Study Guide

Night

by Elie Wiesel

Night Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Night

At the beginning of Night, Wiesel introduces someone he met toward the end of 1941. His name was Moshe, and he became one of the boy’s teachers. They discussed religious topics, and one day they talked about prayer. Wiesel asked Moshe why he prayed, and his teacher replied that he prayed for strength to ask God the right questions. Later, the Hungarian police deported Moshe from Sighet, Wiesel’s hometown, because he was a foreigner. His destination was Poland and death at the hands of the Germans, but somehow Moshe escaped and found his way back to Sighet. The Jews of Sighet did not believe his tale of destruction.

Although the Holocaust was raging all around them, the Hungarian Jews were not decimated until 1944. Their lives began to change drastically, however, once the Germans occupied Hungary that March. In a matter of days, Sighet’s Jews had to deal with quarantines, expropriations of their property, and the yellow stars that targeted them. Then they were ghettoized and deported. Jammed into train cars, destination unknown, the Jews of Sighet—Elie Wiesel, his little sister, Tzipora, and their parents among them—eventually crossed the Polish frontier and arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Emerging from their train-car prisons into midnight air fouled by burning flesh, the Jews of Sighet were separated by the secret police: men to the left, women to the right. Wiesel lost sight of his mother and little sister, not fully aware that the parting was forever. Father and son stuck together. Spared the fate of Wiesel’s mother and sister, they were not “selected” for the gas chambers but for slave labor instead. From late May, 1944, until mid-January, 1945, Wiesel and his father endured Auschwitz’s brutal regimen. As the Red Army approached the camp, the two were evacuated to Germany. Severely weakened by the death march to Buchenwald, Wiesel’s father perished there, but the son was liberated on April 11, 1945.

Night covers in detail these events, but it is much more than a chronological narrative. The power of this memoir emerges especially from the anguished questions that Wiesel’s Holocaust experiences will not put to rest. Before he entered Auschwitz, Wiesel “believed profoundly.” Yet on that fateful night, and in the days that followed, his world changed forever. Optimism about humankind, trust in the world, confidence in God—Auschwitz radically threatened, if it did not destroy, so many reasons for hope.

This point is illustrated especially well by one of the book’s most unforgettable moments. Wiesel describes the hanging of three Auschwitz prisoners—one of them a child. As the prisoners watched the child die, Wiesel heard a man asking: “For God’s sake, where is God?” Wiesel writes that “from within me. I heard a voice answer: ’Where He is? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’”

Death’s reign in the Kingdom of Night was so pervasive that Wiesel ends Night by reporting that a corpse stared back at him when he saw his own reflection in a mirror for the first time after liberation. Yet Night does not give death—God’s or humanity’s—the last word. By breaking silence, by telling a story that is full of reasons for despair, Wiesel protests against the wasting of life and testifies for the mending of the world by humankind and God alike.

Night Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Night, Elie Wiesel’s memoir of the Holocaust, tells of his concentration camp experience. Encompassing events from the end of 1941 to 1945, the book ponders a series of questions, whose answers, Moché the Beadle, who was miraculously saved from an early German massacre, reminds the boy, lie “only within yourself.”

Moché, who teaches the boy the beauty of biblical studies, is a strange character with a clownish awkwardness, more God’s madman than mentally ill; he is also a recurring figure in later Wiesel works. After Moché returns to town to describe the horrible scenes he has witnessed, no one listens to this apparently insane rambler who, like Cassandra, repeats his warnings in vain. The clown, a moving and tragic fool, is unable to convince the Jewish community of its impending doom. Despite arrests, ghettoizations, and mass deportations, the Jews still cannot believe him, even as they embark for Auschwitz.

In 1944, the young narrator is initiated into the horrors of the archipelago of Nazi death camps. There he becomes A-7713, deprived of name, self-esteem, identity. He observes and undergoes hunger, exhaustion, cold, suffering, brutality, executions, cruelty, breakdown in personal relationships, and flames and smoke coming from crematories in the German death factories. In the barracks of terror, where he sees the death of his mother and seven-year-old sister, his religious faith is corroded. The world no longer represents God’s mind. Comparing himself to Job, he bitterly asks God for an explanation of such evil. The boy violently rejects God’s presence and God’s justice, love, and mercy: “I was alone—terribly alone in a world without God and without man.”

After a death march and brutally cruel train ride, young Wiesel and his father arrive at Buchenwald, where his father soon dies of malnutrition and dysentery. As in a daze, the son waits to be killed by fleeing German soldiers. Instead, he coolly notes, on April 11, 1945, “at about six o’clock in the evening, the first American tank stood at the gates of Buchenwald.”

In addition to wanting to elucidate the unfathomable secret of death and theodicy, the narrator lived a monstrous, stunted, and isolated existence as an adult. He saw himself as victim, executioner, and spectator. By affirming that he was not divided among the three but was in fact all of them at once, he was able to resolve his identity problem. The autobiography’s last image shows Wiesel looking at himself in a mirror: The body and soul are wounded, but the night and its nightmares are finally over.

Night Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Eliezer lives with his parents and his three sisters in the village of Sighet in Transylvania. He studies the Talmud, the Jewish holy book, under the tutelage of Moshe the Beadle. Late in 1941, the Hungarian police expel all foreign Jews, including Moshe, from Sighet in cattle cars. Several months later, Moshe returns and informs Eliezer that the deported Jews had been turned over to the German Gestapo and executed in a forest in Poland. Moshe had managed to escape. He had returned to Sighet to warn the Jewish community of what would happen to all Jews if they remained in the area.

Moshe’s warning is ignored, and the Jews of Sighet continue with their daily routines. During the Passover celebration of 1944, however, German soldiers arrive in Sighet, arrest Jewish leaders, confiscate the valuables of Jewish townspeople, and force all Jews to live in a restricted section of town. A short time later, all of Sighet’s Jews are forced into cattle cars and transported to Auschwitz, the site of a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. On the train ride to Auschwitz, one woman goes mad; in her delirium, she has visions of a huge furnace spewing flames, a foreshadowing of the crematories that would take the lives of many concentration camp inmates.

When they arrive at Auschwitz, Eliezer and his father are separated from his mother and sisters. Many children are led directly toward a crematory, where they are immediately executed. All the men have their heads shaved and a number tattooed on their arms. Eliezer and his fellow captives are forced to live in squalid barracks; they are fed only bread, water, and tasteless broth. Although many of the inmates pray for strength to survive their horrific ordeal, Eliezer ceases to pray, and he begins to doubt God’s sense of justice.

A short time later, Eliezer, his father, and hundreds of others are marched to another concentration camp, Buna, where conditions are no better. Eliezer is assigned to work in a warehouse, and he is sometimes beaten by his supervisor. Eliezer’s gold-crowned tooth, an article of value to his captors, is removed with a rusty spoon by a concentration camp dentist. Eliezer is whipped after being caught watching his supervisor having sex with a young Polish girl. During Eliezer’s stay at Buna, four inmates are hanged for breaking concentration camp rules. At various times, weak and sick inmates are selected for execution in the crematories.

Eliezer loses his faith. He accuses God of creating the concentration camps and of running its crematories. He refuses to fast on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day. Other inmates share Eliezer’s sense of despair. One inmate selected for extermination asks his friends to say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for him, but no one recites the prayer when the man is executed. Eliezer’s faith can not sustain him; he survives mainly because of his love and concern for his father, who is weakening with each passing week.

When the Russian army moves toward Buna, Eliezer and his fellow inmates are ordered on a forced march through the snow-covered Polish countryside. The weaker captives who cannot maintain the rapid pace fall by the roadside and die or are shot by the German guards. During one rest stop, dozens of inmates fall dead from exhaustion.

After a long trek, the captives arrive at Gleiwitz, another concentration camp. Eliezer meets Juliek, a boy whom Eliezer had first seen at Auschwitz. Juliek plays the violin, and he had managed to keep the instrument in his possession during his stay in the camps. During Eliezer’s first evening at Gleiwitz, Juliek plays Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, which moves Eliezer. The next morning, Eliezer sees Juliek’s corpse lying on the barracks floor.

A few days later, Eliezer, his father, and hundreds of other inmates are packed into open cattle cars and transported to Buchenwald, another concentration camp. En route, many captives die and are unceremoniously thrown from the train cars; their naked corpses are left unburied in open fields. As the train passes through towns, people throw bread into the open cars, then watch as the prisoners beat and kill each other for food.

By the time the train reaches Buchenwald, Eliezer’s father is seriously ill with dysentery. Eliezer keeps a vigil at his father’s bedside. A guard hits Eliezer’s father in the head when he asks for water. The next day, when Eliezer awakes, his father is gone; he had been taken to the crematory and put to death.

Eliezer lives for about three months at Buchenwald. In April, 1945, as the war nears its end, an evacuation of Buchenwald is announced. An air raid postpones the planned evacuation. Several days later, members of a resistance movement in the camp decide to act. After a brief battle, the German guards depart, leaving the camp in the hands of the resistance leaders. Later that day, an American tank approaches the gates of Buchenwald and liberates the camp.

Three days after the liberation of Buchenwald, Eliezer is hospitalized with food poisoning. In the hospital, he looks at a mirror and sees the face of a corpse staring back at him.

Night Summary

Sighet
Night opens with a description of Moshe the Beadle, a poor Jew in Sighet, who is teaching Jewish mysticism...

(The entire section is 1262 words.)

Night Chapter Summaries

Section 1 Summary

As a child in Sighet, Hungary, Elie Wiesel lives with his shop-owner father, his mother, and three sisters. Elie wants to study the cabbala, the mystical studies of the Jewish traditions. When he asks permission from his father, he is told that he is too young, that it is not until the age of thirty that one is considered mature enough to take on this extensive course of study. But Elie decides that he will find a teacher for himself. When he is twelve, at the end of 1941, he encounters Moshe the Beadle, who works at the synagogue. Moshe questions him, telling him that man raises himself toward God by the questions he asks. Yet man cannot understand the answers that God gives him. Moshe states that it is only within oneself that...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Section 2 Summary

There is not enough space for all the people on the transport train, so the Jews must stand or occasionally take turns sitting. The young people flirt in the darkness, and the others pretend not to notice. Thirst and heat take their toll after two days. Having some provisions, they eat a little but are always mindful to leave some for the next day.

When the train stops on the Czechoslovakian border, the Jews know that they are leaving Hungary. A German officer tells them that if they still have any valuables, they should hand them over now or be shot. He tells those who feel ill to go to the hospital car. Since there are eighty people in the car, there had better be eighty people when they arrive, or else they will all...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Section 3 Summary

At Birkenau, the men and women are separated. In hindsight, Elie realizes that this was the last time he saw his mother and sister alive. One of the prisoners warns him to say he is eighteen, though he is in fact fourteen, and his father is to say he is forty instead of fifty. Another man comes to them and asks what they are doing here. At Auschwitz they are going to be thrown into the furnaces, he tells them. Some of the new prisoners contemplate attacking the guards, and an old man tells everyone that they must never lose faith.

When Elie approaches the notorious Dr. Mengele, “the Angel of Death,” he is asked his age. Elie replies that he is eighteen. When asked his occupation, he contemplates saying he is a...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Section 4 Summary

At Buna, Elie is sent to work sorting electrical fixtures. A pair of brothers, Yossi and Tibi, befriends him. They speak of Palestine, where Elie’s father refused to immigrate. Unlike him, they would take the first boat to Haifa if they could.

Elie is moved to the musicians’ block, headed by a German Jew. Life is a little easier for them. Elie is sent to the dentist to have his gold crown removed, but he pleads illness. The dentist lets him go, as long as he promises to return. Elie does so in a week. The dentist is so impressed that he came back of his own accord that he lets him go again. Not long after, the dentist is executed for taking some of the prisoners’ gold teeth for himself.

In the...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

Section 5 Summary

As the end of the Jewish year approaches, the prisoners gather to celebrate Rosh Hashanah. As prayers are made to God, Elie cannot bring himself to pray to a God whom he feels has forgotten him. In his youth he had viewed the Jewish New Year as a time to pray for forgiveness of his sins. Now he refuses to plead. He feels strong, stronger than the God who deserted him. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the question arises of fasting. If they fast in their weakened condition, it could mean death. The majority of the prisoners decide that such a fast would be especially meaningful. Elie, on the orders of his father, does not join in the fast. As he eats, he feels a great void.

After the New Year, a selection is...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

Section 6 Summary

As the prisoners walk through the night, the snow and the cold become overwhelming. The SS guards force them to run faster, which Elie sees positively as a means to get warm. He drags his skeletal body forward, feeling that it weighs much more than it does. By his side runs Zalman, a young Polish boy from the electrical warehouse. He is overcome with stomach cramps. When he stops to relieve himself, his is trampled to death by the prisoners. Elie now fears that his wounded foot will cause him to stumble and face a similar fate. It is only his father’s presence that keeps him going.

By morning they run forty-two miles. They come to a deserted village and stop at a warehouse. Cramming into the building, they find that...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Section 7 Summary

Loaded back on the train, Elie, his father, and the other prisoners become lethargic, unable to fight against approaching death. When daylight appears, Elie sees a cluster of human shapes covered with snow and frost. He sees a man who has frozen to death. Beside him, his father does not move. Elie tries to awaken him but gets no response. If his father dies, Elie states, Elie has no reason to live.

The train stops in the middle of a deserted field. SS officers open the door, telling the prisoners to throw out the dead bodies. The living rejoice because it will mean more room. The dead are stripped of their clothes and thrown out into the snowy field. Elie desperately tries to wake up his father, slapping his face...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Section 8 Summary

At the gate of Buchenwald, the SS officers sort the prisoners into groups of five, then into groups of one hundred. Elie holds onto his father’s hand, ever fearful that they would become separated. One of the prisoners tells them that they would have a hot shower and then go to their barracks and bed. Elie encourages his father to hang on, but he does not respond. There is a crowd trying to get into the showers. Mr. Wiesel, growing ever weaker, begs Elie to leave him. He sits down on a snow bank, only to find that it is a pile of frozen corpses. Elie screams at him to get up, that he cannot rest yet. Mr. Wiesel, slowly losing his touch with reality, tells Elie to let the corpses sleep, but Elie shouts that they will never wake....

(The entire section is 405 words.)

Section 9 Summary

Elie remains at Buchenwald until April 11. The time between his father’s death and his release are a blank. Nothing matters in life; nothing can touch him. He is transferred to the children’s block (he is fifteen years old) along with six hundred others. The end of the war is approaching. The Allied armies are approaching. However, the only thought that Elie has is of food. All his dreams are about food.

On April 5, there is a delay in the call to gather in the square. This has never happened before; everyone is sure something has happened. Two hours later, the loudspeaker announces that all Jews must come to the assembly place. Elie is sure that this is the end for the Jews, that Hitler’s Final Solution of the...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster