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 father and son in “Night” is strongly affected by the events they are forced to endure which bring them closer but also force Elie to struggle to prevent the need for survival from destroying 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 have 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.
The evidence of Elie’s love for his father can be found throughout the book. One such excerpt is devoted to the incident during the two men’s relocation to another camp. They are made to travel by train, and many malnourished, freezing people die overnight. In the morning, their bodies are thrown out since they take up much space. Upon waking and seeing the dead, Elie is seized with the fear that his father may have passed away as well, and this thought fills him with despair: “there was no longer any reason to live, any reason to fight” (Wiesel 99). Here, he does not think about not being able to survive without his father; he thinks about seeing no reason to survive.
However, over the course of the book, these thoughts are intercepted with other ones, which are more insidious. For instance, once, Elie’s father is subjected to a beating with an iron bar because short-tempered Idek who supervised their work is not in a good mood. Watching it happen, Elie thinks about escaping and avoiding similar punishment, but he also finds himself blaming the victim for attracting the rage of Idek.
Remembering that, Elie invites the reader to wonder at “what life in a concentration camp had made of me” (Wiesel 54). This event shows how the hardships of the camp start to warp Elie’s perception of reality and diminish his ability to empathize with his father, as well as another, ‘s suffering. It also demonstrates that the constant need to survive makes Elie more focused on his own continued existence rather than that of his father.
As their health deteriorates, it becomes apparent that Elie and his father can slow each other down. Here, it is noteworthy that at the beginning of their imprisonment, Elie is very young (fifteen); also, at a point, he suffers from a foot wound which could make him a burden. When he is still capable of it, Elie’s father takes care of his son, saving food for him and trying to comfort him when he can. It is not clear what the man thinks at the time because the book focuses on Elie’s thoughts; he may have experienced a similar conflict between survival and fatherly love. However, he soon becomes incapable of providing care, which makes Elie’s moral torment even more profound.
Indeed, with time, Elie’s father becomes noticeably weaker, which makes Elie realize that he might be better at survival on his own. Over the course of their imprisonment in the concentration camps, 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 apparently decided to leave his father behind, Elie prays: “give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done” (Wiesel 91).
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However, later, when he searches for his father, he realizes 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 own chances for survival, and such thoughts cause him intense shame.
The conflict between survival and compassion, as well as the resulting shame, can be explained by exploring Wiesel’s ideas about ethics. In her analysis of Wiesel’s works, Ingrid Anderson points out that “Wiesel grounds ethics in suffering” (88). He believes that people have to make an effort to develop “shared meaning” and “shared ethics” that is based on the empathy which is born out of witnessing suffering or learning about the accounts of it (Anderson 94).
For him, this empathy should produce an “ethical response,” especially “in bystanders and potential victimizers,” which is supposed to give them the strength to make the right choice (Anderson 88). From this perspective, not being able to empathize with another’s pain appears to be a symptom of dehumanization that occurs when a person is too exhausted to care.
Indeed, Elie repeatedly expresses the idea that he is being dehumanized as a result of his suffering. He comments about being a body or less than a body, about failing to recognize his own reflection, and about the damage done to his soul. For example, he states that his “soul had been invaded—and devoured—by a black flame” because of the things he experienced and witnessed (Wiesel 37).
In an analysis of “Night,” David Patterson suggests that the physical tortures experienced by Elie, including hunger and pain, seem to transform him “into nothing but a body; the I made into an It” (115). This change cannot fail to affect the relationship between Elie and his father, and it is responsible for Elie becoming less empathetic. However, Patterson proceeds, “the I resists the transformation” (115), and for Elie, this resistance is directly connected to being able to care for and about his father.
The scene of the father’s death incorporates the two aspects of the father-son 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 scene shows how much love Elie feels for his father and how much he aches because of his pain. Yet, when the morning comes, another man is found on his father’s cot, and 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 own 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; he chooses his father over survival again and again, correctly assuming that it is an important aspect of his humanity, but he feels like the need to survive strips it away from him. In the end, the concentration camps deprive him of his father and his self, destroying a relationship that helped him through most of the horrors of his imprisonment.
Anderson, Ingrid L. Ethics and Suffering since the Holocaust. Routledge, 2016.
Patterson, David. The Shriek of Silence. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang, 2006.