Study Guide

Night Identity

By Elie Wiesel

Identity

Chapter 1
Eliezer

Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right […]. (1.60)

During Eliezer’s first encounter with concentration camp prisoners, he describes them as "creatures." These prisoners have lost their human identity, they are mere creatures, all dressed alike in similar, strange clothing. Within one night, Eliezer will become one of these "creatures" as well.

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 begin the gradual, systematic process of losing their identities and humanity. They lose much of their personal freedom, their personal possessions, and begin to be defined simply by their Jewish heritage, nothing more. Later, they are completely confined to a ghetto…and it just gets worse from there.

"Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!" the Hungarian police were screaming.

That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first faces of hell and death. (19)

The Hungarian police see the Jews of Sighet as animals, and treat them as such.

Chapter 3
Eliezer

In a few seconds, we had ceased to be men. Had the situation not been so tragic, we might have laughed. We looked pretty strange! Meir Katz, a colossus, wore a child’s pants, and Stern, a skinny little fellow, was floundering in a huge jacket. We immediately started to switch.

I glanced over at my father. How changed he looked! His eyes were veiled. I wanted to tell him something, but I didn’t know what.

The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (3.95-97)

Within one night the concentration camp experience has completely altered Eliezer’s identity, as well as the identities of his fellow Jews. Shaven and dressed in the same prison garb, the men have been stripped of the individuality they formerly had. In addition, Eliezer’s identity has further changed because he has lost his innocence, is no longer a child, and has lost his faith in God’s justice. He can no longer define himself as either a "child" or a "student of Talmud;" now he is simply a prisoner.

In the afternoon, they made us line up. Three prisoners brought a table and some medical instruments. We were told to roll up our left sleeves and file past the table. The three "veteran" prisoners, needles in hand, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name. (3.143)

Eliezer’s loses the humanness of having a name and becomes a number.

My father suddenly had a colic attack. He got up and asked politely, in German, "Excuse me … Could you tell me where the toilets are located?"

The Gypsy stared at him for a long time, from head to toe. As if he wished to ascertain that the person addressing him was actually a creature of flesh and bone, a human being with a body and a belly. Then, as if waking from a deep sleep, he slapped my father with such a force that he fell down and then crawled back to his place on all fours.

I stood petrified. What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, in front of me, and I had not even blinked. I had watched and kept silent. Only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminal's flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast? Remorse began to gnaw at me. All I could think was: I shall never forgive them for this. My father must have guessed my thoughts, because he whispered in my ear:

"It doesn’t hurt." His cheek still bore the red mark of the hand. (3.117-120)

The man in charge of Eliezer and his father’s unit, despite Eliezer’s father’s polite address, is unable to view him as a fellow human, and feels justified in beating him. The "gypsy" degrades Eliezer’s father and turns him into the animal he is seen as by the prison guards, beating him until he crawls on all fours. The concentration camp environment is gradually eroding away Eliezer’s humanity as well, his feelings of anger at the "gypsy" are delayed—self-preservation instincts are already beginning to overwhelm more human emotions.

Suddenly, someone threw his arms round me in a hug: Yechiel, the Sigheter rebbe’s brother. He was weeping bitterly. I thought he was crying with joy at still being alive.

"Don't cry, Yechiel," I said. "Don't waste your tears."

"Not cry? We're on the threshold of death. Soon we shall be inside … Do you understand? Inside. How could I not cry?"

I watched the darkness fade through the bluish skylights in the roof. I was no longer afraid. I was overcome by fatigue. (3.86-90)

Because of the suffering Eliezer has endured, he’s so exhausted that he can no longer feel normal human emotion, like fear and sadness.

Chapter 4
Eliezer

I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time. (4.61)

Eliezer has been reduced to simply a body, nothing more.

The medical checkup took place outside, early in the morning, before three doctors seated on a bench.

The first hardly examined me. He just asked:

"Are you in good health?"

Who would have dared to admit the opposite?

On the other hand, the dentist seemed more conscientious: he asked me to open my mouth wide. In fact, he was not looking for decay, but for gold teeth. Those who had gold in their mouths were listed by their number. I did have a gold crown.

The first three days went by quickly. On the fourth day, as we stood in front of our tent, the Kapos appeared. Each one began to choose the men he liked:

"You … you … you and you …" They pointed their fingers, the way one might choose cattle, or merchandise. (4.15-21)

Medical examinations are a joke. Although Germans considered Jewish bodies important for labor, it is not important for their bodies to be kept healthy. The identity and value of the Jewish prisoners is reduced to the value that can be extracted from their bodies—whether that value was labor or gold.

Chapter 6
Eliezer

I soon forgot him. I began to think of myself again. My foot was aching, I shivered with every step. Just a few more meters and it will be over. I’ll fall. A small red flame … A shot … Death enveloped me, it suffocated me. It stuck to me like glue. I felt I could touch it. The idea of dying, of ceasing to be, began to fascinate me. To no longer exist. To no longer feel the excruciating pain of my foot. To no longer feel anything, neither fatigue, nor cold, nothing. To break rank, to let myself slide to the side of the road … (6.17)

For Eliezer, death, the end of oneself and one’s identity, is seen as the end of his physical pain. His experience of life now is purely physical pain, and nothing more.

I was putting one foot in front of the other, like a machine. I was dragging this emaciated body that was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body. (6.5)

As they march from one camp to the next, Eliezer wishes he could get rid of his body—just leave it behind. He separates the true "Eliezer" from his physical body.

Chapter 7
Eliezer

We received no food. We lived on snow; it took the place of bread. The days resembled the nights, and the nights left in our souls the dregs of their darkness. The train rolled slowly, often halted for a few hours, and continued. It never stopped snowing. We remained lying on the floor for days and nights, one on top of the other, never uttering a word. We were nothing but frozen bodies. Our eyes closed, we merely waited for the next stop, to unload our dead. (7.23)

Because of their cold and hunger—their basic physical needs—the prisoners are reduced to mere bodies.

One day when we had stopped, a worker took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought desperately over a few crumbs. The worker watched the spectacle with great interest. […] In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails. (7.25-29)

The humanity of the prisoners has been stripped away to such a degree that food takes on greater value than morality, human kindness, and affection for family.