I was talking with a young teenager, Rachael, who’s 14 and an eighth grader. As stuffy senior citizens like me sometimes do, I asked her how school was going and what she was studying. It was just a routine question, but the answer was stunning.
For a class project Rachael’s teacher had asked the students to read a work of history or classical fiction. Rachael chose the Holocaust memoir “Night” by Elie Wiesel because, she told me, she likes history.
Night is a slim memoir – about 120 pages – of Wiesel as a young Jewish boy of 15, caught in the madness of the Holocaust, and of his endurance and survival. In the Preface to one edition of Night, Wiesel describes his time in the Nazi death camp as “The immense, terrifying madness that… erupted in history and in the conscience of mankind” – and adds that if he were to write only one book in his lifetime – he wrote many – it would be Night.
The memoir was dedicated to his parents and to his “little sister Tzipora” who was seven years old when he last saw her as she was being marched, with their mother, to the gas chambers at Birkenau. Wiesel lied about his age and was spared to work as a slave laborer.
Wiesel was a religious boy with a loving family when the Nazis and the Gestapo swarmed into his village in March of 1944 to round up Jews, cram them into cattle cars, and ship them to the death camp at Birkenau.
Rachael told me she was struck by how Wiesel keeps repeating the words “the last night” in the memoir –as in “the last night at home, the last night in the ghetto,” and “the last night in the cattle car.”
Rachael felt the repetition underscored the worsening situation and feelings of being overwhelmed with hopelessness. She thought that no child should have to live that way. But she also recognized his determination not to quit.
And he never did. Revered around the world, Elie Wiesel died in July of 2016 at age 87. I expect he would have been pleased to know that his memoir about how he’d survived the Holocaust as a young Jewish boy, had touched a young American girl of a similar age, all these years later.