Summary and Analysis
Marching in ranks of five past the crematory chimney, Elie and his father hold hands. Elie anticipates a hot bath; his father, who at first is speechless, protests marching to the showers and collapses among corpses. Elie shouts at the failing old man, who becomes infantile and vulnerable in his acceptance of approaching death. A siren sounds; the camp is darkened. The SS drive Elie to the block, where he passes up cauldrons of soup and sleeps on a tiered bed. At daylight, he realizes that he has abandoned Chlomo. Hours later, Elie finds the old man feverish and begging for coffee. Authorities force Elie to leave the barracks until they are cleaned. Five hours later, he returns to his father and discovers that the guards are withholding food from those who are deathly ill. Elie gives him the remains of his soup.
The old man suffers from dysentery. His mind wanders as his strength rapidly dwindles. Three days later, on the way from a bath, he passes his son without recognizing him. Later, in his bunk, he achieves a burst of energy and whispers the location of gold hidden in the family cellar, then lapses into labored breathing. A surgeon refuses to treat him. Elie begins comparing his own attitude toward the old man with that of Rabbi Eliahou's despicable son.
For a week, Elie wrings his hands and hovers at his father's bunk. Nearby prisoners beat the old man because he soils his bedding. The head of the block advises Elie to think of himself, eat both rations of food, and leave his father to die. Elie secretly agrees, then castigates himself with guilt. Because his father continues to call out to Elie, an SS officer whacks the old man's skull with a billy club. Elie, too weary to keep watch, goes to sleep in an upper bunk. At dawn on January 29, Elie wakes and discovers that another invalid occupies his father's bunk. He assumes that his father has been taken to the crematory and recalls that his father's final word was "Eliezer." Too weary for tears, Elie realizes that death has liberated him from a doomed, irretrievable burden.
The psychological insight of this chapter confronts the reader with the stubborn selfishness that fuels a weary body. Elie, pushed beyond his ability to cope with hunger, cold, disease, camp routine, and cruelty, loses his powers of concentration and exults in the finality of his father's protracted demise. A stark irony arises from the old man's demand for water and from his calls of "Eliezer," a Hebrew name meaning "God will help." Realism demands that Elie accept the truth that God gives neither aid nor dignity to Buchenwald's victims. In Chlomo's final days, he suffers without comfort, medication, or even safety from brutish fellow inmates. The blame Elie heaps on himself creeps through his mind in insidious fears that his father may have been breathing when he was tossed into the oven and burned to ashes. The ignoble death of a kind humanitarian, deeply loved and revered by the citizens of Sighet, gnaws at Elie, a respectful, dutiful son who regrets that he couldn't answer his father's final summons. In his imagination, the absence of prayers and candles darkens the passage of his father's spirit from Buchenwald to its final rest. On January 29, 1945, energized by release from his father's onerous care, Elie begins to live for himself.