Study Guide

Night Freedom and Confinement

By Elie Wiesel

Freedom and Confinement

Chapter 1
Eliezer

From that moment on, everything happened very quickly. The race toward death had begun.

First edict: Jews were prohibited form leaving their residences for three days, under penalty of death.

[…]

The same day, the Hungarian police burst into every Jewish home in town: a Jew was henceforth forbidden to own gold, jewelry, or any valuables. Everything had to be handed over to the authorities, under penalty of death. […]

Three days later, a new decree: every Jew had to wear the yellow star. (1.66-72)

The Jews of Sighet lose their freedom in a gradual process; they become restricted to their houses, lose the right to own valuables, and wear identifying markers. Eventually, they are confined into ghettos.

Chapter 3
Eliezer

But no sooner had we taken a few more steps than we saw the barbed wire of another camp. This one had an iron gate with the overhead inscription: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. Work makes you free.

Auschwitz. (3.129-130)

German propaganda proclaims that subjection to forced labor is not confinement, but "liberty."

Chapter 4
Eliezer

We had left the tents for the musicians' block. We now were entitled to a blanket, a washbowl, and a bar of soap. The Blockälteste was a German Jew.

It was good to have a Jew as your leader. His name was Alphonse. A young man with a startlingly wizened face. He was totally devoted to defending "his" block. Whenever he could, he would "organize" a cauldron of soup for the young, for the weak, for all those who dreamed more of an extra portion of food than of liberty. (4.44-45)

Basic survival is more important than liberty.

They quickly became my friends. Having once belonged to a Zionist youth organization, they knew countless Hebrew songs. And so we would sometimes hum melodies evoking the gentle waters of the Jordan River and the majestic sanctity of Jerusalem. We also spoke often about Palestine. Their parents, like mine, had not the courage to sell everything and emigrate while there was still time. We decided that if we were allowed to live until the Liberation, we would not stay another day in Europe. We would board the first ship to Haifa. (4.42)

In the concentration camp, Jerusalem and Palestine (with all of its religious connotations for people of the Jewish faith) symbolize freedom to Eliezer, whereas Europe, even after the coming liberation, symbolizes confinement.

His back was to the gallows, his face turned toward his judge, the head of the camp. He was pale but seemed more solemn than frightened. His manacled hands did not tremble. His eyes were coolly assessing the hundreds of SS guards, the thousands of prisoners surrounding him.

The Lagerälteste began to read the verdict, emphasizing every word:

"In the name of Reichsführer Himmler … prisoner number … stole during the air raid … according to the law … prisoner number … is condemned to death. Let this be a warning and an example to all prisoners.

[…]

After a long moment of waiting, the hangman put the rope round his neck. He was about to signal his aides to pull the chair from under the young man’s feet when the latter shouted, in a strong, clear voice:

"Long live liberty! My curse upon Germany! My curse! My—"

The executioner had completed his work. (4.170-180)

The SS officers execute a young man for subversive activities, hoping show the other prisoners that the cost of fighting for liberty. Despite the punishment, the young man dies promoting freedom.

Chapter 9
Eliezer

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.

From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.

The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (9.25-27)

Though liberated physically, the presence of death and the horrors Eliezer experienced remain with him.

Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves onto the provisions. That’s all we thought about. No thought of revenge, or of parents. Only of bread.

And even when we were no longer hungry, not one of us thought of revenge. The next day, a few of the young men ran into Weimar to bring back some potatoes and clothes—and to sleep with girls. But still no trace of revenge. (9.22-23)

What does this show about what freedom means to the freed Jews? Maybe at first since they had been so deprived, freedom meant the ability to satisfy their physical needs, to eat. But why not think of revenge? Freedom seems to mean more than the ability to punish their enemies.