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Night; with Connections

Night - Elie Wiesel In this primary-source document, Elie Wiesel details his personal experiences in Auschwitz. His story is unique, but the existence of concentration camps, genocide, and forced labor are not. Wiesel's story is one data point in a larger trend of 20th century, and now 21st century atrocities which share many core similarities.1918- (The Gulag Archipelago) The roots of the Soviet internal Gulag system dates back to Czarist times, where internal deportation to Siberia was a common fate of political agitators (including Joseph Stalin, in his early 20’s). In the 1930’s, Stalin consolidated his rule over the Soviet Union, and aggressively expanded the Gulag to meet the needs of more and more potential dissidents and political rivals identified by his growing police state. In the 1940’s, young artillery officer Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn survived a term in one of these camps, where an estimated 20 million Soviet citizens have been worked to death for minor or fabricated infractions against the Soviet system.1942- (IBM and the Holocaust) Elaborate, instantly updatable recordkeeping systems become integral to running Third Reich concentration camps. IBM’s proprietary Hollerith punch card systems enabled prison administrators to continually reassess an inmate’s output and any special skills against his food consumed and other expenses. The least profitable prisoners were identified for liquidation. Computers were not quite weapons of mass destruction in this situation, but -as with other areas of human activity- their speed and accuracy handling data made the business of killing people much more efficient.1942- (Night) Moshe the Beadle escaped a Nazi concentration camp in Poland and returned to his village in Hungary. There, he tried to warn the Jews of his hometown (Sighet) about Gestapo camps where Jews were worked to exhaustion, and murdered. In a classic "Cassandra" story, his warnings went unheeded. Moshe’s stories just sounded too outrageous, too unfamiliar to be believed. Old friends and family members shuned him, shaking their heads and saying “He's just trying to make us pity him.” or “What an imagination he has!”, or “He's gone mad.” 1942- (Come See the Paradise) In accordance with Executive Order 9066 -which was never debated, discussed, or challenged by the U.S. Congress, over 100,000 Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and relocated to detention camps throughout the American West. Order 9066 was eventually challenged in court in 1944, but its legality and constitutionality were upheld by the Supreme Court. In addition to losing their liberties for almost four years, many Japanese families were economically devastated by 9066, after losing farms and businesses they could not attend to during their detention.1943- (Night) Narrator Eliezer (Elie Wiesel) sees incrementally more restrictions placed on the Jews of Sighet. They can’t go to restaurants. Then they can’t go out of their homes after 6pm. Then they can’t have valuables in their homes. Then they are forced to wear identifying yellow stars on their clothing. Each step is excused and rationalized by Elie’s father and other members of the community. “The yellow star? So what? It's not lethal…”(Poor Father! Of what then did you die?)1944- (Night) Elie and his family are forced out of their homes and transported to Auschwitz. He and his father are separated from the female members of their family, whom they never see again. This is the bulk of the book: overwork amidst constant hunger. Forced marches in unbearable cold. Leering guards eager to kill Elie’s father, should he fall too far behind. Watching a fellow prisoner dig his own grave, before his execution. 1956- (Imperial Reckoning) British colonial forces in Kenya face a massive uprising, led by revolutionary Dedam Kimathi and his devotees. To “keep the peace” and quell rebellion, over one million ethnic Kikuyu are rounded up and detained in concentration camps. Caroline Elkins’ book details the brutal conditions of these camps, including the introduction of punitive rapes as a method of gaining compliance and submission from the camps’ females.1964- (The Private Life of Chairman Mao) From 1948 to 1976, Chairman Mao directed the construction of several massive dams and hydroelectric power plants using forced labor of ordinary Chinese citizens. Much like Stalin’s Gulag system, the Chinese justice system under Mao also relied heavily on the principle of “Laogai” or “reform through labor”, in which political prisoners were confined to labor camps and frequently worked to death on farms, prison factories, or various construction projects.1974- (Brother Number One) Cambodian Communists led by Saloth Sar (a.k.a. Pol Pot) round up over two million of their countrymen (in a country of barely 5 million total), and transport them to communal work farms, where interrogators root out and exterminate anyone with “undesirable” personal traits, including: ethnic Vietnamese heritage, literacy, history of foreign travel, lack of enthusiasm for the Communist revolution or the principles of “Ankar“, etc… In the end, almost a third of the Cambodian population is slaughtered in this manner. The tragedy is viewed by most of the world as a sideshow or post script to the American involvement in Vietnam. Relief does not come from any liberating international force, but rather from invading North VietNamese troops, in yet another Indochinese border squabble.1992- Acting under orders of General Ratko Mladić, Bosnian Serb soldiers of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) in Srebrenica target Bosnian and Croat Muslims for “ethnic cleansing”. A three year campaign of confinement, execution, torture, rape, and seizure of properties results in the killing of 8000 Muslims, as well as the forced deportation of at least 25,000 others. 1994- Longstanding conflict between Rwandan Tutsi and Hutu peoples come to a head when Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana is assassinated. Vowing to avenge the act, the radical “Rwandan Patriotic Front” seizes power, and indiscriminately arrests and executes over 800,000 Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers as “traitors” and “collaborationists”, by virtue of their ethnicity. 2003- Beginning in 2003, in an ongoing conflict too complex and esoteric for me to grasp, Sudan continues today to engage in armed conflict against non-Arab Sudanese minorities in the Darfur region. Casualty estimates vary from 20,000 to over 100,000 killed in ethnically-motivated conflict, which has been characterized as a genocide.2011- (Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader) North Korea is known to maintain an internal Gulag of concentration work camps for political and other prisoners.Even the incidents I’ve listed above are an incomplete accounting of all the institutionalized confinements, abuses, and exterminations which have taken place, and which continue to take place around the world these past 100 years. These things have become so pervasive in our history, it’s difficult to comprehend how the idea of Holocaust denial has managed to take root. Attacking the plausibility of concentration camps and genocide seems ridiculous, given the list above, so what gives? Well, part of holocaust denial is rooted in anti-Semitism, and is directed specifically towards the experience of Jews during World War II. It is easy to see this sort of holocaust denial is just an expression of underlying racism, which most people quite sensibly reject. The genocide in Bosnia has also been denied by people who seem to have a racially prejudiced motive. The more insidious, more socially acceptable sort of holocaust denial is the self-comfort an ostrich administers to itself, when it sticks its head in the sand. It’s the idea that such things “couldn’t happen here”, or that various peoples and governments surely aren’t capable of such horrors. To this day, there seems to be a lot of confusion about how much the average German knew about Nazi concentration camps, how much could have been inferred from disappearing Jewish neighbors, and what actions the average German might reasonably have been expected to take. It seems a bit inflammatory to call the whole of German citizenry “Holocaust deniers”, but lingering questions do carry a tinge of that sentiment. Is that fair? Playing the ostrich in this case entailed countenancing the slaughter of 6 million innocents. These are very muddy waters, but let me share my own (very anecdotal, I must admit) experience relating to this: when I was an exchange student in Germany (in 1984-85), this topic actually came up in discussion in a History class. A lot of my (German) classmates, and even the teacher related that their family members (grandparents mostly) supposedly never had an inkling of the camps' existance. No surprise there; even if they did know, who would want to admit it? What surprised me was that even after the war, when news of the camps and their atocities started to came out, there were a lot of Germans who still refused to believe that something could like that could have happened "here" (i.e. in Germany). Let that sink in for a minute... even having lived under the oppressive rule of the Third Reich, it was still incomprehensible to many average Germans that atrocities on the scale of the Holocaust could have been perpetrated by fellow Germans. I believe their sincerity when they say this; I think their shock is a testiment to the very human tendency to believe that such things "only happen to other [people/countries]". I think Milgram's famous experiment helps explain how such things are possible, but I don't want to go down that tangent right now.In her book Imperial Reckoning, Caroline Elkins details how most British and American journalists did not follow up leads on Kikuyu concentration camps in 1950’s Kenya, either because they didn’t believe a Western democracy was capable of such things, or they didn’t wish to embarrass a Cold War ally. In the case of Cambodia, there was some international attention on Pol Pot's Angkar killing fields, but the American public was “burned out” on tragedy in former Indochina, and simply not ready or willing to engage the issue vigorously. In the case of Rwanda, American and other Western response was tepid at best, and often attributed to Rwanda being “so far away”, both geographically and figuratively in the mind of mainstream America. My point in writing all this is that on one hand I am sickened by Elie Wiesel’s Night, and the crimes against humanity it describes… but on the other hand I really haven't earned the right to be so sickened. I’d love to think of myself as righteously standing up and condemning Auschwitz, if I were somehow alive in 1940's Germany, but doing so would likely have put me and my family into Auschwitz, so I'd be lying if I said I know for sure what I'd do. Likewise, and even more shameful in some ways: I’d like to think I’d stand up in America against the comfinement of my fellow citizens of Japanese heritage… but even that is in question. It takes guts to stand up against these things- especially when you’re in a war, and the prevailing propaganda is that Japanese internment is necessary for security. It’s nice to think about standing up and doing the right thing, but for the most part, it’s a vain fantasy. The people who do are few and far between, and they really are heros, as opposed to the clownish Stallone/Schwarzenegger-esque heros our popular culture proffers. There are still atrocities going on in Darfur, but I’ve never done a damn thing about them. I’m writing this angry review on GoodReads, but don’t expect much else out of me. That’s why Night is such a kick in the stomach: first it hits with the horrors of Auschwitz… but Auschwitz was dismantled long before I was born, its guards and administrators tried at Nuremburg and executed. I can satisfy myself that some just response eventually answered Weisel’s calls, and more importantly: nothing is being asked of me to remedy the situation... but Night is ongoing. We’re still in the "night", and where is my righteous indignation now? Will I do something- anything- about Darfur tonight, or will I read and fuck around on the computer? That’s right: I’ll probably read and fuck around on the computer ...because I’m a fucking hypocrite, and all the outrage I think I feel when I read Night must be faux, if I'm not sufficiently moved to actually do something. That’s why this book tortures me, and probably should torture you too.