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What would you do under barbarous conditions?

What would you do under barbarous conditions?

Required reading

Who: Wybo Dondorp, ethicist

What: Night, by Edgar Hilsenrath

Target group: students of medicine and philosophy

“Imagine you were only able to read one book this year, you should read this book,” says ethicist Wybo Dondorp about Night by Edgar Hilsenrath. “It is a book about who we are as humans. It is about the struggle of basic existence.”

Night is set in the Ukraine during the Second World War. Large numbers of Romanian Jews are concentrated in a ghetto. “There are far too many of them for such a small space, resulting in a constant struggle, even for a place to sleep. It is an extremely disturbing book, which shows that civilisation is actually just a thin layer.”

The key question in the book is how one would react if one ended up in a terrifying situation. And how one would treat others. “Ranek, the main character, manages to stay on his feet by taking part in the struggle. He takes clothes from a person who is dying, because he knows that otherwise someone else would do it. Deborah, a woman he respects a lot, retains her humanity and compassion. It is a very impressive book, also because you see how even here an organisation is created. Some people emerge as leaders.”

For medical students, this book describes the most fundamental form of medical care. “Doctors in the ghetto are faced with extremely primitive dilemmas. For example, a doctor who is asked by a woman to help with an abortion. He agrees, but things go wrong and the woman dies.”

With six hundred pages, the book is quite voluminous. “But because it is so well written, you just keep reading. Although I do know of people who gave up reading because they found it too depressing.” Night received a lot of criticism from the Jewish community, when it was published in Germany in the nineteen-sixties. Hilsenrath, who lived in such a ghetto during the war, was accused of having turned the victims into offenders. “I can understand that reaction. He endlessly describes events such as Ranek stealing soup from a small child when the mother briefly turns her eyes the other way. He is so hungry that his conscience is blocked out. It is Deborah who reawakens his humanity.”

Dondorp doesn’t agree with the criticism. “It is not the fault of the people that they have been put in such a barbarous situation. They are still victims.”



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