important novels in which a Holocaust survivor recorded their experiences.
It should be noted that through the translations from Yiddish to French and English, the book appears to have lost some of its original anger and truthful horror. Due to this fact, and Wiesel’s own altering of events, the book is usually categorized as novel/autobiography, semi-fictional novel, as well as other similar categorizations. Wiesel, on the other hand, called it his deposition. When speaking about the impact of the novel, critics have often cited its simplicity and minimalism as the main source of its impact.
WWII and the Holocaust
It’s impossible to understand Night without having some broader understanding of the historical context surrounding the novel and everything that happens to the protagonist within it.
While the broader history of Germany is applicable to an understanding of the novel, it’s simpler to start with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and his campaign to blame Jews for the German depression post-WWI. He appointed himself Führer of Germany and began to rebuild Germany at the expense of European Jews.
Although other cultural groups were also persecuted, it was the Jews of Europe who were faced with the greatest horrors under Hitler’s reign. Germany fell in line behind Hitler, forming the Nazi party which espoused the view that the Germans were a master race, “Aryan,” and that anyone else would pollute their gene pool and was a threat to the reconstruction of the homeland. The Nuremberg Laws implemented in 1935, as well as others, dehumanized the German Jews and placed restrictions on their lives. They were defined as separate citizens and stripped of their civil rights.
On Kristallnacht, which occurred in November of 1938, Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed and confiscated. Men, women, and children were deported. A year later, Germany invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War. Ghettos were established in Poland, and the yellow stars were implemented as a way of separating the Jewish population from everyone else. It was in 1941 that the Nazis began to exterminate the Jews. Over the course of a year, 1,500,000 Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen, or firing squads. The first death camp, Chelmno, was established at the end of 1941.
Hitler was not content with the suppression of a large segment of the population in Germany. The party developed the “Final Solution,” a plan to exterminate European Jews as quickly and effectively as possible. Camps included Auschwitz/Birkenau, Treblinka, and Belzec. The Jews that were moved into these camps, out of the ghettos, believed that they were being resettled. When Germany and the rest of the Axis powers were defeated in 1945, it was revealed that six to eleven million European Jews had been murdered. This was in addition to Gypsies, LGBTQ people, and others who were considered as threats to the purity of the German bloodline.
Auschwitz, in which Wiesel spent much of his time during the Holocaust, operated through the summer of 1944. In the fall of that year, Allied troops liberated the camps throughout Germany while the Nazis tried to hide evidence of their crimes. This meant that many prisoners, including Wiesel, were forced on “death marches” in which they ran between camps in horrible, freezing conditions.
The Jews had been gathered into concentration camps, such as Auschwitz/Birkenau, and either forced into slave labor, or immediately exterminate in gas chambers, by firing squads, and other terrifying means. The Nazis showed no mercy to men, women, or children.
The author of Night, Elie Wiesel, based the character of Eliezer on his personal experiences during the Holocaust. While there are several differences between Eliezer and the author, their lives are basically the same.
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.A raw quote by Eliezer from Night
Elie came from a highly religious, Jewish family and was born in Transylvania in 1928. His father, Shlomo, was a shopkeeper and Wiesel himself spent time as a child and young man studying the traditional Jewish texts, the Torah, and the Talmud. He was a thoughtful young man who cared about his studies more than most of his peers. It wasn’t until 1944 that the Hungarian Jews, of which Wiesel was one, were affected by the Second World War.
In March of that year, the German army occupied Hungary and installed a new government that was dependent on Germany rather than the citizens of the country it was governing. Eichmann, one of the main orchestrators of the final solution came to Hungary to oversee the operation of the concentration camps. By the spring of 1944, the Jewish community was almost entirely deported to camps in Germany and Poland. By the end of the war, the Nazis murdered 560,000 Hungarian Jews.
Wiesel lived and grew up in a small village, Sighet. Before the beginning of the War, 15,000 Jews lived in Sighet but by the end, there were only 50 remaining families. Wiesel was deported to Auschwitz in May of the same year, the site of more than a million deaths. During the Holocaust, Wiesel lost his mother, little sister, and father.
It was only until Wiesel had observed a vow of silence for ten years after the war, that Wiesel started speaking out. He published Un di Velt Hot Geshvign, or And the World Remained Silent in English that was eventually condensed and republished as Night.