How do Elie's religious beliefs change in the concentration camps?
As a twelve-year-old boy in his Transylvanian town of Sighet, Elie reveals that he was devoutly religious. In the opening lines of his memoir he focuses on Moshe the Beadle, who became Elie's master in the study of Jewish mysticism. Elie writes of his religious feelings on the first page:
I was twelve. I believed profoundly. During the day I studied the Talmud, and at night I ran to the synagogue to weep over the destruction of the temple.
Despite his father's disapproval, Elie spends time with Moshe studying the Cabbala before Moshe is taken away when the foreign Jews are deported. When Moshe miraculously returns he is greatly changed after witnessing the atrocities of the Nazis. Elie reports that Moshe "no longer talked to me of God or of the cabbala, but only of what he had seen." The Jews don't listen to Moshe and even Elie admits he didn't believe him and pitied him. The ordeal of Moshe proves to be foreshadowing things to come for Elie.
Elie's own faith is cracked on his first day at Birkenau, reception center for Auschwitz. Just after the selection, as he and his father believe they are going to the crematory, Elie witnesses a truckload of children being dumped into a pit of fire. As men are praying all around him, he begins his rebellion against God:
For the first time, I felt revolt rise up in me. Why should I bless His name? The Eternal. Lord of the Universe, the All-Powerful and Terrible, was silent. What had I to thank Him for.
Elie and his father do survive and are installed in the barracks, but Elie continues his rant against God. He cannot fathom why God would allow this to happen and stand by quietly as the Jews are subjected to such death and terror:
Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
This questioning goes on throughout the book and at some points Elie symbolically protests God's silence in the face of the extermination. The assassination of the young "pipel" in chapter four profoundly affects the men who have to witness the boy die an agonizing death when the initial hanging leaves him "between life and death." Elie overhears a man ask, "Where is God now?" Elie silently answers the question:
"Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows..."
Again, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Elie expresses his bitterness toward God. As the other men are reciting, "Blessed be the Name of the Eternal!", Elie has much different thoughts:
Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because He had had thousands of children burned in His pit? Because He kept six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in His great might He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau and Buna, and so many factories of death? How could I say to Him: "Blessed art Thou, Eternal, Master of the Universe, Who chose us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory? Praised be Thy Holy Name, Thou hast chosen us to be butchered on Thine altar?"
Elie takes his outrage at God even further as he protests by not fasting on "Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement." While other Jews believe it is the ultimate sign of their faith to fast (despite the starvation diet they are enduring) Elie will not:
I no longer accepted God's silence. As I swallowed my bowl of soup, I saw in the gesture an act of rebellion and protest against Him.
After being told of the brutality which Elie witnesses during his year in the concentration camps it should be easy for the reader to understand Elie's loss of devotion to God. He never doubts God's existence, but simply cannot understand or abide God's willingness to allow the Jews to be persecuted so horribly.