Mrs. Schachter loses her mind and screams about a fire, scaring everyone until they have to gag her to keep her quiet.
Elie knew Mrs. Schachter from before. He described her as quiet and kind. She was a perfectly normal woman. Unfortunately, on the train Mrs. Schachter had been separated from her husband by mistake, and it “had totally shattered her” (ch 2, p. 24). She spends most of her time crying.
At first, the people think there actually is a fire and try to look out the windows to see it.
Standing in the middle of the car, in the faint light filtering through the windows, she looked like a withered tree in a field of wheat.
She was howling, pointing through the window:
"Look! Look at this fire! This terrible fire! Have mercy on me!" (ch 2, p. 25)
Her son cries, pleading with her that it is nothing. He tries to cling to her skirt. The others try to reason with her, but it is “as though she were possessed by some evil spirit” (ch 2, p. 25). Finally, when they are unsuccessful in quieting her, they force her down and gag her.
Although the travelers are sympathetic to the poor woman’s madness, it gets on their nerves. They are in close quarters, and already exhausted and hungry. They can’t stand it. It starts to drive them crazy. To save themselves, all they can do is stop her.
She received several blows to the head, blows that could have been lethal. Her son was clinging desperately to her, not uttering a word. He was no longer crying. (ch 2, p. 26)
Her son was frightened. Some of the people were frightened of themselves. In this situation, the weakest would be the first to go. If they did not handle it, she would drag them down with her.
The woman’s calls of fire are prophetic, foreshadowing the ovens that will take many of them alive. Their lack of sympathy for the woman and her son shows how they are already beginning to turn on one another, losing their humanity.