Note: This SparkNote is divided into nine sections, following the organization of Night. Though Wiesel did not number his sections, this SparkNote has added numbers for ease of reference.
In 1941, Eliezer, the narrator, is a twelve-year-old boy living in the Transylvanian town of Sighet (then recently annexed to Hungary, now part of Romania). He is the only son in an Orthodox Jewish family that strictly adheres to Jewish tradition and law. His parents are shopkeepers, and his father is highly respected within Sighet’s Jewish community. Eliezer has two older sisters, Hilda and Béa, and a younger sister named Tzipora.
Eliezer studies the Talmud, the Jewish oral law. He also studies the Jewish mystical texts of the Kabbalah, a somewhat unusual occupation for a teenager, and one that goes against his father’s wishes. Eliezer finds a sensitive and challenging teacher in Moishe the Beadle, a local pauper. Soon, however, the Hungarians expel all foreign Jews, including Moishe. Despite their momentary anger, the Jews of Sighet soon forget about this anti-Semitic act. After several months, having escaped his captors, Moishe returns and tells how the deportation trains were handed over to the Gestapo (German secret police) at the Polish border. There, he explains, the Jews were forced to dig mass graves for themselves and were killed by the Gestapo. The town takes him for a lunatic and refuses to believe his story.
In the spring of 1944, the Hungarian government falls into the hands of the Fascists, and the next day the German armies occupy Hungary. Despite the Jews’ belief that Nazi anti-Semitism would be limited to the capital city, Budapest, the Germans soon move into Sighet. A series of increasingly oppressive measures are forced on the Jews—the community leaders are arrested, Jewish valuables are confiscated, and all Jews are forced to wear yellow stars. Eventually, the Jews are confined to small ghettos, crowded together into narrow streets behind barbed-wire fences.
The Nazis then begin to deport the Jews in increments, and Eliezer’s family is among the last to leave Sighet. They watch as other Jews are crowded into the streets in the hot sun, carrying only what fits in packs on their backs. Eliezer’s family is first herded into another, smaller ghetto. Their former servant, a gentile named Martha, visits them and offers to hide them in her village. Tragically, they decline the offer. A few days later, the Nazis and their henchmen, the Hungarian police, herd the last Jews remaining in Sighet onto cattle cars bound for Auschwitz.
One of the enduring questions that has tormented the Jews of Europe who survived the Holocaust is whether or not they might have been able to escape the Holocaust had they acted more quickly. A shrouded doom hangs behind every word in this first section of Night, in which Wiesel laments the typical human inability to acknowledge the depth of the cruelty of which humans are capable. The Jews of Sighet are unable or unwilling to believe in the horrors of Hitler’s death camps, even though there are many instances in which they have glimpses of what awaits them. Eliezer relates that many Jews do not believe that Hitler really intends to annihilate them, even though he can trace the steps by which the Nazis made life in Hungary increasingly unbearable for the Jews. Furthermore, he painfully details the cruelty with which the Jews are treated during their deportation. He even asks his father to move the family to Palestine and escape whatever is to come, but his father is unwilling to leave Sighet behind. As readers familiar with the events of the Holocaust, we’re aware of the danger that draws inexorably closer to the Jews of Sighet, and we watch with building horror as Eliezer’s story progresses.
The story of Moishe the Beadle, with which Night opens, is perhaps the most painful example of the Jews’ refusal to believe the depth of Nazi evil. It is also a cautionary tale about the danger of refusing to heed firsthand testimony, a tale that explains the urgency behind Wiesel’s own account. Moishe, who escapes from a Nazi massacre and returns to Sighet to warn the villagers of the truth about the deportations, is treated as a madman. What is crucial for Wiesel is that his own testimony, as a survivor of the Holocaust, not be ignored. Moishe’s example in this section is a reminder that the cost of ignoring witnesses to evil is a recurrence of that evil.
If one of Wiesel’s goals is to prevent the Holocaust from recurring by bearing witness to it, another is the preservation of the memory of the victims. Eliezer’s relationship with his father is a continuous theme in Wiesel’s memoir. He documents their mutually supportive relationship, Eliezer’s growing feeling that his father is a burden to him, and his guilt about that feeling.
On a larger scale, Wiesel also hopes to preserve the memory of the Jewish tradition through his portrayal of his father. When news of the deportations comes to Sighet, Eliezer’s father, a respected community leader, is among the first notified. He is in the middle of telling a story when he is forced to leave. Wiesel notes, “The good story he had been in the middle of telling us was to remain unfinished.” In a metaphorical sense, this “good story” symbolizes the entirety of European Jewish tradition, transmitted to Eliezer—and to Wiesel himself—through the father figure. Night laments the loss of this tradition, of the story that remains unfinished. In writing this memoir and his other works, Wiesel is attempting to complete his father’s story, honor the memory of the Holocaust victims, and commemorate the traditions they left behind.
The first section of Night also establishes the groundwork for Eliezer’s later struggle with his faith. At the start of the story, he is a devout Jew from a devout community. He studies Jewish tradition faithfully and believes faithfully in God. As the Jews are deported, they continue to express their trust that God will save them from the Nazis: “Oh God, Lord of the Universe, take pity upon us….” Eliezer’s experience in the concentration camps, however, eventually leads to his loss of faith, because he decides that he cannot believe in a God who would allow such suffering.
Later in the memoir, Eliezer suggests that, for him, one of the most horrible of the Nazis’ deeds was their metaphorical murder of God. Since the Holocaust, Judaism has been forced to confront the long-existent problem of theodicy—how God can exist and permit such evil. Night chronicles Eliezer’s loss of innocence, his confrontation with evil, and his questioning of God’s existence.