Lent for me evokes the memory of a semi-darkened church on the upper west side of Manhattan. During a Good Friday evening service there 30 years ago, a young man rose from a nearby pew and read a passage from Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958)—an autobiographical account of his experience as a teenage boy in the Nazi death camps.
What was read aloud struck me so forcefully that I made it a point to visit a bookstore near Columbia University to buy a paperback copy of this slender work. It is one of the few books to have remained with me down to the present—a powerful account of the power of evil and of one person’s escape from its grip after his father, mother and sister had perished within its grasp. That same teenager went on to become as an adult the pre-eminent spokesperson for victims of the Holocaust and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate—the author of numerous books, of which Night was the first. For many, Night remains the most powerful, because it recounts his own lived experience during a time of massive destruction. Such a time now faces much of the world again.
What was the passage I heard that cold spring evening, whose impact has never left me? It was Wiesel’s description of the hanging of a child, which he and hundreds of other concentration camp prisoners were forced to witness. The child had been assigned as a helper to a Dutchman who, though a prisoner himself, as a kapo was in charge of other prisoners. Unlike most in that category, he showed kindness to those obliged to carry out his orders. But after he was caught with weapons, he was sent to his death at another camp. The child, however—left behind at the Buna camp, where Wiesel was being held with his father—was condemned to be hanged, along with two adults who had also been found with arms. Though tortured, the child would reveal nothing.
Returning from his forced labor at sunset one day, Wiesel sees “three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, with S.S. guards all around, their machine guns readied.” The three, in chains, are moved forward. He describes the child as a “sad-eyed angel.” Refusing to act as the child’s executioner, the chief kapo had to be replaced by guards, who themselves seemed disturbed. Even for them, Wiesel writes, it was no light thing to execute a child. All kept their eyes on the child, who was “lividly pale.... The gallows threw its shadow over him.”
The three mount chairs, and their heads are placed in nooses. Then the chairs are tipped over, and all the other prisoners are made to march past to watch them die. “Long live liberty!” the two adults shout. The adults die quickly, pulled down and strangled by the weight of their bodies. But “being so light, the child was still alive...struggling between life and death, dying slowly under our eyes.... His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet glazed.”
Behind him, Wiesel heard a man ask, “Where is God now?” And within himself, he hears his own reply: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”
Such a scene might indeed lead one to believe that, with the hanging of a child, God had died. But for all its horror, the image can also be seen as confirmation that the Passion of Jesus continues to be re-enacted in our own time, among vulnerable and exploited children and adults subjected to equally cruel forms of suffering—whether street children murdered by police in Latin American cities or ill, starving men and women from whom abundant food and medical supplies are withheld, or refugees who are increasingly being denied entry into the wealthy countries that could provide them with safety.
The sad-eyed child on the gallows can thus serve as a dominant Lenten image both of the evil threaded throughout the world and the struggle to see beyond it to a God who, as Isaiah promises (Is 43:2), walks at the side of those who pass through the flames. With war in the Middle East under way, many more may soon be passing through flames in the very region of the world that saw the birth of the Prince of Peace.