“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”
– George Santayana
There’s a lot of debate in Denmark right now because some have suggested that Jews didn’t walk on (certain) streets in Copenhagen while wearing a Star of David or a kippa/yarmulke because they will then be in danger of being attacked. It’s strangely appropriate that I should be reading this book right now, then.
I’ve also just finished reading Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones about the extermination of the Jews from the point of view of an SS officer. 983 pages. So I needed something from the other point of view. Something showing the Jews and their suffering from their perspective. Something showing them as the humans they were and are and not as the animals, the Nazis tried to make them be in order to justify the extermination of them. It’s strange that Littell’s book made me think so much more with all it’s many pages whereas this brief book didn’t so much make me think as it made me feel. And it definitely didn’t make me want to think because thinking of what Wiesel writes, is too devastating.
Wiesel’s book is written to bear witness. To tell what it was like to be in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. To tell the world what happened to the Jews during World War II. But in some ways, he didn’t succeed in showing them as humans. Or at least, not all the time. Because what the book shows is that if you treat humans like the Nazis treated the Jews, at some point you take everything that’s human out of them and all you leave them with, is survival instinct. And that is what makes a boy not react to his father’s cries as he is being beaten to death. That’s what make a boy unsure whether the babies he saw thrown in the fire, was alive or not. That’s what makes a boy run and run and run, through the snow and without any food or drink, on a foot that just had surgery. That’s what makes a boy survive being separated from his mother and little sister by a man saying just eight words: “Men to the left! Women to the right!” (p. 29)
Hitler and the Nazis did succeed in making the Jews into animals. They were starved and beaten and mistreated and tortured and used in ways most of us would never do to an animal. And when they were dead – sometimes even before they were dead – their bodies were burned or buried in huge mass graves. Unmarked graves.
“It is obvious that the war which Hitler and his accomplices waged was a war not only against Jewish men, women, and children, but also against Jewish religion, Jewish culture, Jewish tradition, therefore Jewish memory.” (p. viii)
But despite all they did to accomplish this, to erase the Jews from ever existing, they still failed. And they failed because of people like Elie Wiesel. Like Primo Levi. Like Anne Frank. Like Imre Kertész. Like Art Spiegelman. And like so many others. Who bore witness to what had happened to them or to their families. Who made sure that no one would ever forget. And thereby did their part in preventing it from ever happening again. Now we just need people to listen. To read.
And to get people to stop attacking Jews for being Jews. Or other people for being who they are born to be.
It’s hard to write a review about a book like this, it’s hard to rate it anything but 5 stars, it’s hard to write a review about it that says more than ‘just go read it!’
“The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future.”
– Elie Wiesel
- Title: Night
- Author: Elie Wiesel
- Publisher: Penguin
- Year: 2006 (1958)
- Pages: 120 pages
- Source: Own Collection
- Stars: 5 stars out of 5
If you liked this book, you might also like The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell, Maus by Art Spiegelman and The Reader by Bernhard Schlinck, books that all deal with World War II, or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about being in a death camp/labor camp.
I’ll agree that it’s hard to write a review of this book–mine a couple of months ago was about a paragraph long.
Here’s my question: when you say “while wearing a Star of David,” you mean jewelry? Not the yellow cloth one from the war, since I believe the Danish government simply refused to cooperate with that, didn’t they? What time period is under debate–before WWII or what–I’m not sure when you’re talking about? (Sorry)
I suppose you’ve read Lois Lowry’s book “Number the Stars”? If not, it’s a children’s book about WWII in Denmark and getting the Jews out of the country. I was interested to see that it contains what might be a real story about the king’s daily morning ride through the streets in occupied Denmark. Reportedly, a German soldier made a comment about “Where are the King’s bodyguards?” and a boy answered “Det er vi allesammen.” I’ve seen it in a Danish book too–a collection of reminiscences–but I don’t really know if it’s true, so if you do tell me.
Yes, I mean a necklace with a star of David. And it’s happening right now – the Danish Jews are being advised not to walk in certain parts of Copenhagen with visible Jewish jewelry etc.
During WWII, a lot of Danes helped Jews escape to Sweden. We were not quite as amazing as we have been portrayed but a lot of Jews were rescued. During the occupation, King Christian X did support the Danish Jews on several occasions and he was able to ride through the streets of Copenhagen without an escort. On the one picture I found of this, the horse wasn’t white. I’m not sure how often he did this but as far as I can tell, the rumors that he did this daily while wearing the yellow cloth star, is not true.
This is going on NOW? Holy MOLEY. I don’t even know what to say about that. That is very very worrying.
I believe the king’s ride was a daily event. But you’re right–the yellow cloth star was simply never introduced in DK at all, and the rumors about the king and populace wearing it are untrue. A while back I saw that someone has written a picture book depicting the myth as history, which really bugs me! It even has a note in the back saying ‘well, it’s a myth but wouldn’t it be great if it were true?’ And I think–no. Reality, in this case, was better.
It is going on NOW. And yes, it’s extremely worrying. It’s devastating that it’s still necessary to read books like this … and that these events still happen around the world.
I think the white horse is from another time when Denmark and parts of Jutland was reunited and the King rode across the border on his white horse. I have heard of the picture book too. I found this fun video of the king riding his horse through the streets of Copenhagen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DuTtxvDWiqU
It seems that the Germans placed him under house arrest for part of the occupation.
Great review. It is hard to write about books like Night, but you did an excellent job.
Thank you Heather!
An amazing book. I appreciate you making sure to read both sides, even though the “other” side was the lesser read, it’s good to be well-rounded.
Definitely. And that’s the wonder about literature! The other day I heard a podcast about books and they talked about a book taking place in London in the 80s and following a gay neo-nazi and the conflicts between being gay and a nazi. It sounded really interesting and I couldn’t help thinking that that was definitely a scene and place I would never get to experience without literature (and movies, probably).
That sounds really intriguing! It kind of reminds me of a Dave Chapelle sketch from years ago. He’s a black man, but blind, and in the KKK and dislikes other blacks. But since he’s blind, he doesn’t realize he’s black. It was a funny sketch and not supposed to be taken seriously, of course, which makes it WAY different from a gay Nazi. That does seem like it would be a challenge!
That’s terrible. Are people being harassed on the street? I plan to read this book soon. sounds like I should prepare myself for some crying.
Yes, people are being harassed on the street because of their faith and race. It’s truly terrible! And yes, this is one of those hard books one still should read. I am slowly getting ready to read Anne Frank’s book and I definitely think I will be crying when reading it.