Study Guide

Night Mortality

By Elie Wiesel

Mortality

Chapter 1
Eliezer

He closed his eyes, as if to escape time.

"You don't understand," he said in despair. "You cannot understand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where did I get my strength? I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still time. Life? I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me …" (1.37-38)

There’s more than one kind of death; though he is still physically alive, Moishe has experienced a death of the spirit and the soul through his torture at the hands of the Nazis. Yet he hopes to save others from this living death.

My father’s view was that it was not all bleak, or perhaps he just did not want to discourage the others, to throw salt on their wounds:

"The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal …"

(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?) (1.73-75)

People’s racial identity becomes their death (or the marker of death), as symbolized by the yellow star.

Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (1.137)

Wiesel describes the emptying of the Jewish ghetto in language descriptive of death—which is what it was, literally.

Chapter 2
Eliezer

In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been about midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau. (2.63)

Eliezer is welcomed to Birkenau by an overwhelming sense of death; the smell of death is literally in the air and the flames before his eyes. To enter Birkenau is to understand that you will likely die.

Chapter 3
Eliezer

"Your age?" he [Dr. Mengele] asked, perhaps trying to sound paternal.

"I’m eighteen." My voice was trembling.

"In good health?"

"Yes."

"Your profession?"

Tell him that I was a student?

"Farmer," I heard myself saying.

[…]

The baton pointed to the left. (3.37-46)

Eliezer lies to make himself seem older and a more able worker. Because of this, he passes selection and isn’t sent to the crematorium. Again we see that the young, old, and weak are killed, whereas those able to work are kept alive.

"You are in a concentration camp. In Auschwitz …"

A pause. He was observing the effect his words had produced. His face remains in my memory to this day. A tall man, in his thirties, crime written all over his forehead and his gaze. He looked at us as one would a pack of leprous dogs clinging to life.

"Remember," he went on. "Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or the crematorium—the choice is yours."

We had already lived through a lot that night. We thought nothing could frighten us anymore. But his harsh words sent shivers through us. The word "chimney" here was not an abstraction; it floated in the air, mingled with the smoke. It was, perhaps, the only word that had a real meaning in this place. He left the barrack. (3.111-114)

This SS officer makes it clear that in the concentration camp, a prisoner’s ability to work is all that will keep him alive. The SS uses the threat of death, reinforced by the ever-present smell and sight of the furnace, to wield his authority and force the prisoners to work.

"Shut up, you moron, or I’ll tear you to pieces! You should have hanged yourselves rather than come here. Didn’t you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn’t know? In 1944?"

True. We didn’t know. Nobody had told us. He couldn’t believe his ears. His tone became even harsher:

"Over there. Do you see the chimney over there? Do you see it? And the flames, do you see them?" (Yes, we saw the flames.) "Over there, that’s where they will take you. Over there will be your grave. You still don’t understand? You sons of b****es. Don’t you understand anything? You will be burned! Burned into a cinder! Turned to ashes!" (3.25-27)

Some kinds of death are better than others. This particular prisoner who is speaking clearly thinks that hanging yourself of your own volition is better than being burned alive.

"Hey, kid, how old are you?"

The man interrogating me was an inmate. I could not see his face, but his voice was weary and warm.

"Fifteen."

"No. You’re eighteen."

"But I’m not," I said. "I’m fifteen."

"Fool. Listen to what I say."

Then he asked my father, who answered:

"I’m fifty."

"No." The man now sounded angry. "Not fifty. You’re forty. Do you hear? Eighteen and forty." (3.11-19)

Although it takes Eliezer and his father a bit of time to catch on to a new set of rules—in this new world of the concentration camp, your age can mean the difference between life and death. In the concentration camp, your ability to survive depends on your ability (or perceived ability) to work, and the young and old were killed off because they were considered unfit to work.

Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this with my own eyes … children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?) (3.52)

Those that the Germans see as unfit for manual labor are killed.

His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would to do to me. He did not wish to see his only son go up in flames.

My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes …

"The world? The world is not interested in us. Today everything is possible, even the crematoria …" His voice broke.

"Father," I said. "If that is true, then I don’t want to wait. I’ll run into the electrified barbed wire. That would be easier than a slow death in the flames." (3.57-60)

Eliezer’s father seems most scared of confronting his son’s mortality. Eliezer, too, thinks some kinds of death are better than others—he would rather electrocute himself than be forced to die in a crematorium.

Chapter 4
Eliezer

That was when we began to hear the planes. Almost at the same moment, the barrack began to shake.

"They’re bombing the Buna factory," someone shouted.

I anxiously thought of my father who was at work. But I was glad, nevertheless. To watch that factory go up in flames—what revenge! While we had heard some talk of German military defeats on the various fronts, we were not sure if they were credible. But today, this was real!

We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks, it would have claimed hundreds of inmates’ lives. But we no longer feared death, in any event not this particular death. Every bomb that hit filled us with joy, gave us renewed confidence. (4.149-152)

Again we see that not all paths to death are equal (think back to Eliezer preferring to electrocute himself than go to the crematorium). Somehow, death by the Allies’ bombs is different than the death the prisoners have been facing at the hands of the Nazis. Maybe dying at the hands of the SS officers lacks dignity because they are forced and treated like animals, whereas if death comes from the Allies, at least the Allies are hurting the Germans, avenging the Jewish prisoners.

Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

"For God’s sake, where is God?"

And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

"Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …"

That night the soup tasted of corpses. (4.206-212)

The Germans use death as a threat to maintain their authority, keep the prisoners afraid, and prevent rebellion. The more horror the prisoners witness, the more effective the Germans' psychological abuse tactic is to maintain control.

Chapter 5
Eliezer

"Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you." For the first time, his voice quivered. "In a few moments, selection will take place. You will have to undress completely. Then you will go, one by one, before the SS doctors. I hope you will all pass. But you must try to increase your chances. Before you go into the next room, try to move your limbs, give yourself some color. Don’t walk slowly, run! Run as if you had the devil at your heels! Don’t look at the SS. Run, straight in front of you!" (5.41)

Life or death is based on whether or not the SS doctors see the prisoners as physically fit enough to continue to be useful workers. In the quote, the block leader gives prisoners advice on how to pass selection, showing that it is truly based on perceived physical fitness.

Chapter 6
Eliezer

"Don’t worry, son. Go to sleep. I’ll watch over you."

"You first, Father. Sleep."

He refused. I stretched out and tried to sleep, to doze a little, but in vain. God knows what I would have given to be able to sleep a few moments. Bet deep inside, I knew that to sleep meant to die. And something in me rebelled against that death. Death, which was settling in all around me, silently, gently. It would seize upon a sleeping person, steal into him and devour him bit by bit. Next to me, someone was trying to awaken his neighbor, his brother, perhaps, or his comrade. In vain. Defeated, he lay down too, next to the corpse, and also fell asleep. Who would wake him up? Reaching out with my arm, I touched him:

"Wake up. One mustn’t fall asleep here …"

He half opened his eyes.

"No advice," he said, his voice a whisper. "I’m exhausted. Mind your business, leave me alone."

My father too was gently dozing. I couldn’t see his eyes. His cap was covering his face.

"Wake up," I whispered in his ear.

He awoke with a start. He sat up, bewildered, stunned, like an orphan. He looked al around him, talking it all in as if he had suddenly decided to make an inventory of his universe, to determine where he was and how and why he was there. Then he smiled.

I shall always remember that smile. What world did it come from?

Heavy snow continued to fall over the corpses. (6.43-53)

In the concentration camp, there is more than one kind of death: there are the violent deaths in the flames of the crematorium, but also the silent deaths, giving in to cold, bodily weakness, and sleep. Eliezer and his father, like his neighbors, are in serious danger of giving in to peaceful sleep and never waking up.

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)

Eliezer’s body is in so much pain that death begins to sound appealing as an escape from suffering.

We were outside. The icy wind whipped my face. I was constantly biting my lips so that they wouldn’t freeze. All around me, what appeared to be a dance of death. My head was reeling. I was walking through a cemetery. Among the stiffened corpses, there were logs of wood. Not a sound of distress, not a plaintive cry, nothing but mass agony and silence. Nobody asked anyone for help. One died because one had to. No point in making trouble.

I saw myself in every stiffened corpse. Soon I wouldn’t even be seeing them anymore; I would be one of them. A matter of hours. (6.37-38)

Eliezer is literally surrounded by death and realizes his own mortality thoroughly.

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 has never left Eliezer throughout his life.

Pressed tightly against one another, in an effort to resist the cold, our heads empty and heavy, our brains a whirlwind of decaying memories. Our minds numb with indifference. Here or elsewhere, what did it matter? Die today or tomorrow, or later? The night was growing longer, never-ending.

When at last a grayish light appeared on the horizon, it revealed a tangle of human shapes, heads sunk deeply between the shoulders, crouching, piled one on top of the other, like a cemetery covered with snow. In the early dawn light, I tried to distinguish between the living and those who were no more. But there was barely a difference. My gaze remained fixed on someone who, eyes wide open, stared into space. His colorless face was covered with a layer of frost and snow. (98)

Eliezer finds that among his fellow prisoners, there is very little difference between the living and the dead; the dead are dead and the living are but living dead, without hope.