Summary and Analysis
Before a poignant face-to-face visit with a young interviewer for a Tel Aviv newspaper, French writer François Mauriac describes his apprehension. After Elie Wiesel knocks at his door, however, he feels an immediate kinship and tells young Wiesel about the trauma he suffered when he learned from his wife about Hitler's cruelty toward children. She had seen trainloads of them at the Austerlitz station, and, at that time, neither Mauriac nor his wife knew about the death camps. All they knew was that these thousands of children had been separated from their parents.
Wiesel says that he is a death camp survivor, and Mauriac is deeply moved. He tells us that Wiesel is "one of God's elect." The elderly Frenchman realizes that the horrors of smoking crematories and their hopeless victims have incarcerated Elie in a perpetual isolation and angst that did not end with the liberation of 1945. Mauriac searches for proof that God is love but has no evidence to counter Elie's grim testimony. He remembers weeping wordlessly and embracing the young journalist.
Novelist and playwright François Mauriac (1885-1970), one of France's most prestigious Christian writers, was seventy when he met twenty-seven-year-old Elie Wiesel. In the Foreword to Night, the first-person documentary that he helped Wiesel publish, Mauriac alludes to the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, an optimistic, progressive period of rational thought from which evolved an overthrow of the monarchy during the French Revolution in 1789. Although he believes in the principles of the Enlightenment and in human advancement, a looming sense of the world's regression into barbarism struck him at the beginning of World War I. Mauriac's pessimism didn't reach its height, however, until the Nazi perversion of science produced efficient death camps as a means of ridding Adolf Hitler's dream state of all people whom he deemed unfit to live in it or to contribute to the building of a Master Race. Mauriac's conclusion forms the central theme in the book: Hitler's annihilation of defenseless children constitutes "absolute evil," an act of heinous destruction with no redeeming purpose.
Mauriac's intense relationship with the young eyewitness leads him to hope that as many people will read Wiesel's Night as read Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. The two works deal with the same historical era and are written from a Jewish point of view. However, a diversity of setting and action sets them apart. Anne Frank's journal describes the day-to-day preparations for a Jewish family's concealment from the SS in the annex of a Dutch import warehouse, where they listen to forbidden radio broadcasts and cheer on the Allies as World War II winds to a close. The diary stops short of the family's arrest, separation, and deportation to a concentration camp, where Anne dies of typhus within months of the war's end. A more chilling first-person narration, Elie Wiesel's Night introduces a similar trusting attitude that the war will soon end and leave them unscathed. The terrible irony of Elie's deportation with fellow Romanian villagers and his failed attempt to keep his father alive surpasses The Diary of a Young Girl in the enormity of SS cruelty, racism, and murderous intent to rid the expanding Third Reich of eleven million human beings whom the Nazis labeled as "undesirables."
Mauriac's pairing of the two eyewitness accounts is a worthy suggestion: Any reader captivated by Anne Frank's innocence and stalwart spirit will profit from reading about the collapse of optimism and religious faith revealed in Elie Wiesel's plight. The same irony applies to Wiesel's account: His terror in total isolation and helplessness occurs only months from rescue by Allied forces during the closing weeks of World War II.
François Mauriac (frahn swah moh ree ak) French Catholic ethicist who assisted the French Resistance by writing anti-Nazi articles. In 1952, Mauriac won the Nobel Prize for literature.
the Occupation June 22, 1940-October 23, 1944, the period during which Nazis overran France and set up a totalitarian government.
Austerlitz (ow stuhr lihtz) currently Brno, the Czech Republic, in the south-central portion of the country.
Nazi (naht see) shortened form for a member of NSDAP (Nationalsozialische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), the German National Socialist party, which Anton Drexler, Dietrich Eckart, Karl Harrer, and Adolf Hitler inaugurated in 1920 as a racist, totalitarian oppressor of human rights. The shortened form of the party's title remained in use from 1930-1945 as a pejorative expressing the world's distaste for Hitler's thugs.
Sighet (sih geht) a provincial Transylvanian town in the Carpathian Mountains in the far north of Romania near the Russian border, an area which was part of Hungary from 1941-1945, thus contributing to the confusion over Elie Wiesel's nationality. He is alternately identified as Romanian, Hungarian, and Transylvanian.
Lazarus (la zuh ruhs) according to John 11, a biblical character whom Christ raised from the dead. The name is a Romanized variant of Elie's first name, Eliezer.
Nietzsche (nee chuh) Friedrich Nietzsche, a late nineteenth-century German philosopher who proclaimed "God is dead" and proposed the concept of the "superman," an idea that was misappropriated by the Nazis in order to justify their obsession with Aryan superiority.
the god of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob three patriarchs of the book of Genesis. Abraham, son of an idol-maker, was the founder of monotheism in the Western world, the father of Isaac, and the grandfather of Jacob, who later changed his name to Israel and sired its twelve tribes.
Rosh Hashanah (rash hah shah nuh) Hebrew for "New Year," a Jewish holiday observed on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishri (usually in September).
that other Jew, his brother Jesus, who was born to Jewish parents and reared in the Hebraic tradition, including dedication at the Temple and training in oral disputation with learned men.
Zion here, the term refers to the Jewish nation; Zionism is a general term applying to the movement to establish a Jewish state in Palestine.
Talmud (tahl muhd) a 45-volume compendium of scriptural interpretation, commentary, and traditions, edited in 500 A.D. and used as a source book of Jewish wisdom to solve problems and settle disputes.
cabbala (kuh bah luh) a philosophy based on mystical interpretations of Judaic prophecy, dreams, visions, wisdom, numerology, scripture, sacred mysteries, and godhood.
charnel houses mortuaries, or makeshift repositories of the dead.
grace the Christian concept of a gift that the receiver does not have to deserve; a blessing from God or from a generous donor.