Essay on 'Night' Book Symbols

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Context is a crucial element when reading a memoir. Context is what brings background and circumstantial information to the reader and informs the reader about why a particular event might transpire. In order to truly understand “Night” by Elie Weisel, the contextual details specifically about the Holocaust and the Nazis are important to inform some of the events, places, and people described in his memoir. Ms. Metalin’s lecture provided a vast amount of context regarding Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Among other things, her lecture also highlighted the living conditions of the Jews forced into these camps as well as the specifics of how these camps functioned. In order to gain some other contextual knowledge to further my understanding of Night, I used resources such as History.com and testimonials from Holocaust survivors. This response will investigate the effect contextual knowledge has when reading “Night”.

Historical facts can be extremely beneficial to understanding memoirs such as Night. For example, the contextual knowledge acquired from Ms. Metalin’s lecture was mostly factual and helped us truly understand some of the events and tragedies that occurred in Night. A number of facts such as the fact that the Holocaust killed over 6 million Jews (Metalin) help bring light to the horrible extremity that was the Holocaust. For example, in Weisel’s Night, “Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.” (Weisel, 34) can be interpreted as a sentiment to the horrid mass killings, however, killing 100 people is considered a mass killing, therefore in order to completely understand the context of Weisel’s sentiment, it is important to note that the killings were estimated at 6 million, an unimaginable number of dead families. Another piece of information acquired from Ms. Metalin’s lecture is the size of the gas chambers. Weisel does not necessarily specify the fashion in which the Jews were gassed, as anything he would have known would have been hearsay, however, the knowledge of the extremely cramped chambers is very beneficial to understanding what happened to those described in Night who didn’t make it through. In Night, the closest description we get of the chambers is that they were “to be tortured, slaughtered, gassed, and burned” (Weisel, 68) when in reality 800 Jews were crammed into a tiny 93 square meter space, which is comparable to “taking everyone from Laidlaw hall and putting them into a space the size of a small classroom” (Metalin). For that reason, many Jews died standing up, as there was no space for them to fall down.

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Historical context behind the intention as well as the background of Adolf Hitler is important to understand the twisted reasoning behind the struggles that Weisel faced. For example, in Night, Weisel’s neighbor makes a statement; “I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.” (Weisel, 81). This statement reflects some of the sentiment that the Jews had towards Hitler as they neared giving up, however, according to History.com it is unclear as to why Hitler hated the Jewish community in such a revolting way. One theory has to do with the fact that the Nazis (known in Germany as the National Socialist German Party) had a deep hatred towards capitalism, something that Hitler blamed for the loss of WWI. It is theorized that because the Jews made up a large portion of successful businessmen, doctors, and lawyers, he grew a deep hatred of them from the start of his political career. (History.com Editors 2009).

Testimonials from other Holocaust survivors are also a very useful tool to gain contextual knowledge to help better understand Night. Weisel’s memoir primarily describes his own experience and discusses issues relevant to his life during the Holocaust. Reading other memoirs and testimonials is useful in developing a clear understanding of some of the other Jew's experiences, and comparing them to those of Elie Weisel. Irene Fogel Weiss was a Hungarian Jew and was brought to Auschwitz late in the war (1944). “I cannot emphasize enough how utterly scary it is to be at the mercy of your fellow human beings.” she wrote (Connolly 2015). Weisel made a similar sentiment in Night; “I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes” (Weisel, 33). Recognizing that even though the experiences of both parties were vastly different, their sentiment remained similar. This demonstrates how having contextual knowledge of the sentiment of others experiencing the Holocaust can help enrich the understanding of those surrounding Weisel in Auschwitz. Overall, contextual knowledge can be an excellent tool when developing a further understanding of a text such as Night, whether it is factual context, background context, or sentimental context, contextual knowledge can be an excellent tool when deepening your understanding of a text.

Wiesel's moral dilemma concerning his father’s life is exemplary of how adversity can change your worldview. The quote: “Every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else . . . Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.” is representative of the extreme struggles faced by those in concentration camps. Adversity has an effect on almost everyone. For some, the only positive outcome is becoming more resilient, however, this is not the case for everyone put in extreme situations such as concentration camps. For others, the struggle forces them to do what they have to do, in order to survive. This eventually changes their personality and worldview, as they revert to their survival instinct. For some this lasts until they no longer have to fight to survive, for others, this instinct stays with them forever. When Wiesel is told these words, it is likely that the sentiment is that “it is better for one person to die and one person to live rather than both people die trying to keep each other alive” rather than just a selfish outlook on life. The struggles faced by those in concentration camps are truly some of the most horrific struggles ever faced by a group of people on earth and truly show the incredible resilience developed by those who experienced the horror that was the holocaust and who have made it through to today.

In my opinion, the phrase “Everyone lives and dies for himself alone” is not a phrase that really resonates with my own character, however, it does have some validity. As expressed in “Night”, “I could use all my strength to fight for my own survival, to take care only of myself…Instantly, I felt ashamed, ashamed of myself forever.” (Weisel, 106). Wiesel struggles with making what he considers to be immoral thoughts, and the very thought of such selfishness makes him feel extremely ashamed. Throughout Night, we are exposed to Wiesel’s kind character, this quote showcases how anyone, even Wiesel, might be faced with these thoughts because of the circumstances. When I was younger, my dad taught me a lesson about life. He spoke about the safety video that plays on airplanes, and how they always tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. This made a lot of sense to me, as when you help yourself, it puts you in a better position to help others. Of course, this is not always the case and it will not always be how I make decisions, however, it is a lesson that I will take with me throughout my life.

The phrase “pulling yourself from your bootstraps” is an old phrase used as a metaphor to pull yourself up rather than expect others to pull you up. It is what tends to separate people politically, those who believe that anyone who works hard enough can pull themselves up and those who believe that it is the other's responsibility to pull people up. The fundamental flaw is that when it comes down to it, it is the individual that determines his success. I have chosen to share a short example of how my mother “pulled herself up by her bootstraps” when she became an interior designer. My mother graduated from Queen's University and was working in advertising, she had a passion for design but it was made clear to her that she would have to pay for her own education after Queen’s. She worked long hours, weekends, and holidays to save enough so that she could attend design school. After that, she worked at a design firm known as Yabu Pushleberg and eventually after she had my brother, she decided to start her own firm. She has become incredibly successful in her field and is a great example of making something out of nothing. Of course, when she started out she wasn’t exactly “nothing” but she had a political science major and was working at an advertising firm, two things, that likely had little to do with her success. The truth is that most of her success came from her passion, which drove her to be creative in her free time and got her into design school.

One of the common misconceptions about the phrase is that when you “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, you are doing so without any help from others. There is no doubt in my mind that my mother's success had a great deal to do with help from others, however, this isn’t the meaning of the phrase. For me, it is about using the resources you can find to lift yourself up and to expect nothing of others. The moment you expect someone else to solve your own problems is the moment you will realize that success is very much based on your own abilities and not that of others. For example, my mother could have very well had referrals from every big designer out there, she could have been given hundreds of clients, but if she wasn’t good at what she did, her success would be limited to how much longer these designers would refer others to her, and the moment they stopped, she’d be out of a job. Overall, the saying is used to represent the underlying fact that you are what you make of yourself. Perhaps that’s why 88% of all millionaires are self-made ('7 Myths About Millionaires' 2018) or that the richest man in the world started his company in a garage (Jeff Bezos). In my opinion, your life is like an ongoing jig-saw puzzle, if you work long and hard enough, you can go pretty far, and if you get some help from others you can maybe go even further, but the moment you leave and expect that others will always be there to build your jig-saw puzzle, the puzzle begins to fall apart.

This incredibly detailed piece of art by Meruzhan Khachatryan demonstrates a metaphorical representation of the Armenian Genocide. Showcasing the struggles faced by those who experienced the genocide, and those who died because of it, Khachatryan uses a variety of visual techniques to express a deep unsettling feeling, conveying the horrors of those represented in the artwork, even without the contextual knowledge of the genocide. The original painting is 80cm by 60cm, and because of its large size, it is able to develop extraordinary detail, capturing the surreal aspects, and making them closer to reality. Meruzhan Khachatryan is an artist from Yerevan, Armenia, and has done extensive research on the subject of the Armenian genocide. His paintings reflect not only some of the context of the genocide but also the real emotions felt by some of the Armenians during the genocide.

The Armenian genocide killed upwards of 600,000 people and some data suggests that that number could be as high as 1.5 million. Rooted in a deep hatred similar to that of Hitler, on April 24, 1915, the Turkish government commenced the genocide, which included the mass extermination of the Armenians. This was not as much of a surprise as the Holocaust was as there was always a feud between the Muslims and the Christians in Turkey. For example, Christians were typically taxed more and had fewer legal and political rights, and the Turkish government consistently discriminated against those who identify as Christian (94.8% of the Armenian population). Over the course of WW1, many fled the horrific reality of Turkey, furthermore, some were deported, losing all of the means that they may have acquired, and were forced to start again from the bottom (Armenian genocide, 2010). This brings me back to some of the stories told by my grandmother, who escaped Romania when the communists took over.

Her family being cousins of the royal family were in extreme danger of being killed, like most of the royal family had been. One of the stories she told was about how they had to sew their jewels, which was all that they could bring, to their underwear and inside of their clothes, and how they had to travel late at night. At the age of only 6, my grandmother had learned what it was like to have to hide from anyone and everyone, risking her life each day without a choice. After retiring from her career in business she became an artist and used art as a method of conveying her feelings.

In this piece, the variety of techniques used, show the time and effort put into this piece of art. It combines real objects and real scenery into a surreal environment, while at the same time communicating a clear message about the struggles faced by the Armenians. The trail of bloody moccasins represents the shoes of those who perished and the leading trail toward an unknown source of light. The moccasins are of different sizes, some belonging to kids, some to grandparents, but all to people who would never see the end of the monstrous genocide. The sky, although beautiful, is unsettling and dark, the unknown source of light represents the stringing along of hope that they might survive, but likely won’t, as the shoes helplessly follow each other. The moral ground is represented by the cracked dessert the moccasins lay on, and can symbolize a broken morality. Another great example of symbolism is the birds in the sky. Notice that the birds are flying in the opposite direction that the mocassins lead, perhaps symbolizing those fleeing the genocide. It very much represents the struggles of those who “got away”, as we can see that some have fallen, some have perished, just like those who may have escaped. Although it is unclear as to why they are dying, the implication based on the other aspects of the piece is that they may have died from starvation, sickness, wounds, or even exhaustion. This can represent some of the more “overlooked” aspects of the painting, as the focus is on the genocide itself rather than the surrounding effects it had on others who may have even escaped.

In conclusion, much can be interpreted about this work of art even without context, however, context brings an entirely new light to what may be Meruzhan Khachatryan’s expression. The overall tone of the piece of art is unsettling and worrisome and tugs at the undertone of loss. Khachatryan does an excellent job of portraying this tone using extensive research, interviews, stories, and other contextual information. This painting was painted in 2005 and is currently for sale at Fine Art America for $10,865 (Fine Art America, 2019). Khachatryan’s piece is a reminder of what happened in Armenia and provides an example of the unsettling reality of those who were affected, wounded, or killed by the genocide.

Works Cited

    1. “7 Myths About Millionaires.” U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/on-retirement/articles/7-myths-about-millionaires.
    2. History.com Editors. “Armenian Genocide.” ​History.com, A&E Television Networks, 1 Oct. 2010, ​https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/armenian-genocide.
    3. Wiesel, Elie,Wiesel, Marion. Night. New York: Hill And Wang, 2006.
    4. Khachatryan, Meruzhan. “It Is Devoted To Sacred Memory The Triptych Part 1 by Meruzhan Khachatryan.” Fine Art America, https://fineartamerica.com/featured/it-is-devoted-to-sacred-memory-the-triptych-part-1-meruzhan-khachatryan.html.
    5. History.com Editors. “The Holocaust.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 14 Oct. 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-holocaust.
    6. Connolly, Kate. “Tales from Auschwitz: Survivor Stories.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Jan. 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/26/tales-from-auschwitz-survivor-stories.
    7. Metalin, Rachel. 'Introduction to the Holocaust'. Upper Canada College, Toronto. November 5 Dec, 2019. Lecture. https://money.usnews.com/money/blogs/on-retirement/articles/7-myths-about-millionaires
    8. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/armenian-genocide
    9. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/it-is-devoted-to-sacred-memory-the-triptych-part-1-meruzhan-khachatryan.html
    10. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/it-is-devoted-to-sacred-memory-the-triptych-part-1-meruzhan-khachatryan.html
    11. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/the-holocaust
    12. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/26/tales-from-auschwitz-survivor-stories
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