The memoir Night – a candid and poignant account of Elie Wiesel’s experiences in Nazi concentration and extermination camps during the Holocaust – reminds me of a line Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut, satirizing how Europeans (sea pirates) were able to conquer the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas in 1492, explains “how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else”:
The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.
Nazi Germany’s capacity to astonish – their heartlessness and greediness – was horrific. How genocide can happen – and how anyone can actually invent a phrase like the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” – will always be beyond my comprehension.
Reading Between the Parentheses
“Reading between the lines” is a common expression for discerning implicit meaning from written text. There are certain times during Night when Elie Wiesel provides his own commentary to his experiences, and he often does so in short sentences contained in parentheses. These instances – where he makes his innermost thoughts explicitly known – were some of the most memorable parts of the book. To me, the absurdity of the atrociousness that he endured is more evident in these parentheses than in any other parts of the book.
For instance, Elie Wiesel writes that his father tried to rationalize the decree that every Jew had to wear the Yellow star, saying “The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal…” He then adds in parentheses “(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)”
In another instance, Elie Wiesel writes “We settled in.” when his family moved to the smaller of two ghettos where Jews in Sighet were forcibly relocated. He then adds in parentheses “(What a word!)”
To read these remarks in parentheses…it’s so heartbreaking. You sense just how painful it was for Elie Wiesel to write this memoir.
Of course, there is also another memorable passage where Elie Wiesel breaks his narrative stream to reflect upon his experiences (and where I derived the title for this post). Reflecting upon his horrendous first night in the Birkenau concentration camp and its lasting effect on his life, Elie Wiesel writes:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
The Psychology of Genocide
While humans have been trying to understand the root cause of evil and malice since the dawn of time, efforts magnified and intensified after the atrocities of the Holocaust became globally known. One of the most common defenses by the accused in the Nuremberg trials was called “Superior orders” (also known as “just following orders” or the “Nuremberg defense”). It’s an extension of the existential phenomenon mouvaise foi (bad faith), where one claims that their actions are determined by external forces.
One of the most infamous attempts to explain the psychology of genocide was the Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures, which took place in the early 1960s. Led by Stanley Milgram, an “experimenter” would tell a “teacher” to electrically shock a “learner.” The idea was to test whether “ordinary” people would inflict harm on others after following orders from an authority figure. The result, sadly, was yes: any human is capable of having a heart of darkness. A decade later, the result was reaffirmed in the Stanford prison experiment.
Doomed to Repeat
Ethical blindness (also known as moral blindness) became a popular phrase after the Holocaust, and it’s still used today to explain why good people do bad things. It’s a very popular term in business organizations and corporate fraud cases, most recently being used to explain the Wells Fargo account fraud scandal (where more than 5,000 “ordinary” people in a toxic work environment willingly defrauded clients.
Humanity has not learned from the Holocaust, as war crimes and genocide abound. There have been four instances of large-scale genocide since the 2000s: the Darfur genocide in Sudan, the Bambuti genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and the Genocide of Yazidis by ISIL. Two of these, sadly, are still ongoing (Darfur and Rohingya).
Ethics and morality are learned, which means they can also be unlearned. We can all find ourselves in impossible situations, and we are all capable of lapses in judgement. That’s why memoirs like Night are so important: to serve as unequivocal guides to our moral compasses. “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive.” writes Elie Wiesel.
The title of this section is partly taken from a fascinating book that illuminates some of the problems humanity has faced repeatedly throughout history (terrorism, financial disasters, ecological collapses, genocide, and pandemics and epidemics). Definitely worth a read:
The Last Days
Following the overwhelming response to the 1993 film Schindler’s List, Steven Spielberg founded the Shoah Foundation in 1994 to videotape and preserve interviews with survivors and other witnesses of the Holocaust. A large effort toward this goal was made in the 1998 Oscar-winning documentary The Last Days, which recounts the harrowing stories of five Hungarian Jews who endured the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Last Days was recently remastered and re-released, and it’s available on Netflix as of yesterday.
In addition to the Shoah Foundation, the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies (through Yale University) is another great source of interviews from Holocaust survivors and witnesses.
If you would like to read more about the Holocaust, I’ve compiled a short list of books for you to consider. Most of these are memoirs and firsthand accounts, as I find these to be the most important and worthy resources:
Have you read Night? What are your thoughts on the psychology of genocide? Let me know in the comments below!
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