At the end of the summer of 1944, the Jewish High Holidays arrive: Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Despite their imprisonment and affliction, the Jews of Buna come together to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, praying together and praising God’s name. On this solemn Jewish holiday, Eliezer’s religious rebellion intensifies, and he cannot find a reason to bless God in the midst of so much suffering. Eliezer mocks the idea that the Jews are God’s chosen people, deciding that they have only been chosen to be massacred. He comes to believe that man is stronger than God, more resilient and more forgiving. His denial of faith leaves him alone, or so he believes, among the 10,000 Jewish celebrants in Buna. Leaving the service, however, Eliezer finds his father, and there is a moment of communion and understanding between them. Searching his father’s face, Eliezer finds only despair. Eliezer decides to eat on Yom Kippur, the day on which Jews traditionally fast in order to atone for their sins.
Soon after the Jewish New Year, another selection is announced. Eliezer has been separated from his father to work in the building unit. He worries that his father will not pass the selection, and after several days it turns out that Eliezer’s father is indeed one of those deemed too weak to work: he will be executed. He brings Eliezer his knife and spoon, his son’s only inheritance. Eliezer is then forced to leave, never to see his father again.
When Eliezer returns from work, it seems to him that there has been a miracle. A second selection occurred among the condemned, and Eliezer’s father survived. Akiba Drumer, however, is not so lucky. Having lost his faith, he loses his will to live and does not survive the selection. Others are also beginning to lose their faith. Eliezer tells of a devout rabbi who confesses that he can no longer believe in God after what he has seen in the concentration camps.
With the arrival of winter, the prisoners begin to suffer in the cold. Eliezer’s foot swells up, and he undergoes an operation. While he is in the hospital recovering, the rumor of the approaching Russian army gives him new hope. But the Germans decide to evacuate the camp before the Russians can arrive. Thinking that the Jews in the infirmary will be put to death prior to the evacuation, Eliezer and his father choose to be evacuated with the others. After the war, Eliezer learns that they made the wrong decision—those who remained in the infirmary were freed by the Russians a few days later. With his injured foot bleeding into the snow, Eliezer joins the rest of the prisoners. At nightfall, in the middle of a snowstorm, they begin their evacuation of Buna.
In Jewish tradition, the High Holidays are the time of divine judgment. According to the prayer book, Jews pass before God on Rosh Hashanah like sheep before the shepherd, and God determines who will live and who will die in the coming year. In the concentration camps, Eliezer hints, a horrible reversal has taken place. Soon after Rosh Hashanah, the SS (Nazi police) performs a selection on the prisoners at Buna. All the prisoners pass before Dr. Mengele, the notoriously cruel Nazi doctor, and he determines who is condemned to death and who can go on living. The parallel is clear and so is the message: the Nazis have placed themselves in God’s role. Eliezer has decided that the Nazis’ actions mean that God is not present in the concentration camps, and thus praying to him is foolish.
The Nazis’ usurpation of God’s role is further emphasized when an inmate tells Eliezer, “I’ve got more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He’s the only one who’s kept his promises . . . to the Jewish people.” Akiba Drumer’s death makes it painfully clear that humankind requires faith and hope to live. After losing his faith, Drumer resigns himself to death. Eliezer promises to say the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, on Drumer’s behalf, but he forgets his promise. Eliezer’s loss of faith comes to mean betrayal not just of God but also of his fellow human beings. Wiesel seems to affirm that life without faith or hope of some kind is empty. Yet, even in rejecting God, Eliezer and his fellow Jews cannot erase God from their consciousness. Though he has supposedly lost his faith in God, Akiba Drumer requests that Eliezer say the Kaddish on his behalf; clearly religion still holds some power over him. Similarly, in the third section, Eliezer, having rejected his faith in God forever, still refers to God’s existence when making his oath never to forget the Holocaust “even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself.” In the first volume of his autobiography, All Rivers Run to the Sea, Wiesel speaks at far greater length about his religious feelings after the Holocaust. “My anger rises up within faith and not outside it,” he writes. “I had seen too much suffering to break with the past and reject the heritage of those who had suffered.” Wiesel, in his personal life, kept his faith in God throughout the Holocaust. His narrator, Eliezer, seems unable to reject the Jewish tradition and the Jewish God completely, even though he declares his loss of faith.