In those days it was still possible to buy emigration certificates to Palestine. I had asked my father to sell everything, to liquidate everything, and to leave. “I am too old, my son,” he answered. “Too old to start a new life. Too old to start from scratch in a distant land…”
Eliezer’s father, Schlomo Wiesel, is not usually referred to by name. Instead, throughout the story, the narrator Eliezer refers to him simply as “my father.” In this passage, Eliezer reflects on a disagreement he had when he was an adolescent with his father about fleeing for Palestine. In recounting the argument, Eliezer is searching for someone to blame for what happened to him and his family.
He didn’t answer. He was weeping. His body was shaking. Everybody around us was weeping. Someone began to recite Kaddish, the prayer for the dead. I don’t know whether, during the history of the Jewish people, men have ever before recited Kaddish for themselves.
Eliezer and his father are now in the Birkenbau camp, where they witness babies and adults being burned. Eliezer notes that his father’s reaction to this horror, and that of others around him, is to pray. Their prayers acquire intensity because they are also praying for themselves. They expect to die soon. In a way, Eliezer’s father has already begun to die from the shock of what he just witnessed.
“Mother is still a young woman,” my father once said. “She must be in a labor camp. And Tzipora, she is a big girl now. She too must be in a camp….” How we would have liked to believe that. We pretended, for what if one of us still did believe?
After the men and women are separated at Birkenbau, Eliezer never sees his mother and younger sister again. This rare mention of them shows that Eliezer’s father does his best to keep hope for his wife and daughter alive in his son. Eliezer and his father pretend to believe and hope out of love for each other.
I ran to look for my father. At the same time I was afraid of having to wish him a happy year in which I no longer believed. He was leaning against the wall, bent shoulders sagging as if under a heavy load. I went up to him, took his hand and kissed it. I felt a tear on my hand. Whose was it? Mine? His? I said nothing. Nor did he. Never before had we understood each other so clearly.
Here, Eliezer recounts the moment after the Rosh Hashanah service at the Buna camp, during which he realizes that he no longer believes in God. When he takes his father’s hand, Eliezer makes the only connection that still has meaning for him. The tears of the father and son mingle in an eternal moment when they read each other’s hearts and feel each other’s grief.
“Let’s be evacuated with the others,” I said. He didn’t answer. He was looking at my foot. “You think you’ll be able to walk?” “Yes, I think so.” “Let’s hope we won’t regret it, Eliezer.”
This poignant dialogue recounts a key turning point in the action. Eliezer and his father are deciding whether to be evacuated by the Nazis or remain in the infirmary, where they face almost certain death. Eliezer’s father stays silent, so Eliezer is forced to make the decision. Sadly, it turns out to be the wrong decision. Eliezer’s brutal honesty about his own feelings of guilt forces him to include this episode in the story.
Everything about him expressed total exhaustion. His voice was damp from tears and snow. “Don’t let yourself be overcome by sleep, Eliezer. It’s dangerous to fall asleep in snow. One falls asleep forever. Come, my son, come … Get up.”
Eliezer and his father are being marched at rapid pace through the bitter winter. They are so exhausted that they don’t dare fall asleep. With heroic effort, Eliezer’s father keeps his son awake and alive, even though he himself is failing rapidly. No matter what he suffers, Eliezer’s father never stops putting his son’s survival ahead of his own.
I shall never forget the gratitude that shone in his eyes when he swallowed this beverage. The gratitude of a wounded animal. With these few mouthfuls of hot water, I had probably given him more satisfaction than during my entire childhood.
Eliezer and his father manage to reach Buchenwald, their last camp. There were about one hundred men on the train bound for the camp, and they are two of the twelve survivors. At the camp, Eliezer brings his father a cup of hot coffee. Here, he recounts his father’s reaction to this simple offering. Being able to perform a small act of mercy for his father brings Eliezer a small moment of peace.
No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered.
Eliezer’s memory of his father’s death resounds with his overwhelming guilt and sorrow. While being beaten, Eliezer’s father repeatedly called for his son, but Eliezer dared not answer his pleas. Eliezer’s father was near death for some time, and Eliezer might have also been killed trying to defend him. As a result of the beating, his father died in the night, and by dawn his body removed.