Summary and Analysis
Past SS guards armed with tommy guns, Elie disembarks and follows the men's line to the left; the women pass to the right. He never sees his mother or sister Tzipora again. A friendly insider advises fourteen-year-old Elie to claim to be eighteen and tells his father to subtract a decade from his fifty years. A cynical voice curses the stupidity of Jews who aren't aware that Auschwitz is a death camp where they will be "burned. Frizzled away. Turned into ashes." A flicker of revolt enlivens a few sturdy men; calming voices urge all to rely on faith. Dr. Mengele, an SS officer, surveys the men, sending the unfit to the crematory, which belches foul smoke and flames into the black sky. Elie claims to be a young farmer. He and his father follow the healthy men to work details. A truck delivers a load of babies, which are tossed into a fiery pit. Elie considers throwing himself into the electric wire rather than be burned with the infants.
Elie's father realizes that no external agency will rescue them. Weeping, he prays, but Elie rebels against his silent god. As they stay together and march past the pit to their barracks, Elie loses his opportunity to kill himself. Vicious trustees force them to strip for another selection. The strongest inmates become crematory workers. Elie remains with his father as the barber shaves their heads. The Wiesels greet friends. Elie lapses into a meditation on self-preservation. Forced into the cold night to another barracks, they disinfect their bodies, then shower. At a third barracks, attendants toss them badly fitting prison clothes, which they exchange among themselves for a better fit.
At the so-called gypsies' camp, Elie and his father enter a mud-floored barracks. A Kapo demands new shoes from anybody who has them; Elie's new shoes are concealed in mud and escape notice. An SS officer warns them that inmates must work or go to the crematory. Separated from skilled locksmiths, electricians, and watchmakers, Elie and Chlomo leave Birkenau and move toward a stone barracks. After a half-hour march through electric fencing, they arrive at another camp in Auschwitz, Block 17, where SS officers menace them with machine guns, revolvers, and dogs. Through a shower and into late-night air, they approach garden plots and a smiling, compassionate young Polish prisoner-overseer who alleviates their terror with the first humane words Elie has heard in a long time: "Good night."
After a night's sleep, the new prisoners receive clothes and black coffee. Elie, comparing this place to Birkenau, says that Auschwitz seems like a rest home, after all; he's able to drowse in the spring sun. That afternoon, however, veterans tattoo him with the number A-7713. At roll call, bands play martial music as officers log in returning workers by number. The days pass in a routine of work, food, roll call, bed. Elie reunites with a relative — Stein of Antwerp, who worries about his wife and little sons. At the end of three weeks, the authorities replace the too-humane Polish overseer with a savage man assisted by "real monsters." Not long afterward, the one hundred ordinary workers are ordered out of the block and, after marching through Germans streets, past flirting German girls, reach a new camp: Buna. An iron gate closes behind them.
Central to the characterization of Elie is the rapid transformation of his personality from a loving, concerned son to a dispassionate survivor. After the gypsy-prisoner Kapo beats Elie's father to the ground for asking permission to go to the toilet, Elie is surprised at himself: he is incapable of making a move and saying anything in his father's defense. The reduction of his humanity to a selfish will to live creates remorse, a significant part of the dehumanization of internees, who learn to preserve their lives at any cost — even in the face of pain and humiliation inflicted on a parent. Still the tenderhearted boy who once wept while praying, Elie judges himself harshly: "Had I changed so much, then? So quickly?" Moving beyond feeling and sleeplessness to an unknown destination, he passes emblems of death's heads that warn internees not to touch the electric fence. The skull precipitates black humor: He says of the mocking placard, "Was there a single place here where you were not in danger of death?"
On the eighth day of prison life, Elie redeems his harsh self-castigation in a minor episode — the spur-of-the-moment lie he tells Stein of Antwerp, the husband of Mrs. Wiesel's niece Reizel. By extending a scrap of hope to Stein that Reizel and the little boys thrive in Antwerp and that they send regular letters to his mother, Elie temporarily relieves Stein's tension, which had begun two years earlier with his deportation. This stroke of grace suggests that Elie, still months from his fifteenth birthday, has acquired some of the maturity and compassion of his father and is capable of lifting himself out of apprehension and grief to bestow hope on a fellow sufferer. This quality in the narrator became a major factor in his receipt of the Nobel Prize, which hundreds of letter-writers supported with testimonials to his selfless character, generosity, and empathy for strangers whom fate had turned into victims.
tommy gun slang name for the Thompson machine gun, a .45-caliber submachine gun invented by John Taliaferro Thompson in the 1920s and issued by the FBI as a standard weapon.
Yitgadal veyitkadach shmé raba Hebrew for "May His Name be blessed and magnified."
Los! German for "Hurry up!" or "Do it now!"
Sonder-Kommando German for "special command," Jews assigned to remove gassed corpses. They had to remove gold teeth and drag the bodies to carts which transported the dead to the crematorium to be burned. The Nazis promised the Sonder-Kommando their lives but this was a deception. Eventually, the Sonder-Kommando were themselves gassed.
Kapo (kah poh) German term for trustees or guards chosen from the prisoners themselves. The kapos often preserved their special status by being more cruel than the SS officers.
lavatory a toilet.