Elie Wiesel
Contributed by Vernita Mires
Chapter 2

The Jews are loaded into cattle cars and subjected to unbearable conditions. There is suffocation, intense heat, and little space to sit. All the prisoners are feeling hungry and thirsty. The fear of the unknown creates a panic in them, and they start behaving erratically. Some of them, men as well as women, start amorous activities, while the others chose to turn a blind eye.

After travelling for a few days in such inhuman conditions, they reach the Czechoslovakian border. Here, they get a feeling that they are simply not being relocated, but there is something more to it. Then, a German official takes charge of them. He issues a warning that Jews who do not hand over their precious belongings will be shot. And if anyone tries to escape from the train, all of them will be killed. The doors of the cattle car are shut with nails, leaving no chance of escape.

Madame Schächter, a middle-aged woman with a 10-year-old son, wilts to the extreme oppression after three days. She starts screaming and says that she can see a raging fire in the dark. No one else sees the fire, but she scares the prisoners in the car with the feeling of looming uncertainty.

But just like Moshe the Beadle in the opening section, the Jews do not pay heed to Madame Schächter. They take her as mad woman too. When she does not stop, the prisoners tie her up and silence her. Her son, close by, does not react and keeps on crying. Madame Schächter frees herself and warns of an imaginary furnace. Some of the youngsters on the train beat her up while others support them in the act. A day later, Madame Schächter’s howling and shouting resumes.

The train finally comes to a halt at an Auschwitz station. The prisoners, however, remain unnerved. They try to get some inside information from the locals. They are told that they have been brought to a labor camp where they will be looked after well, and they will work with their families. The gullible prisoners believe it and feel relieved that all their concerns were unfounded. However, by the time it is night, Madame Schächter is at it again. She is treated in the same way as has been going on for the past few days. In the middle of the night, the train reaches an area which is secured by barbed wire. From the windows of the train, the prisoners can only see chimneys of huge furnaces. There is a putrid smell in the air, which the prisoners can’t make out instantaneously. Later on, they realize that it is the smell of flesh burning. This concentration camp acts as a processing center for new prisoners at Auschwitz and is known as Birkenau.


Among the many concerns of Wiesel, one is that if humans are exposed to cruelty, it can lead to moral degradation and lack of human values in its victims. Wiesel’s narrative portrays Nazis’ inhuman treatment of Jews, which ultimately leads the victims to believe that they indeed do not deserve humane treatment. In short, it conveys the message that cruelty fosters more cruelty. Eliezer reminisces that in ghettos, there was a sense of bonding among the Jews, morality and common cause. But once they were homeless, they were treated as animals. Now, they have almost started behaving like them. This sub-human behavior is first manifested by the Jews in the crammed cattle cars where men and women start amorous activities. Later on, as the fear starts setting in the behavior of Jews, it gets worse with some of them thrashing Madame Schächter to silence her. Others also lend their support in this callous act. Wiesel writes that the death of faith in God is not the only psychological and moral tragedy of the Holocaust. It is the death of faith in mankind, which is more poignant. God fails to protect the Jews from the heartless Nazis. And Nazis, in a way, influence the Jews to unleash more cruelty and drive away any remaining sense of natural justice. The Jews’ refusal to see the upcoming disaster shows one aspect of the hurdles in penning the events of the Holocaust. Until the time Jews experienced torture in Auschwitz, they could not believe that humans were capable of such cruelty. Even Moshe’s firsthand account fails to wake them up from their slumber. When the Jews reach a concentration camp, they take it as a mere labor camp. It can now be understood that it is tough to make stories of Nazi repression look credible. Wiesel once again emphasizes that the Holocaust is a terrible thing to narrate, yet it must be done, so that the readers realize that such a thing actually happened. And, it is important to practice one’s beliefs to avert such tragedies.

The character of Madame Schächter, whom the prisoners take as a mad woman, keeps pointing to the blurring lines of sanity and insanity during the events of the Holocaust. Even though she is taken as a lunatic, she can clearly foresee their collective future. But those who are considered sane fail to see the impending disaster. Wiesel’s memoir shows that the line between sanity and insanity was blurred due to Nazi cruelty. It is almost impossible to imagine the systematic extermination of the Jews without a murmur being raised, yet it actually happened. In Auschwitz, prisoners lost their sanity as well as their morality.

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