There were four of us children. Hilda, the eldest; then Bea; I was the third and the only son; Tzipora was the youngest. My parents ran a store, Hilda and Bea helped with the work. As for me, my place was in the house of study, so they said.
The narrator, Eliezer introduces himself as part of a family circle, living a rather ordinary life in a small village in Hungary. Everyone’s role within the family is clearly understood; his place was to study. Being his father’s only son is the strongest element of Eliezer’s self-identity. For most of the story, Eliezer and his father will function almost as a single unit. They are both protagonists in Eliezer’s story.
We were ready. I went out first. I did not want to look at my parents’ faces. I did not want to break into tears…. I looked at my house in which I had spent years seeking my God, fasting to hasten the coming of the Messiah, imagining what my life would be like later. Yet I felt little sadness. My mind was empty.
Eliezer recalls his response after he and his family are ordered to leave their village. They are among the last Jews to leave. Eliezer does his best to appear brave, so he is determined not to show sorrow. Already, at this moment of parting from his home, Eliezer’s personality is beginning to fracture. Part of him is reviewing his life, and part of him is suppressing feelings out of shock.
There it was, very close to us, the pit and its flames. … Deep down I was saying good-bye to my father, to the whole universe, and, against my will, I found myself whispering the words: “Yisgadal, veyiskadash, schmey, raba…May His name be exalted and sanctified.”
Eliezer and his father are only steps from the crematorium. Eliezer’s involuntary prayer when faced with his own death is evidence that he is still deeply religious. Moments after Eliezer utters this prayer, he and his father get a last-minute reprieve. They are selected for the work camp and sent to the barracks rather than to the crematorium.
We were told to roll up our left sleeves and file past the table. The three “veteran” prisoners, needles in hand, tattooed numbers on our left arms. I became A-7713. From then on, I had no other name.
Eliezer and his father have been transferred from Birkenau to another camp, Auschwitz. Here, Eliezer recalls them being tattooed with numbers that identify them as prisoners. This moment represents the official loss of Eliezer’s name, his first form of self-identity. Eliezer is now officially invisible. Ironically, because he is only a number, the character of Eliezer now also represents every other nameless victim.
I moved closer and had a glimpse of Idek and a young Polish girl, half naked, on a straw mat. Now I understood why Idek refused to leave us in the camp. He moved one hundred prisoners so that could copulate with this girl! It struck me as terribly funny and I burst out laughing.
This scene from the Buna work camp reminds us that Eliezer is still an adolescent. His reaction to witnessing an authority figure having sex is normal considering he is a teenager. However, this involuntary lapse into normal adolescent humor will result in great suffering for Eliezer and his father. They will endure much suffering at the hands of Idek simply because Eliezer innocently witnessed Idek’s abuse of authority.
At Idek’s command, two inmates lifted me up and led me to him. “Look me in the eye!” I looked at him without seeing him. I was thinking of my father. He was suffering more than I.
Idek, the sadistic supervisor of the factory at the Buna work camp, has just punished Eliezer with a beating, giving him twenty-five lashes. Eliezer has passed out and now been revived. He has heroically endured an ordeal, but he can think only of his father, because he knows his father will also be punished. The grim reality is that the only thing Eliezer and his father can do to feel they are helping the other is to suffer for each other.
I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long. In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger. The service ended with Kaddish. Each of us recited Kaddish for his parents, for his children, and for himself.
Eliezer is recalling his feelings during the climactic scene of the story, the Rosh Hashanah service at the Buna work camp. During this service, Eliezer recognizes that he no longer believes in God. So he does not kneel to pray. He feels alone, like a stranger. But he still recites Kaddish as a Jew. His observance links him to his family and to the Jewish people.
My father’s presence was the only thing that stopped me. He was running next to me, out of breath, out of strength, desperate. I had no right to let myself die. What would he do without me? I was his sole support.
Eliezer, his father, and other prisoners from Buna are running through the winter cold. They are being hounded by their SS guards. Somehow Eliezer and his father have found the strength to stay together and keep moving. From Eliezer’s description of his own feelings, we can infer that his father feels the same protectiveness toward him.
I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!...
Eliezer is recalling his mixed emotions after his father’s death. After surviving so many tribulations, his father has died from a beating in which Eliezer did not dare to intervene. Eliezer is full of guilt, an emotion that almost never leaves him when he is thinking about his father. But he also admits his father’s death frees him from the burden of feeling he must keep his father alive.
From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed has never left me.
It is the end of the text. Eliezer, the sole survivor of his family, has been liberated from the camps. While recuperating in a hospital, Eliezer looks at himself in the mirror for the first time since he and his family left their village. While the narrator, Eliezer, sees a corpse, the narration reminds readers that the author survived to bear witness and become a champion for those who died.