Why are Elie and his father warned about giving their real ages?

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clane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Elie and his father are standing in line and a guard is pointing people either to the right or to the left and neither Elie nor his father know which is way leads toward life. A prisoner approaches them in line and is furious that they have allowed themselves to come to a camp at this point in the war. It is 1944, almost the end of World War II and this prisoner does not understand how people can still manage to come to a place like this, surely they would have heard by now the horrible atrocities taking place and would have fled. As furious as he is, it is not beneath him to help and so he offers them advice as to what to tell the guards based on what they have seen happen to others who have come before them. He asks both their ages and when Elie replies that he is fifteen the prisoner demands that he tell the guards that he is eighteen. Elie's father replies that he is fifty and the prisoner demands that he tell the guard that he is forty. Fifteen and forty or they will surely burn. The Nazis found very little use for children and the elderly and often were the first to be murdered without a chance to prove their worth so this prisoner saved their lives by giving this advice.