I knew her quite well. A quiet, tense woman with piercing eyes, she had been a frequent guest in our house. Her husband was a pious man who spent most of his days and nights in the house of study. It was she who supported the family.
Eliezer reflects on Mrs. Schächter, a family friend from Sighet. In this memory, Mrs. Schächter, along with Eliezer, his family, and other Jews, is crammed in a train, being transported from their village to the concentration camps. This early in the story, the Wiesels are still surrounded by their friends and neighbors. Eliezer provides these details to show how closely connected he is to Mrs. Schächter.
She continued to sob and scream fitfully. “Jews, listen to me,” she cried. “I see a fire! I see flames, huge flames!” It was though she were possessed by some evil spirit.
Under the pressure of watching her husband and sons being removed, and being deported herself, Mrs. Schächter has gone insane and cannot stop screaming. Her screams are terrible to hear. At first her neighbors show pity and compassion, but nothing they say or do can calm her. The flames she sees in her vision, however, are real, and await for the prisoners at the end of the train ride.
But it was all in vain. Our terror could no longer be contained. Our nerves had reached a breaking point. Our very skin was aching. It was as though madness had infected all of us. We gave up. A few young men forced her to sit down, then bound and gagged her.
Mrs. Schächter’s madness spreads through the entire car, and the other passengers begin to turn against her. They are desperate to stop her screaming, and words have not worked, so they stop her by force. The scene is one of many painful reminders that when evil is inflicted on people they often react by turning on each other.
I squeezed my father’s hand. He said: “Do you remember Mrs. Schächter, in the train?”
Eliezer and his father are at Birkenau, their first camp. The women in their family have been taken away. They have just witnessed the horror babies and adults being burned in open pits. In the light of what he now knows, Eliezer’s father recognizes that Mrs. Schächter was not a madwoman but a prophet.