Elie Wiesel: arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau (1944)

In this extract from Night by Elise Wiesel, he describes the train journey and arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944:

“The afternoon went by slowly. Then the doors of the wagon slid open. Two men were given permission to fetch water. When they came back, they told us that they had learned, in exchange for a gold watch, that this was the final destination. We were to leave the train here. There was a labour camp on the site. The conditions were good. Families would not be separated. Only the young would work in the factories. The old and the sick would find work in the fields.

Confidence soared. Suddenly we felt free of the previous nights’ terror. We gave thanks to God. Mrs. Schachter remained huddled in her corner, mute, untouched by the optimism around her. Her little one was stroking her hand. Dusk began to fill the wagon. We ate what was left of our food. At ten o’clock in the evening, we were all trying to find a position for a quick nap and soon we were dozing. Suddenly…

“Look at the fire! Look at the flames! Over there! ”

With a start, we awoke and rushed to the window yet again. We had believed her, if only for an instant. But there was nothing outside but darkness. We returned to our places, shame in our souls but fear gnawing at us nevertheless. As she went on howling, she was struck again. Only with great difficulty did we succeed in quieting her down. The man in charge of our wagon called out to a German officer strolling down the platform, asking him to have the sick woman moved to a hospital car.

“Patience,” the German replied, “patience. She’ll be taken there soon.”

Around eleven o’clock, the train began to move again. We pressed against the windows. The convoy was rolling slowly. A quarter of an hour later, it began to slow down even more. Through the windows, we saw barbed wire; we understood that this was the camp. We had forgotten Mrs. Scháchter’s existence. Suddenly there was a terrible scream:

“Jews, look! Look at the fire! Look at the flames!”

And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky. Mrs. Schachter had fallen silent on her own. Mute again, indifferent, absent, she had returned to her corner.

We stared at the flames in the darkness. A wretched stench floated in the air. Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right, shouting: “Everybody out! Leave everything inside. Hurry up!”

We jumped out. I glanced at Mrs. Schachter. Her little boy was still holding her hand. In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been around midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau.”