Last week I visited Krakow. It was a beautiful city, but although I really enjoyed all the architecture, culture and food (though not the minus nine temperatures!), my main objective was to visit Auschwitz. Well, you can’t really go to Krakow without visiting Auschwitz can you? Unless you’re a stag do I guess…
I find Nazi history and particularly the holocaust a fascinating subject. One of the things that always strikes me is how every story is a little different. No matter how much I read about it, or how many documentaries I watch, there is always something that shocks me. The devil is in the detail, as they say.
I found this with a book I picked up from one of the little kiosks at the camp, Elie Wiesel’s Night. This tells the story of his early life in a Hungarian village, the Nazi arrival when he was 13 and his transportation at 15, before moving onto his time in Auschwitz, the death march to Buchenwald and finally, liberation.
I will be talking more about my trip later in the week, but there were a number of things that struck me about Elie Wiesel’s book. It is a simple book, and makes no attempt to understand or quantify like the works of Primo Levi. Also unlike Levi, Wiesel appears to have made a deliberate decision to include the more shocking aspects of camp life. Obviously it is all pretty shocking, but there are certain incidents that stand out. Primo Levi states immediately in If This Is A Man that he only intends to bear witness to what he saw. In contrast, Wiesel’s anger shines through every word.
It’s not only the Nazis that Wiesel is angry with. It is also God. Growing up, he is an ardently religious young man, keen to study Kabbalah and become a mystic. However, in the camp he loses his faith. This is not to say that he stops believing in God, rather, he refuses to worship any more. He feels nothing but disgust for a power that would allow humanity to suffer in this way and rejects it altogether.
Of course, he still feels himself to be a Jew. Many Jews, particularly German Jews, did not worship and considered themselves German before Jewish. Primo Levi (an Italian Jew) speaks of how he didn’t even really know of the existence of Yiddish before Auschwitz. Elie Wiesel however is adamantly a Jew and subsequently emigrated to Israel after liberation.
A final thing that I want to mention about Wiesel’s text is the presence of his father. I understand that most inmates at Auschwitz did not have any companions with them. Primo Levi speaks of the total isolation new arrivals experienced. However, for the majority of their time in Auschwitz Elie Wiesel and his father remained together. This adds a whole new dimension to the suffering. First, it meant that he was constantly worried about someone else and unable to take refuge in the single-mindedness of solitary survival. However, with this comes the looming possibility of betrayal.
Elie was 15 when he arrived at Auschwitz, his father was 50. Clearly Elie was stronger and better equipped, physically at least, to survive the deprivation. He tells a number of stories about sons who betray their fathers, whether for power, bread, or simply survival at that moment, and one of the only moments when he prays in the book is when he asks God to give him the strength not to abandon his father. Typically, when he considers if he was able to meet his own standard he is harder on himself than I have the heart to be.
If you have any interest at all in this period of history, I would strongly recommend this book. It reminds me of when I read The Road; a slim volume and a simple story but all the more compelling for it.