How do the prisoners transform at the camp?

chapter 3

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Due to the brutal methods of the Nazis, they are transformed from respected individuals into obedient, animal-like automatons. How does this transformation take place? When the prisoners first arrive at the camp, some of the young men want to rebel: "We've got to do something. We can't let ourselves be killed. We can't go like beasts to the slaughter. We've got to revolt." Despite these early feelings of rebellion, the prisoners rapidly become docile and fearful, and they follow the rules set out by the Nazi authorities. Why do they obey people who are so obviously intent on destroying them?

The answer to that question is very complex. First, the Nazis make it very clear to their prisoners that they hold the power of life and death over them. When the prisoners arrive, they are made to think that they are all going to die in the fiery ditch, and they are periodically beaten and abused by the SS guards. Then their individual identities are completely erased when they are shaved, doused in petrol, and given identical, ill-fitting clothing. They are denied any sort of personality whatsoever, and the only way to deal with the constant abuse is to shut down all human emotions: "Our senses were blunted; everything was blurred as in a fog. It was no longer possible to grasp anything. The instincts of self-preservation, of self-defense, of pride, had deserted usŠ.Within a few seconds, we had ceased to be men." Treated as animals, the prisoners know that the Nazis will have no qualms at destroying them. For this reason, it makes logical sense to obey the Nazis' commands.

At the same time, however, the prisoners must have faith that they will survive the horrors of the concentration camp. When the young men think of revolting, their elders tell them, "You must never lose faith, even when the sword hangs over your head. That's the teaching of our sagesŠ" In addition, the head of Eliezer's block kindly offers advice to his new charges: "We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life. Above all else, have faith. Drive out despair, and you will keep death away from yourselves." In order to survive, the prisoners must believe that survival is possible‹that death is not an inevitability and that individual strength will allow one to escape the Nazi crematories. Denied their individuality by their captors, the prisoners must nevertheless struggle to maintain their individual faith in God.

However, it is difficult to have faith in God when one is constantly surrounded by death and inhumanity. As Eliezer approaches the fiery pit, he feels anger towards a God who allows Nazi inhumanity to exist in this world: "For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for?" Although the only way to survive the concentration camps is to have faith that God will see you through, it is nearly impossible to believe in a God who allows concentration camps to exist in the first place.

At this point in the narrative, the prisoners have not been completely broken down yet, and they still recognize the value of human relationship. For Stein of Antwerp, just thinking that his wife and children are still alive is enough to make him want to live also. Similarly, Eliezer and his father hope that Tzipora and her mother have survived also. Other human beings give people a reason for strength and hope and make them want to survive. The prisoners are still able to consider people other than themselves and retain a human concern for family and friends. However, the Nazis will later succeed in destroying the humanity of their prisoners so that affective ties between family and friends become virtually meaningless.