Study Guide

Night Quotes

  • Race

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    My father’s view was that it was not all bleak, or perhaps he just did not want to discourage the others, to throw salt on their wounds:

    "The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal …"

    (Poor Father! Of what then did you die?) (1.73-75)

    People’s racial identity becomes their death (or the marker of death), as symbolized by the yellow star.

    I looked at my little sister, Tzipora, her blond hair neatly combed, her red coat over her arm: a little girl of seven. (1.159)

    Knowing that the Germans were so concerned with maintaining the purity of their ideal Aryan race of blond-haired and blue-eyed people, knowing that Eliezer’s little sister, a Jew, has blond hair blurs the racial distinctions and makes them seem arbitrary.

    Little by little life returned to "normal." The barbed wire that encircled us in did not fill us with real fear. In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; we were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic … A Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish police force, a welfare agency, a labor committee, a health agency–a whole government apparatus.

    People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers … (1.79-80)

    The Jews of Sighet, despite their containment in a ghetto, find hope in the brotherhood of racial and cultural identity as Jews.

    Chapter 4
    Eliezer

    We had left the tents for the musicians' block. We now were entitled to a blanket, a washbowl, and a bar of soap. The Blockälteste was a German Jew.

    It was good to have a Jew as your leader. His name was Alphonse. A young man with a startlingly wizened face. He was totally devoted to defending "his" block. Whenever he could, he would "organize" a cauldron of soup for the young, for the weak, for all those who dreamed more of an extra portion of food than of liberty. (4.44-45)

    Racial solidarity is an important part of survival in the concentration camps.

    In the warehouse I often worked next to a young French woman. We did not speak: she did not know German and I did not understand French.

    I thought she looked Jewish, though she passed for "Aryan." She was a forced labor inmate.

    […]

    I dragged myself to my corner. I was aching all over. I felt a cool hand wiping my blood-stained forehead. It was the French girl. She was smiling her mournful smile as she slipped me a crust of bread. She looked straight into my eyes. I knew she wanted to talk to me but she was paralyzed with fear. She remained like that for some time, and then her face lit up and she said, in almost perfect German:

    "Bite your lips, little brother … Don’t cry. Keep your anger, your hate, for another day, for later. The day will come but not now … Wait. Clench your teeth and wait …"

    Many years later, in Paris, I sat in the Métro, reading my newspaper. Across the aisle, a beautiful woman with dark hair and dreamy eyes. I had seen those eyes before.

    […]

    We left the Métro together and sat down at a café terrace. We spent the whole evening reminiscing. Before parting, I said, "May I ask one more question?"

    "I know what it is: Am I Jewish …? Yes, I am. From an observant family. During the occupation I had false papers and passed as Aryan. And that was how I was assigned to a forced labor unit. When they deported me to Germany, I eluded being sent to a concentration camp. At the depot, nobody knew that I spoke German; it would have aroused suspicion. It was imprudent of me to say those few words to you, but I knew that you would not betray me …" (4.62-77)

    Again, racial distinctions between the Germans and Jews seem to blur, as the French girl is able to hide her Jewish identity and pass herself off as Aryan. For her, hiding her heritage may have been the difference between life and death.

  • Identity

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    Abruptly, our doors opened. Strange-looking creatures, dressed in striped jackets and black pants, jumped into the wagon. Holding flashlights and sticks, they began to strike at us left and right […]. (1.60)

    During Eliezer’s first encounter with concentration camp prisoners, he describes them as "creatures." These prisoners have lost their human identity, they are mere creatures, all dressed alike in similar, strange clothing. Within one night, Eliezer will become one of these "creatures" as well.

    From that moment on, everything happened very quickly. The race toward death had begun.

    First edict: Jews were prohibited form leaving their residences for three days, under penalty of death.

    […]

    The same day, the Hungarian police burst into every Jewish home in town: a Jew was henceforth forbidden to own gold, jewelry, or any valuables. Everything had to be handed over to the authorities, under penalty of death. […]

    Three days later, a new decree: every Jew had to wear the yellow star. (1.66-72)

    The Jews of Sighet begin the gradual, systematic process of losing their identities and humanity. They lose much of their personal freedom, their personal possessions, and begin to be defined simply by their Jewish heritage, nothing more. Later, they are completely confined to a ghetto…and it just gets worse from there.

    "Faster! Faster! Move, you lazy good-for-nothings!" the Hungarian police were screaming.

    That was when I began to hate them, and my hatred remains our only link today. They were our first oppressors. They were the first faces of hell and death. (19)

    The Hungarian police see the Jews of Sighet as animals, and treat them as such.

    Chapter 3
    Eliezer

    In a few seconds, we had ceased to be men. Had the situation not been so tragic, we might have laughed. We looked pretty strange! Meir Katz, a colossus, wore a child’s pants, and Stern, a skinny little fellow, was floundering in a huge jacket. We immediately started to switch.

    I glanced over at my father. How changed he looked! His eyes were veiled. I wanted to tell him something, but I didn’t know what.

    The night had passed completely. The morning star shone in the sky. I too had become a different person. The student of Talmud, the child I was, had been consumed by the flames. All that was left was a shape that resembled me. My soul had been invaded – and devoured – by a black flame. (3.95-97)

    Within one night the concentration camp experience has completely altered Eliezer’s identity, as well as the identities of his fellow Jews. Shaven and dressed in the same prison garb, the men have been stripped of the individuality they formerly had. In addition, Eliezer’s identity has further changed because he has lost his innocence, is no longer a child, and has lost his faith in God’s justice. He can no longer define himself as either a "child" or a "student of Talmud;" now he is simply a prisoner.

    In the afternoon, they made us line up. Three prisoners brought a table and some medical instruments. We were told to roll up our left sleeves and file past the table. The three "veteran" prisoners, needles in hand, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name. (3.143)

    Eliezer’s loses the humanness of having a name and becomes a number.

    My father suddenly had a colic attack. He got up and asked politely, in German, "Excuse me … Could you tell me where the toilets are located?"

    The Gypsy stared at him for a long time, from head to toe. As if he wished to ascertain that the person addressing him was actually a creature of flesh and bone, a human being with a body and a belly. Then, as if waking from a deep sleep, he slapped my father with such a force that he fell down and then crawled back to his place on all fours.

    I stood petrified. What had happened to me? My father had just been struck, in front of me, and I had not even blinked. I had watched and kept silent. Only yesterday, I would have dug my nails into this criminal's flesh. Had I changed that much? So fast? Remorse began to gnaw at me. All I could think was: I shall never forgive them for this. My father must have guessed my thoughts, because he whispered in my ear:

    "It doesn’t hurt." His cheek still bore the red mark of the hand. (3.117-120)

    The man in charge of Eliezer and his father’s unit, despite Eliezer’s father’s polite address, is unable to view him as a fellow human, and feels justified in beating him. The "gypsy" degrades Eliezer’s father and turns him into the animal he is seen as by the prison guards, beating him until he crawls on all fours. The concentration camp environment is gradually eroding away Eliezer’s humanity as well, his feelings of anger at the "gypsy" are delayed—self-preservation instincts are already beginning to overwhelm more human emotions.

    Suddenly, someone threw his arms round me in a hug: Yechiel, the Sigheter rebbe’s brother. He was weeping bitterly. I thought he was crying with joy at still being alive.

    "Don't cry, Yechiel," I said. "Don't waste your tears."

    "Not cry? We're on the threshold of death. Soon we shall be inside … Do you understand? Inside. How could I not cry?"

    I watched the darkness fade through the bluish skylights in the roof. I was no longer afraid. I was overcome by fatigue. (3.86-90)

    Because of the suffering Eliezer has endured, he’s so exhausted that he can no longer feel normal human emotion, like fear and sadness.

    Chapter 4
    Eliezer

    I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time. (4.61)

    Eliezer has been reduced to simply a body, nothing more.

    The medical checkup took place outside, early in the morning, before three doctors seated on a bench.

    The first hardly examined me. He just asked:

    "Are you in good health?"

    Who would have dared to admit the opposite?

    On the other hand, the dentist seemed more conscientious: he asked me to open my mouth wide. In fact, he was not looking for decay, but for gold teeth. Those who had gold in their mouths were listed by their number. I did have a gold crown.

    The first three days went by quickly. On the fourth day, as we stood in front of our tent, the Kapos appeared. Each one began to choose the men he liked:

    "You … you … you and you …" They pointed their fingers, the way one might choose cattle, or merchandise. (4.15-21)

    Medical examinations are a joke. Although Germans considered Jewish bodies important for labor, it is not important for their bodies to be kept healthy. The identity and value of the Jewish prisoners is reduced to the value that can be extracted from their bodies—whether that value was labor or gold.

    Chapter 6
    Eliezer

    I soon forgot him. I began to think of myself again. My foot was aching, I shivered with every step. Just a few more meters and it will be over. I’ll fall. A small red flame … A shot … Death enveloped me, it suffocated me. It stuck to me like glue. I felt I could touch it. The idea of dying, of ceasing to be, began to fascinate me. To no longer exist. To no longer feel the excruciating pain of my foot. To no longer feel anything, neither fatigue, nor cold, nothing. To break rank, to let myself slide to the side of the road … (6.17)

    For Eliezer, death, the end of oneself and one’s identity, is seen as the end of his physical pain. His experience of life now is purely physical pain, and nothing more.

    I was putting one foot in front of the other, like a machine. I was dragging this emaciated body that was still such a weight. If only I could have shed it! Though I tried to put it out of my mind, I couldn’t help thinking that there were two of us: my body and I. And I hated that body. (6.5)

    As they march from one camp to the next, Eliezer wishes he could get rid of his body—just leave it behind. He separates the true "Eliezer" from his physical body.

    Chapter 7
    Eliezer

    We received no food. We lived on snow; it took the place of bread. The days resembled the nights, and the nights left in our souls the dregs of their darkness. The train rolled slowly, often halted for a few hours, and continued. It never stopped snowing. We remained lying on the floor for days and nights, one on top of the other, never uttering a word. We were nothing but frozen bodies. Our eyes closed, we merely waited for the next stop, to unload our dead. (7.23)

    Because of their cold and hunger—their basic physical needs—the prisoners are reduced to mere bodies.

    One day when we had stopped, a worker took a piece of bread out of his bag and threw it into a wagon. There was a stampede. Dozens of starving men fought desperately over a few crumbs. The worker watched the spectacle with great interest. […] In the wagon where the bread had landed, a battle had ensued. Men were hurling themselves against each other, trampling, tearing at and mauling each other. Beasts of prey unleashed, animal hate in their eyes. An extraordinary vitality possessed them, sharpening their teeth and nails. (7.25-29)

    The humanity of the prisoners has been stripped away to such a degree that food takes on greater value than morality, human kindness, and affection for family.

  • Religion

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    He [Moishe] told me what had happened to him and his companions. The train with the deportees had crossed the Hungarian border and, once in Polish territory, had been taken over by the Gestapo. The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns. This took place in the Galician forest, near Kolomay. How had he, Moishe the Beadle, been able to escape? By a miracle. He was wounded in the leg and left for dead…

    Day after day, night after night, he went from one Jewish house to the next, telling his story and that of Malka, the young girl who lay dying for three days, and that of Tobie, the tailor who begged to die before his sons were killed.

    Moishe was not the same. The joy in his eyes was gone. He no longer sang. He no longer mentioned either God or Kabbalah. He spoke only of what he had seen. But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things. Others flatly said that he had gone mad. (1.29-31)

    Moishe, a deeply religious man, no longer speaks of "God or Kabbalah" after he witnesses the massacre of Jews by the German Gestapo. This is only mentioned briefly, but are we to assume that, like Eliezer later, in the face of the horrors he sees, Moishe has lost his faith in God?

    I looked at my house in which I had spent years seeking my God, fasting to hasten the coming of the Messiah, imagining what my life would be like later. Yet I felt little sadness. My mind was empty. (1.55)

    Although his faith has not yet died, on leaving his home for transport to a concentration camp, Eliezer leaves some of his religious pursuits behind, along with his childhood home, and some of his innocence.

    Chapter 3
    Eliezer

    Akiba Drummer said:

    "God is testing us. He wants to see whether we are capable of overcoming our base instincts, of killing the Satan within ourselves. We have no right to despair. And if He punishes us mercilessly, it is a sign that He loves us that much more …"

    Hersch Genud, well versed in the Kabbalah, spoke of the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah.

    From time to time, in the middle of all that talk, a thought crossed my mind: Where is Mother right now … and Tzipora …

    "Mother is still a young woman," my father once said. "She must be in a labor camp. And Tzipora, she is a big girl now. She too must be in a camp …"

    How we would have liked to believe that. We pretended, for what if one of us still did believe? (3.176-181)

    Eliezer compares the hope he and his father had that his mother and sister are alive (a false hope) with the hope that other Jews have in God; the comparison suggests that the religious hope is also false hope used for comfort in the same way Eliezer and his father look for comfort in the hope that their loved ones are alive.

    Everybody around us was weeping. Someone began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.

    "Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba … May His name be celebrated and sanctified …" whispered my father.

    For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for? (3.61-63)

    As they enter Birkenau and begin to realize the horrors that surround them, Eliezer begins to lose his unconditional devotion to God.

    We continued our march. We were coming closer and closer to the pit, from which an infernal heat was rising. Twenty more steps. If I was going to kill myself, this was the time. Our column had only some fifteen steps to go. I bit my lips so that my father would not hear my teeth chattering. Ten more steps. Eight. Seven. We were walking slowly, as one follows a hearse, our own funeral procession. Only four more steps. Three. There it was now, very close to us, the pit and its flames. I gathered all that remained of my strength in order to throw myself onto the barbed wire. Deep down, I was saying good-bye to my father, to the whole universe, and against my will I found myself whispering the words: "Yisgadal, veyiskadash, shmey raba … May his name be exalted and sanctified …" My heart was about to burst. There, I was face to face with the Angel of Death … (3.64)

    As Eliezer draws near to death for the first time in his life, he doubts; yet despite his doubts in God, he finds himself automatically reaching out to the comforting words of Jewish prayers.

    Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

    Never shall I forget that smoke.

    Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

    Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

    Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

    Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

    Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

    Never. (3.68-75)

    Eliezer suffers not only because he sees his fellow Jews murdered before his eyes, but also because feels that his God was murdered. The concentration camp experience destroys his innocence and his belief in a just and loving God.

    Some of the men spoke of God: His mysterious ways, the sins of the Jewish people, and the redemption to come. As for me, I had ceased to pray. I concurred with Job! I was not denying His existence, but I doubted His absolute justice. (3.175)

    Eliezer has not become an atheist. When he said earlier that God was murdered, he referred to the God he knew when he was innocent. Eliezer doesn’t doubt that God exists, but this God has a different persona, possibly one indifferent to suffering, and a God that Eliezer does not want to praise.

    Chapter 4
    Eliezer

    They quickly became my friends. Having once belonged to a Zionist youth organization, they knew countless Hebrew songs. And so we would sometimes hum melodies evoking the gentle waters of the Jordan River and the majestic sanctity of Jerusalem. We also spoke often about Palestine. Their parents, like mine, had not the courage to sell everything and emigrate while there was still time. We decided that if we were allowed to live until the Liberation, we would not stay another day in Europe. We would board the first ship to Haifa. (4.42)

    Though no longer a firm believer in his religion, Eliezer still turns to thoughts of Jerusalem as future safe-haven.

    Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …

    And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

    Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

    "For God’s sake, where is God?"

    And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

    "Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …" (4.206-211)

    Again we see that Eliezer feels that the Germans have murdered his God. With the destruction of Eliezer’s innocence, so died the God that Eliezer believed in as a boy and young man.

    Still lost in his Kabbalistic dreams, Akiba Drumer had discovered a verse in the Bible which, translated into numbers, made it possible for him to predict Redemption in the weeks to come. (4.43)

    That Eliezer says that Akiba is "lost" and uses the word "dreams" shows that Eliezer sees Akiba’s religiously based hope as a false hope. Eliezer no longer trusts in God’s justice, and therefore doesn’t trust that God will deliver the Jews from the concentration camps

    Chapter 5
    Eliezer

    What are You, my God? I thought angrily. How do You compare to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people’s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?

    […]

    Blessed be God’s name?

    Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? Praised be Thy Holy Name, for having chosen us to be slaughtered on Thine altar? (5.4-11)

    Again we see that Eliezer is not an atheist. Although the just and loving God he knew as a child is dead to him, Eliezer tries to find out what this new God he discovered is all about, asking, "What are You, my God?" But in the face of what Eliezer sees as God’s indifference to suffering, Eliezer seems to determine that God is not a being that he can praise.

    Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement. Should we fast? The question was hotly debated. To fast could mean a more certain, more rapid death. In this place, we were always fasting. It was Yom Kippur year-round. But there were those who said we should fast, precisely because it was dangerous to do so. We needed to show God that even here, locked in hell, we were capable of singing His praises.

    I did not fast. First of all, to please my father, who had forbidden me to do so. And then, there was no longer any reason for me to fast. I no longer accepted God’s silence. As I swallowed my ration of soup, I turned that act into a symbol of rebellion, of protest against Him. (5.23-24)

    The irony of fasting or not fasting in a concentration camp for religious fasting period does not escape Eliezer’s notice. Not fasting isn’t only an act of self-preservation, but a rebellion against God. Clearly Eliezer still believes God exists, because Eliezer is rebelling against Him, but Eliezer chooses not to accept God because God has not stopped the horrors Eliezer witnesses daily.

    Akiba Drummer has left us, a victim of the selection. Lately, he had been wandering among us, his eyes glazed, telling everyone how weak he was: "I can't go on ... It's over …" We tried to raise his spirits, but he wouldn’t listen to anything we said. He just kept repeating that it was all over for him, that he could no longer fight, he had no more strength, no more faith. His eyes would suddenly go blank, leaving two gaping wounds, two wells of terror.

    He was not alone in having lost his faith during those days of selection. I knew a rabbi, from a small town in Poland. He was old and bent, his lips constantly trembling. He was always praying, in the block, at work, in the ranks. He recited entire pages from the Talmud, arguing with himself, asking and answering himself endless questions. One day, he said to me:

    "It’s over. God is no longer with us."

    And as though he regretted having uttered such words so coldly, so dryly, he added in a broken voice, "I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God’s mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I’m neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I’m a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God’s mercy? Where’s God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?"

    Poor Akiba Drumer, if only he could have kept his faith in God, if only he could have considered this suffering a divine test, he would not have been swept away by the selection. But as soon as he felt the first chinks in his faith, he lost all incentive to fight and opened the door to death. (5.105-109)

    It isn’t only young Eliezer who loses his faith in the concentration camps, but other long-time believers as well. Akiba, who was the man who studied Kabbalah and used his numerology to determine that God would soon deliver them, has nothing to live for once he loses his faith. Even a rabbi can’t help but doubt God’s mercy.

    And I, the former mystic, was thinking: Yes, man is stronger, greater than God. When Adam and Eve deceived You, You chased them from paradise. When you were displeased with Noah's generation, You brought down the Flood. When Sodom lost your favor, You caused the heavens to rain down fire and damnation. But look at these men whom You have betrayed, allowing them to be tortured, slaughtered, gasses, and burned, what do they do? They pray before You! The praise Your name!

    "All of creation bears witness to the Greatness of God!"

    In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers.

    But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger. (5.15-18)

    Eliezer participates in the Rosh Hashanah service, but it means nothing to him as bitterness against God swells up inside him. God stands accused in his eyes.

    Chapter 6
    Eliezer

    And in spite of myself, a prayer formed inside me, a prayer to this God in whom I no longer believed.

    "Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done." (6.65-66)

    Though Eliezer has lost his faith, he still prays for strength to keep himself from abandoning his father, the most important person in his life. It is as if he is saying a prayer asking for the strength to preserve his humanity, because in the prison camps, so many are reduced to their most basic, inhumane instincts which place self-preservation as the most important goal.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    At daybreak, the gloom had lifted. The mood was more confident. There were those who said:

    "Who knows, they may be sending us away for our own good. The front is getting closer, we shall soon hear the guns. And then surely the civilian population will be evacuated …"

    "They worry lest we join the partisans …"

    "As far as I’m concerned, this whole business of deportation is nothing but a big farce. Don’t laugh. They just want to steal our valuables and jewelry. They know that it has all been buried and that they will have to dig to find it; so much easier to do when the owners are on vacation …"

    On vacation!

    This kind of talk that nobody believed helped pass the time. The few days we spent here went by pleasantly enough, in relative calm. People rather got along. There no longer was any distinction between rich and poor, notables and the others; we were all people condemned to the same fate—still unknown. (1.175-80)

    While they await deportation, the Jews of Sighet attempt to maintain their self-deception and hope, at least externally; they don’t voice their dread of the unknown.

    In those days it was still possible to buy emigration certificates to Palestine. I had asked my father to sell everything, to liquidate everything, and to leave.

    "I am too old, my son," he answered. "Too old to start a new life. Too old to start from scratch in some distant land…" (1.50-51)

    Despite the signs of danger, Eliezer’s father refuses to emigrate when they have the opportunity. He has the false hope that the future in Sighet is still better than packing up and leaving for a new country.

    Anguish. German soldiers—with their steel helmets, and their death’s head emblem. Still, our first impressions of the Germans were rather reassuring. The officers were billeted in private houses, even in Jewish homes. Their attitude toward their hosts was distant, but polite. They never demanded the impossible, made no offensive remarks, and sometimes even smiled at the lady of the house. A German officer lodged in the Kahn’s house across the street from us. We were told he was a charming man, calm, likable, and polite. Three days after he moved in, he brought Mrs. Kahn a box of chocolates. The optimists were jubilant: "Well? What did we tell you? You wouldn’t believe us. There they are, your Germans. What do you say now? Where is their famous cruelty?"

    The Germans were already in town, the Fascists were already in power, the verdict was already out—and the Jews of Sighet were still smiling. (1.59-60)

    What more can we say after that last line? Wiesel says it all. Well, if you really want our extra thought: the Sighet Jews deceive themselves with optimistic hopes for the future, blinding themselves to present danger.

    The next day brought really disquieting news: German troops had penetrated Hungarian territory with the government's approval.

    Finally, people began to worry in earnest. One of my friends, Moishe Chaim Berkowitz, returned from the capital for Passover and told us, "The Jews of Budapest live in an atmosphere of fear and terror. Anti-Semitic acts take place every day, in the streets, on the trains. The Fascists attack Jewish stores, synagogues. The situation is becoming very serious …"

    The news spread through Sighet like wildfire. Soon that was all people talked about. But not for long. Optimism soon revived: The Germans will not come this far. They will stay in Budapest. For strategic reasons, for political reasons… (1.54-57)

    The Jews of Sighet continue to deceive themselves to maintain a foolish optimistic notion that the Germans won’t come to Sighet. Again, these unfounded hopes about the future are dangerous, preventing the Jews from escaping when they are able.

    The trees were in bloom. It was a year like so many others, with its spring, its engagements, its weddings, and its births.

    The people were saying, "The Red Army is advancing with giant strides … Hitler will not be able to harm us, even if he wants to …"

    Yes, we even doubted his resolve to exterminate us.

    Annihilate an entire people? Wipe out a population dispersed throughout so many nations? So many millions of people! By what means? In the middle of the twentieth century! (1.44-47)

    The Jews of Sighet deceive themselves. Their hope and optimism put them in danger; they don’t escape when they still have the opportunity.

    Little by little life returned to "normal." The barbed wire that encircled us in did not fill us with real fear. In fact, we felt this was not a bad thing; we were entirely among ourselves. A small Jewish republic … A Jewish Council was appointed, as well as a Jewish police force, a welfare agency, a labor committee, a health agency–a whole government apparatus.

    People thought this was a good thing. We would no longer have to look at all those hostile faces, endure those hate-filled stares. No more fear. No more anguish. We would live among Jews, among brothers …

    […]

    Most people thought that we would remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Afterward everything would be as before. The ghetto was ruled by neither German nor Jew; it was ruled by delusion. (1.1.79-82)

    The Jews of Sighet together create for themselves an illusion to sustain them while they are in the ghetto. They deceive themselves into thinking that they now have self-rule and that life in the ghetto is better than life before.

    Chapter 2
    Eliezer

    And so an hour or two passed. Another scream jolted us. The woman had broken free of her bonds and was shouting louder than before:

    "Look at the fire! Look at the flames! Flames everywhere…"

    Once again, the young men bound and gagged her. When they actually struck her, people shouted their approval:

    "Keep her quite! Make that madwoman shut up. She’s not the only one here …"

    She received several blows to the head, blows that could have been lethal. Her son was clinging desperately to her, not uttering a word. He was no longer crying. (2.34-38)

    Mrs. Schächter’s dark visions so anger the Jews of Sighet, who are trying to keep their hopes up, that they begin to beat her in order to silence her.

    It took us a long time to recover from this harsh awakening. We were still trembling, and with every screech of the wheels we felt the abyss opening beneath us. Unable to still our anguish, we tried to reassure each other:

    "She [Mrs. Schächter] is a mad, poor woman …"

    Someone had placed a damp rag on her forehead. Be she nevertheless continued to scream:

    "Fire! I see a fire!"

    […]

    She continued to scream and sob fitfully.

    "Jews, listen to me," she cried. "I see a fire! I see flames, huge flames!"

    It was as though she were possessed by some evil spirit.

    We tried to reason with her, more to calm ourselves, to catch our breath, than to soothe her:

    "She is hallucinating because she is thirsty, poor woman … That’s why she speaks of flames devouring her …"

    But it was all in vain. Our terror could no longer be contained. Our nerves had reached a breaking point. Our very skin was aching. It was as though madness had infected all of us. We gave up. A few young men forced her to sit down, then bound and gagged her. (2.19-32)

    The Jews of Sighet want so desperately to remain subjects of their optimistic self-deception that they bind and gag Mrs. Schächter who begs them to face reality.

    The train did not move again. The afternoon went by slowly. Then the doors of the wagon slid open. Two men were given permission to fetch water.

    When they came back, they told us that they had learned, in exchange for a gold watch, that this was the final destination. We were to leave the train here. There was a labor camp on the site. The conditions were good. Families would not be separated. Only the young would work in the factories. The old and the sick would find work in the fields.

    Confidence soared. Suddenly we felt free of the previous night’s terror. We gave thanks to God. (2.46-48)

    Where on earth did they get that news from? And why are they so ready to believe anyone who they bribe with a gold watch? The people ache for good news that will justify all of their hopes.

    Around eleven o'clock the train began to move again. We pressed against the windows. The convoy was rolling slowly. A quarter of an hour later, it began to slow down even more. Through the windows, we saw barbed wire; we understood that this was the camp.

    We had forgotten Mrs. Schächter’s existence. Suddenly, there was a terrible scream:

    "Jews, look! Look at the fire! Look at the flames!"

    And as the train stopped, this time we saw flames rising from a tall chimney into a black sky.

    […]

    In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been about midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau. (2.55-63)

    The Jews of Sighet wanted so dearly to maintain hope that they ignored Mrs. Schächter’s warnings. The illusions they created for themselves were dangerous; they kept themselves ignorant of what was to come until it was far, far too late.

    Mrs. Schächter had lost her mind. On the first day of the journey she had already begun to moan. She kept asking why she had been separated from her family. Later, her sobs and screams became hysterical.

    On the third night, as we were sleeping, some of us sitting, huddled against each other, some of us standing, a piercing cry broke the silence:

    "Fire! I see a fire! I see a fire!"

    There was a moment of panic. Who had screamed? It was Mrs. Schächter. Standing in the middle of the car, in the faint light filtering through the windows, she looked like a withered tree in a field of wheat. She was howling, pointing through the window:

    "Look! Look at this fire! This terrible fire! Have mercy on me!"

    Some pressed against the bars to see. There was nothing. Only the darkness of night. (2.13-18)

    With her first prophetic warning, Mrs. Schächter attempts to awaken the Jews of Sighet from their self-deceptive optimism, but fails.

    Chapter 3
    Eliezer

    From time to time, in the middle of all that talk, a thought crossed my mind: Where is Mother right now … and Tzipora …

    "Mother is still a young woman," my father once said. "She must be in a labor camp. And Tzipora, she is a big girl now. She too must be in a camp …"

    How we would have liked to believe that. We pretended, for what if one of us still did believe? (3.179-181)

    Eliezer and his dad try to deceive themselves and each other about the likelihood that their loved ones are alive. In the end, however, Eliezer knows they’re just pretending in an attempt to keep each other’s hope alive.

    His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would to do to me. He did not wish to see his only son go up in flames.

    My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes …

    "The world? The world is not interested in us. Today everything is possible, even the crematoria …" His voice broke.

    "Father," I said. "If that is true, then I don’t want to wait. I’ll run into the electrified barbed wire. That would be easier than a slow death in the flames." (3.57-60)

    Eliezer in his youthful innocence continues to think that they are not mortal danger, but his father puts an end to their self-deception—the crematoria have shaken him out his illusions.

    Stein

    The only thing that keeps me alive," he [Stein] kept saying, "is to know that Reizel and the little ones are still alive. Were it not for them, I would give up."

    One evening he came to see us, his face radiant.

    "A transport just arrived from Antwerp. I shall go to see them tomorrow. Surely they will have news …"

    He left.

    We never saw him again. He had been given the news. The real news. (3.169-173)

    Stein was kept alive by the lie that his wife and children were okay. But once he realizes the deception, and the truth of his family’s situation, he feels he has no reason to keep on living.

    "You don’t know me? … You don’t recognize me. I’m your relative, Stein. Already forgotten? Stein. Stein from Antwerp. Reizel’s husband. Your wife was Reizel’s aunt … She often wrote to us… and such letters!"

    […] I recognized him right away. I had known Reizel, his wife, before she had left for Belgium.

    He told us that he had been deported in 1942. He said, "I heard people say that a transport had arrived from your region and I came to look for you. I thought you might have some news of Reizel and my two small boys who stayed in Antwerp …"

    I knew nothing about them … Since 1940, my mother had not received a single letter from them. But I lied:

    "Yes, my mother did hear from them. Reizel is fine. So are the children …"

    He was weeping with joy. He would have liked to stay longer, to learn more details, to soak up the good news, but an SS was heading in our direction and he had to go, telling us that he would come back the next day. (3.152-157)

    Even though it’s a lie, Eliezer can’t help but try to provide his relative with some hope, even false hope – he sees deception as a better alternative to crushing Stein.

    "Comrades, you are now in the concentration camp Auschwitz. Ahead of you lies a long road paved with suffering. Don’t loose hope. You have already eluded the worst danger: the selection. Therefore, muster your strength and keep your faith. We shall all see the day of liberation. Have faith in life, a thousand times faith. By driving out despair, you will move away from death. Hell does not last forever … And now, here is a prayer, or rather a piece of advice: let there be camaraderie among you. We are all brothers and share the same fate. The same smoke hovers over all our heads. Help each other. That is the only way to survive. And now, enough said, you are tired. Listen: you are in Block 17; I am responsible for keeping order here. Anyone with a complaint may come to see me. That is all. Go to sleep. Two people to a bunk. Good night." (3.136)

    Either the Pole in charge of Eliezer’s block has deceived himself into believing all of them will "see the day of liberation," or he is purposefully trying to deceive the men in an attempt to give them hope and sustain them.

    Chapter 5
    Eliezer

    We were quite used to this kind of rumor. It wasn’t the first time that false prophets announced to us: peace-in-the-world, the-Red-Cross-negotiating-our-liberation, or other fables … And often we would believe them … It was like an injection of morphine. (5.147)

    Rumors of liberation from the Allies ease the prisoners’ pain and build up their hope, even if the rumors are false.

    Only this time these prophecies seemed more founded. During the last nights, we had heard cannons in the distance.

    My faceless neighbor spoke up:

    "Don't be deluded. Hitler has made it clear that he will annihilate all Jews before the clock strikes twelve."

    I exploded:

    "What do you care what he said? Would you want us to consider him a prophet?"

    His cold eyes stared at me. At last, he said wearily:

    "I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people." (5.148-154)

    Recognizing that illusions are dangerous, Eliezer’s neighbor in the hospital attempts to bring Eliezer back to the reality of their situation as Jews under Hitler’s control.

  • Family

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    My father was crying. It was the first time I saw him cry. I had never thought it possible. As for my mother, she was walking, her face a mask, without a word, deep in thought. I looked at my little sister, Tzipora, her blond hair neatly combed, her red coat over her arm: a little girl of seven. On her back a bag too heavy for her. She was clenching her teeth; she already knew it was useless to complain. Here and there, the police were lashing out with their clubs. "Faster!" I had no strength left. The journey had just begun and I already felt so weak. (1.159)

    As he sets off on his new life, on a journey with an unknown destination, Eliezer is consumed with thoughts about his family—he is concerned about his family’s suffering.

    The ghetto was not guarded. One could enter and leave as one pleased. Maria, our former maid, came to see us. Sobbing, she begged us to come with her to her village where she had prepared a safe shelter.

    My father wouldn’t hear of it. He told me and my big sisters, "If you wish, go there. I shall stay here with your mother and the little one…"

    Naturally, we refused to be separated. (1.170-171)

    As they wait to be taken from the little ghetto to wherever the Germans plan to send them, Eliezer and his sisters refuse to leave their parents even though they are offered a safe refuge. Does Eliezer value his family more than personal safety, or he does he not realize the danger he is in?

    Chapter 3
    Stein

    Stein, our relative from Antwerp, continued to visit us and, from time to time, he would bring a half portion of bread:

    "Here, this is for you, Eliezer."

    Every time he came, tears would roll down his icy cheeks. He would often say to my father:

    "Take care of your son. He is very weak, very dehydrated. Take care of yourselves, you must avoid selection. Eat! Anything, anytime. Eat all you can. The weak don’t last very long around here …"

    And he himself was so thing, so withered, so weak …

    "The only thing that keeps me alive," he kept saying, "is to know that Reizel and the little ones are still alive. Were it not for them, I would give up."

    One evening he came to see us, his face radiant.

    "A transport just arrived from Antwerp. I shall go to see them tomorrow. Surely they will have news …"

    He left.

    We never saw him again. He had been given the news. The real news. (3.164-173)

    Stein reminds father and son the importance of keeping each other alive during such a hard time. The way Stein sees it, family is the only thing worth living for. For that reason, when he learns that his family is dead, Stein sees no reason to keep on living.

    Eliezer

    "Men to the left! Women to the right!"

    Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already I felt my father's hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother's hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister's blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever. I kept walking, my father holding my hand.

    […]

    My hand tightened its grip on my father. All I could think of was not to lose him. Not to remain alone.

    […] It was imperative to stay together. (3.4-10)

    As the Wiesel family enters Birkenau, Eliezer is separated from his mother and sisters forever—his one thought is not to be separated from his father as well. Here, Eliezer is still looking to his father for protection, rather than the opposite.

    We had already been in Auschwitz for eight days. It was after roll call. We stood waiting for the bell announcing its end. Suddenly I noticed someone passing between the rows. I heard him ask:

    "Who among you is Wiesel from Sighet?"

    The person looking for us was a small fellow with spectacles in a wizened face. My father answered:

    "That’s me. Wiesel from Sighet."

    The fellow’s eyes narrowed. He took a long look at my father.

    "You don’t know me? … You don’t recognize me. I’m your relative, Stein. Already forgotten? Stein. Stein from Antwerp. Reizel’s husband. Your wife was Reizel’s aunt … She often wrote to us… and such letters!"

    My father had not recognized him. He must have barely known him, always being up to his neck in communal affairs and not knowledgeable in family matters. He was always elsewhere, lost in thought. (Once, a cousin came to see us in Sighet. She had stayed at our house and eaten at our table for two weeks before my father noticed her presence for the first time.) No, he did not remember Stein. I recognized him right away. I had known Reizel, his wife, before she had left for Belgium. (3.147-3.153)

    Family members seek out other family members in Auschwitz – even if they didn’t know them very well. The familial connection is important for staying emotionally alive.

    He told us that he had been deported in 1942. He said, "I heard people say that a transport had arrived from your region and I came to look for you. I thought you might have some news of Reizel and my two small boys who stayed in Antwerp …"

    I knew nothing about them … Since 1940, my mother had not received a single letter from them. But I lied:

    "Yes, my mother did hear from them. Reizel is fine. So are the children …"

    He was weeping with joy. He would have liked to stay longer, to learn more details, to soak up the good news, but an SS was heading in our direction and he had to go, telling us that he would come back the next day. (3.154-3.157)

    When families are separated, members live for good (or even bad) news of their relatives. Eliezer decides it is better to lie and give his distant cousin a reason to go on living. Similarly, Eliezer and his father try to convince themselves that their loved ones, Eliezer’s mom and sister, are alive.

    Eliezer’s Father

    My father's voice tore me from my daydreams:

    "What a shame, a shame that you did not go with your mother … I saw many children your age go with their mothers …"

    His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would to do to me. He did not wish to see his only son go up in flames. (3.55-57)

    The presence of family isn’t always a source of happiness or relief; for Eliezer’s father, staying with his son means additional suffering – he will have to witness his son’s pain.

    Chapter 4
    Franek

    Franek, the foreman, assigned me to a corner.

    "Don't kill yourself. There’s no hurry. But watch out. Don’t let an SS catch you."

    "Please sir ... I’d like to be near my father."

    "All right. Your father will work here, next to you."

    We were lucky.

    Two boys came to join our group: Yossi and Tibi, two brothers from Czechoslovakia whose parents had been exterminated in Birkenau. They lived for each other, body and soul. (4.36-41)

    Eliezer and his father, like the two Czech brothers, are lucky that they receive the same labor assignment. It allows them to stay together, watch out for each other, and live for each other.

    Eliezer

    Unfortunately, Franek knew how to handle this; he knew my weak spot. My father had never served in the military and could not march in step. But here, whenever we moved from one place to another, it was in step. That presented Franek with the opportunity to torment him and, on a daily basis, to thrash him savagely. Left, right: he punched him. Left, right: he slapped him.

    I decided to give my father lessons in marching in step, in keeping time. We began practicing in front of our block. I would command: "Left, right!" and my father would try.

    The inmates made fun of us: "Look at the little officer, teaching the old man to march … Hey, little general, how many rations of bread does the old man give you for this?"

    But my father did not make sufficient progress, and the blows continued to rain on him.

    "So! You still don’t know how to march in step, you old good-for-nothing?"

    This went on for two weeks. It was untenable. We had to give in. That day, Franek burst into savage laughter […]. (4.94-99)

    In the world of the concentration camp, attachment to family can be a liability. Because Eliezer continues to care for his father, Eliezer is in a weak bargaining position against bullies like Franek. In this particular situation, Eliezer has to sacrifice his gold tooth to protect his father.

    Idek

    Another time we were loading diesel motors onto freight cars under supervision of some German soldiers. Idek was on edge, he had trouble restraining himself. Suddenly, he exploded. The victim this time was my father.

    "You old loafer!" he started yelling. "Is this what you call working?"

    And he began beating him with an iron bar. At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning.

    I had watched it all happening without moving. I kept silent. In fact, I thought of stealing away in order not to suffer the blows. What’s more, if I felt anger at that moment, it was not directed at the Kapo but at my father. Why couldn’t he have avoided Idek’s wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp had made of me … (4.78-81)

    Concentration camp turns father against son and son against father. Though Eliezer never becomes as hardened as other people do, because of the situation he has been forced into he struggles with resentment against his father, even when Eliezer rationally should direct his negative feelings against those who imprison him.

    Chapter 6
    Eliezer

    He [Rabbi Eliahu] had lost his son in the commotion. He had searched for him among the dying, to no avail. Then he had dug through the snow to find his body. In vain.

    For three years, they had stayed close to one another. Side by side, they had endured the suffering, the blows; they had waited for their ration of bread and they had prayed. Three years, from camp to camp, from selection to selection. And now—when the end seemed near—fate had separated them.

    When he came near me, Rabbi Eliahu whispered, "It happened on the road. We lost sight of one another during the journey. I fell behind a little, at the rear of the column. I didn’t have the strength to run anymore. And my son didn’t notice. That’s all I know. Where has he disappeared? Where can I find him? Perhaps you’ve seen him somewhere?" (6.57-59)

    When Rabbi Eliahu loses his son after the long and tiring march (or rather run), rather than taking the break for much needed rest, the Rabbi spends his energy desperately looking for his son. For the Rabbi, his son is more important than his own physical wellbeing.

    He [Rabbi Eliahu] had already gone through the door when I remembered that I had noticed his son running beside me. I had forgotten and so had not mentioned it to Rabbi Eliahu!

    But then I remembered something else: his son had seen him losing ground, sliding back to the rear of the column. He had seen him. And he had continued to run in front, letting the distance between them become greater.

    A terrible thought crossed my mind: What if he had wanted to be rid of his father? He had felt his father growing weaker and, believing that the end was near, had thought by this separation to free himself of a burden that could diminish his own chance for survival.

    It was good that I had forgotten all that. And I was glad that Rabbi Eliahu continued to search for his beloved son.

    And in spite of myself, a prayer formed inside me, a prayer to this God in whom I no longer believed.

    "Oh God, Master of the Universe, give me the strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahu’s son has done." (6.62-66)

    In the desperate situation in which the Jewish prisoners have been placed, Rabbi Eliahu’s son has lost his altruism and prefers to abandon his father to increase his own chance of survival. That Eliezer prays that he will have the strength not to abandon his father the way other sons have done shows that Eliezer, too, feels this conflict within himself.

    Chapter 7
    Eliezer

    There was shouting all around:

    "Come on! Here’s another! My neighbor. He’s not moving …"

    I woke from my apathy only when two men approached my father. I threw myself on his body. He was cold. I slapped him. I rubbed his hands, crying:

    "Father! Father! Wake up. They are going to throw you outside …"

    His body remained inert.

    The two "gravediggers" had grabbed me by the neck:

    "Leave him alone. Can’t you see that he’s already dead?"

    "No!" I yelled. "He’s not dead! Not yet!"

    And I started to hit him harder and harder. At last, my father half opened his eyes. They were glassy. He was breathing faintly.

    "You see," I cried. (7.11-20)

    Despite all of the signs that his father is dead, Eliezer (thankfully) doesn’t give up hope, refusing to believe his father is no longer alive, and smacks his dad until he comes to. (It’s okay to hit your dad if it saves his life.)

    A piece fell into our wagon. I decided not to move. Anyway, I knew that I would not be strong enough to fight off dozens of violent men! I saw, not far from me, an old man dragging himself on all fours. He had just detached himself from the struggling mob. He was holding one hand to his heart. At first I thought he had received a blow to his chest. Then I understood: he was hiding a piece of bread under his shirt. With lightning speed he pulled it out and put it to his mouth. His eyes lit up, a smile, like a grimace, illuminated his ashen face. And was immediately extinguished. A shadow had lain down beside him. And this shadow threw itself over him. Stunned by the blows, the old man was crying:

    "Meir, my little Meir! Don’t you recognize me … You’re killing your father … I have bread … for you too … for you too …"

    He collapsed. But his fist was still clutching a small crust. He wanted to raise it to his mouth. But the other threw himself on him. The old man mumbled something, groaned, and died. Nobody cared. His son searched him, took the crust of bread, and began to devour it. He didn’t get far. Two men had been watching him. They jumped him. Others joined in. When they withdrew, there were two dead bodies next to me, the father and the son. (7.30-32)

    In the horrible situation that the concentration camps have created, physical needs are elevated above all others and a son kills his father for a piece of bread.

    My father had huddled near me, draped in his blanket, shoulders laden with snow. And what if he were dead, as well? I called out to him. No response. I would have screamed if I could have. He was not moving.

    Suddenly, the evidence overwhelmed me: there was no longer any reason to live, any reason to fight. (7.3-4)

    In the moment that Eliezer thinks his father is dead, Eliezer realizes it is only his father’s continuing presence that gives him the will to survive. Like Stein when he realized that his family was gone, Eliezer has no will to live when his father is dead.

    Chapter 8
    Eliezer

    I tightened my grip on my father's hand. The old, familiar fear: not to lose him.

    […]

    I could have screamed in anger. To have lived and endured so much; was I going to let my father die now? Now that we would be able to take a good hot shower and lie down?

    […]

    This discussion continued for some time. I knew that I was no longer arguing with him but with Death itself, with Death that he had already chosen. (8.3-23)

    At the new camp, Eliezer still tries to cling to his father. They have been through so much; losing his father is still his greatest fear. When his father starts to die, he struggles to keep his father alive because of his desire not to lose the last remaining member of his family and the only thing that preserves his own will to live.

    I woke up at dawn on January 29. On my father’s cot there lay another sick person. They must have taken him away before daybreak and taken him to the crematorium. Perhaps he was still breathing …

    No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.

    I did not week, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last! … (8.103-105)

    The extreme situation that Eliezer is enduring has stripped him of much of his humanity and feelings of familial care. For Eliezer, it is horrifying but liberating to be free at last from the burden of keeping his father alive. Eliezer is now free to think only of himself and his own survival.

    "Silence over there!" barked the officer.

    "Eliezer," continued my father, "water …"

    The officer came closer and shouted to him to be silent. But my father did not hear. He continued to call me. The officer wielded his club and dealt him a violent blow to the head.

    I didn’t move. I was afraid, my body was afraid of another blow, this time to my head.

    My father groaned once more, I heard:

    "Eliezer …"

    I could see that he was still breathing—in gasps. I didn’t move.

    When I came down from my bunk after roll call, I could see his lips trembling; he was murmuring something. I remained more than an hour leaning over him, looking at him, etching his bloody, broken face into my mind.

    Then I had to go to sleep. I climbed into my bunk, above my father, who was still alive. The date was January 28, 1945. (8.94-102)

    For Eliezer, his self-preservation instinct prevents him from attempting to protect his dying father. Despite this, Eliezer’s father’s last words are to call out Eliezer’s name, indicating perhaps that the most important thing in his father’s life and death is family.

    "Listen to me, kid. Don’t forget that you are in a concentration camp. In this place, it is every man for himself, and you cannot think of others. Not even your father. In this place, there is no such thing as father, brother, friend. Each of us lives and dies alone. Let me give you good advice: stop giving your ration of bread and soup to your old father. You cannot help him anymore. And you are hurting yourself. In fact, you should be getting his rations …"

    I listened to him without interrupting. He was right, I thought deep down, not daring to admit it to myself. Too late to save your old father … You could have two rations of bread, two rations of soup …

    It was only a fraction of a second, but it left me feeling guilty. I ran to get some soup and brought it to my father. (8.86-88)

    A fellow prisoner points out that in the concentration camp, it’s every man for himself. Selfishness, not altruism, keeps people alive in concentration camps. Eliezer suffers an internal battle of selfishness vs. love for his father, and despite the harsh circumstances, Eliezer’s better side wins out.

    I went to look for him.

    Yet at the same time a thought crept into my mind: If only I didn’t find him! If only I were relieved of this responsibility, I could use all my strength to fight for my own survival, to take care only of myself … Instantly, I felt ashamed of myself forever. (8.26-8.27)

    In the world of the concentration camps, Eliezer struggles to maintain his humanity; Eliezer realizes that he sees his father as a burden that might get in the way of his own personal survival but attempts to banish these inhumane thoughts and feels genuine guilt.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    From that moment on, everything happened very quickly. The race toward death had begun.

    First edict: Jews were prohibited form leaving their residences for three days, under penalty of death.

    […]

    The same day, the Hungarian police burst into every Jewish home in town: a Jew was henceforth forbidden to own gold, jewelry, or any valuables. Everything had to be handed over to the authorities, under penalty of death. […]

    Three days later, a new decree: every Jew had to wear the yellow star. (1.66-72)

    The Jews of Sighet lose their freedom in a gradual process; they become restricted to their houses, lose the right to own valuables, and wear identifying markers. Eventually, they are confined into ghettos.

    Chapter 3
    Eliezer

    But no sooner had we taken a few more steps than we saw the barbed wire of another camp. This one had an iron gate with the overhead inscription: ARBEIT MACHT FREI. Work makes you free.

    Auschwitz. (3.129-130)

    German propaganda proclaims that subjection to forced labor is not confinement, but "liberty."

    Chapter 4
    Eliezer

    We had left the tents for the musicians' block. We now were entitled to a blanket, a washbowl, and a bar of soap. The Blockälteste was a German Jew.

    It was good to have a Jew as your leader. His name was Alphonse. A young man with a startlingly wizened face. He was totally devoted to defending "his" block. Whenever he could, he would "organize" a cauldron of soup for the young, for the weak, for all those who dreamed more of an extra portion of food than of liberty. (4.44-45)

    Basic survival is more important than liberty.

    They quickly became my friends. Having once belonged to a Zionist youth organization, they knew countless Hebrew songs. And so we would sometimes hum melodies evoking the gentle waters of the Jordan River and the majestic sanctity of Jerusalem. We also spoke often about Palestine. Their parents, like mine, had not the courage to sell everything and emigrate while there was still time. We decided that if we were allowed to live until the Liberation, we would not stay another day in Europe. We would board the first ship to Haifa. (4.42)

    In the concentration camp, Jerusalem and Palestine (with all of its religious connotations for people of the Jewish faith) symbolize freedom to Eliezer, whereas Europe, even after the coming liberation, symbolizes confinement.

    His back was to the gallows, his face turned toward his judge, the head of the camp. He was pale but seemed more solemn than frightened. His manacled hands did not tremble. His eyes were coolly assessing the hundreds of SS guards, the thousands of prisoners surrounding him.

    The Lagerälteste began to read the verdict, emphasizing every word:

    "In the name of Reichsführer Himmler … prisoner number … stole during the air raid … according to the law … prisoner number … is condemned to death. Let this be a warning and an example to all prisoners.

    […]

    After a long moment of waiting, the hangman put the rope round his neck. He was about to signal his aides to pull the chair from under the young man’s feet when the latter shouted, in a strong, clear voice:

    "Long live liberty! My curse upon Germany! My curse! My—"

    The executioner had completed his work. (4.170-180)

    The SS officers execute a young man for subversive activities, hoping show the other prisoners that the cost of fighting for liberty. Despite the punishment, the young man dies promoting freedom.

    Chapter 9
    Eliezer

    One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.

    From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.

    The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (9.25-27)

    Though liberated physically, the presence of death and the horrors Eliezer experienced remain with him.

    Our first act as free men was to throw ourselves onto the provisions. That’s all we thought about. No thought of revenge, or of parents. Only of bread.

    And even when we were no longer hungry, not one of us thought of revenge. The next day, a few of the young men ran into Weimar to bring back some potatoes and clothes—and to sleep with girls. But still no trace of revenge. (9.22-23)

    What does this show about what freedom means to the freed Jews? Maybe at first since they had been so deprived, freedom meant the ability to satisfy their physical needs, to eat. But why not think of revenge? Freedom seems to mean more than the ability to punish their enemies.

  • Violence

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    He [Moishe] told me what had happened to him and his companions. The train with the deportees had crossed the Hungarian border and, once in Polish territory, had been taken over by the Gestapo. The train had stopped. The Jews were ordered to get off and onto waiting trucks. The trucks headed toward a forest. There everybody was ordered to get out. They were forced to dig huge trenches. When they had finished their work, the men from the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion or haste, they shot their prisoners, who were forced to approach the trench one by one and offer their necks. Infants were tossed into the air and used as targets for the machine guns.

    […]

    But people not only refused to believe his tales, they refused to listen. Some even insinuated that he only wanted their pity, that he was imagining things. Others flatly said that he had gone mad. (1.29-31)

    The violence Moishe witnesses and reports to the Jews in Sighet is so extreme and dispassionate that they don’t believe him. They find the violence so excessive that they chalk it up to Moishe’s imagination.

    Chapter 2
    Mrs. Schächter

    "Look at the fire! Look at the flames! Flames everywhere…"

    Once again, the young men bound and gagged her. When they actually struck her, people shouted their approval:

    "Keep her quite! Make that madwoman shut up. She’s not the only one here …"

    She received several blows to the head, blows that could have been lethal. (2.35-38)

    Terribly afraid and treated inhumanely themselves, the Jews are even violent to each other, lashing out at Mrs. Schächter because she amplifies their fear of what is to come.

    Chapter 3
    Eliezer

    I pinched myself: Was I still alive? Was I awake? How was it possible that men, women, and children were being burned and that the world kept silent? No. All this would not be real. A nightmare perhaps … Soon I would wake up with a start, my heart pounding, and find that I was back in the room of my childhood, with my books …

    My father’s voice tore me from my daydreams:

    "What a shame, a shame that you did not go with your mother … I saw many children your age go with their mothers …"

    His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would to do to me. He did not wish to see his only son go up in flames.

    My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes …

    "The world? The world is not interested in us. Today everything is possible, even the crematoria …" (3.54-59)

    Despite seeing it with his own eyes, the violence is so extreme that Eliezer has a hard time believing it could possibly be real; he thinks it must be a nightmare.

    Chapter 4

    "In the name of Reichsführer Himmler … prisoner number … stole during the air raid … according to the law … prisoner number … is condemned to death. Let this be a warning and an example to all prisoners." (4.172)

    The German SS officers use public hanging and the threat of death to keep the prisoners frightened and submissive.

    One day when Idek was venting his fury, I happened to cross his path. He threw himself on me like a wild beast, beating me in the chest, on my head, throwing me to the ground and picking me up again, crushing me with ever more violent blows, until I was covered in blood. As I bit my lips in order not to howl with pain, he must have mistaken my silence for defiance and so he continued to hit me harder and harder.

    Abruptly, he calmed down and sent me back to work as if nothing had happened. As if we had taken part in a game in which both roles were of equal importance. (4.64-65)

    The men in control can afford to be violent simply because they happen to be angry and want to lash out at something. It’s senseless violence that serves no purpose.

    Idek

    "A-7713!"

    I stepped forward.

    "A crate!" he ordered.

    They brought a crate.

    "Lie down on it! On your belly!"

    I obeyed.

    I no longer felt anything except the lashes of the whip.

    […]

    "Twenty-four…twenty-five!"

    It was over. I had not realized it, but I had fainted. I came to when they doused me with cold water. I was still lying on the crate. In a blur, I could see the wet ground next to me. Then I heard someone yell. It had to be the Kapo. I began to distinguish what he was shouting:

    "Stand up!"

    […]

    "Listen to me, you son of a swine!" said Idek coldly. "So much for your curiosity. You shall receive five times more if you dare tell anyone what you saw! Understood?" (4.117-140)

    Idek, the Kapo, uses violence as a threat to keep Eliezer silent after having watched Idek have sex with a Polish girl.

    Chapter 6

    Faster you filthy dogs!" We were no longer marching, we were running. Like automatons. The SS were running as well, weapons in hand. We looked as though we were running from them.

    The night was pitch-black. From time to time, a shot exploded in the darkness. They had orders to shoot anyone who could not sustain the pace. Their fingers on the triggers, they did not deprive themselves of the pleasure. If one of us stopped for a second, a quick shot eliminated the filthy dog. (6.3-4)

    Again the SS officers use the threat of death, and examples of murder, to frighten the prisoners into following orders. Although the SS are following their boss’s orders to shoot the prisoners that can’t keep up, they also gain pleasure from the violence.

    Chapter 8
    Eliezer’s Father

    All around me, there was silence now, broken only by moaning. In front of the block, the SS were giving orders. An officer passed between the bunks. My father was pleading:

    "My son, water … I’m burning up … My insides …"

    […]

    The officer came closer and shouted to him to be silent. But my father did not hear. He continued to call me. The officer wielded his club and dealt him a violent blow to the head. (8.92-96)

    The SS officer beats Eliezer’s harmless and ill father simply because he is annoyed that Eliezer’s father isn’t silent. Damage from the blow eventually kills Eliezer’s father. This is yet another powerful and horrifying example of senseless, cruel violence.

    "My son, they are beating me!"

    "Who?" I thought he was delirious.

    "Him, the Frenchman … and the Pole … They beat me …"

    One more stab to the heart, one more reason to hate. One less reason to live.

    "Eliezer … Eliezer … tell them not to beat me … I haven’t done anything … Why are they beating me?"

    I began to insult his neighbors. They mocked me. I promised them bread, soup. They laughed. Then they got angry; they could not stand my father any longer, they said, because he no longer was able to drag himself outside to relieve himself. (8.66-71)

    Eliezer’s father’s fellow prisoners use violence against him for no good reason. They are annoyed with him in his ill and decrepit state and therefore abuse him.

  • Mortality

    Chapter 1
    Eliezer

    He closed his eyes, as if to escape time.

    "You don't understand," he said in despair. "You cannot understand. I was saved miraculously. I succeeded in coming back. Where did I get my strength? I wanted to return to Sighet to describe to you my death so that you might ready yourselves while there is still time. Life? I no longer care to live. I am alone. But I wanted to come back to warn you. Only no one is listening to me …" (1.37-38)

    There’s more than one kind of death; though he is still physically alive, Moishe has experienced a death of the spirit and the soul through his torture at the hands of the Nazis. Yet he hopes to save others from this living death.

    My father’s view was that it was not all bleak, or perhaps he just did not want to discourage the others, to throw salt on their wounds:

    "The yellow star? So what? It’s not lethal …"

    (Poor Father! Of what then did you die?) (1.73-75)

    People’s racial identity becomes their death (or the marker of death), as symbolized by the yellow star.

    Open rooms everywhere. Gaping doors and windows looked out into the void. It all belonged to everyone since it no longer belonged to anyone. It was there for the taking. An open tomb. (1.137)

    Wiesel describes the emptying of the Jewish ghetto in language descriptive of death—which is what it was, literally.

    Chapter 2
    Eliezer

    In front of us, those flames. In the air, the smell of burning flesh. It must have been about midnight. We had arrived. In Birkenau. (2.63)

    Eliezer is welcomed to Birkenau by an overwhelming sense of death; the smell of death is literally in the air and the flames before his eyes. To enter Birkenau is to understand that you will likely die.

    Chapter 3
    Eliezer

    "Your age?" he [Dr. Mengele] asked, perhaps trying to sound paternal.

    "I’m eighteen." My voice was trembling.

    "In good health?"

    "Yes."

    "Your profession?"

    Tell him that I was a student?

    "Farmer," I heard myself saying.

    […]

    The baton pointed to the left. (3.37-46)

    Eliezer lies to make himself seem older and a more able worker. Because of this, he passes selection and isn’t sent to the crematorium. Again we see that the young, old, and weak are killed, whereas those able to work are kept alive.

    "You are in a concentration camp. In Auschwitz …"

    A pause. He was observing the effect his words had produced. His face remains in my memory to this day. A tall man, in his thirties, crime written all over his forehead and his gaze. He looked at us as one would a pack of leprous dogs clinging to life.

    "Remember," he went on. "Remember it always, let it be graven in your memories. You are in Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It is a concentration camp. Here, you must work. If you don’t you will go straight to the chimney. To the crematorium. Work or the crematorium—the choice is yours."

    We had already lived through a lot that night. We thought nothing could frighten us anymore. But his harsh words sent shivers through us. The word "chimney" here was not an abstraction; it floated in the air, mingled with the smoke. It was, perhaps, the only word that had a real meaning in this place. He left the barrack. (3.111-114)

    This SS officer makes it clear that in the concentration camp, a prisoner’s ability to work is all that will keep him alive. The SS uses the threat of death, reinforced by the ever-present smell and sight of the furnace, to wield his authority and force the prisoners to work.

    "Shut up, you moron, or I’ll tear you to pieces! You should have hanged yourselves rather than come here. Didn’t you know what was in store for you here in Auschwitz? You didn’t know? In 1944?"

    True. We didn’t know. Nobody had told us. He couldn’t believe his ears. His tone became even harsher:

    "Over there. Do you see the chimney over there? Do you see it? And the flames, do you see them?" (Yes, we saw the flames.) "Over there, that’s where they will take you. Over there will be your grave. You still don’t understand? You sons of bitches. Don’t you understand anything? You will be burned! Burned into a cinder! Turned to ashes!" (3.25-27)

    Some kinds of death are better than others. This particular prisoner who is speaking clearly thinks that hanging yourself of your own volition is better than being burned alive.

    "Hey, kid, how old are you?"

    The man interrogating me was an inmate. I could not see his face, but his voice was weary and warm.

    "Fifteen."

    "No. You’re eighteen."

    "But I’m not," I said. "I’m fifteen."

    "Fool. Listen to what I say."

    Then he asked my father, who answered:

    "I’m fifty."

    "No." The man now sounded angry. "Not fifty. You’re forty. Do you hear? Eighteen and forty." (3.11-19)

    Although it takes Eliezer and his father a bit of time to catch on to a new set of rules—in this new world of the concentration camp, your age can mean the difference between life and death. In the concentration camp, your ability to survive depends on your ability (or perceived ability) to work, and the young and old were killed off because they were considered unfit to work.

    Not far from us, flames, huge flames, were rising from a ditch. Something was being burned there. A truck drew close and unloaded its hold: small children. Babies! Yes, I did see this with my own eyes … children thrown into the flames. (Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?) (3.52)

    Those that the Germans see as unfit for manual labor are killed.

    His voice was terribly sad. I understood that he did not wish to see what they would to do to me. He did not wish to see his only son go up in flames.

    My forehead was covered with cold sweat. Still, I told him that I could not believe that human beings were being burned in our times; the world would never tolerate such crimes …

    "The world? The world is not interested in us. Today everything is possible, even the crematoria …" His voice broke.

    "Father," I said. "If that is true, then I don’t want to wait. I’ll run into the electrified barbed wire. That would be easier than a slow death in the flames." (3.57-60)

    Eliezer’s father seems most scared of confronting his son’s mortality. Eliezer, too, thinks some kinds of death are better than others—he would rather electrocute himself than be forced to die in a crematorium.

    Chapter 4
    Eliezer

    That was when we began to hear the planes. Almost at the same moment, the barrack began to shake.

    "They’re bombing the Buna factory," someone shouted.

    I anxiously thought of my father who was at work. But I was glad, nevertheless. To watch that factory go up in flames—what revenge! While we had heard some talk of German military defeats on the various fronts, we were not sure if they were credible. But today, this was real!

    We were not afraid. And yet, if a bomb had fallen on the blocks, it would have claimed hundreds of inmates’ lives. But we no longer feared death, in any event not this particular death. Every bomb that hit filled us with joy, gave us renewed confidence. (4.149-152)

    Again we see that not all paths to death are equal (think back to Eliezer preferring to electrocute himself than go to the crematorium). Somehow, death by the Allies’ bombs is different than the death the prisoners have been facing at the hands of the Nazis. Maybe dying at the hands of the SS officers lacks dignity because they are forced and treated like animals, whereas if death comes from the Allies, at least the Allies are hurting the Germans, avenging the Jewish prisoners.

    Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing …

    And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

    Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

    "For God’s sake, where is God?"

    And from within me, I heard a voice answer:

    "Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows …"

    That night the soup tasted of corpses. (4.206-212)

    The Germans use death as a threat to maintain their authority, keep the prisoners afraid, and prevent rebellion. The more horror the prisoners witness, the more effective the Germans' psychological abuse tactic is to maintain control.

    Chapter 5
    Eliezer

    "Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you." For the first time, his voice quivered. "In a few moments, selection will take place. You will have to undress completely. Then you will go, one by one, before the SS doctors. I hope you will all pass. But you must try to increase your chances. Before you go into the next room, try to move your limbs, give yourself some color. Don’t walk slowly, run! Run as if you had the devil at your heels! Don’t look at the SS. Run, straight in front of you!" (5.41)

    Life or death is based on whether or not the SS doctors see the prisoners as physically fit enough to continue to be useful workers. In the quote, the block leader gives prisoners advice on how to pass selection, showing that it is truly based on perceived physical fitness.

    Chapter 6
    Eliezer

    "Don’t worry, son. Go to sleep. I’ll watch over you."

    "You first, Father. Sleep."

    He refused. I stretched out and tried to sleep, to doze a little, but in vain. God knows what I would have given to be able to sleep a few moments. Bet deep inside, I knew that to sleep meant to die. And something in me rebelled against that death. Death, which was settling in all around me, silently, gently. It would seize upon a sleeping person, steal into him and devour him bit by bit. Next to me, someone was trying to awaken his neighbor, his brother, perhaps, or his comrade. In vain. Defeated, he lay down too, next to the corpse, and also fell asleep. Who would wake him up? Reaching out with my arm, I touched him:

    "Wake up. One mustn’t fall asleep here …"

    He half opened his eyes.

    "No advice," he said, his voice a whisper. "I’m exhausted. Mind your business, leave me alone."

    My father too was gently dozing. I couldn’t see his eyes. His cap was covering his face.

    "Wake up," I whispered in his ear.

    He awoke with a start. He sat up, bewildered, stunned, like an orphan. He looked al around him, talking it all in as if he had suddenly decided to make an inventory of his universe, to determine where he was and how and why he was there. Then he smiled.

    I shall always remember that smile. What world did it come from?

    Heavy snow continued to fall over the corpses. (6.43-53)

    In the concentration camp, there is more than one kind of death: there are the violent deaths in the flames of the crematorium, but also the silent deaths, giving in to cold, bodily weakness, and sleep. Eliezer and his father, like his neighbors, are in serious danger of giving in to peaceful sleep and never waking up.

    I soon forgot him. I began to think of myself again. My foot was aching, I shivered with every step. Just a few more meters and it will be over. I’ll fall. A small red flame … A shot … Death enveloped me, it suffocated me. It stuck to me like glue. I felt I could touch it. The idea of dying, of ceasing to be, began to fascinate me. To no longer exist. To no longer feel the excruciating pain of my foot. To no longer feel anything, neither fatigue, nor cold, nothing. To break rank, to let myself slide to the side of the road … (6.17)

    Eliezer’s body is in so much pain that death begins to sound appealing as an escape from suffering.

    We were outside. The icy wind whipped my face. I was constantly biting my lips so that they wouldn’t freeze. All around me, what appeared to be a dance of death. My head was reeling. I was walking through a cemetery. Among the stiffened corpses, there were logs of wood. Not a sound of distress, not a plaintive cry, nothing but mass agony and silence. Nobody asked anyone for help. One died because one had to. No point in making trouble.

    I saw myself in every stiffened corpse. Soon I wouldn’t even be seeing them anymore; I would be one of them. A matter of hours. (6.37-38)

    Eliezer is literally surrounded by death and realizes his own mortality thoroughly.

    Chapter 9
    Eliezer

    One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto.

    From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me.

    The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me. (9.25-27)

    Though liberated physically, the presence of death has never left Eliezer throughout his life.

    Pressed tightly against one another, in an effort to resist the cold, our heads empty and heavy, our brains a whirlwind of decaying memories. Our minds numb with indifference. Here or elsewhere, what did it matter? Die today or tomorrow, or later? The night was growing longer, never-ending.

    When at last a grayish light appeared on the horizon, it revealed a tangle of human shapes, heads sunk deeply between the shoulders, crouching, piled one on top of the other, like a cemetery covered with snow. In the early dawn light, I tried to distinguish between the living and those who were no more. But there was barely a difference. My gaze remained fixed on someone who, eyes wide open, stared into space. His colorless face was covered with a layer of frost and snow. (98)

    Eliezer finds that among his fellow prisoners, there is very little difference between the living and the dead; the dead are dead and the living are but living dead, without hope.