Evil in the Night

by Derrick G. Jeter

Prisoner A–7713 (though he wasn’t known by that number at the time) entered the hell that was Birkenau in 1944. He was fifteen-years-old; a student of the Old Testament Scriptures who wanted to be a mystic. But on one terrifying night his faith in God was consumed in fires fueled by children.

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and tuned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Elie Wiesel wrote these haunting words in a beautifully moving, but ghastly, story of human evil, he simply called Night.The darkness which enveloped millions of European Jews in the 1940’s was an inky blackness. And every Jew sent to a concentration camp groped in that darkness for God. Where was God during those hellish nights? Wiesel provided an answer while watching a young boy slowly being strangled. “This is where—hanging here from this gallows . . .”

God was dying an agonizing death, right there in the concentration camps—slowly suffocating on a gallows built by human hands.

Or did He? Another writer who endured the torment of Auschwitz came to a different conclusion.

The truth is that among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz [Viktor Frankl observed in Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning], the number of those whose religious life was deepened—in spite of, not because of, this experience—by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief. . . . One might say that just as the small fire is extinguished by the storm while a large fire is enhanced by it—likewise a weak faith is weakened by predicaments and catastrophes, whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.

Wiesel was young—at least ten years younger than Frankl—and so was his faith in God. Perhaps if he could have talked with the French Catholic writer François Mauriac before walking into the darkness, his faith could have endured.But Wiesel didn’t speak with Mauriac until years later. Thinking back on their conversation, and Wiesel’s denial of God, Mauriac wrote in the forward to Night.

Did I speak to him of that other Jew, this crucified brother who perhaps resembled him and whose cross conquered the world? . . . And that the connection between the cross and human suffering remains . . . the key to the unfathomable mystery in which the faith of his childhood was lost? . . . That is what I should have said to the Jewish child. But all I could do was embrace him and weep.

Mauriac is right, of course—the cross of Christ unravels the mystery of suffering. But Wiesel didn’t know this in 1944 or when he spoke with Mauriac, so Mauriac gave him the next best answer to unspeakable evil: silence.Elie Wiesel quotes: Elie Wiesel, Night (New York: Hill and Wang, 1958, 2006), 34, 65, and 120 [respectively].

Viktor Frakl quote: Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning (New York: Perseus Publishing, 2000), 19.

François Mauriac quote: Night, xxi.