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Elie Wiesel’s slightly fictionalized account of the years he spent in the most infamous German concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Night, was adapted from a much lengthier, unpublished memoir he had written detailing not only the time spent in the death camps, but the years that preceded it, when the shadow cast by the growing might of Nazi Germany began to subsume his native Hungary. Wiesel, obviously, survived his ordeal; the rest of his family did not, with the teenage Elie forced to grudgingly care for his slowly dying father while all around him Jews and other victims of fascism were systematically murdered.
In describing the sensations of entering the concentration camps – and it should be noted that Auschwitz-Birkenau was part of a large network of such camps, with Auschwitz ultimately emerging as the most deadly and the name of which has become synonymous with the Holocaust (“Auschwitz” is actually the name of the nearest Polish town; the camp’s designation reflected its nearest major population center) – Wiesel's narrator (representing the author himself) makes an observation that would mirror those of thousands of others, including the eventually-approaching Allied forces who liberated the camps, in this case, the Soviet Red Army. Wiesel’s first impression of his new home, from which he was immediately separated from his mother and sister, who died in the gas chambers, was the smell:
“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.”
Wiesel’s next observation also involved senses other than his eyes. Upon entering the extermination camp, the 15-year old narrator and his father were reprimanded by other inmates. As one expressed astonishment that Jews continued to arrive, he asked:
“You should have hanged yourselves rather than come here. Didn't you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn't know? In 1944?"
After the crematorium was pointed out to them, the new arrivals are marched through the camp, observing atrocities along the way, including the sight of babies (“Babies! Yes, I did see this with my own eyes . . .”) being thrown into fiery pits and, “a little farther on, there was another, a larger pit for adults.” And, as a constant element of the air they breathed, the inmates were submerged in the exhaust from the crematorium chimney (“Never shall I forget that smoke"). Arriving at the barrack where he will be housed, Wiesel’s narrator comments that “this is what the antechamber of hell must look like.” What follows can only be described as a nightmare, with images of prisoners shot, nonstop beatings, shouts from German guards and their Jewish “kapos,” or collaborators. “Work or crematorium,” an SS officer informed the new arrivals. And, after all that, the narrator’s “first impression” after they are marched from one camp to another nearby: “better than Birkenau”:
“Cement buildings with two stories rather than wooden barracks. Little gardens here and there.”
The narrator and the other newly-arrived inmates initially believe they have been transferred from one bleak situation to a better one. That misperception soon gives way to the reality that Auschwitz Central, a labor camp where at least you can survive, is anything but.
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