01/29/06 — Holocaust scholar discusses 'Night' as part of Wayne Reads

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Holocaust scholar discusses 'Night' as part of Wayne Reads

By Renee Carey
Published in News on January 29, 2006 2:07 AM

Reading Elie Wiesel's "Night" isn't easy, but then again, it is not supposed to be.

That is the message that Holocaust expert Dr. Steve Gowler left with the more than 180 people who packed the Wayne County Museum on Friday to hear him speak about the 2006 Wayne County Reads selection.

"The book is challenging because of the questions it asks us, and the kind of issues it gives us to think about," said Gowler, a professor at Berea College in Kentucky and an acknowledged expert on the Nazi death camps.

"It challenges the fragile foundations upon which many of our most sacred values rest. It challenges us to live differently in the light of the world that it depicts."

And it was Wiesel's hope, Gowler said, that through the jarring images of his depiction of life in a Nazi death camp, that the reader would come away with a comprehension, if not an understanding, of what the Jewish people went through, and a determination to never forget their suffering.

"The Holocaust shows us that what we take for granted can be destroyed in a blink of an eye," he said.

Remembering and helping others to remember is a challenge that Wiesel faced most of his life, Gowler said.

He said Wiesel was very aware that he had a message that many would have preferred not to hear -- an experience many survivors encountered when they returned home and tried to tell their accounts of what they had been through.

Wiesel even found himself shying away from the memories sometimes, and criticizing himself for forgetting -- even for a moment -- about the mother and sister he lost.

Wiesel, Gowler said, made keeping those memories alive and sharing them with others his life's work.

"He has devoted his life to remembering and encouraging others to remember," Gowler said.

Wiesel went on to write 40 books, Gowler said, and has said that "Night" is the basis for all of them.

The book is described as an autobiographical novel or a memoir because although "Night" is an honest account of Wiesel's experiences, the book is not a definitive study of life in the camps, Gowler said.

"He is choosing events very carefully to tell a story of several relationships, the course of his faith and what the experience does to his faith," he said.

Gowler said "Night" helps the reader understand the lived experiences of those who went through the events and adds a perspective to more traditional histories of the time period.

"He allows us to imagine in a way what it would be like to live through it," he said. "He allows us also to imagine what it would be like to be a perpetrator or bystander. 'Night' is a book of witness and testimony."

Gowler said Wiesel acknowledged that "Night" was his own experience, and that someone in the same camp could have given a very different account, with very different themes and emphasis.

"Night" is the story of 15-year-old Wiesel's year in the Nazi death camps.

Gowler said the Hungarian Jewish community was one of the last to be targeted by the Nazis. He said Wiesel's "descent into hell" began in the spring of 1944.

Gowler said more than 400,000 Jews were murdered from spring to late summer of 1944 -- anywhere from a third to half of the total amount killed by the Nazis throughout the Holocaust.

He said many of the Hungarian Jews had heard stories of the death camps -- but many simply did not believe the accounts they heard.

Wiesel tells the story of his family's imprisonment and his and his father's escape from the gas chambers in Auschwitz. A fate his sister and mother did not escape.

By lying about their ages, Gowler said, Wiesel and his father were sent to work camps.

The rest of "Night" discusses not only Wiesel's experiences in the camps, but his own battle within himself. He describes many of the paradoxes of life for the Jews imprisoned in the camps -- the faith vs. despair, the survival instinct vs. the need to care for loved ones.

But one of the most jarring observations Wiesel makes, Gowler said, is that many of the Jews, when faced with the horrors of the camps, began to act in keeping with the image their captors had of their prisoners, losing their own honor and sense of decency and propriety.

But ultimately, Gowler said, "Night" is a powerful book of remembrance and a determination of the author to remember himself -- and to never let others forget, a illustrated in one of the passages from the book.

"Never shall I forget that first night that turned my life into one long night," Wiesel wrote.

Gowler's discussion of "Night" was part of an opening reception that featured not only the official introduction of the Wayne County Reads program for the year, but a chance to learn about and appreciate the Jewish culture as well.

In addition to memorabilia and displays concerning the Jewish life and the history of Jews in Wayne County, visitors also had a chance to sample many types of Jewish food, all provided by members of the Wayne County Reads committee and other volunteers.

But center stage for the evening, in keeping with the 2006 book selection, were the images from the Holocaust -- and the memorabilia depicting the persecution of the Jews.

A display of stars and other markings that Jews were forced to wear to indicate their religion was near a video area, which featured Gowler's graphic 2000 documentary of his tour of the Nazi death camps.

Also featured was a DVD of an interview with Wiesel himself, talking about his writings and his experiences.

Goldsboro resident Dawn Bass came to experience Jewish culture, and to learn more about Wiesel and his book.

She said she has been interested in this part of history since she visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, a couple years ago.

She said she was struck by the impact the displays had on visitors.

"In most museums, you hear talking and noise," she said. "There, it was just quiet."

She has not read "Night" yet, but plans to get her copy soon, she said.

Julie Wall, also of Goldsboro, has already read "Night." She and her 14-year-old son, Matt Santee, came to the opening reception to learn a little more about the Holocaust.

Ms. Wall said the book was easy to read -- although its message was extremely powerful.

"I read it cover to cover in a day and a half," she said. "He's very easy to read. It was a story that just stays with you."

She said the book's content might be too jarring for children under age 12, but she added high school students should be able to handle the haunting images and message.

Matt said he is planning to read the book soon.

He added that he had learned something already from the displays he saw at the museum Saturday.

"Not to discriminate against other people," he said.

Wayne County Reads events will continue through February and will culminate in the presentation of the play, "I Never Saw Another Butterfly," in March.