Trauma That Outlives Time: A Transhistorical Analysis of Refugee Life in Elie Wiesel’s Night.

Subhamol  R. S
Dr. N.U. Lekshmi

The present paper “Trauma That Outlives Time: A Transhistorical Analysis of Refugee Life in Elie Wiesel’s Night” attempts to make an enquiry into the trauma and sufferings of refugee life. The memoir gives a detailed analysis of the real life experiences of the refugees of the Holocaust. Transhistorical Trauma is a major aspect of refugee literature especially in the Jewish Holocaust literature as the Jews were the victims of religious and racial discrimination. Transhistorism is a postmodern concept of analysing the historical documents based on varying interdisciplinary approaches. In Night, Elie Wiesel opens the eyes of the readers to the realities of the Jewish life by picturing the brutal genocide in the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. War and struggles make the pages of history ruthless and bloody. The paper focuses on how Transhistoricism is applicable to analyse refugee trauma that transcends the barriers of history.

Key words: Transhistorism, Refugee, Holocaust, Trauma, Anti-Semitism.

The term ‘history’ refers to the record of the actions or events of the past.  According to the famous historian, John Jacob Anderson,

History is a narration of events which have happened among mankind, including an account of the rise and fall of nations, as well as of other great changes which have affected the political and social condition of the human race.(3)

From the past to the modern period, historical analysis is useful to find out the  evidence and reason behind  a particular action or change. With a detailed analysis of the events recorded, historians will trace out the meaning of each and every action. It is the traditional way of analyzing the meanings of the past which has purely depended on the historical references and evidences. It is an evidence oriented study without utilizing the other branches of knowledge, like Philosophy, Ethics, Psychology, etc. Later the modern historians found out that such analysis would provide a limited meaning of events. So they introduced New Historicism, that connects history with literature as well as culture and tried to find out the hidden meanings of history, literature and culture through intellectual analysis and interpretation. It provided a parallel reading of history in contrast to the hierarchical reading followed by the traditional historians. It lacked the wholeness of the frame since it analysed history, literature and culture by dividing it into distinct epochs. 

Transhistorism and Transhistoricism are two distinct and sophisticated historical notions. These two concepts help to study history from different perspectives and strategies. Both of these advanced concepts in history are useful to understand, analyse and criticise the real truth in the historical records. As per advanced research in history, the ultimate truth of history does not lie only in the records or monuments. The truth of history is hidden in every nook and cranny of  human activity. These two concepts are very useful to identify and figure out the varying forms and truths of history, which lie in distinct fields of human life. In order to understand and  analyse the different aspects of historical truth, there should be  proper connectivity that can assure the interconnectedness of historical  elements. A continuous analysis is essential to determining the accuracy of facts. Both transhistorism and transhistoricism emphasise the notion of continuity to evaluate and  figure out the secrets of history. Transhistorism is identified as a philosophical concept that criticises the traditional understanding of history as a linear progression from past to present.  

Transhistoricism is a theoretical concept that evaluates history based on the idea of the association of discrete and isolated elements of history. It opposes the traditional approach of analysing history as fragmented records of individual nations or regions in isolation. It concentrates on the impact of events and developments in one part of the world on that of  another through the concepts of universality and commonality. It encourages the interdisciplinary approach of studies to get into the roots of events and epochs of history. It adopts a transhistorical perspective to gain deeper insights into the complexities of  human history so that it can provide a clear picture of the different historical processes  in different parts of the world that have contributed to shaping the world in its present form. Transhistoricism is an innovative concept that works on the amalgamation of the varying theories of literature, social and cultural studies like New Historicism, Archetypal criticism, Reception theories  etc. Based on the factual and practical analysis of history through different theoretical  perspectives  transhistoricism provides a revolutionary view of history. Unlike transhistorism, transhistoricism gives importance to the critical analysis of  history by using the historical elements of the past to criticise the present world. In the book, The Contemporary  Musicum  edited by  Simon Knee, the particular aspect of criticism in Transhistoricism is identified through the chapter “Transhistoricism: Using the Past to Critique the Present.” By Annette Loeseke. Transhistoricism is a holistic approach that emphasises the diachronic study of historical elements. Jacques A Bromberg, Assistant Professor of Classics, University of Pittsburgh,U. S.A. notes in his work  Global Classics as 

One of the benefits of Transhistoricism as a complement to diachrony is the reminder that alternative perodizations are possible. Transhistorical approaches seek out alternative temporalities that allow us to make connections between texts, objects, ideas, and events outside the linear flow of homogenous time. They contend that the sharp boundaries often drawn and uncritically accepted between historical periods are always fluid and at times wholly illusory. In recognizing various methods of accounting for time in writing history, we appreciate that historical events, texts and artifacts may be understood not only within local intervals but also parts of an imaged past and a future that is constantly being constructed and reconstructed. (53, Global Classics)

Nowadays, transhistoricism is widely used in social and political studies. It has become an essential part of  socio-political theory to analyse history. It helps to understand and evaluate varying political situations through a comparative analysis of socio-political events in distinct parts of the world at different epochs. The role of transhistoricism in analysing the life of refugees is significant, as it carries the concepts of holism and universality. Historical analysis, which goes beyond the limits of ages, classes, castes, nations, religions, societies and politics, is the right path to discover the origin of refugee life and its problems. Refugees are the victims of forced migration caused by war, genocide, political or religious rivalries, and natural disasters. The principal international definition of the term refugee is put forward by the 1954 UN Convention.

A refugee is any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for the reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country. (2)

The refugees have to escape from their native land by leaving their homes, relatives, friends, culture, language and their own identities. They have to leave their own past identities, which had an in-depth or deeply rooted bond with the older generations. They are the victims of stress, fear, oppression, agony and hysteria. Refugees are formed out of distinct socio political situations in different parts of the world. Most of the crucial refugee movements recorded in history were the result of religious or racial intolerance. Socio-political instabilities like wars, conflicts, genocide, revolutions, discriminations, etc. in a nation contributed immensely to Refugee movements. So in order to analyse the life, culture, sufferings and trauma of refugee life, the transhistorical approach is the most suitable one, since it can trace out the meaning of history in a practical way without complete dependence on the historical contexts. It helps to solve the problems of the present in accordance with the past. Through the transhistorical approach, the causes of transformations and the transcendental truth of behavioural revolutions can easily be found out. The term refugee was first introduced in the sixteenth century to talk about the French protestants against Catholic persecution. Later, the term refugee gained wider acceptance and a new genre of literature developed to focus on the experiences, struggles, journeys and  miseries of refugees. Refugee literature has always tried to limelight the challenges faced by individuals or groups, that are the victims of forced migration due to religious and ethnic persecution, genocide, conflict, war, environmental disasters, economic hardships, famine, political instability, etc. 

Holocaust literature , which started in the form of diary entries during the Second World War in Germany, also focused on the struggles and miseries of the Jewish Holocaust victims. Most of the Jewish writers of the Holocaust at first focused on the sufferings of their forced migration to the ghettos in Germany. The life of Jews in Germany under the autocratic rule of  Nazi ruler Hitler was so miserable and pathetic that around five million Jews became homeless and they were forced to migrate to other nations to save their lives. It was during the Second World War that the world witnessed the most massive wave of refugee migration. The terrific Jewish community rushed all over the world in hysteria and madness to save their lives. Around 85,000 Jewish refugees fled to the United States, over 60,000 migrated to Palestine, over 30,000 to Switzerland; and thousands of others fled to the various regions of the world due to the Nazi genocide and Holocaust. The migration of the Jews was not that easy for them and most of them were brutally killed and burned alive in the Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. The Jewish  massacre was the result of religious and racial discrimination. The antisemitic movement was the reason for such discrimination. Antisemitism is defined as a prejudice against or hostility towards the Jews. Antisemitism is the result of Judeophobia. There were many reasons explained in history for the fear of Jews. Religious prejudice, economic and social jealousy, scapegoating, ethnocentrism and political exploitation are  some of the reasons  marked in history for the hostility towards the Jews.  Antisemitism reached  its peak in Germany during the reign of Hitler. Due to his extreme nationalist spirit, racism and prejudiced notions he ordered the massacre of the Jews. He wanted to exterminate the entire Jewish community from his land  which resulted in the Holocaust in Germany. The Holocaust refers to the complete burnt sacrifice to God. It is a quintessential term to depict the real life stories of the Jewish community in the concentration camps.  These entire religious groups in Germany were the victims of the Anti-Semitic notions of the Nazi world. The tyrannical laws of the most notorious ruler, Adolf Hitler and his misconceptions were absolutely a burning furnace for these people to sacrifice their lives for the survival of their God. The term Holocaust thus became an impeccable one in the life history of each Jew who remained hardly alive under the autocratic rule of Nazi German Politics.  Like refugee literature, most of the Holocaust writers also focused on the important ideas of displacement and loss, resilience and survival, identity and belonging, human rights and social injustice, and memory and trauma to reveal the real experiences of the victims. 

Elie Wiesel, the famous Romanian-American writer, is a real victim of the Holocaust. Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor of Buchenwald, is a distinguished writer and a renounced spokesperson of humanity. His writings are focused on the theme of Holocaust survival. He is a great human being who fought for world peace and justice for the victims of  the Holocaust.  His experiences at Buchenwald and Auschwitz concentration camps shattered his life and transcended him into a traumatic state. He became an orphan and wandered for solace and shelter. He uses his works as powerful tools to speak against the injustices of the society in which he lived. He was a good scholar and a great writer who authored around fifty seven novels and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. He was praised as a messenger to mankind by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. He is one of the founding members of the New York Human Rights Foundation. He became a renounced writer all over the world after the publication of his famous autobiographical work The Night Trilogy. He is a great lover of humanity, so he stood for the upliftment of all the suppressed minorities in the world.  

Elie Wiesel wrote his magnum opus, The Night Trilogy as a memoir to talk about the sufferings of the Jews in Nazi Germany. The book is divided into three parts and published as Night (1956), Dawn (1961), and Day (1961). He presents the memoirs in the form of interior monologues to explain his own experiences in life. The titles of the memoirs were chosen in accordance with the themes they carry. All three memoirs carry different versions of the trauma of refugee life. The first one in the series is Night, which discusses the pathetic lives of Eliezer and his family, along with other Jews, in the burning furnaces of the Nazi concentration camps. Dawn, the second book in the trilogy, talks about the life of Elisha, the holocaust refugee in the British Mandate of Palestine and other orphans, and Day the third book, describes the life of a Holocaust survivor, Eliezer.Through his novels, Elie Wiesel identifies the trauma of the Holocaust survivors and focuses on the mental disorder, the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He makes a transhistorical analysis of the Holocaust and trauma in his novels. In the Night Trilogy, he recollects the facts of his own past to question and criticise the indifference of the present world. According to him, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” (n.p.)

In The Night Trilogy, Elie Wiesel incorporates the elements of collective memory and trauma to reveal the transhistorical notions. The features of Transhistoricism and refugee literature in The Night Trilogy make the memoir a grand narrative, portraying the real picture of  Jewish life during the Second World War in Germany. The Jews in Germany during the war periods were brutally tortured because of the antisemitic myth, stab –in- the- back. The memoir explains the trauma of separation and the fear of the Holocaust.

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded: “Men to the left! Women to the right!” Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. (29, Night)

Elie Wiesel presents his life as a symbolic representation to illustrate the trauma of the entire Holocaust generation. Like him, all the children of the Holocaust carry the trauma of war, execution and separation throughout their lives. All these fears and traumas transfer from generation to generation in the form of sadness, hysteria, depression and post traumatic stress disorders. In Night, the author describes each and every aspect of the realities that he  experienced in the concentration camp with his father. The memoir paints a pathetic picture of the Holocaust victims in Auschwitz.

“Sons of bitches, why have you come here? Tell me, why?” Someone dared to reply: “What do you think? That we came here of our own free will? That we asked to come here?” The other seemed ready to kill him: “Shut up, you moron, or I’ll tear you to pieces! You should have hanged yourselves rather than come here. Didn’t you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn’t know? In 1944?” True. We didn’t know. Nobody had told us. He couldn’t believe his ears. His tone became even harsher: “Over there. Do you see the chimney over there? Do you see it? And the flames, do you see them?” (Yes, we saw the flames.) “Over there, that’s where they will take you. Over there will be your grave. You still don’t understand? You sons of bitches. Don’t you understand anything? You will be burned! Burned to a cinder! Turned into ashes!” (30-31, Night)

 He uses the memoir to criticise the attitude of the Nazi dictatorship and mock  the conspiracy theory of Holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is an antisemitic conspiracy theory that tries to establish the notion that the Holocaust in Nazi Germany was a fabricated story. The authorities of the Nazi dictatorship purposefully tried to spread this ideology to escape the criticism of the outside world. The Nazi rulers would like to cover their criminal hands with clean sheets by establishing the norm that the Holocaust was only a hoax perpetrated by the Jews. Elie Wiesel Fights against these kinds of insincere and deceptive theories that put the truth of history under question  for the future generation. He criticises and fights against the fabricated historical records through his works by incorporating the elements of ultimate truth and collective trauma, which he himself experienced along with his community members in Auschwitz  and Buchenwald. Thus, he is using his own past to criticise and correct the hypocritical world. The preface of the memoir, Night, by Elie Wiesel  best explains the critical concepts in his wounded mind.

And now, scarcely ten years after Buchenwald, I realize that the world forgets quickly. Today, Germany is a sovereign state. The German Army has been resuscitated. Use Koch, the notorious sadistic monster of Buchenwald, was allowed to have children and live happily ever after…War criminals stroll through the streets of Hamburg and Munich. The past seems to have been erased, relegated to oblivion. Today, there are anti-Semites in Germany, France, and even the United States who tell the world that the “story” of six million assassinated Jews is nothing but a hoax, and many people, not knowing any better, may well believe them, if not today then tomorrow or the day after…(15, Night) 

The memoir Night became a world famous one and had been translated into more than thirty languages.  Elie Wiesel, in Night presents a vivid picture of the incessant trauma of the refugees. He portrays the life of a community in utter chaos. The people in the malicious ghettos  and concentration camps in Germany lost their faith in their religion and they didn’t have any hope for their future. They were even in a confused state to question the identity of their God, the ultimate Saviour.

Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar? (67, Night) 

 Through the memoir Night, Elie Wiesel, tries to fight against the discriminations of the world. He finds out that the discrimination against the Jews was not only based on religious or racial segregation but also on social, political and economic exploitation. He also points out in the preface that the segregation of the Jews was not only in Germany but also visible in every part of European culture. The experiences of his life in the concentration camp help him analyse the brutal deeds of the Nazi government and through that, he criticises the hypocrites attitude. 

“For today, thanks to recently discovered documents, the evidence shows that in the early days of their accession to power, the Nazis in Germany set out to build a society in which there simply would be no room for Jews. Toward the end of their reign, their goal changed: they decided to leave behind a world in ruins in which Jews would seem never to have existed. That is why everywhere in Russia, in the Ukraine, and in Lithuania, the Einsatzgruppen carried out the Final Solution by turning their machine guns on more than a million Jews, men, women, and children, and throwing them into huge mass graves, dug just moments before by the victims themselves. Special units would then disinter the corpses and burn them. Thus, for the first time in history, Jews were not only killed twice but denied burial in a cemetery.”(preface, Night)

As a memoir, Night discusses the epochs of history along with the socio-political discriminations, religious and racial prejudices, and human rights violations, so a transhistorical analysis is apt to apprehend the real picture of the traumatic history of Jewish refugees. Transhistorism connects Jewish refugee life with the wholeness of history so that it can achieve the real frame of Jewish struggles beyond the barriers of history. Refugee life and trauma cannot be restricted by any barriers of time, space, or matter. It will transcend generations through various mechanisms like family dynamics, cultural norms, and parenting behaviours. The struggles of refugee lives continue through generations as cultural memory and collective trauma by outling time and space. All these struggles of Holocaust and refugee life could implant the seeds of collective trauma in the confused and stressed minds of the upcoming generations of the community, so the future generations of these refugee communities could also become carriers of psychic disorders. The unresolved traumatic fears in the minds of victims can lead to cycles of violence, conflicts, and social unrest that endure for generations.


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Subhamol R S
Full Time Research Scholar
Register No: 21213184012005
Department of English
Sree Ayyappa College for Women Chunkankadai
(Affiliated To Manonmaniam Sundarnar University
Abhishekapetti, Thirunelveli 627012)
Tamilnadu, India
Ph: +91 8848984491
ORCID: 0000-0009-8146-1201 
Dr. N.U. Lekshmi
Associate Professor and Research Guide
Department of English and Research Centre
Sree Ayyappa College for Women
(Affiliated to Manonmaniam Sundaranar University
Abhishekapetti, Thirunelveli, 627012)
Tamil Nadu, India
Ph: +91 9895443553
ORCID: 0009-0007-4455-4610