Night Summary

Elie Wiesel


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Night Summary

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Night is the story of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp from 1944 to 1945 at the age of fifteen. There has been some suggestion that the account given by Night’s Eliezer varies in some very minor respects from the author’s own experience. However, the work is first and foremost a memoir.

In the village of Sighet in Hungary, Eliezer Wiesel, the only son of Orthodox Jewish parents, is absorbed in his studies of Jewish law and theological philosophy. His teacher, Moshe the Beadle, is expelled from Hungary along with other foreign Jews, but returns to the village a few months later, claiming to have escaped a mass killing of the deported Jews by the Gestapo. The villagers ignore Moshe’s warnings. After the Germans occupy Hungary, the Jews of Sighet suffer mounting persecution, and are eventually moved into ghettos, from which they are deported in groups. The Wiesel family is among the last group to be deported.

The deportees travel in intolerable conditions for several days in a train formed of cattle cars. A few days into the journey, Madame Schächter, a middle-aged deportee with a young son, begins to scream, pointing through the window at what she says is “a terrible fire” beyond the train. Nobody else can see the fire. The other deportees attempt to console Madame Schächter, but she continues to scream. Close to hysteria themselves, and unable to bear her screaming, they bind and gag her. When she escapes her restraints and begins again to scream, they beat her until she is silent. Finally, flames become visible in the distance, a vile smell fills the air, and the deportees are violently forced off the train by guards.

The train arrives at Birkenau, and the deportees are separated according to sex. This is the last time that Eliezer will ever see his mother and sister. Eliezer and his father, Chlomo, encounter an inmate of Auschwitz, who tells them to lie about their ages – Eliezer should claim to be a little older, and Chlomo ten years younger. Another inmate berates the assembled men for allowing themselves to be taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, revealing that it is a death camp where many of them will be exterminated. All the men are then separated according to who appears fit to work. Having taken the inmate’s advice to lie about their ages, Eliezer and Chlomo are placed in a group together, but are unsure whether it is the group for able-bodied men.

As the group is herded through Birkenau, the men see a pit in which babies are being burned. The men in the group weep, and someone begins to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. As Chlomo begins to pray as well, Eliezer experiences a crisis of faith, seeing such horror met with apparent silence from God. However, when the group approaches a pit in which adults are being burned, he finds himself whispering the Kaddish. Only when the group is a few steps away from the pit does it become clear that the men are not to be killed, but are headed instead for the barracks. That night, Eliezer reflects in his narration, “turned my life into one long night.”

In the barracks, the men are stripped, shaved, and soaked in disinfectant, while being beaten by the Kapos, the head prisoners. The men are then marched into Auschwitz, and have their prison numbers tattooed on their arms. Three weeks later, Eliezer and Chlomo are taken to Buna work camp, along with the other unskilled workers in their original group. Father and son are assigned work counting electrical parts in a warehouse, supervised by the violently unstable Kapo, Idek. One day, Idek brutally attacks Eliezer without provocation. The French girl who works next to Eliezer in the warehouse offers him a crust of bread, and advises him to keep his anger for another day. Later, Idek falls into another violent rage, this time beating Chlomo with an iron bar. Eliezer narrates that if he felt any anger on that occasion, it was not towards Idek, but his father, for his inability to avoid Idek’s wrath.

The Nazis hang a number of prisoners for various infractions. The most distressing of the hangings is that of a young boy. Forced to watch the boy’s slow death on the gallows, Eliezer thinks that God hangs there too. At Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Eliezer inwardly rages at God for failing to intervene in the atrocities committed at Auschwitz and other death camps. The prisoners are again separated into those considered able-bodied and those deemed unfit to work. This time, Chlomo falls into the second category. In their grief-stricken parting, Chlomo gives Eliezer his knife and spoon – the only inheritance he has to bequeath. However, he is spared execution after a second physical examination.

With the Russian army approaching, the Germans decide to evacuate the camp. The prisoners are taken at night through a snowstorm to Gleiwitz camp. They are forced to run, and are either shot or trampled if they stop. Arriving at Gleiwitz, many of the prisoners are crushed to death as they rush into the barracks. The evacuees remain there for three days in the freezing cold, without food or water. In another selection process, Chlomo is spared execution only through the intervention of Eliezer, who creates a diversion, allowing his father to switch groups. Eliezer, Chlomo, and the other prisoners deemed fit enough to live are ordered on to a train. They arrive at Buchenwald camp after several days’ travel in abominable conditions. Only Eliezer, Chlomo, and another ten prisoners out of the original hundred in their train car remain alive.

During the march to Gleiwitz, Eliezer sees a son abandon his struggling father; during the train journey, he sees another kill his father for a crust of bread. Eliezer supports his own father through these ordeals, and Chlomo returns that support when he is able. However, when the two arrive at Buchenwald, and Chlomo sits in the snow and refuses to move, Eliezer finds himself on the brink of abandoning him. Chlomo is moved to a bed in the prisoners’ blocks, and it becomes clear that he is suffering from dysentery. Eliezer pleads with a doctor to treat his father, but the doctor refuses. Chlomo is finally taken to the crematorium. In his narration, Eliezer states that to his anguish, he did not weep for his father; deep within his conscience, he felt something like relief at his death.

The Americans arrive and the camp is liberated. After being starved throughout their internment, and receiving no food for the last six days, the newly freed prisoners have no thoughts of revenge or of parents, Eliezer narrates – only of feeding themselves. Eliezer becomes very ill and is sent to a hospital, where he sees his reflection in a mirror for the first time since his deportation. Looking back at him is a corpse.