So I now know that I spend a lot of my seminary time reflecting. I am glad that I have finally found someplace in life where my ability to have a viewpoint (a kinder word for opinion) was considered a useful skill. I’m running pretty fast this semester for a lot of reasons (many of which I’m not sure that I understand), but most of all because, at least for the moment, I seem to have found my rhythm. On this dark and raining Friday, I spent time reflecting on a difficult book by the great writer and activist Elie Wiesel, his first book in fact, Night — a “novel” that talks of a young boy’s growth to manhood in the labor camps of Nazi Germany. I thought that I would share this reflection in this week of cherry blossoms and immigration rallies and ominous news from North Korea and continued civil war in Syria…not that this week is that much more awful than most weeks passed as part of humanity on our little planet.
There is one thing I did not add to my reflection, and I’m not going to go back and revise and resubmit it in the assignment part of its life. But I will share it with you. After reading and thinking my way through this difficult book, I realize that while I felt shame at all the things I don’t do, I did feel hope at the end of the book…hope for that sad, changed young man who looked in the mirror for the first time after so many months; hope for the rest of us in his survival.
It is well worth your time as a person of faith to read this book again if you, like me, had not read it since your youth. We should all read it again, every year, perhaps on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Hashoah. I think I won’t let another 30 years pass before I pick it up again…
I finished reading it yesterday. It was not my first time. The first time, I read it I was working on my first Masters degree at the University of Missouri – Kansas City, taking a class on the history of the Holocaust for my ancient and Middle Eastern studies degree. It was a small class, composed mostly of people (then) in their sixties and seventies and a couple of other youngsters such as myself (I was about 20 at the time, if I recall correctly) who were there to get their modern history credit for the “Middle Eastern” part of their degree. More than half of my fellow students wore the numbers on their arms that suggested they might have more to teach us about the Holocaust that we pampered Midwesterners might learn from a book.
I remember that I read it as part of that class; we read it in conjunction with the second volume of the story, Dawn. But I remember that reading of Wiesel’s book the same way I remember my first reading of the Diary of Anne Frank when I was 8 or so – all I remember is the overriding sense of nausea and the burning question that remained: how could this have happened (a question I accusingly asked my parents at age 8 in the form of “How could YOU have let this happen”).
Picking up the work to read it again these 30 plus years later, that knot in the pit of my stomach returned, and I will admit, never left as I read the book. But just as before, I read the entire work in one sitting. I don’t know if it is that human fascination with disaster that makes it impossible for me to put it down, or the desire to get it over with, of the thing that I can see from this part of my life (that I am pretty certain I did not see as a younger reader) – the amazing beauty and simplicity with which he writes about man’s worst, most inhumane behavior. In the dark hours, when Elie Wiesel has struggled with his demons and whatever survivors’ guilt has plagued his life, I hope that he can hear the rest of the world saying to him – clearly you survived as a most eloquent witness, so that there might be hope for the rest of us…hope that we may learn from what happened and hold fast to those words “never again.”
In that first reading, I probably hadn’t lived and struggled long enough in my own life to understand the masterfully woven themes: the ways in which life and the world get between us and our God, driving holes in that relationship and changing it and bending it beyond all recognition; the ways in which one person or group of people can systematically destroy the humanity of another; the ways in which we personally lose our grasp on our basic humanity and live from the animalistic place within us to survive when that is what our surroundings require. This story is about so much more than Nazis and crematoria and camps. And its meaning for us as people of faith is so much more than that of politics and history. A boy, with a deep life of faith, through no cause other than who he was born to be, is subjected to the greatest torture of all – his faith is ripped from him by the cruelty and insanity of others. All because of who he was born to be, all because of the family into which he was born, the town in which he lived, the time in which his soul graced this earth. “My soul has been invaded – and devoured—by a black flame (pg. 37),” he says.
And in that first reading, I must have missed the incredible storytelling of the writing – I must have. But in this reading, I felt the power of the personal distance from events that you hear in the narrator’s voice – and now I know that it is the kind of distance with which an abuse victim or a crime victim or an accident victim describes the events that brought them to this place. That distance creates a tension between event and speaker that someone makes the horror of the story told even more intense for the listener. That someone who had suffered so much could, relatively soon after the end of that unimaginable suffering, could so effectively tell the story, and weave throughout those pages the images of night and darkness, is stunning. And that without ever saying it once, that writer could leave the impression on the reader that the title “Night” refers not to actual night, but that long night that comes from the cruelty of human beings one against another and that night that comes from our separation from God. The boy, who cried when he prayed, had no more tears left; the breaking of his human spirit was complete.
To me, the strength of a work is as much in the reading of it as in the lasting impression. I found myself wondering, as that young man sees himself in the mirror for the first time after liberation, what will happen to him? Will he find his faith again? What will he make of this terrible experience? I wanted to know.
It was important to read this book as a younger person. I know that it created in me sensitivity to the organized cruelty that is possible in this world. But it is also important to read it again through the lense of experience. Because only then can I know how much more there is to do. I wish that I could say that it also created in me a level of activism that would lead me to fight harder for people around the world. But I regret to say that I, too, am a comfortable American and while I stay informed and support groups that can affect change in places I cannot reach, this book reminds me that I am in danger, as were my parents, of someday being asked, “How could YOU let this happen” by the judgment of history or the judgment of one small voice.