Does God Exist In War?

“Once, New Year’s Day had dominated my life…Once, I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world. This day I ceased to plead…My eyes were open and I was alone-terribly alone in a world without God…without love or mercy” (Wiesel 65)

In many works of literature regarding war, the ubiquity of God as well as the question of His unwavering mercy are both prevalent themes often found throughout these compositions. Elie Wiesel’s autobiography Night is no exception to this theory. In this novel, Elie, a young Jewish boy of fifteen, is thrust into the world of concentration camps, as he becomes yet another victim of World War II. The horrors of Hitler’s “death camps” begin to destroy the faith of the once pious Elie, and he begins to question God’s existence. While suffering amongst the horrors of the camps, Elie is conflicted with a debate of prayer during the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, and must choose to pray or not to pray to his God. Ultimately, the devastation he has experienced in the camp leads Elie to state, “Once, New Year’s Day had dominated my life…Once, I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world. This day I ceased to plead…My eyes were open and I was alone-terribly alone in a world without God…without love or mercy” (Wiesel 65). Elie, who had once been a devout believer in God and His steadfast compassion, is now an atheist, filled with anger and remorse for his oppressed people.

When experiencing or simply viewing the devastation of war, one is often led to ask themselves, How can God exist in War? How can the Merciful allow his people to suffer in unthinkable ways? Elie Wiesel touches on these questions in Night through a conversation between a rabbi and young Elie. The rabbi states, “I’ve got eyes, too, and I can see what they’re doing here. Where is the divine mercy? Where is God? How can I believe, how could anyone believe in his merciful God?” (Wiesel 73). The fact that even a rabbi, a man who devotes his life to God, is led to question His existence further emphasizes Elie’s atheistic beliefs in Night. Due to his life in the atrocious concentration camps, Elie ultimately shuns his former belief in God, and concludes that God must not exist in a world capable of such evil.

Night is not alone in the debate of God’s existence in war. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is yet another work in which God’s omnipresence is questioned. In this novel, the character of Anselmo discusses God and war with the protagonist, Robert Jordan. When Robert Jordan asks “You have not God here anymore?”Anselmo answers, “No. Man. Certainly not. If there were God never would He have permitted what I have seen with my eyes…”(Hemingway 41). Anselmo, too, like Elie, believes that God cannot exist in war.

Though both Anselmo and Elie agree that God must not exist in war, their relationships with the Almighty as they are experiencing war are entirely different. For example, in Night, Elie has turned his back on God, as he believes God has abandoned him and his suffering people. Elie asks, “Why, but why should I bless Him?…Because He in his great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? (Wiesel 64). In young Elie’s mind, God is at fault for the creation of the war and the evil instilled in the heart of Hitler and his Nazi sympathizers, and he blames his Creator for this unconditionally. Elie’s anger towards God echoes a poem written by World War I soldier Issac Rosenberg, who, in his poem “God”, depicts the Almighty as the “rotting” evil villain of war, with man as His helpless pawn, subject to God’s mercilessness. However, in contrast to this image of a pitiless deity, in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Anselmo does not blame God for the destructive war, and unlike Elie believes that man should be begging God for His forgiveness. Anselmo believes that man must repent at the end of the war stating, …”I think that, after all this is over and we have won the war, there must be a penance of some kind for the cleansing of us all” (196). In Anselmo’s opinion, though God cannot exist in the horrors of war, He does exist in other aspects of life, and is entirely capable of expressing mercy. Anselmo’s God is entirely too pure and compassionate to be associated with the profound villainousness of war.

Yet another novel that discusses the existence of God in war is Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. In this novel, the protagonist, Henry Fleming, has just fled from battle, and seeks solace in a nearby forest. Crane depicts this scene writing, “At length he reached a place where the high, arching boughs made a chapel. He softly pushed the green doors aside and entered. Pine needles were a gentle brown carpet. There was a religious half light.” (Crane Chapter 7). In using such words as “chapel” and “religious” in association with “gentle”, one will come to associate God with tenderness, a stark contrast against the harsh brutality of war. In reading The Red Badge of Courage, one will come to the conclusion that God does in fact exist during war, as God survives in the simplicity and innocence of nature. This view of God is much like Anselmo’s own belief of the Almighty, as in both For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Red Badge of Courage, God does exist, however He is separated from the demonic savagery of man in war.

Throughout the literature of war, the question of God’s existence will always be a commonly employed subject matter. Whether the authors of these works believe that while in war God may still exist in the innocence of nature, or that God simply cannot exist in any aspect of life during the horror of battle, the prevalent theme of God’s presence in war will continue to be widely used and explored.


Lack of Comradeship

“He had wanted to get rid of his father! He had felt that his father was growing weak, he had believed that the end was near and had sought this separation in order to get rid of the burden, to free himself from an encumbrance which could lessen his own chances of survival” (Wiesel 87)



            Elie Wiesel was a young Jewish boy forced into concentration camp during World War II. His whole family was grabbed out of their homes only to be separated by gender in the Nazi camp. Night describes his and his father’s experience throughout the war. This book separates from other war novels because it expresses a lack of comradeship between men. The selected passage describes this dearth when Elie thinks about abandoning his father for his own survival. After hearing of Rabbi Eliahou’s son leaving his father, Elie considers doing the same. This is only the beginning of the separation between men in the concentration camp. This separation explained in the selected passage differentiates the book from such war novels as All Quiet on the Western Front and For Whom the Bell Tolls because it lacks the “feeling of comradeship” as J. Glenn Gray explains in The Warriors.

            Gray states that participant in war is accustomed to the “feeling of comradeship” (Gray 28-29). He believes that when participants work towards a common goal, in Elie’s case survival, comradeship is created. He states this feeling is “one genuine advantage of battle that peace can seldom offer” (Gray 39). However, the prisoners in the concentration camp do not take advantage of this. They become men who separate for their own survival. And we know that this does not work because the majority dies out. Would this appeal of war have helped them survive? In their case, comradeship was impossible. In Warriors, Gray recounts German soldiers who endured Russian prisoner-of war camps in the decade after World War II. They expressed “how the Communist system succeeded in destroying any sense of comradeship among prisoners simply by making the results of individual labor the basis of food allotments” (Gray 41). The prisoners of the Holocaust including Elie endured similar situations, thus resulting in an individual-based survival technique. The proverb “Misery loves company” is irrelevant in their case.

            Not only in the selected passage does the feeling of separation for survival occur. At one time the prisoners are shipped out to the center of Germany by being cramped in wagons, 100 each wagon. During this time the great individualistic feelings overcome them.  “`Throw out all the Dead! All corpses outside!’ The living rejoiced” (Wiesel 94). In this passage, the prisoners are happy to have room, even though it requires dumping out their fellow prisoners. How can one rejoice when other’s corpses are disrespected? This is possible because their situations are so extreme that they must only care about themselves to survive. By having other bodies next to them, they are in a greater danger of dying. In another instance, locals throw small pieces of bread onto the wagon. The men act like “wild beasts of prey” (Wiesel 95). They fight each other just for a piece of bread. The locals and SS men are fascinated with the spectacle. Also, when Elie’s father lies in his death bed, his neighbors torment him and take advantage just for a piece of food and some water. “Son, they keep hitting me!” his father complains (Wiesel 104). Even in his state of health, the men don’t care because they think about their own survival.

            Elie separates himself from such actions. He does not fear death anymore. He keeps his sanity in relation to the others. He is a real hero. When they arrived at the gate of the new camp in the end of the book, the “high chimney of the crematory…no longer made any impression” on him (Wiesel 99). Unlike the beginning when he views the crematory and constantly fears it, now he is immune to it. Although he is fearless, he is unable to seek company in others. They still fight for their survival anyway possible.

            This separation differentiates Night from war novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls and All Quiet on the Western Front. In All Quiet, Paul concludes that he and his fellow comrades “are lost” (123). They had forgotten the life with their parents, their childhood. Baumer compares the memories to the photograph of a dead comrade. “…[T]he days we spent together take on a mournful life in the memory; but the man himself it is not” (122). The death of his friends, such as Kat, sparks his evolution to a new life. This life, unlike his childhood, is gory and realistic. It is a life like Elie’s where death is waiting at every turn. It is a life where childhood is forgotten and only summed as a feeling of comradeship. Throughout the book, we see that this new life’s goal is to live. The men had to forget their memories in order to survive. When they think to their previous life, they become homesick and are weakened. The closest they come to sanity is through comradeship. Like Elie, Paul had been put through a difficult situation; however, he was able to seek company, a feeling of unity between the soldiers.

            Robert Jordan is also able to find company. In For Whom the Bell Tolls, he feels a closeness to his newfound group, Pilar, Anselmo, Maria, Primitivo, Fernando, Rafael, etc. This new group is founded through their common goal to win the revolution. He especially feels closeness to the Republican cause. In the end, this comradeship leads to his death because he feels it is necessary to protect his comrades by sacrificing his life. This heroic thought differs extremely from the prisoners in Night. They do the exact opposite. They care only for their own survival.

            This separation differentiates the book from other war novels because it lacks the “feeling of comradeship” as J. Glenn Gray explains in The Warriors. However, we notice that in the prisoner’s situation, comradeship is impossible. Their lack of food, constant torture and fear leads to this impossibility. Ultimately, the Nazis break down their bonds until only few survive. Comradeship stated by Gray is not always possible in war.


Comradeship is a Luxury


“Comrades, You’re in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. There’s a long road of suffering ahead of you. But don’t lose courage. You’ve already escaped the gravest danger: selection. So Now, muster your strength, and don’t lose heart. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves. Hell is not for eternity. And now, a prayer- or rather, a piece of advice: let there be comradeship among you. We are all brothers, and we are all suffering the same fate. The same smoke floats over all our heads. Help one another. It is the only way to survive. Enough said. You’re tired. Listen. You’re in Block 17. I am responsible for keeping order here. Anyone with a complaint against anyone else can come and see me. That’s all. You can go to bed. Two people to a bunk. Good Night.”


(Night, 38)

Night by Elie Wiesel is a striking recollection of the author’s experience in the Jewish Holocaust. This is the speech given by the prisoner in charge of Elie’s group when they enter Auschwitz for the first time. These lines call attention to a significant but ambiguous theme of the book: comradeship.  In traditional accounts of war from the perspective of the soldier, comradeship is something to be desired. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul states that comradeship is “the finest thing that arose out of the war,” (All Quiet, 27). Friendship helps to keep soldiers of WWI from going insane in the trenches. The advice of the prisoner to Elie’s group assumes the same value of comradeship. He assumed that if the Jews are able to stick together and lend a helping hand, they would benefit as a group.

          Throughout much of the struggle to survive in the concentration camps, this holds true. There are times when the prisoners are only kept alive by their own desire to be there for their loved ones. While running to a different camp, Elie refuses to allow himself to slow down and be shot, writing that “My father’s presence was the only thing that stopped me…. He was running at my side, out of breath, at the end of his strength, at his wit’s end. I had no right to let myself die. What would he do without me? I was his only support,”.

However, a truth about giving is that one must sacrifice something for one’s own self. In the trenches of WWI, giving up rations to a fellow soldier would only be an issue of comfort. But in the concentration camps, it became a matter of survival. The prisoners lost the luxury of helping others. Near the point where they run from one camp to the next, the prisoners become so exhausted that they begin to lose the will to help their loved ones. To do so could mean death for one’s self.

While the Jews are on the train to another camp, townspeople throw loaves of bread into the cattle cars. The starved prisoners begin to fight to the death for small pieces of the loaves.  One boy kills his own father so that he can have his rations, only to be killed by another man for the same reason. They were “wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes,”.

The fact that the abandonment of loved ones is a horrible thing does not mean it is unjustified for the prisoners to do so. The Jews had been pushed so far to the brink of survival, that animal instincts prevailed through the customs which they had been taught by society. Religion was left behind by even some of the most devout Rabbis, and the most loving sons abandoned their needy fathers without a second thought. The soldiers in the trenches and on the battlefields were never pushed to this kind of extreme torture.             Comradeship was important to the Jews’ survival, and they likely would not have survived as long without it there to provide motivation. However, at some point their survival instincts inevitably took over. Even Elie feels mixed emotions about his father’s death at the end.

The prisoners were unable to follow the advice of the prisoner in charge at Auschwitz. The loss of comradeship was a result of the need for survival.

A Fight for Survival

            One day when we had stopped, a workman took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought each other for a few crumbs. The German workmen took a lively interest in this spectacle. (95)



            Night tells of a young Jewish boy and his family who are captured by Nazis and forced to face the horrors found in concentration and extermination camps. Through no fault or act of their own, the family is ushered into a war they can not even fight in. But with this lack of control in their war, and because of their treatment by the Germans, they find themselves fighting a different battle: a battle for survival.


            Before Elie and his family are captured, they and their Jewish community are confident of their safety. Even when the Nazi threat approaches, they are optimistic and dismiss the possibility. After the Nazis enter the town they stay united and work together. The initial sense of unity among the Jews in this story is obvious. But once it becomes apparent that death is waiting for all of them, the general attitude changes. The town is no longer a community, but rather a group of individuals, each looking out for his own self interest. Even before Elie’s family is deported, we see the disunity with the hording of abandoned houses. This growing selfishness continues throughout the novel and develops into an animal instinct for survival common in war.           


            Life in concentration camps changes all inhabitants drastically. They are unwillingly sucked into a war in which they do not fight. But with war come the effects that the horrors of battle have on people. In The Warriors, Gray says men “return to primitivism and to animal nature” (54). The prisoners of the Nazis move towards this animal nature and lose themselves in the process. Elie, for example, soon loses his religion and essentially denounces the existence of God, which he strongly believed in before. This animalistic transformation is an inevitable result of war. In many war novels, war brings about this animal-like change in soldiers. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Paul develops the same issue. He says war “fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers” (114). He and his comrades are changed into murderous beasts, ready and willing to kill any they see. A similar change occurs in Henry in The Red Badge of Courage. He “had been a barbarian, a beast. He had fought like a pagan” (72). He becomes primitive and, much like the change experienced by Elie, briefly loses his religion. It is not, however, simply a return to animal instincts that the Jews experience, but also an instinct to survive.


            This is another instinct commonly found in war. Soldiers often lose feeling of fighting for their cause, and begin to fight for their lives. They will do anything to survive. Henry of Red Badge believes that his only chance of survival is to flee the battlefield. So he chooses to run rather than fight with his comrades and face possible death on the battlefield. Paul of All Quiet also feels the overwhelming need to survive in battle. When he undergoes his animalistic change, he says “We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation… Death is hunting us down” (113).   Paul and his comrades lose their fervor for battle but replace it with this will to save themselves. It is a similar will to survive that overcomes the Jews in Night.


            Elie and his father saw unbelievable things in concentration camps. They, and all those around them, see the horrible deaths of their fellow men and women for no reason at all. They see and are a part of forced labor and the sickening treatment by the prison camps’ guards. But perhaps worst of all, they witness the acts of the prisoners themselves doing whatever necessary to survive. They see men lie to escape death when others will only take their place. They see a man risk punishment for everyone just to satisfy his hunger. They witness in horrors as men trample their fellow prisoners while running and continue on without even a hint of remorse. Elie sees a boy abandon his own father because he is afraid his father will hold him back and lead to his death. They see the horrible spectacle of men fighting each other simply for scraps of food. One even attempts to kill his own father for one such scrap. They even see many of their fellow Jews give up their religion to survive. They refuse to fast during a holy holiday. They denounce the name of God, saying “Where is he?” (61). The need to survive seems to break all bonds between the Jews. Each cares more for himself and his own life more than for any other.


            Even Elie finds himself in a similar situation while in the camps. He and his father do nothing when his mother and sister are separated from them, headed towards near certain death. Elie watches his father struck by a guard without even thinking to help him. Later he watches on as his father is brutally beaten, and the only thing he can think about is not how to help, but how to avoid a similar punishment himself. Later he is even tempted to abandon his father to lighten his load. He briefly wishes that he can “get rid of this dead weight, so that [he] could use all [his] strength to struggle for [his] own survival” (101). Like all those around him, he faces the natural survival instinct, almost willing to sacrifice his father just to live. While he feels horribly guilty after each of these thoughts, he continues to feel the urge to do whatever necessary to maintain his own life.


            “That is what concentration camp life had made of me” (52). Elie and all those around him are affected the same way. The concentration camp life forces them to constantly fight for their lives. They have been unwillingly dragged into a war that they do not fight in, but they are still forced to fight death to live. There had been an intense comradeship between the prisoners before the war, but it is quickly replaced by the need to survive. In this war for survival, there is no comradeship. Each person looks out for his own life only. The war turns men into animals “fighting one another to the death for a mouthful” (95). They fight, not against their Nazi oppressors, but against each other in a terrible battle for survival.        

Beyond Comeraderie

“His son had seen him losing ground, limping, staggering back to the rear of the column. He had seen him. And he had continued to run on in front, letting the distance between them grow greater. A terrible thought loomed up in my head: he had wanted to get rid of his father” (Wiesel 86-87)



            Under the most desperate circumstances, basic human virtue can easily be lost. This passage describes just one example of the notable lack of camaraderie seen among the captives throughout the trials described in Night. If considered a war novel, the fierce individualism witnessed through the actions of the characters makes us consider just how desperate circumstances must have been for Elie Wiesel and his fellow holocaust victims. The passage above deals specifically with Rabbi Eliahou and his son who, according to Wiesel, had suffered together and supported one another for three years in the concentration camps, much like Elie and his father. However circumstances have grown so desperate for the son, that he is now willing to completely abandon his father for a greater chance of his own survival. This exemplifies the true magnitude of the plight these men faced while in concentration camps and especially on the forced march away from the front of Russian troops. As disturbing as conditions in camps themselves had been, most were able to endure. It was rather the flight which put most on the very brink of death and desperation, and leads to such despicable conduct. Despite the situation, Elie remains shocked that one could so quickly abandon his own father, with whom he has endured so much. He prays that he will never let himself come to such a point with his own father, who is now showing obvious signs of struggle. Elie admirably keeps his promise, continuing to sacrifice his own well being to aid his father. Yet when he finally dies, even Elie admits that the only real emotion he felt was relief.


            These two examples of betrayal of one’s own family members demonstrate the extent of the individual struggle captives endured. The passage above and Elie’s own example are just the most surprising forms of betrayal. Throughout the novel, there is a shockingly strong sense of solitude and individual competition among captives who are enduring the same fate together. Elie does describe relationships he forms in the camp, such as the brothers Tibi and Yosi, or the violinist, Juliek. But even these men are no more than friendly acquaintances. There is rarely a mention of one captive sacrificing himself for the better of his fellow men. By the death march to Gleiwitz, this sense of individualism has reached a peak. Scenes such as the trip on the train demonstrate the true extent of this sentiment. Desperate for food just to have a shot at survival, the prisoners fight literally to the death among each other for the slightest crumbs of bread. They rejoice at the opportunity to throw off dead or dying men if only to get a little more room for themselves, and nearly throw off Elie’s father despite Elie’s desperate pleading. The scene on the train car again proves the lack of not just camaraderie among the prisoners, but also of basic human decency.


            If Night is to be considered a war novel, the lack of camaraderie is unique. Even in All Quiet in the Western Front, which gives a remarkably critical and depressing account of war, camaraderie between fellow soldiers is the only thing that keeps the protagonist, Paul Baumer, hopeful. He feels that “life is simply one continual watch against the menace of death” (Remarque 273) for soldiers, yet he is willing to sacrifice his own well being without hesitation for the good of a comrade. Most notably, Paul heroically carries a wounded Kat, his dearest friend, back to the medics, in the midst of a fierce attack, obviously risking his own well being. While this may seem to many readers almost like an obligation, it is evident that Paul feels the same sort of loyalty even to his enemy. After spontaneously killing an enemy soldier that jumps into Paul’s shell hole, Paul demonstrates obvious lament, explaining he never wished to kill the man. As he begs to the man, “Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?” (Remarque 223)


Such displays of camaraderie are fundamental in most novels of war. For most, this delight in comradeship is the only real pleasure to cherish in war. Though you may suffer, you suffer with your comrades, as Paul does. In the case of Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls, it is the relationships formed in war that are often the strongest. This fundamental piece of war literature is missing in Night. Perhaps this demonstrates the true desperation of their circumstances. At a certain point, physical and mental tribulations may become too harsh to burden one’s self further with sacrificing for a fellow victim, even if that victim is your own father. Elie and the other prisoners after so long in such horrific conditions had grown beyond basic sensitivity and other human emotions. According to Elie, they were no longer affected by the smoke from the crematorium, no longer affected by occasional hangings of prisoners, and certainly no longer afraid of death. As he states, “we were masters of nature, masters of the world. We had forgotten everything-death, fatigue, our natural needs. Stronger than cold or hunger, stronger than the shots and the desire to die, condemned and wandering, mere numbers, we were the only men on earth.” (Wiesel 83) By the end of the “death march” these Holocaust victims may very well have been beyond the point of basic human virtues like sensitivity or camaraderie. Such extreme circumstances reveal that the primary concern for man is his individual well being, well before any concern for his fellow comrades.

The Most Important Decision

“Don’t forget that you’re in a concentration camp.  Here, every man has to fight for himself and not think of anyone else.” (Wiesel 105)

            No institution demonstrates human nature more clearly than war.  War allows man to both return to his primitive, more animal-like tendencies and allows him to fight for a cause he thinks honorable.  J. Glenn Gray in The Warriors explains that in this way, “war reveals dimensions of human nature both above and below the acceptable standards for humanity” (Gray 242).  While society may frown upon a soldier’s brutal actions in war, it still glorifies the soldier’s willingness to die for his country. War forces its participants not only to determine what they are willing to die for but also the lengths to which they are willing to go for survival.  In war, man is presented with the choice of fighting motivated by his own survival and interests or fighting as one with his comrades with their well-being in mind.  In Night, Elie Wiesel struggles with whether he should focus all his efforts on his own survival or whether he should sacrifice his well being for that of his father, his only comrade.  When deciding whether to fight for oneself or for one’s comrades there are three factors which play a significant role.  The bond of comradeship, the natural tendency to preserve one’s life above all else, and the necessary sacrificing of others in order to protect oneself all greatly affect a man’s decision whether or not “to fight for himself and not think for anyone else” (Wiesel 105).  

            The stronger the bond of comradeship the more likely it is a man will fight as one with his fellow soldiers and not be motivated solely by his own interests.  In Night, Elie and his fellow prisoners are told by a veteran concentration camp prisoner to “let there be comradeship among you” (38) and that “it is the only way to survive” (39).  However, they do not take the advice.  Only a few of the men find comradeship, and it is usually with a relative who they were fortunate enough to have not lost. The only sense of true comradeship, if it can be called such, Elie has is with his father.  Elie’s only motivation to live becomes to not be separated from his father.  When Elie thinks his father has frozen to death he decides there is “no more reason to live, no more reason to struggle” (93).  Because Elie feels no comradeship with the rest of his fellow prisoners, he finds it more difficult to not want to fight solely for his own survival.  What stops the prisoners in the concentration camp from forming a sense of comradeship is that they are each more concerned with their own survival than that of their fellow prisoners.  J. Glenn Gray explains in The Warriors that “it is the absence of a common will, the failing assurance that others will act in concert with you against the conquerors” (Gray 42) which causes the absence of comradeship.  The prisoners in the concentration camp cannot become comrades because they cannot trust that their fellow prisoners will defend one another when attacked by the Nazis.  Just as Night shows that the absence of comradeship makes Elie’s decision more difficult, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front demonstrates how the bonds of comradeship make Paul Baumer’s decision to dedicate himself to his comrades easier.  Paul’s relationship with his fellow soldiers is so strong that when his closest comrades die he loses his will not only to fight but to live.  Because Paul has such an intense relationship with his comrades, he instinctively fights for his comrades instead of himself.  Though Elie’s love for his father is strong, he still finds it difficult to ignore his yearning to fight for his own survival. 

            The natural tendency to protect his own life greatly affects a soldier’s actions.  One of Elie’s greatest fears is that he will succumb to this desire to protect himself, even if that means losing his father.  At one point in the novel, Elie and the other prisoners are forced to run in the snow all night to another concentration camp.  If anyone stops or begins to go to slow they are shot and killed.  Elie sees Rabbi Eliahou’s son separate himself from his father and is horrified by the incident.  He describes that he believes the boy “had felt that his father was growing weak, he had believed that the end was near and had sought this separation in order to get rid of the burden, to free himself from an encumbrance which could lessen his own chances of survival” (Wiesel 87).  The reason Elie is able to describe the Rabbi’s son’s point of view so acurately is because he is familiar with that yearning to abandon responsibility to others, especially his father, and fight for his own survival.  When a Nazi attacks Elie’s father, he becomes angry not at his father’s attacker but his father for not knowing how to avoid the man’s rage.  Elie describes that “this is what concentration camp life had made of me” (52).  Elie’s reaction is natural for anyone who is in as dangerous a situation as a concentration camp.  It is human nature to want to protect one’s life above all else and to attack those who threaten it.  This natural tendency makes Elie’s effort to not be consumed by selfish desires even more difficult.  Henry Fleming in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage is conflicted in the same way.  While fighting on the front lines Henry discovers he cannot resist this natural inclination to protect himself and as a result abandons his regiment.  Henry looks to nature for a justification of his seemingly cowardly actions.  After he throws a pinecone at a squirrel and sees that the squirrel instantly runs away, he determines nature has “reinforced his argument with proofs that lived where the sun shone” (Crane 36).  Though everyday life and nature demonstrate that it is human and animal instinct to want to preserve one’s life, this justification does not fully persuade one to that it is right. 

            In order for a man to fight for his own survival or even pursue his own interests, he must make grave sacrifices.  These sacrifices again complicate his choice of whether or not to fight for himself.  Elie sees how much other prisoners are willing to give up for their own survival on numerous occasions.  In one incident, Elie sees a son kill his father for a small piece of bread and the murder of the son, Meir, by other men a few moments later.  Elie realizes that familial ties are not always strong enough to trump that natural instinct to survive. He is especially scarred because Meir was not only willing to let his father die like Rabbi Eliahou’s son but was willing to commit the murder himself. Unlike Rabbi Eliahou’s son, Elie cannot explain Meir’s point of view because he is so horrified by his actions.  Elie determines he is not willing to sacrifice his father’s life even if it means bettering his chances of survival. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Hamlet is so consumed by his desire to avenge his father’s death that he is willing to do anything to achieve this goal.  Hamlet allows his long time friends Rosencratz and Guildenstern to be sent to England to be killed, he attacks his own mother, and kills his true love’s father.  Though he does not seem to be greatly affected by these actions initially as he faces death, he realizes that pursuing his own goals was not worth the sacrifices he made.  When he tells Horatio he “cannot live to hear the news from England” (V. ii 391), his regret of his actions is revealed. Ernest Hemingway believed that because there is no life after death the “code hero” avoids death as long as possible.  In his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist and code hero Robert Jordan is willing to avoid death even if it means losing a comrade.  When his fellow guerilla soldier El Sordo’s camp is attacked, Robert Jordan refuses to aid him because he believes “it would be useless” (Hemingway 297) and that death will come to him soon enough.  Robert Jordan so greatly values his own life that he is willing to sacrifice El Sordo and his camp if it means having more time on earth.  The more dire a man’s circumstance, the more willing he will be to make greater sacrifices, even if that means losing the people he respects and loves.  Because Elie’s circumstances are as desperate as one can get, it is even more difficult for him to stay loyal to his father. 

            Elie’s initial response to the above quotation is that it is good advice.  However, he immediately feels ashamed of thinking this way and is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt.  At the conclusion of the novel, Elie feels that he has failed his father in some way which is the possibly the reason he has written the novel.  Just as many men before him and after him have felt, Elie Wiesel feels he must write his story as a form of penance.  Though there are many different reasons why a soldier may feel ashamed after war, one which is common is because he began, or thinks he began, to value his own survival over the cause or the well-being of his comrades.  Even at the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, as Robert Jordan faces death he forces his comrades to leave him to die so that they may live.  It is right and just to sacrifice oneself for others because without others life is insignificant.  Just as John Donne explained in “Mediation 17” “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  Without fellow humans, humans are nothing.  When the world begins to see the importance of others, even if they are believed to be the enemy, the world moves closer to peace.  


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Everything was regulated by the bell. It gave me orders, and I automatically obeyed them. I hated it. (69)

The above passage from Elie Wiesel’s Night demonstrates the perspective that he and his fellow prisoners had to possess in order have any chance at surviving the Nazi concentration camps. The young Wiesel had to separate his thoughts and feelings from his actions at all times, knowing the punishment for any stray step would in all likelihood be death. Being a Romanian Jew in a world dominated by German Aryans, his two choices were obey all orders without complaint, or die. To utilize the cliché, the situation was what is was-the world was at war, the Nazis goal was to exterminate all Jews, and his town had been placed in a concentration camp- and there was nothing a fifteen-year old boy, or any of the imprisoned pacifist Jews for that matter, could do about it except try to stay alive at all costs. Because of the written account Elie Wiesel has left behind in Night, we are able to at least get a glimpse at the discrepancy between what went on internally for the skeletal, under-clothed, malnourished Jews and what they did under the watchful eye of Hitler’s army.

Elie Wiesel witnessed unimaginable atrocities, worked slave-like labor, and survived on nothing but bread and the occasional cup of soup for over a year, yet he did everything without expressing any dissatisfaction because he knew that if he were overheard he would be shot, hung, or burned in a crematory. Such was the life of an imprisoned Jewish person during the Holocaust. Such was the discipline required to survive or, at the very least, die of starvation in lieu of execution. Elie Wiesel was not simply “baptized by fire;” Elie Wiesel’s teenage life defined words like honor, discipline, and courage which the average civilian uses as a dramatic punch line. Yet all the while he knew who he was, and he somehow kept it buried inside of him. Regarding a terrifying scene he witnessed on a train from one death camp to another, Elie writes, “His son searched him, took the bread, and began to devour it…Two men had seen and hurled themselves upon him…When they withdrew, next to me were two corpses, side by side, the father and the son. I was fifteen years old” (96). Instead of going to school, at fifteen Elie Wiesel was teaching himself to fend for both himself and his father in the face of a group who felt that he was ethnically unfit to live, because of his religion. Not to mention the great possibility that even by keeping his mouth shut, working until the bell told him to stop, and marching over 40 miles on a surgically-repaired, but not yet healed, foot, there was no guarantee of survival. Wiesel’s father fought through the same struggles Elie did with the same tight-lipped persona, yet he died a brutal death caused by dysentery. Somehow, Elie Wiesel did not complain. He did not cry. He did not break.

In the alternate reality of a war against his own death, Wiesel used discipline as a means of fighting for a greater cause: living to tell the story. In a very similar fashion, other characters from literary works set in war have separated any negative feelings from their outward actions in order to continue to progress amongst their fellow soldiers for the sake of a cause. In Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel All Quiet on the Western Front, the main group of soldiers is having a conversation about how the war started and why they are fighting in the war. The young German soldiers are blaming their government and beginning to complain that they should not be in the trenches at all when Albert Kropp states, “The best thing is not to talk about the rotten business.” Then seeing an opportunity to reestablish order within the squad, the company leader, Kat, agrees with Kropp by saying, “It won’t make any difference, that’s sure” (207). Both men, Kropp and Kat, are by no means happy to be fighting in the trenches. As a matter of fact, both have actively participated in the conversation. However, by recognizing that by doing what they are told without complaint and focusing on the greater task at hand outside of themselves, these two soldiers know that they will have a better chance of success and survival. Arguing about issues completely out of their control accomplishes nothing for these dime-a-dozen soldiers, just as complaining about a lack of food or clothing would not have helped Elie Wiesel in his struggle to survive.

In Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the same challenge arises. Standing in the freezing cold in a snow downpour, not even fully aware of the purpose of his duty in relation to helping the greater cause of his guerilla brigade, Anselmo, the old, trustworthy companion of the story’s protagonist, Robert Jordan, contemplates leaving his watch post early and heading back to camp, knowing that the enemy will not make any major moves because of the weather. After much consideration, the old Spanish warrior decides to stick it out until the very end. He has faith in his cause and in his comrades, so he will carry out all orders given to him by Jordan without argument. Anselmo thinks to himself, “The Inglés told me to stay. Even now he may be on the way here and, if I leave this place, he may lose himself in the snow searching for me. All through this war we have suffered from a lack of discipline and from the disobeying of orders and I will wait a while still for the Inglés” (192). Clearly, he acknowledges that to obey orders without complaint or hesitation is the only way to further the cause of his comrades. Thus, like Elie Wiesel in the Nazi concentration camps, Anselmo keeps all thoughts of disobeying internal.

Even still, Anselmo dies in combat, further proving the concept that there are no guarantees of living through a war even if one obeys all orders given. Elie’s father dies two months before the evacuation despite fighting the same noble fight Elie does. Therefore, Elie not only has to do everything the camp guards and the bells tell him to do but also has to live with the ever present notion that there is no guarantee of making it out alive. He might live he might die of starvation or exhaustion the day before the camp is evacuated, or the camp may not be evacuated for years. He knows anything is possible for he has witnessed every horror imaginable. Still, the fifteen-year old Romanian Jew keeps his mouth shut and his head straight, and on April 11, 1945 Elie Wiesel walked out of Buchenwald alive: skeletal but free.