At last, the morning star appeared in the gray sky. A trail of indeterminate light showed on the horizon. We were exhausted. We were without strength, without illusions.
In the blizzard and the darkness, the prisoners from Buna are evacuated. Anybody who stops running is shot by the SS. Zalman, a boy running alongside Eliezer, decides he can run no further. He stops and is trampled to death. Malnourished, exhausted, and weakened by his injured foot, Eliezer forces himself to run along with the other prisoners only for the sake of his father, who is running near him. After running all night and covering more than forty-two miles, the prisoners find themselves in a deserted village.
Father and son keep each other awake—falling asleep in the cold would be deadly—and support each other, surviving only through mutual vigilance. Rabbi Eliahou, a kindly and beloved old man, finds his way into the shed where Eliezer and his father are collapsed. The rabbi is looking for his son: throughout their ordeal in the concentration camps, father and son have protected and supported each other. Eliezer falsely tells Rabbi Eliahou he has not seen the son, yet, during the run, Eliezer saw the son abandon his father, running ahead when it seemed Rabbi Eliahou would not survive. Eliezer prays that he will never do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son did.
At last, the exhausted prisoners arrive at the Gleiwitz camp, crushing each other in the rush to enter the barracks. In the press of men, Eliezer and his father are thrown to the ground. Fighting for air, Eliezer discovers that he is lying on top of Juliek, the musician who befriended him in Buna. Eliezer soon finds that he himself is in danger of being crushed to death by the man lying on top of him. He finally gains some breathing room, and, calling out, discovers that his father is near. Among the dying men, the sound of Juliek’s violin pierces the silence. Eliezer falls asleep to this music, and when he wakes he finds Juliek dead, his violin smashed. After three days without bread and water, there is another selection. When Eliezer’s father is sent to stand among those condemned to die, Eliezer runs after him. In the confusion that follows, both Eliezer and his father are able to sneak back over to the other side. The prisoners are taken to a field, where a train of roofless cattle cars comes to pick them up.
The prisoners are herded into the cattle cars and ordered to throw out the bodies of the dead men. Eliezer’s father, unconscious, is almost mistaken for dead and thrown from the car, but Eliezer succeeds in waking him. The train travels for ten days and nights, and the Jews go unfed, living on snow. As they pass through German towns, some of the locals throw bread into the car in order to enjoy watching the Jews kill each other for the food. Eliezer then flashes forward to an experience he has after the Holocaust, when he sees a rich Parisian tourist in Aden (a city in Yemen) throwing coins to native boys. Two of the desperately poor boys try to kill each other over one of the coins, but when Eliezer asks the Parisian woman to stop, she replies, “I like to give charity.”
Eliezer then returns to his narration of the German townspeople throwing bread on the train. An old man manages to grab a piece, but Eliezer watches as he is attacked and beaten to death by his own son, who in turn is beaten to death by other men. One night, someone tries to strangle Eliezer in his sleep. Eliezer’s father calls Meir Katz, a strong friend of theirs, who rescues Eliezer, but Meir Katz himself is losing hope. When the train arrives at Buchenwald, only twelve out of the 100 men who were in Eliezer’s train car are still alive. Meir Katz is among the dead.
My God, Lord of the Universe, give me strength never to do what Rabbi Eliahou’s son has done.
In these sections, we are told two particularly striking stories about sons and fathers. Rabbi Eliahou’s son abandons him during the death march from Buna, and a nameless son, in the cattle cars from Gleiwitz to Buchenwald, beats his father to death for a crust of bread. In addition to illustrating the depth of the brutality to which people are capable of sinking when they are mistreated for too long, these incidents reflect on another of the memoir’s central themes. They examine the way that the Holocaust tests father-son bonds.
The test of the father-son relationship recalls the biblical story of the Binding of Isaac, known in Hebrew as the Akedah. Critics have suggested that Night is a reversal of the Akedah story. The story, related in Genesis, tells of God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac as an offering. Utterly faithful, Abraham complies with God’s wish. Just as Abraham is about to sacrifice Isaac, God intervenes and saves Isaac, rewarding Abraham for his faithfulness. Night reverses the Akedah story—the father is sacrificed so that his son might live. But in Night, God fails to appear to save the sacrificial victim at the last moment. In the world of the Holocaust, Wiesel argues, God is powerless, or silent.
Eliezer never sinks to the level of beating his father, or outwardly mistreating him, but his resentment toward his father grows, even as it is suggested—for instance, when Eliezer’s father prevents Eliezer from killing himself by falling asleep in the snow—that the father is sacrificing himself for his son, not vice versa. Whether or not this resentment comes to dominate Eliezer’s relationship with his father (indeed, a strong argument can be made for Eliezer’s altruism), it seems clear that Eliezer himself feels great guilt at his father’s death. As has been suggested, this guilt perhaps drives Eliezer to feel that he must record the events of the Holocaust, honor his father’s memory, and repay his sacrifice.
Eliezer’s discussion of the German townspeople who cruelly throw bread to the starving Jews to watch them fight to the death over the crusts of bread is another instance of Eliezer flashing forward into the future to illustrate how the Holocaust has forever altered his understanding of humankind. His digression is rare because it relates an event in which he was not a direct participant; he was a casual witness, and the event was tangential to his life. The parallel between the Parisian woman’s “charity” and the actions of the German townspeople is clear, however, and Wiesel tells the story to show that behavior that is casually cruel is not limited to the Holocaust—humanity has an unimaginably wicked streak in it.