Summary and Analysis
Like robots, the prisoners run. The SS shoot all prisoners who fall behind. Elie almost welcomes death as pain and cold impede his flight. Only concern for his father keeps him going through a deserted village and on to a rest stop an hour after dark gives place to light. Elie's father urges him out of the snow and into a ruined brick factory and keeps him awake to save him from freezing. Men lie trampled or freeze to death under a blanket of snow. The kindly old Rabbi Eliahou searches the factory for his son. Elie conceals the fact that the son tried to save himself by outrunning his stumbling parent. Disturbed by the son's disloyalty, Elie prays that he will never abandon his own father.
Even the SS seem weary of the endless flight through snow. On arrival at Gleiwitz, Kapos assign inmates to barracks. Heaps of prisoners nearly crush Elie, who claws and bites his way to a breath of air. In the struggling horde, he hears his friend Juliek, who has brought his violin from Buna. In the dark shed, Juliek produces a fragment of a Beethoven concerto. By morning, Juliek lies dead beside his trampled violin. For three days, closely guarded inmates receive no food or water; outside, the sounds of gunfire revive hopes of the Red Army's advance.
At dawn on the third day, Elie rushes to retrieve his father from an SS selection. The resulting disorder blends survivors with victims. Once more Elie rescues Chlomo. The inmates march to the rail lines and stand to eat their ration of bread. The SS guards are amused when the prisoners begin scooping snow from each other's backs to quench their thirst. Late that evening, the inmates are still standing when a train of roofless cattle wagons arrives. The SS press a hundred men into each car, and the convoy sets out.
The long, inhumane flight on foot from Buna takes on a surreal quality as death seems preferable to ever-more torment. Elie recognizes death as a wrapping that sticks to his body, a palpable presence that fascinates him, luring him into an insensate state, "Not to feel anything, neither weariness, nor cold, nor anything." At intervals, he closes his eyes and sees "a whole world passing by, to dream a whole lifetime." In a demented state, he envisions himself a master of nature until the dark admits the light of the morning star. Like a benediction, the appearance of its rays precedes the announcement that they have run forty-two miles. Again plunged into a fight with a numbed body, the narrator depicts the eerie hellishness of the scene: "Not a cry of distress, not a groan, nothing but a mass agony, in silence. No one asked anyone else for help. You died because you had to die. There was no fuss." Among stiffening corpses, Elie begins to identify with the dead.
The unity of father and son, a motif from the first night at Birkenau, suggests the love between Abraham and Isaac in the book of Genesis and creates a hopeful scenario. Each agrees to awaken the other after a brief nap. Elie abandons his welcome of death, a personified enemy that slithers silently, peacefully among the sleepers, killing them effortlessly. Elie jostles his neighbors and awakens Chlomo. The reward for the son's diligence is a spontaneous smile from his father. The beneficence of the expression returns Elie to the persona of the questioning cabbalist. In the purgatory of doubt, he demands to know "From which world did it come?"
Elie experiences an epiphany after he recognizes selfish behavior in Rabbi Eliahou's son, who ran ahead to distance himself from his aged, limping burden of a father. Returned in spite of himself to oneness with the Almighty, Elie feels a prayer rise to God and pleads for strength to shelter his father. A later incident confirms the resilience of the human spirit — Juliek plays strains of Beethoven, a pure and uplifting melody. As welcome as a father's smile, as rejuvenating as the prayer that springs unbidden from a bruised spirit, the sweetness of Juliek's gift, a symbol of all art, is a generous restorative that the violinist readily bestows on fellow sufferers. To a shed of dying men, he glides his bow across the strings to produce a comforting strain, a lullaby to the moribund. In daylight, Elie acknowledges Juliek's "lost hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future."
the morning star the planet Venus, which is visible on the eastern horizon shortly before dawn.