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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?
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 …"
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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