Summary and Analysis
Religious fervor is strong in the fall during celebration of Rosh Hashanah, a holy day marking the beginning of the Jewish year (usually in September). At the camp, 10,000 Jews leave their meal and gather to pray. As the chant of the officiant rises, Elie can only accuse God of forsaking the prisoners, for allowing the crematories to operate. Alienation descends so relentlessly that Elie feels himself turned to ash. On return to his father, Elie kisses his hand and, in silence, experiences a deep sense of unity and understanding. During the celebration of Yom Kippur, Elie obeys his father and does not fast. He interprets the act as a defiance of God. In the former devout heart lies emptiness.
An apprehensive shiver unsettles the camp as the SS begin the selection process to separate the strong from the weak. Only older veterans can laugh and recall harsher times when Kapos filled a quota of rejects each day. Elie has transferred to a building unit and daily drags heavy blocks of stone, while fearing for his father, who is rapidly aging. Following Tibi and Yossi, Elie runs past Dr. Mengele to demonstrate his strength and healthy resilience. Days after the selection, the Blockaelteste, the leader of the block, calls Elie's father and nine others from Block 36 for a second examination. Fearful that he will never see Elie again, Chlomo bequeaths his son a knife and spoon, a pitiful inheritance. At the end of the workday, the old man jubilantly reclaims his belongings. Enfeebled by camp life, Akiba loses hope because he realizes that he cannot pass selection and requests that his friends recite the Kaddish in his memory. Three days later, work and punishment become so insufferable that Akiba's friends forget their promise.
In winter, authorities provide warmer clothes, but work conditions and night temperatures torment inmates. In the middle of January 1945, Elie enters the hospital to undergo surgery to drain pus from the sole of his right foot. A Hungarian Jew warns Elie to leave the ward before the sickest patients are selected for death. To Elie's apprehensive questions, the kindly Jewish surgeon promises that Elie will recover in two weeks. Two days after the surgery, rumors and the sound of guns indicate that the Red Army is approaching. The next day, the SS evacuate inmates to central Germany. Hindered by swelling that won't fit into his shoe, Elie consults with his father. They trudge through snow toward an unknown destination. They later learn that the Russians freed prisoners who remained in the infirmary.
The climax of Wiesel's memoir arrives in his fifteenth year, a time when he begins to view life from a mature perspective. He describes overwhelming emotional turmoil and the illusion of power over God during the prayers of the devout on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The pace of the prose quickens into a bitter diatribe, an accusation of a deity who allows six crematories to devour Jews day and night, Sundays and feast days. Wiesel permeates his outburst with rhetorical questions:
"Why, but why should I bless Him? . . . How could I say to Him: 'Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory?'"
The ascending note of anguish presses Elie further into blasphemy and further from the naive young cabbalist who defied his father and sought out the Beadle as a mentor to guide him in the study of the deepest of humanistic questions. As Moshe the Beadle warned, the answers lie in the soul but remain uninterpreted by the frail mind of man, especially one encumbered with a child's expectation of justice. The age-old quest for an explanation of suffering threatens to subsume Elie, heart and soul.
The dilemma that follows in mid-January grates on the author, who blames himself for choosing to join evacuees to an undisclosed destination rather than to remain in the infirmary and petition the doctor to allow his father to pose as patient or nurse. The sound of gunfire in the distance impedes the internees' sleep the last night at Buna. Elie's decision derives from his distrust of the SS, who may kill all in a final gesture of faith in Hitler's intended annihilation of Jews. The courage to walk through the snowy night on a crudely bound and bleeding foot demonstrates Elie's strong survival instinct. Offsetting his human strength is the brutal weather, which symbolizes the relentless force of nature that has as little mercy on prisoners as Hitler and the SS. Again, there is "rain on the just and the unjust."
Rosh Hashanah (rahsh hah shah nuh) a holy day, the first day of the Jewish New Year, a solemn occasion marked by ten days of deep soul searching and repentance.
Yom Kippur (yahm kih poor) the Jewish day of atonement, a holiday observed with fasting and prayer.
musulman (muh suhl m'n) Arabic for "one who surrenders." A synonym for Muslim or follower of Mohammedanism or Islam, the word becomes a prison term for a weak, despondent internee whom the selection committee is certain to relegate to the crematory.
Achtung! (ach toong) German for "Attention!"
Stubenaelteste (shtyoo buh nyl tehs tuh) German for "room official."
Blockaelteste (blah kyl tehs tuh) German for "block official."
Calvary a hill in Jerusalem where Christ was crucified. Metaphorically, the term applies to any torture, ordeal, or test of faith.
mountebanks a phony, or fraud.
dysentery (dihs ihn teh ree) a life-threatening intestinal disease causing internal hemorrhaging, diarrhea, and vomiting that dehydrates as it depletes the body of electrolytes.