Apathy and Ambivalence: Wiesel’s Relationship With His Father
Night, the renowned memoir written by Elie Wiesel, is a story of changes, transformations, and loss. One of the most prominent characters is Wiesel’s constant companion, his own father. His father, as well as Wiesel’s commentary on other father/son relationships that he witnesses throughout his journey, play a large role throughout the memoir. In Sighet, Elie takes all of his questions and concerns to his father instead of his mother. Once he reaches the camp, he follows his father and the men instead of his mother, with whom he admits he could have stayed with had he acted as a younger child. After weeks and months in the camp, he constantly stays by his father’s side, even when it would have been much easier for Elie to separate from him. Nevertheless, Elie does not fight back or try to protect his father when SS officers beat and ultimately kill him. Despite this being a memoir that was written many, many years after the events, Wiesel still infuses the entire story with guilt and sorrow for his actions and shows that he is still mourning. Through Elie Wiesel’s interactions with his father as well as other father/son characters, this paper will demonstrate that Wiesel not only used Night as a way to show the world what he had witnessed, but also as a confessional to expose and come to terms with his guilt, grief, and ambivalent feelings towards his father.
Throughout the memoir, Wiesel displays strong conflicting feelings about his father that evolve during the story. In the beginning, Wiesel notes on multiple occasions that his father was a good man who was heavily involved in their local community. However, this led to the neglect of Elie himself. He writes that “…[my father] was more involved with the welfare of others than with that of his own kin…” (4). As Dalia Ofer notes in her essay “Parenthood in the Shadow of the Holocaust,” many children in this time period often felt as though their parents were not able to provide emotional support. Elie clearly felt this, and did not appear to hold a particularly strong bond with his father. His father did not understand his strong religious devotion and Wiesel goes as far as to say that he “…wanted to drive the idea of studying Kabbalah from my mind,” (4). Perhaps Wiesel’s religious devotion made up for his father’s absence; he turned to God for comfort when his father didn’t provide it.
This lack of bonding between the two becomes particularly interesting when the Wiesel family enters the ghettos and eventually the concentration camps. At one point, Elie recognizes that his family still has the chance to escape the ghetto system and stay with the family’s former maid. His father tells his family, “If you wish, go there. I shall stay here with your mother and the little one…” (20). Elie will not leave without him, although he was undoubtedly displeased with his father’s decision. Despite their seemingly weak bond, he stays alongside his father from that moment on.
When the Wiesel family initially enters Auschwitz, they are immediately broken up by gender and Elie follows his father and the men. Soon after, his father tells him, “What a shame, a shame that you did not go with your mother… I saw many children your age go with their mothers…” (33). Although Wiesel explains that the reasoning for this is because his father did not want to watch his only son suffer, his father still wishes that Wiesel was not there. Nevertheless, Wiesel puts himself in danger just to work and sleep near his father. The two stay together until the day that his father dies.
Wiesel tells many stories of other father/son interactions that he witnesses during the Holocaust. Wiesel shares one story of a young boy, a pipel: “I once saw one of them, a boy of thirteen, beat his father for not making his bed properly. As the old man quietly wept, the boy was yelling: ‘If you don’t stop crying instantly, I will no longer bring you bread. Understood?’” (63). The story draws a comparison between the two sons. Although Wiesel is shocked by the cruelty of the young child, he himself had watched his father being beaten countless times. Of one beating, Wiesel writes, “I had watched it all happening without moving. I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What’s more, if I felt anger at that moment, it was…[directed] at my father…” (54). Even though Wiesel was never as cruel as the pipel, he feels that he was being a heartless son as well. Being a bystander is no better than being the abuser himself. This, Elie says, “was what life in a concentration camp had made of me…” (54).
Wiesel tells another story in which a son abandons his father. During the death march, Rabbi Eliahu’s son ran ahead of his father when he began to fall behind in order to “free himself of a burden.” Elie regards this action as cruel and “terrible,” and he prays that God will give him “the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done” (91). During this march, Elie does protect his father and even saves his life when the ‘gravediggers’ try to throw out his sleeping body. However, just like the Rabbi’s son, Wiesel considers abandoning his father soon after the march ends. He writes, “If only I didn’t find him! If only I were relieved of this responsibility, I could use all my strength for my own survival… Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself forever,” (106).
Later in the memoir, Elie tells a story of a boy killing his own father. The father managed to get a small piece of bread during transports, and his son “threw [himself] over him” while the father cried, “Meir, my little Meir! Don’t you recognize me… You’re killing your father… I have bread… for you too… for you too…” (101). This story draws another comparison between the two sons. This son killed his father himself, just as the pipel beat his father himself. Wiesel, however, watched his father being beaten and ultimately being killed. Although he did not actually do the beating and the killing, he was yet again a silent bystander. Wiesel believes that he has acted just as poorly as the other boys have, and he even compares himself to the Rabbi’s son, noting “Just like Rabbi Eliahu’s son, I had not passed the test,” (107).
The final time that Wiesel neglects to protect his father, it ultimately leads to his father’s death. Wiesel retells this in both the preface and in the actual memoir, thus emphasizing its significance and showing that, even decades later, he still thinks about his father. The preface retells the story in more depth: “I let the SS beat my father, I left him alone in the clutches of death… His last word had been my name. A summons. And I had not responded,” (xii). Wiesel did nothing because he was “afraid of the blows,” (xi). Of this, Elie says, “I shall never forgive myself,” (xii). Wiesel says that he did not include this in the new translation because he felt the passage to be “too personal, too private” (xi). Yet, Wiesel still includes it in the preface, indicating that he still felt the need to share the more intricate details and the guilt of his father’s death.
Within the memoir, Wiesel writes about his father’s death similarly but in slightly less depth. He does not detail his emotions nearly as much; instead he recounts an impersonal description of the event. The morning after, when his father’s cot had been given a new inhabitant, Elie simply says, “I did not weep, and it pained me that I did not weep. But I was out of tears,” (112). Then, after a few short pages, he ends the story. His last comment on his father is, “I no longer thought of my father, or my mother…only about soup, an extra ration of soup,” (113). In his situation, he was too tired and close to death to mourn properly. Instead, he mourned for the rest of his life. In another memoir titled All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel says, “Today I am in mourning for my father, perhaps because I didn’t mourn the day I became an orphan… I could spend my life retelling that story,” (92). Wiesel never lets go of the guilt that he felt for not being with his father in his last moments. His decision to end the book with the death of his father centers the memoir around his father, not just Elie’s experiences during the Holocaust. Once his father is gone, “nothing [matters]” to him anymore (113).
Throughout his memoir, Wiesel points out father/son relationships that he has witnessed as well as including many details about his own relationship with his father. Night is a memoir dedicated to Wiesel’s father and to the grief and guilt that Wiesel felt throughout his life. Wiesel’s ambivalent feelings towards his father paved the way for a more difficult mourning period after he died. Although Elie has said that he felt both guilt and responsibility for his father’s death, he also struggled greatly with how his father had treated him during his childhood. Writing this memoir was likely cathartic for Wiesel and helped him grieve and come to terms with his traumatic experiences during his teenage years. Wiesel was just one of many Holocaust victims who were torn from their families, and his suffering and loss both during and after the camps are a part of the experience that all survivors share.
Wiesel, Elie. All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs. Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 2006.