I read Night while I was waiting to board a train.
It was past midnight when my fellow travelers and I gathered the personal belongings we had been allowed, wandered out of the depot, and were herded into the caboose by stern attendants.
On board, it was hot--too hot to do anything but groggily drift off to sleep. As morning light dimly infiltrated our car, I slowly awoke to unfamiliar rail yards, the backs of houses, winter.
This is where the comparison between my journey aboard Amtrak and the Jews' forced evacuations in cattle cars during World War II ends--must end. But as I went through the motions of locomotive travel the other evening, I couldn't resist seeing even this through the lens of the Holocaust.
Which is a shame, I think. When Oprah announced that her book club would be reading Elie Wiesel's first book I thought that was kind of a shame, too. Reading the book again myself, for the first time since middle school, I discovered all sorts of unintended allusions. When Wiesel told us of his desire, as a boy, to study Kabbalah, I thought of Madonna. When he talked about a portion of his ghetto's residents being locked inside their synagogue for a day before transport, people relieving themselves in the corner, I pictured the Superdome in the days following Hurricane Katrina. When Dr. Mengele and the SS officers showed up to evaluate the inmates at Buna, my mind drifted, miserably, to “American Idol” auditions.
So when I imagined Oprah's culminating show with Elie Wiesel--yet to air, as of this writing--with touching video portraits and high school essay contest winners sharing a cry with a Nobel Peace Prize winner, I was a little horrified. And I was horrified not only because it was impossible to think of Oprah visiting Auschwitz with the author and really having any hope of getting it, but because it made me wonder whether I had any hope of getting it either.
I'm several layers of disconnect from the Holocaust. My mother is Jewish; my father is not. I don't know of any extended family members who lived through or perished in the Holocaust. When an old man came to our Hebrew school class one Thursday when I was twelve or thirteen to weep in front of us and show us his tattoo, I thought it was sad, and I thought he was strong, but that was where I stopped, emotionally.
At the same time, the Holocaust is perhaps the most uniting event of the Jewish faith, certainly in the last century. Regardless of level of observance or purity of lineage, it's a common thread to our experiences. Maybe that's because it preserves our religion as one of perseverance and courage, but not necessarily of blind faith. Judaism, to me, has always been a method for questioning rather than for merely believing, so when I read about Birkenau, where some in the throng started reciting the Kaddish for themselves, I noted wistfully that they'd exactly grasped the irony of their dire situation. There was no flagellation for God, nor any strenuous prostrations--the Holocaust highlighted the pragmatism of our people.
The Holocaust is important for students to study, and it's obviously crucial that we never forget the lessons about power and discrimination that come from it. But is Night the best way for someone who wasn't there to understand it? I perused the message boards at Oprah.com, and found entries like this one, written in all caps: “RAN RIGHT OUT AT LUNCH AND GOT MY COPY. LOOKS LIKE A QUICK READ BUT CAN'T WAIT TO DIVE IN. LOOKS LIKE THIS IS GOING TO BE A GOOD ONE. THANKS OPRAH!” There were other, more thoughtful posts, but even those spoke only of crying while reading the book, of feeling emotionally drained, or of the profound impact the book had had on them; such revelations usually strike me as kind of empty just because it's so easy to say such things. I mean, I teared up the last time I watched “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Does that mean I understand the journey of the family whose home was just rebuilt? It seems more helpful to learn about the Holocaust as an historical event--there's more potential for finding meaning in the lessons of the Holocaust than in finding emotional connection with it.
As a Jew, even half of one, I'm fine with the Holocaust existing as its own thing--I don't want, particularly, to be able to weave its effect on me into other trying circumstances I might know more about. We aren't supposed to lose our sense of self or faith in the face of hatred and evil; instead, learning about it is one important way in which we learn and grow and survive.