Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and 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 which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”
The words of Elie Wiesel, winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, describing his reaction to his first night in the Nazi camp of Birkenau, ‘reception centre’ for the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Those who failed Birkenau’s rudimentary ‘selection’ procedure, including Wiesel’s mother and his little sister, didn’t even live long enough to make it to Auschwitz. With his own eyes, Wiesel saw children being thrown into ditches from which gigantic flames leapt up.
The 15-year-old Wiesel, whose passion for God had been his whole life in his Hungarian home town, saw his faith evaporate in those same flames. He had once spent his nights eagerly studying the Jewish scriptures. But, in the concentration camps, he found himself unable even to join in with prayers for the Jewish New Year.
“This day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused…How I sympathised with Job! I did not deny God’s existence, but I doubted his absolute justice.