Antisemitism · holocaust

Short comparison between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Jankiel Wiernik’s A Year in Treblinka

Note this is just a quick comparison between the two that stuck out to me.  I might do a more in depth one on both. 

As Moishe is warning a 12 year old Eliezer (Elie Wiesel) in the Sighet ghetto about Jewish deaths by German hands in 1942 in “Night”, Jankiel Wiernik is already being taken to Treblinka  in “A Year in Treblinka”. These differences are very important in the way they tell their story and the difference of their experiences. Wiernik was over 50 years old and was an experienced carpenter which made him useful to the Ukrainians and Germans. This is largely what kept him alive in the death camp. Wiesel went to five different concentration camps and had to undergo torture and forced labor, but unlike all these concentration camps Treblinka had the primary function of killing anyone who entered (including a German woman and her children who had accidental been put on the trains). Wiesel (Elie) and his father had the luck of being chosen for labor upon arriving to Auschwits because a fellow inmate warned to conceal their real age. It is Elie’s youth that makes the story much more emotionally fueled, and constantly changing. His reactions to things are more crushing because it’s his innocence that is being eroded. It is Wiernik’s experience as a carpenter that ultimately makes his story much more detailed. He goes over measurements and capacity of chambers, towers, and how the two camps work. At first I was annoyed by what I found to be arbitrary and pointless numbers and details, but I realized my own father (who worked in HVAC for more than 15 years), was the same way. Experienced carpenters, or handymen in general tend to have the ability of eyeballing measurements like this. It is ultimately these difference that make their survival stories so different. While both men survived due to luck, Wiernik also survived due to his knowledge. This can be seen as he is being pursued by a Ukrainian guard from Treblinka Penal Camp. He just so happened to know a little something about firearms and knew that he could attack him with his ax because his pistol was jammed.  If Elie were in the same position he wouldn’t have known, fear would have gotten the best of him and he would have probably adhered to his orders.

His age also plays a factor in his storytelling. Unlike Wiesel, his faith is much more firm. Wiesel was 12 years old at the beginning of his memoir and grew up during the Holocaust where he finds himself questioning his faith and God. Wiesel answered a man asking where the presence of God is with “Where is He? Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows” (“Night”, pg. 62). This was while witnessing the death of a young boy who was caught conspiring against the Nazis in Buna.  Wiernik sees things through his faith, but his storytelling is more cynical and guilt ridden. Wiesel escapes with eventual renewed faith in God and hope for mankind, but Wiernik seems to have experienced so many horrors that he experiences PTSD throughout his writings. He even introduces his story as a guilty man, blaming himself for the death of his brethren even stating “I built their death chambers for them” (“A year in Treblinka”, Chap. 1). But did he have choice? His age and the way in which he survived makes him take a much heavier burden of responsibility to the point where he is guilty of having made it out alive. Although all Holocaust survivors including Wiesel must have experienced this, Wiernik’s feelings of guilt are a lot more consuming and poignant in his writings.

Treblinka escapes all imagination. I made the mistake of reading “Night” first which had moments of tenderness or what I call “breaks” from the cruelty. The only “breaks” I could find in “A Year in Treblinka” was in his descriptions of work, eating moldy bread, and his eventual escape. The inhumanity never ended from the very beginning. There were thousands killed through the gas chambers that he saw and whose cries he heard day and night. There were 10,000 to 20,000 bodies’ cremated at one time. He watched pregnant women’s bellies burst open, and watched the guards grab babies by their feet and slam them against walls. He watched as Jewish women were raped and then sent to the gas chamber, and even goes into grave detail over which bodies’ burn best. The entirety of the experience reading his account of his time there was very grave.

*Elie Wiesel tragically passed away recently. I wanna do a small bio in his memory in a later post. 

“A Year in Treblinka” can be found using this link http://www.zchor.org/treblink/wiernik.htm

“Night” pdf can be found here: http://www.hhs.rogersschools.net/common/pages/DisplayFile.aspx?itemId=5533694

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