Night by Elie Wiesel

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What Keeps Elie Wiesel Alive at Auchwitz?

by Sean Lowe  

            Elie Wiesel lived a nightmare during the holocaust, the nightmare he depicts in Night.  Many wonder what kept him alive through the horrific physical and psychological torture.  Wiesel says directly that religion did not sustain him, that the holocaust “murdered [his] God” (32).  Indirectly, Wiesel makes clear that basic human survival instincts and devotion to his father kept him alive.

            His will to be with his father and his will to survive keep him alive at Auschwitz Wiesel’s first residence.  When the SS march the recently arrived Jews past the crematory, Wiesel wants to kill himself.  He says,“ I gathered all that was left of my strength, so that I could break from the ranks and throw myself upon the barbed wire” (31).  At the critical moment, however, Wiesel utters the prayer for the dead and walks by.  Wiesel gives no reason for this inability to commit suicide, and one can reasonable assume that his human instinct to live prevents it.  This instinct dominates Wiesel in the form of hunger.  After saving his gold crown from an unscrupulous dentist, Wiesel writes, “I had saved my gold crown.  It might be useful to me one day to buy something—bread or life.  I now took little interest in anything except my daily plate of soup and my crust of stale bread.  Bread, soup—these were my whole life.  I was a body.  Perhaps less that that even: a starved stomach” (50).  Thus, it seems Wiesel does not need morale, religion, and hope to keep going; his body’s needs drive him onward.  Another Jew, Frenek, wants Wiesel’s gold crown.  Wiesel initially refuses, but Frenek persists, beating his father for poor marching in order to force Wiesel to yield.  He knows Wiesel’s love of his father is his “weak point” (53).  When Wiesel sacrifices his gold crown to appease Frenek, it is apparent that Wiesel deeply cares for his father.  Wiesel loves his father, and this love is life-sustaining. It is life-sustaining at the concentration camp because the father and son are able to support each other.  This support is evident during Yom Kippur, the Jewish New Year.  Wiesel writes, “ I went up to him, took his hand and kissed it.  A tear fell upon it.  Whose was that tear?  Mine? His?  I said nothing.  Nor did he.  We had never understood one another so clearly” (65).  They are empathically sharing their pain with each other.  Sharing the burden of living at Auschwitz most likely helps both parties endure it.

            When the Nazi’s evacuate the concentration camp, Wiesel’s devotion to his father continues to keep him alive.  During, this evacuation, Wiesel makes clear through his thoughts and actions that preserving his father’s life is immeasurably important to him.  He saves his father several times.  When the Nazi’s make Wiesel’s father walk to a group of weaklings who will be shot, Wiesel selflessly accompanies him and incites minor chaos as a subterfuge for his father’s escape.  When Jews on the cattle car attempt to throw his father out of the car, believing he is dead, Wiesel, “set to work to slap him as hard as [he] could” (95) to revive him and save his life.  The zealousness in which Wiesel saves his father’s life proves that his devotion to his father is as strong as it was at Auschwitz .  This devotion prevents Wiesel from allowing himself to die because he knows that without his support, his father will die.  Wiesel writes, “My father’s presence was the only thing that stopped me [from killing myself]…I had no right to let myself die.  What would he do without me?  I was his only support” (82).  He lives so his father can continue to live.  His father is what keeps him live.  Otherwise, when Wiesel believes his father is dead, he would not have written “There was no more reason to live, no more reason to struggle” (93).  His father is what allows Wiesel to weather, courageously, the evacuation from Auschwitz .

            When the prisoners finally arrive at Buchenwald , his devotion to his father and eventually only his basic human survival instincts keep Wiesel alive.  While his father is still alive, Wiesel’s main reason for living is still to support him.  In fact, when prisoners hit his father, Wiesel writes that their blows are “another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost” (101).  When his father finally dies, however, Wiesel finds out there is another reason for living: self-preservation.  In fact, he guiltily rejoices at his father’s death because it means more food for him.  At this point, Wiesel’s natural self-preservation instincts completely dominate him so that he almost forgets about his father.  Wiesel now says, “I had but one desire—to eat.  I no longer thought of my father or of my mother.  From time to time I would dream of a drop of soup, of an extra ration of soup” (104).  With his father finally gone, Wiesel’s biological, almost animalistic need for survival consumes his entire being.  Food is his whole world and obtaining it keeps him going.

            Wiesel’s memoir elucidates how human beings react under extreme physical and mental duress.  On an intellectual level, Wiesel piously lives for his father, but on a biological level, Wiesel wants to preserve his life.  His intellect dominates Wiesel for the majority of the journey.  When his father dies, the underlying biological drive towards self-preservation takes over.  Wiesel thus proves that humans need no tangible intellectual reason to live.  Life demands survival, as it demands Wiesel to continue living, God or no God, father or no father.

This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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