Packed into cattle cars, the Jews are tormented by nearly unbearable conditions. There is almost no air to breathe, the heat is intense, there is no room to sit, and everyone is hungry and thirsty. In their fear, the Jews begin to lose their sense of public decorum. Some men and women begin to flirt openly on the train as though they were alone, while others pretend not to notice. After days of travel in these inhuman conditions, the train arrives at the Czechoslovakian border, and the Jews realize that they are not simply being relocated. A German officer takes official charge of the train, threatening to shoot any Jew who refuses to yield his or her valuables and to exterminate everybody in the car if anybody escapes. The doors to the car are nailed shut, further preventing escape.
Madame Schächter, a middle-aged woman who is on the train with her ten-year-old son, soon cracks under the oppressive treatment to which the Jews are subjected. On the third night, she begins to scream that she sees a fire in the darkness outside the car. Although no fire is visible, she terrifies the Jews in the car, who are reminded that they do not know what awaits them. But, as with Moishe the Beadle earlier in the memoir, they console themselves in the belief that Madame Schächter is crazy. Finally, she is tied up and gagged so that she cannot scream. Her child, sitting next to her, watches and cries. When Madame Schächter breaks out of her bonds and continues to scream about the furnace that awaits them, she is beaten into silence by some of the boys on the train, with the encouragement of the others. The next night, Madame Schächter begins her screaming again.
The prisoners on the train find out, when the train eventually stops, that they have reached Auschwitz station. This name means nothing to them, and they bribe some locals to get news. They are told that they have arrived at a labor camp where they will be treated well and kept together as families. This news comes as a relief, and the prisoners let themselves believe, again, that all will be well. With nightfall, however, Madame Schächter again wakes everyone with her screams, and again she is beaten into silence. The train moves slowly and at midnight passes into an area enclosed by barbed wire. Through the windows, everybody sees the chimneys of vast furnaces. There is a terrible, but undefined, odor in the air—what they soon discover is the odor of burning human flesh. This concentration camp is Birkenau, the processing center for arrivals at Auschwitz.
One of Wiesel’s concerns in Night is the way that exposure to inhuman cruelty can deprive even victims of their sense of morality and humanity. By treating the Jews as less than human, the Nazis cause the Jews to act as if they were less than human—cruelty breeds cruelty, Wiesel demonstrates. In the ghetto, Eliezer recounts, the Jews maintained their social cohesion, their sense of common purpose and common morality. Once robbed of their homes and treated like animals, however, they begin to act like animals. The first hint of this dehumanized behavior on the part of the Jewish prisoners comes when some of the deportees, in the constraints of the cattle car, lose their modesty and sense of sexual inhibition. As the section progresses, the Jews become more and more depraved, overcome by their terror. Some of them begin to beat Madame Schächter in order to quiet her, and others vocally support those who are doing the beating. Wiesel suggests that one of the great psychological and moral tragedies of the Holocaust is not just the death of faith in God but also the death of faith in humankind. Not only does God fail to act justly and save the Jews from the cruel Nazis; the Nazis drive the Jews into cruelty, so that the Jews themselves fail to act justly.
The Jewish prisoners’ continual denial of what is happening around them reflects one of the major barriers in writing about the Holocaust. Until the Jews experience the horrors of Auschwitz, they cannot believe that such horrors exist. Even after having heard Moishe’s firsthand report, when the Jews arrive at Auschwitz, they still believe that it is merely a work camp. One can imagine, then, how difficult it is to convince others of the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Wiesel reminds us that the Holocaust is almost too awful a story to convey, yet he insists that it is a story that must be told, because it is crucial that those who hear the story believe, and act on their beliefs, before it is too late.
The figure of Madame Schächter, who in her lunacy foresees the furnaces of Auschwitz, raises an important question about the boundaries between sanity and insanity in the context of the evils of the Holocaust. Madame Schächter, who is supposedly crazy, sees clearly into the future, whereas the other Jews, who are supposedly sane, fail to foresee their fate. Throughout Wiesel’s memoir, sanity and insanity become confused in the face of atrocity. One would think it insane to imagine the extermination of six million Jews, yet it occurred, efficiently and methodically. In the world of Auschwitz, then, normal standards of lunacy and sanity become confused, just as one’s sense of morality is turned upside down.
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