Summary and Analysis
In the heavy, clotted mass of the living and dead, Elie begins to lose hope of survival. By daylight, he locates his father's slumped form but gets no answer to his call. The train halts in a deserted field for the removal of several hundred corpses. Elie slaps his father awake to save him from the "grave diggers," a euphemism for an unfeeling crew who merely dump cadavers on the ground and abandon them. The prisoners live on snow for ten days of travel through Germany. A German workman precipitates a stampede by tossing bread to starving men, who fight for scraps. A crowd of Germans repeat the gesture and initiate more deadly scrambles for food. A son named Meir beats his father and snatches a crust from his grasp; both men die as others join in the deadly scuffle for bread.
During an unexplained attack on Elie, his father and Meir Katz drive off a would-be strangler. Despite his strength, Meir Katz falls into despair over the selection of his son for death. Elie's father is unable to revive his spirit. Facing icy winds, the prisoners realize they will die if they don't keep active. An outcry from one inmate elicits a mutual wail throughout the convoy. Meir Katz prefers a bullet to continual misery. On arrival at Buchenwald late at night, out of the hundred prisoners in his train car, only Elie, his father, and ten others survive.
This brief chapter carries the ghoulish atmosphere to extremes as more men sink toward death and are matter-of-factly tossed aside. Wiesel's intensification of the dangers of violence, hunger, apathy, and cold blurs the lines between bare survival and death. Widespread disinterest in survival within the ranks of dying inmates parallels the callous games workmen play by tossing bread to starving people. Obviously drawn to the passing convoy of prisoners out of curiosity rather than by pity, German workers appear as indifferent to the plight of Jews as are the SS guards. In his later writings and speeches, Wiesel condemns apathy and indifference as the greatest of sins because stifled compassion precipitated complacency and inaction against the war crimes rampant in Hitler's monstrous Third Reich.
The contrast between Meir Katz's loss of hope and the mob of hungry men clawing for food depicts the near-death bestiality that supplants normal human behavior. To Elie, prisoners become "wild beasts of prey, with animal hatred in their eyes; an extraordinary vitality had seized them, sharpening their teeth and nails." The unbridled savagery versus corpse-like inactivity colors a panorama of action versus inaction. At the separation point that elevates humanity from depravity, Wiesel prefigures Segment 8, the arrival at Buchenwald, the Third Reich's oldest concentration camp and the final challenge to Elie's ebbing strength.
Aden a seaport of Yemen on the Arabian peninsula.
Buchenwald Germany's model concentration camp, which was built outside Weimar in July 1937 to house homosexuals, political dissidents, Russian prisoners of war, Gypsies, and criminals, and to supply armaments factories with twelve-hour shifts of camp laborers, who died at the rate of 6,000 per month. Between January and April 1945, the inmate population more than doubled from 40,000 to 81,000. Fifty thousand died from overwork, starvation, and fatal medical experimentation designed to study patient response to bacteria, burns, and lethal injection. The prison staff earned the world's abhorrence for saving tattooed skins.