In 1944, in the village of Sighet, Romania, twelve-year-old Elie Wiesel spends much time and emotion on the Talmud and on Jewish mysticism. His instructor, Moshe the Beadle, returns from a near-death experience and warns that Nazi aggressors will soon threaten the serenity of their lives. However, even when anti-Semitic measures force the Sighet Jews into supervised ghettos, Elie's family remains calm and compliant. In spring, authorities begin shipping trainloads of Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Elie's family is part of the final convoy. In a cattle car, eighty villagers can scarcely move and have to survive on minimal food and water. One of the deportees, Madame Schächter, becomes hysterical with visions of flames and furnaces.
At midnight on the third day of their deportation, the group looks in horror at flames rising above huge ovens and gags at the stench of burning flesh. Guards wielding billy clubs force Elie's group through a selection of those fit to work and those who face a grim and improbable future. Elie and his father Chlomo lie about their ages and depart with other hardy men to Auschwitz, a concentration camp. Elie's mother and three sisters disappear into Birkenau, the death camp. After viewing infants being tossed in a burning pit, Elie rebels against God, who remains silent.
Every day, Elie and Chiomo struggle to keep their health so they can remain in the work force. Sadistic guards and trustees exact capricious punishments. After three weeks, Elie and his father are forced to march to Buna, a factory in the Auschwitz complex, where they sort electrical parts in an electronics warehouse. The savagery reaches its height when the guards hang a childlike thirteen year old, who dies slowly before Elie's eyes.
Despairing, Elie grows morose during Rosh Hashanah services. At the next selection, the doctor culls Chlomo from abler men. Chlomo, however, passes a second physical exam and is given another chance to live. Elie undergoes surgery on his foot.
Because Russian liberation forces are moving ever closer to the Nazi camp, SS troops evacuate Buna in January 1945. The Wiesels and their fellow prisoners are forced to run through a snowy night in bitter cold over a forty-two mile route to Gleiwitz. Elie binds his bleeding foot in strips of blanket. Inmates who falter are shot. Elie prays for strength to save his father from death. At a makeshift barracks, survivors pile together. Three days later, living on mouthfuls of snow, the remaining inmates travel in open cattle cars on a ten-day train ride to Buchenwald in central Germany. Finally, only the Wiesels and ten others cling to life.
In wooden bunks, Elie tries to nurse his father back to health. Gradually, the dying man succumbs to dysentery, malnutrition, and a vicious beating. Elie's mind slips into semi-delirium. When he awakens, Chlomo is gone. Elie fears that he was sent to the ovens while he was still breathing. Resistance breaks out in Buchenwald. In April, American forces liberate the camp. Elie is so depleted by food poisoning that he stares at himself in a mirror and sees the reflection of a corpse.