Chapter 2 "Lying down was out of the question"
It is so crowded inside the cattle wagon that people have to take turns to sit down. They travel for two days, and the heat, crowding, and lack of food and drink is becoming unbearable. Social constraints become stripped away, and young people openly have sex, with everyone pretending not to notice. The wagons stop at Kaschau, a town on the Czechoslovak frontier, and everyone realizes that they will not be staying in Hungary as expected. A German officer explains to them that they are now under the authority of the German army. He takes all their valuables and threatens to shoot everybody in a wagon if even a single person escapes.
A fifty-year-old woman named Madamae Schaechter is on the train with her ten-year-old son. She had been separated from her husband and two older sons earlier and is now beginning to lose her mind. She starts screaming hysterically about a fire and a furnace that she claims to see in the distance. At first, she terrifies the people in her wagon, and they rush to see what she is pointing at out the window. After hours of her screaming, the people on the train can take no more, and they tie her up, gag her, and begin beating her to make her stop screaming about the fire. She breaks free from her restraints and periodically screams throughout the night, until everyone else on the train feels like they are about to go mad too. Finally, the wagons arrive at Auschwitz, which they are told is a labor camp where conditions are good. People's spirits lift, although Madame Schaechter continues to scream. As the train pulls into the camp, everyone suddenly sees the flames and chimney that Madame Schaechter had prophesied. When her vision finally materializes, Madame Schaechter becomes silent. Everyone is forced to get out of the train, amidst the smell of burning flesh. They are at Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz.
In this section of the novel, we catch our first glimpse of how human behavior changes when people are placed in extreme circumstances. After being confined in a small, cramped wagon with no food, water, or sanitation, the young people submit to their animal instincts and copulate without even considering the people around them. If people are not respected as individuals within society and are instead treated as animals, as the Jews are, then they will begin to act as animals, without regard to the usual social conventions and responsibilities. In addition to the physical torture and extermination that the Nazis submitted the Jews to, it is this kind of mental and psychological torture that may have proved most damaging to Holocaust survivors. Through a variety of methods that will be detailed in coming sections of the book, the Nazis denied the Jews (and other inhabitants of the concentration camps) their humanity and led them to behave in crude, brutal, and uncivilized ways. Confined in small spaces and denied their individuality, the Jews become anonymous beings concerned solely with their own survival. They were no longer people to the Nazis, and unable to prove that they were not simply animals, they began to act as if they were.
Another striking example of this theme occurs with the people's treatment of Madame Schaechter. Though she is a fifty-year-old woman and obviously unwell, she is beaten repeatedly about the head by young men trying to silence her. And her little boy says nothing: "They struck her several times on the headblows that might have killed her. Her little boy clung to her; he did not cry out; he did not say a word. He was not even weeping now." The people in the wagon treat her cruelly and inhumanely, as they undoubtedly would not have done under normal circumstances, but Wiesel does not condemn them for their brutal actions. Instead, his tone in this passage is very sad, full of regret and guilt. Since Madame Schaechter's hysterical shrieks was unnerving everyone in the car, he recognizes that it was necessary for their collective survival that she be silenced. At the same time, however, he seems to mourn the fact that such cruel behavior was necessary and that everyone, including the woman's own son, condoned such violent and vicious behavior. In this nightmare world that the Nazis have created for the Jews, survival is the only concern, and human emotions and affective ties become irrelevant.
Silence is an important theme in Night. In the first section Wiesel is preoccupied with how silent and complacent the pre-deportation Jews are and how they quietly and unknowingly go straight to their doom. The Jews do not believe anything bad can happen to them, they do not despair, and they quietly pass up on opportunities to escape. In this section, however, the silence (and generally quiet tone of the novel) is violently shattered by the hysterical screaming of Madame Schaechter. Her violent shrieks are what finally destroy the trusting naivete of the Jews and begin to make them afraid of what is to happen to them: "The heat, the thirst, the pestilential stench, the suffocating lack of airthese were as nothing compared with these screams which tore us to shreds. A few days more and we should all have started to scream too." Her screaming symbolizes the hellish world of insanity that they have entered into, as opposed to the world of calm, quiet, and security that they have just left behind.
When the caravan arrives at Auschwitz, they receive news that is horribly false: "There was a labor camp. Conditions were good. Families would not be split up. Only the young people would go to work in the factories. The old men and invalids would be kept occupied in the fields." As they will soon discover, Auschwitz is one of the most notorious of the Nazi death-camps. This passage is an example of dramatic irony because the characters think one thing while the reader knows what is actually true.