Friday, March 17, 2006

Night. . . . Descending Into Hell

A friend of mine, Calvin Jean, a few weeks ago told me that I had to read a book that he was reading. He told me that his girls, who were seniors in high school, were having to do term papers on books that they were able to select from a list. They happened to pick Night by Elie Weisel. Their choice was what brought this very troubling story into my life. Calvin told me that he just picked up the book when one of his daughters had laid it down and was immediately drawn into the story.

Little did I realize what an impact that this book would have on my comfortable little world. In fact, I was so troubled by this
story that it would weave it's way into my preaching and into the lives of those to whom I preach to. There are some in the congregation who went and either checked it out at the library or bought it and read it. I confess that I made both of my boys, Justin and Nathan, read this book because it gave them some insight into the terror that ruined young Elie's life at age 14.

The story is a narrative that is given from a first person account. Elie Weisel was a young fourteen year old Jewish boy who would have to deal with the wickedness from a twisted mind of a madman. The trickle down effect of this man's evil would effect millions of lives during the 1930-40's and even further.


Early in the book, he begins to describe the train ride from his hometown that would ultimately take him to Auschwitz. One of the gut-wrenching scenes in the book is when Elie is separated from his mother and little sister shortly after entering Auschwitz. He would never see them again for their fate was sealed and they would have to die in the gas chambers.

The story traces a wretched path that the prisoners were forced to take. Oddly enough the German soldiers were not immune from the suffering that they had to be involved in and saw. Some of the soldiers were kind enough to try and help these unfortunates but there were others who covered their feelings and plunged in headfirst into the suffering with a vengeance. They fought against any feelings of compassion that might have arisen in their souls with extraordinary violence. Two groups, on opposite ends of the spectrum, were forced to walk their assigned path. One path was marked with the paradox of weakness and the other path was marked by a paradox of strength.

Stale bread and very weak potato soup and occasionally turnip soup would be their daily fare. Their bodies soon became living skeletons from the weight loss. Others died from weakened immune systems. There were some who succumbed to terrible bouts with dysentery. Elie's father would die almost literally in his arms. He worked desperately trying to
save his father but all to no avail.

The impact of books like this can do one of two things. First, one can dismiss the facts and give this account up to history. Secondly, one can allow stories like this to afflict the comfort zones of life. For me, it was the second. My comfort zone was violated and troubled.


In fact, I ended up preaching a sermon about this entitled "A Truce with Hell" and concluded the message with a story that young Elie related.

Excerpt from Night by Elie Wiesel (pp. 33-37):

The door of the car slid open. A German officer accompanied by a Hungarian lieutenant-interpreter, came up and introduced himself.

“From this moment on, you come under the authority of the German army. Those of you who still have gold, silver, or watches in your possession must give them up now. Anyone who is later found to have kept anything will be shot on the spot. Secondly, anyone who feels ill may go to the hospital car. That’s all.”

The Hungarian lieutenant went among us with a basket and collected the last possessions from those who no longer wished to taste the bitterness of terror.

“There are eighty of you in the wagon,” added the German officer. “If anyone is missing, you’ll be shot, like dogs. . .”

They disappeared. The doors were closed. We were caught in a trap, right up to our necks. The doors were nailed up; the way back was finally cut off. The world was a cattle wagon, hermetically sealed.

We had a woman with us named Madame Schachter. She was about fifty; her ten year old son was with her, crouched in a corner. Her husband and two eldest sons had been deported with the first transport by mistake. The separation had completely broken her.

I knew her well. A quiet woman with tense, burning eyes, she had often been to our house. Her husband, who was a pious man, spent his days and nights in study, and it was she who worked to support the family.

Madame Schachter had gone out of her mind. On the first day of the journey she had already begun to moan and to keep asking why she had been separated from her family. As time went on, her cries grew hysterical.

On the third night, while we slept, some of us sitting one against the other and some standing, a piercing cry split the silence:

“Fire! I can see a fire! I can see a fire!”

There was a moment’s panic. Who was it who had cried out? It was Madame Schachter. Standing in the middle of the wagon, in the pale light from the windows, she looked like a withered tree in a cornfield. She pointed her arm toward the window, screaming:

“Look! Look at it! Fire! A terrible fire! Mercy! Oh, that fire!

Some of the men pressed up against the bars. There was nothing there; only the darkness.

The shock of this terrible awakening stayed with us for a long time. We still trembled from it. With every groan of the wheels on the rail, we felt that an abyss was about to open beneath our bodies. Powerless to still our own anguish, we tried to console ourselves:

“She’s mad, poor soul. . .”

Someone had put a damp cloth on her brow, to calm her, but still her screams went on:

“Fire! Fire!”

Her little boy was crying, hanging on to her skirt, trying to take hold of her hands. “It’s all right, Mummy! There’s nothing there. . . . Sit down. . .” This shook me even more than his mother’s screams had done.

Some women tried to calm her. “You’ll find your husband and your sons again. . . in a few days. . .”

She continued to scream, breathless, her voice broken by sobs. “Jews, listen to me! I can see a fire! There are huge flames! It is a furnace!”

It was as though she were possessed by an evil spirit which spoke from the depths of her being.

We tried to explain it away, more to calm ourselves and to recover our own breath than to comfort her. “She must be very thirsty, poor thing! That’s why she keeps talking about a fire devouring her.”

But it was in vain. Our terror was about to burst the sides of the train. Our nerves were at breaking point. Our flesh was creeping. It was as though madness were taking possession of us all. We could stand it no longer. Some of the young men forced her to sit down, tied her up, and put a gag in her mouth.

Silence again. The little boy sat down by his mother, crying. I had begun to breathe normally again. We could hear the wheels churning out the monotonous rhythm of a train traveling slowly through the night. We begin to doze, to rest, to dream. . .

An hour or two went by like this. Then another scream took our breath away. The woman had broken loose from her bonds and was crying out more loudly than ever:

“Look at the fire! Flames, flames everywhere. . .”

Once more the young men tied her up and gagged her. They even struck her. People encouraged them:

“Make her be quiet! She’s mad! Shut her up! She’s not the only one. She can keep her mouth shut. . .”

They struck her several times on the head—blows 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.

An endless night. Toward dawn, Madame Schachter calmed down. Crouched in her corner, her bewildered gaze scouring the emptiness, she could no longer see us.

She stayed like that all through the day, dumb, absent, isolated among us. As soon as night fell, she began to scream: “There’s a fire over there!” She would point at a spot in space, always the same one. They were tired of hitting her. The heat, the thirst, the pestilential stench, the suffocating lack of air—these 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.

But we had reached a station. Those who were next to the windows to us its name:

Auschwitz.”

No one had ever heard that name.

The train did not start up again. The afternoon passed slowly. Then the wagon doors slid open. Two men were allowed to get down to fetch water.

When they came back, they told us that, in exchange for a gold watch, they had discovered that this was the last stop. We would be getting out here. There was a labor camp. Conditions were good. Families would not be split up. Only young people would go to work in the factories. The old men and invalids would be kept occupied in the fields.

The barometer of confidence soared. Here was a sudden release from the terrors of the previous nights. We gave thanks to God.

Madame Schachter stayed in her corner, wilted, dumb, indifferent to the general confidence. Her little boy stroked her hand.

As dusk fell, darkness gathered inside the wagon. We started to eat our last provisions. At ten in the evening, everyone was looking for a convenient position in which to sleep for a while, and soon we were all asleep. Suddenly:

“The fire! The furnace! Look over there! . . . .”

Waking with a start, we rushed to the window. Yet again we had believed her, even if only for a moment. But there was nothing outside save the darkness of night. With shame in our souls, we went back to our places, gnawed by fear, in spite of ourselves. As she continued to scream, they began to hit her again, and it was with greatest difficulty that they silenced her.

The man in charge of our wagon called a German officer who was walking about on the platform, and asked him if Madame Schachter could be taken to the hospital car.

“You must be patient,” the German replied. “She’ll be taken there soon.”

Toward eleven o’clock, the train began to move. We pressed against the windows. The convoy was moving slowly. A quarter of an hour later, it slowed down again. Through the windows we could see barbed wire; we realized this must be the camp.

We had forgotten the existence of Madame Schachter. Suddenly, we heard terrible screams:

“Jews, look! Look through the window! Flames! Look!”

And as the train stopped, we saw this time that flames were gushing out of a tall chimney into the black sky.

Madame Schachter was silent herself. Once more she had become dumb, indifferent, absent, and had gone back to her corner.

We looked at the flames in the darkness. There was an abominable odor floating in the air. Suddenly, our doors opened. Some odd-looking characters, dressed in striped shirts and black trousers leapt into the wagon. They held electric torches and truncheons. They began to strike out to right and left, shouting:

“Everybody get out! Everyone out of the wagon! Quickly!”

We jumped out. I threw a last glance toward Madame Schachter. Her little boy was holding her hand.

In front of us flames. In the air that smell of burning flesh. It must have been about midnight. We had arrived—at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz.

They accused Madame Schachter of being mad and that she could not see the fire. . . but the fact of the matter is that she could indeed see the fire. Some would like to say that a preacher cannot see the fire. . . but the fact of the matter is that I do see the fire. . . . . .

For far too many, the sights and sounds of hell have disappeared from life. Our minds do not like to think of things that are so barbaric and "uneducated" and so "fundamentalist" sounding. All the while this mindset is causing us to descend into Hell. The path is so rapid and so quick. Job said it like this: Our days are as quick as a weaver's beam. The cloth that our lives are spinning will send us in one of two directions. There is no middle ground. We will either end up in heaven. . . . or . . . . . we will go to hell. Albert Mohler had this to say about hell:

“At some point in the nineteen-sixties, Hell disappeared. No one could say for certain when this happened. First it was there, then it wasn’t. Different people became aware of the disappearance of Hell at different times. Some realized that they had been living for years as though Hell did not exist, without having consciously registered its disappearance. Others realized that they had been behaving, out of habit, as though Hell were still there, though in fact they had ceased to believe in its existence long ago. . . . On the whole, the disappearance of Hell was a great relief, though it brought new problems”.

Now because hell has been forgotten, we are descending into it. If America and the rest of this world needed a book of Acts revival, it is now. The Harvest awaits. . . May we ever understand our responsibility, to reach, to stretch, to pray, and to seek that which is lost.

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