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Shortly after the Nazis arrive in the small town of Sighet, they force the Jewish citizens to reside in two lower-class housing tenements called ghettos. While Elie and his family are living in the small ghetto, he recalls their former Christian servant, Maria, visiting them. When Maria enters the ghetto and sees Elie's family, she immediately begins to weep. Maria begs Elie's family to leave the ghetto and follow her to her village, where she had prepared a safe shelter for them to hide in until the Nazis leave. Unfortunately, Elie's father refuses to follow Maria and insists on staying with his wife and children. Elie's father's decision to stay in the ghetto has tragic consequences as his family is separated and transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Maria's warnings and opportunity to escape could have possibly saved Elie's family from experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust.

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Maria is Eliezer family's maid. She offers to help the family when they are rounded up and placed in the ghetto. She understands, or at least has a good idea, about what is in store for them. Bringing out one of the fundamental themes in the book, the family declines her help. The significance of this reflects the futility or failure of human freedom in the Holocaust. We see this several times in the narrative, notably in the decision to leave the camp (when it would have been liberated in only a couple of days) and the need to try to get along in the brutal conditions—only to find that it would have made no difference with whatever decision is made. The rejection of Maria's offer of help is part of this paradox whereby individuals have freedom and try to use it—only to be undercut by the conditions of life that make the use of such freedom futile or fruitless. The situation with Maria is one such example.

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