By Elie Wiesel
Eliezer, the narrator of the novel, is a teenager living in Sighet, a town within Hungarian Transylvania. He is an observant Jew who studies the Torah under the guidance of Moshe, his instructor, whom they call the Beadle. His studies cease when Moshe is deported, only to return a few months later telling all of the villagers what the Nazis are doing to the Jews. No one in the village believes him, however, as people believe him crazy.
The Nazis have Hungary occupied in the spring of 1944, and slowly measures are passed that deprive the Jewish population of their rights and concentrate them within small ghettos. Not long after that, Eliezer and his family, along with other Jews, are forced into cattle cars and begin the long journey in cramped, unsanitary conditions to Birkenau, the processing center that leads to Auschwitz. Eliezer is separated from his sisters and mother and, along with his father, examined by the infamous Dr. Mengele to determine if they should be immediately executed or put to work. Eliezer lies about his age and claims to be a farmer and is permitted to work. While being brought to prisoner’s barracks, he happens upon furnaces where Nazis are burning bodies. At the barracks, his father begins to say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, but Eliezer wonders what he has to thank God for.
After being disinfected and stripped of their clothes and shaved, Eliezer and the others are forced to march from Birkenau to Auschwitz, the main camp. Eliezer is given a job working with electronics, but, as with the other prisoners, is still subject to the humiliations and beatings by the guards. One removes Eliezer’s gold tooth with a rusty spoon. Despite the beatings and malnutrition, those still alive take solace in caring for one another though many of the Jews, including a Rabbi, admit they have lost their faith after witnessing the atrocities.
Eliezer’s foot swells up and has to undergo an operation. While recovering in the infirmary, news spreads that the Russians are coming and believing the infirm will be killed when the Germans evacuate the camp, Eliezer and his father choose to be evacuated with the others. He later finds out that the Germans allowed the infirm to live, and were then set free by the invading Russians.
The prisoners are forced to run in the snow during a raging blizzard, and any prisoner who stops running is shot by the SS. Eventually, those who survived run forty-two miles to an abandoned village. Moved to another camp, the Jews are then forced unto roofless cattle cars. For two weeks they are given neither food nor water, living only on the snow and bread that citizens throw into the cars to watch the prisoners fight for the food. The train eventually arrives at Buchenwald, but only twelve of the original one hundred men have survived the trip. Eliezer’s father is among the living, but the long journey has drained the life out of him, and he contracts dysentery and is not cared for in the infirmary by the SS because of his age. Eliezer visits his father and gives him water despite warnings about doing so for a man in his condition. With the Allies approaching the camp, the Germans begin to kill the prisoners in hopes of leaving no witnesses. When the Nazis decide to evacuate and kill everyone in the camp, an air raid siren sounds and forces everyone indoors. When the raid siring ceases and the evacuation/execution begins, Allied forces storm the camp and set the prisoners free.