Night Summary

Night is a memoir by Elie Wiesel in which Wiesel recounts his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. 

  • The Wiesels are a Jewish family living in Sighet, Romania. After the Nazis begin targeting Romanian Jewish people in 1944, the Wiesels are brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Elie’s mother and sister are killed. Elie and his father are selected for forced labor.
  • Elie witnesses unspeakable horrors in the camps, including the hanging of a child.
  • When news of the Soviet army’s approach reaches the camp, the Nazis force the prisoners on a death march. Elie’s father dies, and Elie is freed shortly after.

Summary

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Night is a memoir based on Elie Wiesel's experiences during and after the Holocaust and conveys the horrifying, inhumane tragedies of Adolf Hitler’s attempt to annihilate Jews as he gained increasing control of Europe during World War II. Through vivid descriptions and poignant interactions with other condemned prisoners, Eliezer—as Wiesel calls himself in the memoir—portrays the desperate struggle to survive from the perspective of an imprisoned teenage boy.

As the memoir opens, Eliezer lives with his father, mother, and sisters in Sighet, Transylvania, a region in Central Romania. Although they hear increasing reports that Jews in neighboring areas are being persecuted, the Jews living in Sighet believe that the reports are exaggerated and unfounded. When German soldiers move into their community, the citizens of Sighet find them pleasant and accommodating. When Moishe the Beadle, a religious mentor for Eliezer, is taken away in a cattle car along with other foreign Jews, people believe this is just a fact of war. The deportees are quickly forgotten by the rest of the community. Moishe miraculously returns, warning that those who were taken away were murdered; however, no one believes him

During Passover in 1944, the community’s eternal optimism is suddenly destroyed. Ghettos surrounded with barbed wire are constructed, imprisoning the Jews of Sighet within their walls. Soon, however, the ghettos are liquidated in favor of more awful circumstances. Groups of Jewish families are methodically assembled and loaded into cattle cars, headed toward unknown locations. Eliezer and his family are among the last to be expelled from the area; the cattle cars transporting them to their next destination are filled with eighty people per car, leaving little space for anyone to sit down.

The heat inside the cars creates unbearable thirst, but there is no relief. As the journey continues, Mrs. Schächter, a woman in Eliezer’s car, begins to experience vivid visions of an impending fire. Her screams frighten and provoke her fellow passengers, who eventually begin beating her as her son desperately clings to her side. When they arrive at Birkenau, the first thing the passengers notice is a tall chimney with flames leaping into the nighttime sky; the smell of burning flesh filling the air is impossible to ignore.

Upon exiting the train, Eliezer is quickly separated from his mother and sisters; men are commanded to go to the left, and women are instructed to step to the right. As Eliezer watches his mother stroking his sister Tzipora’s blond hair, he does not realize that this is the final time he will see them alive. Holding tightly to his father’s hand, Eliezer obeys instructions from another inmate to lie about his age, telling the demanding guards that he is eighteen rather than fifteen.

After the first hellish night of smoke and silence, Eliezer and his father are processed into the camp; this grueling, humiliating process includes full-body shaving and disinfecting and is conducted in full view of others. After being herded into barracks in the Gypsy section of the camp, an SS officer informs the group that they are now in Auschwitz, a labor camp; they must work, or they will be sent  “straight to the chimney.”

The next day, Eliezer is given the identity of A-7713, and the identification number is tattooed onto his arm. After remaining in Auschwitz for three weeks, they are one day forced to walk four hours to a new camp: Buna. At this camp, Eliezer is assigned to work in a warehouse, where he often works next to a young French woman who is a forced labor inmate. Although he believes she “look[s] Jewish,” the two cannot communicate because Eliezer speaks no French, and she speaks no German. One day, Eliezer is physically assaulted by Idek, their supervisor, and is beaten bloody. After Idek leaves, the French woman slips Eliezer a bit of bread and whispers encouragement in nearly perfect German. Years later, Eliezer would encounter this same woman in Paris.

One evening, Eliezer accidentally stumbles across Idek having sex with a young Polish girl. The absurdity of the situation causes Eliezer to accidentally burst into laughter. Infuriated, Idek orders a severe punishment for Eliezer, who is lashed with a whip twenty-five times for his “crime.”

Starvation and physical violence are pervasive daily realities within the camp, but one hanging is especially difficult to watch. A young child is condemned when his block of inmates is suspected of sabotaging the central power plant in Buna. Although the adults die a quick death, the child’s weight isn’t enough to kill him immediately; as Eliezer and the other inmates are forced to walk by his hanging body, the child is still alive and writhing in agony. This sight causes Eliezer to hopelessly believe that God is “hanging…from [the] gallows.”

Eliezer deeply struggles with his faith in the days that follow, and he finds it difficult to recite the prayers of Rosh Hashanah. At the next selection, Eliezer’s father does not pass physical inspection and gives his son his “inheritance”: a spoon and a knife. Eliezer is forced to leave for his labor assignment and passes the day like a “sleepwalker.” Upon his return to camp, he is shocked to find that his father passed a subsequent inspection and is still alive.

When winter arrives, Eliezer’s foot swells terribly, and he is taken to the infirmary. Although the clinical environment makes him nervous, he is grateful for the simple comforts he has lacked for months: sheets, thick soup, and good bread. There is enough food that sometimes he sends some to his father. Eliezer’s operation is successful, and he is ordered to rest for two weeks while his foot heals.

Two days later, however, the camp is informed that they will be evacuating as the Russian forces approach. Eliezer leaves the infirmary and locates his father; they decide to evacuate with the others instead of Eliezer remaining in the infirmary. Eliezer wraps his bleeding and swollen foot in a blanket as they begin their journey through a snow-covered landscape.

Prisoners who cannot keep up with the quick pace of the march are shot. The road seems endless, and the corpses of those who have succumbed to death create an above-ground cemetery. Exhausted, Eliezer is convinced that he will soon join them. When they are given brief moments to rest, he and his father take turns staying awake to ensure that someone is conscious and can wake the other up in the frigid temperatures.

The group finally reaches Gleiwitz, Poland, and Eliezer is nearly crushed by a pile of human bodies that falls into the barracks. After clawing and biting his way out of the human mountain, he locates his father. They are forbidden from leaving the barracks for three days and are given neither food nor water during this time.

Another train arrives, and this time the prisoners are forced inside with one hundred passengers per car. At each stop, the dead are tossed out, and Eliezer’s father is so lifeless that several passengers insist that he be disposed of; however, Eliezer rouses his father in the nick of time and saves him. When the train arrives in Buchenwald, the two are separated in the chaos. Eliezer finally locates his father, who is growing steadily weaker and has developed dysentery. On January 28, 1945, Eliezer falls asleep in the bunk above his ill father; when he awakens the next morning, his father is gone.

On the afternoon of April 10th, 1945, the first American tanks arrive at the gates of Buchenwald. Eliezer and a few hundred other children are freed and fed. He soon becomes quite ill and is hospitalized for two weeks. Finally able to rise from bed and inspect himself in a mirror across the room, Eliezer contemplates the corpse who stares back at him.

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