In Elie Wiesel’s Night, the protagonist Eliezer enters a spiritual struggle to maintain faith, not only in God but in humanity. Turned upside down, his world no longer makes sense. He becomes disillusioned through his experience of Nazi cruelty, but even more so by the inexplicable cruelty that fellow prisoners inflict upon each other. Eliezer is appalled by the human depth of depravity and capacity for evil, his own included. Within the story there seems to be an emphasis on how inhumanity begets inhumanity.
Seeing the Jews as inhuman, the Nazis cruelly treat them as animals, in turn producing cruel and animalistic behavior among the prisoners. The first example of inhuman behavior by prisoners in the story is when Eliezer and his family board the train. At first, Eliezer didn’t think the Germans seemed all that monstrous. He describes them as distant but polite. However the incremental removal of human identity and community had already begun. They seemed human like any other group of people. Over a few months time however, they became more monstrous.
The Jews were stripped of their homes, possessions and dignity and forced into cattle cars bound for extermination camps. Eliezer comments on the overtly inappropriate sexual behavior displayed by some of the prisoners during the ride in the cattle cars. Such behavior presumably stems from being denied basic human respect, prompting lower self respect in the prisoners. Although hardly as violent as the Nazi’s actions, this behavior foreshadows the downward spiral in human depravity that will result from the tortuous experiences of the concentration camps.
As the prisoners endure more and more horrific and monstrous Nazi abuse, they themselves become abusers. Forced into a “kill or be killed” survival situation, the prisoners often turn on each other in similar fashion to the ways in which they have been mistreated. The Kapos provide an example. As prisoners themselves, they inevitably endure the same horrendous conditions of the camps, granted mildly less horrendous than the average prisoners.
Yet rather than encouraging or aiding fellow prisoners under their charge, the Kapos actually further the Nazi cause with their unnecessarily cruel and dehumanizing behavior, and destruction of hope. One Kapo remarked to Eliezer, that in the camps, it was every man for himself…There were no fathers, brothers, sons or friends, just survival alone without thought of anyone else. The position of Kapo symbolizes how the holocaust’s cruelty breeds more cruelty for its victims, turning decent people violently against each other in a race for self preservation.
Eliezer’s narrative further details how inhuman behavior is spawned by inhuman treatment. Beaten, starving and pitted against one another for survival, sons beat or abandon their fathers. Eliezer witnesses a son beat his father for an improperly made bed, another abandon his father on the blizzard run, and yet another beat his father to death for a crust of bread. Although appalled by such behavior, Eliezer finds himself resenting his own father, feeling him to be a burden rather than the support he actually is.
Even as his father lies dying, Eliezer asks himself why he shouldn’t eat his father’s rations. As the Nazi dehumanization reaches its climax, Eliezer finds that self preservation becomes the highest virtue and struggles to maintain any semblance of human dignity. Night demonstrates how cruelty breeds cruelty, and abuse creates abusers, spreading like an infection. If human beings are treated as animals, they will often begin to act like animals. There is no doubt that all humanity is capable of depravity, and under the right circumstances, incapable of controlling its manifestation!
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