In his memoire, Night, one of Eliezer Wiesel’s main themes is how the relationship between fathers and sons is drastically changed over the course of imprisonment and in different ways. At the beginning of the book, new prisoners hold on to the only thing they have: their family.
For some people, the only thing that gives them the will to keep living is the knowledge that their family is still alive, or the need to help their families. The most prominent family relationship in the camps (mostly because the women were exterminated immediately) is that between father and son.
As the book progresses and the suffering intensifies, however, many changes are seen in this father-son bond. One of these changes, brought on by the inner struggle between self-preservation and love, is shown when the son begins to view his own father as a burden.
After the mad run to Gleiwitz, in which prisoners who could not keep up were shot immediately, Rabbi Eliahu goes around inquiring of the resting prisoners the whereabouts of his son. Eliezer tells him that he doesn’t know where his son is, but later remembers that his son had been beside him during the run.
He realizes that the son had known that his father was losing ground, but did nothing about it because he knew his father’s survival would diminish the chances for his own. After this realization Elie prays, “Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done” (Page 91).
Later on, however, while his father is dying, Elie finds himself grudgingly taking care of him, and is ashamed that he has failed what he had previously prayed to do. One day, Elie’s father begins calling out to him for water, and an officer starts beating him to keep him silent.
He keeps calling out to Elie, not feeling the blows or hearing the shouts; Elie, however, remains still, fearing that the next blow will be for him if he interferes. The next morning, he finds his father replaced with another sick person, and he can not find it within his weak conscience to even cry over the death of his own father.
Another even more severe instance of a son and his father’s bond being broken is seen on the train to Buchenwald. When a German farmer sees the train full of prisoners going by, he throws bread into the transport car, and a fight instantly breaks out among them.
Elie refuses to take part in the fight, trying to retain whatever dignity he has left and to avoid getting hurt. Watching the fight take place, he sees an old man crawling out of the mob, holding something to his chest. He realizes that the man is hiding bread underneath his shirt, and the man quickly eats the bread.
No sooner does he smile than someone is on top of him, dealing punches to him. The old man cries out, “Meir, my little Meir! Don’t you recognize me…you’re killing your father…I have bread…for you too…for you too” (Page 101).
The person beating him is his very own son. The father is soon dead, and the son begins devouring the small crust of bread, only to be beaten by two men watching. The two bodies, father and son, lie beside Elie throughout the train ride.
From the behavior of sons to their fathers shown throughout the book, one can conclude that the effect of dehumanizing circumstances on even the closest of human relationships can be so radical that one may begin to see a loved one as a burden, competition, or even a direct threat to their own safety.
In some cases in the concentration camps, loved ones really were threats, but generally in extreme conditions, the bond between family members is strong enough for them to look past this and use each other as support. In such conditions as prisoners are subjected to by the Germans, where people are treated worse than animals, however, friends and family act cruelly toward each other, and it is every man for himself.
One might act viciously to cope with the brutality he is being forced into, to separate himself from a nuisance so as not to be blamed, or to make things a little more advantageous for himself, whether it be a lesser burden or a few bread crumbs.
The horrible things that go on during the Holocaust force Elie into mixed feelings about his father. At times his father is his lifeline, the only thing keeping him alive, and at others, he is only a liability. His father is pulling him down, and in a place like the camps, Elie and many other sons are required to concern themselves only with their own survival.
The ultimate example of this in Eliezer is his final night with his father. He recounts the scene, saying, “I didn’t move. I was afraid, my body was afraid of another blow, this time to my head” (Page 111). Elie is haunted by his own inaction for the rest of his life.
As seen through many of Eliezer’s thoughts and the actions of other people toward their own fathers, the experiences in the concentration camps numbed all human feelings. Many died and no one cried for them; they hadn’t any tears left, and fathers and sons were no exception to this.
Personal Commentary I find it unfathomable that the chilling horrors that happened during the Holocaust were so much as conceived as an idea, let alone followed through with. It really makes me think how an entire country, known for its brilliant people and its culture, could be silent while a heinous crime against an entire race of people was being committed within its borders. Millions of people were slaughtered, treated worse than animals, and forced to act lower than animals.
Reading about the friends and family of people getting killed, the smell of burning flesh penetrating prisoners’ noses, the complete loss of faith from some people, and the general hatred of everyone for everyone else makes me glad that I live in the place that I do today.
But I still know that the same problem that was there during the Holocaust is still here today, and perhaps forever. Racism and other forms of hatred will never leave our society, but it is the general passivity for it that allows bad things to happen, and the Holocaust is the prime example for this.
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