“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”
After the required quarantine and medical inspection—including a dental search for gold crowns—Eliezer is chosen by a Kapo to serve in a unit of prisoners whose job entails counting electrical fittings in a civilian warehouse. His father, it turns out, serves in the same unit. Eliezer and his father are to be housed in the musicians’ block, which is headed by a kindly German Jew. In this block of prisoners, Eliezer meets Juliek, a Jewish violinist, and the brothers Yosi and Tibi. With the brothers, who are Zionists (they favor the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the holy land), Eliezer plans to move to Palestine after the war is over. Akiba Drumer, his faith still strong, predicts that deliverance from the camps is imminent.
Not long after Eliezer and his father arrive in Buna, Eliezer is summoned to the dentist to have his gold crown pulled. He manages to plead illness and postpone having the crown removed. Soon after, the dentist is condemned to hanging for illegally trading in gold teeth. Eliezer does not pity the dentist, because he has become too busy keeping his body intact and finding food to eat to spare any pity. Idek, the Kapo in charge of Eliezer’s work crew, is prone to fits of violent madness. One day, unprovoked, he savagely beats Eliezer, after which a French girl who works next to Eliezer in the warehouse offers some small kindness and comfort.
The narrator then skips forward several years to recount how, after the Holocaust, he runs into the same girl—now a woman—on the Métro in Paris. He explains that he recognized her, and she told him her story: she was a Jew passing as an Aryan on forged papers; she worked in the warehouse as a laborer but was not a concentration camp prisoner.
The narration then returns to Eliezer’s time at Buna. Eliezer’s father falls victim to one of Idek’s rages. Painfully honest, Eliezer reveals how much the concentration camp has changed him. He is concerned, at that moment, only with his own survival. Rather than feel angry at Idek, Eliezer becomes angry at his father for his inability to dodge Idek’s fury.
When Franek, the prison foreman, notices Eliezer’s gold crown, he demands it. Franek’s desire for the gold makes him vicious and cruel. On his father’s advice, Eliezer refuses to yield the tooth. As punishment, Franek mocks and beats Eliezer’s father until Eliezer eventually gives up. Soon after this incident, both Idek and Franek, along with the other Polish prisoners, are transferred to another camp. Before this happens, however, Eliezer accidentally witnesses Idek having sex in the barracks. In punishment, Idek publicly whips Eliezer until he loses consciousness.
During an Allied air raid on Buna, during which every prisoner is supposed to be confined to his or her block, two cauldrons of soup are left unattended. Eliezer and many other prisoners watch as a man risks his life to crawl to the soup. The man reaches the soup, and after a moment of hesitation lifts himself up to eat. As he stands over the soup, he is shot and falls lifeless to the ground. A week later, the Nazis erect a gallows in the central square and publicly hang another man who had attempted to steal something during the air raid. Eliezer tells the tale of another hanging, that of two prisoners suspected of being involved with the resistance and of a young boy who was the servant of a resistance member. Although the prisoners are all so jaded by suffering that they never cry, they all break into tears as they watch the child strangle on the end of the noose. One man wonders how God could be present in a world with such cruelty. Eliezer, mourning, thinks that, as far as he is concerned, God has been murdered on the gallows together with the child.