This memoir by Elie Wiesel was written for adults but is on reading lists for kids ages 12 to 18. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
In 1941, Eliezer Wiesel lives in a Jewish community in Sighet, Transylvania. An avid student, he wants to know God and studies the Kabbalah with Moishe. Moishe is deported with other foreign Jews but returns near the end of 1942. He warns the Jews that the Nazis massacred all the other deportees. No one listens. In spring 1944, the Hungarian police empty the two ghettos in Sighet and herd Eliezer, his family and the rest of the Jewish population into crowded boxcars for transport.
At Birkenau, 15-year-old Eliezer sees flames rising from the chimneys and smells the odor of bodies being burned. He sees his mother and sister for the last time there. A Jewish inmate tells him that Jews are being exterminated at this camp.
Eliezer's memories of the camps revolve mainly around two relationships: his relationship with God and his relationship with his father. Though Eliezer states that the events in camp during his first night killed God, he continues to reflect on God throughout the book, but his bitter rejection of God deepens as he experiences and witnesses the cruelties of the camps. When 10,000 Jewish men gather to observe Rosh Hashanah, Eliezer stands apart, quietly denouncing God to himself, and he does not fast on Yom Kippur. During a death march from Buna, he startles himself by praying to a god he no longer believes in.
Many of Eliezer's other memories revolve around his determination to support his father and receive support from him. While in Buna, father and son endure starvation, hard labor, threats, beatings, betrayals and the constant fear of being chosen for the crematorium. They also watch hangings and shootings. Eliezer's greatest desire is to be a good son, but his father's frailties are sometimes burdensome, and Eliezer struggles with his responses. He chastises himself for failing to be a perfect son.
In January as the Red Army approaches Buna, the camp is evacuated. Eliezer has an injured foot, but he leaves with the prisoners because he will not be separated from his father. Many die on this march and during their train ride in open boxcars. At Buchenwald, Eliezer's father dies from dysentery, but this death is hastened by an SS officer’s beating. Eliezer writes that nothing was important to him after his father's death. The camp is liberated on April 11, 1945. Eliezer becomes ill and nearly dies. In the hospital he sees himself in a mirror, and he looks like a corpse.
None are stated in the text. In the foreword, the French writer Mauriac suggests that all human suffering, even that of the Jews, can be reconciled in the Cross of Jesus.
Eliezer's father is a respected leader in the Jewish community. In the camps, Eliezer relies on his father for advice and support, but Eliezer also portrays him as a broken man. At times Eliezer resents his father's weaknesses and resists looking after him. Although subtle, Eliezer's father also protects and encourages Eliezer. Eliezer's father seems to have given up on God when Eliezer finds him after the Rosh Hashanah service. The elders of the community cooperate with the civil authorities, and at Auschwitz, they discourage the young men from fighting SS guards.
The Hungarian police, using clubs and verbal threats, round up the Jews and herd them onto the train. In the camps, the SS guards are callous toward their prisoners. While marching them to another camp, they flirt with young German girls. During the death march from Buna, the SS shoot any man who falls behind. During an air raid, guards shoot a man who is trying to eat from the soup cauldron.
Some inmate overseers, Kapos, are just and protective. A young Pole Kapo tells Eliezer and the other new prisoners that they should help each other. Eliezer remarks that the young Pole is soon after removed from his position because of his humanity and replaced with a cruel overseer. Other Kapos and their assistants are vicious and misuse their positions of authority. Idek, a Kapo in the Buna camp, has a reputation for being explosive. He gives Eliezer an undeserved beating. He also beats Eliezer's father. Idek takes the work detail to the warehouse so that he can have sex with a young girl. Another Kapo, Franek, beats Eliezer's father ostensibly because his father cannot march in step, but Franek is actually trying to force Eliezer to give him something he wants. A Jewish dentist extracts gold teeth from prisoners for his own use. He is discovered and hung. A Jewish doctor is trustworthy, operating successfully on Eliezer's foot and helping him get well.
Other Belief Systems
Before going to the concentration camps, Eliezer studies the Talmud, which is a collection of rabbinic writings that discuss Jewish law and life. He also studies the Kabbalah, mystical Jewish writings that attempt to explain how a divine and infinite God relates to the physical, created world, including mankind. Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah or the Son of God. Moishe, Eliezer's religious teacher, says that according to the Kabbalah, the redemption of the divine is yet to be. He also tells Eliezer that human beings get close to God by asking God questions and listening for God's answers. However, human beings will not understand God's answers. Eliezer reads one of the pages of the Kabbalah again and again in hopes of finding God. He thinks his study will bring him into eternity.
Eliezer shows the Jews pleading to God for mercy, believing that God can do miracles, giving God thanks in times of hope and saying kaddish, prayers of mourning for the dead. Seeing and suffering the horrors of the camps, Eliezer rebels at glorifying God. He says that God, who is all-powerful, caused the Jews to be so cruelly treated. He describes himself and others in the camp as lost souls forced to endlessly wander in an abyss with no hope of redemption or release. After being in the camps for a number of weeks, he accuses God of being uncaring and unjust and believes himself stronger than God because he is now separate from God.
One Jew in the camp says that the camps are God's test. God is watching to see if they can purify themselves and murder the evil that is within each of them. And if they are being punished by God, it demonstrates that He loves them even more. Another Jew says that the camps signify the end of the world and that the Messiah is coming.
A young Pole, who may be a communist because he refers to the men as comrades, tells them to not give in to despair; they need to put their faith in being alive and believe that liberation will come. In the meantime, he says they should all help one another.
These words are used once: h---ish, H--- (as a place), d--ned (as in people who are separated from God's mercy)
So many people are crowded into a boxcar that they must sit in shifts. When a hysterical woman will not stop screaming, people in the boxcar beat her into silence. The men are marched past pits filled with the burning dead bodies of children and adults. Brutality in the camps is commonplace. Several beatings are vividly, but succinctly, described: Eliezer's father is slapped so hard he falls and crawls back to his place; Eliezer is whipped and passes out; his father is beaten with an iron bar; an SS officer strikes his father on the head because his father is crying out for Eliezer. Men and boys are forced to run naked in front of Nazis to see if they are unfit for work and should be chosen for the crematoriums. Men are shot. A dentist using an old spoon removes a gold crown.
Two hangings are described. In both instances, the other prisoners are forced to watch and then look into the faces of the hanged people. In the second case, the hanged boy, still alive, twists and turns on the rope. (His emaciated body was too light to bring him a quick death.)
The descriptions of the death march and the train ride to Buchenwald are heart wrenching. Emaciated men and boys are forced to run on a snowy march. SS guards shoot any prisoner who cannot keep the pace. A young boy collapses and is run over by the others coming behind him. Given permission to stop, exhausted prisoners collapse on the snow and die. During the long train ride in open boxcars, the SS occasionally stop the train and tell the prisoners to throw the dead into the frozen fields. The men do, but not before stripping the dead of their clothing. Men are forced into overcrowded barracks, where they pile on top of each other, smothering those beneath them.
In the boxcar on the way to the camps, young people under the cover of darkness caress without thinking of others present. In the camps, the men are forced to be naked for a time. While the author and some others are being marched to a different camp, their German guards flirt with, kiss and tickle young German girls. Nothing is described, but Wiesel says that he learned later that homosexuals in the camps were trafficking in children. Eliezer stumbles on a Kapo and a young Polish girl having sex. The girl is half naked.
Because of this book and other writings, Elie Wiesel eventually won many awards. In 1978 Wiesel was made Chairman of the President's Commission on the Holocaust. In 1980, he became Founding Chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. In 1986 Wiesel received the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1992, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- Why were the Jews sent to concentration camps?
Were other groups of people sent to these camps as well?
What is prejudice?
Why is it wrong?
- What is a Kapo?
Give an example from the book of one who acted humanely.
Give an example of one who abused his position.
- Have you ever known a bully?
How does a person handle bullying?
Is it OK to hate that person?
If not, where do you get the courage and strength to act in a good way toward that person?
Do you think God has any ideas about handling bullies?
What does forgiveness look like in such a situation?
- Many of the scenes described by the author show great cruelty, but there are also instances of goodness and kindness.
Can you think of one of those moments?
- Eliezer is devoted to his father.
Name some of the sacrifices that he makes for his father.
Eliezer chastises himself for being silent when the gypsy Kapo strikes his father. He berates himself for not going to his desperately ill father because he is afraid of being struck by the SS officer.
If his father could speak to Eliezer, what would he say?
Do you think Eliezer should forgive himself? Why or why not?
- Can you give an example when Eliezer's father took care of Eliezer?
- Eliezer wanted to know God.
Can a person know about God without knowing Jesus?
Can a person know God without knowing Jesus? See John 14:6.
- What is a lost soul?
Do you know someone who appears to be a lost soul, wandering aimlessly through life without a hope of redemption or release from torment?
Is there something God would have you do to help that person?
The teenage Eliezer relied on his father's presence to help him survive the horrors and humiliations of the camp experience. In the same way, your teen may derive great comfort from your reading and discussing the book with him or her, if this is a required school reading, your have allowed him/her to read it.
Some scenes in the book are vividly portrayed, while others are only touched on. It is difficult to know how a young person's imagination will fill in those understated scenes if a teen does not have a historical basis for what took place. The graphically horrific scenes will impact a young person’s mind.
Some will be overwhelmed with the suffering and hopelessness that the author both speaks and whispers. Parents may want to spend time praying with and for their teen if their teen is required to read this book for school and the parent has agreed that he or she can read it.
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