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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 police empty the houses, club people with their guns, and do a roll call.
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.
The train begins to move.
Packed inside cattle trains, the Jews of Sighet are on their way to an unknown destination. They are crammed together so tightly, it's impossible to lie down and they can only sit by taking turns.
Still, young people somehow manage to find a way to "caress" each other.
Two days pass and so does the Hungarian border. The Jews are not staying in their country after all, and in fact they are now under German jurisdiction.
German officers inform them that there are eighty people in the cattle car. If anybody goes missing, they will all be shot—"like dogs."
In the middle of the night, a woman, Mrs. Schächter, begins to moan, cry, and scream because she has been separated from her husband. At last, she begins to scream that she sees fire, a terrible fire.
People try to calm her but she will not be calmed. She tells them she sees a terrible furnace.
The Jews in the cattle car try to explain Mrs. Schächter's vision away—she must be thirsty, they say.
At long last, people get fed up and they start to beat her with blows strong enough to kill her.
The next night, though, she begins to scream again about the fire.
The train stops somewhere for a little while. Two men go for water and come back with news that they're at Auschwitz, where life is apparently pretty good. Everyone rejoices.
But that night, Mrs. Schächter begins to scream again, and again she's beaten. At long last she is silent.
The train continues to move. Suddenly Mrs. Schächter screams again. This time, through the windows, everyone can see the crematoria smokestacks. Fire. The smell of burning bodies.
The Jews get out (read: are beaten and forced out), only to encounter those smokestacks, that smell, in front of them.
They have arrived in Birkenau. (Note that Birkenau is adjacent to Auschwitz and sometimes called Auschwitz-Birkenau).
The Jews must leave all of their cherished possessions—and optimistic illusions—in the cattle car as they move forward to be admitted to the concentration camp.
Men are sent to the left, women to the right. Although he does not know it at the moment, this is the last time Eliezer will ever see his mother and youngest sister Tzipora.
Eliezer's one thought is not to lose his father.
Already, some Jews are being beaten and shot.
A kind prisoner comes up to Eliezer and his father, asking them their ages. On hearing that Eliezer is 15 and his father is 50, the prisoner tells them they should be 18 and 40. Age can mean the difference between life and death.
Another prisoner tells them they would have been better off hanging themselves than to come here. Hadn't they heard of Auschwitz in 1944? The new prisoners all have to admit that no, they hadn't heard about Auschwitz.
The prisoner points to the smokestacks and asks if they know what's being burned there? Basically he says: that's where you're going to die. (But in more words and some curses.)
The male prisoners are in a line being questioned by Dr. Mengele and divided into two groups: one group, presumably, is going to be working; the other group will head straight to the crematorium. (Dr. Josef Mengele was an infamous Nazi doctor who selected which prisoners would be sent to labor and which would die.)
When Eliezer is questioned, he lies and says that he's 18 and a farmer, rather than 15 and a student.
Near Eliezer, there's a pit of fire into which small children are being dumped—alive.
Eliezer comments, as the narrator, "Is it any wonder that ever since then, sleep tends to elude me?"
It seems for a while that death is imminent. The male prisoners, including Eliezer's father, are weeping. Some are even saying the prayer for the dead, but saying it for themselves.
Within himself, Eliezer begins to feel the first stirrings of rebellion against God.
Eliezer contemplates killing himself by throwing himself onto the electric wire rather than be burned alive, but his group is directed away from the fires.
Both Eliezer and his father are assigned to labor units, so death is not immediate.
They wait through a long night, during which Eliezer loses faith in God's justice and mercy.
The new male prisoners are beaten, forced to strip off their clothes, beaten, and sent to the barber to get their hair shaved off.
After the barber, all of the men are standing around, naked, finding acquaintances and old friends. They are joyful at finding each other still alive.
The naked men are forced to run outside in the cold to a bath of disinfectant, and then forced to run again to the storeroom to get striped prisoner's clothes.
In the striped outfits, the men look like something other than human. "We had ceased to be men," Wiesel says.
Aside from looking completely different all shaved and in awful, identical uniforms, Eliezer feels he has lost his identity; he is no longer a child or a student of Talmud.
At daybreak, they see prisoners at work, digging holes and carrying sand.
They wait some more—while standing—for who knows how long.
An SS officer arrives and lectures them about the realities of the concentration camp. It's not a "convalescent home," he says. It is a place where you are expected to work hard. It's a concentration camp. If you don't work, you can expect to go straight to the smokestacks. To sum it up: work or die.
Eliezer and his father are moved to a new barracks where they are at least allowed to sit, but Eliezer has to watch his father be beaten, and is horrified that he's watching this without rebelling.
They continue marching, for half an hour, to another camp (they've left Birkenau). The iron gate to this camp has an inscription: "work makes you free." They are now in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
The prisoner in charge is Polish. He is kind when he greets them and he tries to encourage them that liberation is on the way. He also tells the new prisoners that the only way to survive is to help each other.
They sleep and the next day their spirits are improved. They even get a bowl of soup for lunch. The next day, they are given numbers, tattooed on their arms. Eliezer becomes A-7713.
They look for friends and relatives among the latest arrivals.
A relative named Stein comes looking for Eliezer and his father after they've been in Auschwitz for about a week. Stein is Eliezer's cousin, and he is looking for news about his wife and children.
Eliezer lies to Stein, saying he heard they are well.
The nice Polish prisoner who was in charge of Eliezer's group (or Block 17) is removed because he's too nice. The prisoner who replaces him is vicious.
Stein continues to visit occasionally, and he often brings some of his own food ration for Eliezer. He tells them that the important thing is to stay healthy and avoid "selection." (Selection is when the group is divided between those that are healthy enough to work and those destined for the crematoria.)
Stein says the knowledge that his wife and kids are alive gives him enough hope to keep on living.
A new transport comes to Auschwitz and Stein hopes to hear some more news about his family. When Stein hears real news about his wife and children, he does not return. We assume that he gave up hope and died.
In the evenings, the men in Block 17 discuss their faith. Eliezer doesn't pray. He's not an atheist, but he no longer believes that God is absolutely just.
Eliezer and his father try to reassure themselves that his mother and Tzipora are all right.
They finally receive their work orders and they depart with the next transport. They march through German villages where their guards flirt with giggling German girls. Four hours later, they reach Buna. The doors close behind them.
Buna seems dead, empty.
Eliezer's group starts asking around to find out which is the best work group to be assigned to. The word on the street is that you just want to stay away from the construction "Kommando" or (work group).
A fat German is in charge of them. One of his assistants tells Eliezer that, in exchange for his shoes, he will make sure Eliezer gets into a good labor unit. Eliezer refuses to part with his shoes.
The next day there is a medical and a dental examination, only the doctors simply ask you if you're in good health and the dentist is just looking for gold crowns. If you have a gold crown, he writes your name (read: number tattooed on your arm) on his list.
Eliezer has a gold crown.
Eliezer and his dad are assigned to work in a warehouse for electrical equipment. Idek is their "Kapo," or work leader. They learn that Idek is a little crazy and it's best to stay out of his way.
The work isn't bad, it's just counting pieces of electrical equipment. There are even civilians working there—Polish people and some French women.
Eliezer becomes friends with Czechoslovakian brothers, Yossi and Tibi, whose parents had been killed in Birkenau.
Their new block leader is a nice German Jew. Eliezer and his father now get a blanket, soap, and a washbowl.
Eliezer uses trickery to keep his gold tooth. He keeps telling the dentist that he's sick and puts off the tooth removal. At last, the dentist is punished because he's been pocketing some of the gold crowns. Eliezer's tooth is, for the moment, safe.
At the warehouse, Eliezer works near a young French girl who seems to him to be Jewish although she passes herself off as Aryan.
One day, Idek (the crazy Kapo) gets angry and beats Eliezer. The French girl is kind to him and gives him a little bit of bread. She tells him not to give up hope.
Many years later, Eliezer sees the French girl (now a woman) on a train in Paris. She remembers him too, and he discovers that she is indeed from a religious Jewish family but she managed to hide her identity to keep herself alive.
Back in Buna in 1944, Idek goes crazy again and beats Eliezer's dad this time. Eliezer reflects on how inhumane the concentration camps made him; as his father is being beaten, rather than being mad at Idek, Eliezer is mad at his father for not avoiding the Kapo.
Franek, the foreman, decides he wants Eliezer's gold crown. Eliezer won't give it to him. But, Franek discovers Eliezer's weakness—his father.
Franek begins to torment Eliezer's father during their marches.
At last, Eliezer gives in and his tooth is extracted with a rusty spoon in the bathroom.
Idek marches them to work one Sunday (when working isn't required) and leaves them in Franek's care, saying he doesn't care what they do; he just doesn't want them in the camp.
Eliezer goes exploring and discovers why Idek didn't want anyone in the camp: he's sleeping with this young Polish girl. Eliezer laughs, thinking about the absurdity of moving 100 prisoners to the warehouse just so he can get laid.
Idek discovers Eliezer and gets angry. He gives Eliezer 25 lashes with the whip in front of the whole block and tells him he'll get five times that if he tells anyone what he saw.
Some Sunday (time seems to blend) there's an air raid. The SS officers take cover, while the prisoners remain in their bunks.
One man dares to venture out to get some soup, as the soup has been left out. For most people, terror is stronger than hunger, but not for this man. The man is killed, though, when the Allies start bombing Buna.
All of the prisoners are glad to hear the bombs; they have renewed hope.
A week later at roll call, everybody notices the gallows that have been set up in the middle of camp.
The SS officers drag a young Polish man out of solitary confinement; he's going to be hanged for stealing something during the air raid. The Polish man cries "A curse on Germany! Long live liberty!" as the rope goes around his neck. Then he is killed.
Eliezer witnesses other hangings. But the worst is the hanging of a young boy who is involved in resistance activities. Because he is light in weight, the hanging doesn't result in instantaneous death. The inmates are forced to watch as the boy on the end of the rope struggles for half an hour before he dies.
That night, everything, including the soup they eat, tastes of death.
The Jews inside Buna come together for a service to celebrate Rosh Hashanah.
Eliezer wonders, angrily, where God is and refuses to bless God's name because of all of the death and suffering He has allowed.
Eliezer thinks that man is strong, stronger than God.
During this year's Rosh Hashanah, unlike all previous years, Eliezer is not asking forgiveness for his sins. Rather, Eliezer feels himself to be "the accuser, God the accused."
The services conclude with the Kaddish and Eliezer goes in search for his father, who is standing as if a heavy weight is upon him. In that moment, Eliezer realizes his father is already beaten.
On Yom Kippur, Eliezer refuses to fast—not only to please his father, who says they should not fast when they need to keep up their strength, but also to mock God.
Eliezer is no longer in the same block as his father because he was transferred to the construction Kommando—that's the bad job where you haul huge stones around.
During dinner one evening, the word spreads that selection is coming up.
Eliezer's block leader gives the prisoners some advice about passing selection: basically, look vigorous and don't be scared. Thanks, that wasn't very helpful.
Eliezer and all of the other men undress as Dr. Mengele and some SS officers arrive.
They go through the selection process. Dr. Mengele, a notorious doctor in the Nazi concentration camps, is the one who inspects them.
Though terrified, Eliezer passes the inspection, as does his dad. They're relieved. (That was an understatement.)
Several days pass and they learn that a new list of prisoner numbers has been selected for death. Eliezer's father is on that list.
Eliezer's dad tries to reassure him, saying that the selection wasn't decisive; there will be another one today that he might pass.
His father is rushed, trying to tell his son everything he wants to say before he dies. As they say goodbye that day, his father gives him a knife and a spoon—the family inheritance. Eliezer doesn't want to take them. He doesn't want to admit his father might have been selected. But at last, he takes them and marches off with the construction group.
The day's work is hard and Eliezer dreads going back to camp to find he is alone.
That night, he returns to find his father is still alive, having passed the second selection. Eliezer gives the knife and spoon back to his dad.
Akiba Drumer, one of their fellow prisoners, is selected. He asks them to remember to say the Kaddish for him after he dies. They promise... but they forget to say the Kaddish.
Winter arrives and makes everything worse, more unbearable.
The prisoners get Christmas and New Year's off, plus the present of a "slightly less transparent soup."
In January, Eliezer's foot begins to swell. It's so swollen, he goes to the doctor—a Jewish doctor and a prisoner—who tells Eliezer that he needs an operation or his foot will have to be amputated. So Eliezer enters the hospital.
Life in the hospital is a bit better—more food, thicker soup, and even sheets on the beds.
What Eliezer fears most is that he will be selected at the hospital while recuperating.
The operation is successful and the doctor tells Eliezer he just needs to rest for two weeks.
But Eliezer can't feel his leg and he's afraid it's been amputated—which would mean selection. He's relieved to learn that his leg is still very much attached.
While he waits in the hospital, rumors fly that the Russians are not far away and the camp is going to be evacuated. Those who are in the hospital will probably be "liquidated," that is, killed.
So Eliezer, even though his foot is still recovering, goes in search of his father. He doesn't want to stay behind in the hospital and be separated from his father during the evacuation.
Later, Eliezer learns that the Russians liberated the hospital two days after he left.
The prisoners are forced to evacuate, but only after mopping the floor of the barracks (literally crazy, huh?).
Off the prisoners go, marching through the snow.
When the book begins, Eliezer is essentially a child—very innocent. He's also a deeply observant Jew, studying Talmud by day and Kabbalah by night, and dedicated to becoming closer to his merciful God. Moishe the Beadle becomes Eliezer's friend and Kabbalah teacher, telling Eliezer that the way to get closer to God is by asking Him questions. When Eliezer enters the concentration camp, he enters as a child, holding his father's hand and not believing that the Germans could really slaughter the Jews or that the world would stand by silently and allow it. Within moments, though, Eliezer loses his mother and little sister, and witnesses live babies being dumped into fiery graves. His childhood and innocence are murdered, his faith in God's justice and mercy destroyed. For the remainder of the book, Eliezer struggles to stay alive physically and spiritually.

At the age of fifteen, Eliezer confronts the worst in humanity and the worst in himself. Being placed in a situation where they are nearly starving, and abused mentally and physically, brings out the worst in the concentration camp prisoners. Most become self-focused, only concerned with their own self-preservation. Eliezer confronts this side of himself. He sees himself shy away from protecting his father for fear of being beaten himself. As his father becomes weak, Eliezer begins to feel his father as a burden limiting his own chances of survival. And at the end of his father's life, Eliezer doesn't stay with his father when he is dying and calling out his son's name; after an hour of painful listening, Eliezer goes to bed.
Despite the darkest sides of Eliezer, he is an extremely admirable character. Unlike other sons in the concentration camps who show no regard for their fathers (one even kills his father for bread), Eliezer doesn't act on his brief, guilty thoughts of leaving his father. Rather, he nurses his father when he is ill, defends him against bullies, and struggles to keep him alive. The majority of the time, too, Eliezer isn't thinking of abandoning his father, but of how to keep from losing him. Whenever Eliezer thinks his father has died, Eliezer loses the will to live. This is especially clear in the last chapter of the book; Eliezer doesn't even tell us about his last experiences in Buchenwald because to him, nothing mattered once his father had passed away.

As for Eliezer's relationship with God, some find it tempting to say that he became an atheist, but this is an oversimplification. Though Eliezer lost faith in God's mercy, he still believes that there is a God. What does God become to Eliezer? Eliezer takes Moishe's advice throughout the book, questioning God in order to find out what He is. Indifferent? Cruel? By the end of the book, Eliezer hasn't decided; he's no longer devout, but he's on the path to becoming closer to God by questioning Him.

Our first view of Eliezer is as a child, and our last view of him is as a corpse—the corpse he sees looking back at himself in the mirror. Though liberated, Eliezer is damaged by his horrific experience. His identity has been permanently altered—he's no longer a child because of the horrors he's witnessed and the dark side of himself he's seen, he's no longer a son because his parents are both dead, and he's no longer sure of who or what God is. There's one thing he certainly is, that he'll never forget: a concentration camp survivor, and a man well acquainted with death.
Eliezer studies the mysteries of the Kabbalah with Moishe the Beadle.
Eliezer listens to Moishe the Beadle tell of the horrors he witnessed and experienced at the hands of the Germans.
Eliezer, along with his family and all of the other Jews in Sighet, is banished to a ghetto.
With his family and many other Sighet Jews, Eliezer is packed into a cattle car and sent to Birkenau (next to Auschwitz).
At the concentration camp, Eliezer says goodbye to his mother and little sister, not knowing that it was goodbye forever. He clings to his father.
Waiting through the first long night at Birkenau, seeing death all around them, Eliezer loses his faith in God's justice.
Eliezer lies to his cousin, Stein, saying that Stein's wife, Reizel, and children are all right.
Eliezer and his father are moved to a new camp, Buna, where they work in a warehouse.
He manages to save his gold-capped tooth by pretending to be sick every time the dentist wants to extract it.
Once, when the Kapo (Idek) beats him up, a young French girl says some kind words to him. Later, after the war, he learns that she is Jewish and managed to hide her identity during those years.
Franek the foreman wants Eliezer's gold crown and tortures his father until Eliezer agrees to give it up. A "dentist" from Warsaw pulls it out with a rusty spoon in the bathroom.
Eliezer observes Idek having sex with a Polish girl. Eliezer is punished with 25 lashes on the whip.
On Rosh Hashanah, Eliezer decides man is stronger than God.
On Yom Kippur, Eliezer decides not to perform the traditional fast—both to shake his fist in God's face and to prevent himself from starving to death.
Eliezer passes "selection" (for the crematoria) and Eliezer's father mistakenly thinks he's passed as well. When Eliezer's dad realizes that he hasn't passed and needs to go through a second round of selection. Eliezer's father thinks he might die and gives Eliezer the inheritance—a knife and a spoon. Eliezer tries to refuse it but at last he takes it.
When his father is not killed, Eliezer returns the knife and spoon to his father.
Eliezer's foot swells until he needs surgery.
While he's recovering from surgery, the camp is evacuated because the Russians are on the way. Afraid that those who remain behind at the hospital will be executed, Eliezer leaves with those being evacuated, even though his foot is still healing.
When Eliezer realizes that Rabbi Eliahu's son had deliberately left his father behind, to rid himself of the burden, he prays to the God for the strength not to do that to his own father.
As his father gets sicker and weaker, Eliezer's strength and will are tested. He keeps his father alive until they arrive at the next camp, Buchenwald. Even there, he keeps him alive for several days.
When his father is dying—from the combination of dysentery and a blow to the head given by an SS officer—he is calling Eliezer's name.
When Eliezer awakens in the morning, his father's body is gone. Eliezer feels guilty—but he also feels relieved that his father is dead, and free, at last.
A few months later, the camp is liberated.
His first act as a free man is to eat like crazy. After his feasting, he gets food poisoning and goes to the hospital, where he almost dies.
When he is at last released from the hospital, Eliezer looks in the mirror and sees a corpse. He says he has never forgotten the look in his eyes that day.