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When the book begins, Eliezer is essentially a child—very innocent. He’s also a deeply observant Jew, studying Talmud by day and Kabbalah by night, and dedicated to becoming closer to his merciful God. Moishe the Beadle becomes Eliezer’s friend and Kabbalah teacher, telling Eliezer that the way to get closer to God is by asking Him questions. When Eliezer enters the concentration camp, he enters as a child, holding his father’s hand and not believing that the Germans could really slaughter the Jews or that the world would stand by silently and allow it. Within moments, though, Eliezer loses his mother and little sister, and witnesses live babies being dumped into fiery graves. His childhood and innocence are murdered, his faith in God’s justice and mercy destroyed. For the remainder of the book, Eliezer struggles to stay alive physically and spiritually.
At the age of fifteen, Eliezer confronts the worst in humanity and the worst in himself. Being placed in a situation where they are nearly starving, and abused mentally and physically, brings out the worst in the concentration camp prisoners. Most become self-focused, only concerned with their own self-preservation. Eliezer confronts this side of himself. He sees himself shy away from protecting his father for fear of being beaten himself. As his father becomes weak, Eliezer begins to feel his father as a burden limiting his own chances of survival. And at the end of his father’s life, Eliezer doesn’t stay with his father when he is dying and calling out his son’s name; after an hour of painful listening, Eliezer goes to bed.
Despite the darkest sides of Eliezer, he is an extremely admirable character. Unlike other sons in the concentration camps who show no regard for their fathers (one even kills his father for bread), Eliezer doesn’t act on his brief, guilty thoughts of leaving his father. Rather, he nurses his father when he is ill, defends him against bullies, and struggles to keep him alive. The majority of the time, too, Eliezer isn’t thinking of abandoning his father, but of how to keep from losing him. Whenever Eliezer thinks his father has died, Eliezer loses the will to live. This is especially clear in the last chapter of the book; Eliezer doesn’t even tell us about his last experiences in Buchenwald because to him, nothing mattered once his father had passed away.
As for Eliezer’s relationship with God, some find it tempting to say that he became an atheist, but this is an oversimplification. Though Eliezer lost faith in God’s mercy, he still believes that there is a God. What does God become to Eliezer? Eliezer takes Moishe’s advice throughout the book, questioning God in order to find out what He is. Indifferent? Cruel? By the end of the book, Eliezer hasn’t decided; he’s no longer devout, but he’s on the path to becoming closer to God by questioning Him.
Our first view of Eliezer is as a child, and our last view of him is as a corpse—the corpse he sees looking back at himself in the mirror. Though liberated, Eliezer is damaged by his horrific experience. His identity has been permanently altered—he’s no longer a child because of the horrors he’s witnessed and the dark side of himself he’s seen, he’s no longer a son because his parents are both dead, and he’s no longer sure of who or what God is. There’s one thing he certainly is, that he’ll never forget: a concentration camp survivor, and a man well acquainted with death.