In “Night,” which is a semi-memoir dedicated to Elie Wiesel’s harrowing experiences in concentration camps, the topic of a father-son relationship and its development is very important. Elie, along with other Jewish people of his town, falls victim to the German occupation of Hungary. In 1944, Elie and his family are relocated to a concentration camp where he and his father are deemed strong enough for work. The relationship between the men is strongly affected by the events that they are forced to endure, and they are brought closer while Elie struggles not to let the need for survival destroy this bond.
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In work camps, Elie and his father seem to find some solace in each other. They even save each other’s lives, for example, by preventing another from falling asleep in the snow. As Elie cares for his ill father, he notes that the man’s “gratitude of a wounded animal” is a testament to how much his help means now (Wiesel 106). Because of the horrible conditions they live in, Elie feels like by getting the man some hot water, “I had probably given him more satisfaction than during my entire childhood” (Wiesel 107). The extreme suffering that Elie and his father had to endure seems to have brought them closer in an attempt to survive and, possibly, preserve some level of comfort in a friendship with another human being.
However, as their health deteriorates, it becomes apparent that they can slow each other down. More than that, as his father becomes weaker than he is, Elie sees that he might be better at survival on his own. Repeatedly, Elie witnesses other father-son relationships, for example, during a death march or a fight for bread. In those situations, sons leave or attack their fathers in an attempt to preserve their own life.
When thinking about one son who decided to leave his father behind, Elie prays: “give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done” (Wiesel 91). However, later, when he searches for his father, he finds that “a thought crept into my mind: If only I didn’t find him!” (Wiesel 106). Elie cannot help but feel that he disperses his strength by caring for his father, limiting his chances for survival, and such thoughts cause him intense shame.
The scene of the father’s death incorporates these two aspects of the relationship. The father is sick and beaten, and that night, Elie “remained more than an hour leaning over him, looking at him, etching his bloody, broken face into my mind” (Wiesel 112). This moment shows how much love Elie feels for his father and how much he aches because of his pain. Yet, when the morning comes, and another man is found on his father’s cot, Elie confesses: “deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!” (Wiesel 112).
While one could argue that this statement may be interpreted as Elie being glad that his father is free in death, the recurrent themes of sons abandoning their fathers, and Elie’s shame about not responding to his father’s last call suggests that it is probably not the case. The horrors of the concentration camps, while bringing the two men together also taint this relationship as the basic need for survival clashes with the similarly basic need for a supportive connection.
By examining the changes in the relationship between Elie in his father, I think that a reader may uncover the most insidious and dehumanizing consequences of the abuse that the two men experienced. Their bond is strengthened by their suffering, but the same suffering makes it more difficult for Elie to remain compassionate and caring. Elie clings to this relationship, correctly assuming that it is an important aspect of his humanity, but he feels like the need to survive strips it away from him.
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Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 2006.