In 1944, in the village of Sighet, Romania, twelve-year-old Elie Wiesel spends much time and emotion on the Talmud and on Jewish mysticism. His instructor, Moshe the Beadle, returns from a near-death experience and warns that Nazi aggressors will soon threaten the serenity of their lives. However, even when anti-Semitic measures force the Sighet Jews into supervised ghettos, Elie's family remains calm and compliant. In spring, authorities begin shipping trainloads of Jews to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Elie's family is part of the final convoy. In a cattle car, eighty villagers can scarcely move and have to survive on minimal food and water. One of the deportees, Madame Schächter, becomes hysterical with visions of flames and furnaces.
At midnight on the third day of their deportation, the group looks in horror at flames rising above huge ovens and gags at the stench of burning flesh. Guards wielding billy clubs force Elie's group through a selection of those fit to work and those who face a grim and improbable future. Elie and his father Chlomo lie about their ages and depart with other hardy men to Auschwitz, a concentration camp. Elie's mother and three sisters disappear into Birkenau, the death camp. After viewing infants being tossed in a burning pit, Elie rebels against God, who remains silent.
Every day, Elie and Chiomo struggle to keep their health so they can remain in the work force. Sadistic guards and trustees exact capricious punishments. After three weeks, Elie and his father are forced to march to Buna, a factory in the Auschwitz complex, where they sort electrical parts in an electronics warehouse. The savagery reaches its height when the guards hang a childlike thirteen year old, who dies slowly before Elie's eyes.
Despairing, Elie grows morose during Rosh Hashanah services. At the next selection, the doctor culls Chlomo from abler men. Chlomo, however, passes a second physical exam and is given another chance to live. Elie undergoes surgery on his foot.
Because Russian liberation forces are moving ever closer to the Nazi camp, SS troops evacuate Buna in January 1945. The Wiesels and their fellow prisoners are forced to run through a snowy night in bitter cold over a forty-two mile route to Gleiwitz. Elie binds his bleeding foot in strips of blanket. Inmates who falter are shot. Elie prays for strength to save his father from death. At a makeshift barracks, survivors pile together. Three days later, living on mouthfuls of snow, the remaining inmates travel in open cattle cars on a ten-day train ride to Buchenwald in central Germany. Finally, only the Wiesels and ten others cling to life.
In wooden bunks, Elie tries to nurse his father back to health. Gradually, the dying man succumbs to dysentery, malnutrition, and a vicious beating. Elie's mind slips into semi-delirium. When he awakens, Chlomo is gone. Elie fears that he was sent to the ovens while he was still breathing. Resistance breaks out in Buchenwald. In April, American forces liberate the camp. Elie is so depleted by food poisoning that he stares at himself in a mirror and sees the reflection of a corpse.
Eliezer "Elie" Wiesel
An introspective teenager, Elie first begins to hate when Hungarian police strike out with billy clubs and force Jews from their homes. At Auschwitz's Block 17, he berates himself for being a spoiled child and rejecting his first plate of prison soup. He redeems himself by multiple acts of kindness, such as giving up his gold dental crown to spare his father torment for marching out of step. At the end of his incarceration, an emaciated, demoralized Elie bears little resemblance to the teenage boy who left Sighet.
An esteemed grocer, adviser, and religious leader in the village of Sighet, Chlomo is cultured, but realistic. His dedication to others is evident in his accompaniment of the first convoy of deportees to the gates of the ghetto. At the Birkenau ditch where infants are burned, he wishes that Elie had gone with his mother. Elie assumes that his father does not want to witness the murder of his only son.
Elie's mother remains silent and casts questioning looks at her family as she cooks food for the departure from their Sighet home. As the family marches from the large ghetto, her face is expressionless. In Elie's last view of her, she is stroking Tzipora's hair in a reassuring gesture.
As she nears the time of betrothal, Elie's oldest sister works in the family store.
Beatrice "Béa" Wiesel
The second child of the Wiesels, Béa also assists in the family grocery store.
A miniature vision of stoicism during the march to the cattle car, Elie's seven-year-old sister wears a red coat and struggles without complaint under the heavy load she must carry.
A relative who lives with the Wiesels in the larger ghetto, Batya hears ominous knocking on a window overlooking the street.
Stein of Antwerp
A shrunken, bespectacled fellow, Stein introduces himself to Elie's father on the sixth day at Auschwitz. He asks for news of Reizel and their boys, who emigrated to Belgium. In exchange for Elie's fabricated news, the exuberant Stein returns with half rations of bread. The receipt of real news of his family ends his brief fantasy that they thrive in Antwerp
Moshe the Beadle
Elie's mentor is an awkward, silent, hesitant man whose pious chanting and dreamy eyes suit the needs of a boy seeking to know more about Jewish mysticism. The synagogue's handyman, Moshe deliberately seeks anonymity among villagers yet opens himself to an intimate friendship with Elie, whose tearful prayers alert Moshe to the boy's spiritual hunger. After escaping the Gestapo in Poland near the end of 1942, he considers himself a messenger, but the villagers believe he has lost his mind and ignore his frenzied warning. (Note: Moshe's manic sobbing and subsequent withdrawal are symptomatic of a mental disorder currently known as post-traumatic shock syndrome, a common state of emotional dysfunction that affects survivors of war, terrorism, kidnapping, or other threats to safety or well-being.)
A villager who returns from Budapest, Berkovitz reports that Fascists are terrorizing Hungarian Jews.
The Wiesels' neighbor, she provides temporary housing to a polite German officer who buys her a box of chocolates.
A thin Sighet police officer, Stern summons Chlomo to a council meeting. At Birkenau, Stern receives an oversized tunic in the chaotic allotment of prison clothing.
The Hungarian Police Inspector
An unnamed friend, the officer promises to warn Elie's father if danger approaches and knocks on the window early on the morning of the deportation.
The Wiesels' servant, Maria pleads with them to leave the unguarded ghetto and seek safety with her.
A quiet fifty-year-old deportee whose husband and two sons were carried on an earlier convoy, Madame Schächter is left with a ten-year-old son. Her manic state progresses from moans to hysterical cries of "Fire! A terrible fire! Mercy! Oh, that fire!"
The son of a Sighet tradesman, Bela is selected to load the crematory and ordered to put his father's corpse into a crematory oven.
The brother of Sighet's rabbi who, on the night that Elie arrives at Birkenau, weeps for their doom.
A deep-voiced singer who stirs the hearts of inmates with Hasidic melodies sung at bedtime, Drumer applies cabbalistic numerology to scripture and predicts deliverance from Buna within weeks. After the selection at Block 36, he departs in despair, his faith destroyed. His fellow inmates forget his parting request for a Kaddish.
A bespectacled Polish musician in Buna's orchestra block, Juliek smiles cynically at Elie. Later, he shares crucial information about Idek, the manic Kapo, and, in the dark barracks at Gleiwitz, Juliek gives a final performance from a Beethoven concerto, a violinist's blessing. The next morning, he is dead and his violin trampled.
A distinguished Dutch violinist in the orchestra block, Louis complains because Jews are not allowed to play Beethoven's music.
A Berlin musician in the orchestra block, he eases Elie's concern about his assignment to the electrical warehouse.
A former student from Warsaw who plays in the orchestra block and serves as foreman of the electrical warehouse, Franek keeps Elie near his father while they work, then drops his friendly treatment by demanding Elie's gold dental crown. Franek's willingness to torment Elie's father suggests that the foreman has lost his humanity in the daily supervision of inmates.
Yossi and Tibi
Czech brothers who work at the electrical warehouse after their parents are killed at Birkenau, Yossi and Tibi are Zionists who befriend Elie and hum Jewish melodies as they dream of immigrating to Palestine. When Block 36 undergoes selection, the brothers join Elie in a successful dash past Dr. Mengele's life-or-death assessing eyes.
A German Jew who heads the musicians' block, Alphonse devotes himself to providing extra cauldrons of soup for the young and the weak.
The French Jewess
A fearful worker in the electrical warehouse, the French Jewess pretends to be Aryan by forging papers and speaking only French. She soothes Elie after a severe beating by slipping him a piece of bread, wiping his bloody forehead, and whispering comforting words in German.
The Young Thief from Warsaw
A sturdy young man; when he is on the gallows, he praises liberty and curses Germany.
Dutch Oberkapo of the 52nd Cable Unit
A kindly overseer, the Dutch Oberkapo is accused of sabotage. After weeks of torture for stockpiling arms and blowing up Buna's power station, the man refuses to name co-conspirators and is transferred to Auschwitz and never seen again.
A thirteen-year-old assistant to the Dutch Oberkapo, the small, angelic-looking pipel is tortured and hanged by slow strangulation because his body is too light to end the execution with one quick snap of the neck.
A veteran of concentration camps and slaughterhouses since 1933, the Blockaelteste advises internees on how to deal with fear and pass the selection process.
The Rabbi from a Little Town in Poland
A devout student of the Talmud, the Polish rabbi concludes that God has no mercy for internees.
The Hospitalized Hungarian Jew
A ghastly patient wracked by dysentery and certain that he will not pass the next selection, he lies in the bed next to Elie's and believes that Hitler will keep his promise to annihilate all Jews before the war ends.
The Jewish Doctor
Elie's Jewish physician treats him gently, relieves the swelling in his foot, and promises complete recovery in two weeks.
A worker in the electrical warehouse whose immersion in the Talmud helps him escape reality; he cringes with intestinal cramps on the flight from Buna and sinks down to relieve his bowels. Elie assumes that Zalman is trampled by the inmates rather than shot by the SS.
An aged Polish holy man, like one of the biblical prophets, Rabbi Eliahou maintains a sweet expression and a comforting ministry among others in the camps.
A disloyal young man, Eliahou's son terrifies Elie by his behavior. Rushing farther ahead than Rabbi Eliahou can manage, the son soon distances himself from the weakening old man, whose stumbling steps threaten to get them both shot as stragglers.
A ravenous son who kills his father for a crust of bread. Meir dies when others attack him and grab the stolen bread.
A tall, robust gardener at Buna, Meir Katz is a friend of Elie's father. When an unidentified attacker tries to strangle Elie, his father calls on Meir Katz for help. Meir loses hope on the train ride to Gleiwitz when he recalls his son's selection for the crematories.
Dr. Josef Mengele
A cruel-faced SS officer, Dr. Mengele is armed with a military baton and wears a monocle as he conducts the methodical selection and selects all those too weak to work.
The crazed Kapo of the Buna warehouse, Idek appears to have no control over fits of violence.
The Dentist from Czechoslovakia
A predator who is hanged for enriching himself by collecting gold teeth, the Czech dentist tries to talk Elie out of his gold crown.
The Dentist from Warsaw
A pawn of Franek, the Polish dentist pulls Elie's crown in the lavatory using a rusty spoon as an extractor.