One of the worst things for the Jews in Auschwitz was the loss of hope, and the incident with Stein of Antwerp is a perfect example of that. In chapter three of Night by Elie Wiesel, Elie and his father are among the latest arrivals at Auschwitz, and they are starting to get used to the way things work here. One thing they understand right away, however, is that not everyone who started this journey is now alive.
One day a man we learn is Stein, one of the Wiesels' relatives from Antwerp, recognizes Elie and his father and is thrilled to see them. Elie's father has never been very observant, even about his immediate family, so he does not even recognize the man, but Elie does. Stein tells them about his own deportation and then gets to what he really wants to know. He says:
"I heard people say that a transport had arrived from your region and I came to look for you. I thought you might have some news of Reizel and my two small boys who stayed in Antwerp...."
While he is literally asking the Wiesels if they have seen is family, what he is really doing is expressing his fear that they are among the dead. He hopes that someone might have seen his family, which would mean that they are still alive, of course.
Elie is quick enough to sense exactly what this request is, and he wants to offer Stein some hope, even though Elie has absolutely nothing substantive to tell Stein about his family. He lies and says that his mother heard from Reizel and that she and Stein's children are fine. Immediately Stein bursts into tears of joy.
It is a lie that Stein wants to believe, and he returns several times to see the Weisels and brings bits of bread for Elie, undoubtedly a token of his gratitude for the news--or at least for the hope. Stein grows weaker and thinner, and every time he visits he cries. He still holds out hope, and in fact he says it is the only thing that is keeping him alive. He says he would have no more reason to live if he ever found out that Reizel and the children were gone.
One day a new transport arrives from Antwerp. Stein is full of hope when he goes to see if he can find his wife and children. Stein never comes back to see the Weisels because, Elie says, he discovers the truth. The implication is that, once he discovered that his family had been killed, Stein simply faded out of existence. He said he had no reason to live, and he was right.
Elie lied because he thought offering his relative hope was a kind thing to do. In one sense, he was right, as Stein lived longer than he would have if he had learned the truth earlier, In another sense, of course, false hope is almost worse than no hope at all. Stein came to the same end in any case.
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