The following work was submitted by me in the Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Program for Writing at the University of California, Berkeley Extension. The class was The Craft of Reading which was completed during 2015’s summer semester.
It could be argued that there might be no more horrific event in modern history than the extermination of more than six million Jews by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. Of those who managed to survive the Holocaust, most put their memories behind them. Among those who chose to chronicle what they experienced, one young man—Elie Wiesel—became a writer of non-fiction and fiction with the Holocaust as the primary setting. Wiesel’s autobiographical book Night is a moving and poignant memoir of one boy’s struggle to survive both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps. In Night, it is Wiesel’s evocative and powerful use of setting and imagery which haunts and gives voice to his struggle for survival. These two literary elements help to portray emotion which connects the reader to his plight. This paper will discuss the techniques used by Wiesel to show setting and imagery. Additionally, works on the same subject by Nancy Sprowell Geise, Primo Levi and Jill Martin will be considered for their usage of setting and imagery.
In Night, Wiesel’s settings take the form of adversary. The dehydration and starvation which occurred during the long trip’s confinement aboard cattle cars (train cars) and overcrowded barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau is portrayed to the reader as setting’s invisible antagonist—one without a rifle and swastika. Wiesel recounts this agony compounded by a woman who, aboard the cattle car to Auschwitz was having hallucinations of fire. Those around her were trying to subdue her continual screams but had failed. Wiesel writes:
She was pointing somewhere in the distance, always the same place. No one felt like beating her anymore. The heat, the thirst, the stench, the lack of air, were suffocating us. Yet all that was nothing compared to her screams, which tore us apart. A few more days and all of us would have started to scream (Wiesel).
Wiesel’s use of setting in the quote above successfully engages the reader’s sense of sight, touch, smell and hearing.
Setting serves to function as a character which the reader identifies with; senses are engaged beginning with sight: In our mind’s eye we see ourselves standing alone next to Wiesel amidst unbearable heat on the overcrowded cattle car’s long ride to Auschwitz, Poland. We see the car packed with so many that sitting is impossible. Following the long march from Auschwitz, the barracks Wiesel and his father were assigned to at Buchenwald became another kind of foe—a setting that Wiesel shows the reader his most intimate fears and struggle for survival while watching his father fade into death. In seeking help for his dying father, the young Wiesel is told the doctor won’t do anything for him due to his age and condition. Wiesel recalls being advised from the Blockalteste (block leader) of his barracks: “Each of us lives and dies alone. Let me give you good advice: stop giving your ration of bread and soup to your old father. You cannot help him anymore” (Wiesel).
In Surviving the Holocaust, author Jill Martin shares one of her interviews with Kristine Keren, a retired dentist from New York. As a young Polish Jew, Keren and her family escaped capture from the Nazi SS by hiding and living in the sewers of the Poland’s Lvov ghetto in 1944. Setting is central both to the survival experience shared by Martin’s interviewees as well as the survivors themselves. Keren shares her experience:
Some people couldn’t take the stench and the darkness, so they left, but ten of us remained in that sewer—for fourteen months! During that time we never went outside or saw daylight. We lived with webs and moss hanging on the wall. The river not only smelled terrible, but it also was full of diseases. We got dysentery, and I remember Pavel [Keren’s little brother] and I were sick with unrelenting diarrhea (Martin).
For both Martin and Wiesel, setting as literary theme colors the narrative of their work. Like Wiesel, Martin’s skillful use of setting works to show adversity; the reader becomes enlisted in the fight against the fear and filth which became Keren’s underground world for more than a year. Enduring the elements of weather are a shared experience of both writers: snow, water, and extremes of temperature juxtaposed with imagery of time—light of day and darkness of night. Keren’s fourteen-month existence without daylight presents a stark illustration for the reader: setting that conveys fear, loneliness and uncertainty. For Wiesel, night represents more than just his book’s title. As setting, it represents the final night of freedom for him and his family before transport to Auschwitz. Wiesel writes:
No one was praying for the night to pass quickly. The stars were but sparks of the immense conflagration that was consuming us. Were this conflagration to be extinguished one day, nothing would be left in the sky but extinct stars and unseeing eyes (Wiesel).
Primo Levi, an Italian Jew and Holocaust survivor, writes in Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, describing the hopelessness the light of a new day became at Auschwitz in January 1944: “Dawn came on us like a betrayer; it seemed as though the new sun rose as an ally of our enemies to assist in our destruction” (Levi ch.1). In associating dawn to a betrayer, Levi uses metaphor to convey imagery within the theme of his settings.
Setting’s influence on characters. For Wiesel, Sprowell Geise, Levi, and Martin, setting as a literary element is used to show environment’s effect on their respective characters. Each writer grew up in a modest, if not poor environment prior to their being forced from their homes. Wiesel, Sprowell Geise, Levi, and Martin developed this trait early in their stories. This works to develop an emotional bond with the character.
Setting creates conflict. Nature was secondary only to the specter of imminent death for all four stories. Wiesel, Joe Rubinstein (Sprowell Geise, author), Levi and Kristine Keren (Jill Martin, author) endured extreme weather in route to and during their captivities at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald. Conflict existed in two forms: exposure to extreme weather while ill-fed and inadequately clothed, and the constant threat of being selected for the gas chambers and ovens. Their response to these continual conflicts and myriad cruelties of the death camp adds believability to each character. In return, this pulls the reader in closer to each character and his or her own story.
As the Soviet Red Army was closing in on the camp at Auschwitz, Wiesel, his father and the surviving prisoners were forced to march to a camp further west, Buchenwald. It is in this setting that we see the conflict of weather and murderous Nazi guards. Wiesel remembers:
On the road, it snowed and snowed, it snowed endlessly. We were marching more slowly. Even the guards seemed tired. My wounded foot no longer hurt, probably frozen. I felt I had lost that foot. It had become detached from me like a wheel fallen off a car (Wiesel).
Setting as a symbol. Possessions were symbolic of people’s lives in Elie Wiesel’s pre-internment life. As his neighbors prepared for their long journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau, they ultimately were forced to leave these last symbols of their lives behind. Wiesel writes:
The street resembled fairgrounds deserted in haste. There was a little of everything: suitcases, briefcases, bags, knives, dishes, banknotes, papers, faded portraits. All the things one planned to take along and finally left behind. They had ceased to matter (Wiesel).
Once in the death camp, what little items if any Elie and his father were able to obtain were symbolic of a normal life. Food became part of that once normal life. The once-daily ration of watery soup along with a small ration of hard bread became symbolic of hope and survival for Elie Wiesel and his father, as well as their fellow prisoners. Innocuous items such as a spare button to keep a shirt fastened could be bartered with another inmate for their share of soup or bread. Wiesel’s father feared that he had been selected for the gas chamber, and needed to give Elie two forbidden items. Wiesel quotes his father: “Here, take this knife,” he said. “I won’t need it anymore. You may find it useful. Also take this spoon. Don’t sell it. Quickly! Go ahead, take what I’m giving you!” (Wiesel).
In Night, imagery is crafted by the narrator along with dialogue between Wiesel and others. Imagery works closely with setting to evoke reactions within the mind’s eye of the reader. This imagery that Wiesel establishes resonates with importance and consequence; the intimacy that has been established between narrator and reader becomes a shared experience. At the onset of winter while at Auschwitz, Wiesel recalls: “The days became short and the nights almost unbearable. From the first hours of dawn, a glacial wind lashed us like a whip. We were handed winter clothing: striped shirts that were a bit heavier” (Wiesel).
In Night, all of the reader’s senses are engaged through setting—sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste: Through the narrator and Wiesel’s own dialogue, misery and death is visualized; old men, women and children marched to the gas chambers. Prayer heard from prisoners throughout the barracks resounds in the soul; those hoping to survive beg to live. Below freezing temperatures rip through ill-fitting camp-issued uniforms creating a shiver with the reader. The smell of acrid smoke rises from furnace chimneys, which nauseates and infuriates. Watered-down soups in the cauldrons remind the reader of over-abundance today; one wonders how bad watery soup and stale bread must taste while starving prisoners relished the once-per-day sustenance. Wiesel’s rich use of descriptions illicit complex and sad visualizations in Night. Here the author recalls clothing preparations needed before their cold-weather march from Buna to Buchenwald. He writes:
In the morning, the camp did not look the same. The prisoners showed up in all kinds of strange garb; it looked like a masquerade. We each had put on several garments, one over the other, to better protect ourselves from the cold. Poor clowns, wider than tall, more dead than alive, poor creatures whose ghostly faces peeked out from layers of prisoner’s clothes! (Wiesel)
In Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story, author Nancy Sprowell Geise describes Joe Rubinstein’s the beginning of his Auschwitz journey. Taken by gunpoint in the pre-dawn hours by German soldiers from his family’s cottage in the Radom, Poland ghetto, Rubinstein was loaded onto the back of a large truck:
I looked more closely at the faces of those surrounding me. Each person’s skin was an odd mix of red and blue with blotches of white. Every ear and nose was bright red, every lip slightly blue. Each face held the same stricken expression, and everyone was trembling uncontrollably, moving in as close to each other as possible” (Sprowell Geise ch. 2).
Rubinstein’s description provides vivid imagery of cold and freezing skin of those taken from their homes. Throughout Auschwitz #34207, Sprowell Geise’s usage of sense of sight as a literary element provides intense imagery. The author succeeds in enabling the reader’s imagination to fill in more of the truck scene above for example. Furthermore, empathy is felt towards the young Rubinstein and his new-found comrades.
Metaphors. Wiesel’s well-placed metaphors help establish setting in Night. This literary technique works to reveal his state of mind—as the narrator and character— to the reader. As the writer, he is careful in their economy of use. In the passage below, metaphor accentuates his anguish and heightens the reader’s senses. In recounting the trip by rail to Auschwitz, Wiesel remembers: “The doors clanked shut. We had fallen into the trap, up to our necks. The doors were nailed, the way back irrevocably cut off. The world had become a hermetically sealed cattle car” (Wiesel, Night). With the narrator’s cattle car becoming a “hermetically sealed cattle car,” fear and claustrophobia caused by doors nailed shut is depicted to the reader.
In Survival in Auschwitz, Levi uses metaphor to connect the reader to his arrival at the camp and new acquaintance with a younger German Jew. He writes: “I have never seen Schlome since, but I have not forgotten his serious and gentle face of a child, which welcomed me on the threshold of the house of the dead” (Levi ch. 2).
Wiesel and Levi are mindful to avoid cliché with their judicious use of metaphor. What makes this usage work well for both writers is freshness that their metaphors contribute to the literary element of imagery. Both survivors wrote as they spoke. From an earlier generation, their vocabulary is devoid of modern hyperbole or cliché which is refreshing…. and the imagery in their writing shows it.
Elie Wiesel’s Night succeeds beyond a valuable work of Holocaust history and poignant memoir to that of skillful writing and prominent literature; one that triumphs through evocative setting and haunting imagery. These literary elements—setting and imagery—combine to engage the reader’s senses from start to finish. In detailing setting, Wiesel successfully gives the reader a solid view of the characters in his story. It is this interaction between his characters amid Wiesel’s setting and the imagery they share through narration and dialogue which makes Night extraordinary and moving. Towards imagery, Wiesel’s specific words and phrases help the reader visualize the many scenes throughout Night. With this use of imagery, the reader is able to fill in the rest of the scene making Night a memorable reading experience.
Levi, Primo, S J. Woolf, and Philip Roth. Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Kindle file.
Martin, Jill. Surviving the Holocaust. Amazon Digital Services, 2014. Kindle file.
Sprowell Geise, Nancy. Auschwitz #34207: The Joe Rubinstein Story. Castle Rock, CO: Merry Dissonance Press, 2015. Kindle file.
Wachsmann, Nikolaus. KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. Print.
Wiesel, Elie, and Marion Wiesel. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Kindle file.
 Nikolaus Wachsmann, in his 2015 book KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, supports the idea of importance of prisoner’s belongings which were not allowed either before the journey to Auschwitz or stripped from them upon their arrival. He notes: “… the bewildered Jews were forced to move away from the train and leave behind their bags, bundles, and suitcases …The loss of their possessions paralyzed the new arrivals, but they had no time to think before the SS told them to line up …” (309)