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Physically he was as awkward as a clown. He mad people smile, with his waiflike timidity. I loved his great dreaming eyes, their gaze lost in the distance. He spoke little. He used to sing, or, rather, to chant. Such snatches a you could hear told of the suffering of the divinity, of the Exile of Providence, who, according to the cabbala, await his deliverance in that of man.
I got to know him toward the end of 1941. I was twelve. I believed profoundly. During the day I studied the Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the Temple.
One day I asked my father to find me a master to guide me in my studies of the cabbala.
"You're too young for that. Maimonides said it was only at thirty that one had the right to venture into the perilous world of mysticism. You must first study the basic subjects within your own understanding."
My father was a cultured, rather unsentimental man. There was never any display of emotion, even at home. He was more concerned with others than with his own family. The Jewish community in Sighet held him in the greatest esteem. They often used to consult him about public matters and even about private ones. There were four of us children: Hilda, the eldest; then Sea; I was the third, and the only son; the baby of the family was Tzipora.
My parents ran a shop. Hilda and Béa helped them with the work. As for me, they said my place was at school.
"There aren't any cabbalists at Sighet," my father would repeat.
He wanted to drive the notion out of my head. But it was in vain. I found a master for myself, Moshe the Beadle.
He had noticed me one day at dusk, when I was praying.
"Why do you weep when you pray?" he asked me, as though he had known me a long time.
"I don't know why," I answered, greatly disturbed.
The question had never entered my head. I wept because-because of something inside me that felt the need for tears. That was all I knew.
"Why do you pray?" he asked me, after a moment.
Why did I pray? A strange question. Why did I live? Why did I breathe?
"I don't know why," I said, even more disturbed and ill at ease. "I don't know why."
After that day I saw him often. He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.
"Man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks Him," he was fond of repeating. "That is the true dialogue. Man questions God and God answers. But we don't understand His answers. We can't understand them. Because they come from the depths of the soul, and they stay there until death. You will find the true answers, Eliezer, only within yourself!"
"And why do you pray, Moshe?" I asked him.
"I pray to the God within me that He will give me the strength to ask Him the right questions."
We talked like this nearly every evening. We used to stay in the synagogue after all the faithful had left, sifting in the gloom, where a few half-burned candles still gave a flickering light.
One evening I told him how unhappy I was because I could not find a master in Sighet to instruct me in the Zohar, the cabbalistic books, the secrets of Jewish mysticism. He smiled indulgently. After a long silence, he said:
"There are a thousand and one gates leading into the orchard of mystics] truth. Every human being has his own gate. We must never make the mistake of wanting to enter the orchard by any gate but our own. To do this is dangerous for the one who enters and also for those who are already there."
And Moshe the Beadle, the poor barefoot of Sighet, talked to me for long hours of the revelations and mysteries of the cabbala. It was with him that my initiation began. We would read together, ten limes over, the same page of the Zohar. Not to learn it by heart, but to extract the divine essence from it.
And throughout those evenings a conviction grew in me that Moshe the Beadle would draw me with him into eternity, into that time where question and answer would become one.
Then one day they expelled all the foreign Jews from Sighet. And Moshe the Beadle was a foreigner.
Crammed into cattle trains by Hungarian police, they wept bitterly. We stood on the platform and wept too. The train disappeared on the horizon; it left nothing behind but its thick, dirty smoke.
I heard a Jew behind me heave a sigh.
"What can we expect?" he said. "It's war…”
The deportees were soon forgotten. A few days after they had gone, people were saying that they had arrived in Galicia, were working there, and were even satisfied with their lot.
Several days passed. Several weeks. Several months. Life had returned to normal. A wind of calmness and reassurance blew through our houses. The traders were doing good business, the students lived buried in their books, and the children played in the streets.
One day, as I was just going into the synagogue, I saw, sitting on a bench near the door, Moshe the Beadle.
He told his story and that of his companions. The train full of deportees had crossed the Hungarian frontier and on Polish territory had been taken in charge by the Gestapo. There it had stopped. The Jews had to get out and climb into lorries. The lorries drove toward a forest. The Jews were made to get out. They were made to dig huge graves. And when they had finished their work, the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion, without haste, they slaughtered their prisoners. Each one had to go up to the hole and present his neck. Babies were thrown into the air and the machine gunners used them as targets. This was in the forest of Galicia, near Kolomaye. How had Moshe the Beadle escaped? Miraculously. He was wounded in the leg and taken for dead.
Through long days and nights, he went from one Jewish house to another, telling the story of Malka, the young girl who had taken three days to die, and of Tobias, the tailor, who had begged to be killed before his sons.
Moshe had changed. There was no longer any joy in his eyes. He no longer sang. He no longer talked to me of God or of the cabbala, but only of what he had seen. People refused not only to believe his stories, but even to listen to them.
"He's just trying to make us pity him. What an imagination he has!" they said. Or even: "Poor fellow. He's gone mad."
And as for Moshe, he wept.
"Jews, listen to me. Its all I ask of you. I don't want money or pity. Only listen to me," he would cry between prayers at dusk and the evening prayers.
I did not believe him myself. I would often sit with him in the evening after the service, listening to his stories and trying my hardest to understand his grief. I felt only pity for him.
"They take me for a madman," he would whisper, and tears, like drops of wax, flowed from his eyes.
Once, I asked him this question:
"Why are you so anxious that people should believe what you say? In your place, I shouldn't care whether they believed me or not…"
He closed his eyes, as though to escape time.
"You don't understand," he said in despair. "You can’t understand. I have been saved miraculously. I managed to get back here. Where did I get the strength from? I wanted to come back to Sighet to tell you the story of my death. So that you could prepare yourselves while there was still time. To live? I don't attach any importance to my life any more. I'm alone. No, I wanted to come back, and to warn you. And see how it is, no one will listen to me.
That was toward the end of 1942. Afterward life returned to normal. The London radio, which we listened to every evening, gave us heartening news: the daily bombardment of Germany; Stalingrad; preparation for the second front. And we, the Jews of Sighet, were waiting for better days, which would not be long in coming now.
I continued to devote myself to my studies. By day, the Talmud, at night, the cabbala. My father was occupied with his business and the doings of the community. My grandfather had come to celebrate the New Year with us, so that he could attend the services of the famous rabbi of Borsche. My mother began to think that it was high time to find a suitable young man for Hilda.
Thus the year 1943 passed by
Spring 1944. Good news from the Russian front. No doubt could remain now of Germany's defeat. It was only a question of time of months or weeks perhaps.
The trees were in blossom. This was a year like any other, with its springtime, its betrothals, its weddings and births.
People said: "The Russian army's making gigantic strides forward . . . Hitler won't be able to do us any harm, even if he wants to."
Yes, we even doubted that he wanted to exterminate us.
Was he going to wipe out a whole people? Could he exterminate a population scattered throughout so many countries? So many millions! What methods could he use? And in the middle of the twentieth century!
Besides, people were interested in everything-in strategy, in diplomacy, in politics, in Zionism-but not in their own fate.
Even Moshe the Beadle was silent. He was weary of speaking. He wandered in the synagogue or in the streets, with his eyes down, his back bent, avoiding people's eyes.
At that time, it was still possible to obtain emigration permits for Palestine. I had asked my father to sell out, liquidate his business, and leave,
"I'm too old, my son," he replied. "I'm too old to start a new life. I'm too old to start from scratch again in a country so r away.
The Budapest radio announced that the Fascist party had come into power. Horthy had been forced to ask one of the leaders of the Nyilas party to form a new government.
Still this was not enough to worry us. Of course we had heard about the Fascists, but they were still just an abstraction to us. This was only a change in the administration.
The following day, there was more disturbing news: with government permission, German troops had entered Hungarian territory.
Here and there, anxiety was aroused. One of our friends, Berkovitz, who had just returned from the capital, told us:
"The Jews in Budapest are living in an atmosphere of fear and tenor. There are anti-Semitic incidents every day, in the streets, in the trains. The Fascists are attacking Jewish shops and synagogues. The situation is getting very serious."
This news spread like wildfire through Sighet. Soon it was on everyone's lips. But not for long. Optimism soon revived.
"The Germans won't get as far as this. They'll stay in Budapest. There are strategic and political reasons…"
Before three days had passed, German army cars had appeared in our streets.
Anguish. German soldiers-with their steel helmets, and their emblem, the death's head.
However, our first impressions of the Germans were most reassuring. The officers were billeted in private houses, even in the homes of Jews. Their attitude toward their hosts was distant, but polite. They never demanded the impossible, made no unpleasant comments, and even smiled occasionally at the mistress of the house. One German officer lived in the house opposite ours. He had a room with the Kahn family. They said he was a charming man-calm, likable, polite, and sympathetic. Three days after he moved in he brought Madame Kahn a box of chocolates The optimists rejoiced.
"Well, there you are, you see! What did we tell you? You wouldn't believe us. There they are your Germans! What do you think of them? Where is their famous cruelty?"
The Germans were already in the town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict had already been pronounced, yet the Jews of Sighet continued to smile.
Excerpted from Night by Elie Wiesel
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