L'été où il faillit mourir

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Jim Harrison

Symbols are the objects, characters, allusions, or other similar elements that are used to represent a specific concept or abstract idea.

Flames

Fire is a recurring motif, with Mrs. Schechter’s screams of flames heralding the approaching real flames of the Auschwitz crematoria. Repeatedly we have the theme of fire, from the fiery pits that the children are thrown into to the flames reaching into the sky. Auschwitz, itself, is awash in fire—the apocryphal fire of the end of the world, where all is consumed and only monstrosities emerge from the smoke.

“The student of the Talmud, the child that I was, had been consumed in the flames. There remained only a shape that looked like me. A dark flame had entered into my soul and devoured it.”
– Elie Wiesel, Night, Ch. 3

Silence

God is silent; the world is silent; the U.S. is silent. Those who should be the most involved are impotent and invisible. Only the victims are writhing and yelling, and the oppressors are virulent in their triumph and hate. The silence is broken by rumors of the approach of the Red Army, the appearance of the Americans, and somehow—miraculously—the defeated few manage to gather their strength and rise against the oppressors as they drive out the SS commanders from the camp and wrest control.

Snow

Snow seems to be a recurring motif. Not only does the weather constantly seem frigid incessant snowfall, but death is sometimes linked with snow, as in the following phrase:

A tangle of human shapes, heads sunk deeply between the shoulders, crouching, piled one on top of the other, like a cemetery covered with snow. (98)

Snow may have the connotations of extreme frigidity and chill—the conditions of the camp, as well as the polarity of life. Snow is the reverse of warmth, vitality, and sunlight. Nothing can grow in the snow. The omnipresent condition of snow signified the omnipresent condition of ever-present darkness and lack of growth. It was almost like the end of the world.

Night

Night is the emblem of darkness and despair. The prisoners arrived in Auschwitz in the pitch of night. All they saw was darkness. Again, it is night when the prisoners began their horrible flight to Burna and Burkenau. Tellingly enough, it is night when his father is informed of the deportation of the Jews.

Night, as Wiesel himself saw it, was allusion to meaningless and awful suffering, yet there was always day. Perhaps this is why his trilogy includes Night, Dawn, and Day, marking Wiesel’s transition from darkness to light. As Wiesel commented:

In Night, I wanted to show the end, the finality of the event. Everything came to an end—man, history, literature, religion, God. There was nothing left. And yet we begin again with night. (Reichek, 1976, p. 46)

Themes are the key ideas that over and again appear and are explored in an author’s work.

Madness

Madness has always been a key theme of Wiesel’s stories. This may be not so much a reality of his tales—although many victims of the Holocaust did go mad—but rather a fictitious strategy that gave substance to his existentialist theme. In Night, madness is a constant refrain of the plot. You have Moshe the Beadle, who is ridiculed by the hamlet and, although not overtly described as insane, bears those implications: “He would drift through synagogue or through the streets, hunched over, eyes cast down, avoiding people’s gaze” (8).

He is described as a “clown” (p. 3), which is a typical Wiesel theme synonymous with beggar (another common motif of his).

In chapter two, on the trip to Auschwitz there is Mrs. Schechter, who becomes insane and frightens her child with her psychosis. She envisions flames. Again, this too may be a fictitious heuristic designed to provide foreshadowing to the story. The incident is described with typical Wiesel construct.

Wiesel’s father himself becomes delusional. He flees invisible attackers, dreams of gold and silver, and cries as a child.

There are many others who become insane throughout the story.

Death of God

This is a boldly existentialist theme. Wiesel is famed for his God-hanging-on-a-gallows metaphor. God, for Wiesel, died in Auschwitz. This is parodied in the famed paragraph, and later, Wiesel’s famous play of the defense of God is based on this book and actually initiated from an incident seen in the camps in which three men massed to accuse God of negligence and permitting monstrous behavior.

For Wiesel, receiving the sheltered upbringing that he did, loss of faith must have been even more severe than it would have been for someone who had a broader exposure to the world. Wiesel describes his loss of faith thus: “Deep inside me, I felt a great void opening” (69).

The author is unable to find succor in the delusions of faith, ritual, and myth that comforted others. To Wiesel, God was supposed to be omnipresent and benevolent. His benevolence was not present in the Holocaust, nor was His omnipotence. Wiesel’s conclusion then was that God was dead. Although Wiesel still claims himself as Jewish, his faith may largely lie in tradition. He studies the Talmud, professes faith in Israel, and visits rabbis, yet he sees prayer as meaningless and God as probably nonexistent.

Delusion

Delusion is a constant factor. From the very beginning, the townspeople refused to believe that the Germans either hated them or that they, too, would be persecuted by Germany. Their delusion clung with them through their expulsion from ghetto to ghetto (it was for their protection) to their dispersion to the cattle cars (they were merely going to a camp to work). Even upon arrival at Auschwitz, they believed that women and children would be cared for and that it was merely a labor camp. It was Mrs. Schechter, in the cattle car, who warned them that she foresaw flames; they beat her into silence.

Again and again, delusion makes its appearance at the death camps. Many of the prisoners cling to folktales, rituals, and prayer as a way to comfort themselves. The elders counseled against resistance on the grounds that it would be sinful to rebel; people disappear, and their disappearance is rationalized. Even Eliezer still hopes to see his mother and sister one day. Perhaps people needed the delusion and optimism to stay alive. After all, irrationality is a human characteristic and can be evolutionarily beneficial as means of promoting survival.

Elie caricatures and gently mocks self-delusion; nonetheless, there are incidents in the book that indicate that he, too, seems capable, to some extent, of self-delusion.

Music

This is an insignificant theme, and it is arguable whether or not one should include it as theme. There are the orchestra and dancing in the barracks. More significantly, there is the Polish boy, Juniek, who clung to his violin to the very last and died playing Beethoven’s concerto. Music may have been another of Elie’s fictitious heuristics, employed as a backdrop and contrast to the demon of death.

Primitiveness of man

This is another of Wiesel’s existentialist themes: When faced with despair, even the most cultured and moral person may become a beast, killing others to get a crust of bread or more space to breathe. Wiesel, to illustrate this, shows people strangling one another (even, in one case, a son beating his father) to wrest a slice of bread from their mouths. The son was capable of forgetting his father when it meant his survival, as Wiesel memorably shows with the case of Eliyahu and his son, in which Eliyahu’s son ran ahead, leaving his father to search for him and die in the snow.

The accounts of the atrocities of one person upon another are monstrous; people are depicted beating delusional women and strangling others to make room. They kill semi-alive people and assist the SS in their atrocities. That mankind was capable of doing this may have been an ongoing scourge to Elie, particularly in light of his own guilt that he felt regarding his unintentional complicity with his father’s death. His father was pleading for his son to bring him water, yet Elie ignored him for fear of being beaten by the SS official. Elie never saw his father alive again.

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