Who wrote this book and when?
Elie Wiesel wrote this autobiography in 1955 in Yiddish, but it wasn’t published until 1958. The first English copies were printed in 1960, and it isn’t until almost half a century later that it’s become one of the three standards for Holocaust literature and a part of the Oprah book club. (whoopdee doo for Oprah)
Has there been a film made of it?
No, but there have been plenty of films made about the holocaust. But I wonder if the little girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List” was based on Tzipora Weisel, Elie’s youngest sister.
Who are the main characters?
Elie Weisel – a Jewish teenager who wants to be a Kabbalist, he is only 16 when he is taken to Auschwitz
Shlomo Weisel – Elie’s father, a storekeeper by trade
What’s it about?
The book begins by introducing us to Moishe the Beadle – a strange hobo like creature who was also an expert on Jewish Mysticism (or Kabbalah). The main character, Elie, is 13 and wants to learn the ways of Kaballah but his father says there isn’t a suitable teacher in the village – they live in a small town in Transylvania called Sighet. Elie turns to Moishe for instruction.
One day, all of the foreign Jews are expelled from the town by the Hungarian police. The native Jews simply write it off as war and believe the refugees to be working happily elsewhere. But many weeks later, Moishe the Beadle stumbles back into town and tells Elie how the Jews were taken by the Gestapo once they were in Polish territory. They were forced to dig their own graves and then were shot. Moishe escaped by faking his own death after being shot in the leg. He runs from door to door, yelling at the native Jews to escape while they still can – that the Nazis are on their way. But no one listened to him and finally he gave up.
Two years later, the Weisel family is still living in Sighet. The German military comes into control of the government with full Hungarian approval. At first, the German officers seemed kind, if distant. But soon, edicts were passed which forbid Jews to own valuables, to leave their homes after a certain hour, and to wear a gold star on their clothing. Next they were moved into the ghettos. Once again, the Jews were lulled into security. The came to believe the ghettos were for their own benefit – they could be their own independent nation. They even formed their own government within the ghetto.
Next came transports. Everyone in the ghettos was separated into groups and those in the smaller of the two ghettos were expelled first. They were forced to stand in the hot sun without food or water until they were released in the afternoons. The populace of the larger ghetto is moved to the smaller to await the train cars coming to take them away. They delude themselves into thinking they are going on vacation – despite the fact their non-Jewish neighbors come and plead with them to run away and hide.
Once on the train, there are eighty people stuffed into one cattle car. They are told if one person escapes then all will be shot. Everyone must take turns sitting down and there is not enough food or water to go around. One woman, Mrs. Schachter, seems to go insane. She continuously screams about a fire, warning her companions of a fiery death. Over and over they rush to the window when she screams only to see nothing. It isn’t until they reach Birkenau – part of Auschwitz – they see the chimney above the crematorium and first smell the stench of burning flesh. It is their first glimpse of the horror which awaits them, and will claim nearly all their lives. Here they will learn the value of bread, soup, coffee, and humane words. They will learn the limits of their bodies, souls, and minds. And they will learn to be terrified of selection, transports, beatings, rapes, hangings, gas chambers and crematoriums, and even each other.
Why is this book a classic?
Because of the unflinchingly brutal description of what the Holocaust was like in the words of a survivor.
Why should I read this book?
To remind yourself what man is capable of doing towards his fellow man, and to remind yourself of the responsibility you have to do your best to prevent something like the Holocaust from ever occurring again.
Has it won any awards?
It’s the latest in the long line of Oprah’s Book Club picks, which I suppose could be considered an award. But Elie Weisel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986 for his work for victims of genocide.
“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.” – p 32
“It became clear that it would be necessary to invent a new language. But how was one to rehabilitate and transform words betrayed and perverted by the enemy? Hunger – thirst – fear – transport – selection – fire – chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times, they meant something else…Was there a way to describe the last journey in sealed cattle cars, the last voyage toward the unknown? Or the discovery of a demented and glacial universe where to be inhuman was human, where disciplined educated men in uniform came to kill, and innocent children and weary old men came to die? Or the countless separations on a single fiery night, the tearing apart of entire families, entire communities? Or, incredibly, the vanishing of a beautiful, well-behaved little Jewish girl with golden hair and a sad smile, murdered with her mother the very night of their arrival? How was one to speak of them without trembling and a heart broken for all eternity?” – p ix
Elie Weisel has won the Nobel Peace Prize (1986), the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor (1985), and has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1996). He also spearheaded the committee which founded the Washington D.C. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I went into this book expecting to hate it. But I didn’t. I hated the Nazis, I hated the Gestapo and the cruel Jews. I even hated the victims for not listening when they were warned to flee. But, surprisingly, I wasn’t as moved as I thought I would be. Unfortunately, I think many people who have travelled the long halls of public schools have been so exposed to the Holocaust that it has ceased to affect them in a reasonable manner. Maybe it’s because man has committed so many atrocities in its war on itself to be the best that nowadays we simply add it to the list unless it directly influences.
The shocking part of this reading experience was the anger I felt toward Elie. It impacted me to watch as he lost his faith in God completely. It made me so angry – that someone would give up on God. I’m sure this is mainly due to my own faith and my own cush little life which has never had even a particle of suffering which can compare to the Holocaust. And obviously, anyone put in a situation composed of so much horror and insanity would ask “why me? why is this happening?” But to still, today, be angry at God for what happened instead of thankful for still being alive puzzles me. It must be something that is far beyond my comprehension in terms of suffering.