Chapter 6 "An icy wind blew"
The SS officers make the prisoners run through the snow, and they shoot those who fall behind. Eliezer feels separate from his body and wishes he could get rid of it because it is so heavy to drag along. He begins to run mechanically and starts to lose his sense of self. A man named Zalman suddenly gets a stomach cramp and has to go to the bathroom; he falls and is trampled by the crowd. Eliezer wants to die to stop feeling the pain, but knows that he must keep going in order to help his father. It is impossible to slow down because there are so many people in the mob. They keep running through the night, even after an SS officer announces they have already come 42 miles. When they finally stop to rest, Eliezer and his father go inside a shed. Eliezer falls asleep, but his father wakes him up almost immediately. All around them people are falling asleep and dying in the snow. Eliezer and his father agree to take turns sleeping, and Eliezer stays awake first, watching people sleep and die around him. He tries to wake up a neighbor, but the man refuses to heed his advice. Eliezer whispers into his father's ear, and his father is startled, trying to figure out where he is. Then his father inexplicably smiles, and Eliezer says that he will always remember that smile.
An old man named Rabbi Eliahou comes into the shed looking for his son, who was separated from him while running. Rabbi Eliahou is a good man, admired by all, and he and his son had remained together for three years in the concentration camps. Eliezer tells the Rabbi that he hasn't seen the man's son, but after he leaves, he realizes that he actually had. The son had seen his father falling behind in the pack, but he had continued to run farther and farther away from him. He had been trying to get away from the burden of looking after a weak father. Eliezer prays to God for the strength never to act in the same way that Rabbi Eliahou's son did. The prisoners continue to march, and even the SS officers seem tired and offer encouragement. Eliezer's foot seems completely frozen, and he resigns himself to having one leg in the future.
When they finally arrive at Gleiwitz, they are crowded into barracks, and Eliezer feels like he is going to be suffocated by the mass of people lying on top of him. People are crushing each other to death because it is so crowded, and Eliezer suddenly finds himself on top of Juliek, a boy who played the violin in the band at Buna. Eliezer is glad that Juliek is still alive and shocked to discover that he brought his violin with him. Then Eliezer begins to be suffocated by a man on top of him and has to fight his way out to get some air. He calls to his father, who is also still alive. That night Juliek miraculously extricates himself from the tangle of bodies and begins to play Beethoven soulfully on his violin. The music is so pure amidst the silence of the night, and Juliek puts his whole self and being into his music, which is only heard by an audience of dead and dying men. The next morning he finds Juliek dead and his violin crushed.
They stayed at Gleiwitz for three days without food or drink, and then are going to be deported into the center of Germany. The front is following them, but the prisoners do not believe that the Russians will ever arrive in time to liberate them. On the third day there is a selection, and although Eliezer's father is sent to the crematory group, Eliezer creates a disturbance so that he manages to sneak back into the other group. The prisoners wait standing for a train in the middle of a snow-covered field, and because they are deprived of water and forbidden from bending over, they begin eating snow from each other's backs using spoons. The SS officers simply laugh. Finally, a train arrives, and they are loaded in, a hundred per car.
In this section Eliezer and the other remaining prisoners are pushed to the very limits of human capacity, both physically and mentally. Forced to run at least forty-two miles, Eliezer's mind feels like it is becoming disconnected from his body, and he continues to run mechanically without really realizing that he is doing so: "I was dragging with me this skeletal body which weighed so much. If only I had got rid of it! In spite of my efforts not to think about it, I could feel myself as two entitiesmy body and me. I hated it." Eliezer is barely conscious, yet keeps moving; though exhausted and malnourished, he and the other prisoners miraculously summon the superhuman energy to run for miles and miles. In this passage the Nazis succeed in completely destroying the bodily integrity and capacity for rational thought of their prisoners. The captives become simply bodies that move automatically and without thought; they are like animals who run by instinct alone to prevent themselves from being killed. The prisoners are motivated by blind terror alone; nothing else explains why they are able to keep running.
The prisoners lose their humanity and individuality as they run and instead merge into one collective mass of fleeing bodies. Though their running indicates how faceless and anonymous the prisoners have become, it also gives them a collective strength: "We were masters of nature, masters of the world. We had forgotten everythingdeath, fatigue, our natural needs. Stronger than cold or hunger, stronger than the shots and the desire to die, condemned and wandering, mere numbers, we were the only men on earth." Though individually weak and dying, collectively the prisoners are strong enough to withstand this new torture that the Nazis are inflicting on them. Simply because there are so many of them moving forward blindly, together they are able to overcome the cold and fatigue.
When Eliezer's father wakes up from his nap in the snow, he smiles inexplicably: "He stared all round him in a circle as though he had suddenly decided to draw up an inventory of his universe, to find out exactly where he was, in what place, and why. Then he smiled." Awakened from his dreams, he seems not to immediately recognize where he is, and it takes him awhile to make the transition from pleasant dreams to harsh reality. However, the real world that he faces upon awakening does not seem that much more real than his dream world, and it is for this reason that he smiles. His smile seems to indicate that, in the larger scheme of things, he recognizes that the nightmare world of the concentration camp is just as transient and insignificant as a dream. The smile implies that Eliezer's father can still find the goodness of God even among the Nazis and that he still retains the faith necessary for survival.
The episode involving Rabbi Eliahou and his son foreshadows Eliezer's own future attitude towards his father. When Eliezer realizes that the rabbi's son wanted to be free from a weak father who made his own survival more difficult, he prays to God, "My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou's son has done." Eliezer takes the actions of Rabbi Eliahou's son as a warning to himself and as an example of what not to do. However, his prayer to God is involuntary and suggests that he realizes he might behave in a way similar to that of the rabbi's son. As we shall see in the coming sections, Eliezer is right to pray to God for strength.
The image of Juliek playing the violin in the crowded barracks is the most beautiful one in the entire novel. Throughout the novel, Eliezer comments on how silent the barracks generally are at night, but this silence is one of terror, nightmares, and desperate exhaustion. As noted earlier, silence is one of the main themes of the novel, and sounds that break the silence, such as Madame Schaechter's hysterical screaming, prove very noticeable. Similarly, Juliek's violin-playing disrupts the silence, this time filling the night with rare beauty and poignancy: "He played a fragment from Beethoven's concerto. I had never heard sounds so pure. In such a silence." Juliek's music is unusually touching and heartrending because he puts his whole being into his playing. After being denied his life, humanity, and future by the Nazis and after having becoming emotionally numb from his time in the concentration camp, Juliek takes everything that has been denied him and infuses it into his music: "He was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the stringshis lost hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play again." The words "charred" and "extinguished" evoke the image of the fiery crematory and emphasize how crudely and barbarously the Nazis destroyed human life in the concentration camps.