Empathy and Love Replaced by Instinct to Survive

And then we got out of the train. And everything went so fast: left, right, right, left. Men separated from women. Children torn from the arms of mothers. The elderly chased like cattle. The sick, the disabled were handled like packs of garbage. They were thrown in a side together with broken suitcases, with boxes.

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Leo Schneiderman, Holocaust survivor

In a moment, lives changed forever. “Men to the left. Women to the right” (Wiesel, 1972, p.29). Eight words delivered and in two swift sentences, families separated forever at the gates of the German concentration camps of World War II. The Nazis did not make exceptions for crying mothers or old women or disabled veterans; unless, by exception, one means to be treated exceptionally cruel as opposed to being given a privilege or a kindness of some kind. When we read the personal accounts of Holocaust survivors, the cruelty of the Nazis toward innocent men, women, and children abounds; yet, somehow, we have come to equate Nazi with inhumanity, indignity, and utter terror. However, what many of us do not understand is that the indignity caused by the Nazi’s did not stop at the gates of the camps. In fact, the survivors of the Holocaust had to endure treatment which made them walking corpses, which sucked the life from them; however, somehow, these individuals were able to go on. Inevitably, in order to go on, these victims of the Nazi’s endured not only terror at the hands of the Nazis, but a kind of personal terror too. As the survival instinct kicked in, these prisoners of war oftentimes found themselves acting in cruel and inhumane ways toward their fellow prisoners and even toward their own family members.

In the memoir Night by Elie Wiesel, Mr. Wiesel recounts his experience in the concentration camps and how there were times in which the survival instinct caused him to act in deplorable ways that he would never have imagined. In fact, the shame and guilt Wiesel felt as a result of surviving and watching his father die caused Wiesel to refuse to even talk about his experience for years after the end of the war. Wiesel’s experience is not unlike the experiences of others who survived and he left the war with no faith in God, no faith in humanity, and a belief that maybe suicide was his final solution (Aberbach, 1989, p.111). Wiesel’s response was not abnormal; in fact, feelings of survival guilt haunted many who survived as demonstrated by a woman who years after felt the pain of somehow not protecting her little sister:

“I felt guilty for many years that maybe I should have run back and tried to get her with me or stay with her. Maybe I didn’t do enough to stay together. Maybe I was too selfish about saving myself. You can excuse yourself and say if I had run back my fate would have been the same as hers. There is no logic to my feelings.. But those words ring in my ears, ‘If you’re not going to eat, you’re going to die.'” (Haas, 1995, p.163).

Eventually, Wiesel was able to put his feelings into words and as with many other Holocaust survivors, time and understanding of Hitler’s final solution has helped them to accept that the power of the survival instinct is innate and not reflective of moral character. Indeed, according to Charles Darwin, the survival instinct is present in human beings and reflective of the desire to survive, not reflective of the desire to hurt others (Bergman, PhD, n.d.).

As a result, Wiesel was able to go on and he provides us with a moving memoir of his life in the camps as a fifteen-year-old with his father. His experiences make the power of the survival instinct come to life and one can see how painful it must have been to allow the Nazis to not only take away your life, but your natural instinct to want to help and to empathize with others, especially your family members. After only one day in the camp, Elie witnesses his father being slapped brutally by the guard after asking to use the restroom. Elie stated that a day earlier he “would have dug my nails into the criminal’s flesh” (Wiesel, 1972, p.35). Now, he had not even blinked. With an idea that he had changed, he felt remorse and he said he thought he would never forgive the Nazi’s for changing him in this way (35).

If one day could have such a profound effect on Elie, the addition of days and cruelty at the hands of the Nazis only intensified the fear, the indignity, and the individual’s sense of a need to somehow, some way survive. Elie begins to see this all around him. On a run in the cold snow, Elie watches the Rabbi and his son, a pair whom he had always admired since for the past three years, they had always looked after each other. However, on this day, something changed. During a short rest, the Rabbi became panicked at the thought that perhaps his son had died. Elie could not tell the Rabbi the bitter truth that the son saw his father limping and at that moment, the son ran faster allowing the distance between them to grow. While Elie knows this is heartbreaking, he cannot help thinking similarly: if only he could get rid of his father, a burden, and free himself from the encumbrance (Wiesel, 1972, p.86-87). Even though he had such a feeling, he still had love in his heart for his father as he then prayed to the God he wasn’t sure even existed anymore: “My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.” (p.87)

As time goes on in the brutality of the camps, the prisoner’s survival instinct grows. Even morsels of bread cause men to battle one another like “[b]easts of prey unleashed” with “animal hate in their eyes.” (Wiesel, 1972, p.101). If it wasn’t bad enough to fight other men for bread, Elie noticed something absolutely tragic. A young man had hidden a piece of bread and ate it quickly without sharing any with his father. His father cried: “Meir, my little Meir! Don’t you recognize me…You’re killing your father…I have bread…for you too…for you too…” and, as he said this he collapsed with a small piece of bread that he had saved for his son in his hand. As he died, the mob of men grabbed the bread from his clenched fist and the son took what was left. Two men who had watched all of this jumped on the son and soon, others joined. When it was over, there were two dead bodies next to Elie: the father and the son. (Wiesel, 1972, pp.101-102). This specific example shows how the need to survive compelled Jews to do what would have normally been considered unthinkable. Author Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1997) demonstrates that what Elie witnessed was not uncommon. In fact, in Borowski’s book, she describes that what others lost or did not need since they were going to their death was taken by others due to their need to survive in any way in which they could and that a bowl, a coat, a pair of shoes, or even a crust of bread from a dead person might help them live a little bit longer.

Elie was also overtaken by the instinct to survive and it made him have feelings toward his father that he would not normally have had. Wiesel shifts from being fearful of losing sight of his father to feeling intense shame and guilt because he started to feel that his father’s sickness and very existence was a threat to his own ability to survive. In fact, Wiesel thought to himself: “Don’t let me find him! If only I could get rid of this dead weight, so that I could use all my strength to struggle for my own survival, and only worry about myself. Immediately, Elie felt ashamed of himself. (Wiesel, 1972, p.106).

One of the guards tells Elie something he has witnessed and now felt first hand: “Here, there are no fathers, no brothers, no friends. Everyone lives and dies for himself alone.” (Wiesel, 1972, p.93). These words came to life for Elie as well as for his fellow prisoners. Everyone lives and dies alone in the camps because of the dire conditions which strip away a person’s ability to moralize and to rationalize and to think and to empathize. Instead, all energy is focused upon survival, upon getting the next piece of bread, upon putting your next foot forward; and, even these tasks are not easy to do. Thus, Elie and the Rabbi’s son simply did not have the wherewithal to do that which was right; and, instead they followed their instinct to survive as opposed to the instinct to empathize. In years, people would come to understand how this could occur between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters; and, it is because of the courage, strength, and depth of Wiesel’s recollection that we can understand just how devastating the conditions of the camps were, both physically and mentally.


Aberbach, D. (1989). Creativity and the Survivor: The Struggle for Mastery. Int. R. Psycho-Anal., 16:273-286.

Bergman, PhD, J. (n.d.). Darwinism and the Nazi race Holocaust. Retrieved April 20, 2010, from http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2259552/posts

Borowski, T. (1976). On the Way to the Gas Chamber. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Haas, a. (1995). Survivor guilt in Holocaust (Doctoral dissertation, California State University, Dominguez Hills) (pp. 163-184). CA: California State University.

Personal Histories [Interview of Leo Schneiderman, Holocaust Survivor, by U. Museum]. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/phistories/

Wiesel, E. Night. New York: Hill and Wang, a Division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006. Print.

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