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Life Path of Elie Wiesel in "Night" Memoir

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Night: Elie’s Journey From Schoolboy to Corpse

Elie Wiesel recalls the various instances in his memoir, Night, where he endures segregation and imprisonment in the concentration camps. Night starts in Elie’s birthplace, Sighet, where he peacefully studies the Jewish religion with his teacher. As a young innocent child, Elie thinks the SS officers that just arrived in his hometown will not do much harm. It only takes a few days for Elie to realize that the SS officers are going to seriously affect their lives; his family is forced to move into a ghetto, and eventually, he is forced to ride a cattle car to Auschwitz. From his first day at camp, Elie starts to notice the horrors the camp entails; he sees people being tortured, and starts to lose himself starting on the first day. In the concentration camp, the SS officers progressively oppress the Jewish people and indirectly deprive them of their humanity. Elie undergoes numerous traumatic experiences during his stay at Auschwitz which transform him from an innocent child to a dehumanized corpse.

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After the German soldiers arrive in Sighet, they seem harmless. However, the German soldiers start to place restrictions specifically for Jews. The restrictions that the German soldiers place become a catalyst for Elie’s loss of identity. When the German soldiers start to implement restrictions, the harsh rules are ultimately the first thing that causes Elie to lose parts of his identity. The soldiers start to place these rules during the Jewish holiday Passover. Elie recalls the rules the soldiers force the Jews to follow, “But new edicts were already being issued. We no longer had the right to frequent restaurants or cafés, to travel by rail, to attend synagogue, to be on the streets after six o’clock in the evening” (10-11). This particular edict which permits Elie from traveling appears to be the harshest edict yet. When the Nazis are placing rules that are taking away the Jewish people’s basic rights, they are making them lose their identities. The Jews’ basic sense of personal expression is taken away from them because of the restrictions that the Nazis are placing on the Jewish people. When the Nazis permit the Jews from traveling where they please, they are segregating them from society. Sibelman elaborates, “The loss of identity effectively silences the image that constitutes human essence” (147). Elie enjoys going to the synagogue to pray everyday and learn more about the Jewish religion. Elie’s ‘essence’ silences when the Nazis impose restrictions on Elie’s life, and he is not able to do what he pleases, which includes being able to attend the synagogue and learn more about the Jewish religion. This particular restriction inevitably causes Elie to lose his identity because he centers his life around the Jewish religion.

After the edicts are issued for the Jewish people to follow, Elie enters the Auschwitz concentration camp for the first time. On Elie’s first day at the concentration camp, the SS officers change an important part of Elie’s identity. After Elie wakes up the next morning, the SS officers line up all the newly arrived prisoners. Elie remembers that a table was there where the veteran prisoners were giving tattoos to the newly arrived prisoners. Elie recalls the tattoo he was given, “ I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name” (42). The SS officers are forcing the inmates to change their name to a combination of a letter and some numbers. Elie’s name is an important facet of his identity because people use it every time they want to refer to him. When that suddenly changes to ‘A-7713,’ Elie starts to lose a huge part of his identity. From this point on, Elie is only referred to as A-7713 by the SS officers. Fine explains further, “After one single night in Auschwitz, Eliezer is turned into a subhuman” (53). Losing the important part of his identity that is tied with his name, Elie’s humanity starts to vanish. Elie’s new name significantly contributes to the process of dehumanization that he undergoes.

After the SS officers take away parts of Elie’s identity, the SS officers are the cause for Elie’s severe emotional abuse. The SS officers force the prisoners to watch people get hanged so the prisoners can make sure they do not make the same mistake the person who is getting hanged did. Elie is particularly affected psychologically when the SS officers force him to watch the hanging of a pipel, or a young boy. The SS officers gather all prisoners in the middle of the concentration camp to watch the hanging of the pipel. After watching the young boy get hanged, Elie hears a man behind him say, “For God’s sake, where is God?” The man goes on to say, “Where He is? This is where– hanging here from this gallows…” Elie displays that he shares the same feelings when he says, “That night, the soup tasted of corpses” (65). Elie starts to doubt God’s existence when he sees God’s innocent child hanged. Watching the young and innocent pipel get hanged makes Elie feel as if God is dead. When Elie says the ‘soup tasted of corpses’ he displays the hanging of the pipel is still troubling him. The hanging changes Elie’s emotions dramatically; he starts to lose his faith due to the emotional abuse that comes from watching a child getting hanged. Langer describes how Elie is feeling, “all the feelings which somehow define our world as a ‘civilized’ place of habitation, are sacrificed on this gallows crucifix […]” (Langer 13). Elie appears to be losing all faith in humanity in this situation. He feels that the world is doing nothing while the innocent are being killed; moreover, he feels that God is doing nothing as well. The psychological affect the public hanging has on Elie contributes to his dehumanization.

After Elie suffers through the psychological abuse of watching a young child get killed, the SS officers other actions also psychologically affect Elie. When Elie and his father are loading diesel moters into freight cars, Idek gets mad at Elie’s father and starts beating him in front of the other inmates. Watching his father get struck by Idek and not being able to do anything to help his father, causes Elie more psychological trauma which furthers his dehumanization. Elie describes the situation, “And he began beating him with an iron bar. At first my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning. I had watched it all happen without moving. I kept silent” (54). Elie views his father as a strong individual since he is one of the leaders of their community in Sighet. Watching his wise and powerful father get beaten publicly by a SS officer with no rational reason, makes Elie believe that the evil in the world is winning. Elie believes in the idea that good wins over evil, but this belief goes away after watching such his own father get beaten by SS officers makes Elie realize that God is not always going to be there for his family and him. This causes emotional abuse because Elie loses what he believed in for the first fifteen years of his life, and now Elie does not know what to hold onto. Watching his own father suffer so much pain makes Elie “suffer the destruction of his own beliefs in a just and true god, as well as in the goodness of fellow human beings” (Sibelman 152). Watching his own father get beaten up, gives Elie a lot of psychological trauma. The psychological trauma makes Elie more dehumanized than before.

A few hours after Idek claims that he will punish Elie for wandering around instead of doing his work, Idek holds up this promise and punishes Elie severely. Once Idek sees that Elie saw what he is doing in his free time, he chooses to scare Elie with physical abuse. The Kapo decides to make a roll call so all the men can watch what happens to those who disobey the rules. After all the men are gathered, the Kapo calls up Elie and orders him a crate so the Kapo can start whipping him. Elie narrates,“I no longer felt anything except for the lashes of the whip. […] It was over. I had not realized it, but I had fainted” (57-58). The SS officer inflicts a lot of physical pain onto Elie for just breaking one simple rule. Elie is whipped so much that he ends up fainting, proving that the SS officers were physically abusive. The physical abuse Elie endures affects how he experiences life, and negative experiences make him feel all the more dehumanized. On the emotional level, Elie feels that his God is gone from his life, and this is why Elie becomes more of an animal than a human. Brown corroborates, “The treatment of A-7713 involves dehumanization. Occasionally there is a kind word, and A-7713 tries to respond to it. But chiefly there are curses, intimidations, beatings, lines of numbers standing rigidly at attention […]” (75). The physical hardships that Elie endures at the concentration camp changes him in many ways, but one of the most important ways the hardships change him is through dehumanization. Every time that Elie endures a physical atrocity, he is forced to deal with the pain of melancholy, and the only way for Elie to stop suffering is to turn off his emotions and transform himself into something of a creature.

After Elie returns from work in the concentration camp, the SS officers tell the prisoners that Selection will happen soon. Elie endures a variety of physical atrocities in the concentration camp, but Selection is one of the worst. The Selection process has no mercy; anyone who appears to be physically unfit will be killed. Before Elie and the other prisoners take part in the process, a Blockalteste, who has been living at the concentration camp for a long time, comes over and gives the prisoners some advice:

“In a few moments, selection will take place. […] Then you will go, one by one, before the SS doctors. I hope you will all pass. But you must try to increase your chances. Before you go into the next room, try to move your limbs, give yourself some color. Don’t walk slowly, run! Run as if you had the devil at your heels! Don’t look at the SS. Run, straight in front of you!” (71).

The SS officers force the prisoners to endure the tiring selection process even though they are exhausted from the hard day of work at the labor camps. The Blockaldaste’s words put Elie in the present moment and make him realize that he must try his best during the Selection process or risk getting killed. The Selection process makes Elie feel vulnerable because he is being forced to strip naked and run as fast as he can for his life. The Selection process is extremely physically demanding as well because it requires Elie, who barely gets enough to eat, to run for his life for a long period of time. Langer shares his opinion on the Selection process,“Men who knew in advance that their life depends on the opinion of an SS ‘doctor’ run past the official, hoping that their numbers will not be written down; must pass the ‘test,’ but few are aware that they ‘fail,’ that in two or three days they will be taken to the hospital and never be seen again. After such knowledge what humanity?” (14). Langer’s response to this physical atrocity is ‘what humanity?’ and this statement proves to be true because this process dehumanized Elie. The Selection process is too physically demanding and frightening, thus inevitably resulting in Elie’s dehumanization.

After Elie’s father dies on January 29, 1945, no one at the concentration camp gives him a proper Jewish funeral. Elie is sad that he lost his one companion at the miserable concentration camp, but Elie is having other thoughts about his father’s death. Although Elie does not want to admit it, staying at the concentration camp changes him to such an animalistic person to the extent that he feels relieved of the burden of having to care for his sick father. Elie recounts the thoughts going through his head,“And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recess of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: “Free at last!…” (112). The dehumanized state of mind that Elie possesses makes him subconsciously turn on his most inhuman, animalistic instincts. Elie’s transformation makes him want to get rid of his sick father because he starts to think that caring for his father’s illness is a burden. Elie’s subconscious mind also does not want to give his father any more extra rations because he is sick, so Elie feels ‘free at last.’ Elie is relieved of his father’s burden when he dies, and these thoughts dehumanize Elie. Marion Wiesel’s Preface in the Yiddish version of Night explicates similar thoughts, “ [The Holocaust] turned [Elie] into a stranger, for having awakened in [Elie] the beast, most primitive instincts” (Wiesel, Preface xii). After staying at the concentration camp for quite a while, Elie proves to be a victim of the SS officers dehumanization tactics. The SS officers completely deprive Elie of his humanity, and now Elie does not feel the pain of his father’s death. If Elie were living in Sighet, he would have felt the grief of losing his father, but after staying at the concentration camp, Elie has turned into a completely unhuman individual, who does not even cry after his own father dies.

After the death of his father, Elie lives life with no true purpose. Elie stops thinking of the people he lost, including his mother and father, because the pain becomes too unbearable. Elie describes what he would do during these days of despair: “I spent my days in total idleness, With only one desire: to eat” (113). Losing his last companion at such a gruesome place as a concentration camp, shook Elie because he does not have anyone of significance at the concentration camp anymore. To escape the unbearable pain of losing his only companion, Elie chooses to concentrate all his efforts on staying alive. By choosing to turn on his survival instincts, Elie is transforming himself into a creature. Fine describes what Elie was going through as, “But even more important than time is the highly organized and methodological procedure that deprives an individual of his humanness and transforms into a thing while still alive” (53). Elie transforms into this ‘thing’ because the SS officers deprive Elie of all his humanity, so Elie has no other choice but to turn into a creature in order to survive.

The process of dehumanization that Elie undergoes changes him entirely. Before Elie enters the Auschwitz concentration camp, Elie possesses the desire to live, but after staying a little over a year at the camp, Elie loses the desire to live. The horrifying process that Elie undergoes is characterized by his identity loss, emotional abuse he faces, transformation into an animal, and the physical abuse he faces. The Nazi officers start Elie’s process of dehumanization by placing restrictions that result in an identity loss, then they start to emotionally abuse Elie by the displaying of murders publically. The process continues with physical punishment for wrongdoings, and ends with the Nazis turning Elie into an animalistic person, whose only desire is to survive. Before the allies liberate Elie, he is suffering at a hospital in the camp. There is a mirror in the hospital where Elie sees himself for the first time in over a year. Elie describes how the process of dehumanization has changed him in only one year at camp Auschwitz, “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me” (115). Elie notices that the concentration camp changes him to the extent where he can not recognize his own reflection. The oppression Elie faces causes him to see himself as a dead body, a corpse, with no human association.

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