Throughout much of Elie Wiesel's autobiographical depiction of the Holocaust, Night, the author's main character and stand-in for Wiesel, Eliezer, is highly critical of his father Shlomo's mental and physical weaknesses. The imperative of survival under the most horrendous conditions, Wiesel/Eliezer emphasizes, requires a deadening of one's emotions. Personal attachments are a weakness, and having to care for one's father under such circumstances is, the author suggests, a serious burden. Forcibly uprooted, along with the rest of the Jews in Hungary, and sent to German concentration camps like Auschwitz where the weak were immediately sent to their death and the rest forced into hard labor under inhumane conditions in the service of the Third Reich, Eliezer's family has been split up and he, the child, becomes the parent to the father. The depth of Eliezer's antipathy toward the older man whose weaknesses he resents reaches terrible extremes. In Chapter 4 of Night, the young narrator describes the violent fury of a Kapo, a Jewish prisoner suborned into the service of the prison guards, who takes his own anguish out on Shlomo:
"I had watched the whole scene without moving. I kept quiet. In fact, I was thinking about how to get farther away so that I would not be hit myself. What is more, the anger I felt at that moment, was directed, not against the Kapo, but against my father. I was angry at him for not knowing how to avoid [the Kapo's] outbreak.That is what concentration camp life had made of me."
Later in Chapter 4, Eliezer again is given reason to resent his father. Franek, a foreman at the camp, demands he give up the gold crown on his tooth. Eliezer objects, but Franek knows Eliezer's vulnerability: Shlomo. Franek begins a regular daily routine of beating Shlomo until Eliezer and his father give in and surrender the gold crown. In short, Eliezer believes that his life, difficult as it is, would be less so if not for the albatross hanging around his neck in the form of his own father.
As Chapter 5 begins, the Jewish prisoners attempt to honor their most sacred days, the Jewish New Year and beginning of the period of atonement. For Eliezer, however, it is all an empty gesture. His experiences in the the concentration camps, the constant displays of cruelty, the enormous suffering and atmosphere of death, have eroded his spirituality. He no longer believes in God, or, at least, in the notion of a Supreme Being dispensing justice and protecting those who believe. "I no longer accepted God's silence," he laments in this chapter. Eliezer tells now of the process of selection. The SS has arrived, and Jews will once again be subjected to the inhumane process of being divided into those who will die and those who will be spared for at least one more day. The weakest among the prisoners will be separated from the rest and sent to their deaths. Dr. Joseph Mengele, one of the most notorious of all the Nazi war criminals, and his SS doctors are conducting the selection.
To reiterate, Shlomo has been, in Eliezer's view, a burden. The son has had to take care of the father, a reversal of relative positions. Now, however, the father has bad news for the son: he has been selected. Whereas Eliezer has grown accustomed to his father's weaknesses, he is now confronted with a father who is still concerned for the son and who seeks to reassure the latter. Eliezer describes the situation as follows:
"He (Shlomo) felt that his time was short. He spoke quickly. He would have liked to say so many things.... He knew that I would have to go in a few moments. He would have to stay behind alone. So very alone."
Shlomo insists that Eliezer take his, the father's, knife and spoon, arguing that he doesn't need such items anymore, and that "they might be useful to you." When Eliezer hesitates, Shlomo insists that his son do as he says, a rare moment of parental authority and assurance.
Wiesel's story is a depiction of life under the most terrible of circumstances. The dehumanizing environment in which the prisoners were forced to live has robbed the teenage narrator of his ability to empathize with his father's plight. At this final moment, however, the son reverts to being the child and the father is, once more, the parent.