Summary and Analysis
At Buna, the new camp, which is virtually deserted, Elie and his father undergo the usual shower, new clothes, and waiting period; then they wait in a tent. Their overseer seems humane. Veterans warn them to avoid the building unit. Following a three-day quarantine, three doctors examine the hundred inmates. One of the doctors searches for gold teeth. A band composed of congenial Jewish musicians plays a march as prisoners trudge to the warehouse to work. Elie enjoys Hebrew chants and songs with other Zionist youth and discusses immigration to Haifa.
Despair reigns as savagery becomes more prevalent. The camp dentist demands Elie's gold crown; he saves it by pretending to have a fever. Without warning one day in the warehouse, Idek falls into a murderous fit and lashes Elie, who restrains himself and remains silent. A French Jewess who passes as an Aryan soothes his bloody face. (Years later, he encounters her in the Paris subway and spends an evening reminiscing about their brief friendship and experiences at Buna.) Franek, the foreman, torments Chlomo for marching out of step as a means of preying on Elie's feelings for his father's suffering and thereby extorting the gold tooth. In desperation at his father's torment, Elie allows a dentist from Warsaw to extract his gold crown with a rusty spoon. On a Sunday, Elie angers Idek by laughing after seeing him with a naked Polish girl in a room adjacent to the warehouse. For this indiscretion, Elie is forced to lie on a box and receive twenty-five strokes. He faints and is forced into consciousness to promise to keep Idek's dirty secret.
On another Sunday at 10 A. M., block leaders secure prisoners as air-raid sirens wail. Elie remains unafraid as American planes bomb Buna for over an hour. The prisoners rally, even though they have to remove an unexploded bomb from the prison yard and clear away debris of damaged buildings. A week later, Elie and his fellow workers witness a pre-breakfast hanging of a young man from Warsaw who stole during the alert. Later, in retaliation for the sabotage of the camp power station, the SS torture a Dutch Oberkapo and hang three more people, including a small, angelic-looking thirteen-year-old. Elie is incensed by the fact that the boy is so undersized that he takes over half an hour to die of strangulation. A prisoner demands to know where God is; to himself, Elie replies, "He is hanging here on this gallows."
The spare, almost skeletal quality of Elie Wiesel's prose parallels the depletion of the body, which overrules other needs and thoughts in a constant demand for nourishment. He recalls, "I was a body. Perhaps less than that even: a starved stomach. The stomach alone was aware of the passage of time." In flashes of memory as keen and fleeting as strobe-lit tableaus, the book depicts a few hand-holds of optimism for young Wiesel: friendly Jews playing in the orchestra, dreams of a free Jewish state in Israel, a secretive Jewess working in the warehouse whom Wiesel later recognizes in the Paris Metro. The fragility of his upbeat mood falls victim to Franek, who demands the gold crown from Elie's mouth. Waves of brutality sweep over earlier moments of camaraderie and swamp the respites of friendship and work with constant fear of beatings and victimization, which fall as haphazardly on the innocent as foretold in the biblical "rain on the just" that Christ cites in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:45). Wiesel's skillful style pares to a thin, lethal edge the collective hellishness of Buna and his own precarious hold on life. Tearing at his sanity is the fear that his compassion will capsize, leaving him to drown in his animal nature, sacrificing principles and even devotion to his father for the sake of survival.
Beethoven Ludwig von Beethoven; a native of Bonn, Germany, produced dramatic romantic music for piano, strings, orchestra, and ballet. Because of the immediacy and emotional intensity of his works, Nazi laws ban Jewish instrumentalists from playing Beethoven's music. Even more identifiable with the myth of the "master race" were the works of Wagner, which devout Jews are still reluctant to perform.
meister (my stuhr) German for "master."
Haifa (hy fuh) the major port and rail center of Israel. Haifa lies sixty-five miles north of Tel Aviv.
Aryan (ayr ee uhn) Hitler believed that there was an Aryan race, which included Germans — and all other races, including the Jews, were inferior. According to Hitler, "Aryans" were statuesque, blond, and blue-eyed. Ironically, Hitler had none of these traits. In addition, he was wrong about the word "Aryan." The word refers to a group of languages. There is no such thing as an Aryan race. Race, in the nineteenth century, was used in all sorts of contexts. Yet it was linked, so the argument went, with one's "blood," something we would call genetics today. Hitler picked up on this misunderstanding and argued that there was something intrinsically inferior in the Jews' blood which rendered their whole person inferior. Hitler's ideas were wrong. How could the Nazis have called the Jews a race when people of all kinds can convert to Judaism. Jews are members of both a religious and an ethnic group — not a race.
Metro (may troh) the Paris subway system.
Himmler head of the SS. An ambitious power-monger, Heinrich Himmler served as Reichsführer, or second in command, to Hitler and expanded the secret police into a fearful network. The "final solution," or total annihilation of all Jews, was Himmler's prime task. Ousted by Martin Bormann in April 1945, he poisoned himself May 23, 1945.
Lagerkapo (lah guhr kah poh) German for "head of camp."
pipel (pee p'l) German for a "young apprentice" or "assistant."
Oberkapo (oh buhr kah poh) German for "overseer."