Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night is based on his experiences in the German concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald during the Second World War. Having grown up an Orthodox Jew in the Hungarian village of Sighet, Wiesel and his family was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 where his mother and youngest sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers. While both his older sisters survived, his father, with whom Wiesel had fought to survive the labor camps, died shortly before the war ended. Night tells the horror stories of the Holocaust through the eyes of the fifteen-year old Wiesel who recounts the loss of his innocence, his faith in God, his sense of time and his sense of self. Night describes how the Nazis dehumanized the Jews at every stage through the war years. And in the process, they lost their own sense of humanity.
Dehumanization usually involves members of one group asserting the inferiority of another group through acts or words. But during the Holocaust, the Nazis did not stop at simply asserting their own superiority over the Jews; they stripped them of their sense of self and individuality and reduced them to the numbers they had tattooed on their arms. The theme of inhumanity is omnipresent in every story and every memory recounted in the memoir. Night makes you question the power of humanity. It makes you wonder how ordinary human beings could bring themselves to commit the kind of atrocities that we now deem unthinkable. But then again, people say that the most human thing of all is cruelty. And every family destroyed, every instance of torture and every life lost is testament to it.
It all began with the identification process. Having to wear the yellow star immediately set the Jews apart from everybody else. By being made constantly aware of a distinction, the Jews were made to feel different. Despite this, many Jews remained optimistic like Wiesel’s father who said “The yellow star? Oh well, what of it? You don’t die of it…” (Wiesel 22). And then came the new laws and decrees that did not allow Jews into restaurants or cafes or to travel freely. The ghettos were the most blatant form of segregation. What began with segregation and restrictions soon transformed into torture and mass murder.
When the Jews from Sighet were expelled, they were “crammed into cattle trains by the Hungarian police” (17). They were not treated like human beings, but like chickens that are transported from place to place in tiny cages. Over time, their living conditions and the brutality they were continuously subject to actually altered their personalities. Their circumstances evoked animalistic tendencies in most people. Especially in the concentration camps where life was so immediate- the only thing that mattered was survival. The only thing that mattered was getting through that day, preserving their tiny rations of bread and dreaming about a thicker soup than they had gotten for their previous meal.
There is one particular incident that is a striking illustration of the behavior of men who were reduced to animals, acting out of character, with provincial motivations. During one of their journeys in a crowded train carrier with no food or water, when they passed through villages, the locals would throw in loaves of bread to watch the hungry men fight over them. It made no difference, in that moment, that they were enduring severe physical pain; it made no difference with whom they were fighting. Wiesel watched on as a young man fought his own father for a small piece of bread. The only thing that mattered was survival. And ironically, the very same Darwinist theories that the Nazis used to substantiate their pseudo-biological justifications for the Holocaust held great significance in the lives of these semi-men.
Most people in the concentration camps entered fearful, fearing not only for their own lives, but also for the lives of the loved ones from whom they had been separated. They prayed to God, asking for the war to end soon. Many of them remained optimistic, at least initially. But as they became more conditioned to camp life, many people, like Wiesel were overcome with an “inhuman weariness” (45). Wiesel says that “We were incapable of thinking of anything at all. Our senses were blunted; everything was blurred as in a fog. It was no longer possible to grasp anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had all deserted us. In one ultimate moment of lucidity it seemed to me that we were damned souls wandering in the half-world, souls condemned to wander through space till the generations of man came to an end” (45). And it was this loss of self that broke many people’s spirits.
Camps like Auschwitz stole away people’s identities. They left no scope for any expressions of individualism. The SS took away all their belongings and left them with the pair of clothes on their backs and a bowl. In Wiesel’s words “There were no longer any questions of wealth, of social distinction, and importance, only people all condemned to the same fate” (32). People were not allowed the freedom of choice- they were all expected to follow orders without questioning them.
Dehumanization was a tactic that was intentionally used by the Nazis. They broke people’s spirits in addition to inflicting physical pain. They diminished them to machine-like existences that stopped knowing how to feel or react. The Jews stopped being afraid of death, or resisting it. In fact, they began to accept that death would be their eventual fate. And many prayed for it to come faster to escape their suffering.