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 Cabbala (often spelled 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 wisely. 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. We, as readers whom history has made less naïve than the Jews of Sighet, sense what is to come, how annihilation draws inexorably closer to the Jews, and watch helplessly as the Jews fail to see, or refuse to acknowledge, their fate.
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.