Experienced in the Concentration Camps Portrayed in Night by Elie Wiesel and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi
Despite the various books and films depicting the Holocaust and the war against the Nazis, no one can truly understand life in the concentration camps and the atrocities the Jews faced unless experienced first-hand. We are privileged to gain insight from the personal accounts of survivors such as Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel who describe their experiences in Auschwitz and how they were able to survive the Holocaust. In Night, Wiesel writes from this childhood experience and places emphasis on the value of family, religion, and identity. During his time spent in the camps, we can see these once central values devolve and lose their importance as Wiesel cannot comprehend the brutality and mercilessness of the Nazis. Levi describes his experiences in the concentration camps in Survival in Auschwitz as being very different from that of Wiesel. He approaches his situation analytically, using strategic rebellion as a means for survival while struggling to maintain his humanity and sense of self. Both authors offer a unique and valuable perspective on life in Auschwitz and illustrate various instances of human descent from “living” to surviving”.
In the beginning of the novel, Wiesel and other Transylvanian Jews remain fairly optimistic about their situation. Their perpetrators at first appeared “distant but polite”, and despite deportations, forced confinement to ghettos, and warnings of “Fascist attacks on Jewish stores [and] synagogues”, people remained positive and hopeful (9). Even in the cramped and despicable conditions of their journey to the camp, “the Jews of Sighet were still smiling” and not willing to accept what awaited them at their destination (Wiesel, 9). It is only when they arrive at the camp that they realize their fate and naivety, witnessing first-hand the horrendous atrocities, senselessness, and inhumane cruelty of the Nazis. This is a major turning point for Wiesel’s mentality as he begins his transformation from the once innocent, hopeful servant of God to a hardened, empty, soulless frame of the boy he once was.
Seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy, Wiesel uses graphic and emotionally charged language to describe his experience, focusing on the mass genocide that surrounds him, the fate of his family, and the devolution of humanity. He tries to cope with the loss of a normal life and attempts to understand why these horrible things are happening to innocent people, particularly children and babies thrown in the “flames that consumed [his] faith forever”, blaming God when he cannot find a logical answer (34). A once religious boy, he becomes angry and question God, exclaiming that a God this indifferent and unjust doesn’t deserve his praise. He dwells on his beliefs over the course of the novel and the beliefs of other Jews in the camp who are also seen to lose their faith. He argues that man is stronger than God for being able to endure such atrocities, but ultimately resorts to prayer in moments of extreme despair.
Another element present throughout Wiesel’s narration in Night is the theme of mortality. Death surrounds Wiesel at the camp and it is unlike anything he has ever heard of or experienced before. He frequently describes the image of billowing smoke from the crematoriums and the unnerving “smell of human flesh” throughout the camp (28). He is confronted with his own mortality for the first time and comes to the realization that his death and the death of his loved ones is imminent. Upon realizing this, he contemplates suicide on many occasions, justifying that running into an electric fence or hanging himself would be a nobler death than that in the crematorium.
The Germans use the threat of death as a means to uphold authority and keep the prisoners fearful. Wiesel sees the pleasure the Nazis gain from the violence against the Jews and how they are also able to use psychological abuse as a tactic to maintain control. He also notices that the local German civilians gain satisfaction at the persecution of the Jews as they throw bread at the prisoners and “watched in spectacle” as a son killed his father over the scraps (100).
The Germans and the Kapos are portrayed to be extremely violent, senseless, and merciless in their treatment of the Jews.
The only thing truly keeping Wiesel and other prisoners in the camp both physically and emotionally alive is familial connection. People in the camp seek out any sort of connection to their old lives and live for good news on their loved ones’ safety; however, the crushing realization of a loved one’s death destroys their hope and their reason to live, and death is welcomed rather than feared. In the beginning, he believes that there is “no longer any reason to live, any reason to fight” once his father is dead, but as his experiences strips him of his identity and humanity, Wiesel soon comes to resent his father and wishes he would die (99). Having to care for his father puts him in a position of weakness, and once his father dies, he is relieved to be “free at last!” and able to focus on his own survival (112). Returning to an almost primitive state where physical needs are valued above all others, survival instincts take over and people lose their humanity.
The recurring image of night plays a large role in how Wiesel interprets his experiences and is used to symbolize death, loss of faith, and a loss of humanity. He finds it extremely difficult to come to terms with the situation and its implications as it completely destroyed his sense of self. As liberation loomed near, he describes himself as a corpse, no longer thinking of his family with “only one desire: to eat” (113). Wiesel’s life-altering experiences in the concentration camps are unimaginable and incomparable; nevertheless, another survivor offers a different perspective in describing his experiences at the hands of the Nazis.
Before his experience in Auschwitz, Primo Levi lived through four years of Nazi racial laws and anti-Semitism in Italy and had previous knowledge of the death camps. His narrative in Survival in Auschwitz lacks the same emotional tone found in Night which can be explained by the author’s older age, his disconnect with Jewish culture, and his scientific profession. He is immediately sent to a labour camp and is able to detach from the horrors and brutalities witnessed by Wiesel, admitting that they “expected something more apocalyptic” (19). Levi describes the camp as “a gigantic biological and social experiment” governed by illogical rules, ceremonies and rituals, and quickly begins to develop a strategy for survival (87).
While there are minor instances of resistance in Night, acts of rebellion are prevalent throughout the novel and used as part of Levi’s survival strategy. He sees the opportunity of becoming a Prominent as his best chance at survival with access to special privileges and better treatment, including warm clothes, extra rations, and valuables that can be traded for extra food in the secret Lager Exchange Market. Comparing to the experiences of Wiesel, the prisoners are solely concerned for their own well-being; however, they realize that working with one another can be the best means of survival. The malnourished prisoners “come to the market to sell their only shirt” for scraps, unafraid to endure the harsh consequences at the hands of the guards (78). Levi also describes a prisoner sentenced to death for exploding a crematorium whose final cry, “Comrades, I am the last one!”, goes ignored by the prisoners who are seen to have completely given up hope (149).
Levi regularly dwells on the senseless rules of the camp and the Germans’ attempts to strip the prisoners of their identity and humanity. He describes the camp as an arbitrary system designed to break the prisoners’ spirits and ruled by personal whim, blind chance, and senseless violence. He refuses to let the Nazis “reduce [them] to beasts”, and he sustains this notion of self-preservation throughout the novel (41). However, this notion is not widespread throughout the camp; Levi describes many Jews as Muselmann, men who succumb to their surroundings and are “already too empty to really suffer”, and expresses his determination to avoid their fate (90).
Similar to Wiesel’s experiences in Birkenau, Levi and the other prisoners endure merciless treatment and are dehumanized daily. In direct comparison to Wiesel’s image of night, Levi uses the morning to symbolize death and violence, stating that “the new sun rose as an ally of [their] enemies to assist in [their] destruction” (16). Levi is especially distraught at the loss of his identity and struggles with finding the strength to maintain a sense of his humanity. He asserts that “no human condition is more miserable than this” as his clothes, hair, and name are taken away from him (26). Language and communication are seen as non-physical elements of their identity that the Nazis couldn’t take away from them. However, language is also seen to segregate the prisoners who are “surrounded by a perpetual Babel, in which everyone shouts orders and threats in languages never heard”, creating tension and confusion amongst the already panicked prisoners (38).
Both Elie Weisel in Night and Primo Levi in Survival in Auschwitz paint the picture of atrocities and inhumane treatment experienced in the concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis. Wiesel is at first optimistic about their fate at the camp and finds his will to live in his father’s survival; this soon changes as he is forced to endure the cruel treatments of the Nazis and his physical survival becomes more valued than his family and religion. Levi remains fairly optimistic through his experience and he analyzes his surroundings and constantly plans for his survival. It is through these survival stories that we can fully understand the horrendous experiences of Jews and use the knowledge to condemn racism and prevent anything similar from happening in the future.
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