In Night by Elie Wiesel, the prisoners in the concentration camp have almost no free will. They have to follow the orders that the Nazi guards bark at them or face the consequences, which generally involve either some sadistic form of punishment or death. In fact, the prospects before them are articulated succinctly by an SS officer who has “the odor of the Angel of Death” and says,
"You’re in a concentration camp. At Auschwitz. ...
Remember this,” he went on. “Remember it forever. Engrave it into your minds. You are at Auschwitz. And Auschwitz is not a convalescent home. It’s a concentration camp. Here, you have got to work. If not, you will go straight to the furnace. To the crematory. Work or the crematory—the choice is in your hands.”
Thus, it becomes clear early on that the only choice the prisoners have is to do as the Nazis say or die; it’s as simple as that. While there were documented examples of uprisings in Auschwitz and other death camps, much of the rebelliousness that the prisoners exhibited was done in small ways so that they could continue to survive until the camps were liberated. So there were small acts of courage and even rebellion while the prisoners wait for the Russians or other Allied forces to arrive.
One example is before the approaching arrival of three SS officers, including ”the notorious Dr. Mengele.” The prisoners have been advised to exhibit as much strength as they can muster so that the Nazis will mark them as still able to work and therefore still useful. Elie narrates,
Dr. Mengele was holding a list in his hand: our numbers. He made a sign to the head of the block: “We can begin!” As if this were a game! ...
It was my turn. I ran without looking back. My head was spinning: you’re too thin, you’re weak, you’re too thin, you’re good for the furnace. . . . The race seemed interminable. I thought I had been running for years. . . . You’re too thin, you’re too weak. ... At last I had arrived exhausted…
“Was I written down?”
“No,” said Yossi. He added, smiling: “In any case, he couldn’t have written you down, you were running too fast."
In this way, Elie shows courage. He is able to muster all of his energy and free will and run as fast as he can to avoid the furnace. Another example of Elie’s courage is when his foot is injured and the camp doctor has advised him that he needs an operation. However, he and his father confer. They fear that remaining in the hospital will show weakness to the Nazis, who might therefore kill Elie if he is no longer able to perform the hard labor that is the one factor keeping him alive. Elie and his father arrive at a decision.
“What shall we do, father?”
He, was lost in thought. The choice was in our hands. For once we could decide our fate for ourselves. We could both stay in the hospital, where I could, thanks to my doctor, get him entered as a patient or a nurse. Or else we could follow the others...
“Let’s be evacuated with the others,” I said to him. He did not answer. He looked at my foot.
“Do you think you can walk?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Despite the fact that his wound was open and bleeding, Elie courageously decides to evacuate with his father and the other prisoners. Ironically, he learns after the war ends that the prisoners who had remained in the hospital were liberated by the Russians two days after the evacuation. Nevertheless, this does not in any way detract from the bravery he displayed by evacuating despite the pain of his injured foot.
In Night we see how Eliezer changes from young innocent boy to a young man who has seen the worst that humanity has to offer. Eliezer's strength can be seen as courage. It is not the physical strength, but rather his internal strength. Eliezer has to dig deep down within himself to find a way to survive. There are moments in the book when Eliezer does things that make the reader question his courage, but one does not know what one would do if one were forced to face these horrendous things. The fact that Eliezer comes out alive is courage. The fact that Eliezer didn't leave his father's side, although he wanted to so many times, show courage. Eliezer walked away from the concentration camps a changed man. He will never once be the innocent young boy he once was; he has seen too much, but he has a better understanding of faith and love and forgiveness. The fact that Eliezer didn't let hate rule his life is the truest act of courage one can have.
I think that Eliezer's survival is courageous. I realize that the standard of mere survival might not fit the traditional definition of "courage," but the Holocaust ends up inverting and subverting much in way of common language. To simply endure such an intense moment of horrific proportions is courageous. To this end, Eliezer is courageous because of his will to survive. It is difficult to comprehend that he is a teenager when the narrative unfolds. For someone of his young age to bear witness to what he saw and experienced, and to fight through that to survival is courageous. While Eliezer did not lead a rebellion or some type of large scale resistance, I think that the struggle or will to live in the conditions of the camps is an element of courage that is firmly embedded in his character. This might be how he shows courage. Eliezer does not show it as an example for others, and he does not seek to lead others in this setting. Rather, he lives and survives. In the experiences of the death camps at the zenith of the Holocaust, this constitutes as courage embodied.