Dehumanization, Faith, and Destiny in Holocaust and Slavery Narratives
Voices from the Abyss: Wiesel and Douglass on Inhumanity
Forced into bondage due to their racial differences, victims of the Holocaust and American slavery had their lives destined in endless torment where they had lost a sense of humanity and hope. The events of the Holocaust and slavery had inflicted many lasting effects of devastation and traumas on the victims, yet its pressing issues became silent in the aftermath of the events. Two survivors of these events, Wiesel and Douglass, decided not to keep their voices silent but to use the hardship they endured to voice out and educate the people around the world about the tragic events of the Holocaust and American slavery. Elie Wiesel’s Night and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass are memoirs about struggling to survive in inhuman conditions. In the narratives of Elie Wiesel and Frederick Douglass, both men experienced dehumanization while enslaved, yet differed in the way they dealt with the hardship that they faced.
In both accounts, Elie Wiesel and Frederick Douglass faced merciless treatment under German soldiers and slaveholders, who were stripped of their identity and humanity. Wiesel describes one of his Selection experiences where tormentors forced the Jews to run like dogs and brute in frigid conditions by describing that they were “were no longer marching. We were running. Like automatons.” (Wiesel, 85) Wiesel recounts how, in the concentration camps under his German oppressors, he no longer felt like a human but a creature that has lost a sense of individuality.
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Loss of Identity and Humanity: Personal Accounts
Furthermore, this loss of individuality is shown throughout the narrative as many of the Jews were tricking, stealing, and even killing others for food and other necessities since men became selfish beings who were careless of others and sought only their own survival. Similarly, depicts the reevaluation of his worth as a slave when his master Captain Anthony dies by describing how “men and women, old and young married, and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and wine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and child, all holding the same rank in the scale of being.”
Douglass, like most slaves, was stripped of his identity since birth since his slaveholder never granted him the knowledge of his own birthdate or age. Both the oppressors of Wiesel and Douglass had control over them where. Wiesel worked like a machine following order, and Douglass was degraded to a piece of property and was compared to the value of livestock. As the German soldiers and slaveholders used their superiority to subjugate the Jews and slaves, both Wiesel and Douglass experienced inhuman conditions and a loss of their humanity during their captivity.
Religious Perspectives Amidst Atrocities
Although both men were dehumanized, they differed in the ways they acknowledged religion. As the inhumane conditions of the concentration camp finally take a toll on Wiesel, anger consumes him, and he cries out, “Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?” Unlike Douglass, Wiesel was able to freely worship God and already had a founded relationship with God before he became a captive in the Holocaust.
Additionally, Wiesel had the privilege of learning about God through the influence of a Jewish religious background. Yet, when his faith was put to the test, Wiesel’s faith in God wavered as he began to doubt and detest God due to his circumstances during the concentration camps. In contrast to Wiesel’s response to his enslavement, Douglass, on the other hand, cries out, “O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free! … II Will run away. I will not stand it.
Get caught, or get clear, I’ll try it … God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave.” Douglass differed from Wiesel in that he had to learn to love and build a relationship with God while slaved. In fact, being born a slave, Douglass did not have the privilege of having a formal education of God since his masters prohibited slaves from reading and learning the Bible. Throughout his enslavement, Douglass recognized God’s providence and distinguished Him from the evils of the religious hypocrisy of slavery. In contrast to Wiesel, Douglass’s faith in God strengthened through his sufferings, and he trusted that God would help lead him to freedom. Despite the fact that both men believed in God, Wiesel’s faith wavered while Douglass’s faith remained strong as they faced hardships during their enslavement.
Journeys of Hope and Struggle
Along with differing in their relationship with God, Wiesel, and Douglass differ in their attitudes toward their enslavement and their fates. During Wiesel’s arrival at Auschwitz, a Polish man instilled hope in Wiesel by saying, “You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death.”
Unlike Douglass, Wiesel experienced what it was like to be a free man until he was kidnapped and enslaved in the Holocaust. For this reason, it was difficult for Wiesel to accept his fate in the concentration camps when he was forced into submission. Wiesel instilled within himself that the only hope for the end of his enslavement was either survival, liberation, or death. During his enslavement, his own purpose in life was to focus on surviving to hope for the day of his liberation.
On the other hand, Douglass realized that his condition as a slave was inescapable unless he purposed within himself to be free for a “white man’s power to enslave the black” was ignorance, and Douglass “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” would be education. (Douglass, 27) In contrast to Wiesel, Douglass was born a slave and never experienced the taste of freedom. Since slavery bound him to a life of captivity, he was already used to the constant discrimination and oppression inflicted by his slaveholders. Douglass came to realize that he had a chance to determine his own fate and escape slavery through the freedom gained through educating himself. Withal, both men differed in how they dealt with their destinies while being enslaved as Wiesel surrendered to the life of a prisoner while Douglass took the initiative to free himself from bondage.
In the narratives of both Elie Wiesel and Frederick Douglass, they showed the abuse and brutality they faced during their enslavement, yet differed in the ways they responded to their treatments. Wiesel and Douglass exemplify a character of undying perseverance through the horrors of maintaining life on a concentration camp and a southern plantation. Though these authors still live with the constant remembrance of these events, they use their past circumstances to better their lives and to share with people from around the world the horrific events of the Holocaust and American slavery.
Wiesel and Douglass encourage the reader to examine these events as a result of the sinful nature of man and to determine without our hearts to put off injustice and place within our hearts the love of God toward all of mankind. By sharing their stories, Elie Wiesel and Frederick Douglass have given the readers a glimpse into the untold testimonies of the suffering of millions of victims of the Holocaust and American slavery.
- Wiesel, Elie. “Night.” Hill and Wang, 2006.
- Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” Dover Publications, 1995.