Invested a couple hours this afternoon and read Night by Elie Wiesel. I can’t remember if I read this book in a high school or college Literature class. If I didn’t it should have been in the curriculum.
Night is an open door into the Holocaust through the eyes, no, through the very life of one of its survivors. It is a perspective of that “event” I have not encountered until now. Perhaps not many who lived through it as prisoners in concentration camps could find the words to describe their experience. Perhaps not many wanted to. But Wiesel has and Night is his story. If you haven’t read it, do.
How about an excerpt? How to choose? To reach in and pull out a piece of one man’s experience of the darkness that is evil and place it onto a blog page. Nevertheless, here is my selection:
“Father, are you there?” I asked as soon as I was able to utter a word.
I knew that he could not be far from me.
“Yes!” a voice replied from far away, as if from another world. “I am trying to sleep.”
He was trying to sleep. Could one fall asleep here? Wasn’t it dangerous to lower one’s guard, even for a moment, when death could strike at any time?
Those were my thoughts when I heard the sound of a violin. A violin in a dark barrack where the dead were piled on top of the living? Who was this madman who played the violin here, at the edge of his own grave? Or was it a hallucination?
It had to be Juliek.
He was playing a fragment of a Beethoven concerto. Never before had I heard such a beautiful sound. In such silence.
How had he succeeded in disengaging himself? To slip out from under my body without my feeling it? [Note: they, the prisoners, were piled on top of each other in a crowded barracks.]
The darkness enveloped us. All I could hear was the violin, and it was as if Juliek’s soul had become his bow. He was playing his life. His whole being was gliding over the strings. His unfulfilled hopes. His charred past, his extinguished future. He played that which he would never play again.
I shall never forget Juliek. How could I forget this concert given before an audience of the dead and dying? Even today, when I hear that particular piece by Beethoven, my eyes close and out of the darkness emerges the pale and melancholy face of my Polish comrade bidding farewell to an audience of dying men.
I don’t know how long he played. I was overcome by sleep. When I awoke at daybreak, I saw Juliek facing me, hunched over, dead. Next to him lay his violin, trampled, an eerily poignant little corpse.
The foreword to this edition of Night was written by Francois Mauriac, who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1952, and apparently he had much to do with encouraging Wiesel to write Night in the first place. One of the “themes” Wiesel weaves through his book is how he lost his faith in God as a result of encountering and being a target of such incredible evil, and he is not alone in this outcome. The problem of evil has been a question that people have wrestled with since shortly after time began, and until we’ve experienced it ourselves we would be remiss to not take seriously the effect that evil, whether concrete or abstract, has on people and their beliefs.
Mauriac does address this in his foreword, and I think he does so graciously. Here is part of what he wrote:
It is, however, another aspect of this extraordinary book that has held my attention. The child who tells us his story here was one of God’s chosen. From the time he began to think, he lived only for God, studying the Talmud, eager to be initiated into the Kabbalah, wholly dedicated to the Almighty. Have we ever considered the consequence of a less visible, less striking abomination, yet the worst of all, for those of us who have faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly faces absolute evil?
And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block for his faith had become a cornerstone for mine? And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains, in my view, the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his childhood was lost? And yet, Zion has risen up again out of the crematoria and the slaughterhouses. The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is they who have given it new life. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to Him. That is what I should have said to the Jewish child. But all I could do was embrace him and weep.
Mauriac hits on something in that last paragraph that is key to not losing your sanity when it comes to pondering the presence of evil in this world, and that’s the cross of Jesus Christ, upon which the God who created this universe personally experienced evil, torture, pain, and worst of all, the full brunt of the wrath of God. And he did it for us.
The Jewish prophet Isaiah wrote these words about Jesus, hundreds of years before the cross actually happened:
He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
Similarly, though a few decades after Jesus died on the cross and was raised again from the dead, Peter, one of his followers, wrote this:
But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.