Treating Persons as Things
In his book Night, Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, recalled how the Nazis, during World War II, dehumanized and destroyed the Jews in the concentration camps. For example, he wrote,
“We were told to roll up our sleeves and file past the table. The three ‘veteran’ prisoners, needles in hand, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name.”1
For the Nazis, the Jews were, in Wiesel’s words, “nothing but numbers.”2 They were dehumanized or deprived of their personal names, reducing their humanity to a number.
Wiesel remembered how the Nazis selected the Jews to collect the gold fillings from their teeth “the way one might choose cattle or merchandise.”3 In other words, they were treated like things, not respected as persons. Wiesel also recalled being chosen to work in a warehouse. He and several inmates met the German man in charge of it. “He paid as much attention to us as would a shopkeeper receiving a delivery of old rags,” Wiesel wrote.4 The man treated the Jewish inmates as if they did not matter, as if they had no value as human beings. He was, literally, indifferent to their humanity.
Dehumanizing Words and Deeds
Words are powerful! By using them correctly, a person can promote the value of human life. By using them carelessly or incorrectly, a person can demote human value. Words, then, can either affirm tor deny the humanity of a person. For example, Wiesel wrote about his painful memories of verbal abuse in the concentration camps, with the inmates being called “Sons of bitches,” “moron[s],” “good-for-nothing,” “son of a swine,” “tramps” and “flee-ridden dogs.”5 Such name-calling is dehumanizing, treating persons as if they were things or animals.
Verbicide may lead to homicide or dehumanization may result in destruction. In other words, first, the Nazis “killed” in words, defining the humanity out of the Jewish people, using non-human language to describe them. After that, the Nazis killed in deeds, actually murdering the Jews in the gas chambers and crematoria.
Humanizing Words and Deeds
Words, then, may literally be a matter of life and death. Wiesel, believing in the power of words, quotes “Selishter Rebbe,” his legendary teacher:
“‘Be careful with words; they’re dangerous. Be wary of them. They beget either demons or angels. It’s up to you to give life to one or the other.’”6
Hitter and the Nazis gave life to the demonic sense of words, using them to destroy millions of innocent, defenseless human beings. But since his release from the concentration camps in 1945, Wiesel gave life to the angelic sense of words, using them carefully to defend the innocent, denounce injustice and promote peace throughout the world.
1. Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York, N.Y.: Hill and Wang, 1958, 2006), p. 42.
2. Ibid., p. 87.
3. Ibid., p. 49.
4. Ibid., p. 50.
5. Ibid., pp. 55, 58, 85.