Elie becomes numb to the outside world. He is just one of hundreds of
lost souls overburdened with grief and deprivation.
He lives an existence which is surreal, and those within the confines of the fences cannot even be motivated by the sounds of the approaching liberating forces. They suspect that the Germans will carry out a mass extermination before the Allies arrive.
When a muster is ordered, the prisoners refuse to assemble together.
Whether this is through rebellion or lack of energy, it is not clear. The Germans too seem to realize the inevitable and don’t enforce the muster. Instead they start to systematically empty the camp until there are only twenty-thousand left in the camp.
For the next five days, they receive no food and the inmates are reduced to
eating grass and discarded potato peelings.
Next day, the sound of gunfire and grenades can be heard all around the camp
and the remaining S.S. officers flee. By 6.00 p.m. the same day, the Americans have arrived. At last the prisoners get some proper food to eat and are free to leave the camp; some of the younger men
leave to go to the nearby village to find fresh clothing and any additional food they can lay their hands on.
Shortly after the liberation, Elie contracts food poisoning, and it is touch-and-go for two weeks whether he will survive.
During his recovery, he looks at himself in the mirror for the first time
since leaving Sighet, “I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazed back at me. The look in his eyes as they stared into mine has never left me.”
The liberation of the camp is not what we expect. We would think that
the inmates would be joyous and relieved that their years of torment had ceased, but the bulk of the prisoners are on the verge of death.
Since their arrival at Buchenwald, they have received little or no food.
They are starving. Not only are their bodies physically ravaged by years of deprivation, they have lost their spirit. They realize that there is nothing for them to go back to. All that they knew and loved has been destroyed.
The men have lost their wives, mothers and daughters. Their final
weeks were spent in an almost catatonic state. They merely existed, many having lost their faith, and through apathy wait for death to call.
We observe that Elie even now still recalls vividly the vision he witnessed
in the mirror. We note that he does not recognize himself.
For a moment he wonders why he views a corpse in the mirror. He is perhaps fortunate not just because he has survived, but also because of his age. He will in some way try to rebuild a different sort of life for himself.
We note that this life is centered round his experiences during 1944 and 1945.
But, for many of the other survivor’s recovery is not possible. Many
of those liberated on that day were too far gone physically and mentally ever to recover. It is mainly those of Elie’s generation that were able to bear witness to the events suffered by the Jewish race.