Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest
2nd place: James Huang
School: East Chapel Hill High School
To truly comprehend the dehumanization experienced by millions of Jews in the Holocaust, one must realize that this kind of terror and cruel treatment still exists in our world today. In the Far East, citizens of North Korea face a kind of governmental corruption that does not differ much from what the Jewish society encountered during the Nazi German reign. Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, trains and enlightens today’s readers to sympathize with these modern-day victims of corrupt governments. By understanding the plight of the Jews in the Holocaust, we can better appreciate and sympathize with the unfortunate North Koreans oppressed under a dictatorial regime and what they have to endure.
Like Nazi Germany, the North Korean government has been successful in creating a closed society, cutting off outside information from its people and curtailing their freedoms. The Nazis rounded up Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, and the handicapped into packed ghettos, where they were supervised at all times. Eventually, the Nazis deported many of them into labor and extermination camps, primarily in Poland and Germany. SS Men and other Nazi officials confiscated all sources of information, leaving the ill-fated victims misinformed, stupefied, and essentially dehumanized. As he looks back, Elie Wiesel describes leaving the free world that he adores, “The doors were nailed up; the way back was finally cut off. The world was a cattle wagon hermetically sealed” (Wiesel 22). Some may naively believe that the lessons of the holocaust have made this type of inhumane treatment of a subgroup unlikely to happen again. They might think humans have become more civilized since the 1940s. The circumstances in North Korea though, have refuted that belief; there, the government under the rule of Kim Jong-Il keeps a close eye on all of the people. North Koreans have virtually no individual rights, such as freedom of speech, assembly, religion, or the press. As a result, this communist government controls and censors all material accessed by the general public. The whole country is like one big ghetto under the rule of a megalomaniacal leader. These citizens are dehumanized to the point where they cannot think for themselves, much like the Jews in the labor camps.
In both cases ─ in Nazi Germany and in twenty-first century North Korea ─ once the government has gained total control of their people’s minds, they take full advantage of their power and instill fear into the population. The most effective way of causing intimidation in Nazi Germany was simply mass extermination. No one dared to retaliate against the regime. Seeing as there was no way out, Wiesel wondered if “there was a single place here where you were not in danger of death?” (Wiesel 37). This killing without remorse makes the victims less than human. Similarly, a harsh environment in North Korea continues to make life for people there unbearable. According to statistics, there are twelve fully operating concentration camps for convicted criminals, holding between 100,000 and 150,000 prisoners each (http://www.country-data.com). Punishments include
forced labor, banishment to remote areas, forfeiture of property, fines, loss of privileges or work status, reeducation camps, and death. The government wields great power over its citizens, keeping the public on its knees, begging for mercy.
Since the government is so influential to its society, the use of propaganda is dynamic; therefore it spreads throughout a community like a virus. Because propaganda is naturally biased, when the government censors, it is automatically in favor of itself. When Hitler says the Jewish community is a menace to society, immediate attention is brought to the Jews. When Kim Jong-Il proclaims that anti-Communists are slowing the country’s progress, oppression is applied onto them. Both Germany and North Korea use this system similarly; the only difference is that North Korea is using this system two generations after Nazi Germany. To identify the Jews, Hitler ordered a yellow star be put on every one of them. Elie Wiesel gave his perspective of this label by stating, “The yellow star? Oh well what of it? You don’t die of it” (Wiesel 9). Once the Jews were in the
concentration camps, the “veterans” of the camps tattooed all the detainees with letters and numbers, which became their identity until the end of the war. The Germans were labeling Jews like grocery store products, keeping them as subhuman as possible. Although this act may sound unimaginable, it closely resembles what North Korea has done to its people. Perhaps many American teenagers take for granted their right to speak their minds freely without consequence. This freedom should be cherished, because the civilians in North Korea are not so lucky. Saying anything that is against the North Korean government earns a commoner an “anti-party factionalist” title. Not only is the victim humiliated, but their children and future generations also carry the burden as well. The government takes away their education, job opportunities, and their chances for a successful career. The propaganda is so forceful that when Kim Il-Sung died in 1994, North Koreans were forced to fall to the ground crying and to cling to a bronze statue of
him at an organized event. The Kim family has brainwashed its society with propaganda to the point where their people are worshiping them as gods. The acts of North Korea almost eerily shadow the frightening catastrophes of the Holocaust, bringing dehumanization to the twenty-first century.
Although we shall not forget what happened in the Holocaust, it opens our eyes to our imperfect world. Elie Wiesel’s personal memoir, Night, takes us on a compelling journey through hell and makes us realize how important it is to apply his knowledge and experiences to what we study and what we witness. North Korea is an example of what a dehumanized society looks like on today’s terms. These connections are necessary to recognize because scenarios close to that of the Holocaust still continue at this moment. As Wiesel sums up beautifully in his essay for NPR’s “This I Believe” personal essay project, “Information must be transformed into knowledge, knowledge into sensitivity and sensitivity into commitment.”