Posts Tagged ‘Sophie Scholl’

The White Rose

Sophie Scholl and other members of White Rose

One of the most disturbing, heart-rending and thought-provoking films we have ever seen was “Sophie Scholl – The Final Days”.

The movie covers the efforts of a resistance group fighting the Nazis called “White Rose” Although the White Rose is well known in Germany, it is not well known overseas.

Der Weissen Rose was a group of mostly students at the University of Munich in Bavaria. Some were studying philosophy. Most, but not all, were religious in some way. Some of the boys had done military service but were allowed to do stints at university between stints on the Eastern Front. This experience provided them with more knowledge of what was actually going on than the average person living in Germany at the time, and it appalled them, but in their courageous resistance they still come across as young and somewhat naïve. It is this naivety that has made the White Rose so appealing. They operated from “pure” theological and philosophical intellectual opposition to National Socialism, to fascism, to dictatorship, to the war, and to the slaughter of Europe’s Jews.

To believe that there was very little resistance to Hitler inside Germany is a serious misunderstanding. Resistance to the Nazis began, of course, before they even came to power, and continued during the thirties and throughout the war.

Serving members of White Rose

Serving members of White Rose

Resistance came from political groups of the left, centre and even conservatives, from unions, from churches and religious people, from within the government and branches of the military. Several attempts were made to assassinate Hitler both by groups and individuals. Although it did not succeed in overthrowing Hitler or ending the Nazi tyranny, the resistance did have an impact on the war and the ultimate defeat of the fascist regime. this is a useful reference to the many Germans who opposed Hitler, and many who suffered the ultimate punishment.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Germans_who_resisted_Nazism

Why does it seem otherwise?

Well, the Nazi regime set out systematically and ruthlessly to destroy all opposition. Thousands of the people who would have been part of an even more effective resistance movement fled into exile soon after Hitler came to power.

Many more were perfectly understandably frightened by the danger and sank into silence and inaction.

Sophie Scholl was guillotined, as was her brother, another brother was lost on the Eastern front. In a final meeting, Scholl's father told her he was proud of her and not to regret her sacrifice. She replied that she would see them again in Heaven.

Sophie Scholl was guillotined, as was her brother, another brother was lost on the Eastern front. In a final meeting, Scholl’s father told her he was proud of her and not to regret her sacrifice. She replied that she would see them again in Heaven.

Yet many did not and paid the price. At least 5,000 were executed and many more spent time in prison. Some were simply murdered. Hitler personally ordered a “good number” of guillotines to be built to deal with the opposition.

There was a feeling within Germany that people really shouldn’t undermine the government during wartime

Many ordinary Germans saw members of the resistance as traitors because that was what almost every source of information available to them told them they were.

Unlike in the countries Germany tried to conquer, the resistance had to assume that much of the population actually supported the government and would report their activities from a sense of duty or from totally justified fear, thus making their actions even braver.

Nevertheless, their writings struck a chord with many in the community.

guillotine

A guillotine found in a Bavarian museum’s storage area is believed to have been used to execute thousands of people during the Nazi era and may well be the device used to execute the Scholls and their friends.

The nations fighting Germany during World War II also decided not to publicise the German resistance to Hitler during or even after the war. The insistence on unconditional surrender and the strategic bombing raids which caused so many civilian casualties made it necessary to see Germany as guilty as an entire nation rather than as itself a victim of Nazi tyranny. The allied armies knew about the resistance and benefited from it but did not want to praise it, at least initially.

MovieSophieSchollSo the story of Sophie Scholl and her family and friends remained almost un-talked about until about the 1970s, when the German community started to discuss the war years more openly, and then again in 2005 when the remarkable film about the events was released.

You may be able to watch the entire film, in its original German, with subtitles, on YouTube or elsewhere if you hunt around.

If you haven’t seen it, we cannot recommend it highly enough – search it out or hire it – but we warn you that it is gut wrenching. Find a couple of hours, pour yourself a strong drink, and watch it.

Those that died deserve to be remembered.

When people discuss the White Rose it has been suggested they were a brave but ineffective resistance movement. That is, in fact, not true. When they were active they caused the regime considerable annoyance. Although many who received the leaflets in the mail handed them in to police, many did not, and the regime had to deal with the fact that those who handed them in may have read them.

Sophie Scholl was an ordinary girl - devoutly Catholic, she fell in love with one of her fellow conspirators, she loved the countryside, she adored her parents. She was very ordinary, just very, very brave.

Sophie Scholl was an ordinary girl – devoutly Catholic, she fell in love with one of her fellow conspirators, she loved the countryside, she adored her parents. She was very ordinary, just very, very brave.

They managed to establish branches in Berlin and particularly Hamburg where sadly many of Hamburg White Rose met the same fate.

The White Rose also had a role in a student uprising in Munich— which was quickly suppressed.

After their execution graffiti appeared on walls in Munich: “Ihr Geist lebt weiter” “Their Spirit Lives On”.

Others carried on the fight. Copies of the leaflets were smuggled out to the Allies and later dropped in their tens of thousands by bombers over German cities.

An example of the leaflets (there were a total of five) is produced below. The courage of young people who could make these arguments against the might of the Nazi Reich simply beggars belief. Especially as they operated in the sure and certain knowledge that one day they must be caught, with their horrifying deaths as the inevitable result.

Many brave people died during the Second World War.

These young Germans were amongst the bravest.

THE THIRD LEAFLET

Salus publica suprema lex (Public safety is the supreme law)

All ideal forms of government are Utopias. A state cannot be constructed on a purely theoretical basis; instead, it must grow and develop in the same way an individual human being matures. But we must not forget that at the beginning of every civilization the state already existed in a rudimentary form. The family is as old as man himself, and out of this initial bond man, endowed with reason, created for himself a state founded on justice, whose highest law was the common good. The state should reflect the divine order, and the highest of all utopias, the Civitas dei, is the model it should ultimately resemble. We will not compare the many possible states here—democracy, constitutional monarchy, monarchy, and so on, but one issue needs to be made clear and unambiguous; every human being has the right to a just state, a state that safeguards the freedom of the individual as well as the good of the whole. For according to God’s will, man should be free and independent, while fulfilling his natural duty of living and working together with his fellow citizens, and strive to achieve earthly happiness through self-reliance and self-motivation.

But the present “state” is the dictatorship of evil. “Oh, we’ve known that for a long time,” I hear you object, “and it isn’t necessary to bring that to our attention again.” But, as I ask you, if you know that, why do you not rouse yourselves, why do you allow these men in power to rob you step by step, both openly and in secret, of one of your rights after another, until one day nothing, nothing at all will be left but a mechanized state system presided over by criminals and drunkards? Is your spirit already so crushed by abuse that you forget it is your right—or rather, your moral duty—to eradicate this system? But if a man can no longer summon the strength to demand his right, then he will definitely perish. We would deservedly be scattered over the earth like dust in the wind if we do not marshal our powers at this late hour and finally find the courage we have lacked up to now. Do not hide your cowardice behind a cloak of expedience, for with every new day that you hesitate, failing to oppose this offspringof Hell, your guilt, like a parabolic curve, grows higher and higher.

Many, perhaps most, of the readers of these leaflets cannot see clearly how they can mount an effective opposition. They cannot see any avenues open to them. We want to try to show them that everyone is in a position to contribute to the overthrow of this system. Solitary withdrawal, like embittered hermits, cannot prepare the ground for the overthrow of this “government” or bring about the revolution at the earliest possible moment. No, it can only be done through the cooperation of many convinced energetic people—people who agree on the means they must use to attain their goal. We have few choices as to these means. The only one available is passive resistance. The meaning and the goal of passive resistance is to bring down National Socialism, and in this struggle we can’t shrink from any means, any act, wherever it is open to attack. We must bring this monster of a state to an end soon. A victory for fascist Germany in this war would have inconceivable and terrible consequences. The first concern of every German is not the military victory of Bolshevism, but the defeat of National Socialism. This must be the first order of business; its greater imperative will be discussed in one of our forthcoming leaflets.

And now every resolute opponent of National Socialism must ask himself how he can most effectively fight against the present “state”, how he can inflict the most damaging blows. Through passive resistance, without a doubt. We can provide each man with a blueprint for his acts; we can only make general suggestions, and he alone will find the best way to achieve them.

Sabotage armament industries, sabotage every assembly, rally, ceremony, and organisation sponsored by the National Socialist Party. Obstruct the smooth functioning of the war machine (a machine designed for war that is then used solely to shore up and perpetuate the National Socialist Party and its dictatorship.) Sabotage in every scientific and intellectual field involved in continuing this war—whether it be universities, technical colleges, laboratories, research stations, or technical agencies. Sabotage all cultural institutions that could enhance the “prestige” of the fascists among he people. Sabotage all branches of the arts that have even the slightest dependence on National Socialism or serve it in any way. Sabotage all publications, all newspapers, that are in the pay of the “government” and that defend its ideology and help disseminate the brown lie. Do not give a penny to public fund-raising drives (even when they are conducted under the guise of charity), for this is only a cover. In reality the proceeds help neither the Red Cross nor the needy. The government does not need this money; it is not financially interested in these fund-raising drives. After all, the presses run nonstop, printing as much paper currency as is needed. But the people must never be allowed to slacken! Do not contribute to the collection of metal, textiles and the like. Try to convince all your acquaintances, including those in the lower social classes, of the senselessness of continuing, of the hopelessness of this war; of our spiritual and economic enslavement at the hands of the National Socialists, of the destruction of all moral and religious values; and urge them to adopt passive resistance.

Aristotle, Politics: “Further….[a tyrant] should also endeavor to know what each of his subjects says, or does, and should employ spies everywhere…and further, to create disunity and division in the population: to set friend against friend, the common people against the notables, and the wealthy among themselves. Also he should impoverish his subjects; the maintenance of guards and soldiers is thus paid for by the people, who are forced to work hard and have neither the time nor the opportunity to conspire against him…Another practice of tyrants is to increase taxes, after the manner of Dionysius at Syracuse, who contrived that his subjects paid all their wealth into the treasury within five years. The tyrant is also inclined to engage in constant warfare in order to occupy and distract his subjects.

Please make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and pass them on!

When political correctness interrupts good education it is even more stupid and wrong than usual. Have a read of this story and then I’ll tell you why I think – and this might surprise, perhaps, some of Wellthisiswhatithink’s regular readers – I consider this an extremely foolish moment for the local school authorities.

An SS officer speaks to a Jew in the Lodz Ghetto. Before the Nazis takeover, they might well have been friendly neighbours. What happened? And most importantly, how do we stop it happening again?

From AP:

ALBANY, N.Y. – A high school English teacher who had students pretend to be Jew-hating Nazis in a writing assignment has been placed on leave.

The teacher at Albany High School caused a storm of criticism after having students practice the art of persuasive writing by penning a letter to a fictitious Nazi government official arguing that “Jews are evil.”

District Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard held a news conference Friday to apologize for the assignment.

The Times Union newspaper reported on Saturday that the teacher was not in class on Friday and had been placed on leave by the school district.

The district has not named the teacher, who was described as a veteran.

The writing assignment was done before a planned class reading of the memoir “Night,” by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

For the assignment, the teacher asked students to research Nazi propaganda, then write a letter trying to convince an official of the Third Reich “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.”

“Review in your notebooks the definitions for logos, ethos, and pathos,” the teacher’s assignment said. “Choose which argument style will be most effective in making your point. Please remember, your life (here in Nazi Germany in the 30s) may depend on it!”

Wyngaard said she didn’t think the assignment was malicious but “it displayed a level of insensitivity that we absolutely will not tolerate.”

Many of the students were dismayed by the assignment. Some refused to write the essay.

Encouraging students to think like Nazis? Disgraceful, right?

Not at all.

We spend much of our educative process with our kids encouraging them to empathise with people in situations much different to their own. In Australia for example, most obviously, we encourage them to imagine their life as an arriving refugee, for example from Afghanistan, or as an indigenous child. (Both “hot” political topics.)

Kristallnacht

Kristallnacht – the day when Nazis burned and looted Jewish premises and imprisoned or killed Jews throughout Germany. Still the population – and the world – was silent.

If we want to use our creative writing, philosophy, theology or sociology classes to encourage them to evaluate the world critically, why would we only ask them to put themselves in the minds of the weak, the downtrodden, or the dis-advantaged?

To be sure, such an exercise is worthy and valuable on many levels.

But what better lesson could we teach them but to understand the madness – the collective, breathtaking, murderous insanity – of the rise of fascism and racism represented so awfully and perfectly by the Nazi regime in 1930s Germany?

And, as here, to try to understand how ordinary people became swept up in it, abandoning their principles, their innate goodness, their better selves, through fear, intimidation, and has been demonstrated by many psychological experiments, a desire, above all, to conform to authority.

Without the passive and sometimes active support of the citizenry, a fascist regime cannot arise. It’s as simple as that. Whether that citizenry is enthusiastic or cowed, the regime cannot exist in a vacuum.

The mob is a dangerous thing, and a mob turned against an ethnic group desperately so. And every mob is made up of individuals, suspending their individual ethical framework. It’s not a problem that got locked away and dealt with in the 1930s and 40s. We have seen it occur many times since. Rwanda, anyone?

How can we possibly rid humanity of this sort of mass psychosis unless we can teach our children to try to understand how a combination of pressures can make otherwise sane people do terrible things – like write a letter to an official to convince him or her “that Jews are evil and the source of our problems.” Especially when a short trip to the concentration camp or the guillotine would be your likely outcome if that letter did not sound convincing. (See below.)

Millions of “ordinary” Germans made these moral compromises in this period.

As many have admitted, they had a reasonable idea – if not the whole picture – as to what was happening to the Jews.

After all, there were cases of neighbours helping Nazi thugs to evict Jews, bundle them into trucks, take their furniture, and sometimes there was explicit violence, sometimes fatal, on the streets.

Within recent memory we have seen exactly the same sort of compromise with morality played out with dreadful consequences in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Serbia …

Let us read the AP report carefully. The children in this man’s class were being prepared to encounter Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece “Night”. A Holocaust memoir so excoriating, so terrible, so shocking in its description of how the wholesale slaughter of the Jews was not protested and allowed to continue, as to be almost unreadable.

There is a danger that in today’s world, growing up in a relatively safe modern environment, distanced from these seminal events by time (it is coming up to 70 years from the end of WWII), the children of today will simply not be able to grasp or genuinely take on the horrors of that era – what man is capable of doing to his fellow man.

Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them. Not malicious? This teacher’s actions were far-sighted and innovative. The teacher should be reinstated immediately. It’s the school supervisor who needs to be sent on leave. Perhaps to tour Auschwitz, with enough time to think a little more deeply about their role than merely pacifying knee-jerk public opinion.

One of the key themes in Wiesel’s work is the “Unheeded Witnesses” – people who tried to warn of the extremity of the Final Solution but who could not convince those around them. And of those who stand by while terrible events are allowed to unfold, uninterrupted.

In the end, even Wiesel himself finds himself in this role, too terrified of dying himself to intervene in the beating to death of his own father in the bunk under his.

Understanding how such events can occur requires, first, an understanding of how millions of apparently sane and compassionate people can connive in their perpetration. One can hear the students now, saying to each other, “We would never behave like that!” Yet people do. All the time.

Understanding why is the key to changing our world.

This teacher is not an insensitive bumbler, he is a hero.

Sophie Scholl

Sophie Scholl: Born 9 May 1921, died 22 February 1943, aged 21

To understand what happened to those few incredibly courageous Germans who stood up against the Nazis, I warmly commend you to watch Sophie Scholl, The Final Days.

It tells the almost unwatchable, unutterably horrible and yet inspiring story of a group of five young people who defied the Nazis and published anti-war literature.

Their story is told here.

Read it, if you can. Watch it, if you can.

Read Wiesel’s book, if you can.

It is often said that we owe it to the dead never to forget.

Well, we owe it to the living to understand, too.

Extract from Wikipedia:

Read it, if you can bring yourself to do so.

Read it, if you can bring yourself to do so.

Night is a work by Elie Wiesel about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald in 1944–1945, at the height of the Holocaust and toward the end of the Second World War. In just over 100 pages of sparse and fragmented narrative, Wiesel writes about the death of God and his own increasing disgust with humanity, reflected in the inversion of the father-child relationship as his father declines to a helpless state and Wiesel becomes his resentful teenage caregiver. “If only I could get rid of this dead weight … Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.” In Night, everything is inverted, every value destroyed. “Here there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends,” a Kapo tells him. “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.”[1]

Wiesel was 16 years old when Buchenwald was liberated by the United States Army in April 1945, too late for his father, who died after a beating while Wiesel lay silently on the bunk above for fear of being beaten too. Having lost his faith in God and mankind, he vowed not to speak of his experience for ten years. In 1954 he wrote an 865-page manuscript in Yiddish, published as the 245-page Un di Velt Hot Geshvign (“And the World Remained Silent”) in Buenos Aires, after which the French novelist François Mauriac persuaded him to write it for a wider audience.[2]

Even with Mauriac’s help, finding a publisher was not easy – they said the book was too morbid – but 178 pages appeared in 1958 in France as La Nuit, and in 1960 a 116-page version was published in the United States as Night. Fifty years later it had been translated into 30 languages, and ranked alongside Primo Levi‘s If This Is a Man and Anne Frank‘s The Diary of a Young Girl as one of the bedrocks of Holocaust literature. Unlike Levi’s and Frank’s work, it remains unclear how much of Wiesel’s story is memoir. He has reacted angrily to the idea that any of it is fiction, calling it his deposition, but scholars have nevertheless had difficulty approaching it as an unvarnished account. The American literary critic Ruth Franklin writes that the ruthless pruning of the text from Yiddish to French transformed an angry historical account into a work of art.[3]

Night is the first book in a trilogy – Night, Dawn and Day – reflecting Wiesel’s state of mind during and after the Holocaust. The titles mark his transition from darkness to light, according to the Jewish tradition of beginning a new day at nightfall. “In Night,” he said, “I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end – man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night.”[4]

Wiesel was born on 30 September 1928 in Sighet, a town in the Carpathian mountains of northern Transylvania, into a close-knit community of 10,000–20,000 mostly Orthodox Jews. The area was annexed by Hungary in 1940. Ellen Fine writes that anti-Jewish legislation was enacted between 1938 and 1944, but the period Wiesel discusses at the beginning of the book, 1942 and 1943, was nevertheless a relatively calm one for the Jewish population.[5]

That changed at midnight on 18 March 1944 with the invasion of Hungary by Nazi Germany and the installation of Döme Sztójay‘s puppet government. Adolf Eichmann, commander of the Nazi’s Sondereinsatzkommando (Special Action Unit), arrived in Hungary to oversee the deportation of its Jews to Auschwitz. Between 15 May and 7 July 1944, 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to Auschwitz, around 12,000 every day, most of them gassed.[5]

As the Allies prepared for the liberation of Europe in May and June that year, Wiesel and his family – his father Chlomo (also written Shlomo), his mother Sarah, and his sisters Hilda, Beatrice, and seven-year-old Tzipora – were being deported to Auschwitz, along with 15,000 Jews from Sighet and 18,000 from neighboring villages.

Wiesel’s mother and Tzipora were immediately sent to the gas chamber. Hilda and Beatrice survived, separated from the rest of the family. Wiesel and his father managed to stay together, surviving hard labor and a death march to another concentration camp, Buchenwald, where Wiesel watched his father die just weeks before the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army arrived to liberate the camp.[6]

Night opens in Sighet in 1941. The book’s narrator is Eliezer, a pious Orthodox Jewish teenager, who studies the Talmud by day and at night runs to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple, a prediction, writes Fine, of the shadow about to be cast over Europe’s Jews.[7]

To the disapproval of his father, Eliezer spends his time discussing the Kabbalah and the mysteries of the universe with Moshe the Beadle, the synagogue’s caretaker and the town’s humblest resident, “awkward as a clown” but much loved. Moshe tells him that “man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him,”[8] a theme to which Night repeatedly turns.

Toward the end of 1942, the Hungarian government rules that Jews unable to prove their citizenship will be expelled, and Moshe is crammed onto a cattle train and taken to Poland. Somehow he manages to escape, miraculously saved by God, he believes, so that he might save the Jews of Sighet. He hurries back to the village to tell what he calls the story of his own death, running from one household to the next: “Jews, listen to me! It’s all I ask of you. No money. No pity. Just listen to me![9]

He tells them that when the cattle train crossed the border into Poland it was taken over by the Gestapo, the German secret police. The Jews were transferred to trucks and driven to a forest in Galicia, near Kolomaye, where they were forced to dig pits. When they had finished, each prisoner had to approach the hole, present his neck, and was shot. Babies were thrown into the air and used as targets by machine gunners. He tells them about Malka, the young girl who took three days to die, and Tobias, the tailor who begged to be killed before his sons; and how he, Moshe, was shot in the leg and taken for dead. But the Jews of Sighet would not listen, making Moshe Night’s first unheeded witness.[10]

gettoThe Sighet ghettos

Over the next 18 months restrictions on Jews increase.

No valuables are to be kept in Jewish homes.

Jews are not allowed to visit restaurants, attend the synagogue, or leave home after six in the evening, and they must wear the yellow star at all times. Eliezer’s father makes light of it:

The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it …

(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)[12]

The SS transfer the Jews to one of two ghettos, jointly run like a small town, each with its own council or Judenrat.

The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. We even thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained. A little Jewish republic … We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an office for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department – a whole government machinery. Everyone marveled at it. We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers …

It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto – it was illusion.[12]

In May 1944 the Judenrat is told the ghettos will be closed with immediate effect and the residents deported.

They are not told their destination, only that they may each take a few personal belongings.[13] The next day, Eliezer watches as the Hungarian police, wielding truncheons and rifle butts, round up his friends and neighbors, then march them through the streets.

“It was from that moment that I began to hate them, and my hate is still the only link between us today.”[9]

And there was I, on the pavement, unable to make a move. Here came the Rabbi, his back bent, his face shaved … His mere presence among the deportees added a touch of unreality to the scene. It was like a page torn from some story book …

One by one they passed in front of me, teachers, friends, others, all those I had been afraid of, all those I once could have laughed at, all those I had lived with over the years. They went by, fallen, dragging their packs, dragging their lives, deserting their homes, the years of their childhood, cringing like beaten dogs.[14]

Auschwitz

photograph

Auschwitz II, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the extermination camp within the Auschwitz complex of concentration camps.

Eliezer and his family are crammed into a closed cattle wagon with 80 others, with no light, little to eat or drink, barely able to breathe.

On their third night in the wagon, one woman, Madame Schächter, repeatedly becomes hysterical, screaming that she can see flames, until she is beaten into silence by the others.

She is Night’s second unheeded witness, believed only as the train reaches Auschwitz-Birkenau, where the others see the chimneys for themselves.[15]

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd on what seems to be a station platform. In the background, a tall building with what looks like a watch tower.

Selektion” of Jews from Hungary at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May/June 1944. To be sent to the left meant slave labor; to the right, the gas chamber.[16]

Men and women are separated on arrival.

Eliezer and his father are sent to the left; his mother, Hilda, Beatrice, and Tzipora to the right.

He learned years later that his mother and Tzipora were taken straight to the gas chamber.

For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair … and I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever.[17]

The remainder of Night describes Eliezer’s desperate efforts not to be parted from his father, not even to lose sight of him; his grief and shame at witnessing his father’s decline into helplessness; and as their relationship changes and the young man becomes the older man’s caregiver, his resentment and guilt, because his father’s existence threatens his own.

The stronger Eliezer’s need to survive, the weaker the bonds that tie him to other people.

His loss of faith in human relationships is mirrored in his loss of faith in God.[18]

During the first night, as he and his father wait in line to be thrown into a firepit, he watches a lorry draw up and deliver its load of children into the fire.

While his father recites the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead – Wiesel writes that in the long history of the Jews, he does not know whether people have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves – Eliezer considers throwing himself against the electric fence.

At that moment he and his father are ordered to go to their barracks. But Eliezer is already destroyed. “[T]he student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me.”[18]

There follows a passage that Ellen Fine writes contains the main themes of Night.

The death of God, children, innocence, and the défaite du moi, or dissolution of the self, a recurring theme in Holocaust literature:[19]

sonderHere we can see members of the Sonderkommando working in the camp at Auschwitz in 1944, disposing of a corpse. Photographs of their work was smuggled out of the camp by the Polish resistance.
Jewish inmates and Russian prisoners-of-war were forced to work in and around the gas chambers.
Their work was primarily to empty the chambers of dead bodies and to burn the mounds of corpses.
When they became too emaciated to work efficiently, or too depressed by their task, they simply joined the other prisoners in the queue for execution.

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 that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. 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.[20]

With the loss of self goes Eliezer’s sense of time: “I glanced at my father. How he had changed! … So much had happened within such a few hours that I had lost all sense of time. When had we left our houses? And the ghetto? And the train? Was it only a week? One night – one single night?”[21]

God is not lost to Eliezer entirely. During the hanging of a child, which the camp is forced to watch, he hears someone ask: Where is God? Where is he? Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy dies slowly and in agony. Wiesel files past him, sees his tongue still pink and his eyes clear, and weeps.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?

And I heard a voice within me answer him: … Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.[22]

Fine writes that this is the central event in Night, the religious sacrifice, Isaac bound to the altar, Jesus nailed to the cross, described by Alfred Kazin as the literal death of God. Afterwards the inmates celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, but Eliezer cannot take part.

Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him?

Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death?

How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces?

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused.[24]

Death march

In or around August 1944, Eliezer and his father (seen left) are transferred from Birkenau to Auschwitz III, a work camp, their lives reduced to the avoidance of violence and the constant search for food.

“Bread, soup – these were my whole life. I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach.”[25]

Their only joy is when the Americans bomb the camp.

In January 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, the Germans decide to flee, taking 60,000 inmates on a death march to concentration camps in Germany. Eliezer and his father are marched to Gleiwitz to be put on a freight train to Buchenwald, a camp near Weimar, 350 miles (563 km) from Auschwitz.

Pitch darkness. Every now and then, an explosion in the night. They had orders to fire on any who could not keep up. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of this pleasure. If one of us had stopped for a second, a sharp shot finished off another filthy son of a bitch.Near me, men were collapsing in the dirty snow. Shots.[26]

Resting in a shed after marching 50 miles (80 km), Rabbi Eliahou asks if anyone has seen his son. They had stuck together for three years, “always near each other, for suffering, for blows, for the ration of bread, for prayer,” but the rabbi had lost sight of him in the crowd and is now scratching through the snow looking for his son’s corpse. “I hadn’t any strength left for running. And my son didn’t notice. That’s all I know.”[27]

Wiesel doesn’t tell the man that his son had indeed noticed his father limping, and had run faster, letting the distance between them grow.

And, in spite of myself, a prayer rose in my heart, to that God in whom I no longer believed. My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.[28]

The inmates spend two days and nights in Gleiwitz locked inside cramped barracks without food, water, or heat, literally sleeping on top of one another, so that each morning the living wake with the dead underneath them. There is more marching to the train station and onto a cattle wagon with no roof, and no room to sit down until other inmates make space by throwing the dead onto the tracks. They travel for ten days and nights, with only the snow falling on them for water. Of the 100 Jews in Wiesel’s wagon, 12 survive the journey.

I woke from my apathy just at the moment when two men came up to my father. I threw myself on top of his body. He was cold. I slapped him. I rubbed his hand, crying:Father! Father! Wake up. They’re trying to throw you out of the carriage …His body remained inert …I set to work to slap him as hard as I could. After a moment, my father’s eyelids moved slightly over his glazed eyes. He was breathing weakly.You see, I cried.The two men moved away.[29]

Buchenwald and liberation

photograph

In Buchenwald concentration camp, seen left, the Nazis are waiting with loudhailers and orders to head for a hot bath. Wiesel is desperate for the heat of the water, but his father sinks into the snow. “I could have wept with rage … I showed him the corpses all around him; they too had wanted to rest here … I yelled against the wind … I felt I was not arguing with him, but with death itself, with the death he had already chosen.[30]

An alert sounds, the camp lights go out, and Eliezer, exhausted, follows the crowd to the barracks, leaving his father behind.

He wakes at dawn on a wooden bunk, remembering that he has a father, and goes in search of him. “But at that same moment this thought came into my mind. Don’t let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself. Immediately I felt ashamed of myself, ashamed forever.”[31]

His father is in another block, sick with dysentery.

The other men in his bunk, a Frenchman and a Pole, attack him because he can no longer go outside to relieve himself.

Eliezer is unable to protect him. “Another wound to the heart, another hate, another reason for living lost.”

Begging for water one night from his bunk, where he has lain for a week, Chlomo is beaten on the head with a truncheon by an SS officer for making too much noise. Eliezer lies in the bunk above and does nothing for fear of being beaten too. He hears his father make a rattling noise, “Eliezer”. In the morning, 29 January 1945, he finds another man in his father’s place. The Kapos had come before dawn and taken Chlomo to the crematorium.[31]

His last word was my name. A summons, to which I did not respond. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I had no more tears. And, in the depths of my being, in the recesses of my weakened conscience, could I have searched for it, I might perhaps have found something like – free at last![31]

Chlomo missed his freedom by just a few weeks. The Soviets had liberated Auschwitz 11 days earlier, and the Americans were making their way towards Buchenwald. Eliezer is transferred to the children’s block where he stays with 600 others, dreaming of soup. On 5 April 1945 the inmates are told the camp is to be liquidated and they are to be moved – another death march. On 11 April, with 20,000 inmates still inside, a Jewish resistance movement attacks the remaining SS officers and takes control. At six o’clock that evening, an American tank arrives at the gates, and behind it the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Third Army.

Eliezer is free.[32]