Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century! And thus my elders concerned themselves with all manner of things—strategy, diplomacy, politics, and Zionism—but not with their own fate.
At the beginning of his story, Eliezer describes the way the elders in his small village in Hungary respond to Adolf Hitler’s threats. It is the spring of 1944. The concentration camps have been operating for years, and the Fascists are about to take power in Hungary. Nevertheless, the elders remain in acute denial over Hitler’s threats to exterminate the Jewish people. But here and throughout the book, Eliezer as narrator reminds us of the truth about the genocide that Hitler and the Nazis committed.
“Poor devils, you are heading for the crematorium.” He seemed to be telling the truth. Nor far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this with my own eyes… children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that sleep tends to elude me?)
Here, Eliezer recounts when he and his family arrive at their first camp, Birkenau. Upon arrival, Eliezer and his father are immediately separated from the women in the family. Then, they face hell on earth as they see the ditch of fire and are forced to confront the undeniable and horrendous truth: Hitler and the Nazis are indeed wiping out the Jewish people, just as they promised to do. Eliezer, his father, and others are being marched toward the flames. This fire represents not only physical death, but the annihilation of the Jewish people and faith.
Were the SS really going to leave hundreds of prisoners behind in the infirmaries, pending the arrival of their liberators? Were they really going to allow Jews to hear the clock strike twelve? Of course not. “All the patients will be finished off on the spot,” said the faceless one. “And in one last swoop, thrown into the furnaces.”
Eliezer and his father are in the infirmary at the Buna camp, and the Russian Army is approaching to liberate the camp. Eliezer explains that the patients expect to be killed before the Russians arrive, because they absolutely believe the Nazi threat to annihilate them. Knowing they face certain death if they stay, Eliezer and his father choose to evacuate with the Nazis instead. Their decision is one last desperate attempt to fight back against annihilation. In an excruciatingly bitter irony, Eliezer later learns that the prisoners in the infirmary had been freed within two days.