Meet Moishe the Beadle. He’s a poor Jew in the town of Sighet (now in modern-day Romania), where our author and narrator, Eliezer Wiesel, lives. Moishe the Beadle is awkward and shy, but 12-year-old Eliezer likes him anyway.
Eliezer, who’s also Jewish, is very religious. He studies the Talmud and goes to the temple every night, but he also wants to study Kabbalah.
Eliezer’s father thinks his son is too young to learn Kabbalah, and that Kabbalah isn’t something that Eliezer should spend his time on. He keeps saying to his son, "There are no Kabbalists in Sighet."
Moishe the Beadle sees Eliezer crying while praying at the synagogue, and they have a kind of connection. They end up talking most evenings at the synagogue.
Eliezer confides in Moishe his desire to learn Kabbalah, and to Eliezer’s surprise, Moishe knows all about Kabbalah and starts to teach him.
Then one day, the Hungarian police expel all the foreign Jews from Sighet. Moishe the Beadle is actually a foreigner, so he and the others like him are packed into train cars like cattle.
The Jews of Sighet think it’s a shame that the foreigners are carted away, but quickly forget, clearly not seeing this as a warning for their own futures.
Life goes back to normal.
Many months pass and Moishe the Beadle returns. He tells Eliezer his story: he and the other foreign Jews were carted off into Poland, where the Gestapo took over and forced them to dig their own graves. Moishe escaped because he was shot in the leg and left for dead.
Moishe warns the people of Sighet to leave because death is coming their way.
Nobody listens. This is at the end of 1942.
Now it’s spring of 1944 and the people of Sighet listen with incredulity to radio reports. How could one man (Adolf Hitler) possibly wipe out an entire people? Impossible!
News comes from Budapest that the Jews there are subjected to attacks by the Nazis. But the Jews of Sighet are optimistic that the Nazis won’t come all the way to their little town.
Then the Germans arrive.
At first the Germans don’t seem so bad. They are billeted in people’s homes and while they’re not exactly friendly, they’re not rude or violent. Some of them even buy chocolate for their host families.
The Jews in Sighet just don’t want to see what’s coming. Wiesel sums it up pretty well: "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."
People celebrate Passover and as the celebration ends, the restrictions begin. First, Jews cannot leave their houses for three days or they’ll die. Then, Jews are no longer allowed to keep valuable items, or they’ll die. Next, Jews must wear the yellow star.
Important community members come to talk with Eliezer’s father (who has connections with the Hungarian police) about what should be done about the situation. Eliezer’s dad is still optimistic.
Next, the police set up two ghettos and move all the Jews there.
The Sighet Jews become optimistic again. The scary barbed wire isn’t all that bad, and they have their own Jewish Republic within each ghetto. They don’t even have to deal with outsiders.
If this is as bad as it gets, the Jews think, this isn’t too bad.
Eliezer’s dad is summoned to a special Council meeting (he’s a member of the Jewish Council in his ghetto). Everyone’s anxiously waiting to find out what new information Eliezer’s dad will bring.
Eliezer’s dad comes back from his meeting after midnight. He’s accosted by people begging to find out what he learned in the meeting. And it can’t be good news because he looks awful.
The news is terrible: deportation, starting tomorrow.
The Jews in the ghetto get more information out of Eliezer’s father: everyone can take only one bag of belongings. They’ll board trains and driven to an unknown destination.
Eliezer’s dad tells the people to go wake up their neighbors because everyone should pack and be ready for tomorrow.
The ghetto is a bustle of activity: women cooking food for the trip, people packing, Eliezer’s father consoling friends left and right.
The police show up to the ghetto at 8am and call all of the Jews out.
The Jews are marched to the synagogue and searched for valuables.
The Wiesels are not in the first groups to leave; they won’t leave until Tuesday (in two days).
Tuesday comes and the Wiesels’ deportation has been delayed; they will first be moved to a smaller ghetto to await transport, but they still have to go through the roll call and leave their home.
Eliezer feels empty. His father cries.
The police start clubbing Jews and force the whole group to run. Eliezer realizes that he hates the Hungarian police.
The Wiesels and the other Jews arrive at the smaller ghetto, which had been evacuated three days before. The small ghetto shows signs of the Jews being forced to leave in a hurry—there’s even a half eaten bowl of soup on the table where the Wiesels are staying.
The Wiesels’ former maid, Maria, comes to see them. She says she’s prepared a hiding place for them in her town. Eliezer’s dad won’t go into hiding but gives Eliezer and his older sisters the choice of leaving. The family refuses to be separated.
Optimism returns, again. Some think that the Germans are only out to steal the Jews’ valuables, so they’re sending the Jews on "vacation" while they snag their stuff. Others think they’re being deported "for our own good."
Saturday morning all of the Jews are out on the street and ready to leave.
They all go to the synagogue, which has been converted into a sort of over-crowded train station, to await transport. It’s the Sabbath, so it’s rather ironic that they’re at the synagogue, considering its current use. They wait there for a full 24 hours.
The next morning, the Hungarian police load the Jews into cattle cars, seal the cars, and check to make sure the bars on the windows are secure.