How does Elie Wiesel's Night explore dehumanization?

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Night explores the concept of dehumanization through the narrative about the degradation the Jews face at the hands of their captors and each other. In the memoir, Elie relates the circumstances of his situation once he and his father leave the ghetto at Sighet, and he describes how, in an instant, they went from being treated like people to being treated like animals.

The Jews are loaded onto cattle cars, packed with nearly 80 people together, to be shipped toward Auschwitz. The close quarters are not considered that bad until the train crosses over the Hungarian-Czech border. Once clear out of Hungary, the pretense of “relocation” is lost, and the Jews find themselves not only being treated like animals but actually called animals by the Nazi soldiers. In chapter 2 Wiesel writes,

The Hungarian lieutenant went around with a basket and retrieved the last possessions from those who chose not to go on tasting the bitterness of fear. "There are eighty of you in the car," the German officer added. "If anyone goes missing, you will all be shot, like dogs."

The German officer telling the Jews that they will be shot like dogs is the first indication that they are no longer going to be treated as human beings. That treatment continues well into their journey into Auschwitz, where babies are shot, women are murdered, and the dead are piled into mass graves. Anyone who is too sick to work is almost immediately killed, showing that the Jews's only worth in the eyes of the Nazi regime lies in their ability to work.

The dehumanization progresses rapidly in the memoir, and it is powerful—so powerful that it eventually begins to work on the Jews themselves. They ultimately dehumanize each other to the point that they mistreat each other. It isn’t a knock against the Jews in the story—they are forced by their circumstances to fight to survive—but it does speak to the power of the dehumanization the Nazis have created in the concentration camps.

Elie’s description of the way the dead are treated shows how desperation has driven the Jews to dehumanize each other,

The living were glad. They would have more room. Volunteers began the task. They touched those who had remained on the ground. "Here's one! Take him!" The volunteers undressed him and eagerly shared his garments. Then, two "gravediggers" grabbed him by the head and feet and threw him from the wagon, like a sack of flour.

The story of how the bodies are disposed of shows the mindset of survival in the camps: the Jews who survive don’t have it in them to care about others, especially those who are dead, because they have to worry about themselves. The Nazis, in treating the Jews like they are less than human, ultimately push them to act like they are less than human—a theme that Elie struggles with through the closing section of the book.

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Night shows us what happens when human beings are systematically stripped of their dignity. There are numerous examples of this in the story: horrific episodes where the Jewish prisoners have been so thoroughly dehumanized that they can do nothing but engage in an animalistic struggle for daily survival.

One such example comes in the form of Elie's feelings towards his father. As one would expect, Elie dearly loves him, but, over the course of the book as his father becomes progressively weaker, Elie starts to see him as a burden. When the Nazis subject Elie's father to savage beatings, Elie feels nothing—his normal human emotions have been numbed by the day-to-day horrors of life in the camp. Perpetually riven with hunger, all that Elie can think about as the Nazis beat his father is where his next meal is coming from.

Like all the other prisoners, he has been reduced to the status of an animal by the systematic barbarism of his German captors.

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Elie Wiesel explores the topic of dehumanization throughout his novel by illustrating the various means of oppression and violence that are inflicted upon the Jewish prisoners by the ruthless Nazis during the Holocaust as well as the hostility and brutality that takes place among the prisoners.

Wiesel vividly depicts dehumanization by illustrating the atrocities that were committed throughout the Holocaust—commonplace in each of the concentration camps. The Nazis practiced dehumanization by referring to the Jewish prisoners as numbers, tattooing them like cattle, taking their personal possessions, and withholding any sympathy for them. The Nazis mercilessly beat Jewish prisoners, used infants as target practice, publicly hanged individuals, pushed the prisoners to the brink of exhaustion, and refused to adequately nourish them.

Wiesel also examines dehumanization by portraying the violence and brutality that the Jewish prisoners exhibit on each other as a result of their desperate situation. Elie witnesses a young man purposely leave his father behind during a march to increase his chances of survival and also sees a son kill his father over a piece of bread. There is even a scene where Elie has to protect his father from being beaten to death by the other prisoners.

The shocking violence and dehumanization committed by the Nazis and (as a consequence) the violence and desperation exhibited by the Jewish prisoners alike illustrate the darker features of humanity and urge the reader to contemplate their own morality and human nature.

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Wiesel's Night depicts a side of human existence that most would not want to witness. However, what Wiesel's work does is bring philosophy and ethics into the study of the Holocaust. The book is one of the most stinging repudiations of the Holocaust ever put onto paper. The moments in the book where the horror of the Nazis are on display remain some of the most compelling instances that seek to galvanize individuals to stand apart from the actions of the aggressors. However, where Wiesel is at his best is when he is able to explore the nature of dehumanization as not something that remained with the Nazis. Wiesel shows that the profound sadness of the Holocaust was how it dehumanized everyone. Perpetrator and target alike were rendered voiceless. In showing that both target and perpetrator are capable of inflicting pain upon others, Wiesel's work makes a very profound statement about who we are as human beings and what we must overcome in order to avoid being part of the machinery of evil. In reading Night, one must be ready to accept the rigorous challenge of self-reflection regarding the world and one's place in it. This is what makes Night such an important book: in a world where voice is still being silenced both politically and personally, the work can be seen as even more sadly relevant.

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