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Lies and Deceit
At daybreak, the gloom had lifted. The mood was more confident. There were those who said:
"Who knows, they may be sending us away for our own good. The front is getting closer, we shall soon hear the guns. And then surely the civilian population will be evacuated …"
"They worry lest we join the partisans …"
"As far as I’m concerned, this whole business of deportation is nothing but a big farce. Don’t laugh. They just want to steal our valuables and jewelry. They know that it has all been buried and that they will have to dig to find it; so much easier to do when the owners are on vacation …"
This kind of talk that nobody believed helped pass the time. The few days we spent here went by pleasantly enough, in relative calm. People rather got along. There no longer was any distinction between rich and poor, notables and the others; we were all people condemned to the same fate—still unknown. (1.175-80)
While they await deportation, the Jews of Sighet attempt to maintain their self-deception and hope, at least externally; they don’t voice their dread of the unknown.
In those days it was still possible to buy emigration certificates to Palestine. I had asked my father to sell everything, to liquidate everything, and to leave.
"I am too old, my son," he answered. "Too old to start a new life. Too old to start from scratch in some distant land…" (1.50-51)
Despite the signs of danger, Eliezer’s father refuses to emigrate when they have the opportunity. He has the false hope that the future in Sighet is still better than packing up and leaving for a new country.
Anguish. German soldiers—with their steel helmets, and their death’s head emblem. Still, our first impressions of the Germans were rather reassuring. The officers were billeted in private houses, even in Jewish homes. Their attitude toward their hosts was distant, but polite. They never demanded the impossible, made no offensive remarks, and sometimes even smiled at the lady of the house. A German officer lodged in the Kahn’s house across the street from us. We were told he was a charming man, calm, likable, and polite. Three days after he moved in, he brought Mrs. Kahn a box of chocolates. The optimists were jubilant: "Well? What did we tell you? You wouldn’t believe us. There they are, your Germans. What do you say now? Where is their famous cruelty?"
The Germans were already in town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out—and the Jews of Sighet were still smiling. (1.59-60)
What more can we say after that last line? Wiesel says it all. Well, if you really want our extra thought: the Sighet Jews deceive themselves with optimistic hopes for the future, blinding themselves to present danger.
The next day brought really disquieting news: German troops had penetrated Hungarian territory with the government's approval.
Finally, people began to worry in earnest. One of my friends, Moishe Chaim Berkowitz, returned from the capital for Passover and told us, "The Jews of Budapest live in an atmosphere of fear and terror. Anti-Semitic acts take place every day, in the streets, on the trains. The Fascists attack Jewish stores, synagogues. The situation is becoming very serious …"
The news spread through Sighet like wildfire. Soon that was all people talked about. But not for long. Optimism soon revived: The Germans will not come this far. They will stay in Budapest. For strategic reasons, for political reasons… (1.54-57)
The Jews of Sighet continue to deceive themselves to maintain a foolish optimistic notion that the Germans won’t come to Sighet. Again, these unfounded hopes about the future are dangerous, preventing the Jews from escaping when they are able.
The trees were in bloom. It was a year like so many others, with its spring, its engagements, its weddings, and its births.
The people were saying, "The Red Army is advancing with giant strides … Hitler will not be able to harm us, even if he wants to …"
Yes, we even doubted his resolve to exterminate us.
Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century! (1.44-47)
The Jews of Sighet deceive themselves. Their hope and optimism put them in danger; they don’t escape when they still have the opportunity.
Little by little life returned to "normal." The barbed wire that encircled us in did not fill us with real fear. In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; we were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic … A Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish police force, a welfare agency, a labor committee, a health agency–a whole government apparatus.
People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers …
Most people thought that we would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion. (1.1.79-82)
The Jews of Sighet together create for themselves an illusion to sustain them while they are in the ghetto. They deceive themselves into thinking that they now have self-rule and that life in the ghetto is better than life before.
And so an hour or two passed. Another scream jolted us. The woman had broken free of her bonds and was shouting louder than before:
"Look at the fire! Look at the flames! Flames everywhere…"
Once again, the young men bound and gagged her. When they actually struck her, people shouted their approval:
"Keep her quite! Make that madwoman shut up. She’s not the only one here …"
She received several blows to the head, blows that could have been lethal. Her son was clinging desperately to her, not uttering a word. He was no longer crying. (2.34-38)
Mrs. Schächter’s dark visions so anger the Jews of Sighet, who are trying to keep their hopes up, that they begin to beat her in order to silence her.
It took us a long time to recover from this harsh awakening. We were still trembling, and with every screech of the wheels we felt the abyss opening beneath us. Unable to still our anguish, we tried to reassure each other:
"She [Mrs. Schächter] is a mad, poor woman …"
Someone had placed a damp rag on her forehead. Be she nevertheless continued to scream:
"Fire! I see a fire!"
She continued to scream and sob fitfully.
"Jews, listen to me," she cried. "I see a fire! I see flames, huge flames!"
It was as though she were possessed by some evil spirit.
We tried to reason with her, more to calm ourselves, to catch our breath, than to soothe her:
"She is hallucinating because she is thirsty, poor woman … That’s why she speaks of flames devouring her …"
But it was all in vain. Our terror could no longer be contained. Our nerves had reached a breaking point. Our very skin was aching. It was as though madness had infected all of us. We gave up. A few young men forced her to sit down, then bound and gagged her. (2.19-32)
The Jews of Sighet want so desperately to remain subjects of their optimistic self-deception that they bind and gag Mrs. Schächter who begs them to face reality.
The train did not move again. The afternoon went by slowly. Then the doors of the wagon slid open. Two men were given permission to fetch water.
When they came back, they told us that they had learned, in exchange for a gold watch, that this was the final destination. We were to leave the train here. There was a labor camp on the site. The conditions were good. Families would not be separated. Only the young would work in the factories. The old and the sick would find work in the fields.
Confidence soared. Suddenly we felt free of the previous night’s terror. We gave thanks to God. (2.46-48)
Where on earth did they get that news from? And why are they so ready to believe anyone who they bribe with a gold watch? The people ache for good news that will justify all of their hopes.
Around eleven o'clock the train began to move again. We pressed against the windows. The convoy was rolling slowly. A quarter of an hour later, it began to slow down even more. Through the windows, we saw barbed wire; we understood that this was the camp.
We had forgotten Mrs. Schächter’s existence. Suddenly, there was a terrible scream:
"Jews, look! Look at the fire! Look at the flames!"
And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky.
In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been about midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau. (2.55-63)
The Jews of Sighet wanted so dearly to maintain hope that they ignored Mrs. Schächter’s warnings. The illusions they created for themselves were dangerous; they kept themselves ignorant of what was to come until it was far, far too late.
Mrs. Schächter had lost her mind. On the first day of the journey she had already begun to moan. She kept asking why she had been separated from her family. Later, her sobs and screams became hysterical.
On the third night, as we were sleeping, some of us sitting, huddled against each other, some of us standing, a piercing cry broke the silence:
"Fire! I see a fire! I see a fire!"
There was a moment of panic. Who had screamed? It was Mrs. Schächter. Standing in the middle of the car, in the faint light filtering through the windows, she looked like a withered tree in a field of wheat. She was howling, pointing through the window:
"Look! Look at this fire! This terrible fire! Have mercy on me!"
Some pressed against the bars to see. There was nothing. Only the darkness of night. (2.13-18)
With her first prophetic warning, Mrs. Schächter attempts to awaken the Jews of Sighet from their self-deceptive optimism, but fails.
From time to time, in the middle of all that talk, a thought crossed my mind: Where is Mother right now … and Tzipora …
"Mother is still a young woman," my father once said. "She must be in a labor camp. And Tzipora, she is a big girl now. She too must be in a camp …"
How we would have liked to believe that. We pretended, for what if one of us still did believe? (3.179-181)
Eliezer and his dad try to deceive themselves and each other about the likelihood that their loved ones are alive. In the end, however, Eliezer knows they’re just pretending in an attempt to keep each other’s hope alive.
His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would to do to me. He did not wish to see his only son go up in flames.
My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes …
"The world? The world is not interested in us. Today everything is possible, even the crematoria …" His voice broke.
"Father," I said. "If that is true, then I don’t want to wait. I’ll run into the electrified barbed wire. That would be easier than a slow death in the flames." (3.57-60)
Eliezer in his youthful innocence continues to think that they are not mortal danger, but his father puts an end to their self-deception—the crematoria have shaken him out his illusions.
The only thing that keeps me alive," he [Stein] kept saying, "is to know that Reizel and the little ones are still alive. Were it not for them, I would give up."
One evening he came to see us, his face radiant.
"A transport just arrived from Antwerp. I shall go to see them tomorrow. Surely they will have news …"
We never saw him again. He had been given the news. The real news. (3.169-173)
Stein was kept alive by the lie that his wife and children were okay. But once he realizes the deception, and the truth of his family’s situation, he feels he has no reason to keep on living.
"You don’t know me? … You don’t recognize me. I’m your relative, Stein. Already forgotten? Stein. Stein from Antwerp. Reizel’s husband. Your wife was Reizel’s aunt … She often wrote to us… and such letters!"
[…] I recognized him right away. I had known Reizel, his wife, before she had left for Belgium.
He told us that he had been deported in 1942. He said, "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 …"
I knew nothing about them … Since 1940, my mother had not received a single letter from them. But I lied:
"Yes, my mother did hear from them. Reizel is fine. So are the children …"
He was weeping with joy. He would have liked to stay longer, to learn more details, to soak up the good news, but an SS was heading in our direction and he had to go, telling us that he would come back the next day. (3.152-157)
Even though it’s a lie, Eliezer can’t help but try to provide his relative with some hope, even false hope – he sees deception as a better alternative to crushing Stein.
"Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t loose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever … And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice: let there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive. And now, enough said, you are tired. Listen: you are in Block 17; I am responsible for keeping order here. Anyone with a complaint may come to see me. That is all. Go to sleep. Two people to a bunk. Good night." (3.136)
Either the Pole in charge of Eliezer’s block has deceived himself into believing all of them will "see the day of liberation," or he is purposefully trying to deceive the men in an attempt to give them hope and sustain them.
We were quite used to this kind of rumor. It wasn’t the first time that false prophets announced to us: peace-in-the-world, the-Red-Cross-negotiating-our-liberation, or other fables … And often we would believe them … It was like an injection of morphine. (5.147)
Rumors of liberation from the Allies ease the prisoners’ pain and build up their hope, even if the rumors are false.
Only this time these prophecies seemed more founded. During the last nights, we had heard cannons in the distance.
My faceless neighbor spoke up:
"Don't be deluded. Hitler has made it clear that he will annihilate all Jews before the clock strikes twelve."
"What do you care what he said? Would you want us to consider him a prophet?"
His cold eyes stared at me. At last, he said wearily:
"I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people." (5.148-154)
Recognizing that illusions are dangerous, Eliezer’s neighbor in the hospital attempts to bring Eliezer back to the reality of their situation as Jews under Hitler’s control.
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