I just finished reading a small disturbing book written by Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. “Night” is a chilling tale of his experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps as a fifteen-year-old. The book is not for the faint of heart because the account of the sheer cruelty of the Nazis is appalling.
Upon his arrival in Birkenau by cattle car, Elie and his father were separated from his mother and sisters, whom they would never see again. The Jews were evaluated to determine whether they should be exterminated or put on the work detail. Elie and his father are deemed fit enough to work, but as they were herded to the prisoners’ barracks, they were taken past an open-pit furnace where the Nazis are burning babies by the truckload.
“The Jewish arrivals were stripped, shaved, disinfected, and treated with almost unimaginable cruelty. Eventually, their captors marched them from Birkenau to the main camp, Auschwitz. They eventually arrived in Buna, a work camp, where Elie was put to work in an electrical-fittings factory… A vicious foreman forced Elie to give him his gold tooth, which was pried out of his mouth with a rusty spoon. The prisoners were forced to watch the hanging of fellow prisoners in the camp courtyard. On one occasion, the Gestapo even hung an eight-year-old boy who had been associated with some rebels within Buna. Because of the horrific conditions in the camps and the ever-present danger of death, many of the prisoners themselves begin to slide into cruelty, concerned only with personal survival. Sons begin to abandon and abuse their fathers. Elie himself began to lose his humanity and his faith, both in God and in the people around him.” I won’t tell you any more of the story just in case you want to read the book for yourself.
Behind the physical and emotional struggles, the book revealed the spiritual struggle of this young Jew raised in the Torah and Cabala (teachings of Jewish mysticism). For me, the key paragraph in the entire book summed up that struggle: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever…Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust.”
He uttered a similar cry when he witnessed the hanging of the little boy who tragically did not die immediately because he was too light for the rope. “For more than an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes…He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not glazed. Behind me, I heard a man asking: ‘Where is God now?'” How would you answer that question? I am not sure that anyone could at that moment because the absolute evil of that event would have sucked our breath away. However, eventually you would need to process your experience and help someone else through theirs.
The Foreword to the book was written by Francois Mauriac, with whom the author became friends later in life. Mauriac’s words are stunning. “And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of another Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him- the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished?…The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is through them that it lives again. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him.”
There are no easy answers to the problem of suffering. However, we believe that at the heart of suffering itself is the Cross and “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace; and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:3-5). “And the last word for each one of us belongs to Him.”