In chapter two of Night by Elie Wiesel, examine the theme and idea of "witness."

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Night by Elie Wiesel contains a consistent theme of "witnesses" who serve as warnings for the Jews, though they do not listen. One reading of the word "witness" is a person who actually observes an event. That would include someone like Moshe the Beadle who was in a Hungarian concentration camp and tries to warn everyone of the impending dangers (though no one listened), or the old inmate in chapter three who warns Elie and his father to lie about their ages because he has seen what happens to others in their circumstances.

There is another possible component of the word, however, which applies to this novel and particularly to chapter two.

A witness is someone who has, who claims to have, or is thought, by someone with authority to compel testimony, to have knowledge relevant to an event or other matter of interest. 

In the case of Night, chapter two is full of the testimony of one such witness: Madame Scháchter. It is true that she has not been to a concentration camp and does not know first-hand of the atrocities the Jews will find there. Nevertheless, she claims to have some knowledge about what is to come and she testifies.

"Jews, listen to me," she cried. "I see a fire! I see flames, huge flames!" It was as though she were possessed by some evil spirit.

Of course no  one crammed into the crowded boxcar believes her; they all assume she has gone mad because she has been separated from her husband and several of her children, and perhaps she has. Nevertheless, she continues to randomly break out in short bursts, screaming (and testifying) about a fire.

One time everyone is rather dozing but is again awakened by her screams:

"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.

Something in the others recognizes her testimony has a ring of foreboding truth, but what she is saying is too outrageous and confusing to believe. When the train finally stops, Madame Scháchter gives one last testimony to what is ahead of the Jews:

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.

Though she may have been mentally deranged, Madame Scháchter was a witness to her people about the atrocities to come. Though we do not know how she knew, she claimed to have testimony about things she could not have known in the natural, and she was right. No one believed her, but she was a witness for the truth.