Summary and Analysis
(Note: Wiesel's book is divided into nine unnumbered segments. It will be easier for you to follow the discussion in these Notes if you number the segments in pencil before you begin reading.)
Near the close of 1941, twelve-year-old Elie Wiesel — son of a devout Romanian shopkeeper and brother to three girls, two older and one younger — recounts his avid pursuit of Hasidic Judaism through study of the Talmud and the cabbala. Lacking a mentor to guide his contemplation of religious mysticism, he turns to Moshe the Beadle, a very poor and pious loner who works as a handyman at the synagogue in Sighet. After other worshippers depart the synagogue following the evening service, Moshe shares private time with Elie. He wisely encourages the impressionable boy to pursue God through questions, but to expect no understanding of God's answers, which remain unsatisfied in the soul until death. Moshe insists that each seeker must rely on inborn traits that will open the way to comprehensible answers suited to the individual.
One day, without warning, Hungarian police arrest Moshe along with other foreigners and take them away aboard cattle cars. Elie weeps for the loss of his tutor. The citizens of Sighet accept exile as a natural burden of war and contend that the deportees are working in Galicia. Months later, Moshe returns to report the fate of the exiles — after they arrived in Poland, they boarded trucks bound for a forest, where they dug huge graves and were systematically machine-gunned. Their killers made sport of tossing babies into the air and using them for targets. After being shot in the leg, Moshe was assumed dead. Traumatized by the slaughter, he weeps as he retells the story. Elie and other villagers conclude that Moshe has lost his mind.
As 1942 and 1943 pass, the people in the village follow the war via London radio news. In the spring of 1944, the success of the Russian front seems to spell doom for the Germans. Knowing Hitler's fierce hatred for Jews, villagers doubt that Hitler can remain in power long enough to kill an entire race. Elie, however, pleads with his father to sell out and immigrate to Palestine; Chlomo insists that he is too old to begin again. News from Budapest warns that fascism is on the rise. Although a villager returns from the capital with accounts of anti-Semitism, optimism continues to prevail. A few days later, German army cars appear on Sighet's streets.
At first, polite German officers take up residence in private homes and live peaceably among Jews. Because synagogues are closed, worshippers pray at the homes of rabbis during Passover week. On the seventh day of the festival, Germans arrest Jewish leaders. Edicts force Jews to remain in their homes for three days and to relinquish gold and other valuables. A decree requires them to identify themselves by wearing a yellow cloth star, symbolic of the Star of David. To fearful Jews, Elie's father makes light of the strictures, particularly the yellow patch proclaiming their Jewish-ness. More anti-Semitic rules ban Jews from restaurants or cafes, trains, and synagogues. The law confines Jews to their residences after 6 P.M. and forces them to cover their windows and to stoke coal on military trains.
"The Germans force Sighet's Jews into two ghettos bounded by barbed wire. The Wiesels live on Serpent Street in the larger settlement in the center of town and make room for relatives whom Germans have turned out of their homes. Optimistic and somewhat smug in their private enclave, the Jews attempt to normalize activities. The Saturday before Pentecost, Stern, a police officer, summons Elie's father to a council meeting. Pale and trembling, Wiesel returns near midnight to announce that they are all to be deported the next day; each person is allowed to take only a few personal items and some food. The president of the Jewish Council knows their destination but is not allowed to divulge it; rumors declare that they are headed for Hungarian brick factories."
Early Sunday morning, a friendly police inspector knocks at the window to warn the Wiesels of danger. By 4 A.M., families are preparing food for the journey. At 8 A.M., Hungarian police order Jews outside and strike out indiscriminately at old and young with police clubs and rifle butts. Within two hours, all Jews stand in the streets. By 1 P.M., the first convoys begin their march out of Sighet. All day Monday, Elie's exhausted family fasts. On Tuesday, the Wiesels anticipate deportation. To their relief, they are forced to resettle in the small ghetto. Elie leads the way; his father weeps. The small ghetto is littered with possessions that the first deportees abandoned in turmoil. The Wiesels move into Elie's uncle's rooms for four nights. At dawn on Saturday, after a wretched Friday night packed in the synagogue with the remaining Jews, the Wiesels join the last deportees to board railway cattle cars — eighty to a car — and depart.
As often occurs in literature, a speaker may reveal much of self while passing judgment on another character. Significant exposition of the narrator's character evolves from Elie's description of his reliance on Moshe the Beadle, the sole villager who recognizes the impressionable young man's need for guidance. Elie, who is moved by the long history of oppression of the Jews, weeps for the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, a historical event that occurred under Nebuchadnezzar after a Jewish revolt in 586 B.C. and a second time in 70 A.D. after Roman troops, led by Titus, quelled a Judaean uprising that had begun four years earlier. According to the chronicle The Wars of the Jews:
"While the holy house was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity. . . . The flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those that were slain; and because this hill was high, and the works at the temple were very great, one would have thought that the whole city had been on fire. (V, 1)"
This lengthy, detailed account was composed by Josephus, an eyewitness to his people's war against the Romans, who later adopted him as a historian and friend of the Emperor Vespasian.
"Still traversing the no man's land of pre-adulthood, Elie defies his father's insistence that cabbala is a study for mature men. During prayers, the boy weeps but can offer Moshe no reason for his tears. Elie turns to mysticism and the occult as a means of interpreting the bittersweet romanticism of Judaic lore and the Jewish race's fight for survival against waves of anti-Semitism that stain human history from the days of Moses onward. By rereading ten times a single page of the cabbala's medieval interpretation, Elie demonstrates a prodigious drive to come to terms with humanistic concerns. The irony of Elie's immersion in Judaica is his failure to predict another Titus in Adolf Hitler, who retained enough strength in his final days in power to attempt genocide of Europe's Jews."
beadle a minor parish official or caretaker.
Hasidic (ha sih dihk) an eighteenth-century group of Jews who stressed the joyous, ecstatic, elements in their faith. The term also describes fiercely orthodox Jews who bind themselves to strict observance of Jewish laws.
Transylvania a plateau in northwest Romania.
cabbala (kuh bah luh) a medieval system of interpreting scripture by the application of meditation, emotion, mysticism, insight, intuition, communion with God, and numerology.
Maimonides (may mah nih deez) Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), a Spanish physician and philosopher who fled Muslim persecution by moving his family from Cordoba to Israel, then to Egypt, where he rose to the rank of royal physician. He codified Jewish law, formulated a Jewish creed, wrote scriptural commentary, and compiled a religious guide book.
Zohar (zoh hahr) literally, the "Book of Brightness," a symbolic or allegorical interpretation of Jewish law. Moses de Leon compiled the Zohar, the main text of the cabbala, in Spain near the end of the thirteenth century.
Hungarian police After Germany forced Romania to cede Transylvania to Hungary on August 30, 1940, the Hungarian police ruled millions of Romanians and, under compulsion of the SS, launched anti-Semitic terrorism against Jews.
Galicia, near Kolomaye a Slavic territory in the northern Carpathian Mountains which lies partly in Poland and the Ukraine. Kolomaye (modern Kolomyya) is north of Sighet in Russia.
Gestapo (gee stahp oh) the Geheime Staatspolizei, or secret state police, an arm of the Schutzstaffel, called the SS or Black Shirts, a hand-picked corps of 50,000 secret police who functioned as security officers and as Hitler's body guard. For their fanaticism and devotion to Hitler's dictates, the Gestapo became the most hated and feared of German terrorists.
London radio After the Nazi takeover of much of Europe, people depended on the BBC (British Broadcasting Company), a state-owned communication system that kept listeners informed of developments in the war.
Zionism an international drive or political movement that resulted in the development and establishment of a Jewish state.
Fascist party a political party supporting brutally oppressive, dictatorial control of public speech and civil rights and enforcing uncompromising adherence to inhumane laws. There were German Fascists under Hitler and Italian Fascists under Mussolini.
Horthy Nikolaus Horthy de Nagybanya, ruler of Hungary, supported Hitler's invasion of Yugoslavia and Russia. In October 1944, he realized that Germany intended to overrun Hungary and defied Hitler. The SS placed him under house arrest in Bavaria, from which American troops released him in 1945.
Nyilas Hungary's fascist party.
the yellow star a palm-sized patch centered with a hexagram, the yellow Mogen David, or Magen David, called the Shield of David, or the Star of David, a regular six-pointed shape composed of two triangles superimposed — one point up and the other point down. Today, the same figure adorns the flag of Israel.
Passover a Jewish holiday that commemorates the departure of Jews from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, who defied Pharoah following an onslaught of ten plagues that concluded in the death of the firstborn in each household. The Jews avoided the Angel of Death by daubing their doorposts with the blood of a sacrificial lamb.
ghetto a section of a city into which an ethnic or religious minority, lepers, or outcasts are restricted. Jews were required to live in ghettos from medieval times unto the French revolution of 1789, which ended this oppressive practice.
Pentecost a Jewish harvest festival, called Sukkot in Hebrew.
phylacteries (fuh lak tuh reez) a set of leather cubes containing parchment slips inscribed with biblical passages and bound to the head and left forearm or middle finger during ritual weekday prayers. Phylacteries, also known as tefillin, are a sign of orthodox devotion to Deuteronomy 9:18, a scriptural passage that requires an outward demonstration of piety.
captivity of Babylon In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar put down a Jewish revolt and placed the most prominent Jews in captivity in Babylon, leaving behind the poorest and least troublesome. Although Cyrus of Persia freed the captives in 516 B.C., most chose to remain in their new homeland.
Spanish Inquisition Founded in 1478 by Ferdinand V and Isabella, under Father Tomás de Torquemada, it began torturing "new Christians," Jews who had converted to Christianity but were suspected of having lapsed back into an observance of Judaism, in order to eradicate blasphemy, immorality, infanticide, and homosexuality, and to assure that the souls of all of the "heretics" would enter heaven after death. Some suspects were strangled or burned at the stake in public ceremonies; others fled to Turkey. The church enriched itself by confiscating their property.
boches (bohsh uz) a derogatory name for Germans. The word is a shortened form of caboche, or hardhead.