Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Holocaust survivor, and author of Night, died on Saturday. He was 87 years old.
Wiesel devoted his life to working against violence, prejudice, and genocide, and ensuring that the horrors of the Holocaust would never be forgotten. He is perhaps best known in the US for his memoir Night, which tells the story of his time in concentration camps as a teenager. It’s a compacted, abbreviated version of the 800-page memoir he wrote in Yiddish, Un di velt hot geshvign (And the World Remained Silent), and it forms the first part of the Holocaust memoir trilogy Wiesel would continue with Dawn and Day.
Night shows up on American school curriculums fairly frequently: it uses simple language and it’s short enough for a class to cover it quickly, but its evocation of the demeaning, dehumanizing horrors of the Holocaust is profound and visceral. Reading Night teaches students just how monstrous the Holocaust was in a way that no history book could.
Here’s a passage that comes near the end of the book, when Wiesel has been locked in the barracks of a new camp following a deathly forced march. People are dying all around him from cold and starvation and exposure, and their bodies are piled one on top of the other, crushing each other. What happens next is one of the few moments of redemption offered to Wiesel in the pitch darkness of Night, a pure and lovely grace note that reminds us of the dignity and humanity of the prisoners of the concentration camps.
Could one sleep here? Was it not dangerous to allow your vigilance to fail, even for a moment, when at any minute death could pounce upon you?
I was thinking of this when I heard the sound of a violin. The sound of a violin, in this dark shed, where the dead were heaped on the living. What madman could be playing the violin here, at the brink of his own grave? Or was it really an hallucination?
It must have been Juliek.
He played a fragment from Beethoven’s concerto. I have never heard sounds so pure. In such a silence.
How had he managed to free himself? To draw his body from under mine without my being aware of it?
It was pitch dark. I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek’s soul were the bow. He was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the strings — his lost hopes, his charred path, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play again.
I shall never forget Juliek. How could I forget that concert, given to an audience of dead and dying men! To this day, whenever I hear Beethoven played my eyes close and out of the dark rises the sad, pale face of my Polish friend, as he said farewell on his violin to an audience of dying men.
I do not know for how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke, in the daylight, I could see Juliek, opposite me, slumped over, dead. Near him lay his violin, smashed, trampled, a strange overwhelming little corpse.