Summary and Analysis
For three days these eighty Jews of Sighet travel northwest standing up in hot, wretched, cramped quarters. They crave water and space to lie down; food runs low. At a stop at Kaschau, they realize that the train has entered Czechoslovakia. Germans claim control of the convoy and demand that deportees turn over any valuables or be shot. A similar fate awaits the entire carload if anyone escapes. Their attempts at rest are destroyed by the insane shrieks of Madame Schächter, who is torn by terrifying visions of burning. The others tie her in restraints, force a gag into her mouth, and beat her to control the hysteria.
On the third afternoon, the train halts at the depot of Auschwitz, Poland. Two deportees fetch water and return with false information: families will remain together; the young will work in factories; the elderly and invalids will work in the fields. A German officer promises medical care in the hospital car. Near midnight, the prisoners see flames leaping from a tall chimney. At Birkenau, the reception center for the Auschwitz compound, where the air, rent with flames, smells of incinerated flesh, attendants in striped uniforms, carrying police clubs, force everyone out of the railway boxcar.
Elie Wiesel's recollection of Madame Schächter's compelling visions punctuates the text with a fearful, dramatic foreshadowing. Although information gained from various sources provides no proof that a burning furnace of fire awaits them at their destination, the wretched, babbling testimony of a single madwoman rattles the defenseless carload of deportees with her spasmodic clairvoyance fraught with shrieks and pleas for help. Up to this point in the documentary, the Wiesels have discounted Moshe the Beadle's eyewitness accounts of Nazi machine-gun executions and have ignored the knowledgeable police inspector's tap at the covered window. Wiesel implies that the opportunity to immigrate to Palestine and the offer of a refuge with the housekeeper Maria are missed reprieves for his imperiled family, even temporarily, from German state police intent on Jewish extinction.
In later decades, Jews have wrestled with accusations that millions of their forebears complied docilely and meekly accepted confiscation of property, forced labor, torture, medical experimentation, and death. Other evidence, including Wiesel's commentary, proves that counter-insurgents engaged in sabotage, organized a bold network of defiance and disobedience through doctors and Kapos, and seized control of camps as Allied liberators fought within earshot of dismayed SS staff, who fled in fear of retaliation from the inmates they had whipped, starved, threatened, and demoralized. One of the strongest testimonies to Jewish cunning is Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List, a novel filmed in 1993 by Steven Spielberg to honor a Gentile entrepreneur's assistance of 1,100 courageous Jewish workers, especially Itzhak Stern, the Polish Jewish accountant who made out the list of workers whom Oskar Schindler protected with phony work papers, bribes to the SS, and demands for employment. Other rescuers who disprove blame cast on Jews include these:
- a half million members of the French Resistance, of whom 49,000 died or were executed and 200,000 were deported to concentration camps
- Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat and exporter who falsified papers for 100,000 Jewish émigrés
- King Christian X of Denmark, who donned the yellow star to demonstrate sympathy for Jews and led the Danes in evacuating streams of Jewish refugees to safety
Auschwitz (owsh vihtz) the death camp complex built in May 1940, south of the Vistula River a mile from the town of Oswiecim, Poland. Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, annihilated two million victims with Zyklon B, a hydrocyanic vapor spread through shower heads on unsuspecting victims, then disposed of their remains in crematories. Added to the original buildings was Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, a selection and disposal center at the Auschwitz depot, and the Monowitz labor camp, or Auschwitz III, which lay south of the I. G. Farben synthetic oil and rubber factory, called Buna.