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 Moshe the Beadle, a local pauper.
Packed into cattle cars, the Jews are tormented by nearly unbearable conditions. There is almost no air to breathe, the heat is intense, there is no room to sit, and everyone is hungry and thirsty. In their fear, the Jews begin to lose their sense of public decorum. Some men and women begin to flirt openly on the train as though they were alone, while others pretend not to notice. After days of travel in these inhuman conditions, the train arrives at the Czechoslovakian border, and the Jews realize that they are not simply being relocated. A German officer takes official charge of the train, threatening to shoot any Jew who refuses to yield his or her valuables and to exterminate everybody in the car if anybody escapes. The doors to the car are nailed shut, further preventing escape.
At Birkenau, the first of many “selections” occurs, during which individuals presumed weaker or less useful are weeded out to be killed. Eliezer and his father remain together, separated from Eliezer’s mother and younger sister, whom he never sees again. Eliezer and his father meet a prisoner, who counsels them to lie about their ages. Eliezer, not yet fifteen, is to say that he is eighteen, while his father, who is fifty, is to say that he is forty. Another prisoner accosts the new arrivals, angrily asking them why they peacefully let the Nazis bring them to Auschwitz. He explains to them, finally, why they have been brought to Auschwitz: to be killed and burned. Hearing this, some among the younger Jews begin to consider rebelling, but the older Jews advise them to rely not on rebellion but on faith, and they proceed docilely to the selection. In a central square, Dr. Mengele stands, determining whether new arrivals are fit to work or whether they are to be killed immediately. Taking the prisoner’s advice, Eliezer lies about his age, telling Mengele he is eighteen. He also says that he is a farmer rather than a student, and is motioned to Mengele’s left, along with his father.
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.
In the blizzard and the darkness, the prisoners from Buna are evacuated. Anybody who stops running is shot by the SS. Zalman, a boy running alongside Eliezer, decides he can run no further. He stops and is trampled