The systematic process of determining who would live and who would die was known as "selection." SS officers briefly sized up each new arrival. Those deemed capable of hard labor, like 15-year-old Elie Wiesel and his father, went into the work camp. All others were sent immediately and unknowingly down the path to Auschwitz's four gas chambers.
Those selected to die were told they were getting showers, then packed into the chambers by the thousands. Canisters of the deadly chemical Zyklon B were dropped in. As the toxic pellets mixed with air, cyanide gas was released. Death took about 15 minutes to come and felt like suffocation. Proud of their efficiency, SS officers witnessed the gassing as it happened through special peepholes.
The grisly task of burning the dead bodies in underground ovens was left to Jewish prisoners. Forced into this horrific job, they temporarily evaded their own death.
Professor Wiesel and Oprah walk to the site of crematorium number three. It is likely that his mother and younger sister, Tzipora, were murdered inside. The building now lies in ruins—destroyed by the Nazis on the eve of liberation, in a vain attempt to hide the evidence of their atrocities.
"Every step was programmed," Professor Wiesel says. "Like a scientific laboratory. And what did they achieve? Death and more death. ... A death factory."
There was a woman among us, a certain Mrs. Schächter. ... I knew her well. ... Mrs. Schächter had lost her mind. On the first day of our journey, she had already begun to moan. ... Later, her sobs and screams became hysterical. ... "Fire! I see a fire!" ... Some pressed against the bars to see. There was nothing. Only the darkness of night. ... "She is mad, poor woman..." (pp. 24–25)Days later, as young Elie Wiesel stepped off the cattle car at the Auschwitz subcamp Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II, he smelled the stench of burning human flesh and saw the crematorium throwing its flames into the sky. "[Mrs. Schächter] wasn't so mad at all," Oprah says. "She was a prophet."
"And we didn't listen," Professor Wiesel says. "I had a very strange idea [when I arrived at Auschwitz]. I was thinking that maybe it's the end of history, and I thought maybe it's the end of Jewish history. And then I thought maybe it means the end of times."