Getting Used to the Darkness (Part II)

A Canadian prison is certainly not a concentration camp. But one thing unites all those for whom poverty, sickness, bad luck or their own misadventures have ended them up quarantined from the world.

By Colin McGregor

In prison there are no women who are our peers. Any woman you meet is an authority figure. There are no families, no pets, no vacations. A large slice of everyday life just vanishes. Society’s family structure simply does not exist. You can feel pretty unnerved by the lack of familiar things – like the darkness, night, in a world flood lit 24 hours per day.

In 1960, Elie Wiesel published a short story titled Night. It is one of the best-selling books in history in any language. He wrote it inspired by his memories of his time at two Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

It describes the members of a Jewish Romanian family whose lives take a dark turn when the Germans take control of their village, then send them to a prisoner of war camp.

Frozen by fear, they are transported at night in sealed wagons made for transporting animals. Through gaps in the walls of their wagon they can see the fires of the crematorium in the camp where they are going. They cry out in fear.

Once at the camp, the men are separated from the women.

The main character, a devout Hassidic Jew named Eliezer, gets a number tattooed on his arm: A07713. He has lost his name, he thinks. (Incidentally, I am 026054D: any Canadian fingerprinted by police gets a number composed of six digits and one letter ascribed to them. About one in ten adult Canadians has such a number).

The whole story of Night takes place at night. As in traditional Hassidic stories, the short story does not follow a regular chronological order. This gives the book a supernatural feel. The reader loses all track of time.

That first night after getting off the wagon, Eliezer’s group is led away from a common grave. For a moment, they feel safe. They chant: “I will never forget that night, that first night at camp…”

Fractures in Eliezer’s faith begin to form: in his faith in religion as well as his faith in the world.

The longer he stays in the camp, the greater become those gaps in his faith. All the prisoners feel abandoned. But soon, Eliezer feels filled by a new strength: “I refused to accept God’s silence,” he says. “I’d stopped being something other than just ashes, yet I felt stronger than the Almighty.”

Some of the prisoners give up; others lose all empathy for others, all sense of community, and are ready to kill for a scrap of bread; others show enthusiasm even when all seems useless.

Eliezer hangs on grimly, and emerges from the night. He does not see himself as broken at all, at least as long as he can breathe. When you awaken, something like darkness takes on a whole other meaning.

The man who ends his long sleep sees night with reassurance and serenity, like an old lost friend.

But he does not leave the memories of quarantine behind. As Eliezer says: “Never will I forget those moments that assassinated my God and my soul, and that reduced my dreams to dust.”  

Seen in Reflet de Société, Vol. 27, no. 3, été (summer) 2019, pages 26 – 27

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