100 pages 3 hours read

Elie Wiesel


Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1956

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Summary and Study Guide


Night, by Elie Wiesel, is a memoir recounting the author’s experience in the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz, Gleiwitz, and Buchenwald during the last two years of World War II. The book was published in France in 1958; a shortened English translation was published in the United States in 1960.

In 1944, the 15-year old Wiesel, his father, mother, and sisters were deported from the village of Sighet in Hungary and interned at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. Eliezer/Elie was the only member of the family to survive the Holocaust. He moved to Paris after the war, where he began to write an account of his experience in the camps in Yiddish. While ostensibly a memoir, Night is also a literary work of art and some critics have cautioned that its biographical factuality remains difficult to determine. Reviewers have variously categorized the book as a semi-fictional memoir, an autobiographical novel, or a non-fictional novel. The book’s publication was a watershed moment in Holocaust literature, and it has been translated into thirty languages.

In the village of Sighet in Transylvania, then part of Hungary, 12-year old Elie Wiesel is absorbed in studying Jewish law and theological philosophy. The only son of orthodox Jewish parents, Eliezer studies the Cabbala, a text of esoteric Jewish wisdom, with Moché the Beadle, the custodian of a local synagogue. Moché is expelled from Sighet along with other foreign Jews, but returns to the village a few months later, claiming to have escaped a mass killing of the deported Jews by the Gestapo. The villagers ignore Moché’s warnings as insane ramblings. After the Nazis occupy Hungary in the spring of 1944, the Jews of Sighet suffer mounting persecution and are eventually moved into ghettoes. Within a few weeks, the ghettoes are shuttered, and the Jews are deported by train. Eliezer’s family is among the last group to be deported.

The deportees travel in intolerable conditions aboard cattle cars for several days, crossing the Hungarian border into Poland, where the train comes under the authority of the German army. A German officer orders the passengers to surrender any gold, silver, or watches they still possess, and an announcement is made that if anyone attempts to escape the train, all its occupants will be shot.

A few days into the journey, Madame Schächter, a middle-aged deportee with a young son, begins to scream, pointing at what she says is a terrible fire outside the window of the train. Nobody else can see the fire. Other deportees attempt to console Madame Schächter, but she continues to scream. Close to hysteria themselves and unable to bear her shrieking, several young men bind and gag her. Escaping her restraints, they beat her forcefully until she is silent, encouraged by the other passengers. As the train arrives at Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz, the passengers see flames leaping from chimneys and a vile smell fills the air.

The deportees are violently forced off the train and accosted by prisoner guards. They are then immediately separated according by gender; without knowing it, this is the last time Eliezer will ever see his mother and sisters. An inmate of the camp berates the bewildered deportees, telling them that Auschwitz is a death camp where many will be exterminated. All the men are then separated according to whether they appear fit for work. Eliezer and his father are placed in the same group, but they are unsure whether or not they are considered able-bodied men.

The group is herded toward a flaming pit where children’s bodies are being burned. Many of the deportees begin to weep, and someone begins to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. Believing they are about to be massacred, Eliezer considers running to the electric fence, preferring to die by a bullet than in a fiery mass grave. A few steps from the pit, however, the group is ordered to turn toward the barracks. The horror of the experience burns itself indelibly in Eliezer’s mind. That night, he later reflects, murdered his God and his soul, and turned his dreams into ashes.

In the barracks, the new inmates are stripped, shaved, and soaked in disinfectant while being beaten by the Kapos, the head prisoners in charge. Prisoner identification numbers are tattooed on new prisoners’ arms. After three weeks, Eliezer and his father are moved to the work camp, Buna, along with other unskilled laborers. They are assigned to work in an electrical parts warehouse, supervised by the violently unstable Kapo, Idek. One day, Idek brutally attacks Eliezer without provocation. A French girl who works alongside Eliezer comforts him and advises him to keep his anger for another day. Later, Idek falls into another violent rage, beating Eliezer’s father with an iron bar while the boy watches helplessly. Eliezer recalls uncomfortably that if he felt any anger on that occasion, it was not toward Idek, but toward his father, who was unable to avoid Idek’s wrath.

The Nazis execute a number of prisoners for various infractions. The most distressing of these executions is the hanging of a young, beautiful boy, whose neck is not broken by the fall from the gallows. Forced to watch his agonizing death, Eliezer feels that his God, too, has died upon the rope. As the Jewish prisoners celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Eliezer inwardly rages at God for failing to intervene in the Nazi atrocities committed against the Jews at Auschwitz and other death camps. Though reduced to ashes himself, he feels stronger than the silent and absent God he accuses of betraying His people.

Shortly after Rosh Hashanah, the SS orders a selection of the prisoners, separating those too weak for work from those healthy enough to continue. The weak are exterminated and cremated; the rest are allowed to live. With great relief, Eliezer learns that both he and his father pass the test. However, Eliezer’s father didn’t notice that his number had been recorded, and he is called to a second selection. Fearing he will shortly die, he gives Eliezer his knife and spoon—the only inheritance he has to bequeath. Fortunately, he is spared execution after a second physical examination.

With the Russian army approaching from the East, the Germans decide to evacuate Buna. The prisoners are forced to march at night through a snowstorm toward the Gleiwitz camp. It is a harrowing ordeal of over forty miles; running like a herd of animals, they are either shot by guards or trampled by other prisoners if they stop. Arriving at Gleiwitz, many of the prisoners die of exhaustion and cold, or by being crushed by other bodies in the overcrowded barracks. The evacuees remain there for three days in frigid conditions, without food or water. Eliezer’s father is utterly exhausted and weak, and barely escapes another selection when Eliezer creates a diversion, allowing his father to switch groups.

The surviving prisoners are put onto a train and endure severe hunger, violence, and abominable conditions as they travel through the German countryside to the Buchenwald concentration camp. Upon arriving, only Eliezer, his father, and ten other men survive, of the 100 who were crowded into the car at the start of the journey.

During the march to Gleiwitz, Eliezer sees a son abandon his struggling father; during the train journey to Buchenwald, he sees another child kill his father for a crust of bread. Eliezer supports his own father through these harrowing ordeals, and his father returns that support when he is able, helping to save Eliezer from being strangled to death at one point. However, when the two arrive at Buchenwald, Eliezer’s exhausted father begs his son to allow him to sleep, which means simply to die. Eliezer is torn between abandoning his father and doing all that is left in his power to persuade him to live. Eliezer’s father contracts dysentery, and in his weakened state is moved to a sickbed in the barracks. Eliezer pleads with a doctor to treat his father, but the doctor refuses contemptuously. Finally, an SS guard bludgeons Eliezer’s father for crying out from thirst, fracturing Elie’s father’s skull. Eliezer does not intervene, and doesn’t respond to his father’s dying word, the whispered name “Eliezer.” He looks at his father’s brutally beaten head for over an hour, then falls asleep. When he wakes, another prisoner is lying in his father’s bed; his father was moved to the crematorium in the middle of the night. Eliezer is unable to weep for his father and admits that if he felt something inside, it was probably relief at his death.

Three months later, the Americans arrive, liberating Buchenwald. Eliezer has nothing to say about the time that has elapsed since his father’s death. The newly-freed prisoners have no thoughts of revenge or family members, Eliezer claims; instead, they’re only concerned with eating. Eliezer contracts food poisoning three days after the liberation and is sent to a hospital for two weeks. There, he sees his reflection in a mirror for the first time since his deportation from Sighet. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse gazes back at him, and the look in its eyes never leaves him again.