Discussion Topic

Exploring humanity and dehumanization in Elie Wiesel's "Night."

Summary:

In "Night," Elie Wiesel explores humanity and dehumanization through the harrowing experiences of Holocaust victims. The brutality of the concentration camps strips prisoners of their dignity, identity, and compassion, revealing the depths of human cruelty. Despite this, moments of kindness and solidarity among prisoners highlight the enduring spirit of humanity even in the face of extreme dehumanization.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Wiesel relate his Holocaust experience to humanity's in "Night"?

I think that one of the reasons why Wiesel's work is utterly profound is because he is able to pull out a subjective experience of horror and then connect it to an objective setting.  Wiesel's narrative is focused on the pain that Eliezer must endure.  Yet, Wiesel also focuses on how this experience is a result of the lack of humanity and constant dehumanization that enveloped him in his being in the world at this time.  Wiesel is smart enough and keen enough to understand that the true terror of the Holocaust was how so many people, Nazis and non- Nazis, engaged in the dehumanization of other people.  The dehumanization of which Wiesel speaks is one where people of Sighet dehumanize and demonize Moshe the Beadle or do the same to Madame Schachter.  In this, Wiesel is able to make the point that the Holocaust results from the silencing of voices that the Nazis started, but so many were able to continue in their absence.  The dehumanization and lack of dignity with which the Nazis treated people became absorbed by their targets, who did much of the same.  It is in this light where Wiesel's own nightmarish experience is broadened to a condition of universality from the subjective realm.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Wiesel show humanity existing amidst extreme inhumanity in Night?

Night includes numerous individuals who help each other through their darkest hours. Although the young Elie Wiesel loses his faith while imprisoned, he helps his fellow prisoners and receives assistance from them. He is particularly concerned about his father, as they are together in Auschwitz; having his last remaining family member to be concerned about keeps going. Writing in the first person, the adult Elie as an author helps the reader feel the immediacy of an individual experience and connect them to the reality of an almost unimaginable situation. Wiesel goes out of his way to bring up specific occasions when people were kind to each other. One example occurs after Idek, the deranged Kapo, has beaten him ferociously. A French girl that Elie barely knows approaches him.

I ached all over. I felt a cool hand wiping my blood-stained forehead. It was the French girl. She gave me her mournful smile and slipped a bit of bread into my hand. She looked into my eyes. I felt that she wanted to say something but was choked by fear. For a long moment she stayed like that, then her face cleared and she said to me in almost perfect German:

“Bite your lip, little brother . . . Don’t cry. Keep your anger and hatred for another day, for later on. The day will come, but not now. . . . Wait. Grit your teeth and wait.”

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Elie Wiesel's Night explore dehumanization?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Elie Wiesel's Night explore dehumanization?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Elie Wiesel's Night explore dehumanization?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Elie Wiesel's Night explore dehumanization?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss Wiesel's depiction of prisoners being dehumanized in Night.

For Wiesel, the entire premise of the Nazi control over those they victimized was predicated upon dehumanization.  The idea of dehumanization was to remove the humanity of the prisoners at each and every moment, preventing cohesion as a force and rising up against the guards.  The packing of people into trains like cattle was one form of dehumanization, ensuring that a sense of fear and discomfort would always linger.  When Eliezer and his family arrive at Auschwitz- Birkenau, they are separated into two lines.  This is done without much in way of purpose and what pervades as a sense of random selection.  This ends up being dehumanizing because issues such as life and death are so easily defined through a random movement to the left or right.  Eliezer never sees his mother and sister again and the result of this is weakening the bonds that prisoners like him feel towards others, contributing to the dehumanization that the Nazis sought to inflict.  The abuses that Eliezer suffers in terms of beatings would be another example of dehumanization, intended to remove the humanity out of the intended victim.  These are all example of how the Nazis, at their most basic, were practicing an exercise in dehumanization.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Did Elie Wiesel lose his humanity in Night?

The simple answer is no: one cannot say that Wiesel lost his humanity. The extreme suffering inflicted upon people in the concentration camps was intended by the Nazis to dehumanize them. But in my view, Wiesel's narrative shows that this did not happen.

Eliezer's life in the camps revolves around his father and his wish to protect his father against all odds. The appalling conditions of terror and fear are calculated to create an "every man for himself" situation, but Wiesel and others resist this and continue to feel empathy and solidarity with the other victims. However, it's impossible to avoid becoming desensitized, to some degree, to the death and suffering surrounding everyone. Elie realizes that he cannot help thinking his father has become a burden and that his own life would be more sustainable if his father simply were not there. The words "free at last!" occur to him when his father is finally gone.

Eliezer, all along, has felt tremendous guilt about this emerging realization. If anything, this is a sign that he has retained his humanity. But in general, a numbness to the relentless cruelty around him has set in. At the end, after liberation, he essentially feels nothing, least of all the presumably expected joy of freedom. He sees himself essentially as one of the living dead, saying, "From the depths of the mirror a corpse stared back at me."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Did Elie Wiesel lose his humanity in Night?

Throughout the novel, Elie struggles to retain his humanity in the face of nearly insurmountable hardship. His outlook on life, faith, and humanity completely changes as he describes the horrors of living in a concentration camp. For example, his relationship with his father evolves as the child becomes the parent—Elie is forced to care for his father, when normally parents are meant to care for their children. Elie resents this, saying, "If only I could get rid of this dead weight." It is also incredible and horrifying to Elie that anyone could inflict the kind of pain on others that he experiences at the camp. He doesn't understand how anyone could treat other human beings like they are nothing, and he loses faith in the goodness of humanity.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on