The New York Times calls it
“a slim volume of terrifying power.”
I can’t shake the images. Several portraits are burned onto the retina of my soul – and I really don’t want them removed. Something told me not to read this book – and something told me I had to.
In the morning I began reading the Bible from scratch in The Voice translation. I was intrigued by its style and arrangement, the artistic touches, the imagination in its renderings. As often as I’ve read Genesis 1 over the past forty years, it’s an achievement if a translation can make me smile with delight as I encounter the story again.
One line in particular popped – in a verse that had never popped for me. The traditional (aka rather plain) rendering is: “God made two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, the lesser light to rule the night,
and also stars.”
And also stars.
Almost like a hurried afterthought.
The Voice embellished with a bit of an imaginative twist: “And then he needled the night with stars.”
I sat enraptured for a moment at the thought. I was perched on my patio, but with blue skies above,
so I had to imagine the night with it’s needling stars.
And then I picked up Night and read.
I no longer had to imagine – at least not the night.
One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains – and among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the Lageralteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!”
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is he? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
That night, the soup tasted of corpses.
And I wept.
Books don’t make me weep, usually. Perhaps because much of my reading is theological in nature and there’s a glorious emotional detachment in such abstractions. Which is, I suppose, how theologians could crucify a Christ, perpetuate slavery, or turn their back on a holocaust.
But I wept.
I wept at the conjunction of Night and the needling stars, so absent that long, obscene starless night.
Too much night.
Abba, we need more needling stars.