The Haunting Words of Elie Wiesel: ‘Never Shall I Forget’

On the day of his passing, remembering the searing clarity of his message

Last Updated: July 3, 2016 @ 7:04 PM

The words of Elie Wiesel ring through the decades. With the clarity of a bell, his message in “Night,” now read the world over and assigned to schoolchildren everywhere, is worth remembering on the day of his passing.

Here are some key passages from a 2006 edition, a new translation:

I don’t know how I survived:
There are those who tell me that I survived in order to write this text. I am not convinced. I don’t know how I survived. I was weak, rather shy. I did nothing to save myself. A miracle? Certainly not. …It was nothing more than chance. However, having survived, I needed to give some meaning to my survival.

The duty of a survivor:
For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory.

The Jews of his Romanian town moved to a ghetto:
Many people thought that we would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew, it was ruled by delusion.

On leaving the ghetto:
They passed by me one after the other, my teachers, my friends, the others, some of whom I had once feared, some of whom I had found ridiculous, all those whose lives I had shared for years. There they went defeated, their bundles, their lives in tow, having left behind their homes, their childhood. They passed me by, like beaten dogs, with never a glance in my direction.”

Leaving the transport:
As the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. … In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.

Selection by Dr Josef Mengele:
I pinched myself. Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? NO. All this could not be real. A nightmare perhaps….

For the first time, I felt anger rising withim me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?

On seeing Birkenau, people sent to a fiery pit:
Never shall I forget that first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue 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 turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God himself.

Never.

Shaved, disinfected, prison clothes thrown at them:
The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame.

Rosh Hashanah in the work camp:
Night was falling rapidly. And more and more prisoners kept coming, from every block, suddenly able to overcome time and space, to will both into submission. What are You, my God? I thought angrily. How do You compare to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery?

In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life… But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone, in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long.

The worst night of his life:
“Well?” The SS had flown into a rage and was striking my father on the head. “Be quiet, old man! Be quiet!”

My father no longer felt the club’s blows. I did. And yet I did not react. I let the SS beat my father. I left him alone in the clutches of death. Worse: I was angry at him for having been noisy, for having cried, for provoking the wrath of the SS.

The death march:
Death enveloped me, it suffocated me. It stuck to me like glue. I felt I could touch it. The idea of dying, of ceasing to be, began to fascinate me. To no longer exist. To no longer feel the excruciating pain of my foot. To no longer feel anything, neither fatigue, nor cold, nothing. … My father’s presence was the only thing that stopped me.

These plaintive words, a cry for meaning and a plea without answers, continue to ring.

Rest in peace, Elie Wiesel. Your words live on.