The frequent occurrence of the word “night” symbolizes the complete loss of hope that befalls the Jews. It also represents the loss of faith, the feeling on the part of many Jews that they have been deserted by God; there is no divine light left in the world. Night thus becomes a synonym for the Holocaust itself.
The first time the phrase “night fell” occurs is just before the Jews of Sighet learn of the deportation order. It refers to much more than the time of day. The phrase “Night had fallen,” also occur in the first section. Again, it at once a literal description of the time of day, and also, metaphorically, a sign that the Jews of Sighet are about to enter the darkest period of their lives, a long night for the Jewish people as a whole.
Literal and metaphoric meanings of the word “night” are conveyed at several other points in the book: “An endless night,” as the Jews travel in the cattle wagon to Auschwitz; “Night was falling,” before the New Year service at Bun; “It seemed that an even darker night was waiting for us on the other side,” as the prisoners leave Buna to for the terrible march to Gleiwitz.
Literal and metaphoric meanings are combined in the authors comments he arrives at Auschwitz: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night.”
The metaphor of hell is used frequently in the early part of the book to represent the terrible reality that the deported Jews have stepped into. The metaphor conveys the idea of hopelessness and endless suffering, cut off from the light of God. The term hell is first used when the Jews of Sighet are lining up outside, waiting to be deported. When they finally start moving, some of them seem happy, perhaps, Eliezer thinks, because “they thought that God could have devised no torment in hell worse than that of sitting there among the bundles, in the middle of the road, beneath a blazing sun.” When they enter the barracks at Birkenau, the reception center for Auschwitz, Eliezer thinks “the ante-chamber of Hell must look like this. So many crazed men, so many cries, so much bestial brutality!” The entire scene on the first day is a scene from Hell, with naked prisoners forced to run while being beaten by the Kapos. To Eliezer, it seemed that “we were damned souls wandering in the half-world, souls condemned to wander through space till the generations of man came to an end, seeking their redemption, seeking oblivion-without hope of finding it.” From then on, Eliezer has to find a way of surviving within hell. The metaphor occurs again later, after the first “selection,” at Buna, in which the physically weak have to stay behind in the block, ready to be sent to the crematorium. Eliezer realizes that “The essential thing was to be as far away as possible from the block, from the crucible of death, from the center of hell.”
Fire is a symbol of the destructive power that the Nazis are bringing against the Jews. The first person to sense this is Madame Sch&ecter, who has visions of fire, flames and furnaces on the train journey to Auschwitz. This turns out to be a prophetic vision, since when they arrive, they see flames gushing out of a chimney into the black sky. Not long after this, Eliezer sees the flames coming from the ditch in which babies are being burned. Behind all the activities the prisoners are forced to do lies the fear of the crematorium, where their bodies will be burnt to ashes. The SS officer tells them this explicitly: “Here, you have got to work. If not, you will go straight to the furnaces.”
The word fire is used metaphorically too. After Eliezer has witnessed these actual fires, he realizes, on his first night at Birkenau/Auschwitz, that the pious, curious student of the Talmud, who had left Sighet only a few days ago, “had been consumed in the flames. . . . A dark flame had entered my soul and devoured it.”
Thus the terms, night, hell and fire combine to symbolize the fate of the entire Jewish people.