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An unforgettable fire


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.

The 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, like dogs."

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 us.

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 men.

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 keep together.

"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 a student?

"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 own funeral.

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 was bursting.

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.