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Madame Schacter's screams and nightmares predict their fate--even before they reach Birkenau. She claims to see a fire, and this greatly disturbs those around her. They try to calm her, but mostly they do this to comfort themselves. Her screams don't help any of the tension they already feel. There's something ominous in her insane behavior. As they get closer to Birkenau, they see the flames and realize how true and terrifying her nightmare really was. Her visions and screams foreshadow them being burned at the camps.
Madame Schachter's nightmare foreshadowed the annihilation of many of Elie's Jewish family and neighbors in the crematoriums at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi concentration camps during World War two. It also foreshadowed the horrific fate all Jews would ultimately suffer because of Hitler's genocidal ambitions. The indignities Mrs. Schachter endured on the train at the hands of her fellow Jews soon repeated itself in the camps, as all struggled for survival amid brutal conditions. In short, Mrs. Schachter's nightmare foreshadowed death and the loss of humanity.
In the story, Elie tells of being in the same train car as Mrs. Schachter and her ten year old son. Her husband and two older sons had been mistakenly deported in the first departure, and this event had precipitated Mrs. Schachter's descent to madness. Elie relates how the older woman's moans had eventually turned into piercing screams about a fire in the distance. Although many of her fellow passengers had attempted to calm her in the initial stages of her nightmare, all were soon emotionally drained by her periodic screaming fits. Eventually, in desperation, some young men had rained blows on her to keep her quiet; Mrs. Schachter was eventually also bound and gagged as a means to secure her silence.
Although none of her fellow passengers could initially see the fire Mrs. Schachter was screaming about, her nightmarish warning soon proved prescient. When the passengers reached Auschwitz-Birkenau, they were provided a chilling glimpse of 'flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky.' The stench of burning flesh in the air was both disconcerting and sickening.
Thus, Mrs. Schachter's nightmare not only foreshadowed the horrific suffering of the Jewish people, it also foreshadowed the dehumanization of a society bound by uncompromising racial purity theories. Not only were whole communities coldly executed and cremated, those still living often succumbed to apathy and cruel violence as a means of coping. Meanwhile, much of the German populace themselves became apathetic to the suffering they witnessed. In all, Mrs. Schachter's nightmare was horribly prescient.
When Elie and his family are on the train to Auschwitz, Madame Schacter is a woman whose mind has shattered from the brutality of what is happening to the Jews. Her husband had already been taken, and now she and her young son were on the train. She would talk crazily, as some of the people thought. While they are on the train, she starts to scream about the fires. She asks everyone if they can see the smoke and the fire. Of course, it is night and no one can see anything. They all say that she is crazy and try to ignore her.
The whole train ride there, Madame Schacter becomes more and more insistent that there is a fire. No one can see a fire and some of the men even start to hit her about the head. Elie wonders about her fractured mind at this point and talks about her young son, just hanging onto his mother.
When they finally arrive, the first thing Elie sees is the big smoke towers. He can smell the smoke and realizes it is the smell of humans. He realizes that Madame Schacter's warnings have gone unheard and that she was foreshadowing the horrific events that were taking place.
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