In the book Night, Eliezer discovers that atrocities and cruel treatment can make good people into brutes. Does he escape this opinion?
When life is reduced to the essential struggle to survive, insensitivity and cruelty can occur. The prisoners in Night are reduced to brutes, creatures that are insensitive toward others and often extremely cruel in their desperation.
In Section 4, an inmate giving orders in the barracks of Auschwitz beats Elie's father when he asks to go to the latrine. He knocks Elie's father so hard that he falls. This brutish act is committed by a man who has most likely been treated with great cruelty himself because of his being an inmate and belonging to a people reviled by the Nazis.
There is a natural instinct in every creature to survive. Elie moves out of the way when his father is struck because he fears being hit. Afterwards, he chides himself for his cowardice and disloyalty as he has only sought in his most brutish instinct of self-preservation his own safety.
What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, in front of me, and I had not even blinked. I had watched and kept silent. Only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminal's flesh. (39, online edition)
Also around this time, Elie is summoned to the dentist's office. The dentist, a Jewish man from Czechoslovakia, wants to remove a gold crown, but Elie refuses because he wishes to keep it, hoping to sell it when he needs money. The dentist agrees.
"Come back to see me when you feel better.... But don't wait for me to call you!" (52)
When Elie does return, he learns that the dentist has been imprisoned because he has been stealing the gold from people's crowns to purchase things for himself.
Further, on one occasion of Elie and his father's imprisonment, they work at the electrical equipment warehouse in Buna. Idek is Elie's Kapo—a prisoner conscripted by the Nazis to police other prisoners. One day Idek becomes enraged and beats Elie's father because he cannot do his job. Elie relates,
I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What's more, if I felt anger at that moment; [it was directed] at my father. Why couldn't he have avoided Idek's wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp had made of me . . . (54)
Further, as the prisoners travel by train with only the snow that blows into the cars to eat for days, they are reduced to mere creatures trying to survive. At one point a boy leaps upon his father who hid bread inside his shirt when some bread was thrown into the railroad car. Suddenly, "a shadow" falls over the man, beating him.
"Meir, my little Meir! Don't you recognize me . . . You're killing your father . . . I have bread . . . for you, too . . . for you, too . . ."
But the other threw himself on him. The old man mumbled something, groaned, and died. Nobody cared. His son searched him, took the crust of bread, and began to devour it. (101)
However, the boy does not get far as two men move toward him, and others join them. It is not long before there are two dead bodies lying side by side on the floor of the train.
Like many others, Elie fights for life in its most bestial and elemental state. When his imprisonment is finally over, Elie looks in a mirror and is startled by the lifelessness in his eyes and his skeletal appearance. Emotionally, he is just as depleted. For him, life cannot return as it once was because he has lost hope with the brutal deaths of his loved ones.
Throughout the course of the book and his experiences surviving the Holocaust, Elie observed the personality changes that can occur when an individual is fighting to survive.
Elie wanted to remain faithful to his upbringing and training that he should respect and care for his father. He was horrified to be confronted by the actions of Rabbi Eliahu's son, and prayed that he would be stronger.
his son had seen him losing ground, sliding back to the rear of the column...What if he had wanted to be rid of his father? He had felt his father growing weaker and, believing that the end was near, had thought by this separation to free himself of a burden that could diminish his own chance for survival.
In his acceptance speech upon being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Elie expresses understanding of desperate acts by desperate people, pointing out the anger and frustrations of Palestinian refugees and threatened Israelis. However, he also issues a plea for changes in policies and actions that are the cause of such dehumanizing situations.
As long as one dissident is in prison, our freedom will not be true. As long as one child is hungry, our life will be filled with anguish and shame. What all these victims need above all is to know that they are not alone; that we are not forgetting them, that when their voices are stifled we shall lend them ours, that while their freedom depends on ours, the quality of our freedom depends on theirs.
Wiesel comes to believe that it is possible for the human spirit to rise above whatever atrocities have been committed against it in the past, that people do not have to remain brutal and savage forever.