Sermon Illustrations

-Elie Wiesel was a fourteen year old boy when the Germans started loading the Jews on trains and sending them to the death camps authorized by Adolph Hitler. This excerpt picks up as he is traveling by in a cattle car on a train from Transylvania (which at the time was under the control of Hungary) to Auschwitz with his father, mother, and ten year old sister, whose name is Tzipporah. He and his father will be separated from their mother and sister. Elie’s mother and sister will ultimately die in the furnaces at Auschwitz. Elie’s father will die apparently of dysentery and Elie will be the only survivor in his family.

Excerpt from Night by Elie Wiesel (pp. 33-37):

The door of the car slid open. A German officer accompanied by a Hungarian lieutenant-interpreter, came up and introduced himself.

“From this moment on, 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 the wagon,” added the German officer. “If anyone is missing, you’ll 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 on to 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 her.”

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 the monotonous rhythm of a train traveling slowly through the night. We 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 to us its name:

“Auschwitz.”

No one had ever heard that name.

The train did not start up again. The afternoon passed slowly. Then the wagon doors slid open. Two men were allowed to get down to fetch water.

When they came back, they told us that, in exchange for a gold watch, they had discovered that this was the last stop. We would be getting out here. There was a labor camp. Conditions were good. Families would not be split up. Only young people would go to work in the factories. The old men and invalids would be kept occupied in the fields.

The barometer of confidence soared. Here was a sudden release from the terrors of the previous nights. We gave thanks to God.

Madame Schachter stayed in her corner, wilted, dumb, indifferent to...

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