Once Elie and the other prisoners arrive at Birkenau, they are divided into two lines, which separate the men from women. This is the last time Elie sees his mother and sister, and he proceeds to pass the selection process alongside his father. After surviving the selection process, the prisoners form two lines and follow a procession towards the crematorium. Elie recalls witnessing huge flames rising from a burning ditch, where a truck drew near and dumped a load of babies into the fiery pit. Elie is astonished and appalled to witness living infants being thrown into the flames and pinches himself to confirm that he is alive.
At the moment Elie witnesses babies being thrown into the burning ditch, he begins to question reality and wonders how such atrocities could take place in the modern world. Elie and the other prisoners believe they will suffer the same fate as they continue their journey towards the crematorium. Moments before their procession reaches the fiery pit, the prisoners are ordered to turn left and head back to the barracks.
The gruesome experience is meant to intimidate the new prisoners upon arrival and initiates Elie to the atrocities of the Holocaust. In the preface, Elie comments on the experience of witnessing babies being thrown into the flames and mentions that he convinced himself they were dead to keep from losing his mind. However, fellows inmates verify that the infants were alive, and historians, including Telford Taylor, confirm this fact.