While discussing Colson Whitehead’s use of teeth in Zone One, Emma and I began to reflect on the significance of teeth historically. During the Holocaust, people were viewed as objects, so the qualities that defined them as unique individuals were stripped of them. Nazis separated families from each other, cut off the hair of women, burnt people, placed Jews in gas chambers, and even forcefully removed teeth of individuals with gold fillings. As mentioned in the article “The Painful Truth About Teeth”, teeth are an important aspect of our life. Dental treatment ultimately has a large impact on our quality of life and proves to be an extremely precious form of care.
As we know, the Nazis behaved in a very careless manner lacking any form of empathy. They specifically used the gold from these extracted teeth for their own dental treatments and to add to the Nazi gold reserves. By forcefully removing these teeth, the Nazis were in a sense taking away the identity of the individual. At work, I often have to collect extracted teeth for dental research. So, when you collect a pile of teeth you don’t know where or from whom each tooth has come from. In this situation, the piles of teeth that the Nazis collected were no longer reminiscent of a human being. Instead, they were just piles of valuable teeth that were once precious to the individuals which they belonged to. In my opinion, this is one manner in which people lost their uniqueness and self-identity during the Holocaust.
This idea of losing your identity parallels with Zone One, and Mark Spitz description of the skels and stragglers. Mark Spitz states that “they [the skels] deserved release from their blood sentence… on their stalled journey from this sphere” (Whitehead 15). The skels and stragglers having been infected are stripped of their livelihood and identities similar to the Jews during the Holocaust. They have lost all of those qualities that make them unique in their now second, consuming and persisting lives. These stragglers express absolutely no emotion and appear to be lifeless, having lost any and all meaning behind their existence. In a sense you could consider these Holocaust survivors as being the same. In one of my previous blog posts I talked about the Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor, and how she was separated from her family by the Nazis, for medical research, treated no less than a lab rat. These survivors lost their families and even parts of their bodies, both of which define a human being.
Throughout the novel, Mark Spitz often remarks on the teeth of the skels as being broken, black, with a decaying appearance (Whitehead 70, 108). This helps to demonstrate that every little piece or characteristic of our bodies, makes us unique. Thus even the smallest features of our body are extremely meaningful and precious as they provide us with an identity and a purpose in life.