At age 15, Elie Wiesel and
his family were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Wiesel was separated
from his mother and younger sister but remained with his father for another
year. His father died in the last months of the war; his mother and youngest
sister perished in the gas chambers.
A decade later, Wiesel recorded his
experiences; Night was published in 1958. The success of this novel led
Wiesel to write 35 additional works dealing primarily with Judaism, the
Holocaust and the overall fight for morality among the races. For Night,
Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.
The following is an excerpt.
door of the [train] car slid open. A German officer, accompanied by a
Hungarian lieutenant-interpreter, came up and introduced himself.
"From this moment, you come under
the authority of the German army. Those of you who still have gold, silver,
or watches in your possession must give them up now. Anyone who is later
found to have kept anything will be shot on the spot. Secondly, anyone
who feels ill may go to the hospital car. That's all."
The Hungarian lieutenant went among us
with a basket and collected the last possessions from those who no longer
wished to taste the bitterness of terror.
"There are eighty of you in this wagon,"
added the German officer. "If anyone is missing, you'll all be shot,
They disappeared. The doors were closed.
We were caught in a trap, right up to our necks. The doors were nailed
up; the way back was finally cut off. The world was a cattle wagon hermetically
sealed. We had a woman with us named Madame Schachter. She was about fifty;
her ten-year-old son was with her, crouched in a corner. Her husband and
two eldest sons had been deported with the first transport by mistake.
The separation had completely broken her.
I knew her well. A quiet woman with tense,
burning eyes, she had often been to our house. Her husband, who was a
pious man, spent his days and nights in study, and it was she who worked
to support the family. Madame Schachter had gone out of her mind.
On the first day of the journey, she had
already begun to moan and to keep asking why she had been separated from
her family. As time went on, her cries grew hysterical. On the third night,
while we slept, some of us sitting one against the other and some standing,
a piercing cry split the silence:
"Fire! I can see a fire! I can see
a fire!" There was a moment's panic. Who was it who had cried out?
It was Madame Schachter. Standing in the middle of the wagon, in the pale
light from the windows, she looked like a withered tree in a cornfield.
She pointed her arm toward the window, screaming: "Look! Look at
it! Fire! A terrible fire! Mercy! Oh, that fire!"
Some of the men pressed up against the
bars. There was nothing there; only the darkness. The shock of this terrible
awakening stayed with us for a long time. We still trembled from it. With
every groan of the wheels on the rail, we felt that an abyss was about
to open beneath our bodies. Powerless to still our own anguish, we tried
to console ourselves.
"She's mad, poor soul. . . . "
Someone had put a damp cloth on her brow, to calm her, but still her screams
went on: "Fire! Fire!" Her little boy was crying, hanging onto
her skirt, trying to take hold of her hands. "It's all right Mummy!
There's nothing there. . . . Sit down. . . . "
This shook me even more than his mother's
screams had done. Some women tried to calm her. "You'll find your
husband and your sons again . . . in a few days. . . . " She continued
to scream, breathless, her voice broken by sobs. "Jews, listen to
me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!"
It was as though she were possessed by
an evil spirit, which spoke from the depths of her being. We tried to
explain it away, more to calm ourselves and to recover our own breath
than to comfort her.
"She must be very thirsty, poor thing
That's why she keeps talking about a fire devouring." But it was
in vain. Our terror was about to burst the sides of the train. Our nerves
were at breaking point. Our flesh was creeping. It was as though madness
were taking possession of us all. We could stand it no longer.
Some of the young men forced her to sit
down, tied her up, and put a gag in her mouth. Silence again. The little
boy sat down by his mother, crying. I had begun to breathe normally again.
We could hear the wheels churning out that monotonous rhythm of a train
traveling through the night. We could begin to doze, to rest, to dream.
. . . An hour or two went by like this.
Then another scream took our breath away.
The woman had broken loose from her bonds and was crying out more loudly
than ever: "Look at the fire! Flames, flames everywhere. . . . "
Once more the young men tied her up and
gagged her. They even struck her. People encouraged them: "Make her
be quiet! She's mad! Shut her up! She's not the only one. She can keep
her mouth shut. . . . " They struck her several times on the head
-- blows that might have killed her.
Her little boy clung to her; he did not
cry out; he did not say a word. He was not even weeping now. An endless
night. Toward dawn, Madame Schachter calmed down. Crouched in her corner,
her bewildered gaze scouring the emptiness, she could no longer see us.
She stayed like that all through the day, dumb, absent, isolated among
As soon as night fell, she began to scream:
"There's a fire over there!" She would point at a spot in space,
always the same one. They were tired of hitting her. The heat, the thirst,
the pestilential stench, the suffocating lack of air -- these were as
nothing compared with these screams which tore us to shreds. A few days
more, and we should all have started to scream, too.
But we had reached a station. Those who
were next to the windows told us its name: "Auschwitz."
The cherished objects we had brought with
us thus far were left behind in the train, and with them, at last, our
illusions. Every two yards or so an SS man held his tommy gun trained
on us. Hand in hand we followed the crowd. An SS noncommissioned officer
came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order:
"Men to the left! Women to the right!"
Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short,
simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I
had not had time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father's
hand: We were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my
sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held Mother's hand. I saw them
disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister's fair hair,
as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other
And I did not know that in that place,
at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went
on walking. My father held onto my hand. Behind me, an old man fell to
the ground. Near him was an SS man, putting his revolver back in its holster.
My hand shifted on my father's arm. I
had one thought -- not to lose him. Not to be left alone. The SS officers
gave the order: "Form fives!" Commotion. At all costs we must
"Here, kid, how old are you?"
It was one of the prisoners who asked me this. I could not see his face,
but his voice was tense and weary. "I'm not quite fifteen yet."
"No. Eighteen." "But I'm not," I said. "Fifteen."
"Fool. Listen to what I say." Then he questioned my father,
who replied: "Fifty."
The other grew more furious than ever.
"No, not fifty. Forty. Do you understand? Eighteen and forty."
He disappeared into the night shadows.
A second man came up, spitting oaths at
us. "What have you come here for, you sons of bitches? What are you
doing here, eh?" Someone dared to answer him. "What do you think?
Do you supposed we've come here for our own pleasure? Do you think we
asked to come? A little more, and the man would have killed him.
"You shut your trap, you filthy swine,
or I'll squash you right now! You'd have done better to have hanged yourselves
where you were than come here. Didn't you know what was in store for you
at Auschwitz? Haven't you heard about it? In 1944?
No, we had not heard. No one had told
us. He could not believe his ears. His tone of voice became increasingly
brutal. "Do you see that chimney over there? See it? Do you see those
flames? (Yes, we did see the flames.) Over there -- that's where you're
going to be taken. That's your grave, over there. Haven't you realized
it yet? You dumb bastards, don't you understand anything? You're going
to be burned. Frizzled away. Turned into ashes."
He was growing hysterical in his fury.
We stayed motionless, petrified. Surely it was all a nightmare? An unimaginable
nightmare? I heard murmurs around me.
"We've got to do something. We can't
let ourselves be killed. We can't go like beasts to the slaughter. We've
got to revolt."
There were a few sturdy young fellows among
us. They had knives on them, and they tried to incite the others to throw
themselves on the armed guards. One of the young men cried: "Let
the world learn of the existence of Auschwitz. Let everybody hear about
it, while they can still escape. . . . "
But the older ones begged their children
not to do anything foolish: "You must never lose faith, even when
the sword hangs over your head. That's the teaching of our sages. . .
The wind of revolt died down. We continued
our march toward the square. In the middle stood the notorious Dr. Mengele
(a typical SS officer: a cruel face, but not devoid of intelligence, and
wearing a monocle); a conductor's baton in his hand, he was standing among
the other officers.
The baton moved unremittingly, sometimes
to the right, sometimes to the left. I was already in front of him: "How
old are you?" he asked, in an attempt at a paternal tone of voice.
"Eighteen." My voice was shaking. "Are you in good health?"
"Yes." "What's your occupation?" Should I say I was
"Farmer," I heard myself say.
This conversation cannot have lasted more than a few seconds. It had seemed
like an eternity to me. The baton moved to the left. I took half a step
forward. I wanted to see first where they were sending my father. If he
went to the right, I would go after him. The baton once again pointed
to the left for him too. A weight was lifted from my heart.
We did not yet know which was the better
side, right or left; which road led to prison and which to the crematory.
But for the moment I was happy; I was near my father. Our procession continued
to move slowly forward. Another prisoner continued to move slowly forward.
Another prisoner came up to us: "Satisfied?"
"Yes," someone replied. "Poor devils, you're going to the
crematory." He seemed to be telling the truth. Not far from us, flames
were leaping up from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something.
A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered
its load -- little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it -- saw it with my own
eyes . . . those children in the flames. (Is it surprising that I could
not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes.) So this was where
we were going. A little farther on was another and larger ditch for adults.
I pinched my face. Was I still alive? Was I awake? I could not believe
it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for
the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true. It was a nightmare.
. . . Soon I should wake with a start, my heart pounding, and find myself
back in the bedroom of my childhood, among my books. . . .
My father's voice drew me from my thoughts:
"It's a shame . . . a shame that you couldn't have gone with your
mother. . . . I saw several boys of your age going with their mothers.
. . . "
His voice was terribly sad. I realized
that he did not want to see what they were going to do to me. He did not
want to see the burning of his only son. My forehead was bathed in cold
sweat. But I told him that I did not believe that they could burn people
in our age, that humanity would never tolerate it. . . . "Humanity?
Humanity is not concerned with us. Today anything is allowed. Anything
is possible, even these crematories. . . . "
His voice was choking. "Father,"
I said, "if that is so, I don't want to wait here. I'm going to run
to the electric wire. That would be better than slow agony in the flames."
He did not answer. He was weeping. His
body was shaken convulsively. Around us, everyone was weeping. Someone
began to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I do not know if
it has ever happened before, in the long history of the Jews, that people
have ever recited the prayer for the dead for themselves.
"Yitgadal veyitkadach shmˇraba. .
. . May His Name be blessed and magnified. . . . " whispered my father.
For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His
name? The Eternal, Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible,
was silent. What had I to thank Him for?
We continued our march. We were gradually
drawing closer to the ditch, from which an infernal heat was rising. Still
twenty steps to go. If I wanted to bring about my own death, this was
the moment. Our line had now only fifteen paces to cover. I bit my lips
so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering. Ten steps still.
Eight. Seven. We marched slowly on, as though following a hearse at our
Four steps more. Three steps. There it
was now, right in front of us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all
that was left of my strength, so that I could break from the ranks and
throw myself upon the barbed wire.
In the depths of my heart, I bade farewell
to my father, to the whole universe; and, in spite of myself, the words
formed themselves and issued in a whisper from my lips: Yitgadal veyitkadach
shmˇraba. . . . May His Name be blessed and magnified. . . . My heart
The moment had come. I was face to face
with the Angel of Death. . . . No. Two steps from it we were ordered to
turn to the left and made to go into a barracks. I pressed my father's
hand. He said: "Do you remember Madame Schachter in the train?"
Never shall I forget that night, the first
night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times
cursed and seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke. Never
shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned
into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which
consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence
which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments, which
murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust.
Never shall I forget these things, even
if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.