The Holocaust of World War II was one of the darkest times in recent history.
In this lesson, you’ll get an overview of one of the most famous Holocaust memoirs, along with the historical context and some biographical highlights of the author, Elie Wiesel.
‘Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere.’ – Elie WieselOne of history’s most terrible moments of human suffering was World War II’s Holocaust. For those of us who didn’t live through this horror, Hollywood has given us plenty of 2-hour versions that are easy enough to swallow.
Movies like Schindler’s List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas take on the Holocaust directly, but even major blockbusters, like the first X-Men movie, feature connections to this pivotal moment in history.Most middle-schoolers read or watch a version of Anne Frank’s unimaginable life in hiding. Her story ends when she is captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi concentration camp.
Wiesel’s book Night is his story of struggle and, ultimately, survival as part of the small percentage who made it through to liberation.
The word ‘holocaust’ means ‘complete destruction, usually by fire’, but when we use the capitalized form of the word, it takes on a more specific meaning. The Holocaust refers to the systematic murder of approximately six million Jews by Nazi Germany. By the end of World War II, Nazi Germany had murdered nearly two thirds of all the Jews in Europe, and they, and their allies, had killed millions of others, such as Gypsies, homosexuals, and people born with mental and physical disabilities, because they were considered inferior.Shortly after the Nazi regime took power in Germany, they began moving targeted groups into ghettos, enclosed parts of a city where the Germans forced specific populations to live. Conditions in these ghettos were horrible, unsanitary, crowded, and dangerous. The Warsaw ghetto in Poland housed 400,000 Jews in only 1.
3 square miles. As grim as life was in the ghetto, this was often just a stop before the residents were taken to a forced-labor camp, or ultimately to one of the camps whose sole purpose was extermination on a mass scale.
Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in a town that is now part of Romania. When Wiesel was only 15, his family was captured and imprisoned in Auschwitz. Of his family of six, only Elie and his two older sisters survived. His mother and younger sister died in Auschwitz, and his father perished in the Buchenwald camp, shortly before it was liberated.After the war, he studied journalism, and eventually he wrote about his experiences in the Nazi camps.
That first book, La Nuit (translated as Night), is his memoir of that horrific time. Night has been translated into 30 languages, and since its publication, Wiesel has written more than 60 works of fiction and non-fiction.Wiesel has also been actively engaged in humanitarian efforts for the last 40 years, and his efforts have been officially recognized with highest honors, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, and in 1986, he won the Nobel Prize for Peace.
His organization, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, exists to further his cause of universal human rights.In his Nobel acceptance speech, Wiesel said, ‘Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.’ His experience has led him to believe that even in the face of overwhelming evil, danger, and injustice, one person can make a difference, and his challenge for all of us is to have the courage to be that person.
‘If in my lifetime I was only to write one book, this would be the one.’ – Elie WieselWiesel’s memoir, Night, is a story of struggle – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
It not only relates this history of the Holocaust, but it also does what many great books do; it reveals the depth of the human soul and explores our limits.The opening of the book shows Eliezer, the main character, in a relatively normal setting. He’s an active and intellectually curious teen who is especially interested in learning all there is about his faith. He studies the Talmud, the central text of Judaism, every day, and goes to the temple every night where he cries as he prays. The first few chapters establish Eliezer as a kid with incredible potential and a deep faith.
When the warnings come about the Nazi atrocities, Eliezer’s family, like many, fail to heed those warnings, and soon they’re rounded up and moved to Auschwitz where the men are separated from the women. Eliezer stays with his father, but he never sees his mother or younger sister again.Over the course of the rest of the book, Eliezer struggles with some heavy issues. The physical requirements to survive become harder and harder to meet. He has to live in a world surrounded on all sides by death – starvation, disease, abusive guards, and selection, when the Nazi doctors separated those deemed fit to work from those doomed to execution.Trapped in Auschwitz, Eliezer witnesses his fellow prisoners lose their faith in God.
They even lose their own humanity; he witnesses one prisoner stab another for a loaf of bread. The victim turns out to be the prisoner’s own father. Eliezer must not only struggle to survive but he must also struggle to retain his faith, and he has to find ways to keep his father alive, even if it means hurting his own chances at living.Despite his efforts, Eliezer loses his father shortly before their camp is liberated. He survives the war, but he’s haunted by those he has lost, the horrors he has witnessed, and the tests of faith he has endured. Wiesel expresses this anguish best when he writes, ‘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 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.’
Elie Wiesel lost most of his family during the Holocaust, the systematic slaughter of about six million Jews in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s. He survived and went on to become a prolific writer and renowned humanitarian. His book Night is his memoir of his experiences in the Jewish ghetto and Nazi forced-labor camps, and it shines a light on the struggles of the prisoners to survive, to retain their faith, and to even retain their human values.
Wiesel, in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize for Peace, explained that we all have a stake in fighting oppression and injustice and that one person’s example can make a difference. Wiesel is living proof of that belief.
View this lesson so you can achieve these objectives:
- Discuss Elie Wiesel and his novel, ‘Night’
- Recall the historical context behind ‘Night’
- Outline the novel’s events
- Remember some of Wiesel’s other accomplishments
- Analyze Wiesel’s call for action