Sunday, July 28th, 2013
By Carolyn Yeager
Copyright 2013 Carolyn Yeager
(last edited on 7-30-13)
“How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Introduction: In Elie Wiesel’s book Night, we find the scenario and characters changing often, and in many cases, with little rhyme or reason that is apparent to the reader. One easily concludes that, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it is a work of absurdity.
In Lewis Carroll’s classic, nothing makes sense because nothing has to make sense – the intention was to be a “childish” type of foolishness or make-believe from the start. It is an example of literary nonsense (1) genre. Interestingly, we find similar examples of nonsense and absurdity in many of the stories and writings of self-proclaimed “holocaust survivors” – and we put Elie Wiesel into this category. This is why Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is such a good fit for a parody of Elie Wiesel’s Night.
Cast of Characters:
Elie = Elie Wiesel
White Rabbit = Ken Waltzer
Father = no such person has been found
The King and Queen of Hearts = SS-Totenkopfverbände (SS-TV)
The Duchess = Hilda Wiesel
The Cheshire Cat = Carolyn Yeager
The March Hare = Antonin Kalina, Czech communist block leader
The (Mad) Hatter = Gustav Schiller, Polish Jew block leader
Elie is quite bored one warm afternoon at the Jewish orphan’s mansion in France where he lives. This is not unusual for Elie, who has absolutely nothing to do all day but play chess or study the Talmud or other holy texts of which he is known to be almost fanatically fond. Today, though, no one was around the chess table that had been set up outdoors under a large tree, and Elie becomes a bit dreamy, maybe even sleepy. He is suddenly brought wide awake again when he sees a White Rabbit run by, looking at its pocket watch and muttering “Oh dear, oh dear, I’m going to be late!”
Elie, having never heard a rabbit speak to itself before, let alone have a pocket watch, impulsively runs after the comical creature right into a large rabbit hole. He feels himself slowly falling a long distance before he comes to solid ground. When he does, an unrecognizable landscape of trees, shrubs and creatures such as he has never seen before greets his blinking eyes, and a feeling of being an innocent young girl in an enchanted garden comes over him.
Before he can wonder too much at this, he catches sight of the White Rabbit again and follows him until he is stopped by a barbed wire fence. Standing before it, just the thought of how he might squeeze through the wires to the other side as the rabbit did causes him to shrink to just the right size to step through. As he does—suddenly—he is in a closed railway car with many other people, Jews like himself.
Elie is so unhappy at this turn of events he begins to cry. He cries so much and so hard his tears flood the rail car, making all the others inside very angry, including his own late father whom now, however, seems to be very much alive. As the water made up of Elie’s tears rises closer to the top of the boxcar, the door opens and the inhabitants swim out with the rushing flood.
Appearing for all the world like a catch of wet fish flapping on the platform, the unfortunates find themselves being questioned by a large Caterpillar-looking officer seated on a high stool smoking a hookah. But not one of them is able to answer the officer’s questions as to the particulars of who they are.
“I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The Camp Buchenland
The hookah-smoking officer tires of their inability to name themselves and, pointing in a certain direction, tells them to march that way to a camp where they will get dry clothes. Once there, the group lines up in an open assembly area and is told they are in Buchenland, the kingdom of the Queen of Hearts who, in spite of her kindly-sounding name, gives orders that must be obeyed. Ordered to now go to the showers where they would also receive the promised new clothing, Elie and Father already fail to obey.
The entrance to the showers is crowded with pushing, shoving people. Father sits down on the ground outside, “I can’t go on anymore; I’ll wait here until we can go into the showers.” As the two lose themselves in an argument over the subject of impending death, the electric lights go out and a loudspeaker commands that all must now be in their assigned barracks.
In haste, Elie follows a crowd into a nearby barracks, where, still unshowered, he falls to the floor and sinks into a dreamless sleep. It is only in the morning that he realizes he is alone; he must have lost his father in the rush to the barracks, and then forgotten about him! Going in search, he wanders about the camp for hours, unmolested by any officers or guards of the Kingdom. Happening upon a place where coffee is being distributed, he gets in line for a cup and magically hears the voice of his father calling to him.
From then on, for the next 7 days (as well as days can be counted in Buchenland), Elie keeps coming back to his father, looking after him in a rather haphazard fashion. Father is not well, not well at all, and Elie, “for a ration of bread,” is able to secure a cot next to his father in the barracks.(2) But a few days later, Elie is sleeping on the upper bunk, above his father, because of his (Elie’s) bandaged foot.(3)
The time comes that Father passes his last breath in his bunk during the middle of the night. According to Elie’s reckoning, it is February 8th-9th, 1945. But elsewhere, Elie states his father died on the night of January 28-29, and again on the 18-19 of Shevat, 5705, which corresponds to February 1st.(4) Elie is both secretly relieved and personally devastated over the loss of Father and blames it on the cruelty of the officials of the Kingdom of Buchenland, calling it murder.
The Queen of Hearts learns about young Elie’s defamations against her health care system, and at the same time the multiple death dates he asserts for his father, and proclaims with great indignation that this cannot be allowed in her Kingdom. The King agrees and they summon the culprit to their presence. After listening to Elie’s disconnected narrative of how he came to be in Buchenland and how he lost his father, she loses patience with the constantly changing versions of his story and shouts “Off with his head!”
Elie is put on trial
Elie is taken to court to be tried for the offense of butchering his father’s date of death. The King and Queen are seated on the high bench. Elie is formally charged with reckless endangerment of the facts of his father’s death. To everyone’s surprise, The Duchess arrives at the court, accompanied by her cat, and asks to testify for the accused. She is granted her request and takes the stand.
You know, [father and son] did a long march from Auschwitz, then they put them on the train to go to Buchen[land]; [Father] died gasping for air. When he stepped off the train, he died gasping for air; at Buchen[land]. But [Elie] knew the date.(5)
The Queen frowns; she is impatient of such testimony that adds even another version of the death in question—what can The Duchess be up to anyway? Then the Duchess’ Cheshire Cat begins to speak, saying the entire court is out of order because the father of the defendant is not the same as the 44-year old man who actually died and is listed in the Buchenland death records; therefore the date that Elie’s father died is irrelevant. Angered to hear it said that her court is out of order, the Queen shouts “Off with his head!” pointing to the Cheshire Cat. As the Queen’s guards move toward the cat to seize him, he cleverly disappears his body, leaving only his head for the spectators to see. How then can his head be chopped off?
Realizing she has been outwitted by a cat, the Queen then turns to Elie and declares him “Guilty! Off with his head!” As Elie is being escorted to the place of execution, he and his guards meet up with the Cheshire Cat again, now sitting in a tree. The Cat advises them to go to the March Hare’s house instead, warning, however, that the Hare is quite mad. “But then, everyone here is mad,” the Cheshire Cat adds with a grin, before he disappears altogether, leaving only his grin still floating in the air.
“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The Hatter’s Tea Party
The White Rabbit is again spotted running ahead as if leading them to the house of the March Hare, which turns out to be another barracks, this one called the “Children’s Block.” Inside, the Hare and his companion The Hatter (also mad—in fact “mad as a hatter”) engage the children in a continual tea party intended to take their minds off the dreariness of their surroundings.
Elie, feeling grateful (for a change) to still have his head on his shoulders, takes a place at the tea table. He is hoping for something good to eat, as he has now lost interest in everything around him except food. But while the Hare and the Hatter provide nothing in the way of food themselves, Elie still finds the tea party routine—one of constantly changing seats, asking unanswerable riddles and reciting nonsensical poetry— much to his liking.
The Hatter has red hair, carries a big stick and likes to boss the children around in his Polish Yiddish. The March Hare is actually of Czech origin and is known to be at his most mad during the month of March, which it happens to be at this very time. Thus do the days pass in the children’s block.
The overthrow of the Queen
However, when the month of April rolls round, the Queen of Hearts discovers that Elie has been hidden in the house of the March Hare and commands the whole place be evacuated. Every day, for several days, Elie is marched to the camp gate with the other children—rumor has it either to be taken away and disposed of or to be given bread and marmalade outside the gate—but every day he is stopped right before the gate and returned to the March Hare’s house. No marmalade and no explanation given.
On the 11th, the enemies of the Queen from outside Buchenland arrive in such great numbers that all the King and Queen’s guards are forced to flee, leaving Buchenland in the hands of the Mad Hatters and the March Hares. In their celebratory mood, on the third day of what they term the “liberation,” they throw open the Queen’s royal pantries and a real party begins. Elie greedily gorges himself on whatever comes first to hand, causing a poisonous shock to his system. He falls unconscious, is taken to a hospital and doesn’t recover for two weeks.
Buchenland doesn’t even notice Elie’s absence. The new owners are busy taking photographs(6), writing publicity propaganda and giving tours of the place. Hunting down every last subject of the former Queen also occupies their attention. The non-descript intruder named Elie (not the only one so named!) is quickly forgotten.
But for this particular Elie, when he awoke again, it was like being reborn. The absurd world he had found himself in after following that White Rabbit down the rabbit hole existed no more; he was back at the mansion in France, unthreatened by any harm. It must have been a dream, he thought. But then, “I shall write about what I remember—now, before I forget. Even though it didn’t really happen, perhaps it could have happened. And since it’s there in my mind like a memory, that makes it real enough! Plus it’s a jolly good story.” So, going inside the mansion, he found paper and pencil and began writing of his amazing adventure in Buchenland, as he remembered it. And he called it Night.
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
1. Literary nonsense (or nonsense literature) is a broad categorization of literature that uses sensical and nonsensical elements to defy language conventions or logical reasoning.
Nonsense is distinct from fantasy, though there are sometimes resemblances between them. Everything follows logic within the rules of the fantasy world; the nonsense world, on the other hand, has no system of logic, although it may imply the existence of an inscrutable one, just beyond our grasp.
2. “For a ration of bread I was able to exchange cots to be next to my father.” Night, Marion Wiesel translation, 2006, p.108.
3. “The sick stayed in their bunks [during roll call]. My father and I thus stayed inside. He — because of his dysentery and I — because of my bandaged foot. Father was lying in the lowest bunk and I — in the uppermost.” Un di Velt hot geshvign, 1955, p.235.
The bandage refers to the foot operation the fictional Eliezer had before he left Monowitz on or about Jan. 15-16. Could he still be wearing the same bloody bandage he arrived with? Of course not—which means he received treatment that he doesn’t want to tell about.
There is no mention in Night that Wiesel’s foot was still bandaged after 7 days in Buchenwald, and that he could be considered “not fit” for even the ordinary routine. After the march on foot to Gleiwitz, from Auschwitz, Elie never again refers to his foot in Night.
5. From Hilda Wiesel’s testimony to the Shoah Foundation in 1995. According to the time line in Night, she is speaking of February 1, 1945. According to the official time line, it is Jan. 26, 1945. http://www.eliewieseltattoo.com/night-1-and-night-2%E2%80%94what-changes-were-made-and-why-part-two/
6. Including the Famous Buchenwald Liberation Photo, taken on April 16, 1945 in Barracks #56 while the fictional Eliezer was in the hospital recovering from his fictional food poisoning.