REVIEW: Day by Elie Wiesel

dayFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit / Holocaust Lit
ISBN:  1419396714
Published:  1962 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

The publication of Day restores Elie Wiesel’s original title to the novel initially published in English as The Accident and clearly establishes it as the powerful conclusion to the author’s classic trilogy of Holocaust literature, which includes his memoir Night and novel Dawn. “In Night it is the ‘I’ who speaks,” writes Wiesel. “In the other two, it is the ‘I’ who listens and questions.” In its opening paragraphs, a successful journalist and Holocaust survivor steps off a New York City curb and into the path of an oncoming taxi. Consequently, most of Wiesel’s masterful portrayal of one man’s exploration of the historical tragedy that befell him, his family, and his people transpires in the thoughts, daydreams, and memories of the novel’s narrator. Torn between choosing life or death, Day again and again returns to the guiding questions that inform Wiesel’s trilogy: the meaning and worth of surviving the annihilation of a race, the effects of the Holocaust upon the modern character of the Jewish people, and the loss of one’s religious faith in the face of mass murder and human extermination.

My Thoughts:

This is an exceptionally written book, as all three of Wiesel’s holocaust trilogy books are, but it is my least favorite of the three. I found this surprising, as I anticipated liking it more than Dawn, precisely because he returned to himself as main character, even though it is a fictional story. Harrowing is a good descriptor of this book, and though Night is equally so, I found Wiesel’s character in Day utterly incomprehensible in his seeming inability to love and be loved. He survived the Holocaust, and as much as he seemed to be trying to make sense of what it had done to him, I kept feeling like he had in many ways become like his persecutors – so much so that years after the fact he was more hardened, more hurtful, and utterly disinterested in living. After SURVIVING such incredible atrocity, I had a really difficult time coming to terms with his complete lack of interest in LIVING. It’s as if, in the end, Hitler & the Nazis won anyway, because they destroyed his soul. That is indescribably sad to me.

REVIEW: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

dawnFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit / Holocaust Lit
ISBN:  1419396722
Published:  1961 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Elisha is a young Jewish man, a Holocaust survivor, and an Israeli freedom fighter in British-controlled Palestine; John Dawson is the captured English officer he will murder at dawn in retribution for the British execution of a fellow freedom fighter. The night-long wait for morning and death provides Dawn, Elie Wiesel’s ever more timely novel, with its harrowingly taut, hour-by-hour narrative. Caught between the manifold horrors of the past and the troubling dilemmas of the present, Elisha wrestles with guilt, ghosts, and ultimately God as he waits for the appointed hour and his act of assassination. Dawn is an eloquent meditation on the compromises, justifications, and sacrifices that human beings make when they murder other human beings.

My Thoughts:

I don’t know if “enjoy” is the right word to describe the reading of Holocaust literature. I appreciate it deeply. I am continually amazed at the fortitude and resilience of those who survived the Holocaust. I admire Wiesel’s ability to put his thoughts into words in a way that touches people, first with his memoir Night, and then with this novel.

Wiesel’s words are spare, his thought processes complex, and as he weaves this tale of a Holocaust survivor – an 18 year old boy – who is now part of the Palestinian resistance, and who has been tasked with assassinating a hostage in response to the assassination (by the English) of fellow freedom fighter, I am wrestling right along with him, trying to make sense of how it can be acceptable to commit this murder, while still being absolutely horrified by Hitler and his Final Solution. Certainly one is on a massive scale, which makes it much more horrific, but it started with one person. One murder. Even if the cause is a good one – and truly, the Israelis were (and are) fighting for the survival of their homeland – the moral implications of committing murder because someone else murdered one of yours is something Elisha struggles with…and we, the readers, struggle with him. It is a true moral dilemma, and one with no easy answer.

Most interesting is that Wiesel does not answer the question…at least, not at the end. I’ll come back to this point. The book ends as it does without Elisha or the reader reaching a conclusion on the morality of the task before him. Or perhaps it is only Elisha. I love the ambiguity that Wiesel leaves here, as it mirrors life in so many ways, including the times when we are tasked with doing something (necessary), that is nevertheless morally repugnant to us. What will we decide? Do we do what we believe is right, and damn the consequences? Do we complete the task before us and learn to live with our consciences?

Elisha wrestled with whether or not the job before him would turn him into “one of them.” IF you catch it, the answer is foreshadowed early in the book with this passage: “Why has a man no right to commit murder? Because in so doing he takes upon himself the function of God. And this must not be done too easily. Well, I said to myself, if in order to change the course of our history we have to become God, we shall become him.” This is as clear an answer as there is, and yet Wiesel puts it early in the book, as an unrelated conversation. Very artfully done, and as a reader I appreciate being stretched to think more deeply, and in a more personal way, about where we ourselves may be trying to take on the function of God.

REVIEW: Night by Elie Wiesel

NightFormat:  Audio CD
Genre:  Classic Lit
ISBN:  1419390694
Published:  1958 / 2006 (audio)

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Back of the Book Blurb:

Though technically a novel, Night is also an unmistakably autobiographical depiction of the author’s own gruesome experiences in Nazi Germany’s death camps. Told through the eyes of 14-year-old Eliezer, the tragic fate of the Jews from the little town of Sighet unfolds with a heart-wrenching inecitability. Even as they are stuffed into cattle cars bound for Auschwitz, the townspeople refuse to believe rumors of anti-Semitic atrocities. Not until they are marched toward the blazing crematory at the camp’s “receptions center” does the terrible truth sink in.

Recounting the evils at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Wiesel’s enduring classic of Holocaust literature raises question of continuing significance for all future generations: How could man commit these horrors, and could such crimes against humanity ever be repeated?

My Thoughts:

It has been almost 30 years since I read Night the first time. I was riveted by it as a teenager, and now, having listened to it this time around, I am equally moved, but in an entirely different way.

What I did not remember from my first reading of this book is how spare and minimal the language is. Wiesel is a master of understatement. I was actually a little (ok, a lot) bothered by the fact that, as I listened, I kept having the impression that these were awful, terrible, wrenching things for Wiesel to experience at 15 years of age, but they were ultimately survivable. And clearly in Wiesel’s case, they were, but that is not the point. It is actually a testament to Wiesel’s mastery of storytelling that he doesn’t overwhelm us with the monumental evil that was perpetrated on the Jews and so many others. He gives us just enough to digest, enough that we are easily able to infer the true scope of Hitler’s vision.

Wiesel speaks to all of the above in the prologue to the revised translation that was published in 2006. He discusses specifically the need to not say too much, and his concerns that even after editing, he still worried that he had overstated his experiences. I truly can not comprehend how the Holocaust could be overstated…even the name is (in Wiesel’s words) an understatement. Nevertheless, I do understand that the further away we move historically from the atrocities of the Holocaust, the more “unbelievable” it becomes to those reading about it for the first time, and in that respect Wiesel has written a book that can be believed without saying, repeatedly, “That’s impossible!”

The only thing I can add, at this point, is that this book is not to be missed.