Author’s Note: Elie Wiesel’s book Night taught a generation of students about the Holocaust. Today, Night is no longer being pushed by Holocaust affirmers due to the contradictions between the book and the official Holocaust narrative, but I will not let them sweep their dirty mess under the rug. During his lifetime Wiesel was taken seriously and some might say he was the “Saint of the Holocaust.” The following is a retelling of Night sans the purple prose and with some honesty sprinkled in. It has also been mercifully shortened. Night was the longest 100-page book I’ve ever read! Some of the details in Elie Wiesel’s story contain differences depending on what source you read, therefore I have included the different versions where more than one exists and added the source from which it came.
It was May 27th, the Saturday before Pentecost, or Shavuot (Night, 1960). In the spring sunshine people strolled, carefree and unheeding, through the swarming streets. But then again, it could have been some two weeks before Shavuot (Night, 2006). Memory plays tricks. Children played games on the street and I studied the Talmud. This was life in the Jewish Ghetto, which was like a dream for me, to live in a Jewish world, completely Jewish, a world where Christians would have scarcely any access (Kingdom of Memory).
That night, however, we were to discover that my dream would not last forever. My father had gone to a special meeting of the Council where he heard the dreaded word: deportation.
The ghetto was to be liquidated, starting the next day. Street by street.
That night the ghetto was full of the bustle of the people preparing to meet their fate. Women were cooking food and baking. Knapsacks and backpacks were being packed. By 8 o’clock in the morning weariness began to set in—and that’s when we heard the shouting.
“All Jews outside! Hurry!”
The houses emptied and we entered the street. By 10 o’clock we were all outside. The Hungarian police were taking roll call—not once, not twice, but twenty times it seemed. The morning heat was intense in mid-late May. We sweated. The children called for water. Water! It was so close by in the houses. Apparently no one thought to pack any while they were baking and cooking food. Thankfully the Jewish police from the town were able to fill some jugs and the children drank in secret. The Hungarian police were absurdly cruel.
At 1 o’clock in the afternoon, the signal to leave came and I watched my former neighbors file away. We were destined for the last envoy, so we did not have to leave until the day after next.
They passed me. My teachers, my friends, the others.
All around there was a deserted town and up above a hot summer sun. Even though it was actually still spring. Mid or late spring depending on how I remember it.
That day arrived for us to leave on the last envoy. Everyone was ordered outside. There was the same heat, the same thirst. We were then ordered to march, and then to run. Faster! Faster! From their shuttered windows our fellow citizens watched. Apparently they weren’t part of the total liquidation.
Saturday, the day of rest for my people, was the day of our departure to the unknown. At dawn, we were ready to leave. No absurdly cruel Hungarian police this time. It was decided that the Jewish Council would handle everything themselves.
Our convoy headed to the main synagogue. But behind the shutters, our friends of yesterday were probably waiting for the first opportunity to loot our homes—more people that had apparently escaped the total liquidation.
The synagogue resembled a large railway station. The place was in shambles. We spent a cramped twenty-four hours there before being loaded into the train the next day.
The next morning we walked to the train station. The Hungarian police were back, loading us into the cattle cars. They gave us some bread and some water and checked that the bars on the windows were secure. Come to think of it, it must have been a different kind of cattle than the normal kind as those usually do not have windows; rather, they have horizontal slats on the side.
I noticed two Gestapo officers strolling down the platform, looking satisfied with the job completed. I’m not sure how I knew they were Gestapo officers, as they are different from SS officers and did not have uniforms. Yet somehow I knew.
The whistle blew and we were on our way.
* * *
What took place on the train was like something out of a movie. In the darkness, young people gave into their urges and copulated while the others pretended not to notice (La Nuit, 1958). But now that I think about it they might have only been caressing (2006).
Another thing that happened could have been straight out of a movie: a woman named Mrs. Schächter had crouched in the corner with her 10-year-old son. Her husband and two other sons had been deported earlier by mistake. The separation had shattered her. She slowly lost her mind, and by the third night she was screaming, “I see a fire, I see a fire!”
There was no fire, and nothing would calm her. In the end, she had to be bound and gagged on more than one occasion, always screaming about the fire when she got loose.
When we finally arrived at our final destination and peered out the windows, ,my stomach dropped. Outside in the darkness was fire leaping out of a tall chimney against a dark sky.
It was around midnight, and we had arrived in Birkenau.
* * *
The first thing they did to us was separate me and my father from my mother and three sisters. “Men to the left, women to the right.” Fortunately, my two older sisters, Beatrice and Hilda, survived the war.
What I’ll never forget is meeting the infamous Dr. Mengele. He stood there as we marched toward the square (1960). Although I must add that I didn’t actually know it at the time (2006). His face was cruel, but not without intelligence. He even had a monocle. He looked like the literal cliché of evil.
I convinced the doctor that I was 18 and a farmer, though I was only 15 and had never done manual labor in my life. I was sent to the left. I hesitated to see where my father would be sent. Fortunately, he was also sent to the left. We walked together.
We marched towards flaming pits. As we neared them, I saw a truckload of something being dumped in. Looking closer, I was horrified to see that it was babies. Further on was a larger pit for adults. A baby-sized pit and an adult-sized pit.
We marched towards the pits. Closer and closer, step by step, closer and closer. Then, in a very dramatic fashion, we were ordered to turn left when we were but two steps from the pits.
The first night in the camp was memorable. I shall never forget the fire and the look on the children’s faces as they were transformed to smoke. Although I cannot fully describe the nature and location of these pits, believe me, I shall never forget.
At some point we were ordered to strip off our clothing and put it into a pile. Some may think this was to dehumanize us, but really our clothing needed to be deloused. Then we were sent to the barber to get our hair shaved off. This might also sound cruel, but it was actually a life-saving procedure meant to stop the spread of typhus, a deadly disease carried by lice. We were given a disinfecting bath and a hot shower and then given inmate uniforms.
I remember my first full day in Poland as being a beautiful April day (1960). No wait, it was May (2006). Of course it was May. The registration card that matches the tattooed number that I definitely have, A-7713. It was issued on May 24, 1944 under the name of Lazar Wiesel, who was born on September 4, 1913. What a silly mistake they made. A 15-year-old boy pretending to be 18 wouldn’t have been born in 1913.
After a several days, the Germans marched my father and I through town to the Buna camp, also known as Monowitz. We were ordered to march with some musicians. They were nearly all Jews: Juliek, a bespectacled Pole with a cynical smile on his pale face; Hans, a lively young Berliner; Louis, a distinguished violinist who came from Holland. Louis complained that they would not let him play Beethoven, as Jews were not allowed to play German music. The foreman was a Pole, Franek, a former student from Warsaw.
We were sent to a warehouse where we had to count bolts, bulbs, and small electrical fittings. There were women there, too. The French ones kept casting friendly glances at the musicians.
Life in the camp was harsh. All manner of cruel things were done to us, mostly by the Kapos, who were Jewish inmates that served as prison functionaries.
I often sat by a beautiful French woman while working at the warehouse. One day, a Kapo named Idek took out his fury on me. He threw himself upon me like a wild beast and commenced to beat me. After he was done, the French woman comforted me. By chance I would meet her again in Paris. We drank coffee and reminisced for a whole evening, nevermind that I never bother to mention her name. She was very real.
Once they tried to take my gold fillings. I pretended to be sick and got out of it only to have it taken by a Polish Jew named Franek.
One time the Kapo Idek made us go to the warehouse on Sunday. We did not work on Sundays, so we just sat there bored. Some of us poked around the building for any bread the civilian workers had left behind. At the time it didn’t occur to me how strange it was that civilians were allowed into a top-secret death camp. Anyway, I went back to the camp and caught Idek being intimate with a girl. I sure got a good beating for that.
* * *
Around the middle of January, my knee began to swell (Tous les fleuves, 1994). I could not work. I went to the death camp infirmary and was told by the Jewish doctor that my foot (1960) had to be operated on. How lucky I was to not be gassed with the others that were unfit to work!
The operation on my knee was successful. I asked the doctor if I’d be able to use my leg again. He said after two weeks of bedrest I’d be able to walk like the others.
“The sole of your foot was full of pus. I just had to open the sac,” he told me.
It was two days later when rumors spread about the Soviets coming, that they were advancing on Buna. Was it true?
At 4 o’clock, the rumors were confirmed. Auschwitz was to be evacuated. Upon hearing this news, I ran out of the infirmary, forgetting all about my knee or foot, to find my father. I couldn’t put my right shoe on, and I was getting blood all over the white snow.
When I found him, I asked, “What are we going to do?”
He was silent.
“Let’s evacuate with the others,” I said after a time.
Yes, despite personally witnessing babies being dumped into pits, receiving endless beatings from Kapos, and experiencing years of cruelty from the SS, we decided to go with our German captors instead of waiting it out for our Russian liberators because of the vague rumors of possibly being killed if we stayed behind. I only found out later that over 7,000 inmates were discovered by the Soviets. I guess they didn’t kill the people that stayed.
Despite my injured foot or knee (not to mention my father’s frail condition), we decided to flee with our tormentors. To voluntarily embark upon a death march into Germany, land of the people who wanted to kill us all.
* * *
The march was as cruel as anything else. It was more of a run than a march. If one of us stopped for even a second, they would be shot by the SS men running behind us. Surprisingly, my knee or foot, which had just been operated on and would require two weeks of bed rest, didn’t seem to cause an issue for the miles and miles of running we were forced to do.
The cold was biting and my foot or my knee ached with every step. The road was endless. When the SS men behind us grew tired, others replaced them. Although I’m not sure how that would have worked. Still, there was no one to replace us.
A Kommandant had announced that we had covered 42 miles (1960). Actually it was actually only 20 kilometers (2006). Of course it was only 20 kilometers. Gleiwitz camp, our destination, was only not much more than 30 miles away. An hour after that, we finally stopped. My father and I took refuge in a ruined brick factory. People were dying all around us, their bodies slowly being covered by the snow. I wonder if anyone went back to try to find those bodies to verify my story.
After another night of travel, we made it to the Gleiwitz camp, where the Kapos summarily herded us into the barracks. It was so crowded, a sea of bodies living, dying, and dead.
“Mercy! You’re crushing me!” A voice yelled from beneath my feet. A familiar voice.
I felt like I was crushing the source of the mysterious voice. I clawed and bit and fought, digging my nails into the unknown faces of my kinfolk. No one cried out.
Suddenly I remembered!
The voice belonged to Juliek, the boy from the Buna camp.
“Juliek, is that you?”
“Eliezer… The twenty-five whiplashes… Yes… I remember.”
He fell silent. A long moment went by.
“Juliek! Can you hear me, Juliek?”
“Yes…” he said feebly.
“What do you want?” He was not dead.
“Are you all right, Juliek?” I asked, less to know his answer than to hear him speak, to know he was alive.
“All right, Eliezer… All right… Not too much air… Tired. My feet are swollen. It’s good to rest, but my violin…”
I thought he’d lost his mind. His violin? Here? “What about your violin?”
He was gasping: “I… I’m afraid…They’ll break…my violin… I… I brought it with me.”
I attempted to answer him, but I could not speak. Another body was lying the full length on top of me. My mouth and nose covered.
I can’t breathe! My thoughts cried.
I began clawing my own flesh that was suffocating me. Tearing at decaying flesh that did not respond. But I am not sure if they were actually dead or not. After much struggle I was able to breath. I called to my father and he responded.
As I was trying to fall asleep I heard music, beautiful music. It was Juliek playing his smuggled violin. He poured himself into the strings and Beethoven poured out.
I finally slept and in the morning saw Juliek’s little body slumped over a broken violin. So many extraordinary things had happened to me. One might even think I was making it all up.
We stayed in Gleiwitz for three days without food or water. I wondered why the Nazis bothered to bring us along if they were just going to shoot us and leave us to die in poor conditions. Still, here we were.
On the third day, we were driven out of the barracks. We threw our blankets over our shoulders like prayer shawls. We heard that we were going to be deported to the center of Germany.
We were driven outside and the SS men began dividing us, sending weak people to the left. My father was sent to the left! I ran after him, and this somehow caused such a confusion that my father and I were able to sneak into the right line without being noticed or questioned.
We were then marched to a field to wait for a train. We stood there a very long time as we were not allowed to sit. The snow was falling and we started to get covered in it.
We received our usual ration of bread, but not water for some reason. One person got the idea to eat the snow off the back of his neighbor with a spoon. Soon we were all doing this. It is amazing that we all did not die right there. Eating snow actually dehydrates you because you body uses more energy and water to melt the ingested snow, and we were already dehydrated from the three days with no water. Not to mention, eating snow can be especially dangerous as it lowers your core body temperature, which also leads to dehydration. But we did not all die there standing for hours in the snow eating snow. My life attests to that! Don’t ask how this is technically possible—it’s technically possible because it happened.
Hours passed and we stood. The train finally arrived in the evening. An impossibly long train comprised of cattle cars with no roofs. We were crammed in, one hundred people to a car. After everyone was loaded we were on our way to Germany.
The ride was cold and we huddled together. Every so often they would stop the train to throw off the dead people. At one point my father was almost thrown off, but he breathed at the last minute so it was okay.
At one point we were all fighting each other tooth and nail for a bit of bread.
We arrived in Buchenwald after ten days (1960). Actually, I think it best if I not specify how long the train ride was (2006). And it couldn’t have been ten days; that would ruin the entire chronology of my story.
By the time the trip was over there were only twelve alive out of the hundred that started. Never mind that the train manifest showed that out of 3,987 inmates that started the journey 3,927 arrived in Buchenwald. The Nazis were lying!
The SS men were waiting for us at the gates of the camp. We were ordered to form groups and then ordered to take a hot bath.
There were many people and there was a wait for the showers. In a melodramatic fashion, my father sat in the snow and begged me to go on without him. His health really was failing, and I wondered if we should have just chosen to stay in Auschwitz to wait for the Soviets.
My father and I had been arguing about me leaving him for a while when the sirens began to wail. The guards drove us into the barracks and I left my father sitting there without a second thought.
In the barracks there were cauldrons of soup. Even though we had been fighting to the death over bread on the train, the soup attracted no one. We slept.
The next morning I was feeling guilty about leaving my father behind, but I also considered the benefits of not having to deal with him. In the end I decided to go look for him.
A few hours later I discovered him, he was burning with fever. A week later, on the night of January 28th, my father died of dysentery.
After my father’s death, I lived in a haze. Nothing much mattered to me. At some point I was transferred to the children’s block. There were six hundred of us. I paid so little attention that I did not know that the children’s block was called Block 66 or the “small camp.” This camp had almost legendary importance in the saga of the Buchenwald camp’s last days. But really, can a man be expected to remember all (or any) of the details of a life-changing experience?
On April 5th things changed. Early in the evening there was an announcement on the loudspeakers, all the Jews must report to the assembly place.
This is it, I thought. Hitler is going to keep his promise and finally kill us all after transporting us and feeding us for all these months.
The head of our block forced us out of the barrack with his truncheon. On our way to the assembly, other prisoners warned us not to go. So we went back to our barracks and nobody bothered us for some reason.
We found out that there had been great resistance at the assembly, and, being that it was late, the head of the camp decided to postpone the general roll call until the next day.
The roll call took place the next day. The head of the camp announced that Buchenwald was to be liquidated. Ten blocks of deportees would be evacuated each day. From this moment, there would be no further distribution of bread and soup. And so the evacuation began. Every day, several thousand prisoners went through the camp gate and never came back (1960).
Yes, every day they would select 10,000 and kill them outside the gate. By sheer serendipity, I was always among those left behind (source, page 153). To this day it puzzles me that Holocaust historians never mention the 60,000 bodies that would have been piled up at the gate when the liberators arrived.
Speaking of those liberators, they arrived on April 11th. At about six o’clock in the evening, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald.
The first thing we did as free men was eat. That was our only thought. Food. Not our families, not revenge.
Early the next day, Jewish boys ran off to Weimar to steal clothing and potatoes. And to rape German girls. The historical commandment of revenge was not fulfilled (source, page 166).
Oh my, what did I just write there? That’s not right at all. Let me try again.
And even when we were no longer hungry, there was still no one who thought of revenge. On the following day, some of the young men went to Weimar to get some potatoes and clothes—and to sleep with girls. But of revenge, not a sign (1960).
Three days after the liberation of Buchenwald, I became very ill with food poisoning. I was transferred to the hospital and spent two weeks between life and death. A very famous photo was taken during this time, and even though I was deathly ill, I was in the photo. I had been through so much that I looked like a 30-year-old man.
One day, when I was able to get up, I braved a look into the mirror. I had not done so since the ghetto. The look in his eyes, as they stared into mine, has never left me.